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Sweeney’s Booknotes—A New Divinity: Transatlantic Reformed Evangelical Debates during the Long Eighteenth Century

Mark Jones and Michael A. G. Haykin (eds.), A New Divinity: Transatlantic Reformed Evangelical Debates during the Long Eighteenth Century (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2018).

New DivinitySince Doug Sweeney is a contributor to the volume under review, this booknote is written by Joey Cochran, assistant director of the Jonathan Edwards Center and doctoral student of Doug Sweeney’s. 

Editors Mark Jones and Michael Haykin have assembled a crack squad of theologically minded historians to trace the stories of significant ecclesiological and theological debates during the “Long” 18th Century. Though these discussions lend themselves broadly to Calvinistic traditions in Britain and New England, these debates represent both confessional and non-confessional backgrounds. The editors wish for this study to be an aid for today’s churchmen and scholars to assess how to best navigate our day’s ecclesiological and theological disputes.

Since the nature of the Jonathan Edwards Center blog pivots on the figure of Edwards, this booknote will primarily address the fifth chapter contribution from Daniel W. Cooley and Douglas A. Sweeney. A fundamental premise of the authors in this chapter is that Edwards Sr. modeled a methodology of theological reflection open to adaptation. His theological heirs apparent (literally in this case) adopted the practice of adaptation and included it in their theological toolkit.

New Divinity theology had the hallmark of distinguishing natural ability and moral inability, along with asserting a doctrine of immediate repentance. Edwards Sr.’s understanding of imputation of Adam’s sin followed an Augustino-Federal theology of original sin. However, the New Divinity theologians that followed him shifted to a view where guilt is derived from personal sin alone.

This then becomes the avenue by which the penal substitutionary view of atonement might be eclipsed by the moral government view. The chapter authors indicate that Edwards Jr. pioneered this view of the atonement sometime in the 1780s as a viable polemic against the trending universalism of his day. (See Michael McClymond’s stout two-volume study, The Devil’s Redemption, for more on the history and interpretation of universalism.)

Edwards Jr. viewed the payment of the debt for sin as metaphorical. Rather than emphasizing substitution, “the atonement is about restoring God’s divine rule” in which his moral government set by his moral law is upheld (120). He proposed that God’s general justice—where his moral goodness is upheld by God conducting himself in a manner in which he seeks his own glory and provides for the universe’s good—is in mind with the moral government view of atonement. General justice necessitates vindicating God’s true virtue. Thus, Edwards Jr. retrieves both of Edwards Sr.’s two dissertations, a post-humous publication impossible apart from the help of none other than Edwards Jr., in order to facilitate a moral government view of the atonement (cf. Yeager, Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture).

The chapter authors make clear that Edwards Jr. does not forsake substitution altogether in his moral government view. This view of substitution protected against universalism by clarifying that the payment to God was not for each individual sinner. Rather, it is Christ’s sufferings that are substituted for the punishment justly due to humanity, which clears the way for individual conversion. In other words, the locus of substitution is relocated from ontology to mission. Though Edwards Sr. spoke in more conservative Reformed-scholastic terms that indeed merged Anselmic and Grotian themes, father and son agreed that atonement ought to restore God’s honor and express God’s character.

Akin to how the humanists of the later 15th and early 16th century might best be understood as purveyors of a methodology, one might argue that Edwards’ ability to adapt, in the 18th century’s new era of science and enlightenment, served as an exemplar for his theological heirs and in itself may have been one of the most powerful influences of “America’s Theologian.”

I heartily recommend the rest of the chapter contributions in this fine collection. This work is an asset for scholars and churchmen concerned about developments and disputations of doctrine in the long 18th century. Perusing the book’s table of contents provides a depiction of the broad landscape that this compendium offers:

Editors Introduction | Mark Jones / Michael A. G. Haykin

1 The Antinomian-Neonomian Controversy in Nonconforming England (c. 1690) | Mark Jones / D. Patrick Ramsey

2 The Marrow Controversy | William VanDoodewaard

3 “A catholic spirit”: George Whitefield’s Dispute with the Erskines in Scotland | Ian Hugh Clary

4 The Doctrine of Free Choice | HyunKwan Kim

5 The Edwardseans and the Atonement | Daniel W. Cooley / Douglas A. Sweeney

6 The “Modern Question”: Hyper-Calvinism | Paul Helm

7 Eschatology: Spes Meliorum Temporum | Mark A. Herzer

8 The Particular Baptist Battle Over Sandemanianism | Nathan A. Finn

9 Andrew Fuller and the Fading of the Trinitarian Imagination | Michael A. G. Haykin

10 Church Authority and Subscription in the Synod of Philadelphia (1721-1741) | Scott Sealy

11 The Legacy of John Witherspoon and the Founding of Princeton Theological Seminary: Samuel Stanhope Smith, Ashbel Green, and the Contested Meaning of Enlightened Education | Paul Kjoss Helseth

12 Is Revival from God? The Great Awakening Debate Between Two Moderates | Robert Smart