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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’s Vision of Reality

John J. Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Reality: The Relationship of God to the World, Redemption History, and the Reprobate, Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012).

In the nearly 24 years since Sang Hyun Lee published The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (1988), scores of scholars have measured the merits and the extent of what Lee encouraged us to label Edwards’ “dispositional ontology.” In the main, this recent effort has proven a boon to Edwards studies, breathing new life into work on Edwards’ metaphysical thought. But it has also yielded controversy regarding the vexed question of the potential for salvation of the unevangelized–some suggesting that Edwards’ God can grant a regenerate disposition to some too young or too removed from gospel witness to know of Christ, while others criticize this view as far too modern and heterodox for a Calvinist like Edwards with a strong doctrine of hell who taught the justice of God in the damnation of sinners.

Lutheran pastor John Bombaro has now weighed in on these disputes with an excellent book on what he calls Edwards’ vision of reality. He confirms that Edwards developed a dispositional ontology, but argues that he employed it as an orthodox, particularistic Calvinist. In other words, Edwards was not an inclusivist on the matter of salvation. Rather, he taught that God is glorified in the reprobation of unrepentant sinners. Or in Bombaro’s own words: “I argue that Edwards indeed employed disposition(s) in his philosophy, but that his theocentrism, theological tradition, and Calvinist particularism established its boundaries” (p. ix).

Further, the author qualifies Lee’s interpretation of Edwards’ philosophical theology by demonstrating correctly that, “[d]espite his emergent dispositional philosophy, Edwards did not completely depart from the Aristotelian-Scholastic ontology of ‘substance,’ as Sang Lee argues.” Rather, for Edwards, “neither God nor man is to be thought of only in terms of disposition: Edwards retained ‘substance’ concepts and terminology for both” (p. 13).

There is plenty in these pages about which specialists will quibble. But, overall, it offers a careful, well-documented assessment of the issues it addresses. It will be very heavy going for all but advanced students of Edwards, but is now required reading for those who work on Edwards’ thought.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Reformed Spirituality

Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

I delighted in this essay. Belden Lane, a Presbyterian and graduate of Fuller, teaches theology and American religion with the Jesuits of St. Louis University. He devotes the bulk of his time to mining the history of theology for sources of ecological and moral inspiration. In this book, the culmination of many years of painful struggle to come to terms with the ethos of Reformed Christianity, he pursues what he refers to as “a historical, theological, ethical, and even liturgical agenda . . . . to articulate a spirituality of desire in the history of the Reformed tradition, asking how major figures from John Calvin to Jonathan Edwards have emphasized the beauty of the world as a way of contemplating the beauty of God” (p. 13).

The Reformed tradition is not well-known for its aesthetic sensibility. It has received far more attention for its allegedly distant, cold, predestinarian doctrine of God, stern approach to the moral life, and dim view of worldly beauty. However, in Lane’s earthy hands, Reformed Protestantism brims with love for the world, indeed the cosmos, as the theater of God’s glory, goading readers to groan deeply for its coming restoration and to care, in the mean time, for its creatures.

His chapters on Edwards build on the work of Roland Delattre and Sang Hyun Lee to argue, not that Edwards himself worked as an eco-theologian, but that Edwards’ doctrine of God and theology of beauty can inspire and make good sense of environmental ethics today. “The physical universe,” for Edwards, is “a mirror of God’s glory, participating in what it reflects. The world is not simply a thin veil through which we reach toward a God wholly beyond it. For Edwards, nature—in all of its sensory palpability—is itself taken up into the still more sensuous glory of God. In the process, it teaches us desire, opening its mysteries to all who have received a new sense for the perceiving and extending of beauty in their common life” (pp. 199-200).

Or as Lane concludes in a chapter on what he has taken from Edwards’ ethics, “Jonathan Edwards . . . was a man for whom God was a constant amazement, a man for whom angels were ultimately more real than carriage bolts. But he never dismissed the tactile world of carriage bolts and harnesses, quill pens and mint sprigs as unimportant. He simply knew that reality, at its deepest level, is more than mere ‘stuff.’ It’s a matter of intimate relationships initiated by a communicative God. A purely material, non-relational world (like that of Thomas Hobbes) could never be ‘real’ for him. Yet the closest he came to imagining God’s ideal Beauty was by attending to the endless array of nature’s interrelationships. He loved the world because of the access it offered him to God, but he loved it nonetheless” (p. 210).

Historians may cringe from time to time in Lane’s story. He harbors “a love-hate relationship” with Reformed spirituality (p. 57). A recovering fundamentalist (a status he describes at numerous points throughout the book), he seeks to compensate for the harshness of his boyhood Calvinism by construing his tradition in a much more liberal way. He mines it for things he finds retrievable, discarding and even attempting to destroy what he dislikes (not an eco-friendly method). He is honest and open about this. In the end, though, it yields a rather attenuated Calvinism pruned for present purposes more than a panoramic picture of the Reformed spiritual landscape (in all its biodiversity).

As Lane suggests in a typical moment of spiritual profundity, “It isn’t the mastery of truth, but a relentless longing for it that qualifies those who become trusted guides for others” (p. 1). He misleads from time to time. But in the main, Lane has proven himself to be a trusted guide for those who long for the whole world to magnify the glory of God.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS