Don’t Judge a Theologian by His Unpublished Musings

By Nathan A. Finn

A good reminder from pastor and Jonathan Edwards scholar Josh Moody:

This brings up a more general point about Edwards’s many notebooks and “Miscellanies” from which Edwards scholars love to quote. They are fascinating, there are many of them, and they are rich with insights into how Edwards’s mind worked. But they can also be dangerous. We must never forget that they were not intended to be published. That they have been is a good thing because they give us insight into the working mind of an undisputed theological genius. But they are not necessarily fully-formed opinions. It’s like looking at Van Gogh’s oil paint palate and drawing conclusions about what kind of painting style he believed in. It might give us insight into his method, and we might draw some connections between that and what he painted, but it wouldn’t tell us finally what he wanted to paint. Only Edwards’s published works, by his own intention, during his own lifetime, reveal with certainty what he wanted to say. Perhaps Edwards has hidden opinions in his notebooks not consistent with his preaching and writing, but the majority of Edwards scholarship has long shown that not to be the case. Each time  I engage with fellow Edwards scholars on the “Miscellanies,” I make a fresh resolution to comb through all my personal extended notes and jottings on theological matters. If I am to be held to the stake for every semiformulated idea I have ever penned in private journals, I had better get rid of some of them before I pass through the veil.

See Moody’s helpful (and punchy) chapter “Edwards and Justification Today” in Jonathan Edwards and Justification (Crossway, 2012), ed. Josh Moody, pp. 30–31.


Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a senior fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.