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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards on Justification

Jonathan EdwardsMichael McClenahan, Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2012).

Reformed pastor Michael McClenahan is Minister of Lislooney and Knappagh Presbyterian Churches, which are both in Northern Ireland. He offers here an updated version of his dissertation at Oxford University (defended in 2006).

Focusing largely on Edwards’ sermon, Justification by Faith Alone (preached in 1734, published in 1738), McClenahan contends that Edwards was not quasi-Catholic, as many have suggested, but defended a traditionally Calvinist view of justification against the Arminian views of Archbishop Tillotson. McClenahan seeks to “demonstrate that this misreading of Edwards [as nearly Catholic on justification] is based on a failure to appreciate the polemical nature of Edwards’ Justification by Faith Alone. It is ironic that many scholars unwittingly describe Tillotson’s view yet ascribe it to Edwards. I argue that the neglect of the historical and theological context of Edwards’ work has resulted in an inability to discern the precise nature of his doctrine” (p. 18).

McClenahan’s “basic conclusion” is “that Edwards’ discourse on justification follows in broad continuity with previous Reformed explanations of the doctrine.” He admits to “novel elements” in Edwards’ explanations (“for example, the use of the distinction between moral and natural fitness”), but insists that “these aspects do not constitute any significant realignment of thought” (p. 193).

Edwards had more in mind when speaking of justification by faith than a refutation of Tillotson, whom he did not engage frequently. And Edwards wrote much more on justification than is treated in the pages of this book, which is focused rather narrowly. Nonetheless, McClenahan’s thesis is largely correct: Edwards did seek to defend a Reformed view of justification. Though at times he sounds Catholic to people raised in modern churches, he was an anti-Catholic man with firm, though never overly simplified, Protestant convictions.

This book comports well with Jonathan Edwards and Justification, edited by another Reformed pastor, Josh Moody, and reviewed in an earlier post.