Review: Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians


Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians

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.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Month in Reviews: April 2015

April’s book reviews covered both a significant span of time and geography as well as genre. I reviewed an academic debate on free will from the sixteenth century and a conversation about Christology published last year. There was a decided international flavor to these books, whether it concerned a historical novel of the British campaign in Flanders during World War II, a discussion of immigration, narratives of nonviolent action around the world in the last fifty years, or the last fifty years of African history. I reviewed genres as diverse as Walter Wangerin’s fantasy taking place in a barnyard of animals to Max Planck’s scientific autobiography and essays. I explored both the formation of the inner virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the interesting idea that the complexity and beauty of the world is a profound apologetic for the Christian faith.

As always, the links on this page are to my full reviews. Many of the reviews have links to the book publisher. So, without further ado, here’s the list:

True Paradox8th Champion1. True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of our Complex World by David Skeel. David Skeel argues that far from being a problem for Christians, the complexity of the world is in fact something best explained by the Christian faith.

2. The Eighth Champion of Christendom by Edith Pargeter. A historical novel set at the beginning of World War Two exploring the growing realization of the horror of war that “heroic warriors” face. The plot centers around Jim Bennison, an English soldier and Miriam Lozelle, a Jewish refuge farm holder in Boissy whose husband is away at war.

Jesus without BordersEducating for Shalom3. Educating for Shalom by Nicholas Wolterstorff. This collection of essays and talks written or given over a 30 year period traces Nicholas Wolterstorff’s journey of thinking about Christian higher education, the integration of faith and learning, and his growing concern that education result in the pursuit of justice and shalom.

4. Jesus without Borders ed. by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, K.K. Yeo. Eight theologians from different parts of the world came together for a theological dialogue on Christology, engaging the Chalcedonian definition of Christology and reflecting on the unique perspective they bring on Christology from their part of the world.

ImmigrationPlanck5. Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers by Dale Hanson Bourke. Third in “The Skeptics Guide Series” and like others in the series it provides a concise overview of basic facts about immigration and discusses the challenges of immigration policy in the United States.

6. Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers by Max Planck. This is a re-issue in e-book form of Planck’s Scientific Autobiography and other papers on some of the “big” issues of science including causality, the limits of science and the relationship of science and religion.

Luther Erasmusnonviolent action7. Nonviolent Action by Ron Sider. Ron Sider argues from a number of instances over the past seventy-five years that nonviolent action can work and bring about political change.

8. Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will edited by Clarence H. Miller, translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle. This work is a compilation of the argument between Erasmus and Luther over the place of free will and grace in salvation, excluding most of the supporting exegesis but giving the gist of the argument.

Christ Shaped CharacterDun Cow9. Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero. Cepero, through personal narrative and formational teaching and practices, traces a path of growing to be more who we truly are as reflections of Christ through the embrace of love, faith and hope.

10. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. This modern animal fable portrays a conflict between the beasts of the Earth and Wyrm of the underworld and his evil surrogates, and the heroism of a rooster, a dog, and the other beasts.

Fate of Africa11. The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith. Meredith, a foreign correspondent who has made a lifelong study of Africa, chronicles the last 50 years of African history from the hopes of independence from colonial rule and promising beginnings through the heartbreaking instances of corruption, economic pillaging, and various slaughters and genocides including that of AIDS.

Best of the Month: This is a tough pick this month, but on the basis of the “I will read it again” test, I have to go with The Book of the Dun Cow. This apparently simple fable has layers of meaning and depths of insight into the struggle of good and evil, and the qualities of character and grace needed to meet that struggle.

Best quote of the Month: I would choose this quote from Max Planck’s essay on science and religion. While I did not agree with all he wrote, I think he gets the balance right here:

“Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!’ “

I so appreciate all of you who read and comment on my reviews! I appreciated the comment I received today on Facebook from one reader: “I like your habit of reading books with view of reviewing for the benefit of community @large (I am a beneficiary of it).. I am trying to make it a discipline .. Thanx 4 da work.. Keep doing Bob…”

One of the delights of blogging and the internet is to find oneself part of a global community. I really do hope these reviews are a benefit, whether in finding your next “good read” or in becoming familiar with writers and writing of whose work it is helpful to know more.

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

Review: Erasmus and Luther: The Battle Over Free Will

Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will Luther Erasmus edited by Clarence H. Miller, translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012.

Summary: This work is a compilation of the argument between Erasmus and Luther over the place of free will and grace in salvation, excluding most of the supporting exegesis but giving the gist of the argument.

How free is the human will? This is a theological and philosophical discussion that has been ongoing for at least two millenia. In our present context the question arises in light of research findings in evolutionary biology and neuroscience. More narrowly, this has been a point of contention within Christian theology from the disputes between Augustine and the Pelagians (fourth century) to more present-day discussions between Calvinists and Arminians. The argument between Luther and Erasmus at the beginning of the Reformation comes a bit over midway in this history and helps us understand some of the theological fault lines between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church that are still under discussion to the present day.

The “battle” is really a disputation in a formal sense that was initiated somewhat reluctantly by Erasmus who was actually sympathetic to many of Luther’s contentions for reform but felt that Luther’s Augustinian embrace of sovereign grace alone with no place for human will in salvation to be extreme. His initial discourse with Luther was a somewhat moderated appeal that sought to thread a path between grace alone and some allowance for the place of human will assisted by grace. Luther’s reply, which we know as The Bondage of the Will argues forcefully, and at times acerbically, that when it comes to our salvation “free” will is a non-existent entity. Erasmus responded with a two part reply, known under the title of The Shield-Bearer Defending in which he more forcefully defends the place of human will in salvation.

The arguments are lengthy, detailed and at points repetitious and thus the group I read this work with were glad for a compilation rather than the full versions of both works. In the introductory material, the editor outlines the works, showing in bold print the sections included in the compilation. This edition is well-annotated, providing background material for allusions and helpful connections back to opposing arguments when these are referred to.

As I mentioned, this debate helped delineate some of the fault lines between Catholic and Reformation churches:

  • The question of the perspicacity of scripture–how easy or difficult is it for the individual reader to understand scripture?
  • How important is the tradition of how the church has read scripture versus the priority of the individual reader, particularly Luther?
  • Assumptions about “fallen” human nature. Are we utterly incapable of doing anything to contribute to our salvation or is there some “spark” of goodness which may be assisted by grace?
  • Related to this, is our salvation to be attributed exclusively to the sovereign grace of God or is there some place for the human will in seeking and believing?

We concluded that the arguments did not resolve these questions for us. In our reading group were those leaning toward Luther and those toward Erasmus, although most of us were troubled on the one hand by Luther’s exclusive emphasis on sovereign grace, and on the other by Erasmus’s language of “meriting” grace and his implication that justification is a process, confusing justification and sanctification. We wondered if the word “free” might be a sticking point and a discussion of human agency might have been more helpful. We recognized that we are dealing with things that are either paradoxical (apparently contradictory) or antinomies (two contrary things that are both true). We saw the challenge of attempting to reconcile as abstractions (“free will” vs. “grace”) realities lived out in the existential life of faith where we experience both our “chosenness” and our “choosing” under the grace of God.

Hence, if one is looking for a “pat” answer to this discussion, this work will either simply confirm your pre-understanding or not help. But if you wish to understand the discussion, listening to these two great figures will prove illuminating and perhaps help you think more deeply about some of the fundamental questions in Christian theology.

Review: Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods

Minds, BrainsSummary: A discussion, cast in the form of a conversation, of the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience, and their implications for what it means to be human and for what it means to believe in God. Written for the thoughtful undergraduate, it is helpful for students in these fields and others concerned about the implications of neuroscience research for faith.

Is there such a thing as free will or are all our thoughts and actions determined by chemical reactions within our neural networks? Do studies showing activity in specific centers of the brain when one is engaged in religious activity demonstrate that the quest for God is simply a genetically, physically determined activity. Given the increasingly close linkages between physical structures and processes in the brain, and our thoughts and actions, is there anything that makes me me apart from those structures? What about the soul?

Recent research in neuroscience and psychology raises all of these questions. In this book, Malcolm Jeeves discusses these as both a scientist and believing Christian. The book is cast as a conversation, an exchange of emails between Malcolm and a student named “Ben”, discussing a succession of questions that arise for Ben in the course of his studies in psychology. I found this a helpful form for presenting the latest research and exploring the Christian implications of that research. He explains the latest research findings in terms educated lay persons can grasp.

He begins with a discussion of how one should think of the field of psychology and notes that the Freudianism and behaviorism of prior generations (what I learned in my own psych courses) has given way to cognitive psychology heavily influenced by neuroscience research. He goes on to explore the question of the connection of mind and brain, arguing for the mind and consciousness as an emergent property of the brain that cannot simply be reduced to brain processes, allowing for “top down” influences. This leads to a discussion of free will, where he argues against the kind of determinism that makes all our actions, including writing books and proposing theories, as simply the “chattering of neurons.” He then discusses social influences on cognitive processes and this contributes to Jeeves contention that there are multiple levels of explanation for psychological processes.

Jeeves turns to a discussion of the soul and argues that the best understanding of this is to translate nefesh, the Hebrew for soul, as “living creature”. In Genesis, this is used of animals as well as humans.  What Jeeves would argue for, and where others, particularly dualists, will differ (and he acknowledges this) is for what he calls “dual aspect monism”–that mind or soul and body are two aspects of one being–we do not have souls, we are embodied souls. But for him, this allows him to see mental states as closely connected to physical processes without denying something essential to being human.

Succeeding chapters then explore various questions around the nature of being human from near death experiences to our moral sense and altruism, and our usage of language. In a number of these areas, Jeeves notes both similarities with animals, particularly chimpanzees, and the stark differences between us and them.

One thing to be noted is that in all of this, Jeeves is responding to research being done and its implications, a very helpful process. At the same time (and perhaps this could not be done in one book) I would have liked to see some thought given to how Christian premises might uniquely influence the research questions one asks in these fields–what does Christian thought contribute to psychological and neuroscience research?

The closing chapters explore questions of neuroscience and belief and whether belief can be reduced to the physical processes at play when persons engage in religious activity and that may be more prevalent in those of a religious nature. Jeeves is careful here to acknowledge the work being done in this area and that further research will likely yield an even fuller picture of these processes. At the same time he contends that the question of the reality of a God or gods is not something that can be proven or dismissed on the basis of this evidence. As a Christian, he would contend that these are matters that rest on the historical evidence for the acts of God in history including the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This last is one of the great values of the book. Jeeves both argues for the value of neuroscience research and against the hegemony of any particular area of science (levels of explanation) or of science as a whole over and against other ways of knowing. He provides a thoughtful model of measured conversation bringing both scientific research and the best of Christian thought together, free of neither sensationalistic claims or knee-jerk responses.