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Sweeney’s Booknotes: A Reinterpretation?

Kyle Strobe: Jonathan Edwards's Theology: A ReinterpretationKyle C. Strobel, Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation, T & T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

Kyle Strobel is quickly becoming one of the most prolific scholars working on Edwards’ thought today. And this revised version of Strobel’s Aberdeen dissertation is his most important work on Edwards to date.

Strobel’s overarching argument is that Edwards worked primarily as a Reformed theologian whose doctrine of God and of the Trinity funded a “theocentric vision of reality,” which, in turn, became the primary force in Edwards’ thought (p. 2). Strobel supports this contention using four key points: “First, Edwards’s theology begins with God, in his eternal life as Trinity, as the ontological principle which grounds his systematic task. Second, Edwards begins ‘from eternity’ and then ‘descends’ to address God’s work in time, or, in other words, God’s economic movement to create and sustain. Third, this work in time is the work of redemption, directing the ‘revolutions in the world’ and guiding it toward resurrection, judgement and consummation. Fourth and finally, Edwards’s theology is a theology of redemptive history, grounded in and formed by the God who is redeeming, or more specifically, the God who redeems in, through and as Christ” (4).

In three main sections, Strobel treats Edwards’ doctrine of the Trinity (section one), Edwards’ view of God’s purpose in the creation of the world (section two), and Edwards’ Trinitarian doctrine of redemption (section three). Along the way, he seeks “to trace the ‘metanarrative’ of Edwards’s theology” (p. 12), a storyline that shaped nearly everything he wrote.

On its surface, Strobel’s argument appears rather commonplace, largely unexceptional to those who know Edwards. But as Strobel makes clear, he has offered it in contradiction to Sang Lee and others (especially McClymond and McDermott) who follow Lee’s view of Edwards’ philosophical theology. Strobel thinks these scholars misconstrue Edwards’ thought by portraying it, not in terms of Trinitarian dogma, but of late modern philosophy. Strobel thinks his synthesis accounts for Edwards better, offering a more comprehensive and coherent view of Edwards’ grand vision of God and the world (p. 232).

I agree that Strobel’s Edwards is more accurate than Lee’s. There is little new here. Strobel rehearses sources and themes treated well by many others. He exaggerates the extent to which his argument is novel. He exaggerates his differences with McClymond, McDermott, and others–seeming to relish his confession that, “in this volume I ‘go after’ almost everyone!” (p. xi). Still, he does provide a fine way of making sense of Edwards’ thought in systematic terms. I cannot think of another text that handles Edwards better in relation to dogmatic debates about the nature of God.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards, Theologian of Love?

Ronald Story, Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

Ronald Story, Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of LoveThis is a wonderful introduction to Edwards for people reared to assume that he was mainly a Calvinist scold who majored in hellfire and brimstone. Ronald Story, an emeritus professor of modern history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, used to assume the same thing. Raised in a strict Southern Baptist home, he long thought of Edwards only as the fearful preacher of—yes, that’s right, you guessed it—“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But in the late 1990s, Story stumbled into Edwards’ congregation in Northampton, soon became a member, and discovered the Edwards of love, the Edwards of Charity and Its Fruits who spoke of “Heaven as a World of Love” much more than he spoke of hell.

This book serves as an apology from Story for the many years he spent misconstruing Edwards’ life and significance (in places such as his best-selling text, A More Perfect Union: Documents in U.S. History). It overcompensates a little bit for Story’s earlier sins, portraying Edwards as a progressive social prophet of reform whose social teachings paved a way for Theodore Parker, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Martin Luther King. In the main, though, it portrays Edwards accurately, fairly, and with honest sympathy.

Here is Story’s main thesis: “Love pervades Jonathan Edwards’s ministry and writings, a point often overlooked given his lingering reputation as a preacher of damnation. In fact, Edwards, though understanding, as we have seen, that fear had its utility in the pulpit, was overwhelmingly a minister of the gospel of love rather than of fear. . . . Though a Calvinist, Edwards was not chiefly a preacher of damnation. Though damnation was ever at hand, Edwards the Calvinist was chiefly a preacher within the tradition of Christian love. Considering Edwards in this context will locate him at the epicenter of his faith and increase our understanding of what he was about” (98).

Story stresses what he calls “Edwards’s preoccupation with the poor” (60), his opposition to “materialism and avaricious scheming” (73), and his “notion of togetherness—social peace, amiableness, unity, harmony, collective worship, conversation, friendship, neighborliness, holy community, the oneness of mankind” (75). His work will likely evoke for specialists fond memories of older books by Roland Delattre and Gerald McDermott.

I recommend this book to everyone whose journey is like Story’s, and to students everywhere who know of Edwards only as the “fiery Puritan” of yesteryear.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Trinitarian Vision of Jonathan Edwards and David Coffey

Steven M. Studebaker, The Trinitarian Vision of Jonathan Edwards and David Coffey (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2011).

Steven Studebaker, a Trinity grad who teaches at McMaster Divinity College in Ontario, has published more than anyone on Edwards and the Trinity–including three books in the past four years. This book, however, is the most revealing and personal of his writings on the subject. It compares Edwards with Studebaker’s mentor, David Coffey, an Australian Roman Catholic who taught for a time at Marquette University in Milwaukee when Steve was a doctoral student there.

Edwards, Coffey, and Studebaker share a strong affinity for the Augustinian mutual love model of the Trinity. And in Studebaker’s telling, this has yielded in all three of them “a way of thinking about salvation that is primarily relational and transformational” (i.e. more than forensic and then moral) and “a theological basis for an optimistic attitude that the grace of Christ can touch those people who participate in a non-Christian religion and have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 2).

Historians of theology will recognize that Studebaker is working in the train of Coffey’s teacher Karl Rahner as he explicates Augustine and especially the notion of anonymous Christianity. Edwards scholars will recognize that Steve builds on the scholarship of Anri Morimoto and Gerald R. McDermott when it comes to Edwards’ understanding of spiritual rebirth and the possibility that non-Christian seekers might experience it.

The book has six chapters, all remarkably erudite. Chapter one lays out the Augustinian mutual love tradition. Chapter two places Edwards and Coffey within that grand tradition. Chapters three and four treat the Spirit-Christology and pneumatological concept of grace found in both Edwards and Coffey, which fill out their Trinitarian understanding of salvation and prepare the way for Studebaker’s constructive contribution. Chapter five maps out what Studebaker calls “A Trinitarian and Evangelical Vision of Redemption.” Chapter six develops “A Trinitarian and Evangelical Theology of Religions.”

This volume is an exercise in ecumenical thinking by an up-and-coming scholar with an evangelical pedigree and sympathy for Roman Catholic history and theology. Studebaker employs Edwards and Coffey in an effort to promote doctrinal convergence among the people he knows best (evangelicals and Catholics) on the issues at the center of their longstanding division (soteriological issues). Conservatives on both sides may dislike his argument. But Edwards scholars will find here a window onto Studebaker’s soul and its passion to promote renewed reflection on the Trinitarian vision of Jonathan Edwards.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

JESociety 2010 Conference, Oct 1-3

The Jonathan Edwards Society conference was mentioned earlier on this blog. The updated program schedule is now available at http://www.jesociety.org/jes‑2010‑conference‑program/.

The conference, on the theme of “Jonathan Edwards for the New Millennium,” is sponsored jointly by the Jonathan Edwards Society and the Edwin Mellen Press, to take place in Northampton, Massachusetts on October 1-3, 2010. Featured speakers include Gerald McDermott and Michael McClymond, who will discuss their current joint work, a 46-chapter comprehensive study of Jonathan Edwards’s theology, soon to be published by Oxford University Press. Avihu Zakai will also present a lecture on Jonathan Edwards’s philosophy of nature which coincides with his latest book published this summer. Other speakers include Kenneth Minkema, Herbert Richardson, Oliver Crisp, Robert King and many others.

For more details on this exciting conference, see the full program.