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Sweeney’s Booknotes: The Trinitarian Vision of Jonathan Edwards and David Coffey

Steven M. Studebaker, The Trinitarian Vision of Jonathan Edwards and David Coffey (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2011).

Steven Studebaker, a Trinity grad who teaches at McMaster Divinity College in Ontario, has published more than anyone on Edwards and the Trinity–including three books in the past four years. This book, however, is the most revealing and personal of his writings on the subject. It compares Edwards with Studebaker’s mentor, David Coffey, an Australian Roman Catholic who taught for a time at Marquette University in Milwaukee when Steve was a doctoral student there.

Edwards, Coffey, and Studebaker share a strong affinity for the Augustinian mutual love model of the Trinity. And in Studebaker’s telling, this has yielded in all three of them “a way of thinking about salvation that is primarily relational and transformational” (i.e. more than forensic and then moral) and “a theological basis for an optimistic attitude that the grace of Christ can touch those people who participate in a non-Christian religion and have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 2).

Historians of theology will recognize that Studebaker is working in the train of Coffey’s teacher Karl Rahner as he explicates Augustine and especially the notion of anonymous Christianity. Edwards scholars will recognize that Steve builds on the scholarship of Anri Morimoto and Gerald R. McDermott when it comes to Edwards’ understanding of spiritual rebirth and the possibility that non-Christian seekers might experience it.

The book has six chapters, all remarkably erudite. Chapter one lays out the Augustinian mutual love tradition. Chapter two places Edwards and Coffey within that grand tradition. Chapters three and four treat the Spirit-Christology and pneumatological concept of grace found in both Edwards and Coffey, which fill out their Trinitarian understanding of salvation and prepare the way for Studebaker’s constructive contribution. Chapter five maps out what Studebaker calls “A Trinitarian and Evangelical Vision of Redemption.” Chapter six develops “A Trinitarian and Evangelical Theology of Religions.”

This volume is an exercise in ecumenical thinking by an up-and-coming scholar with an evangelical pedigree and sympathy for Roman Catholic history and theology. Studebaker employs Edwards and Coffey in an effort to promote doctrinal convergence among the people he knows best (evangelicals and Catholics) on the issues at the center of their longstanding division (soteriological issues). Conservatives on both sides may dislike his argument. But Edwards scholars will find here a window onto Studebaker’s soul and its passion to promote renewed reflection on the Trinitarian vision of Jonathan Edwards.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS