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.