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Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology

Paul T. Nimmo and David A. S. Fergusson, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology, Cambridge Companions to Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 360 pp. $34.99/£19.99.

CambridgeCompanionReformedTheologyThis new addition to the well-known series of Cambridge Companions—one of which, published ten years ago, focused on Edwards—treats the origins, development, and significance of Reformed theology around the world. Both of its editors are Scottish Presbyterian academics. Nimmo teaches theology at the University of Aberdeen. Fergusson does the same at the University of Edinburgh.

The volume has three parts (see the table of contents below). Part One, “Theological Topics,” addresses key themes, “instincts and impulses” (5) that contributed to the emergence of Reformed theology. Part Two, “Theological Figures,” examines an assortment of especially influential Reformed doctors of the church. Part Three, “Theological Contexts,” looks at some of the most important settings (historical and geographical) in which Reformed theology has been pursued by proponents.

Edwards is discussed at length in two of the book’s chapters: the first in Part Two, by Oliver Crisp, “Jonathan Edwards”; the second in Part Three, by James Bratt, “Reformed Theology in North America.”

Crisp’s chapter (148-62) presents Edwards as a “constructive” theologian, Reformed, to be sure, but also eccentric and entrepreneurial. “Edwards is most certainly a Reformed theologian of the first rank,” he writes, “and the most influential theologian yet to appear on the American continent. Nevertheless, he was not a confessional theologian in the mold of Hodge, who famously remarked that no new doctrine had been taught at Princeton during his tenure. Edwards was not concerned merely to transmit a tradition, or to reiterate certain confessional standards. . . . He was a constructive theologian who did not appeal to tradition, but Scripture, and ‘called no man father’—not even John Calvin” (149). Consequently, Crisp continues, he contributed significantly (though also rather oddly) to the history of Christian thought, especially in the areas of “divine and human freedom, original sin, the Trinity, personal eschatology, theological aesthetics, theological ethics, religious psychology, and hagiography” (151). He never fancied himself a maverick. But “his intellectual project could be characterized as an attempt to re-envision Reformed theology using aspects of early Enlightenment philosophy” (150).

Bratt’s chapter (269-84) also presents Edwards mainly as an innovator, a thinker bent on a project of “radical reconstruction” (270) that, in the years since his death, may have done more harm than good. “He intended his work to rearticulate classic Calvinism in a voice fit for the age,” Bratt underscores with Crisp, “so as to dispel the enlightened delusions of the time.” He also sought to interpret the phenomena of revival. And “the result was a theology with distinctive markers: the controlling place he gave the affections and his all-or-nothing polarization between holiness and ungodliness there; his distinction between the natural freedom and the moral bondage of the will; his argument, respecting original sin, that God conceived of all humanity as organically present . . . in Adam; the strong polarity he drew between self-love, however generously cast, and the disinterested benevolence God demands; and the idealist metaphysics that held that the universe and every particular it contains were not just created but were sustained in being every moment by the active mind of God. Finally, Edwards’s system was pervaded by an aesthetic sensibility. The believer’s new disposition, he averred, would find God’s work ‘sweet,’ and would ‘relish’ it beyond all measure, as the gravity holding together the cosmos of God’s will was love” (271). Edwards’ disciples, Bratt continues in a manner reminiscent of complaints at Old Princeton and among the neo-orthodox, turned his theocentric piety into a grasping moralism, accommodating old-fashioned Calvinism further to the spirit of a now-more democratic age. And in the twenty-first century, Bratt concludes caustically, Edwards appeals most famously “to people left hungry by the evangelical bromides of their upbringing and also, clearly, to young ambitious males who aspire to a heroic spirituality and vehemently reject feminism, the sexual revolution, and everything thereunto pertaining” (283).

There are no surprises here, as Crisp and Bratt interpret Edwards in accordance with their earlier work on Reformed Christianity. But as a result, this volume is a useful bellwether of leading interpretations of Edwards and Reformed thought today. Those who don’t like these views can follow Edwards’ own example, study tirelessly, and enter the conversation.

Table of Contents

  1. “Introduction,” Paul T. Nimmo and David A. S. Fergusson

Part I. Theological Topics

  1. “Scripture,” J. Todd Billings
    3. “Confessions,” Michael Allen
    4. “Election,” Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer
    5. “Christology,” Bruce L. McCormack
    6. “Sacraments,” Paul T. Nimmo
    7. “The Christian Life,” Cynthia L. Rigby

Part II. Theological Figures

  1. “Huldrych Zwingli,” Peter Opitz
    9. “John Calvin,” Randall C. Zachman
    10. “Jonathan Edwards,” Oliver D. Crisp
    11. “Friedrich Schleiermacher,” Kevin W. Hector
    12. “Karl Barth,” Michael Beintker

Part III. Theological Contexts

  1. “Reformed Theology and Puritanism,” Susan Hardman Moore
    14. “Reformed Theology and Scholasticism,” Dolf te Velde
    15. “Reformed Theology in Continental Europe,” Eberhard Busch
    16. “Reformed Theology in the British Isles,” David A. S. Fergusson
    17. “Reformed Theology in North America,” James D. Bratt
    18. “Reformed Theology in Africa,” Isabel Apawo Phiri
    19. “Reformed Theology in Asia and Oceania,” Sung Bihn Yim, Alexander Chow, Yasuhiro Sekikawa, and Geoff Thompson
    20. “Reformed Theology, Mission, and Ecumenism,” Darrell L. Guder.