Oliver D. Crisp and Kyle C. Strobel. Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018. xi + 232 pp. $19.99.
Olivet Crisp, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Kyle Strobel, associate professor of spiritual theology at Talbot School of Theology, are two leading representatives of the British School of Edwards studies. In this collaborative work the authors provide us with an introductory survey of Edwards’ thought, with particular attention given to those aspects of his thought receiving the most attention in the wider academic community.
In the first chapter, the authors establish the intellectual and personal contexts in which Edwards labored. They remind us that New England was part of the British Empire during Edwards’ time, and that Edwards viewed himself as an Englishmen. They discuss the religious, economic, and cultural climate of the day, and the influence his family, education, and geographic setting had on his intellectual development.
The second chapter is entitled “God of Beauty and Glory,” and is largely devoted to the inner workings of the Trinity. In short, the authors explain Edwards’ thinking on the Father as the prime being, the Son as Father’s self-understanding existing as his own subsistence, and the Spirit as his will existing in a third subsistence. However, because of the interpenetration of the three subsistences, all three may be regarded as “persons,” even as the Godhead contains but one understanding and will. Attention is also given to Edwards’ writings on the love, happiness, and excellency of the Trinity in this chapter.
The third chapter is entitled “God and Idealism.” Here the authors argue that Edwards believed “all…physical things are really ideas or collections of ideas, and not anything material” and that “all ideas, including the created minds that have them, continue to exist because they are held in the divine mind” (pp. 71–72). In other words, the world is not a material entity separate from God, but is actually a reality of, or within, the divine mind. And the world continues to exist because God continues thinking about it.
The fourth chapter, entitled “God and Creation,” deals with Edwards’ doctrines of panentheism, continuous creation, occasionalism, and determinism. Each of these represents a modification of the traditional Reformed understanding of God’s relationship to the world, and they do raise some potential problems. Questions of human moral responsibility and God’s relationship to evil are specifically addressed by the authors here.
The fifth chapter considers Edwards’ doctrine of atonement—beginning with the Trinity, moving to the Covenant of Redemption, and then considering redemptive history itself. The authors posit divine wisdom and love as the main emphases in Edwards’ doctrine of atonement. Regarding the “mechanism” of the atonement, they write that “Edwards’s account will not easily be narrowed to a single model” (p. 141). Nevertheless, “a form of penal substitution,” with an element of “reparative substitution,” seems to be at the heart of his understanding.
The sixth chapter, entitled “Salvation as Participation,” deals with Edwards’ views on sanctification. The authors state that “the focus of Edwards’s account of life with God is not that we come to share in God’s metaphysical status…but that we come to share in the divine life” (p. 153). Through the Son and Spirit, believers come to “partake by grace what is God’s by nature” (p.154).
The seventh chapter, entitled “Becoming Beautiful,” deals with Edwards’ theological anthropology. It consider mankind as made in God’s image, of fallen man as retaining his “natural image” while losing his “spiritual image,” and the restoration of that spiritual image through regeneration and sanctification. This chapter also highlights Edwards’ teaching on the religious affections and his moral theology, both of which are governed by the “principle of divine love” (p. 193).
The final chapter, “Becoming Edwardsean,” is a critical evaluation of Edwards’ system of thought. The authors suggest that Edwards’ system contains three weaknesses: it harms the traditional understanding of the God-world relation, of human freedom, and of God’s relation to evil. Even so, they commend Edwards’ intellectual project on the whole and encourage their readers to become Edwardsean, which means “following Edwards as he faithfully seeks to do justice to the ‘upward call of God in Christ’…attending deeply to the blessedness of God…and God’s infinitely transcendent being… [and] grounding life in the glory of God” (p. 218).
Though it was written for “those coming to Edwards for the first time” (p. 2), this book was not written for those new to theological thinking in general. Terms are sometimes used without definition, and the philosophical issues raised are likely beyond a beginner’s training. The authors also sometimes choose to describe Edwards’ thought with terms he himself never used (for example, describing his doctrine of sanctification as “theosis”), increasing the opportunity for misunderstandings. Despite these alleged weaknesses, however, the book does make a useful contribution to the field of Edwards studies. Indeed, it is likely to become required reading in introductory courses on Jonathan Edwards in the years ahead.