Volume 38 - Issue 2

After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology

by Oliver D. Crisp and Douglas A. Sweeney, eds

The recent attention given to Jonathan Edwards has now generated interest in his theological and historical legacy. Who were Edwards’s theological heirs, and where do we find them? Scholars have been reexamining these questions afresh. Oliver Crisp and Douglas Sweeney admirably bring together the latest scholarship on the topic in an effort to the reintroduce readers to “the New England Theology,” a theological tradition that has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and largely neglected.

Numerous reasons can account for this neglect. For much of the twentieth century, liberal historical theologians painted the New England theologians like Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, and Nathanael Emmons as moralists overly obsessed with metaphysical theories of causality and the will. Reformed historical theologians likewise have regarded them with considerable suspicion because they introduced several doctrines (see below) that led many away from classic Calvinism. These interpreters often sharply separate Edwards from his followers who are viewed as distorting their mentor’s original ideas, leading to a narrative that underscores the theological “fall” of the Edwardsean tradition.

This book attempts to offer a more complex narrative of the history of Reformed theology in North America. Its aim is to demonstrate that “the theologians of the New England school were creative contributors to a living American tradition of theological reflection” and that “the older ‘decline and fall’ narrative often associated with [them] is, in fact, . . . mistaken” (p. 5). The essays ably demonstrate that the New England theological tradition (also called the “New Divinity” or the “Edwardsians”) was the legitimate theological offspring of Jonathan Edwards.

The book contains seventeen essays divided into three sections. The first section, “New Light in the New World,” examines the unique theological features of New Divinity Calvinism. As Mark Valeri and others demonstrate, these features derived from their desire to construct an intellectually defensible system that combined pietism, revivalism, and predestinarianism. The unique distinctives of Edwardsean Calvinism include (1) an understanding of the will that features Edwards’s famous distinction between the fallen will’s natural ability to repent and believe and its moral inability to do so (Allen Guelzo’s essay), (2) a version of original sin that rejected the federal theory of imputation (Guelzo again), (3) an aesthetic spirituality that Samuel Hopkins developed into a full-blown theory of virtue known as “disinterested benevolence” (James Byrd’s essay), and (4) a moral governmental theory of the atonement (Crisp’s essay). Crisp ably tackles a vexing question: how can Edwards, who affirmed a substitutionary theory of the atonement, commend the writings of his pupil Joseph Bellamy, who promoted the moral governmental theory? Crisp demonstrates how Bellamy’s doctrine actually built upon themes found in Edwards writings, themes which Edwards “did not have the opportunity, or perhaps the inclination, to develop . . . in his own work” (p. 78). He concludes that Edwards saw a sufficient “family resemblance between his doctrine and Bellamy’s that he was willing to endorse Bellamy’s work” (p. 89). Paul Helm rounds out the section with an astute review of the differences between Edwardsean Calvinism and “older forms” of Calvinism by noting that the differences stem from Edwards himself. “Jonathan Edwards,” he concludes, “was certainly a Calvinist, though one of a rather different kind” (p. 103). The overall tone of these chapters is charitable, objective, and historical. Gone is the lamentable narrative of a “fall” from grace, replaced by a historical narrative of development that charts the surprising transformation of a theological tradition over time.

Part two, “Carrying the Torch,” provides vivid snapshots of the New England theology in the century after Edwards’s death. Entries explore the contributions of particular Edwardsean theologians—Samuel Hopkins (by Peter Jauhiainen), Nathanael Emmons (by Gerald McDermott), and Edwards Amasa Park (by Charles Phillips)—and two well-known Edwardsean revivalists from the Second Great Awakening, Edward Dorr Griffin and Asahel Nettleton (by David Kling). Part three, “Edwardsian Light Refracted,” examines the different ways New England theology took root at home and abroad. Edwards’s thought was noticed by European intellectuals in the nineteenth century who lamented that such brilliance went wasted in the American wilderness. For these European observers, the “great tragedy of Edwards’s life was [that he had] . . . been born on the wrong continent” (p. 222). Evangelicals in Japan, China, and Korea have discovered Edwards’s devotional writings in the twentieth century, a brief history explored by Anri Morimoto. However, it was in English-speaking denominations with strong roots in pre-Awakening Calvinism where we find the most volatile reception of Edwardsian theology. Both British Baptists and American Presbyterians endured significant controversies over Edwardsean theology. Mark Noll and Michael Haykin detail the complexities of these controversies among American Presbyterians (Noll) and British Baptists (Haykin). They demonstrate that wherever Edwardsian theology was deeply digested, significant strife resulted within the Calvinist household.

The greatest strength of After Jonathan Edwards lies in its historical orientation. All of the contributors possess a mature historical sense: they are well-aware of the complexities associated with the birth and development of a theological tradition, and generally they set aside their own theological predilections as they practice history. This does not mean the authors’ views are completely hidden from sight. Indeed, readers will discern a variety of stances the authors take toward the New England theology, from admiration to caution. The work of assessing the value of a theological tradition is often tricky business, and can only be done after that tradition has been accurately understood historically. After Jonathan Edwards accomplishes this historical task with excellence, giving readers the materials needed to make a well-informed judgment for themselves.

I recommend After Jonathan Edwards to anyone interested in the complex history of theology in America, especially the history of reformed theology and its relation to revivalism. Pastors, theologians, and general fans of Jonathan Edwards will find a theologically rich narrative of the Edwardsean theological tradition. Anyone who has ever wondered what would happen to the church if scores of pastors, missionaries, and institutional leaders embraced Edwards’s grand theological vision need not dream further. This “what if?” has already been realized in American church history. To see this, one only needs to take up this book and read.

Robert W. Caldwell III

Robert W. Caldwell III
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, Texas, USA

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