Volume 38 - Issue 2

Jonathan Edwards on Justification: Reform Development of the Doctrine in Eighteenth-Century New England

by Hyun-Jin Cho

In the past year, there has been a rash of activity on Jonathan Edwards and justification. From edited volumes like Josh Moody’s Jonathan Edwards and Justification (Crossway, 2012) to broader works like McDermott and McClymond’s behemoth The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (OUP, 2012) to dissertation-turned-monographs like Michael McClenahan’s Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith (Ashgate, 2012), scholars have focused their interest on Edwards and justification. While the publishing blitz hints at a deeper interest in both Edwards and the doctrine of justification, what the non-Edwards specialist may fail to realize is the broad disagreement among Edwards scholars that these works point to. For instance, the Moody volume directs focused attention against views of Edwards that paint him with a crypto-Catholic brush, something that McDermott and McClymond are accused of doing to one degree or another. In contrast to the prevailing method in these other volumes, McClymond and McDermott attempt to read Edwards broadly within the theological trajectories we come to know and assume in our modern context. In this sense, their goal is to talk about Edwards, not necessarily within the confines of his own milieu, but within the categories we have come to accept. Cho’s book, like McClenahan’s, seeks to do the opposite. By pushing back to the historical context itself, grounding Edwards within the eighteenth-century debates that were the backdrop to his work, they believe we will gain greater clarity on his views.

While McClenahan’s work deals with more narrow matters, focusing specifically on Edwards’s sources material and polemical intent, Cho tries to give us the broad picture. While both hope to speak meaningfully into the relevant theological issues, both works are also decisively historical in method and goal (this is an important point I will pick up on below). In a relatively short space (a mere 154 pages that includes the bibliography and the index), Cho addresses the historical development of the doctrine of justification prior to Edwards, the historical context with the doctrine for Edwards, and then turns to focus on Edwards’s doctrine itself. Cho wraps this development together with a final chapter assessing Edwards and his continuity with the Reformed tradition (a key issue in contemporary discussions, as noted above). He then concludes the volume with some constructive thoughts concerning Edwards’s view and Reformed theology.

Overall, this volume is well-done. It is, perhaps, the best place to start when looking for secondary literature on the question of Edwards and justification. It does not cover everything, by any means, but it does not claim to. Instead, Cho highlights what he believes is necessary to give us a broad sweeping look at the movement of justification in the Reformed tradition (as the subtitle notes). A failure to address this movement in the doctrine’s history is often the reason why it is misunderstood. Cho rightly focuses our attention on these issues.

That said, there are a handful of weaknesses to a volume like this. First, a brief glance at the table of contents shows that Edwards’s main work on justification—not just his published work on the topic, but the doctrine throughout his corpus—is really given only one chapter out of the four main chapters. Even commentators who restrict themselves to Edwards’s main work on justification by faith find themselves in completely different interpretive camps, so one has to wonder if there is enough focused material in this volume on the topic of justification in Edwards’s thought itself. Second, and building on the first, as a theologian who has written on the topic, I found myself underwhelmed by Cho’s development of Edwards’s view. It was not that his view was wrong as much as it seemed under-cooked. For instance, one of the more interesting and provocative (in my mind) aspects of Edwards’s doctrine is the notion of participation and the role it plays in justification. It is not the believer who is justified, on Edwards’s view, but Christ. Justification is found in the person of Christ. There is a real and robust christological recasting of Edwards’s doctrine, and Cho fails to address participation (both broadly and narrowly) in the book.

Furthermore, again from a theological angle, while Cho does some work in relation to the ordo salutis, one is left wondering about how this functions within (or under) Edwards’s doctrine of theosis. A failure to focus on some of the formal theological issues has led, I believe, to some muddiness in the account. For instance, at some points Cho talks about an “ontological change” in justification itself, and at others talks about justification as forensic, and yet it is unclear how these relate. It appears as if the doctrine of justification becomes bloated, taking on aspects of broader soteriological categories that are not proper to it (this is where a discussion of theosis and how it functions formally in Edwards’s thought might help). Third, and similarly, Cho seeks to utilize Sang Lee’s dispositional ontology to ground justification, arguing that this was an aspect of Edwards’s unique development of the doctrine. Oddly, Cho then goes on to argue that everything that Edwards’s dispositional language does is mimicked in full by the Puritan and High Orthodox tradition preceding him. Again, one is left to wonder why dispositional ontology is meaningful for justification if it is simply a relatively standard discussion of dispositions within anthropology.

While none of these points undermines the importance of this volume, they do point to the need to read it alongside others, such as McClenahan’s and Moody’s, to help round out Edwards’s account in full. Along with those other volumes, what one finds is an ever-growing case that Edwards’s doctrine of justification finds its home within the development of this doctrine in Reformed theology. Cho’s book does an excellent job of putting Edwards’s account within that broad movement. In this sense, Cho’s book is more appropriately a volume outlining the movement of the doctrine of justification with a stop along the way to tour Edwards’s thought. In this sense, this is an incredibly helpful work. This would be a useful volume for seminary classes on Edwards’s theology or on the history of the doctrine of justification. Furthermore, because of its accessibility, those with an interest in the doctrine of justification who are formally untrained in theology would also find this work helpful. Its relatively inexpensive price and size would also make it suitable for these venues.

Kyle Strobel

Kyle Strobel
Talbot School of Theology
La Miranda, California, USA

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