Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Theology of Jonathan Edwards

Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

This is a monumental achievement. In 45 chapters (757 pages), McClymond and McDermott present a comprehensive survey of the thought of Jonathan Edwards, introducing us to both Edwards’ theological writings and the leading interpretations of those writings by other scholars.

Part One, “Introduction: Historical, Cultural, and Social Contexts,” includes 5 helpful chapters on Edwards’ spiritual life and times. Part Two, “Topics in Edwards’s Theology,” weighs in at 31 chapters on nearly everything under the sun of Edwards’ brilliant Christian mind, from aesthetics to revelation, God himself, the will, the church, and eschatology—organized, as Edwards seemed to prefer when he planned his own magnum opus, in redemptive-historical order. Part Three, “Legacies and Affinities: Edwards’s Disciples and Interpreters,” adds 9 important chapters on appropriations of Edwards from his own day to ours.

The authors tie the book together with an emphasis on what they call the five major sections of Edwards’ theological symphony: Trinitarian communication (“the violins”), creaturely participation (“the violas, cellos, and basses”), necessitarian dispositionalism (“the horn section”), theocentric voluntarism (“the woodwinds”), and harmonious constitutionalism (“the percussion section”). One must hear all the sections together, they say, to appreciate the performance. Further, “[a] caveat regarding many existing interpretations of Edwards’s theology is that they capture one or another part of the symphony, yet fail to construe the sound and flow of the whole” (p. 8). McClymond and McDermott do convey the sound of the whole.

This weighty work is a doorstopper that will surely function for most as an unusually heavy handbook to Edwards’ major writings. However, its authors also want it to have an overall effect on us. Throughout their varied chapters, and especially in the conclusion, they present Edwards as a major “global theologian for twenty-first-century Christianity” (pp. 725-28), much more useful than the more frequently studied Karl Barth as a resource for contemporary theology. Edwards bridges East and West, they argue, Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and even Roman Catholicism, conservatism and liberalism, charismatic and non-charismatic Christian churches. Indeed, “[h]is thought,” they suggest, “may have more linkages and more points of reference to various constituencies within world Christianity than any other modern Christian theologian” (p. 727). So if our authors “had to choose one modern thinker—and only one—to function as a point of reference for theological interchange and dialogue” today, they would clearly choose Edwards, a catholic evangelical Calvinist who is read and used by tens of thousands all around the world (p. 728).

Whether or not they think that Edwards is this pliable and useful as a resource for ecumenical dialogue today (I am not as optimistic as our authors on this score), all will agree that this is one of the most important books on Edwards to be published in recent years. It offers the most comprehensive treatment of Edwards’ thought available. Teachers, students, clergy, and general readers will be reaching for it frequently for many years to come.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS