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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Divine Will and Human Choice

Richard A. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).

MullerThis learned monograph by the world’s leading authority on early modern Reformed scholastic theology adjudicates the debate between the Utrecht school’s view of Reformed thought on freedom (represented on this blog back in February by Philip Fisk) and Paul Helm’s longstanding criticism of it.

Inasmuch as this debate has been developed in a couple of the lectures we have hosted (listen to Muller’s lecture and Helm’s lecture), a notice of its most recent installment is in order. (N.B. This is pretty heady stuff, and will prove most interesting and intelligible to those with an interest in the defense of Reformed views of the sovereignty of God over history.)

In more than 300 pages of densely written review and analysis, Muller makes several claims regarding the issues at stake, contextualizing/correcting the excesses of some of those within the Utrecht camp and thus taking a middle position between Utrecht and Helm.

With the Utrecht school, Muller argues that his subjects “developed a robust doctrine of creaturely contingency and human freedom built on a series of traditional scholastic distinctions, including those associated with what has come to be called ‘synchronic contingency’” (p. 34). But with Helm and other critics of the Utrecht school, he reminds us that these theologians “did so for the sake of respecting the underlying premise of Reformed thought that God eternally and freely decrees the entire order of the universe, past, present, and future.” Further, Muller points out that “synchronic contingency,” the keystone of Utrecht’s approach to the issues, “is not by itself an ontology but rather serves as an explanatory language, used in conjunction with a series of related scholastic distinctions, that is supportive of the ontological assumptions belonging to the Reformed . . . doctrine of providence” (p. 34). It did not undermine early Reformed views of sovereignty, but enabled the Reformed to explain divine rule in a way that undergirded and supported human freedom.

Most importantly of all for historiographical purposes, Muller shows that late modern usages of terms such as “libertarianism,” “synchronic contingency,” and “compatibilism” do not fit the early modern theological sources and, thus, should usually be avoided in descriptions of their contents–which were shaped most profoundly by ancient Greek and medieval appropriations of Aristotle, especially by the Thomists, and not by a proto-modern Scotist view of freedom untethered from the mainstream classical tradition (as the least cautious writers in the Utrecht school suggest).

Muller’s treatment of these issues is, as usual, excellent. But his treatment of Edwards’ views and Edwards’ place in the tradition of Reformed thought on freedom leaves something to be desired. He depicts Edwards in passing (in several places, never at length) as the most important symbol of what he thinks went wrong with modern Protestant thought on freedom–as a much less nuanced (read less Aristotelian) and more deterministic Calvinist than those who went before. In short, Muller hints that Edwards worked “without a significant distinction of primary and secondary causality, without a clear understanding of divine concurrence, and without the assumption, intrinsic to the notion of an ontologically and causally two-tiered universe [maintained by the scholastics], that divine and human causality are, taken together, the necessary and sufficient conditions for free acts of the human will” (p. 324).

These suggestions are misleading. It is true that Edwards moved past many of the distinctions used by earlier scholastics. But as we said in our review of Philip Fisk’s recent book, he did so to defend Reformed theology from critics who deemed it too deterministic. By Edwards’ day, critics saw through what they claimed was the verbal smoke and mirrors of scholastic theologians, and thus Edwards felt obliged to adopt a new approach–one that was more transparent about Calvinist views of God’s sovereign rule over history, and more forthright in its argument for freedom of the will undergirded by the sovereignty of God (concurrence). He wound up teaching something very much like the older doctrine, in spite of his modern framework for interpreting the issues: that God has predestined all the things that matter most in the history of the world, but that humans also choose freely everything they do (except in cases of external compulsion, in which they are not morally culpable).

Edwards affirmed, that is to say, much of what Muller says he denied: the distinction between primary and secondary causes and a doctrine of concurrence in which divine and human effort function together as the necessary and sufficient conditions for free acts of the human will.

Sweeney’s Booknotes — Jonathan Edwards: Beyond the Manuscripts

Toby K. Easley, Jonathan Edwards: Beyond the Manuscripts (Fort Worth: Feder Ink Publishing, 2016).

EasleyThis privately published book will be of greatest interest to preachers and other students of homiletics.

Easley argues in its pages that Edwards proved to be a much better preacher over time than his reputation for reading dense manuscripts to congregations in monotone suggests.

In fact, the author proposes, Edwards matured as a preacher through “five distinct stages of communication development,” stages through which preachers would do well to pass today (p. i). Raised on auditory learning from the sermons preached by others in his family and beyond (stage one—Edwards was the son and grandson of preachers), he was taught as a boy to draft complete manuscripts (stage two—a form of quality control). As he gained confidence and grew by watching George Whitefield, an oratorical dynamo, he moved from full manuscripts to annotated outlines except on rare occasions (stage three), and then to sketchy, skeletal outlines (stage four) before adapting new methods for his sermons to Native Americans and students at Princeton College (stage five). He improved as a preacher, that is to say, throughout his life. He matured “beyond the manuscripts,” to quote from Easley’s title.

Despite the tendency of most today to assume that extemporaneous preaching is always best, Easley exhorts young preachers to learn a thing or two from Edwards, following his lead through this five-stage process. They have far greater access to auditory aids than Edwards had in the eighteenth century and should learn whenever possible from preachers on the web. They should work on sermon quality by drafting full manuscripts, but also follow Edwards into the outline form, learning to preach substantial messages from memory as they grow. And they should always stay sensitive to audience and context, adapting speaking styles to meet the needs of those before them.

Wise words from a seasoned preacher and student of Edwards’ sermons.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Bright Shadows of Divine Things

Robert L. Boss, Bright Shadows of Divine Things: The Devotional World of Jonathan Edwards (n.p.: JESociety Press, 2017).

Boss_coverRob Boss, Director of the JESociety, is the most thoughtful and creative independent Edwards scholar at work today. All of his books are privately published and usually fall below the radar screens of mainstream academics. Nonetheless, Boss has built a large network of followers with his passion for Edwards’ writings and his knack for social media.

This most recent, little book, nicely illustrated throughout, offers extended rumination on Edwards’ natural typology (i.e. his investigation of the natural world for emblems of the divine). It is pitched as a devotional aimed at other serious Christians as well as seekers who are lovers of the beauty of the world. It uses Edwards’ famous notebook, “Images of Divine Things,” as a deep well of insight into the “nature” of reality, a nature that was made by God, Boss contends with Edwards, to reflect God’s glory and point sensitive souls to Scripture, which interprets its worldly sights and sounds in comprehensible ways.

As Boss explains his book’s message in a brief epilogue, “The Book of Nature is full of correspondences and similitudes that echo and illustrate the Book of Scripture. . . . Behind every bush and under every rock and within every tree, creature, and event is a voice of Wisdom crying out to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.” He then quotes from Edwards’ “Images of Divine Things” accordingly:

If we look on these shadows of divine things [in nature] as the voice of God, purposely, by them, teaching us these and those spiritual and divine things, . . . how agreeably and clearly it will tend to convey instruction to our minds, and to impress things on the mind, and to affect the mind. By that we may as it were hear God speaking to us. Wherever we are and whatever we are about, we may see divine things excellently represented and held forth, and it will abundantly tend to confirm the Scriptures, for there is an excellent agreement between these things and the Holy Scriptures. (p. 116)

This foretaste of the meal Boss has readied for hungry readers is enough to give you the flavor of the feast on offer. Spiritually-minded nature lovers will eat it up.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Theologies of the American Revivalists

Robert W. Caldwell III, Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

Caldwell booknoteI need to be careful here. Caldwell is one of my former doctoral students. I refereed this book in manuscript for the press, and then wrote an endorsement for it. I am one of the author’s biggest fans. But notwithstanding my bias, I can say in all honestly that this is a marvelous survey of American revival thinking from 1740 to 1840, or the time of the Great Awakening through that of the Second Great Awakening. It handles its controversial subject matter accurately, fairly, and with keen historical insight, even challenging contemporary views of conversion based on the story that it tells.

Noting that conversion experiences and narratives have long been central to evangelical identity, Caldwell contends that the theologies undergirding these phenomena are often overlooked, to the detriment of historical understanding of evangelicals and the practice of evangelism by Christians in the present. We have several good books on parts of the story Caldwell tells. But not until now have we had an expert overview of the whole–let alone one that avoids theological partisanship and contemporary denominational wrangling.

As the author of a first-rate monograph on Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of communion in the Spirit, co-author of a sourcebook on Edwards and the Trinity, and professor of church history at a Southern Baptist seminary, Caldwell is well-placed to guide readers reliably through the often-dense thickets of early American revival thought.

Here is the book’s table of contents:

Introduction
Chapter 1. Moderate Evangelical Revival Theology in the First Great Awakening
Chapter 2. First Great Awakening Alternatives: The Revival Theologies of Andrew Croswell and Jonathan Edwards
Chapter 3. Revival Theology in the New Divinity Movement
Chapter 4. Congregationalist and New School Presbyterian Revival Theology in the Second Great Awakening
Chapter 5. Methodist Revival Theology in the Second Great Awakening
Chapter 6. Revival Theologies among Early American Baptists
Chapter 7. The New Measures Revival Theology of Charles Finney
Chapter 8. Two Responses to Modern Revival Theology: Princeton Seminary and theRestoration Movement
Conclusion
Bibliography
General Index
Scripture Index

Highly recommended for historians of American evangelical religion, college and seminary classes in American church history, and readers with an interest in the doctrine of conversion.