Divinity School branches out

American theologians are not the only people interested in the works of Jonathan Edwards.

The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University — a division of the Yale Divinity School devoted to the study of the works of the famous 18th century theologian — opened five new affiliate centers at universities in Illinois, Poland, Germany, South Africa and Australia over the summer, and has plans to open two more branches in South Korea and China within the year. The expansion is a result of the University’s push to increase its international focus, said Ken Minkema, co-director of Yale’s Jonathan Edwards center.

“We see [opening satellite centres] as globalizing and democratizing,” Minkema said. “It will allow people to do the inquiry that we think this topic deserves.”

The affiliation offers several benefits to each host university, including free access to Yale’s digital database of Edwards’ work and the opportunity for international students to consult Yale faculty, Minkema said.

Jan Stievermann, director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at the University of Tübingen in Germany, said he wanted to get involved in the new center because, as an American Studies professor, he has found that Edwards — an 18th century preacher, theologian and missionary — is an important part of the study of colonial and religious literature.

While George Marsden GRD ’65, author of the book “Jonathan Edwards: A Life,” said Edwards has often been hailed as “the American Augustine,” he said he is not surprised by the increasing international interest in the theologian’s work.

“Evangelical Christianity is growing in many parts of the world, and accompanying that growth has been a resurgence of Calvinist theology,” Marsden said. “In that context, Edwards is attractive not only because he is probably the greatest Calvinist theologian other than John Calvin himself, but because he also was a great defender of religious revivals, which are the source of evangelical worldwide growth.”

While the affiliation with Yale has been well-received overseas, there have been several challenges for the host universities.

Stievermann said administrators are often reluctant to provide funding for programs like a student-exchange with Yale. But the University of Tübingen and Yale have managed to negotiate financial assistance for two students to participate in an exchange program next year, he said, though such financial assistance is arranged purely on a case-to-case basis.

Rev. Rhys Bezzant, coordinator of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Ridley Theological College in Melbourne, Australia, said he was approached last year by Minkema and Adriaan Neele, another co-director of the Yale center, about opening a satellite at his home university. Bezzant, who was working as a fellow at the Yale Divinity School at the time, said Australia was chosen because it is an English-speaking country.

“I think they thought it would be easiest if the Jonathan Edwards Center in this part of the world was represented by an English speaking country,” Bezzant said.

Indeed, language barriers have proven to be a challenge for those centers in countries that do not primarily speak English.

Joel Burnell, who runs the center in Poland through the Evangelical School of Theology in Wroclaw, said that while setting up the center there was easy, promoting the work of Jonathan Edwards to a university of Polish speakers has been difficult.

“We have to think about things like, if we have a conference, will we have it in English and then translate into Polish?” Burnell said.

The Polish center is beginning to translate selected volumes of Edwards’ work so that Polish scholars can more readily access the works, an important task as Poland has the second highest number of hits of any country on Yale’s The Works of Jonathan Edwards Online Web site, Burnell and Minkema said. It was this discovery that led the directors at Yale to search for a host university in the country.

“I was kind of surprised at first,” Burnell said. “But there is great interest among Polish pastors and scholars who are interested in work on revivalism and religious experience.”

For Burnell, one of the biggest advantages of affiliating with Yale is the networking opportunities for centers and scholars across the world, as well as the possibility of international research projects, he said. Already, Yale scholars have arranged to do a project on Edwards’ philosophy and ethics next year in conjunction with faculty at two Polish universities.

The Australian center will benefit from Yale professors who will visit Melbourne every few years to teach a course in the master’s program, Bezzant said. Increasing the scope of Edwards’ scholarship is strategically important for Australian Christians, he said, and the affiliation with Yale is expected to aid them.

“Australia’s church history has been very connected to England’s,” Bezzant said. “We learn all about Queen Victoria and others, but I think that today more and more of Australia’s Christian experience is being influenced by the U.S.”

On Dec. 1, the Yale center will upload 5,000 new pages of material to its online database, which is freely accessible from the center’s Web site.

Dec. 6, 2009

An earlier version of this article misrepresented the gender of Jan Stievermann; on several occasions, he was referred to as “she.”

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