What model of the Trinity did Jonathan Edwards employ in his theology? How did Edwards’ Trinitarianism shape the rest of his theological program? How did Edwards’ emphases on the end for which God created the world, religious affections, and the remanation of God’s glory cohere in this New England divine’s creative mind?
Kyle Strobel, Assistant Professor at Biola University, explores these questions—and many related lines of inquiry—in his work Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation, vol. 19 in T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Ian A. McFarland, and Ivor Davidson (London: T&T Clark, 2013; source: publisher). In Strobel’s volume, readers will find an erudite treatment of Edwards’ theology that explores and reframes the details of his thought in the light of his Trinitarian and redemptive emphases.
To be sure, Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation leads readers into deep theological waters, and a short review cannot do its contents justice. Nonetheless, I’d like to highlight a few key elements of the book.
As his title suggests, Strobel primarily aims to offer a reinterpretation of Edwards’ theology. His basic argument is that we can best understand the “metanarrative” of Edwards’ thought by seeing how his Trinitarian theology drives his understanding of the glory of God (17). In this schema, God’s glory emanates to created beings—with a view toward creation and consummation—and remanates back to God—visible in the regeneration and religious affections of the saints. To understand this reinterpretation, one must grasp Strobel’s particular take on Edwards’ Trinitarianism, which he describes as “personal beatific-delight,” in contrast to a psychological (or mutual-love) model of the Trinity and a social model of the Trinity. In his model, Strobel emphasizes God’s nature as persons, Christ’s beatific vision of God that he shares with the saints, and the delight in that vision that Edwards equates with the Holy Spirit (26).
But why is this proposal a “reinterpretation”? In short, Strobel engages Edwards scholarship at length throughout his book, outlining how his scheme differs from and corrects other scholarly interpretations of Edwards’ thought. Strobel himself puts it blatantly in the acknowledgements, where he admits, “in this volume I ‘go after’ almost everyone!” (xi). And he does—from Sang Hyun Lee, Amy Plantinga Pauw, and Michael McClymond to William Danaher, Paul Helm, and Steven Studebaker. This approach allows readers to grasp where Strobel stands on various theological debates within Edwards studies and sets him in a unique place among the other major scholars of Edwards’ Trinitarianism.
I appreciated a number of elements in Strobel’s volume. First and foremost, I believe he rightly seeks to understand Edwards in his time, setting him in his immediate Reformed context. This approach means that identifying the recent theological debates within Reformed circles helps us understand Edwards’ thought better than trying to associate him too quickly with intriguing parallels from the medieval church. As Strobel puts it, “the Jonathan Edwards of history is the Jonathan Edwards found in his corpus—a Reformed theologian, pastor, apologist and, missionary who interpreted all reality through the lens of the gospel and, ultimately, God’s own life” (2). He returns to this theme throughout his work (see, e.g., 88, 91, 152, 180, 205–206, 230).
In addition, I appreciated Strobel’s emphasis on how Edwards’ Trinitarianism drives his theology. While “Edwards’s theology is a theology of redemption” (5), Strobel lays out that redemptive vision in tandem with his understanding of the Trinity. Thus Strobel, for example, explores religious affections theologically “as an aspect of God’s work of redemption” (210) and connects the affections with his Trinitarian theology: “God’s life as personal beatific-delight finds its anthropological parallel in religious affection, and affection, through the Spirit’s work of union, illumination and infusion, is the locus of God’s self-glorification through the creature” (209).
An example may help draw these elements together. Edwards described God as progressively revealing himself in the heavenly realms to both the angels and the saints in his beatific vision. And set in the context of Reformed theological discussions (specifically Francis Turretin and John Owen), Edwards achieved, Strobel argues, a truly Trinitarian account of the beatific vision, a vision that included both Christ (where Turretin did not) and the Holy Spirit (where both Owen and Turretin did not). For Edwards, the saints see God by beholding Christ, yet because they are incorporated into the body of Christ, they behold God the Father as the Son beholds him. The Holy Spirit uniquely makes this possible by filling up the saints and enabling them to enjoy God with the love that is the Holy Spirit. This example illustrates how, in Strobel’s interpretation, Edwards’ view of the Trinity shaped his theology of heaven and revelation in its Reformed context.
As it may be clear at this point, readers of this blog should be aware that much of the volume speaks to scholarly debates and involves thick theological formulations. While Strobel seeks to “cut through the fog of Edwards interpretation” with his interpretive scheme, the density of the topic makes the pursuit of a cloudless sky quite a feat (2).
That said, Strobel’s Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation offers an intriguing look at Edwards’ Trinitarian, redemptive theology that helps readers explore both the terrain of Edwards’ thought and the state of scholarship on Edwards’ theology today.
*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.