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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Reality

John J. Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Reality: The Relationship of God to the World, Redemption History, and the Reprobate, Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012).

In the nearly 24 years since Sang Hyun Lee published The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (1988), scores of scholars have measured the merits and the extent of what Lee encouraged us to label Edwards’ “dispositional ontology.” In the main, this recent effort has proven a boon to Edwards studies, breathing new life into work on Edwards’ metaphysical thought. But it has also yielded controversy regarding the vexed question of the potential for salvation of the unevangelized–some suggesting that Edwards’ God can grant a regenerate disposition to some too young or too removed from gospel witness to know of Christ, while others criticize this view as far too modern and heterodox for a Calvinist like Edwards with a strong doctrine of hell who taught the justice of God in the damnation of sinners.

Lutheran pastor John Bombaro has now weighed in on these disputes with an excellent book on what he calls Edwards’ vision of reality. He confirms that Edwards developed a dispositional ontology, but argues that he employed it as an orthodox, particularistic Calvinist. In other words, Edwards was not an inclusivist on the matter of salvation. Rather, he taught that God is glorified in the reprobation of unrepentant sinners. Or in Bombaro’s own words: “I argue that Edwards indeed employed disposition(s) in his philosophy, but that his theocentrism, theological tradition, and Calvinist particularism established its boundaries” (p. ix).

Further, the author qualifies Lee’s interpretation of Edwards’ philosophical theology by demonstrating correctly that, “[d]espite his emergent dispositional philosophy, Edwards did not completely depart from the Aristotelian-Scholastic ontology of ‘substance,’ as Sang Lee argues.” Rather, for Edwards, “neither God nor man is to be thought of only in terms of disposition: Edwards retained ‘substance’ concepts and terminology for both” (p. 13).

There is plenty in these pages about which specialists will quibble. But, overall, it offers a careful, well-documented assessment of the issues it addresses. It will be very heavy going for all but advanced students of Edwards, but is now required reading for those who work on Edwards’ thought.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS