Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians, Oliver D. Crisp. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015.
Summary: By comparing Edwards writing on various theological themes, Crisp underscores Edwards work as an original thinker and constructive theologian, building on a Reformed base, but even pressing the limits of orthodoxy in some of his work.
It has been more and more common to read statements about Jonathan Edwards describing him as America’s greatest thinker or at least greatest theologian. In some ways, it is quite gratifying to see him recognized for something more than an excerpt from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which should be read in its entirety, at very least.
This book helps make the case for his greatness as a thinker. Sometimes, he might simply be considered as one of those “Reformed guys.” Oliver Crisp explores how Edwards was not simply a confessional theologian but rather one who brought this theological heritage in conversation with the philosophy of his day. Crisp does this by bringing Edwards into dialogue with other theologians around particular theological foci: with Anselm on the doctrine of God, with Arminius on Creation, Girardeau on Free Will, and Bellamy on the Atonement.
For example, Edwards was far less cautious than Anselm on the question of what may be known about the nature of God by reason. His Trinitarian doctrine presses the distinctiveness of the persons to a degree that is in tension with his views of the simplicity or non-composite nature of God. In the case of Arminius on creation, Arminius is show to be orthodox, with the allowance for “middle knowledge,” while Edwards preserves the sovereignty of God through a view of creation that is “moment by moment” where reality is a serial collection of God’s creative acts, which opens Edwards to the charge that he is a panentheist (the cosmos exists within God who is greater than creation).
In the comparison of Edwards and Girardeau, Crisp argues that Edwards opposition to libertarian views presses moral responsibility totally onto God, going further than the Reformers. Edwards endorsed Bellamy, even though Bellamy supported the idea of unlimited atonement, that Christ died for all, not simply the elect. Crisp believes that Edwards may have this as innovating within the Reformed tradition.
The concluding chapter of the book returns to the tension between Edwards avowed commitment to the simplicity of God and the implications of his occasionalist view of creation that implies at least a panentheism or even verges at times on pantheism, plainly outside the pale of Reformed orthodoxy. Unless you were to dispense with the occasionalism, the alternative might be a slightly less simple view of God, allowing for a succession of God’s thoughts within the unchanging and undivided essence of God.
What Crisp points up is how Edwards in his theological writing engages in constructive theology in conversation with the philosophical currents of the day. He might at points be one of the most “unorthodox” of those within the Reformed camp, coming up with his own formulations of the doctrines of creation and articulations of the relations of the persons of the Trinity. And because of this he is a model both of the task, and perhaps the challenges of this kind of theological engagement.
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