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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