Saturday Book Review: Kyle Strobel

Our review today is by Kyle Strobel (@kylestrobel), an Edwards specialist and who engages this big new book by McClymond and McDermott at the level of experts. So enjoy …

The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (OUP, 2012) by Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott

Scot has already reviewed several small portions of this behemoth, so I will try and focus on how one should see and understand this impressive volume on Jonathan Edwards. It is worth noting that I am an Edwards scholar, and one with a “horse in this race,” as they say. In the world of Edwards scholarship there is a major divide. On one side are the followers of Sang Hyun Lee, the great Princeton Edwards scholar of this past generation whose book The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards changed the course of the field. McClymond and McDermott fall within the Lee school of thought, even though they would certainly disagree with Lee on minor points of his project. The other side of this debate has no name because it isn’t a distinct school of thought in any real sense. There are a growing number of scholars who disagree with Lee, but don’t necessarily agree with one another either. Not only do I land in this school, but I have written what I hope will become a methodological treatise to help pull together a school of thought that can compete with Lee’s. In other words, although I consider McDermott a friend, we don’t tend to land on the same side of these debates (I don’t know McClymond). For full disclosure, this seemed helpful to state up front.

That said, this is one of the most impressive accomplishments in Edwards studies over the last generation. Following the work by Gerstner, who put together a three volume systematic theology for Edwards called The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, McClymond and McDermott have provided an overview of Edwards’s thought in one volume (albeit a rather large 800 page volume). I can’t fully explain how hard a volume like this is to put together. Edwards’s thought is extremely difficult, and his corpus all the more so. Never having written his great systematic theology (nor his great Biblical Theology), one has to mine Edwards’s notebooks, sermons, treatises, and letters to discover his views. One is helped by the 26 critical volumes that Yale has assembled as “The Works of Jonathan Edwards,” but that makes up only about a third of his actual corpus. Edwards’s views shifted, he rarely let on who he was attacking in his polemical work (and all his work is polemical), and his language was so arcane that people in his own day tended to misread him. The field of Edwards studies is no better. One of the most difficult issues in writing a broad overview of his work is that no one seems to agree on any of it. In approximately a year following the publishing of this volume, no less than four major monographs will be published dealing with Edwards and the Trinity (which all scholars note is the most important doctrine to understanding his thought).

I realize I have painted somewhat of a dismal picture, so let me explain why this volume of so important. The reason why McClymond’s and McDermott’s book should be on the shelf of everyone interested in Edwards is because they provide a framework by which to read Edwards. This can help you place a sermon, a letter, a notebook entry, etc., within a broader understanding of his theology. But let me be clear. The way this book should be used is to read Edwards well. If you think you can just read their volume to “get” Edwards you are wrong. This is not only because I disagree with some of their positions (and I do), but because of the nature of Edwards’s work. Edwards’s work is similar to Barth in the sense that you cannot simply abstract one or two pieces and think you understand them. All of Edwards’s work must be read in light of the whole (or at least as much as you can hold in your mind). This is, furthermore, the downside of a volume like this one. While the authors point to the tight interconnection of Edwards’s thought, that doesn’t necessarily come through in the book itself. There are points where it does, but on a whole I didn’t see a clear picture of this interconnection emerge from my reading (admittedly, this is the main focus of my own work, and we often focus so intently on our own agendas that it is hard to see beyond them, so keep that in mind when you read my critique). What they do really well is to give you a broad picture of where he lands on key doctrines. You can use this information to read Edwards well and therefore come to grasp the interconnection of his thought.

Importantly, this is not to say that McClymond and McDermott neglect this interconnection. In fact, they do a great job of arguing for it. I just don’t think they reveal it. The best way to illustrate this last point is with a brief overview of their incredibly helpful way to talk about Edwards’s theology – a symphony. McClymond and McDermott offer a “parable” to explain their view of Edwards’s theology. In the parable a group of friends go to hear a symphony, but end being scattered to different sections of the hall. As they reflect on the evening, each person focuses on a different aspect of the symphony. Their placement in the hall affected the way each had heard the symphony. Only one of the friends sat front and center, and therefore he/she is the only one who was able to take in the “intricate interplay” of instruments uniting as one. Edwards’s theology, they evince, is similar. People tend towards one aspect of his theology (one set of instruments), and try to relegate everything else around that.

McClymond and McDermott argue for five key aspects of Edwards’s theology that correspond to five sections of instruments in an orchestra. Neglecting any of these, they claim, is failing to hear Edwards well. The five aspects are: Trinitarian Communication – that God is a communicative God; Creaturely Participation – that God is the sort of God who calls creatures to participate in his life; Necessitarian Dispositionalism – that the essence of all being consists of disposition or habit (this is where they are most indebted to Sang Lee); Theocentric Voluntarism – that there is a divine priority in all of reality; and Harmonious Constitutionalism – that salvation is “less like a chain of beads” and more like a “net in which each part of the net holds the rest in place.” Leaving aside whether this is a good reading of Edwards, this is the underlying architecture of their volume. To date, this is the most helpful analysis of addressing the whole of Edwards’s thought, to “hear” the symphony in its entirety rather than in individual fragments.

To close, let me make a critical observation (again remembering that I argue from a different interpretive “school”). I think the five aspects of Edwards’s theology they advance are helpful (minus maybe the “necessitarian dispositionalism”). But ultimately, these are still fragments. The point they are making with the symphony is that these fragments, if heard all at once, create a unity that is not necessarily inherent to the aspects themselves. I just don’t think this is the case. Notice that that first four of their points, if boiled down and focused, are really just different statements about who God is. God is communicative, God is such that he pulls creatures into his own life, God is primarily dispositional – which, on my reading, is just another way of saying that God is fundamentally persons, and therefore personal; and lastly, that the starting point for all things is God. God is the underlying unity of Edwards’s theology, in a way that I don’t believe McClymond and McDermott fully develop. If that is true, what about the last point? What is interesting about Edwards’s soteriology is not, in my mind, that it holds together like a “net” rather than a chain of beads, but where it holds together. It holds together in Christ. Ultimately, even salvation is about God. For Edwards, the underlying unity is the person and nature of God. Pushing forward that understanding, I believe, helps unveil the uniquely Reformed genius of Edwards’s theological project. This volume is a great step in getting there, but only if it is used as a tool used to seek out that underlying unity of all things in the person and nature of God.

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  • Justin Taylor

    Thanks for commissioning this, Scot. Very helpful!