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Dissertation Notes: “Jonathan Edwards on Justification”

Hyun-Jin Cho, “Jonathan Edwards on Justification: Reformed Development of the Doctrine in Eighteenth-Century New England” (PhD diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2010).

Was Jonathan Edwards actually a closet Roman Catholic? Some Edwards scholars have claimed that his doctrine of justification falls short of classic Reformed formulations. They pick up on his use of the terms “infusion” and “fitness,” common in medieval and Tridentine Catholic theology, and they point to his dispositional ontology to argue that Edwards aligns more closely with a Roman Catholic than a Protestant view of justification.

In response, Hyun-Jin Cho, a Fellow of the JEC at TEDS, argues in his dissertation that this claim does not do justice to Edwards’ theology in his context. Cho outlines the broad development of the doctrine of justification from Augustine to Edwards and sets Edwards’ discussion of justification in the historical context of the Enlightenment, “Arminianism,” and Antinomianism, which all raised challenges to the Reformed understanding of justification. Cho then treads carefully through the details of Edwards’ own doctrine of justification and closes by parsing out the doctrinal nuances between Roman Catholics, early reformers, scholastics, Puritans, and Edwards himself.

It’s hard to walk away from Cho’s dissertation without realizing that Edwards was far more indebted to Protestant scholastics such as Francis Turretin and Peter Van Mastricht than to Roman Catholic thinkers. In fact, while earlier reformers rejected the term “infusion” in the polemics with the Council of Trent, later Reformed scholastics found the term useful in a modified sense against so-called “Arminian” doctrines. Reformed scholastics—and Edwards—differentiated themselves from Catholics by distinguishing between justification and sanctification and by denying any human merit in justification. To call Edwards’ doctrine of justification Catholic, Cho argues, is to misunderstand the sources he was reading and to misconstrue the theological terms as he used them.

Cho does show that Edwards developed the Reformed doctrine of justification in some ways. He gave the Holy Spirit a greater role in justification, which linked sanctification and justification more tightly together. He also conveyed a more organic unity to the Trinity’s redemptive work in regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. Still, a close reading of Edwards shows his commitment to the Protestant conviction that humans contribute nothing to justification; he rather attributes justification to the work of all three members of the Trinity.

What makes Cho’s dissertation especially helpful is his detailed comparison of varying treatments of justification, which highlights the theological impact of each iota of difference. Cho also treats Edwards’ understanding of justification by bringing his more well-known doctrines of original sin, dispositional ontology, and the Holy Spirit to bear on the doctrine of justification and by setting Edwards—the Calvinist who called the pope “antichrist”—carefully in his theological, historical, and polemical context. That particular synthesis constitutes Cho’s unique, and helpful, contribution.

– By David Barshinger, Senior Fellow of the JEC at TEDS