Edwards and the Bible: Christ, the Scope of Scripture


… Christ and his redemption are the great subject of the whole Bible….The whole book, both Old Testament and New, is filled up with the gospel, only with this difference, that the Old Testament contains the gospel under a veil, but the New contains it unveiled, so that we may see the glory of the Lord with ‘open face’.i

It is a basic principle in Reformed and Puritan thought, arising from Scripture itself, that Christ as Redeemer is the scope of all of Scripture, the scopus Scripturae. This does not mean that the Scriptures only speak of Christ, but it does mean that, like the bullseye of a target, he is at the centre of everything they do speak of. In the summary of Richard Muller, to the Reformed the ‘center [sic] of Scripture… is the redemptive significance of Christ at the very heart of God’s saving revelation’.ii John Owen (1616-83), for example, insists that when reading the Scriptures the essential principle must be remembered that ‘the revelation and doctrine of the person of Christ and his office, is the foundation whereon all other instructions of the prophets and apostles for the edification of the church are built, and whereinto they are resolved….’iii Perhaps a more familiar expression of this principle found in the advice of English Puritan divine, Isaac Ambrose (1604-64): ‘Keep still Jesus Christ in your eye, in the perusal of the Scriptures, as the end, scope and substance thereof: what are the whole Scriptures, but as it were the spiritual swaddling clothes of the holy child Jesus?’.iv

The New England divine, Jonathan Edwards is heir to this Reformed and Puritan tradition. Employing what might be termed a ‘whole-Bible hermeneutic’ he interprets Scripture, discovering Christ to be the true scope and sense of the whole Bible. Again, this does not mean that the Bible speaks of Christ and of nothing else, but that Christ is the very heart and centre of everything it does speak of. When in October 1757 Edwards replies to the invitation of the trustees of the College of New Jersey to become the college’s next President, he outlines two major theological works that he is engaged on: ‘A History of the Work of Redemption’ and ‘A Harmony of the Old and New Testament’. His description of the ‘Harmony’ reveals much of Edwards’ understanding of Christ as the scope of Scripture. The work would be divided into three parts.

The first [part] considering the prophecies of the Messiah, his redemption and kingdom; the evidences of their references to the Messiah, etc. comparing them all one with another, demonstrating their agreement and true scope and sense; also considering all the various particulars wherein these prophecies have their exact fulfillment [sic]; showing the universal, precise, and admirable correspondence between predictions and events. The second part: considering the types of the Old Testament, showing the evidence of their being intended as representations of the great things of the gospel of Christ: and the agreement of the type with the antitype. The third and great part, considering the harmony of the Old and New Testament, as to doctrine and precept.

Edwards notes that the work will cover ‘a very great part of the holy Scripture’ and was intended to lead the mind to ‘a view of the true spirit, design, life and soul of the Scriptures, as well as to their proper use and improvement’.v

In this chapter I will follow the three-fold structure Edwards proposes, looking in turn throughout his corpus at the Christological scope of prophecy, typology and of ‘doctrine and precept’ (or, faith and practice). I will conclude with an estimation of Edwards’ value to us today.


First, as Edwards outlines to in the letter to the college trustees, the biblical prophets are united in their witness to the coming Messiah, his redemption and Kingdom. From the protevangelion in Gen. 3:15 all the prophets spoke of Christ, his work of redemption and kingdom. He is the true scope and sense of their words. In Him the prophecies find their exact fulfilment and only in Him do they agree or ‘harmonize’, to draw on one of Edwards’ favourite categories.

Edwards’ reading reveals a familiarity with the trans-Atlantic debate concerning Jesus’ Messiahship and the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. In The Reasonableness of Christianity Locke had reduced Christian confession to that of Jesus as the Messiah, whose coming was foretold in Hebrew prophecies and whose mission was authenticated by miracles.vi His friend and disciple, the Deist Anthony Collins (1676-1729) made the fulfilment of prophecies the sole criterion for judging the truth of the Christian religion, and entitled chapter six of his A Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion, ‘VI. That if those proofs [to Jesus’ Messiahship] are valid, Christianity is invincibly establish’d on its true foundation’.vii But, Collins warned, ‘… if the proofs for christianity [sic] from the Old Testament be not valid; if the arguments founded on those books be not conclusive; and the prophecies cited from thence be not fulfill’d; then has Christianity no just foundation: for the foundation on which Jesus and his apostles built it is then invalid and false’. With attention to five examples Collins argued that the Apostles had taken literal prophecies from the Jewish Scriptures and interpreted them not in the sense in which they were intended in the Old Testament, but in a ‘secondary, or typical, or mystical, or allegorical, or enigmatical sense’ to demonstrate their fulfilment and thereby establish the Messianic identity of Jesus of Nazareth.viii Collins’ conclusion was devastating:

[T]he prophecies cited from the Old Testament by the authors of the New, do so plainly relate, in their obvious and primary sense, to other matters than those which they are produc’d to prove; that to pretend they prove, is, to give up the cause of Christianity to the Jews and other enemies thereof; who can so easily show, in so many undoubted instances, the Old and New Testaments to have no manner of connection in that respect, but to be in an irreconcilable state.ix

Edwards nowhere engages with Collins directly, though his ‘Harmony of the Old and New Testament’ likely has in view Collins’ criticisms in its apologetic goal: to show the Bible is coherent only when its scope is taken to be that of Christ, his redemption and kingdom.

Edwards shares Collins’ convictions that interpretation must operate according to a ruled use of language and take notice of the intention of the human author, but his own commitment to the divine authorship of Scripture means that he cannot finally endorse the univocity Collins demands of the biblical text. Figurative language (metaphor) and figurative history (types) are not additional senses in the way Collins had claimed. Instead they are part of the divinely intended literal sense and combine to speak ultimately of the Messiah.

Edwards concedes that the New Testament writers sometimes applied Old Testament texts in ways not envisaged by their human authors, or ‘penmen’. A single text might have more than one referent. Edwards writes,

[T]he Scripture often includes various distinct things in its sense. It is becoming of him who is infinite in understanding and has everything in full and perfect view at once, and when he speaks, sees all things that have any manner of agreement with his words, and know how to adapt his words to many things, and so to speak infinitely more comprehensively than others, and to speak so as naturally to point forth many things: I say, it becomes such a One, when he speaks, to speak so as [to] include a manifold instruction in his speech. That expression in the Old Testament, “ Out of Egypt have I called my son” [Hos 11:1], has respect to two distinct things, as is manifest beyond all contradiction, and many other phrases in the Old Testament applied in the New.x

God may have said more through the prophets’ words than they themselves understood and yet redemption history would reveal these more immediate concerns to have been prophesied types of the Messiah. In this way prophecy may sometimes be said to have had a double reference: first to a Messianic type and then to its antitype. But intended by the divine author these are both part of the literal sense.

Opponents of Collins, many of whom Edwards read and noted, differed over the matter of this double-reference of prophecies. William Whiston (1667-1752) who rejected the notion of types altogether.xi Dissenting minister, Samuel Chandler (1693-1766) believed that while some prophecies might have a double fulfilment, in the majority of cases the prophecy could be divided so that part might be said to concern an immediate fulfilment, while part refereed to a more distant event.xii By contrast, Anglican theologian and philosopher, Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) defended the notion of prophesied types when he noted that the same words might have reference to ‘some near event’ but also to ‘the great events which providence had in view’.xiii Arthur Ashley Sykes (ca. 1684-1756) found the notion of types absurd and would only countenance them when the prophet made it clear he was employing the device.xiv In contrast to Whiston and Sykes, Edwards was enthusiastically committed to types as a unifying feature of redemption history witnessed in Old and New Testaments. At times he notes, like Samuel Chandler, that a prophecy may be dissected in such a way that it is seen to respect two events: one immediate, the other more distant. And at times, like Clarke, he endorses the notion of prophesied types. Yet however he explains the phenomenon, Edwards is committed to prophecy’s double-reference in service of its ultimate Messianic subject.

The question of the degree to which the prophets understood the full range of referents of their own messages is one with which Edwards seems to have wrestled throughout his life.xv Occasionally he suggests the prophets were well aware of the typical character of the referent they intended; they knew their messages had both an immediate referent and an ultimate Messianic one. Consequently, the prophets may have spoken of the ultimate referent (the antitype) in terms of the more immediate referent (the type), or moved seamlessly from one to the other.xvi At other times, however, he notes that the prophets did not always have the Messiah in view, their chief concern being only a more immediate referent which redemption history would reveal to have been a divinely-intended Messianic type.xvii Therefore in contrast to Collins Edwards asserts that in reading the prophets ‘we need not seek an interpretation which it would be natural for the prophets themselves to understand by it, for the Holy Ghost spoke in what words he pleased to, and meant what he pleased, without revealing his meaning to the prophets’.xviii Like Collins Edwards insists that language must be used in a ruled and reasonable way and that when reading the Scriptures authorial intent must be respected, but for Edwards the author primarily in view is the divine one. He denies that the typical and antitypical fulfilment of a prophecy comprise two distinct senses of the prophecy, in the way that Collins employed the term to describe literal and figural readings of the same text. Although Edwards uses the terms, ‘literal sense’ and ‘figural sense’ he uses them in a different way from Collins, to refer to two stages of historical fulfilment. Thus there is one literal sense – the intention of the divine author – a sense which may embrace more than one historical referent. But the scope of the prophets is always Christ.

We turn now to the second of Edwards’ Messianic components, typology.


The history of the typological exegesis of the Bible is well documented and beyond the most cursory sketch exceeds the scope of the present enquiry. There was in the early church a hermeneutical parting of the ways between Antioch and Alexandria in the distinction between typology (broadly, events linked on a linear historical plane) and allegory (events that serve as mere symbols of higher spiritual truths). From Origen the Alexandrian school developed through Augustine, Ambrose and John of Cassian into what became known as the quadriga, the four-fold sense of Scripture employed by medieval exegetes. If the literal sense of a biblical text did not yield the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love, the interpreter departed from the literal sense and sought these in the text’s other senses: its allegorical sense (which taught things to be believed), its tropological sense (which taught things to be loved or done) and its anagogical sense (which taught things to be hoped for). Though not entirely free from their medieval heritage the Reformers were marked by their concern for the grammatical historical literal sense of the biblical text. In their hands typology again came to the fore, linking Old and New Testaments into one meta-narrative focussed on Christ. And yet there was already in Edwards’ immediate heritage something of an ‘imagistic consciousness’, distinct from, though informed by, Scripture’s typology. Cotton Mather’s (1663-1728) Magnalia Christi Americana, the ecclesiastical history of New England, expressed the parallel between the New England experiment and the great biblical drama of Old Testament Israel while in the natural world his Agricola echoed English Puritan John Flavel’s Husbandry Spiritualized as a litany of nature’s illustrations of spiritual truths.xix

Examination of Edwards’ catalogues of reading reveals that of the many Puritan manuals of biblical typology his favourite was The Figures or Types of the Old Testament by Samuel Mather (1626-71), Cotton’s uncle.xx Mather defined a type as ‘some outward or sensible thing ordained of God under the Old Testament, to represent and hold forth something of Christ in the New’. Consequently, interpreters ‘must not indulge their own fancies as Popish writers use to do, with their allegorical senses as they call them; except we have some Scripture ground for it. It is not safe to make anything a type merely upon our own fancies and imagination’.xxi In answer to the question, ‘How can we tell what is a type ordained by the Lord?’ Mather declared, ‘There answer is we cannot safely judge of this but by Scripture’. There must either be express warrant in Scripture for the type-antitype relationship, or there must be a sufficient weight of evidence from various parts of Scripture to suggest a typical relationship was intended, even if not explicitly specified.xxii

In Edwards’ hands this typological tool underwent a transformation, consonant with his philosophical commitments to a form of idealism and a notion of being as relational and communicative – this within a teleological scheme of divine self-glorification. Space does not permit discussion of Edwards’ metaphysics here, but to him the whole of creation ‘imaged’ its divinely-communicated spiritual substance, in some sense more real than the images themselves, and in which the images found their consummation.xxiii Material creation comprised a language of types designed by God for his self-communication to his saints. Biblical types were but one example of this universal imaging system. The difference between Edwards’ typology and that of his heritage is illustrated by comparison once again with Samuel Mather.

Mather notes that, ‘Before the Gospel there were no Gospel types…. There were some things extant before that were made types afterward; but they had not that schesis, that habitude and relation to Christ and the Gospel, ’til there was a Gospel or promise of life by Christ, that blessed Seed’.xxiv To Mather God imbued certain aspects of creation with typological significance at the moment of the protevangelion of Gen 3:15. In contrast to this, Edwards affirms that ‘things even before the fall were types of things pertaining to the gospel redemption’.xxv To Edwards, creation has always shadowed forth spiritual truths, their spiritual substance and consummation. Creation is the vehicle of God’s self-communication and the means to his self-glorification. As such the biblical history expressed in the Old Testament ‘type’ and New Testament ‘antitype’ testified to a larger scheme of imaging that comprised sensible reality. No longer simply a tool that links Old and New Testaments in a limited and explicit relationship of temporal Christological prefiguring and fulfilment, typology is for Edwards ‘a certain sort of language in which God in wont to speak to us’, found not only throughout the Bible but writ large in nature and history.xxvi

To Edwards the Bible functions much like the grammar book of this universal typological language. To limit one’s use of the language to its explicit expressions in the Bible, as Samuel Mather had urged, would be merely to rehearse the exercises in the grammar book without ever attempting to use the language as it was intended. ‘God han’t expressly explained all the types of Scriptures, but has done so much as is sufficient to teach us the language’.xxvii Indeed to Edwards Scripture’s very silence speaks loudly its expectation that its readers become competent interpreters of types. He notes the fact that the writer to the Hebrews does not explain the Temple’s theology fully.

That many more particulars in the form of the sanctuary and its various parts, vessels and utensils, than are explained is evident by Heb. 9:5, “And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy seat; of which we cannot now speak particularly,” plainly intimating there [are] many particulars in those things representing heavenly things which he now thought it not expedient to explain.xxviii

Would the writer to the Hebrews not want us to explore what he had left silent? Edwards found it inconceivable that he would not.

Edwards’ departure from the tradition represented by Samuel Mather and his adoption of a transformed typology applied to Scripture and the natural world has left him open to the charge of allegory.xxix Stephen Stein accuses him of poetic ‘flights of exegetical fancy’ and of exercising his ‘exegetical imagination without limit’.xxx It is true that Edwards does exercise a freedom in his typological exegesis that his tradition did not know, but as with prophecy Edwards assumes that the spiritual substance of the type is part of the divine author’s intention in his communication. To interpret a type is not therefore to read into it a secondary sense distinct from its literal sense (as was the case in the medieval quadriga). The figurative reading is part of the literal historical sense intended by the divine author. Furthermore, Edwards’ interpretation of types is not only invited but closely constrained by Scripture. Those critical of his interpretation of types have arguably underestimated his careful attention to the grammatical historical considerations of the text and his reliance on the analogies of faith and Scripture.xxxi

To limit one’s typological exegesis to the explicit correspondences between the Testaments as in Mather’s approach was wrong for a further reason, according to Edwards. It would mean that the Old Testament saints were prevented from searching out the meaning of the overwhelming majority of types that were presented to them. Edwards frequently affirms that there is epistemic progress through redemption history, such that the later a saint lived in redemption history the greater his or her understanding of the gospel.xxxii Nevertheless, he also assumes that the innumerable types presented to the Old Testament saints were means of grace that instructed them in the gospel of Christ. He writes:

If we may use our own understanding and invention not at all in interpreting types, and must not conclude anything at all to be types but what is expressly said to be and explained in Scripture, then the church under the Old [Testament], when the types were given, were secluded from ever using their understanding to search into the meaning of the types given to ’em; for God did, when he gave ’em, give no interpretation.xxxiii

The Old Testament saints were instructed in the faith, being presented with the gospel under innumerable shadows and types even though many of these shadows and types were neither explicitly identified as such nor interpreted to them.

To Edwards the Old Testament in every detail shadows forth its ‘more excellent’ end and spiritual substance. ‘[A]lmost everything that was said or done, that we have recorded in Scripture from Adam to Christ, was typical of gospel things. Persons were typical persons; their actions were typical actions…their land was typical land; God’s providences toward them were typical providences; their worship was typical worship… and indeed the world was a typical world’.xxxiv When Edwards turns his universal typology to the question of the relationship of Old and New Testaments it delivers a Christological relationship manifest, not as it was for Samuel Mather only at finite specific points, but at every moment.

Doctrine and Precept

To Edwards Christ is the object of faith and the centre of the life of faith of the church in every age. Prophecies and types combine to preach Christ, but history itself is the history of God’s redemption of the elect in Christ. Central to understanding this history is God’s covenant of grace.

The Covenants in a History of Redemption

The doctrine of the covenant was fundamental to Reformed and Puritan theology and despite the claim of Perry Miller to the contrary, it was fundamental to Edwards’ theology also.xxxv To Edwards the covenants provided a basic framework of redemption history focussed on Christ, undergirding the Christological scope of Scripture.xxxvi

Briefly, an eternal covenant of redemption between the Divine Persons preceded God’s covenant of works with pre-lapsarian Adam in which God promised salvation to humanity on the condition of perfect obedience. Following Adam’s disobedience and Fall God graciously entered into another covenant with him, one that did not depend on man performing certain works. This covenant of grace was, in the explanation of the ‘great Turretine’, ‘a gratuitous pact entered into in Christ between God offended and man offending, in which God promises remission of sins and salvation to man gratuitously on account of Christ, man however, relying upon the same grace promises faith and obedience’.xxxvii This covenant of grace was conceived as running through both Old and New Testaments. Though its substance remained constant throughout its temporal expressions, its administration differed. During the infancy of the church the grace was veiled, the covenant being administered through promises, prophecies, sacrifices and other types. As the Westminster Confession declared, these were all ‘fore-signifying Christ to come: which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah’.xxxviii The work of the incarnate Son however, fulfilled the signs and shadows, rendering them obsolete. Thus according to the Westminster Confession, when considering Old and New Testaments ‘there are not… two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations’.xxxix

The covenants of grace made by the Father at successive points in redemption history were temporal expressions of the covenant of redemption and Edwards follows the Reformed tradition in maintaining the substantial continuity of these covenants through redemption history. He argues that the covenant of grace established in the New Testament is not substantially different from that which God entered into with Israel, any more than ‘that the covenant that God entered into with Israel at Mt. Sinai was specifically diverse from that which he entered into on the plains of Moab, because that is spoken of as another covenant (Deut 29:1)’.xl Comparing the dispensations under Moses and Christ Edwards notes that first, the same salvation in substance is given under both: sinners are by nature objects of divine wrath; they are alike called, justified, adopted and sanctified. Second, the medium of salvation in each dispensation is the same: the elect are saved by the same Mediator’s suffering and satisfaction of divine justice. Third, the same Holy Spirit applies redemption. Fourth, the method of bestowing salvation is the same, the grand qualification for justification being faith alone. Fifth, the external means of applying the benefits of salvation are the same: principally, the word of God. Sixth, the previous five characteristics are represented under each dispensation, though the nature of this revelation differs. Seventh, these same things are not only ‘in some sort exhibited or represented’ to the later church, but were ‘in some degree made known and revealed’ to the church at the time. Eighth, with the revelation comes promise of fulfilment and right to enjoyment of those things revealed.xli

Following his heritage Edwards also maintains that the covenant of grace is administered differently throughout redemption history. Comparing the dispensations under Moses and Christ, Edwards comments: ‘…the same exercises of faith were then required as are now, but there was a difference, answerable to the difference of the revelation in which the Mediator and his salvation is exhibited’.xlii Among the outward expressions in which the life of faith of the Old Testament church differed from that of the New Testament one Edwards identifies,

…the degree and manner of weanedness from the world, self-denial, spirituality of worship, heavenly-mindedness, love to men, the degree and manner of our loving them, forgiveness of injuries, love to enemies, love to the wicked, love to all mankind, etc. According to the more particular and full revelation of the grounds of these duties, and the new obligations laid upon us to them, evangelical duties, with their grounds, were not so fully revealed, so particularly prescribed, nor so much insisted on.xliii

The plainness of God’s revelation was dependent on the administration of the covenant. Under Moses the gospel was exhibited under a veil. In the New Testament that veil was removed and the gospel realities displayed plainly. There is therefore an increasing clarity of gospel revelation through redemption history. The title Edwards chooses for his second ‘great work’ is not incidental. ‘The Harmony of the Old and New Testament’ (note the singular ‘Testament’) expresses both continuity and discontinuity, the substance and administration of the covenant of grace. Nevertheless, as Edwards develops the complexity of the Old Testament ‘veil’, expanding the category of types and the Messianic nature and interconnectedness of prophecy whose meaning is made available to those in possession of the Spirit-given ‘new sense’, so in practice he inevitably emphasises the substantial similarity between Old and New Testament expressions of the covenant of grace. This emphasis on the covenant’s substantial similarly is demonstrated by Edwards’ understanding of the object and content of faith of the saints in Old and New Testaments.

The Object and Content of Faith

According to Edwards the Old Testament saints heard the gospel of Christ through the means of grace appropriate to their dispensation, in particular through the (Messianic) prophecies and types God gave them. Edwards writes that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Old Testament elect were ‘much enlightened by the plain prophecies which they had of Christ’.xliv The nexus of Messianic types too led the elect to faith in Christ. For example, of the sacrifices Edwards writes: ‘[B]y this ceremonial law, the gospel was preached to them [the Israelites]… Those sacrifices were to point forth Christ and to lead them to trust in him, to prepare the church for the reception and entertainment of him when he came’.xlv Thus Edwards stands squarely in a Reformed and Puritan tradition in seeing Christ as the object of saving faith in both Old and New Testaments. In contrast to recent accounts that suggest he believed possession of an unrealized disposition was sufficient to salvation, the eighteenth-century Reformed Puritan is explicit that the elect knew and ‘closed with Christ’ in a manner fitting to their dispensation.xlvi

It is true that at times Edwards speaks of the saints having only ‘implicit faith’ in Christ. However, this has nothing to do with a saint’s place in redemption history denying him or her knowledge of the Saviour. ‘Implicit faith’, according to Edwards, is a characteristic of every age. In 1735 Edwards the pastor recounts the same occasional phenomenon in his own day among the recently-awakened in Northampton, men and women who had heard the message of Christ preached clearly to them, but some of whom did not initially confess Christ by name.

It must needs be confessed that Christ is not always distinctly and explicitly thought of in the first sensible act of grace (though most commonly he is); but sometimes he is the object of the mind only implicitly. Thus sometimes when persons have seemed evidently to be stripped of all their own righteousness, and to have stood self-condemned as guilty of death, they have been comforted with a joyful and satisfying view, that the mercy and grace of God is sufficient for them; that their sins, though never so great, shall be no hindrance to their being accepted; that there is mercy enough in God for the whole world, and the like, when they give no account of any particular or distinct thought of Christ; but yet when the account they give is duly weighed, and they are a little interrogated about it, it appears that the revelation of the mercy of God in the Gospel is the ground of this their encouragement and hope; and that it is indeed the mercy of God through Christ that is discovered to them, and that ’tis depended on in him, and not in any wise moved by anything in them.xlvii

Thus this so-called ‘implicit faith’ in Christ does not refer to the objective grounds of salvation, but is only a temporary stage in the subjective awareness of some saints and is an occasional feature of each dispensation and of every era. As attention to his wider corpus reveals Edwards is unequivocal that the normal state of affairs was that in the Old Testament the saints consciously closed with Christ for their justification, just as the saints did in Edwards’ day.

Edwards is also explicit that the appearances of the LORD in the Old Testament were appearances of the Son of God, the Divine Mediator:

[W]hen… we read in the sacred history what God did from time to time towards his church and people, and what he said to them, and how he revealed himself to them, we are to understand it especially of the second person of the Trinity. When we read after this of God’s appearing time after time in some visible form or outward symbol of his presence, we are ordinarily if not universally to understand it of the second person of the Trinity, which may be argued from John 1:18…. [and] Colossians 1:15, intimating that though God the Father be invisible, yet Christ is his image or symbol by which he is seen.xlviii

Though Edwards follows a Reformed tradition in seeing Christ as the object of saving faith in the Old Testament, he departs from it in the content of faith he is prepared to grant to the saints. For example, Owen entitles the eighth chapter of his Christologia, ‘The Faith of the Church Under the Old Testament in and Concerning the Person of Christ’. He writes:

[T]he faith of the saints under the Old Testament did principally respect the person of Christ – both what it was, and what it was to be in the fullness of time, when he was to become the seed of the woman. What his especial work was to be, and the mystery of the redemption of the church thereby, they referred unto his own wisdom and grace; – only, they believed that by him they should be saved from the hand of all their enemies, or all the evil that befell them on the account of the first sin and apostasy from God.xlix

For Owen, the faith of the Old Testament saints was in the person of Christ, though the shadowy nature of their dispensation meant their understanding of the manner of his redemption was slight. Similarly, Turretin, in arguing for the substantial unity of the covenant of grace in Old and New Testament, notes that he wages ‘this most important controversy’ against those who hold that ‘the fathers of the Old Testament were not saved by the gratuitous mercy of God in Christ, the Mediator… through faith in him about to come’.l Turretin argues that since faith and the word are related, in the dispensation of shadows and types faith was similarly obscure. Nevertheless, ‘The same thing… was always known and proposed as the object of faith, but the mode was less clearly discovered before the advent of Christ than after it…’li Christ was ever the object of justifying faith, though the revelation of him was veiled under the Old Testament. Though Edwards asserts this mainstream Reformed position, nevertheless in practice he goes beyond it. His multiplication of the means of grace in the Old Testament through his expanded typology and through his conception of the prophetic corpus as one vast unified presentation of the person and work of the Messiah seems capable of delivering to the Old Testament saints an understanding of the gospel more commonly associated in his tradition with its New Testament administration.


Jonathan Edwards saw Christ as the true scope and sense of all Scripture. He would, no doubt, have echoed the comment of Richard Sibbes (1577-1635): ‘Christ is the object, the centre wherein all… lines end: take away Christ, what remains? … all is nothing but Christ’.lii To Edwards prophecies were united as they were Messianic. His expanded typology bound the Old and New Testaments Christologically at every moment, more tightly than his heritage had. The saints throughout redemption history trusted Christ, either looking forward to his redemptive work, or looking back to it. To read the Bible aright is to see Christ as its true scope.

This is not without its modern critics. Stephen Stein, responsible perhaps more than any other for attempting to rehabilitate Edwards the biblical scholar, is nonetheless critical of Edwards’ Christological interpretation. In his ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to Edwards’ ‘Blank Bible’, he remarks:

In his commentary on the Pentateuch, Edwards repeatedly spoke of ancient Israel as the ‘Jewish Church’. That expression, which occurs eight times in his entries on the five books of Moses, symbolizes the prevailing direction of his exegesis at the same time that it challenges the uniqueness and integrity of the historic Jewish community by imposing a Christian category on it.liii That construction also diminishes the historical intention and the original integrity of the Hebrew Bible, the scripture of ancient Israel, by transforming it into the Old Testament whose ultimate purpose and meaning depended essentially on the Christian New Testament.liv

The criticism is perhaps not surprising. Contemporary theological scholarship no longer operates according to Edwards’ pre-critical convictions. An ‘eclipse of biblical narrative’ has occurred, to use the phrase of Hans Frei. Or to change the metaphor, a conceptual chasm has opened that separates Edwards’ world from our own. And yet Edwards’ conviction regarding the scope of Scripture offers an account of the Bible breath-taking in its scale and comprehensive in its detail. In a contemporary academic atmosphere of disciplinary specialisation that often exist in isolation from each other Edwards presents us with something of a ‘grand unified theory’ of Scripture, capable of embracing the minutiae of Old and New Testaments and able to account for temporally distinct and seemingly-marginal texts as well as more familiar ones. Second, Edwards’ approach takes seriously the nature of the Bible as the Scriptures of the Christian church, Scriptures whose scope and meaning is made available to those who profess faith in Jesus the Messiah and are indwelt and illumined by his Holy Spirit. Third and related, in principle Edwards’ conception of the Old and New Testaments as God’s grammar book of a typological language offers a way of connecting the world that the Christian experiences to the world he or she professes to inhabit. Fourth, by grounding the unity of the Christian Bible on a discrete witness of the Hebrew Scriptures that is Messianic, Edwards in principle offers to resource a conversation between the synagogue and the church regarding the identity of the Messiah and the object of faith.

Edwards’ Bible presents modern sensibilities with a ‘strange new world’. Yet arguably there is value in its strangeness. John Webster’s comment regarding theologies of retrieval may be applied to Edwards at this point, namely that such theologies are valuable precisely because they ‘de-centre’ the accepted norms of critical judgment by trying to stand with the Christian past.lv Precisely because Edwards’ Bible jars with current sensibilities, it challenges us to re-assess our own cherished assumptions and question whether our vision of Christ and the Scriptures might not need enlarging.

This essay is a chapter in the book, Jonathan Edwards for the Church, and appears by kind permission of the Evangelical Press.

Picture of Stephen R. C. Nichols

Stephen R. C. Nichols

Stephen R. C. Nichols is a Senior Minister at All Souls, Langham Place, responsible for discipleship. He is the author of Jonathan Edwards's Bible (Wipf and Stock, 2013).
Picture of Stephen R. C. Nichols

Stephen R. C. Nichols

Stephen R. C. Nichols is a Senior Minister at All Souls, Langham Place, responsible for discipleship. He is the author of Jonathan Edwards's Bible (Wipf and Stock, 2013).