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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.

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

Just Released: The Essential Edwards Collection

The staff of the JEC at TEDS has just released a five-volume series entitled The Essential Edwards Collection (Moody, February 2010).

Coauthored by Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney, this brand-new series distills the essential thought of America’s greatest pastor-theologian.  It is written to be of help to all kinds of people–those who know little about Edwards and haven’t had time to read him, those familiar with Edwards who could benefit from short resource guides offering important quotations and critical but deeply appreciative analysis, and those who love Edwards and want to work through the searching material he authored.

The books are short (160 pages), readable, and include application sections. The following is the list of books:

Jonathan Edwards, Lover of God
Jonathan Edwards on Beauty
Jonathan Edwards on the Good Life
Jonathan Edwards on True Christianity
Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell

The Essential Edwards Collection is not an anthology of Edwards’s writings, but a guide to his thought.  It includes the most important passages from his corpus along with commentary designed to illumine them and application intended to fire the heart and mind of the reader.

In the end, however, Strachan and Sweeney intend for this collection to not simply help people learn about America’s great theologian, but to enlarge the modern church’s understanding of God and the life of joy and excitement He offers us through His Son.


Select Endorsements

“an excellent glimpse into a life lived unto God” Thabiti Anyabwile

“the kernel of much of Edwards’s thought in eminently accessible form” D. A. Carson

a “splendid library of volumes” David Dockery

“a fantastic introduction to the heart, mind, and ministry of the greatest theologian America has ever produced” Mark Driscoll

“I’ve read no better introduction to Jonathan Edwards” C. J. Mahaney

“five excellent and accessible introductions”…”a great achievement and a tremendous resource” Al Mohler

“Pure gold” Josh Moody

“This winsome and accessible introduction is now the first thing I’d recommend for those who want to know more about America’s greatest pastor-theologian” Justin Taylor

“a wide-ranging and representative sample of his work published in an attractive, accessible and, most important of all, readable form” Carl Trueman