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.

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