Jonathan Edwards

An Introduction to His Thought

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Oliver D. Crisp, Kyle C. Strobel
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , February
     2018.
     248 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802872692.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Perhaps the first thing one thinks of when they think of Jonathan Edwards’s theology is divine wrath, usually in reference to the paradigmatic example, his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But according to Oliver D. Crisp and Kyle C. Strobel, the true impetus of Edwards’s theology is God’s love. Crisp and Strobel are seasoned Edwardsean scholars. In their new, co-written book, they aim to introduce to the general reader key themes in Edwards’s philosophical theology, including Edwards’s conception of “beauty and glory,” “idealism,” “creation,” “atonement,” “salvation,” and other themes. But the reader should be warned at the outset that Crisp and Strobel often go beyond introductory comments, frequently entering into intricate, dense, and sometimes taxing discussions of Edwards’s theology.

Their introduction orients readers with a helpful breakdown of the following chapters, which is useful to turn back to now and then. They first offer the intellectual background and formation of Edwards. While we often consider Edwards an American theologian, Crisp and Kyle note that Edwards lived and died “decades before the United States of America came into existence” (13). We are also helpfully reminded that “for Edwards and his contemporaries in New England, religion was not a trivial or merely private matter” (15). Late 18th-century New England was largely rural, agricultural, and politically unstable, with frequent bouts of violence. It seems that Edwards’s own family history mirrored similar social dysfunctions, which included a serial adulterer, a filicide, and even an axe murderer. Edwards also, unsurprisingly, suffered several social shortcomings. Stiff, unsociable, and often aloof from the every day cares of the world, it was difficult for him to “suffer fools gladly.” Intellectually, Edwards was indebted to numerous writers—some orthodox and some not so orthodox—which he nevertheless pressed for a “single purpose, namely, the glory of God” (25). 

Undoubtedly, for Edwards God was absolutely sovereign. Crisp and Strobel begin discussing Edwards’s theology with his unique conception of the Trinity as “divine processions,” or perichoresis, where the understanding of God is the Son, and the divine will the Spirit. For Edwards, the unity and diversity of God is mutually reinforcing. At times Edwards sounds almost Aristotelian, as when he describes God as a being who “perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of himself” (41). But according to Crisp and Strobel, Edwards’s entire account is guided by “exegetical commitments” (45). At the same time, it feels that much of this exegesis is piecemeal, with Edwards cutting and pasting certain biblical passages to support his own conceptions of the deity.

From here Crisp and Strobel discuss Edwards’s controversial metaphysics, which included an idealism that denied the existence of material objects. According to Edwards, the world is composed of minds and their ideas. Undoubtedly, this position makes Edwards’s natural theology, in which he argued that creation reflected divine beauty, difficult to reconcile. Crisp and Strobel note how strikingly similar are Edwards’s idealism and that of Irish philosopher George Berkeley (69). But Edwards seems to have taken things further, positing something like a version of “immaterialism antirealism,” where God himself sustains human thought and existence. “Were God to cease thinking about humans and their ideas for a moment,” write Crisp and Strobel, “they would cease to exist” (72). At times, however, in their efforts to explicate Edwards’s thought, we lose sight of Edwards altogether as the authors extend the conversation to “perfect being theology,” “divine simplicity,” and “pure act theology.”

Even more difficult to grasp is Crisp and Strobel’s discussion of Edwards’s notions of panentheism, continuous creation, occasionalism, and determinism. In assessing how other scholars have critiqued these Edwardsean ideas, Crisp and Strobel seem to make Edwards almost superhuman (93). Perhaps a better explanation is that Edwards, being human, was not always consistent or even logical. To their credit, the authors acknowledge that while he couched his ideas within classical orthodox Christian theology, Edwards also pushed the boundaries of what were commonly regarded as theologically acceptable views about God and his relationship to creation.

Crisp and Strobel then turn to more constructive aspects of Edwards’s theology, such as his understandings of atonement and salvation. Here we get a better sense of their contention that Edwards’s theology was largely grounded on God’s love. Perhaps surprisingly, Edwards’s understanding of salvation included “theosis,” which should be understood as a “participation in the divine life,” not the “deification and divinization” of the person (147). For Edwards, God remains indivisible. Importantly, Crisp and Strobel also draw attention to how Edwards distinguished between justification as the work of Jesus Christ on the redeemed and regeneration as the work of the Spirit in applying that redemption (160). For Edwards, faith does not justify Christians—it harmonizes them to Christ. It is the union with Christ that justifies the faithful.

The penultimate topic is Edwards’s theological anthropology and moral thought. According to Edwards, the human person has two natures, the natural and the supernatural. As Crisp and Strobel put it, “the flesh is not intrinsically evil, but left by itself it can only be sinful.” To sin is to collapse inward, to focus on humanity’s inherent selfishness. But to love God and neighbor is to look outward. This is indeed, according to Edwards, the purpose of the regenerate: “to be caught up in the life of God such that one is internal to God’s life in Christ … and has internalized the love of God in the Spirit” (177). For Edwards, this is what it means to become “beautiful” and truly “alive” (197).

Crisp and Strobel conclude by asking whether and to what extent Edwards’s work can be of service to theologians today. Up until this point the book is mainly expository. But in the last chapter they “turn to a slightly more critical kind of assessment” (198). Offering a more “churchly reading,” they ask what it means to “become Edwardsean.” They essentially argue that while Christians must reject certain radical elements of Edwards’s theology, they should nevertheless retain his “holistic vision” of theology. The book concludes with a very helpful annotated bibliography.

Crisp and Strobel have provided a useful introduction, though perhaps it is a little too advanced for real beginners. Especially midway through, the text becomes inaccessible to non-theologians or those uninvested in and unfamiliar with Edwards’s corpus. Crisp and Strobel offer more of a guide for theologians than for the lay reader.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Ungureanu is Honorary Post-Thesis Fellow at the University of Queensland.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kyle C. Strobel is associate professor of spiritual theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is also the author of Jonathan Edwards's Theology: A Reinterpretation and Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards.

Oliver D. Crisp is professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. His other books include Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation and Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians.

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