Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians

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Oliver D. Crisp
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , November
     2015.
     218 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802871725.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Removing the centuries-old veil of theological dynamism that tends to obscure the mortality of Jonathan Edwards is surely no easy feat. Yet Oliver D. Crisp’s Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians is an excellent effort to that end. In this compilation of re-worked previous publications and new material, Crisp effectively engages Edwards in a manner that is neither hagiographic nor gratuitously critical, placing Edwards in his historical and intellectual context. Fortunately, Crisp unbridles chronology and contextualism where appropriate, in order to offer a compelling look at Edwards’ theology in discussion with other great Christian thinkers, both Protestant and Catholic, across the span of Church history. Crisp’s approach helps to demythologize Edwards’s body of work and thereby present the complexity of his thought, including its mainstream Reformed elements, as well as its arguably innovative deviations from conventional Reformed orthodoxy.

In nine chapters, Crisp deals with Edwards’s work both thematically, and in discussion with a range of prominent theologians. Crisp begins by examining Edwards’s thought in light of its Reformed context, notably highlighting the doctrinal developments contained therein, particularly in the realm of trinitarian theology. Significantly, Crisp posits that Edwards’s conception of the Trinity is no less than a form of panentheism, constituting an overt deviation from “the theological mainstream of the Reformed tradition” (13). Crisp goes on to compare Edwards with a veritable panoply of Christian thinkers on a diversity of inherently related Christian creeds. He engages Edwards in dialogues with the medieval theologian Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury on the doctrine of God, the 17th century Dutch thinker Jacob Arminius on the doctrine of creation, the 19th century Southern Presbyterian minister John Girardeau on the concept of free will, and Joseph Bellamy—an 18th century intellectual progeny of Edwards and his personal friend—on the doctrine of the atonement. These discussions serve to illumine areas in which, it is argued, Edwards diverges from the Reformed standard with which he is immanently associated, and to examine specific instances where Crisp believes the theological constructs of other theologians may offer more satisfactory understandings than those produced by Edwards.

Throughout the work, the intellectual picture Crisp paints of Edwards congeals in a manner that presents an image of a rigidly contextual, constructive theologian. While there is no doubt, as Crisp adroitly sets forth, that the constructive nature of Edwards’s theology utilized the prevailing Enlightenment intellectual paradigms of the day, Crisp’s arguments do not adequately deal with the multitudinous biblical citations and allusions that permeate Edwards’s works, particularly his extant sermons. In refraining from doing so, Crisp neglects the primacy of Christian scripture in Edwards’s thought. Indeed, Crisp appears to misconstrue the nature of the impact of Enlightenment thought on Edwards’s theology, arguing that “what motivated [Edwards’s] theology was his engagement with Scripture and his desire to re-describe Reformed theology using the tools of early Enlightenment thought” (82). While Crisp notes Edwards’s “pronounced Biblicism,” he (perhaps inadvertently) appears to give equal weight to Edwards’s “penchant for metaphysical speculation” in the formation of the substance of his theology (82). Though Crisp explicitly asserts that Edwards “was a constructive theologian whose appeal was to Scripture rather than tradition,” Crisp stops short of pursuing this argument to its logical end. Rather, he steadfastly illustrates Edwards’s dissidence, in several cases, with Reformed thought, which Crisp claims stemmed from Edwards’s use of early Enlightenment philosophy (3).

Crisp is right to suggest that “Edwards thought of [early Enlightenment thinkers] as providing … new tools by means of which he could undergird Christian theology” (4). Yet by neglecting an in-depth discussion of Edwards’s consistent appeal to the Bible as the font of his doctrine, Crisp opens the door to a counterargument that would suggest he conflates a “lens” Edwards used in studying doctrine (i.e., the philosophical frameworks of Enlightenment era-thinkers) with the “instrument” used to formulate doctrine (i.e., the Bible). That argument would subsequently bring into question the facility of engaging Edwards in a discussion with other theologians, when the foundational component of his theology is confused. If the Bible was the measure of truth for Edwards, and he was typified by “questioning everything in the cause of truth,” it might be argued that his dissent from Reformed theology, to any degree, originated not with a desire to fit his theology within the conventions of the prevailing metaphysical thought of the day, but rather to properly exposit the Bible (xvi). In leaving this argument unaddressed, Crisp’s work can be difficult to fully engage, which is made all the more disappointing given Crisp’s important insights into Edwards’s thought.

On the whole, Crisp has put together an important contextual look at Edwards in light of the metaphysical frameworks of the early Enlightenment, and in the wider Christian chronology of thought. Crisp works to dispel one-dimensional interpretations of Edwards’s thought in a way that personalizes him, and helps underline his true brilliance as an 18th century theologian. However, these advances must be weighed against the potentially invasive counterargument that bubbles to the surface, which Crisp appears to sidestep in order to offer the “fresh” look that this work appears to be. Nevertheless, Crisp’s descriptive analysis of the extent of Edwards’s deviation from Reformed orthodoxy along with the innovative approach to understanding Edwards’s thought is a worthy addition to the field of Jonathan Edwards Studies

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Baddley is a recent graduate of The George Washington University Law School.

Date of Review: 
September 21, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Oliver D. Crisp is professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. His other books include Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation and Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology.

Keywords: 

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