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Religious Affections

Religious Affections (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is Jonathan Edwards a reliable teacher on the doctrine of justification?

Most people would probably quickly answer “yes.” And, as we learn more about the life of Edwards, we would tend to be satisfied with that answer. After all, his 1728 Master’s Quaestio affirmed the “assuredly central” doctrine of justification by faith alone, and in doing so, Edwards was making a public statement on the side of Reformed orthodoxy against an Anglican controversy at his college commencement the year earlier. In addition to this early statement, the first small waves of awakening in 1734 in Northampton that eventually poured into the “Great Awakening” came as he preached his sermons Justification by Faith Alone (published in 1738). In Edwards’s mind at least, this 1734 awakening began as he preached on the doctrine of justification by faith. His “Controversies” Notebook on justification (see volume 21 of the Yale Works of Jonathan Edwards), begun in the late 1740’s, defended the doctrine against the unorthodox writings of John Taylor and (to a much lesser extent) Jonathan Mayhew. (Incidentally, I’m presenting a paper at the Southeast Regional Meeting of the ETS this Saturday, March 24th, arguing that the views of Taylor and Mayhew in significant ways anticipate the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” and showing how Edwards responded to their views.)

In these writings, it is clear that Edwards views himself within the Calvinist tradition. He affirms not only the doctrine but that it is, for example, “of very great importance” (WJE 19:237). In fact, any other scheme “lays another foundation of man’s salvation than God hath laid” (WJE 19:238) For those who oppose justification by faith, Christ is no longer their ground of salvation. As for those who opposed the Reformation understanding of the doctrine, their teaching was “fatal to the soul” (WJE 19:241).

Having said all that, some scholars still propose that Edwards was not really that Reformed in his understanding of justification. Thomas Schafer famously argued this back in 1951 (see Church History 20). George Hunsinger says Edwards was actually closer to Thomas Aquinas than the Reformers (see Westminster Theological Journal 66). Gerald McDermott says because of Edwards’s penchant for narrative theology he would have agreed with N. T. Wright’s teachings today (see Pro Ecclesia 17). For a better perspective, I would recommend Jeffrey Waddington’s “Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Ambiguous and Somewhat Precarious’ Doctrine of Justification” (see Westminster Theological Journal 66). I agree with Waddington’s conclusion, that Edwards is not as far off as his critics surmise. And though there are times where Edwards’s statements on justification are difficult, I believe a careful reading shows him to affirm (repeatedly) that the Christian’s only ground of acceptance before God is the imputed and alien righteousness of Jesus Christ.

I say all of this to get to a bigger point. It is possible for top-notch scholars to misread Jonathan Edwards (and other historical persons). It is on this very point that Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott’s massive new tome on The Theology of Jonathan Edwards goes astray. Though their error is likely an anomaly, I think it is an unintentional but significant mistake.

McClymond and McDermott write,

Edwards does seem to base justification in part on what is in us. . . . We are given a title to salvation “not directly . . . as a reward of our obedience” since it is only by Christ’s righteousness, yet we gain an “interest in that satisfaction and righteousness . . . as a reward of our obedience” (Theology. 400).

This is an unfortunately misreading of Edwards. McClymond and McDermott are citing the publication of Edwards’s 1734 sermon Justification by Faith Alone. (They even add emphasis!) In the context, Edwards has finished arguing that the Bible teaches that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers. His next argument is to refute the idea that human beings are in any way justified by their “own virtue, or sincere obedience.” If this is true, then people save themselves. And it is at this point that Edwards raises a possible objection. This objection is what McClymond and McDermott cite. Here is the full paragraph of what Edwards says:

Here perhaps it may be said, that a title to salvation is not directly given as the reward of our obedience; for that is not by anything of ours, but only by Christ’s satisfaction and righteousness; but yet an interest in that satisfaction and righteousness is given as a reward of our obedience (WJE 19:199).

Edwards clearly rejects this idea, that we are given Christ’s righteousness as a reward of our own obedience. Edwards’s thoughts on this proposal are made clear in the very next paragraph:

But this don’t help at all the case; for this is to ascribe as much to our obedience, as if we ascribed salvation to it directly, without the intervention of Christ’s righteousness: for it would be as great a thing for God to give us Christ, and his satisfaction and righteousness, in rewoard for our obedience, as to give us heaven immediately; it would be as great a reward, and as great a testimony of respect to our obedience. And if God gives as great a thing as salvation, for our obedience, why could he not as well give salvation itself directly? And then there would have been no need of Christ’s righteousness. . . . (WJE 19:200).

My point here is not to deal with all that McClymond and McDermott say about Edwards and justification, but simply to show that at least one of their citations is a pretty unfortunate misreading. It is not always safe to accept the interpretation historians make of the theologians in Christian history, even when those interpretations are published in large books by some of the most respected publishing houses in the world. And we ourselves should be careful to read and understand the thought of other men and not misrepresent them, especially on the doctrines they consider to be “the truth of the Reformed religion,” and “the first foundation of the gospel” (WJE 14:64).