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!


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

Review: Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew

Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew, Hans Boersma (Foreword by Scot McKnight). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: In an effort to foster understanding between the two disciplines, a theologian outlines five areas for biblical scholars to understand about theology as it bears upon the Bible.

In the theological academy the study of scripture and theology are treated as two separate disciplines. Yet each depend crucially upon the other. Scripture sources our theological understanding while theological premises inform our reading of scripture. In this work, Hans Boersma approaches scripture sacramentally, as a means of grace, and not “as a mere repository of historical and doctrinal truths.” This leads Boersma to express his “five things” in the form “No______, No Scripture, devoting a chapter to each of these. Each of the five express theological realities that make possible the grace of scripture.

No Christ, No Scripture. Christ is the heart of scripture, the one to whom the scriptures point. Christ’s presence is essential to its authority. Boersma notes how historical-critical exegesis often brackets out Christ, and thus the one who speaks with authority through these texts.

No Plato, No Scripture. While not asserting that Plato has equivalent authority to Christ, Boersma argues that all approaches to scripture assume some form of metaphysic. If we attempt a pura scriptura approach, we will unconsciously import the prevailing metaphysic of our culture. Boersma asserts the essential character of Christian Platonism is due to its antimaterialism, antimechanism, antinominalism, antirelativism, and antiskepticism.

No Providence, No Scripture. Scripture is an expression of God’s providential care for us as his uniquely authoritative witness to Himself and to the blessed life in relation to Him. God has provided the words of scripture to make present the Word of God, the incarnate Son to us.

No Church, No Scripture. The church and not the theological academy is the primary center for the reading of scripture. This argues against individualist and elitist readings. This nourished by canonical, liturgical, and creedal reading. One of the most soaringly beautiful statements in the book is found where Boersma writes:

“We arrive at genuine Christian teaching only when we have been in the presence of angels and saints and the triune God himself. Only in the presence of divine light of the Spirit do the scriptures begin to make sense to us.”

Boersma, p. 107.

No Heaven, No Scripture. Finally, Boersma contends that biblical scholars cannot read scripture without considering its spiritual end, the heavenly contemplation of God in Christ. In this, he argues for the primacy of contemplation over action–that good action can only follow from contemplation. He also offers a trenchant critique of political readings of scripture that fail to originate in contemplation. Rather, he focuses on the cultivation of virtue in life as the fruit of contemplation.

Boersma’s sacramental approach is hardly generic evangelical theology but reflective of his Anglican tradition (he teaches theology at Nashotah House). Actually, this approach is a corrective to Enlightenment-influenced historical-critical exegesis that treats Holy Scripture as one more ancient text to be dissected. His Platonism comes as a surprise but challenges our presumption that we can come to scripture free of metaphysical premises. We cannot, so better to be explicit about them. More than this, his focus on Christ, on God’s providence, on reading with the church, and on the contemplation of heavenly realities all remind us of the joyous gift of scripture, which leads us to the Incarnate Word and His blessed eternal purposes of his people.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Scot McKnight has written a companion volume, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew which is reviewed here.

Review: Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew

Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew, Scot McKnight, Foreword Hans Boersma. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: In an effort to foster understanding between the two disciplines, a biblical scholar outlines five areas for theologians to understand about biblical studies.

A common challenge in the academic world is the need for specialization, which promotes careful research in one’s field, but also increasing ignorance of other related fields. This is true in the world of theological studies as well, and disciplines like biblical studies and systematic theology operate in separate silos. Yet both concern the story of God. In this work, and a companion volume, Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew (review forthcoming), Scot McKnight and Hans Boersma engage in a conversation that seeks to foster greater understanding between the two disciplines.

So here are the five things McKnight wishes theologians knew, and a few of the highlights of each:

  1. Theology needs a constant return to scripture. While McKnight would not adhere to sola scriptura, he proposes an expansive model in which creeds, denominational beliefs, major theologians, and church and culture all figure into our reading of scripture, and yet always beginning with scripture (prima scriptura). He also distinguishes between good biblicism (Bebbington) and bad biblicism (Christian Smith).
  2. Theology needs to know its impact on biblical studies. Here, McKnight asks the question of whether it is possible for the church to interpret scripture apart from church dogma and interacts with a number of contemporary examples around Christology where this is evident.
  3. Theology needs historically shaped biblical studies. Often theology is done without awareness of the historical context of scripture in which a doctrine arises. He notes John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift as an example of where historically shaped study is modifying the theological paradigm.
  4. Theology needs more narrative. Theology is often creedally or topically framed, yet most of the Bible is narrative and arguably, individual narratives are part of a larger, over-arching story. Should the fact that God has disclosed God’s self in this way shape how we do theology? McKnight would say yes.
  5. Theology needs to be lived theology. Theology is often divorced from ethics or practice. McKnight argues that scripture itself doesn’t permit this, cites Ben Witherington, III and Beth Felker Jones as good contemporary examples, and offers a treatment of Romans 12-16 in context of the whole book of Romans as doing theology with practice in view.

Boersma in his forward largely agrees with McKnight. He does contend that even McKnight’s prima scriptura inadequately recognizes the influence of tradition on interpretation, which McKnight himself seems to flirt with in his second chapter. I’d love a longer conversation between the two and look forward to reading Boersma.

I think McKnight hits the key issues and offers constructive examples of theological work informed by biblical scholarship. The discussion on scripture and tradition shows the work critically needed here. McKnight’s proposal that specialists in seminaries regularly offer updates in all-faculty meetings of key contributions to their field just ought to be the case everywhere.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: God in Himself

God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology, Steven J. Duby. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of what may be known of God in God’s self rather than in God’s external relations to the world and the role that scripture, metaphysics, natural and supernatural theology, and the use of analogy all play in forming this understanding.

In theology, the distinction is often made between what may be know of God in se, of God in Himself versus what may be know of God in his relations with the world. This holds true particularly in Trinitarian studies, considering what may be known of intra-trinitarian relations versus the was the Triune God interacts with creation.

Steven J. Duby believes that this theological work is vitally important for the church. For one thing, it underlines that while God is complete in Himself without any need of us, he has extravagantly loved us. Furthermore, this takes us into the transcendent wonder of the perfections of the Triune God, a foretaste of the joy to come. And this study sets out to help us reflect more deeply on the interactions of scripture, natural theology, the incarnation, metaphysics, and analogies in our witness to God in Christ among the nations.

This indicates Duby’s approach then. He explores what we may know of God in Himself through the testimony of scripture, the role of natural theology as preparatory, the incarnation of Christ and what this says of God in himself, the interaction of theology and metaphysics, and the role of analogy. We understand something of the perfections of God including the holiness of God and the perfection of love within the Trinity. We grasp more deeply the significance of the aseity of God, that God is uncause and self-existent and independent. We also learn something of the limits of our knowledge.

Duby does something more. These approaches often are set off from each other but what Duby tries to do is show how these work together in an account of God in Himself. He also proposes that what God shows of Himself in relation to the world, while not compromising God’s self existence, is utterly consistent with what we know of God in Himself.

This is a careful work of scholarship, engaging theologians and philosophers through history–Aquinas, Boethius, Turretin, Kant, Barth, and contemporaries like Bruce McCormack and Matthew Levering. It calls for close and careful reading, but I found myself at points caught up in pondering the excellence of God. While this is academic study, weighing the ideas of different thinkers and making its own proposals, it never loses sight of the fact that God can never be the mere subject of our study and dare never be an object for idle speculation, but is always the One before whom we wonder and worship.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit (Theology for the People of God), Gregg R. Allison & Andreas J. Kostenberger. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2020.

Summary: First in a new series, a biblical and systematic theology of the Holy Spirit, evangelical and continuationist, but not pentecostal.

If the inaugural volume of this new series, “Theology for the People of God,” is any indication, this should be an outstanding set. Each volume pairs two theologians, one in biblical theology, and one in systematic theology to provide an integrated approach deeply rooted in the biblical text.

This approach forms the organization of this book in which the first half is devoted to biblical theology, carefully considering each relevant text on the Holy Spirit in each book and major portion of scripture, followed by synthesizing the teaching of all of scripture on various theological aspects of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It is an approach that is thorough, covering the ground, while providing notes and references for those who wish to dig deeper.

A few highlights for each part. In the biblical theology section, each chapter, or sometimes, subsection, provides a chart with all the references to the Holy Spirit and a phrase summarizing the content. One old Testament highlight was the discussion of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah, anointing the Messiah, and empowering the servant of the Servant Songs to bring good news to the poor, and the Spirit’s role in the new exodus and the new creation.

The New Testament portion was lengthier, with treatment of the gospels, Acts, the Pauline works, the general epistles, and Revelation. Kostenberger summarizes the Spirit’s work in Acts with seven points that will preach!

  1. The Spirit is a person and clearly divine.
  2. The Spirit establishes the eschatological messianic community of the exalted Jesus.
  3. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission.
  4. The Spirit fills all believers.
  5. The Spirit is the Spirit of prophecy.
  6. The Spirit convicts people and holds them to moral standards.
  7. The Holy Spirit directs the affairs of the church.

The section on systematic theology left me at times worshiping God the Spirit and our wondrous Triune God. After an introduction laying out methodology and themes, Allison begins with the deity, the intratrinitarian relations and trinitarian processions. Careful discussion delineates both the inseparability of the works of Father, Son, and Spirit, and yet what may be said to be specific to each. Then, in successive chapters, the author discusses the Spirit in creation and providence, in relation to the inspiration and illumination of scripture, a fascinating chapter distinguishing the Spirit and angelic beings, the Spirit’s relation to human beings and sin, the Spirit’s work Christ, salvation, the church, and the future. The author addresses contemporary issues in pneumatology (the three ages, Spirit-emphasizing movements, and the Spirit and theology of religions). The concluding chapter is applicative, addressing our worship of the Spirit, our reliance on the Spirit’s illuminating work, our thanksgiving for the Spirit’s application of Christ’s work in our life, and keeping in step with and being guided by the Spirit.

The book is marked by a clarity of language and explanation and summary throughout, making this a great text for a course in theology or for the lay person wishing to understand more deeply the person and work of the Spirit. One possible criticism of the work is little engagement with theologians in the developing world. Inclusion of theological discussions and issues outside the white European and North American contexts will make this a more broadly useful text. The authors do engage pentecostal and charismatic theology, appreciative of the emphasis on the ministry of the Spirit, affirming, against some Reformed understanding, the continuation of the gifts and empowering work of the Spirit for mission. However they would associate the baptism of the Holy Spirit with conversion and not as a second and subsequent act. The response is gracious, and they denounce the vitriol that has often existed. The concluding pastoral applications are worth the price of the book.

In sum, this book sets a high bar for this series, marked as it is by an approach in which systematic theology is built on biblical theology. It models this work well for young pastors and theologians and offers the clarity of teaching that both preserves doctrinal integrity, and warmth of devotion.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Uncontrolling Love of God

the uncontrolling love of God

The Uncontrolling Love of GodThomas Jay Oord. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Summary: Proposes a way of addressing God’s goodness and providence in the light of randomness, pointless suffering, and genuine evil by arguing for uncontrolling love as the cardinal attribute of God.

Random accidents where a tumbling rock kills a motorist. Terrible suffering that results from a random genetic mutation. Genuinely evil actions resulting in injury and death with no evident intervention of God. It is often said that as difficult as these things are to understand, they are all part of God’s sovereign and providential plan. Thomas Jay Oord finds these explanations unacceptable, and not just the trite versions of these explanations, but also those more theologically nuanced. They end up being susceptible to making God the cause of evil, or raise questions of why God fails to prevent evil, including random events if God is capable of doing so. Either God is sovereign but seems unloving; or God is loving but ineffectual.

In this book, Oord argues for a better account of the providence of God, rooted in an open and relational theology of God. He begins with an exploration of both the randomness and regularity that seems to exist even in the physical world for which our understanding of providence must account as well as the existence of both genuine evil and good in the world. He then outlines seven models of God’s providence that have been proposed, briefly critiquing each, except for model four, which he proposes as the most plausible:

  1. God is the omnicause.
  2. God empowers and overpowers.
  3. God is voluntarily self-limited.
  4. God is essentially kenotic.
  5. God sustains as impersonal force.
  6. God is initial creator and current observer.
  7. God’s ways are not our ways.

He then offers an overview of open and relational theology (and antecedent theological corollaries) for those who may not be familiar with this, since it is foundational to his argument. In brief, open and relational theology contends that God and his creatures relate and his creatures make a real difference to God; that the future is open and not determined and neither God nor his creatures know all that will occur; and that love is God’s chief attribute and primary lens for understanding God’s relations with his creation.

This last is crucial to Oord’s argument as he contends in the following chapter. Traditionally, theology begins with the primacy of the sovereign power of God over all creation, an error he believes even John Sanders, an open theologian falls prey to. Oord would argue that the love of God that is preeminent must be understood as uncontrolling love, and that this uncontrolling love governs God’s relations with his creation. He would contend that God has created a world with creatures (and he would extend this to the fundamental building blocks of the world) that he cannot control. It is not a question of whether or not God will intervene to control but that God will not act contrary to his character as a God of uncontrolling love. This accounts for randomness and for genuine evil in the world without making God either the cause of these, or implicating God for failure to prevent genuine evil.

Oord goes on to describe and elaborate this as the “essential kenotic model of providence.” Oord contends that Philippians 2:4-13, and indeed the gospels, are not about what attributes of God Jesus relinquished in the incarnation, but rather how the incarnation reveals the very nature of God, and that in his humbling even to death on a cross reveals the God who works through uncontrolling love to serve and redeem. Christ does not prevent the evil done against him, the evil choices of human beings, but through love works to accomplish our redemption. And in this, something is revealed of God’s essential character in which God works non-coercively. This raises the question of miracles, which Oord would define as God’s unusual, good, and special actions in relation to creation. His explanation recognizes the ways God often works in cooperation both with natural elements and human agents in these works for good and non-coercively. This was least convincing in considering the plagues of Egypt, including the death of Egypt’s first-born, or even Jesus’s cursing of the fruitless fig tree. In other instances, I felt Oord was in danger of explaining the miraculous in natural terms. I would propose this part of his case needed strengthening.

There is much in Oord’s account to consider, particularly in offering a strong account of how we may speak of the goodness and love of God in light of both random and genuine “evils” without reverting to trite platitudes that do not comfort, and actually make light of human suffering. I also appreciated the clarity of writing and argument I found in Oord. I do hope for a serious engagement of his ideas, particularly because of the important pastoral implications of these discussions.

I personally wrestle with fully embracing this view for some of the reasons that I wrestle with openness of God theology more generally. It situates God within time, and also seems to make “uncontrolling love” a kind of law God must obey that doesn’t allow for God to be more “complicated” in the exercise of God’s power (Oord does allow for God to be “almighty,” although within the constraint of “uncontrolling love”). In Narnian terms, it feels to me that the Aslan of open theology is a tame lion. I happen to think there are too many “messy counterfactuals” that this apparently logical and compelling argument inadequately address. Likewise, those who uphold traditional understandings of providence must address the unsatisfying character of their explanations. Might this be an instance where iron could sharpen iron?

This book won a 2016 IVP Readers Choice Award.

Review: Engaging the Doctrine of Creation

engaging the doctrine of creation

Engaging the Doctrine of CreationMatthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Summary: A systematic theology of the doctrine of creation beginning with the nature of the Creator, the significance of creatures, the meaning of the image of God, the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, original sin, and atonement that engages with scripture, contemporary sources, and most significantly, the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

In the last century, the discussions of the doctrine of creation often quickly have degenerated into creation-evolution debates. Classically, the doctrine of creation has been foundational to our understanding of God, our place in the cosmos, the purpose of our existence, the tragedy of our fallen condition and our hope of redemption. In this magisterial volume, the third in a series on doctrines of the Church (the first two on Revelation and the Holy Spirit), Matthew Levering seeks to recover this classical focus, and particularly one which draws not only upon scripture but the work of Thomas Aquinas.

This is no where more in evidence than in his first two chapters on “divine ideas” and “divine simplicity” in which he draws upon Aquinas to answer more contemporary theologians such as Victor Lossky in defending the idea that all creation has its origin and existence in God’s eternally present thought with no resort to something external to God’s self and that God is identical with his attributes and without parts spatially and temporally. Thus, God as wise and good is utterly distinct from his creation, and yet its source. These chapters involved close theological reasoning worthy of careful attention.

The next chapters focus on God’s created beings. The third chapter focuses on creation and particularly, accepting the geological records, the profusions of creatures that have lived and died on the earth, dealing with the difficulties of death and destruction that are part of this succession. He contends that nevertheless, these offer a kind of “cosmic theophany” that proclaim through “a superabundance of finite ways” something of the infinite and yet personal God. He then turns particularly to humans in the image of God and explores in what this consists, which he contends involves our rationality employed in our royal and priestly mission as wise and good stewards of the creation. In chapter 5, Levering engages the contention that as creatures, we have fulfilled the mandate to be fruitful and multiply and should limit procreation, made by Christian environmentalist Bill McKibben, and others. Upholding Catholic teaching, Levering would not have us “constrict the circle of interpersonal communion for which God created the whole cosmos.”

The last two chapters explore the doctrines of original sin and atonement. In chapter six, he takes on contemporary theologians like Peter Enns, who argue against the idea of a historical Adam and thus, never an original goodness. Levering argues that this undermines the idea of a wise and good Creator in making God the author of sin, and that if we believe in a wise and good Creator, then it follows that there was originally a human who was free of sin, sustained by God in that goodness, until willfully rebelling against God.

The chapter on atonement would seem out of place in this volume until one understands the concern Levering seeks to address and the integral importance of creation to responding to that concern. Levering engages the contention of philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff that since Christianity commends freely forgiving our debtors, it is inconsistent to insist upon a penal character to the atoning work of Christ. Levering’s response, again drawing upon Aquinas points to the original relational justice of the good Creator that was broken or breached by human rebellion that must be restored through the relational act the death of God’s Son. Thus, the doctrines of creation and atonement are closely linked.

Levering writes as a Catholic theologian and yet engages thoughtfully with Protestant, Orthodox and secular writers. I would consider this a sterling example of excellent theological writing. Levering is not content to engage the writers of the last ten or fifty years, but roots his work in biblical teaching, the work of the church fathers, as well as major teachers of the church like Thomas Aquinas. One may not concur with all of his contentions, but to read Levering is to read someone, who like Aquinas, gives first the reasons of other positions, then his own carefully thought-through conclusions leaving it to the reader to conclude which are the better arguments. For those desirous of rooting their faith in rigorous thought and not simply devotional passion, Levering’s work is worth the careful attention it requires.

[My review of Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation appears here.]


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free in e-book format from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.