Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians

Oliver D. Crisp, Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015)

9780802871725Hot on the heels of The Ecumenical Edwards, noted here for its sampling of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox engagement with Edwards by constructive theologians, comes a sample of such engagement by the single most influential writer in the world using Edwards for contemporary purposes.

Most of the chapters in this volume have been published elsewhere, one in The Ecumenical Edwards. Two began as talks given here at T.E.D.S. in 2013.

But all have been refurbished for inclusion in this book. They cover a wide range of topics over the course of nine chapters:

  1. Edwards and Reformed Theology
  2. Anselm and Edwards on the Doctrine of God
  3. Edwards on the Excellence of the Trinity
  4. Arminius and Edwards on Creation
  5. Girardeau and Edwards on Free Will
  6. Edwards on Original Sin: Another Look
  7. Bellamy and Edwards on the Atonement
  8. Edwards on Preaching
  9. On the Orthodoxy of Jonathan Edwards

All nine share in common Crisp’s classically Edwardsean aim to update Edwards for our own, constructive purposes.

Crisp justifies this goal at the end of the book’s preface, using Edwards’ own theological method as a model:

There may be aspects of his project that seem to be problematic, even mistaken. But there are deep themes in his work that may provide the basis for further theological reflection today. That is the mark of a great thinker: not that he always had it right, but that he saw the important issues clearly, . . . refusing easy answers while attempting to elevate the discussion to a new level of clarity and sophistication. . . . As Edwards attempted to use the tools of early Enlightenment philosophy for a theological end, so contemporary Christian thinkers today may borrow ideas, concepts, tools, and methods from modern intellectual disciplines in order to place theology on a firmer footing in today’s intellectual climate. This need not mean the rejection of tradition in favor of theological construction. However, those wanting to imitate Edwards’s example may find themselves driven to more theological revision than they had anticipated, as new light is shed upon old truths. It may even be that in reading Edwards we will be furnished with ways of tackling longstanding theological conundrums and uncovering fresh aspects of the truth once delivered to the saints. It seems Edwards still has things to teach us today, in matters of theological method as well as doctrinal substance (pp. xviii-xx).

This is much the same posture taken by Edwards’ early followers at Andover and Yale in relation to his work. In the words of one of their essays, aired in 1838 in Yale’s Quarterly Christian Spectator, “he who will not tolerate new inquiries . . . cannot be a conservative, or one who desires to keep alive the old New England spirit.” For as explained three months later in the same scholarly journal, “the True Conservative . . ., though he often retires into the past, does not there make his dwelling-place, but lives and acts in the present. From the past, he derives instructions that are most important, and catches nobler and brighter views of the truths which never die; but these permanent principles are made each to read its appropriate lesson under the varying circumstances of present scenes, to strengthen and guide him the more efficiently to act his part in his own generation.”

More confessional theologians, then and since, have usually balked at such free-wheeling uses of the history of Christianity, preferring strict adherence to the language and the teachings of their favorite standard bearers. But Edwards’ closest kin have usually taken Crisp’s approach.

Just as few Edwardsean thinkers want to mimic Edwards’ language or repristinate his doctrine, so few will want to affirm all of Crisp’s uses of Edwards. Nonetheless, as I note on the book’s back cover,

Crisp is leading the way among constructive theologians who are engaging Jonathan Edwards as a serious interlocutor. This book showcases Crisp at his finest, never parroting Edwards’s teaching but, rather, following his model of occasional, contextual, and critical adaptation of the insights of the past in relation to the challenges we face in the present. Edwards still has much to offer even the most contemporary theologians.

This is the best place to start for readers looking for an introduction to Crisp’s view of Edwards.