New England Dogmatics
A Systematic Collection of Questions and Answers in Divinity by Maltby Gelston (1766-1865)
- ISBN: 9781610979313
- Published By: Pickwick Publications
- Published: February 2019
Maltby Gelston (1766–1856) is the author of A Systematic Collection of Questions and Answers in Divinity (named by the editors New England Dogmatics) and an important New Divinity scholar. In order to become a minister, Gelston studied practical theology for three years under the tutorage of Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745–1801), the son of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). This collection of questions and answers is one of the outcomes of Gelston’s experience.
The volume contains an “Editor’s Introduction” that could be divided into two parts. Pages 1-21 is a helpful section because, although relatively brief, it offers historical and theological information that helps the reader place Gelston’s Systematic Collection in its context, and this, in turn, contributes to a better understanding of Gelston’s text. There are references to both Edwards Sr. and Edwards Jr., and a clarifying explanation of the moral government theory of the atonement.
Pages 21-49 is a rather specialized analysis of Oliver Crisp’s and Edwards Jr.’s respective views on penal non-substitution, followed by a lengthy critical analysis of Gelston’s position on the atonement. This part is a rather technical theological proposal. Perhaps it will create a few difficulties for the reader who prefers a more historically based introduction that presents the development of New England theology. Such a reader may wonder whether the editors’ proposal is appropriate for this volume; however, this is somewhat subjective and it ultimately depends on the reader’s interests. It seems that the traditional view of penal substitutionary atonement is not satisfactorily represented in the second part of the introduction. There are a few strong claims against it (32-35) which are insufficiently supported. The section does not interact with any of the older Protestant European and non-European champions of classical penal substitution from the English-speaking world, such as, for example, Charles Hodge, Robert L. Dabney, W. G. T. Shedd, and T. J. Crawford.
Admittedly, this addition would have made the introduction excessively long, but the strength of the claims requires such engagement. Relatedly and more importantly, the exposition does not take into account essential elements that form the complete context of the traditional view of penal substitutionary atonement (election, federal headship, union with Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, etc.). In light of the other publications of the editors, it seems clear that one of their intents was to show the non-monolithic nature of the position of the atonement in Protestantism, which is fair enough. What is doubtful are the claims made about the value of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as such.
The “Editor’s Introduction” is followed by Gelston’s Systematic Collection. The 313 questions and answers discuss virtually all loci of systematic theology. They offer substantial clarifications of previous questions belonging to a different locus. The Systematic Collection should be of interest also to philosophers since Gelston discusses (in different lengths and degrees) the philosophical issues that usually any systematician has to face, such as faith and reason, freedom, moral agency, and the nature of true virtue. For the reader knowledgeable of Edwards Sr.'s ’ works, it is very interesting to read Gelston’s Systematic Collection and to try to detect where he kept, developed, or changed the teaching of Edwards, and to speculate whether or not those developments and changes are either a natural consequence or a departure.
The reader should not expect Gelston’s Systematic Collection to be a “dogmatics” as it is most often intended—that is, a systematic presentation of Christian theology logically organized in loci, chapters, and sections. Rather, it is a list of theological questions and answers—although, they do follow a general logical order, from the doctrine of God to the doctrine of the last things—which was a common practice of those days (50). Gelston’s writing style is often contorted and, as a consequence, difficult to follow. The transcription of Gelston’s manuscript contains many typos that could have been easily avoided. However, transcribing a document such as Gelston’s was undoubtedly challenging and time-consuming for the editors, and one wonders about the responsibility of the publisher in this matter.
To conclude, Gelston’s Systematic Collection is an additional window into the late 18th-century New England. It should be of interest to both sympathizers and non-sympathizers of that intellectual tradition. We may thank the editors, as this book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on this topic, and it makes a good supplement to other publications about New England theology and to texts from that theological tradition (see, e.g., Douglas A. Sweeney and Allen C. Guelzo, The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park, Wipf & Stock 2015).
Marco Barone is an Independent Scholar.Marco BaroneDate Of Review:September 30, 2020