McClymond & McDermott: The Theology of Jonathan Edwards

Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2012), 757 pp. (review copy courtesy of OUP)

“Imagine a Christian dialogue today that included adherents of ancient churches–Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic–with various modern church bodies–Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Disciples of Christ–as well as an ample representation from the newer evangelical and Pentecostal-Charismatic congregations from around the world. If one had to choose one modern thinker–and only one–to function as a point of reference for theological interchange and dialogue, then who might one choose?” (p. 728)

Well, Jonathan Edwards, of course! And after a doorstep length of pages outlining Edwards’ theological vision, McClymond and McDermott have good reason to make such a claim.

Largely forgotten in modern theology, if Edwards was remembered at all it was for his gauche Puritan obsession with divine wrath. Anthologies of American literature tucked “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in with other examples of early colonial literature–a frightening curiosity from a bygone age. Or perhaps people recalled him as a Lockean experimentalist, or else a tragically-shackled creative genius in a Calvinist mind.

Perry Miller conjured this last image in the middle of the twentieth century–and, if a cottage industry has arisen to contest Miller’s claims one by one, it is nevertheless to him that we owe the avalanche of Edwards studies in the last half-century. Miller took Edwards seriously as a first-rate mind, but found his theological frame accidental, or even an impediment, to his reflection. In their comprehensive survey of Edwards’ theology, McClymond and McDermott (McC & McD, for short) drive the final nail into the coffin of that thesis.

The book’s size is matched by its scope. McC & McD liken Edwards’ theology to a symphony, a fitting metaphor given his attention to harmony. If the theology is a symphony, the orchestra is made up of five parts–Trinitarian communication, creaturely participation, necessitarian dispositionalism, theocentric voluntarism and harmonious constitutionalism (pp. 4-6).

After setting the scene with an overview of Edwards’ biography, intellectual and spiritual milieu, McC & McD devote the bulk of the book to theological method and matter. Themes from their earlier work on Edwards recur (McClymond’s theocentrism and McDermott’s engagement with world religions), and particular lines of interpretation are at times privileged (the priority of beauty, a moderate application of Sang Lee’s dispositional ontology); but what emerges is nevertheless an Edwards for everyone rather than an idiosyncratic, agenda-driven sponsor. (Where else could one meet an Edwards whose theology bears resonates with theosis as well as the Toronto Blessing?) The book’s chief virtue is McC & McD’s consistently balanced, perspicacious and even-handed judgment. They see Edwards for what he was–a pastor-theologian–without neglecting his polymathic interests and aptitudes.

It would be easy to champion an Edwards whose prodigious intellect suggested all sorts of progressive programs, a reluctant Calvinist more eager to embrace the modern world than get lost in the foggy scholasticism of the Reformed tradition. Alternately, one might find in Edwards a staunch supporter of 5-point Calvinism, eager in his shots across the bow at Arminians to defend the faith against its grace-denigrating foes. McC & McD offer instead this image: ”Like a great tree, Edwards’s thought was rooted in one spot (the Calvinist tradition) yet with branches stretching far and wide.” While they are reluctant to suggest a controlling motif that might fail to cover the canopy of such a tree, McC & McD finally point to Edwards’ thoroughgoing theocentrism. This is more apt than divine sovereignty, which is “simply one of several ways in which Edwards conceived of God’s centrality.” (p. 720) Edwards was an ‘open system’ thinker, precisely because he was a God-centered one (p. 9).

For all these reasons, McC & McD champion Edwards for the global church in the twentieth-first century–all the more so if, as many would argue, the church of the future is a free church. ”Since Edwards is the leading thinking to emerge in the free-church context of colonial America, this suggests that his reflections may be more pertinent to an era such as ours, characterized by non-established churches in most parts of the world.” (p. 726) That his reflections are remarkably pertinent can hardly be denied. I suspect, however, that for Edwards to speak into contemporary free church contexts will require a bit more translating than this comment suggests. While the polity of Edwards’ day was congregational, the culture was that of an established church. Despite his enthusiastic support for the revival preaching of George Whitefield, Edwards got nervous when he took a revolutionary turn in his criticism of New England’s clerical elite. Indeed, perhaps it was precisely the fairly fixed, if informal, structures that afforded Edwards a certain amount of theological room to roam. His biblicism, Spirit-guided and -sanctioned experimentalism and openness to surprising works of God make him a wise spiritual and theological guide for global Christianity. But he can only be one of us by virtue of his not being one of us. And his very elusive otherness may be, as often as not, precisely what we need.