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.