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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards on the Atonement

Brandon James Crawford, Jonathan Edwards on the Atonement: Understanding the Legacy of America’s Greatest Theologian (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017).

JEandAtonementCrawford

We are pleased to offer the following booknote by former Edwards Center fellow, Dr. Daniel W. Cooley, who wrote his dissertation at Trinity on the topic of the booknote. See Daniel W. Cooley, “The New England Theology and the Atonement: Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park” (Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2014); and Daniel W. Cooley and Douglas A. Sweeney, “The Novelty of the New Divinity,” in A New Divinity: Transatlantic Reformed Evangelical Debates During the Long Eighteenth Century, ed. Mark Jones and Michael A. G. Haykin (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017).

This volume offers a study on the atonement in the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Crawford explains that this study aims to address the “lack of consensus” on the question of whether there is a genuine “trajectory” of thought between Edwards and the Edwardseans on the atonement (8–9). This problem has persisted because of the lack of literature on Edwards’ views of the atonement. The author concludes that the literature to date has maintained a predominantly historical interest in the subject rather than a theological emphasis. In fact, I would add that this is generally true across the academic study of Edwards. Crawford writes, “The present study aims to address this problem by offering a thorough presentation of Edwards’s doctrine of the atonement as revealed in his collected works” (10).

The author introduces his study with a brief narrative of Edwards’ “legacy under dispute” (1). He sketches out Edwards’ influence on his successors such as Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins as well as those who came after—such as John Smalley, Nathan Strong, Nathanael Emmons, Nathaniel William Taylor, and Edwards Amasa Park, who figures prominently in the story of the Edwardseans on the atonement.

Crawford asserts from the outset that he agrees with Mark Noll, who argues that Edwards left no intellectual or theological heirs. Jonathan Edwards “did not leave any clear intellectual successors behind” (1). Crawford agrees that the Edwardseans dominated theological discourse in New England for the hundred year period after Edwards’s death, ironically citing Doug Sweeney and Allen Guelzo who disagree with Crawford’s premise that Edwardseans took a clean break from Edwards. While they dominated the scene they were not quite like Edwards himself, though “their ministries did parallel his in many ways” (6). Crawford cites the Edwardseans’ defense of reformed theology as one of the key similarities in the face of an “enlightened” age. He makes clear that the sort of atonement that the Edwardseans taught was unlike that which Edwards taught.

Crawford continues his study with an overview of the development of the doctrine of the atonement in chapters 1, 2, and 3, from Clement of Rome in the first century to the medieval period and the Reformation era and the Post-Reformation era that saw the development of the moral example and governmental theories of the atonement and further developments of penal substitution.

These initial chapters provide a series of sketches of the varying contributions of select individuals on the doctrine of the atonement. The length of each treatment ranges from a couple of paragraphs to a few pages. Some of these figures include Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, William Ames, and John Owen. In addition, he mentions the influence of some other figures such as Socinus, Arminius, and Hugo Grotius.

The next four chapters discuss Edwards’ views of theology from a broad framework and then narrowing in on the atonement. Chapters four and five delve into the doctrines of God, Humanity, Sin, and Christ, showing the theological framework in which Edwards’ view of the atonement resides. Chapters six and seven describe the “vital content” of Edwards’ atonement and additional themes found in Edwards’ writing as they relate to the atonement where he draws upon material from many different “Miscellanies” as well as a handful of sermons and major works.

Crawford closes with a discussion of Edwards’ legacy on the atonement and concludes that Edwards falls within the bounds of reformed orthodoxy. The views of his followers, the New Divinity, diverged from Edwards’ views. Crawford explains that Edwards may not have been clear enough in his views, which led to misunderstandings among his followers. His conclusion fits with the regnant historiography concerning Edwards and the Edwardseans, though the proponents of this viewpoint that the followers of Edwards represented a decline from Edwards struggle to explain how this misunderstanding took place.

Readers looking for an introduction to Edwards on the atonement can find help in Crawford’s treatment. It is not overly technical, so informed laypeople, pastors, and students can benefit from it. Crawford has presented evidence that helps him in his argument that Edwards held to a recognizably reformed version of the doctrine of the atonement; however, he does not present evidence in regard to Edwards’ relationship with the Edwardseans—so readers will want to look elsewhere on that score.

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.