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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 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

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Edwards on Charity and Its Fruits

Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God’s Love, ed. Kyle Strobel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).

This fifteen-sermon series on I Corinthians 13 is a wonderful example of Edwards’ preaching and theology. First delivered in Northampton between April and October in the year 1738, it was not printed until 1852 (in a bowdlerized edition produced by Edwards’ great-great-grandson, the Rev. Tryon Edwards, not “Tyron Edwards,” as he is named in the present volume). Restored and reprinted in its definitive edition by The Works of Jonathan Edwards (1989), it is available in hard copy in Yale’s vol. 8 (entitled Ethical Writings, a massive, 800-page tome that includes two other Edwards texts, produced by the late Paul Ramsey, who viewed this work as his crowning achievement) and online through the Jonathan Edwards Center in New Haven. But not until now is it available in a volume of its own, printed in paperback and priced for the general reader (on sale at Amazon for $14.85 last time I checked).

Strobel has made a few adjustments to Edwards’ eighteenth-century style (see pp. 31-32) but, for the most part, leaves the text as Yale has rendered it. His “main goal” is “to help people read Charity and Its Fruits well” (p. 30). With that in mind, he has peppered the text with explanatory notes and definitions of difficult terms. He has framed the whole with a helpful introduction (20 pgs.) and conclusion (16 pgs.), the latter of which aids Christians in making good on the sermons’ contents. And he has offered a brief reading list for those who want to go further in their study of Edwards’ writings.

This is a great buy for those who want to acquaint themselves with Edwards and his view of Christian charity. Scholars will continue to use the Yale edition of Charity, but other students and general readers will find here a great way to read these marvelous sermons. Like John Piper’s edition of God’s Passion for His Glory (i.e. Edwards’ Dissertation concerning the End for Which God Created the World), Strobel’s edition of Charity will make another Edwards gem accessible to thousands of new readers.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS