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From the May/June, 2012 issue of Touchstone


America’s Theologian by S. M. Hutchens

America’s Theologian

The Theology of Jonathan Edwards
by Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott
Oxford University Press, 2011
(757 pages, $65.00, hardcover)

reviewed by S. M. Hutchens

It has been my habit for some years now, upon opening a comprehensive theological treatise, particularly one that purports to come from Reformed quarters, to turn first to its section on Trinitarian theology to see what is being said about the relations between the Persons of the Godhead. I expect to find one of two things: leveling inspired by egalitarian ideology, or, among those with a more orthodox bent, Calvin’s and Augustine’s reticence, haunted by the shades of Arian subordinationism, to say much on the subject—a reluctance of which the revisionists take full advantage in their attempt to present themselves as representatives of a historical consensus.

Not all Reformed, and certainly not all Western, theologians follow one of these patterns. W. G. T. Shedd does not, and Heppe presents several who are explicit on the Trinitarian hierarchy. In their compendious Theology of Jonathan Edwards, Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott give us another. For Edwards,

The Father is “the fountain,” “the Deity without distinction.” He is the great “author” of the plan of redemption who provided a redeemer or purchaser. Although the Father and the Son are equal in divine nature, the Father is the “head” of the persons in the Trinity and Christ’s personal head. Christ is subject to him and dependent on him. . . . Edwards departed from the Western Trinitarian tradition by rejecting its emphasis on divine simplicity, which was one of the ways in which Augustine and his successors guarded the faith against recurring Arianism. . . . In stark contrast, Edwards started not with the divine essence, as did Augustine and the rest of the West, but with the three persons. . . . In his delineation of “the economy of the Trinity” and its relation to the covenant of redemption, Edwards wrote that the Father has always been first in the order of subsistence and “head of the whole family.” Therefore he is “higher in authority” than the other persons. Their offices derive from him, so that he is God “in some peculiar sense that the others of the Trinity are not.” (pp. 194 passim)

What is most remarkable about this is not so much the opinion itself as the independence of mind manifest in the expression of the pastor and scholar thought by many to be the best theological mind America has produced, and who during the course of his life drew close to a way of thinking in many respects typical of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Keeping to the Road

The authors make note of this independence in a helpful introductory essay, where they describe “open” and “closed” system thinkers, noting that “the advantage of the open system is its prospects for new insight and development, while the risk is that later followers will imitate only the experimental method and leave behind the foundational principles” (p. 9). Edwards, they say,

exhibited a kind of dialectical fearlessness as he explored the logic of such age-old conundrums as the relation between divine sovereignty and human freedom, the meaning of secular history, the imputation of Adam’s sin to humanity, and the inner life of the Holy Trinity. Edwards’ orthodox conclusions have always appealed to theological conservatives, while his openness to fresh ways of thinking have made him attractive to theological liberals. (p. 14)

Well, perhaps, but it is mistaken to imply that, in the thought-life of a Christian man, closed-system thinking should be associated with orthodoxy. St. Anselm characterized this life as fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), which Karl Barth recognized as the phenomenology of Christian

life itself, not just an itinerarium mentis in Deum (“The Soul’s Journey into God”), but the nature of the universally assigned pilgrimage that engages the whole man. As such, it is not energized by the radical independence prized by the modern liberal, but is an elaboration that starts and ends, and is bound as a man on a road is bound by its verges, in the same Truth. The open-system thinker as a pure type is bound to overrun the margins, while the closed-system thinker, the “orthodox” as characteristically portrayed by the liberal, cannot move forward on the theotic Road.

It was Edwards’s intense piety that made his desire to keep to the Road constantly operative. His extraordinary intellectual power and the learning it acquired gave him the freedom to move comfortably within its boundaries, these qualities supplying him with the ability to compare and judge between those with high reputation among the Reformed as teachers in the great Tradition, and so find his own voice among them. As such, Edwards has in our age taken on the unexpected mantle of a theologian of ecumenical orthodoxy, bound, but lightly, to his time and place, and heavily to the faith so well and learnedly described in this book. 

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“America's Theologian” first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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