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Archive for July, 2015

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Other Jonathan Edwards

Gerald McDermott and Ronald Story, eds., The Other Jonathan Edwards: Selected Writings on Society, Love, and Justice (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015)

9781625341518This is a judicious and well-timed collection of primary sources, introduced well, which reveals for students, general readers, and interested Christian laity “the other Jonathan Edwards,” that is, the one whose life was dedicated to sharing the love of God, preaching social justice prophetically, and promoting peace, harmony, and the welfare of the needy in his own local communities and the eighteenth-century Anglo-American world.

The Edwards known by most today was a hellfire preacher of revivalistic sermons (such as the frequently anthologized “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) who cared more about the next life than about this one. As a result of this reputation, most thoughtful people today dismiss Edwards as irrelevant to the improvement of social life in modern America (or anywhere else, for that matter).

McDermott’s and Story’s Edwards proves much more interesting than the caricature, especially to young readers in the post-modern West. He is a flawed yet strangely attractive moral and spiritual example who was fired for having the courage of his convictions regarding the mutual obligations of people living with one another in tightly-ordered Christian covenant communities.

McDermott and Story are the best two scholars in the world to present this strange new Edwards. In fact, the two most important books to date on this socially-conscious Edwards have been written by them. McDermott’s One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Penn State University Press, 1992), is highly regarded and widely cited, as McDermott is one of the most important Edwards scholars alive. Story’s Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), is a recent publication that has received some rave reviews (See my review here). Story’s book is somewhat personal, which adds to its appeal. Raised in a strict Protestant home, he left the church for a time, but has returned in recent years to join the church that Edwards pastored and re-discover the hellfire preacher as a theologian of love. Both of these are excellent books. And their authors use them well in setting up the significance of the sources in this anthology.

The Other Jonathan Edwards includes 21 items (in 20 different chapters) on society, love, and justice, ranging from sermons to brief snippets from Edwards’ major published treatises to selections from his notebooks. The sources it includes are all available online via the Jonathan Edwards Center. But McDermott and Story have framed them well for students in this volume, which would make a great textbook in colleges and seminaries.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and the Life of God

Ross Hastings, Jonathan Edwards and the Life of God: Toward an Evangelical Theology of Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015)

97814514876955hRoss Hastings now joins the ranks of Oliver Crisp, Amy Plantinga Pauw, Kyle Strobel and others who engage with Edwards critically in an effort to advance Reformed theology today.

This work began as a dissertation in St. Andrews, Scotland, but was written while its author was primarily a pastor. (Before that time, he was a chemist; since that time, he has become a teacher at Regent College, Vancouver.) It shares almost all the merits, and exhibits only a few of the potential demerits, of an effort in what might be labeled “pastoral theology” or, better, “ecclesial theology” with a scholarly apparatus. It speaks directly to those in the church, deepens their understanding of what it means to be a person of faith, and seeks to improve Christian practice—touching on far too many topics, in too many historical contexts, for a reasonable assessment by the criteria normally used in academic church history.

As Hastings summarizes his goals, “I wish to make the modest proposal that union is a significant driving force in Edwards’s Trinitarian theology, if not its overarching trope, and that his theology essentially tells a ‘from eternity, to eternity’ story of three unions in the Spirit: the eternal union within the Trinity of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit, the union in history of the human and divine natures of Christ by the Spirit, and the union of the saints with God by the Spirit. The theme of union and especially the union last mentioned—participational union of the saints, or theosis—influences Edwards’s view of salvation to such an extent that it makes ecumenical dialogue possible on the matters of justification and sanctification. Furthermore, Edwards’s emphasis on union, his high pneumatology, and specifically his theology of an emphatically pneumatological union or theosis make him a candidate amongst Reformed theologians (even more so than John Calvin) for the title ‘the theologian of the Spirit’” (p. 2). He deals with all of these doctrinal topics–and more–with great verve for the benefit of Christians in particular.

Hastings is not uncritical of Edwards’ Trinitarianism. “The emphasis Edwards lays on the person and work of the Spirit in each union signals his greatest contribution to the subject of union in the Reformed heritage.” Nevertheless, he adds, this pneumatological emphasis “eclipse[s] his Christology and, specifically, a more incarnational approach to soteriology and its telos—that of restoring humans to be fully human, and thus become[s] also his greatest liability” (p. 7). Over the course of nine chapters, Hastings works out the finer points of his disagreement with Edwards, criticizing his handling of God’s perichoretic personhood, his doctrine of election, the shape of his Christology, the excessively subjective way he treats signs of the Spirit, even his general understanding of the God-world relationship. He measures Edwards’ doctrine against many in the tradition, from the Cappadocian fathers to his mentor Alan Torrance, but he tends to prescribe Barth as the most helpful antidote to what he finds toxic in Edwards’ teaching.

However, again, in the end, Hastings wrestles with these matters in an effort to help others participate in the life of God as they live their daily lives. He seeks to offer them, he specifies, a “fresh understanding of the Christian God as the triune God,” a “fresh understanding of the gospel . . . of the God who is, by the revelation of the economic Trinity, the God who is for us,” a “fresh awareness that the heart of Christianity is participation in the life of God, not performance,” a “fresh understanding of the human self—that human persons, like Christ, are persons-in-relation, not individuals,” a “fresh understanding of the Christian life—that assurance of salvation is grounded principally in who Christ is for us and only secondarily in who we are in Christ and the signs of conversion,” a “fresh understanding of creation and our work in the world,” and a “fresh understanding of heaven—that heaven is a wonderful world of love, but that it is also earthy in character; that humans will remain human in the world to come; that humans will be morally like Christ but will not become Christ metaphysically or be swallowed up into Christ or nothingness but rather will always be distinct as humans and not God—distinct as persons, albeit persons-in-relation to Christ, to other Christians, and to the cosmos” (pp. 16-18). He pursues these goals deftly.

Theologians and learned laity will find much to ponder and to practice in these pages. May Hastings’ tribe of constructive theologians using Edwards only increase in years to come.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Claude Pajon and the Academy of Saumur

Albert Gootjes, Claude Pajon (1626-1685) and the Academy of Saumur: The First Controversy over Grace, Brill’s Series in Church History (Leiden: Brill, 2014)


This book never mentions Edwards, but it does have much to do with the background to his celebrated doctrine of natural ability, that is, his doctrine of the natural or physical capacity of unconverted sinners to repent and turn to Christ.

The centerpiece of Edwards’ book on the Freedom of the Will (1754) was his doctrine that all humans are naturally free to do what they will. Our choices are necessitated only from the inside, by our moral inclinations. They are usually not coerced and, when they are, we are not to blame for their outcomes.

The upshot of this for Edwards’ evangelistic preaching was that sinners were naturally free to convert and live for God, and should be kept from using the doctrine of predestination as an excuse for their failure to repent. They would certainly never change unless and until God reoriented their moral inclinations. But whether or not that happened, they were naturally/physically free to meet the terms of their redemption. They were free to do what they pleased. They had no one but themselves to blame for sinning against the Lord. Everyone always gets what they want, he claimed. They choose what they prefer. The problem was that the wayward never wanted the right things.

Edwards was not the first to teach the doctrine of natural ability. In fact, the thinkers who put this notion on the theological map were the Huguenot theologians of the Academy of Saumur (in western France). The best known of these thinkers was a man named Moïse Amyraut (in Latin, Moses Amyraldus). Their Academy was founded by a Scot, John Cameron. And over the course of the seventeenth century many others joined their cause, causing a stir throughout the region with their famous via media between strict Calvinism (as defined at the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619) and Arminianism. The Amyraldians and their doctrine of the sinner’s natural ability were condemned in the Helvetic [Swiss] Formula Consensus (1675), which was shepherded in part by Edwards’ favorite polemical Calvinist, Geneva’s Francis Turretin. Ironically, however, only 79 years later, Edwards retrieved the hotly contested notion of natural ability and used it as a weapon in his war against Arminianism, granting it a nobler place in subsequent Calvinist history.

Albert Gootjes’ new book began as a doctoral dissertation at Calvin Theological Seminary. It features Claude Pajon, one of the most controversial theologians at Saumur. Pajon advocated a version of the doctrine of natural ability according to which the Spirit works only through the Word to convert the minds of sinners and, through their minds, their wills as well. He denied that the Spirit works immediately on the will. In fact, eventually, he denied that the Spirit works immediately in any way at all in the conversion of wayward sinners–on the will, on the mind, or in support of any secondary causes of conversion (through what schoolmen called concursus). God always works mediately, through the Word, Pajon contended. This seemed to invest natural ability with real salvific potential, for many people could access and understand the gospel as presented in the Word (without waiting for an immediate act of God upon their souls). But it also seemed to some to domesticate, or de-supernaturalize, the doctrine of conversion.

Edwards taught a very different doctrine of natural ability, and retained a more supernatural doctrine of conversion. But his manner of articulating the freedom of the will, and the natural power of sinners to repent and be reborn, owed much to the intellectual history of Saumur–a history represented with painstaking research and analysis in Gootjes’ monograph.

This is serious, heavy reading. Nonetheless, it is essential for those seeking to understand Edwards’ theological world and his place and historical significance within it.

Graduate Student Paper Competition Winner


We are pleased to announce the winner of this year’s Jonathan Edwards graduate student paper competition.

We received papers this year from graduate students in four countries on three continents. The competition was stiff. But the winner of this year’s prize is Ryan Hoselton, a Ph.D. student at the University of Heidelberg working with Professor Jan Stievermann.

Mr. Hoselton’s paper is entitled, “Jonathan Edwards, the Inner Witness of the Spirit, and Experiential Exegesis.”

Here is a summary of the strengths of Hoselton’s paper by one of the jurors:

This essay begins by comparing Reformed scholastic views of the inner witness of the Spirit with Edwards’s own writing. It is argued that Edwards, while engaging with philosophers like Locke, nonetheless draws more heavily still on Ames and Owen to present a case for the propriety of the Spirit’s work in Scriptural interpretation. This allows the author to demonstrate that Edwards’s approach to hermeneutics attempts to establish a harmony between the existential situation of the reader and the meaning of the text, giving to individuals and to the laity power in their own exegesis, and confirming the historical contingencies of Edwards’s own exegetical exertions. This paper provides an excellently nuanced reading of the terms commonly used in Edwards studies, e.g. the “sense of the heart” and “new sense,” and is prepared to disagree with scholarly assumptions in so doing. . . . The style of prose was concise and eminently readable, and the logic clear.

Mr. Hoselton will receive a check for $500 and publication of his essay soon in Jonathan Edwards Studies.

Congratulations, Ryan, on a job well done!