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An Important Contribution
October 31, 2012
If you follow Jonathan Edwards studies, it's no secret that Edwards' doctrine of Justification has been under fire since the 1940s. Examples abound, even in popular Reformed writings. R. Scott Clark has written in an online forum that "At best, Edwards was at times confusing about justification. At worst he was contradictory and unconfessional re the same." J.V. Fesko devotes a few pages of his otherwise wonderful book Justification to Edwards and concludes: "It does not seem possible to argue that Edwards' construction is within the confines of Reformed orthodoxy_at minimum, a cloud of ambiguity hangs over Edwards' doctrine of justification" (39). There are others who argue that Edwards was unambiguously Reformed in his view of justification and that there is no question of the quality of Edwards' orthodoxy.
In this latter category belongs a new book from Crossway, Jonathan Edwards and Justification. Josh Moody, the editor, as well as the other contributors are all convinced that Edwards has been fundamentally misunderstood by a wide swath of scholars, beginning with Perry Miller during his much lauded rediscovery of Edwards in the 40s and 50s.
Central to this misunderstanding, they argue, is the misreading of much of Edwards' terminology. Among the most "troublesome" aspects of Edwards' expression of justification is his usage of the word "infusion." Moody helpfully explains the misunderstanding:
When Edwards talks about infusion and the like, what he is referring to is not the infusion of righteousness that the Westminster divines spoke against, but rather the experience of the new creation, the experience of having Christ in us, and us being in him. This supernatural event takes place when someone becomes a Christian - that is what Edwards is describing_ (14)
Moody ably defends this thesis in his own chapter, and also helpfully lays out Edwards' understanding of justification based on Edwards' quaestio, his Justification by Faith Alone, and some of his Miscellanies. There is also discussion of Edwards' ordo salutis. The charges of "confusion" and "ambiguity" are hard to be sympathetic with once one understands that Edwards absolutely does not root justification in personal holiness. Rather, Moody points out that there is a strong emphasis in Edwards on union with Christ as the ground of our justification.
[At one point Moody warns that anything from Edwards' Miscellanies ought to be regarded as less significant than his printed writings. Moody helpfully quips, "If I am held to the stake for every semiformulated idea I have ever penned in private journals, I had better get rid of some of them before I pass through the veil."]
Intrinsic to Moody's case in defense of Edwards is that there is not always a 1:1 relationship between Edwards' terminology and historic Reformed terminology. The above mentioned reference to "infusion" is a prime example of this. Moody admits that Edwards was a creative thinker and was writing in a context of apologetic against enlightenment thinkers. As such, he offered up-to-date arguments and not simply dogmatic restatements. He was writing for a creative an sophisticated era, and so he often used created and sophisticated language in addressing the challenges of his time.
In Kyle Strobel's chapter, he argues that "Edwards' development of soteriological loci under his analysis of the person and work of Christ and the nature and gift of the Spirit." This is a significant chapter for coming to understand Edwards' view of the roles of the Trinitarian persons in planning, accomplishing, and applying salvation. In the end, Strobel concludes that Edwards does not deny or undermine the forensic nature of justification because, "For Edwards, the only true ground for forgiveness is Christ himself. Because salvation, in its entirety, is found in Christ, union, we could say, grounds the application of redemption."
Rhys Bezzant's chapter, "The Gospel of Justification and Edwards' Social Vision" explores the ministry context in which Edwards was writing and explores his doctrine of justification within those related pastoral themes. One comes away quite convinced that the portrayal of Edwards as a preacher of subjective change is an unfair caricature, to be sure. His chapter is interesting and contributes to the wider discussion of Edwards' views.
Samuel T. Logan Jr. spends his chapter discussing what it meant for Edwards in terms of obedience, for someone to be justified. What does a justified person act like? He bases his answer largely in an overview of Edwards' Religious Affections. It is clear from Logan's chapter that for Edwards (echoing the rest of the Reformed tradition) there is no justification where there is no growth in the Spirit. This is because "The more a true saint loves God with a gracious love, the more he desires to love him, and the more uneasy is he at his want of love to him; the more he hates sin, the more he desires to hate it, and laments that he has so much remaining love to it_" This "relish for more relish" is something which, according to Edwards, only the regenerate person understands. Likewise, where this is missing, justification is also missing. This is hardly a crypto-Catholic understanding of justification.
The book ends with Doug Sweeney's chapter, which is simply put, my favorite part. It is a joy to read, and I highly recommend that others actually skip to this one after reading Moody's excellent first chapter. In the fifth chapter, Sweeney spends a great deal of time establishing Edwards' Reformed bonafides. He discusses the fact that yes, Edwards does point to faith as "the qualification which God has a primary Respect to in Justifying men." However, Sweeney helpfully points out that "godly love is implied in saving faith and so is spoken of in Scripture as a condition of salvation - not a condition that secures justification before God, but a condition without which one does not have genuine faith" (143). Sweeney also points out the emphasis within Edwards on union with Christ as the ground of the believer's righteousness before God. This is very much in keeping with the Reformed tradition of Calvin.
I would like to think that Jonathan Edwards and Justification is a solid step towards answering the concerns of men like Fesko, Clark, and others. This is not a substantial volume in terms of size, but it very clearly makes a strong case for the orthodoxy of Edwards' teaching on justification. Edwards was a creative thinker who used less than conventional language at times to clarify his doctrine. This does not place him outside of Reformed Orthodoxy, but it does mean that he needs to be read more slowly, with an eye to the apologetic context in which he wrote and preached.
[I received a copy of Jonathan Edwards and Justification for review purposes from the publisher and was not required to give a positive review as a condition for my receiving it.]
Last month I reviewed Charity and Its Fruits edited by Kyle Strobel and thoroughly enjoyed it. One aspect of my reading which I have neglected is reading more from the dead guys. I saw that Crossway was putting out this title and Strobel was writing a chapter so decided to request a copy. It was well worth the read. It's short, approachable, and covers a topic which is of the utmost importance.
I find it amusing that amongst evangelical and reformed Christians it's become fashionable to argue Edwards was a panentheist, a closet Catholic, or bad on justification to name a few. This book covers the charge that Edwards's view of justification was less than orthodox and not fully reformed. They tackle it by looking at primary sources from his sermons and other published works and also from his posthumously published journals.
We should tangle with Edwards but we should do so with this realization: he's smarter than most of us. He not only was an ardent defender of orthodox, reformed theology but he did so in a way that was creative, complex, and not so much concerned with protecting against misunderstanding. Strobel makes this last point clearly in Charity and Its Fruits. Says Strobel,
Strobel notes that when engaging in debate, our tendency is to focus "so intently on the position we are against that we simply back away from that position" (Charity and Its Fruits p. 25). Edwards, on the other hand, focused less on the opposing position and more on God's word--confident his arguments would win because they were based on Scripture. If that's not prophetic for us today. Much of our error is due to our propensity for pendulum theology (read full review of Charity and Its Fruits).
Jonathan Edwards and Justification is broken down into an introduction and five chapters.
"Edwards and Justification Today" by Josh Moody
"By Word and Spirit: Jonathan Edwards on Redemption, Justification, and Regeneration" by Kyle Strobel
"The Gospel of Justification and Edwards's Social Vision" by Rhys Bezzant
"Justification and Evangelical Obedience" by Samuel T. Logan Jr.
"Justification by Faith Alone? A Fuller Picture of Edwards's Doctrine" by Douglas A. Sweeney
Moody's first chapter is foundational for the rest of the book. He goes into the most detail in looking at how Edwards uses the word infused (which is the main contention with his doctrine of justification). Historically, Catholics have used the words infused in opposition to impute. However, Moody argues Edwards doesn't use infuse in opposition of impute but as a synonym for regeneration. Moody says,
In reality, Edwards is saying that just because he believes in justification by faith alone, that does not mean he thinks that those who are so justified need not obey. He calls this--with deliberate care, I think--"evangelical obedience," not in the sense of the modern "evangelical" movement, of course, by playing in the heritage of Reformation Protestants who were thought in German sense to be self-designated as "evangelicals," and (equally of course), playing on his understanding of the gospel, or in Greek the "evagel," to say that this gospel of his really does produce good works (pp. 32-33)
A side note but interesting for the current state of the church. Moody points out that in Puritan New England justification was not thought to be a complex doctrine but one which your average seven year old familiar with the catechisms would have easily grasped (p. 35).
In the next chapter, Strobel then suggests that Edwards's understanding of justification and redemption were moored to the work of the Son and the Spirit (pp. 48-49) changing the discussion from primarily focusing on justification as the ends to "participation in Christ through his Spirit" (p. 54). This emphasis is summed up nicely here,
For Edwards, the question is not, "How can I become righteous and therefore justified?" but is instead, "How can I become united to Christ, where righteousness and justification reside?" (p. 58)
The themes (particularly sanctification/infusion by Spirit, evangelical obedience, and union with Christ) in these first two chapters are skillfully woven throughout the rest of the book. For example, Logan makes an important point about evangelical obedience and seeking God--after our justification and regeneration we are for the first able to love God not only for the gifts he gives us but purely for who he is (p. 120). Edwards finds this seeking first the difference between a genuine Christian and a "counterfeit" Christian (p. 119).
Everyone interested in justification, Puritan theology, or Jonathan Edwards should read Jonathan Edwards and Justification. Even if you are not directly interested in Jonathan Edwards's theology the points of discussion and his emphasis are relevant for our discussions in evangelicalism. For instance, the ongoing discussion surrounding justification, sanctification, and obedience is addressed by Edwards in a way which is robust and not dilluted--not "simply back[ing] away from that position" (Charity and Its Fruits p. 25). Or Sweeny's point in the final chapter that Edwards fought hard when preaching to prevent his congregation from understanding faith "contractually as a set of affirmations that secured their justification" rather it's a "cling[ing] to Christ, relying on Jesus and his work for justification" (p. 136). It seems many of our churches have given up the fight in this regard and it has reeked havoc on our congregations. These are the kinds of piercing insights only Edwards can provide.
In a different book on justification called The Justification Reader, Thomas Oden writes of the great reformer Martin Luther's opinion on the doctrine of justification: "Luther regarded justification as the "ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines" " (4). Oden goes on to declare that justification is "central to the Christian teaching of salvation. . .So pivotal is it to Christian preaching that if unbalanced in any way, reverberations are felt in the whole edifice of faith" (4). Clearly, justification is a momentous doctrine. In similar high praise, Jonathan Edwards has often been labelled North America's greatest theologian. Obviously what North America's greatest (arguably) theologian has to say about Christianity's greatest (arguably) doctrine is of considerable import. In Jonathan Edwards and Justification, Editor Josh Moody and several significant Edwardsean scholars deliver a book that reveals Edwards' position on justification. The authors rebut some misconceptions that some have proposed about this Puritan pastor's stance on justification. And in the process, the book reminded me of some powerful Edwards' books that I had read previously.
A Position Revealed
The multiple authors of Jonathan Edwards and Justification cover Edwards' position on justification quickly yet thoroughly. The authors are uniform in their assertions concerning Edwards' doctrinal perspective on justification; this famous pastor-theologian believed justification in a manner that could only be described as a Reformation Protestant view. Moody notes that he was creative in how he described this doctrine and its ramifications, but in its essence Edwards offered nothing new. Strobel emphasizes how Edwards locates justification as the hinge point of redemption and is found in Christ and brought by the Spirit. Bezzant shows how Edwards preached a gospel rife with Reformed notions of justification that "was designed to revive and to reform" (73). Logan shows Edwards' theology through how he would answer a question: What makes a person a Christian? And Sweeney fleshes out Edwards ideas on justification by looking beyond the most obvious of Edwards' writings into understudied sermons and manuscripts.
It seemed that all of the authors touched upon the idea of union with Christ and how this doctrine heavily influenced Edwards on the doctrine in question. I found these explanations of Edwards' opinion on the interplay of union and justification edifying and interesting.
A Proposal Rebutted
Throughout this book the authors address the numerous proposals made by many scholars that suggest Edwards had a less-than-traditional take on justification. Edwards, a staunch anti-Catholic, is even accused of holding to a Roman Catholic view of this great doctrine. One of the strong points of this book is how it chose to rebut these proposals. The authors recognize that Edwards could be very creative in how he articulated his views and justification was no different. Some unique terms and phrases are utilized by Edwards, but this creativity when viewed in light of the context of his writing, as well as the context of his living, still displayed a stance on justification that was "as thoroughly orthodox . . . as Calvin's or Luther's" (13). Though I was not familiar with the accusations against Edwards and his position on justification, the authors explained them clearly and defended Edwards ably.
A Powerful Reminder
One of the most valuable effects of this book on me was how it caused me to remember other books of Edwards that I had read. Particularly, Logan's chapter entitled â€˜Justification and Evangelical Obedience' relied heavily on Religious Affections. I found this recap of Edwards' best known book simply delightful. As I read through these current essays on Edwards I was willingly forced to reflect on more of Edwards' corpus that had influenced me so positively before. This was an unexpected benefit in reading this work.
Concerning justification and this great theologian's perspective on it, this book recognizes contrary-minded opinions but puts forth Edwards as traditional and within the bounds of Reformed Protestant theology. It explains why others might disagree with them, points to some creativity and contextual issues, but never concedes that Edwards was anything but orthodox is his beliefs and teachings about justification. This book references many Edwardsean writings, some of which have had a profound influence on me. I recommend this book.
I was given a copy of this book for review by the publisher.