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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards’s Turn from the Classic-Reformed Tradition of Freedom of the Will

Philip John Fisk, Jonathan Edwards’s Turn from the Classic-Reformed Tradition of Freedom of the Will, New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016).

V&RFiskThis second installment in V & R’s monograph series in Jonathan Edwards studies, which is edited by the staff of the Edwards Center at Yale, has been very well researched. Written by Philip J. Fisk, a Trinity graduate and long-time Free Church missionary, it began as Fisk’s doctoral dissertation for the Evangelical Theological Faculty (ETF) in Leuven, Belgium, where Fisk now teaches. Supervised by Anton Vos and Andreas J. Beck, it exhibits all the hallmarks of their neo-Calvinist rehabilitation of the Scotist line of Reformed thought on freedom, which is summarized well in a book by that name from the late Willem van Asselt and his colleagues in the Netherlands, whom the Leuven scholars follow (https://www.amazon.com/Reformed-Thought-Freedom-Reformation-Post-Reformation/dp/080103521X).

Put briefly, the Scotist line of Reformed thinkers on freedom held a less deterministic way of thinking about volition than that caricatured as “Calvinist” by Socinian, Arminian, and Roman Catholic foes. They allowed for what John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) and his heirs claimed was genuine contingency in human moral action. Using Latinate Aristotelian tools they inherited from medieval scholastic sources, they contended for a strong doctrine of predestination, a robust approach to the sovereignty of God over all of human history, and the freedom of the will via concepts like “concurrence” (of divine and human willing, the latter being truly free but depending on divine cooperation for existence) and what they called “synchronic contingency” (real power one has in the moment of volition to do other than what one chooses, even if/though one’s choice has been predestined by God). To their critics, these doctrines seemed logically inconsistent. But to Fisk’s scholastic Calvinists, they offered a way of eating one’s cake and having it too–of maintaining an apparently high view of God’s providence with a seemingly strong commitment to real freedom and contingency.

The burden of Fisk’s book is to show that Edwards abandoned such scholastic tools of art and thus turned from “the classic-Reformed tradition” on freedom. Or in Fisk’s own words, “our conclusion is that Edwards totally transformed the Reformed tradition from within the tradition, and as such, deviates from it” (p. 418). Edwards claimed to argue for the freedom of the will. But he actually undermined it by denying any contingency in human moral action, and became a rank determinist.

Fisk develops this claim in a two-fold manner. Part One of his book treats “The Harvard and Yale Curricula on Freedom of Will” (pp. 67-231), in which Fisk sketches the history of commencement theses at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as well on the freedom of the will up to the time when Edwards published his own Freedom of the Will (1754); the work of the Dutch scholastic thinker, Adriaan Heereboord, on the freedom of the will, which was studied at the colleges; and the work of the Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard Presbyterian, Charles Morton, on the will, which was based on Heereboord and Fisk suggests Edwards may have studied in college. Part Two treats “The Position of Jonathan Edwards on Freedom of Will” (pp. 233-408), in which Fisk measures Edwards and his work with other scholars on the freedom of the will (especially Daniel Whitby, an Anglican Arminian) against the gold standard of Reformed Scotists like Heereboord—and finds Edwards wanting.

Inasmuch as Fisk’s Scotist interpretation of what he calls “the main Christian line of thought” as well as “the classic-Reformed line” of thought on the will (pp. 108, 231 and passim) has sparked a bit of controversy, his interpretation of Edwards will prove controversial too. All should grant that Fisk’s scholastics avoided sheer determinism, but many (like me) will argue that Edwards did so too and, in the end, proved no more deterministic than most of his Reformed predecessors. He did leave behind much of the Aristotelian framework for interpreting volition, and thus defended human freedom in a rather different manner than scholastics such as Heereboord. But he did so in order to defend traditional Calvinism from critics who deemed it too deterministic. By Edwards’ day, critics saw through what they claimed was the verbal smoke and mirrors of the Scotists on freedom, 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 human natural freedom (freedom to do whatever one pleases) in the midst of moral necessity (one always/necessarily wills to choose that to which one is most inclined when choosing). He ended up teaching something very much like the older Calvinistic 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 natural/physical compulsion, in which we are not morally culpable for our actions). No matter which philosophical frame of reference he employed, none of the early modern Calvinists taught a view of human freedom that passed muster with their much more libertarian critics.

In the preface to the first edition of Edwards’ Original Sin (1758), the Rev. Samuel Finley (who became Princeton’s president three years after Edwards died) referred to Edwards’ earlier book on the Freedom of the Will (1754) as a volume “that has procured him the Elogy of eminent Divines abroad. Several Professors of Divinity in the Dutch Universities,” Finley specified, “very lately sent him their Thanks, for the Assistance he had given them in their Inquiry into some controverted Points; having carried his own further than any Author they had ever seen” (p. ix). The reception of Edwards’ writings on the freedom of the will has clearly changed since then in the Low Countries!

This book is highly recommended. Careful readers have now seen that it will prove most useful to philosophical theologians, and most interesting to Calvinists seeking the best ways to defend their faith from charges of determinism. But all serious students of early modern Western thought need to come to terms with its contents. And students of Edwards’ thought will want to noodle on its argument regarding Edwards’ place in the history of Calvinism.

For more on the issues handled masterfully by Fisk, consult the debate conducted through the following lectures from Richard Muller and Paul Helm hosted here at the Center.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Pentecostal Outpourings

Robert Davis Smart, Michael A. G. Haykin, and Ian Hugh Clary, eds. Pentecostal Outpourings: Revival and the Reformed Tradition. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016.

pentecostal outpouringThis is a fine collection of essays by an exceptionally learned group of conservative Calvinist churchmen, working in several different countries, who are concerned to use the past to promote revival today.

The essays treat revivals in the British Isles, British North America, and the U.S.—primarily in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mostly among the Reformed (Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists more than others).

The authors seem to presume that their readers will either share or gladly tolerate an overt and rather strong Reformed interpretation of history. In the introductory words of my friend Robert Smart, the main editor of the volume, “the Reformed perspective on these extraordinary outpourings of God’s Spirit is helpful. Whereas revival has often been associated with a humanly engineered series of meetings to convert the unsaved and with a fanatical experience that has little to do with the gospel and biblical theology,” this volume “demonstrates that revival is a sovereign gift from God,” a gift that “cannot be merited” by anything we do (p. ix). Those who share this point of view will find this volume inspirational. Those who don’t will nevertheless find it full of information on the history of revival and edifying counsel on the practice of Christianity.

This snapshot of the book’s table of contents offers a glimpse of its historiographical riches:

Foreword: Steven J. Lawson

Introduction: Robert Davis Smart

Part 1: Revival in the British Isles

  1. “The Power of Heaven in the Word of Life”: Welsh Calvinistic Methodism and Revival, Eifion Evans
  1. “Melting the Ice of a Long Winter”: Revival and Irish Dissent, Ian Hugh Clary
  1. “The Lord Is Doing Great Things, and Answering Prayer Everywhere”: The Revival of the Calvinistic Baptists in the Long Eighteenth Century, Michael A. G. Haykin
  1. Revival: A Scottish Presbyterian Perspective, Iain D. Campbell

Part 2: Revival in America

  1. Edwards’s Revival Instinct and Apologetic in American Presbyterianism: Planted, Grown, and Faded, Robert Davis Smart
  1. “The Glorious Work of God”: Revival among Congregationalists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Peter Beck
  1. Baptist Revivals in America in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Tom J. Nettles
  1. Revival and the Dutch Reformed Church in Eighteenth-Century America, Joel R. Beene

A Concluding Word—A Call to Seek God for Revival Today, Robert Davis Smart

There is something here for everyone. Even experts on revivals will gain new information on the history of gospel work in parts of the Anglo-Welsh-Scottish-Celtic-American Protestant world that remain foreign to them.

But the primary audience of the book is thoughtful Calvinists for whom its subject matter is now distant, unfamiliar, even distasteful and embarrassing. The authors of its essays want to promote a greater eagerness for revival among such people. In the words, again, of Smart:

We not only confess [our] absolute dependence upon the Lord for continual outpourings of the Spirit, but we also ask you to join us in seeking God for revival today. Whether writing from the perspective of Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, Scottish or American Presbyterians, or Irish or American Reformed Particular Baptists, all the contributors of this volume would say ‘Amen!’ to English Baptist Andrew Fuller’s sermon delivered to the Northamptonshire Association of Baptists at Nottingham, England: “O brethren, let us pray much for an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon our ministers and churches, and not upon those only of our own connection and denomination, but upon ‘all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours’ (1 Cor. 1:2)” (pp. 256-57).

Though not a Calvinist, I say “Amen,” too.

Yullin Church Funds New Lecture Series

testThe Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is pleased to announce a new lecture series on Edwards’ international reception, entitled “The Global Edwards.” With the generous support of the Yullin Church of South Korea, especially its pastor, Nam-Joon Kim, this new series will bring to campus the leading Edwards scholars working from outside the United States.

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Pastor Nam-Joon Kim

While Jonathan Edwards has long been recognized as the United States’ preeminent theologian, and one of the leading influences in the U.S. church, his international renown and global reception is less recognized. That is quickly changing, however, as represented in the new global Jonathan Edwards centers initiated from Yale and in several publications tied to Trinity’s Edwards Center, such as David W. Kling and Douglas A. Sweeney, eds.,Jonathan Edwards at Home and Abroad: Historical Memories, Cultural Movements, Global Horizons (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), and Oliver D. Crisp and Douglas A. Sweeney, eds., After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

In an effort to galvanize this international scholarship, we are therefore pleased to announce “The Global Edwards” series. It will feature international scholars engaged in the increasingly global conversation on Edwards’ life and influence.

All these lectures will be free and open to the public and posted on our Edwards Center website.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Justification

Josh Moody, ed., Jonathan Edwards and Justification (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).

Caveat emptor. I contributed one of only five chapters to this volume and am biased in its favor.

As I note in my own chapter, Edwards’ doctrine of justification has attracted more attention since Vatican II and the trend toward a “new perspective on Paul” than ever before in the history of Edwards scholarship. During the two hundred years from Edwards’ death (1758) to the election of Pope John XXIII (1958), only five scholars devoted much attention to this doctrine. Only two of these examined it with critical acumen. Since the early 1960s, though, a host of people have studied it, engaging in what has become one of the most important interpretive conversations in the field.

As Josh Moody clarifies in the volume’s introduction, this book is aimed not only at laying out Edwards’ doctrine of justification, but at assessing the current state of the conversation on its nature and historical significance, particularly with respect to the hotly contested question whether its shape is more catholic than it is uniquely protestant.

Moody establishes an explicitly Christian tone for the volume, setting up the essays that follow with a summary of Edwards’ doctrine of justification itself, a comparison of the doctrine with older, classically protestant views, and an argument that Edwards was traditionally protestant, despite contemporary claims to the contrary.

The rest of the book’s contributors are in basic agreement with Moody regarding Edwards’ protestantism. Kyle Strobel assesses the place of Edwards’ justification doctrine in relation to his general view of redemption. He is interested in the relationships between Edwards’ doctrines of redemption, imputation, and spiritual regeneration. His main argument is that Edwards’ doctrine of justification and theology of redemption stem ultimately from his doctrine of God, especially from his doctrine of the economic Trinity. Relatedly, “Edwards’s development of soteriological loci occurs under his analysis of the person and work of Christ and the nature and gift of the Spirit” (p. 45).

Rhys Bezzant details the relationship between Edwards’ justification doctrine and his social vision for the neighborhoods he served. He shows that Edwards thought salvation was intended to effect a transformation of life and thought. “The gospel that Edwards preached,” he says, “was designed both to revive and to reform” (p. 73).

Sam Logan offers an essay on Edwards’ view of the relation between the justification of sinners and evangelical obedience. Edwards eschewed works righteousness, as Logan makes clear, but insisted that salvation makes a difference in daily life. “Being in Christ produces evangelical obedience because, as Edwards and many others have taught, the law of God is nothing more or less than the objectification of the very nature of God. . . . when one is in Christ, one lives out who he is, and that is evangelical obedience” (p. 125).

My own essay fills out our understanding of Edwards’ doctrine by examining its expression in his exegetical writings. I show that the most controversial parts of his justification doctrine make the best sense in light of his pastoral and biblical priorities.

This book is aimed mainly at Christians, but is also the best handbook now available on Edwards’ view of the nature of justification before God.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS