Soundly Gathered Out Of The Text? Biblical Interpretation In “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” -- By: Garth E. Pauley

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 76:1 (Spring 2014)
Article: Soundly Gathered Out Of The Text? Biblical Interpretation In “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God”
Author: Garth E. Pauley

Soundly Gathered Out Of The Text?
Biblical Interpretation In “Sinners In The Hands
Of An Angry God”

Garth E. Pauley

Garth E. Pauley is Professor of Rhetoric at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He wishes to acknowledge the generous support of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship for this project. 

As a minister steeped in the Reformed and Puritan homiletic traditions, Jonathan Edwards preached what he understood to be the true doctrines of the Christian faith, grounded in Scripture. His sermons expounded and applied biblical theology, and his New England Calvinist audience naturally assumed his doctrines would flow from sound biblical interpretation. Edwards believed in the natural clarity of the Scriptures, affirming a principle insisted upon by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. But like the Reformers, he also believed the Bible’s clarity did not make its interpretation unnecessary. The Puritan divinity that was Edwards’s inheritance provided for an exegetical method that, in theory, allowed the biblical texts to interpret themselves.1 In reality, things were more complicated. The more learned Puritan theologians and ministers developed and employed a complex exegetical method that yielded interpretations related to the unity of the Scriptures, their historical contexts, and their original languages. Given that some Puritan exegetes believed “there is only one meaning for every place in Scripture,” as the English divine William Ames put it, getting one’s interpretation right was essential.2 This was especially true in the area of biblical theology. Interpreting the Bible to ascertain sound doctrine was fraught with complications, though. A biblical text might express its own doctrine directly, Puritan scholars and ministers believed, but oftentimes the doctrine needed to be deduced, drawn, or “gathered” (to use the most common contemporary term) out of the text. Puritan declarations regarding the ministry of the word pronounced a standard for theological gathering by a New England Calvinist preacher like Edwards. The first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith called for doctrine to be “deduced by good and necessary consequence.” And The Arte of Prophecying, an influential preaching handbook by the Cambridge minister and theologian

William Perkins, emphasized that doctrine must be “soundly gathered out of the text . . . otherwise, wee shall draw any doctrine from any place.”3

Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is an ideal te...

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