Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation

oliver-crisp_god-and-creation_coverOliver D. Crisp, Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

This is one of the most important books written on Jonathan Edwards by a constructive, philosophical theologian.

Oliver is a friend. We published a book together last summer. I am biased in his favor. Nevertheless, I speak the truth. He is a brilliant theologian and a fascinating conversation partner, sometimes even a vigorous sparring partner, with Edwards.

As Crisp makes clear at the beginning of the book, it is not an effort in history. It is not aimed primarily at understanding Edwards in relation to his context, but in dialoguing with Edwards on his view of God and the world: “this is not a study in the history of ideas or in historical theology. It is an account of Edwards’s philosophical theology cast in the collegial mode, where we shall be concerned not only to understand what Edwards says but also to engage him on the issues he considers, with a view to ascertaining whether or not the views he expressed are coherent” (p. 3).

Some of the time, Crisp concludes that Edwards’ views do cohere. At other times, he says, they do not. However, even where Crisp believes that Edwards’ thinking was confused, he works to iron out and engage his subject’s metaphysical musings in a respectful, constructive, and edifying manner.

No one will like everything the author does with Edwards. In eight short chapters, fewer than 200 pages, he engages Edwards’ ontology (chapter one), his views of God’s nature (chapter two), God’s freedom (chapter three), God’s aseity (chapter four), and even God’s excellency (chapter five), his doctrine of the Trinity (chapter six), his alleged panentheism (chapter seven) and view of the consummation of human history in heaven and hell (chapter eight). Along the way, Crisp depicts his famous subject as an occasionalist (a depiction used to account for most of the things Crisp dislikes in Edwards’ view of God and the world); a pure-act theist whose thinking militates against the dispositional ontology that Sang Lee attributed to Edwards and his God (Crisp assumes—I think falsely—that a dispositional God cannot be fully actualized); a full-bore Neoplatonist; a thoroughgoing idealist; a proponent of theosis; a panentheist; and one whose logic of reprobation might be used to teach a form of universalism. Crisp levels major claims but that, of course, is part of his charm.

All of us should be grateful for this erudite, charitable, constructive engagement with Edwards, whose theology did verge at times on idiosyncrasies that can be difficult to fathom. Crisp’s book will not appeal to those impatient with speculation about God and God’s relation to the universe. But for those who love to think about the deep things of God, it offers a feast of food for thought. Highly recommended.