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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).

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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.