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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: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards

Steven M. Studebaker and Robert W. Caldwell III, The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards: Text, Context, and Application (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2012).

This book is dedicated to me (along with Marquette’s Pat Carey). I have also written an endorsement that is printed on its cover. I have a blatant conflict of interest here, so I’d better keep this short.

In my opinion, this is now the place to begin for people interested in the Trinitarian nature of Edwards’ thought and its importance to the history of theology. There is a surge of interest today in Edwards’ doctrine of the Trinity, part of the larger surge of Trinitarian thinking in theology since the mid-twentieth century. Amy Plantinga Pauw’s book, The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (2002), is the best known work on the topic. But several other books and articles (by Studebaker, Paul Helm, Bill Danaher, McClymond and McDermott, among others) have engaged this theme insightfully in the past ten years alone. Edwards’ Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith (2003), edited well for Yale by Princeton’s Sang Hyun Lee, has enabled much of this scholarship. But not until now has anyone published such a comprehensive treatment of Edwards’ writings on the Trinity—in his treatises, his sermons, and his “Miscellanies” notebooks—in relation to their own historical contexts.

Part One, “Texts and Doctrine,” reprints Edwards’ most sustained interpretations of the doctrine, the Discourse on the Trinity and the Treatise on Grace, using these and other writings to present Edwards’ Trinitarian views systematically. Part Two, “Historical Context,” lays out Edwards’ views in relation to the Christian tradition generally and his eighteenth-century world. Part Three, “Pastoral Application,” explains what difference this doctrine made as Edwards preached and wrote of the Christian life, the doctrine of creation, and eternal life in heaven.

I recommend this volume highly. It covers difficult terrain, to be sure, but does so with a facility and clarity that makes it easy for most readers to follow—and always with a view to the significance of its contents for theology and practice.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS

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