Review: The Federal Theology of Jonathan Edwards

The Federal Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology), Gilsun Ryu, Foreword by Douglas A. Sweeney. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of Jonathan Edwards federal theology, forming the basis of a theology of the history of redemption in three covenants, with a focus on Edward’s exegetical approach to this theology.

You may have noticed from several reviews of books on Jonathan Edwards that I am something of an Edwards fan. Some of this is just national pride. Jonathan Edwards is the first significant and perhaps foremost American theologian. I admire that much of his theological work was done in a pastoral context. And one thing I’ve seen run through different studies of Edwards, including this present work is his ability to both keep faith with the faith once delivered and yet to tease out subtleties missed by other interpreters.

This work focuses on his federal theology. The idea can be traced back to Augustine and was developed in Reformed thought. It is that of the headship of the first and second Adams, acting, as it were, on the behalf of humanity, the first in sin, the second in his obedience to the law and sacrificial death satisfying the laws demands against sinners, reconciling them to God. For Jonathan Edwards, this served as the basis for an unfinished theological project, A History of the Work of Redemption, but one developed in a series of sermons and in many other writings.

Gilsun Ryu begins with four theologians antecedent to Edwards: Cocceius, Witsius, Mastricht, and Turretin. While Edwards draws upon all of these, he bases his theology on the biblical history of redemption, an approach that emphasizes the harmony of scripture as seen in his covenants of redemption, works, and grace. He begins with the covenant of redemption, the purposes and working out of those purposes in the Trinity within the history of redemption. The covenant of works emphasizes the sin of Adam, the impact upon his posterity, the impossibility of returning to a pre-fall state and the Christological focus seen under Moses, pointing toward redemption, Finally, the covenant of grace is traced progressively by Edwards through biblical history, prophecy, and secular history.

Having considered these three covenants within the history of redemption, Ryu then turns to the exegetical basis for each of the three covenants. While there is evidence of various methods of interpretation including typology and Christological interpretation, Ryu shows through Edwards’ exegesis of scripture that a redemptive historical framework informed that exegesis and the resulting doctrinal understanding, emphasizing the unity and harmony of scripture.

The last chapter shows how Edwards applied his federal theology of redemption in the church setting, showing how Edwards sought to encourage faith and piety through showing Christians how to engage with redemptive history. In this, he resists Arminian tendencies in emphasizing both the precedence of God’s design and human responsibility in justification.

Ryu’s unique contribution is his focus on Edward’s exegetical work, which he argues is what distinguishes Edwards’ federal theology from his predecessors. He draws on both books and Edwards sermons, and this latter is significant. This is not only systematic theology. It is pastoral theology grounding the spiritual state of his people in the sweep of redemptive history. I appreciated this work not only for it careful scholarly work but for recognizing this pastoral element in Edwards work–a model for modern-day pastor theologians!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

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