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Archive for September, 2013

Miscellanies: New England Theology of Grace

The dilemma is this:—eternal justice either requires that every penitent be pardoned in consequence of his repentance merely, or it does not. If it do require this, it follows, that pardon is an act of justice and not of grace: therefore let the Socinians be forever silent on this head.

Jonathan Edwards Jr., Necessity of Atonement

J Edwards JrJonathan Edwards Jr., pastor, college president, and New Divinity theologian was no mere metaphysical moralist. He labored to defend a gospel of grace against genuine threats such as the denials of the Trinity, Christ’s divinity, the necessity of Christ’s atoning work. He preached to subvert these attacks upon Christianity at the dawn of a new republic and in response to Arminianism (universalists, unitarians, and deists). He cites Joseph Priestley specifically and his Corruptions of Christianity in this 1785 sermon preached to the ministers gathered for an annual convention of ministers in New Haven. This sermon and two others he preached that week stand as a monument to the rise of the calvinistic moral government theory developed by the New Divinity, the followers of Jonathan Edwards. As indicated in the quotation above, Edwards was convinced that repentance had no effect upon God’s act of pardon toward the sinner. He argued that God’s pardon is pure grace, and yet he did not adopt penal substitution.

The followers of Jonathan Edwards Sr. have often fallen victim to Joseph Haroutunian’s thesis that they were a group of misfit theologians who failed to capture a picture of the God worth remembering. These theologians adapted their theology to the polemic needs of the day and in doing so ceded far too much territory to their opponents. Or at least that’s how theologians like Jonathan Edwards Jr. are often portrayed.

It’s easy to criticize when you are divorced temporally, culturally, and geographically from a situation. Too often evangelicals are ready to dismiss the New England theologians on the basis of historiography that does not possess any evangelical gospel concerns. For the most part, the historiography concerning the New Divinity and the New England theology has been shaped by scholars operating by secular methods. Some of these scholars have been Christians, even evangelicals, but they have arguably operated as historians who have little time for gospel concerns when assessing the New Divinity. To be sure, some of the same Christian historians in other contexts allow their Christian commitment to shine through. It is vital that we work together to hone our skills in integrating a Christian worldview with rigorous historical methods. It’s not enough for Christian scholars to love Christ and then write history as if their is no Christ. Should we cede our understandings of the significance of Augustine or Luther to purely secular scholarship? Of course, we will benefit a great deal from all streams of rigorous historical endeavor, but we cannot, in the end, hand over the authority to make a final assessment to those who deny our most cherished truths.

What does this say about the state of evangelicalism? Have we, in the case of the New Divinity, dismissed the labors of Christians who defended a gospel of grace against the challenge of the rationalistic critics of Christianity.Piety V. Moralism Cover Remember that many of these critics did not merely strike a blow at Calvinism, but at the whole of the Christian tradition, that is anyone who would agree with the Council of Nicaea. Edwards, like his more famous father, was not merely a polemicist who was defending his own version of Calvinism. He was speaking for all who believed in a divine Christ and a gospel of grace rather than works. Less like his father, Edwards spoke to citizens of a new nation who were not nearly as interested in listening to preachers as the colonists of the previous century. While few evangelicals today would agree with his moral government model of the atonement, all ought to benefit from the way he responded to a clear and present danger to gospel Christianity in America. While his response included erudite argumentation, at root, his argument defended a gospel of grace, which I hope every Christian can appreciate.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards’s Bible

Stephen R. C. Nichols, Jonathan Edwards’s Bible: The Relationship of the Old and New Testaments (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013)

When explaining to the trustees of the College of New Jersey why he was loathe to take their presidency, Edwards expressed concern about some unfinished writing projects, telling friends in New Jersey that the running of a college “will not well consist, with those views, and that course of employ in my study, which have long engaged, and swallowed up my mind, and been the chief entertainment and delight of my life.”

One of those unfinished projects was what Edwards called The Harmony of the Old and New Testament:

The first [part] considering the prophecies of the Messiah, his redemption and kingdom; the evidences of their references to the Messiah, etc. comparing them all one with another, demonstrating their agreement and true scope and sense; also considering all the various particulars wherein these prophecies have their exact fulfillment; showing the universal, precise, and admirable correspondence between predictions and events. The second part: considering the types of the Old Testament, showing the evidence of their being intended as representations of the great things of the gospel of Christ: and the agreement of the type with the antitype. The third and great [largest] part, considering the harmony of the Old and New Testament, as to doctrine and precept.

Edwards hoped that this work would offer “occasion for an explanation of a very great part of the holy Scripture . . . in a method, which to me seems the most entertaining and profitable, best tending to lead the mind to a view of the true spirit, design, life and soul of the Scriptures, as well as to their proper use and improvement.”

He drafted hundreds of manuscript pages for inclusion in this book. For part one, on biblical prophecy, he penned four entries in his “Miscellanies” notebooks, all treating what he labeled either “Prophecies of the Messiah” (mainly in the Old Testament) or “Fulfillment of the Prophecies of the Messiah” (in the New). Two of these entries proved so large that they consumed a whole book. For part two, on the wealth of biblical types of the Messiah, Edwards drafted another entry in a “Miscellanies” notebook: “That the Things of the Old Testament Are Types of Things Appertaining to the Messiah and His Kingdom and Salvation, Made Manifest from the Old Testament Itself.” In published form, this entry exceeds a hundred pages in length. Edwards wrote it in addition to his “Images of Divine Things” and “Types” manuscripts. For part three, on the theological harmony of Scripture, Edwards kept a separate notebook on “The Harmony of the Genius, Spirit, Doctrines, & Rules of the Old Testament & the New.” Most of this book is ordered canonically (he made it through the Psalms). Several entries appear topically. All attest to his interest in the doctrinal integrity, or “harmony,” of Scripture.

Back in 1996, Ken Minkema of Yale published the first critical history of this project in chapter four of Stephen J. Stein, ed., Jonathan Edwards’s Writings: Text, Context, Interpretation (Indiana University Press). But not until now has anyone written a book-length treatment of Edwards’ Harmony of the Old and New Testament.

Nichols’ volume entered the world as a doctoral dissertation written with Oliver Crisp at the University of Bristol. (Crisp has written a foreword to this slightly revised, published version of Nichols’ dissertation. N.B. The present Stephen Nichols is ordained in the Church of England and is not to be confused with the Stephen J. Nichols who writes on Edwards from his perch at Lancaster Bible College.) Shortly after Nichols defended it in dissertation form, Trinity’s own David Barshinger reviewed it on this blog.

It is a fine piece of scholarship on Edwards’ exegesis and canonical manner of featuring the harmonies of Scripture. In four short chapters, ordered according to Edwards’ three-part outline for the project, Nichols walks us through the notes Edwards drafted for the Harmony.  Chapter one treats Edwards’ view of biblical prophecy and fulfillment. Chapter two explores his typology in canonical perspective. Chapter three explains Edwards’ view of Scripture’s doctrinal harmony. Chapter four offers a “Case Study: A Harmony in Soteriology,” which “challenges the current ‘dispositional’ account of Edwards’s soteriology and argues instead that Edwards holds there to be one object of saving faith in Old and New Testaments, namely Christ” (p. xiii).

Nichols sees difficulties in Edwards’ “pre-critical” exegesis, but concludes that “there is value in its very strangeness.” Referring to John Webster’s view that “theologies of retrieval are valuable precisely because they ‘de-centre’ the accepted norms of critical judgment by trying to stand with the Christian past,” Nichols asserts that Edwards’ canonical way of handling the Bible can teach us a thing or two today (p. 195).

I am thrilled that Edwards’ biblical work is getting due attention. This book is must reading for serious Edwards scholars.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Power of God: A Jonathan Edwards Commentary on the Book of Romans

David S. Lovi and Benjamin Westerhoff, eds., The Power of God: A Jonathan Edwards Commentary on the Book of Romans (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013) 

This is a handy reference book in the form of an Edwards commentary on the biblical book of Romans. It includes most of what of Edwards wrote on Romans in his treatises, biblical manuscripts, and the textual parts of sermons (i.e. the first of what were usually three parts to Edwards’ sermons–text, doctrine, and application—not the latter two parts). A little un-transcribed material from Edwards’ sermon manuscripts has been omitted from this volume. But most of what he wrote about this famous biblical book has been organized by chapter and verse.

The editors, both of whom are students here at Trinity, asked me to write their foreword. This is what I said:

The book you now hold in your hands is a labor of love—love for the biblical book of Romans, love for the preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), love for the teacher John Gerstner (1914-1996), and love for the Christian church today.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans is one of the most beloved writings in the entire biblical canon, especially for Augustinians and Protestants. It is the subject of thousands of commentaries, many by the most important doctors of the church: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Hodge, and Barth, to name a few. It offers the doctrines of sin, the gospel, and salvation in a nutshell. It is the basis for the structure of the first Protestant textbook in what later came to be categorized as systematic theology, Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes (1521). It is a frequently-cited sourcebook of the Reformation solas, which teach that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone because of the work of God through Christ alone. It is the site of the “Romans road,” a standard tool for sharing the gospel used by myriad evangelists in the evangelical movement. It is a central text of scripture, in short, employed by many readers as a key to the whole Bible.

Jonathan Edwards never published a major commentary on Romans. He did, however, preach about and write about Romans at numerous times throughout his life. Though he is highly regarded today as a great literary artist, natural scientist, philosopher and psychologist of religion, he was chiefly a biblical thinker, a minister of the Word. And inasmuch as he remains one of the most important thought leaders in all of Christian history, it is high time that someone has put together a major collection of his writings on the biblical book of Romans.

John Gerstner once attempted to compile a similar volume. A famous conference speaker and faculty member at Pittsburgh Seminary as well as Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, he was enjoined by Perry Miller to edit a volume of Edwards’ sermons on the epistle to the Romans for The Works of Jonathan Edwards published by Yale University Press. He never finished this undertaking. But he did spend many summers poring over Edwards’ manuscripts. These labors bore fruit in several other publishing projects and, perhaps more importantly, in the pioneering work Gerstner did to promote Edwards among evangelical Christians during the mid-twentieth-century Edwards renaissance.

David Lovi and Ben Westerhoff are two of the evangelicals inspired by Gerstner’s work. It is fitting, then, that they are the ones to complete what Gerstner started: a major compilation of Edwards’ work in the book of Romans. This is not a volume of sermons. Unlike Gerstner’s own project, it contains biblical commentary from many different sources, including sermons, published treatises, and exegetical manuscripts. It is ordered canonically, much as a commentary would be. And it is aimed at Christian preachers and other ministers of the Word. Dr. Gerstner would be proud. In fact, if Edwards was correct about the lives of saints in heaven, Gerstner is looking down in gratitude for the work of Lovi and Westerhoff, joyful for its place in God’s eternal plan of redemption.

Whether or not Edwards was right about the lives of those in heaven, I am confident that the saints on earth will profit from this book. May it inspire and inform future ministers of the Word, helping them unlock the treasure chest of scripture for those they serve.