Jonathan Edwards on the Atonement (Review)

It is well known that some of Edward’s followers, sometimes known as the New Divinity, advocated for a view of atonement known as the “governmental theory” or according to Oliver Crisp, penal non-substitution.  This view (in its orthodox form) was first proposed by Hugo Grotius. He suggested that Christ acted as a penal example, demonstrating God’s aversion to sin and paying respect to God’s law. One Edwardsean, Amasa Park picked up this governmental theory and ran full speed with it, even outlining the theory in nine propositions.

Even though its commonly accepted that the New Divinity saw themselves as developing jonathanedwardsontheatonement__76739-1490203753-315-315their governmental theory in light of Edwards’s doctrine, academic debates rage as to whether Edwards’s followers were actually following Edwards’s trajectory in this area or whether they significantly departed from his thought.  For example, B.B. Warfield argued that the Edwardseans forsook Edwards’s teachings. John Gerstner argued that they though they followed Edwards but had no justification in saying so. Finally, and more recently, Oliver Crisp has argued that Edwards knew and approved of these Edwardsean ideas. Brandon Crawford, author of Jonathan Edwards on the Atonement, enters into this debate by offering an in depth account of Edwards’s theory of atonement. His hope is that by focusing on Edwards we will be in a better position to evaluate how his legacy was received.

In order to carry out his aims Crawford begins by setting the historical context of Edwards’s doctrine of atonement. He does this by surveying early and medieval accounts (ch. 1), Reformation and Puritan accounts (ch. 2), and alternative perspectives in the Reformation and Puritan eras (ch. 3). A few questions arose in my mind as I read this section. Did he try to survey too many perspectives? Probably. What makes “alternative perspectives” to be “alternative?” I’m not sure. I also had a few critiques of these sections. One major one is that I think he reads penal substitution too heavily into his early sources. Yes, PSA is there in some form, but not in the full blown sense Crawford wants it to be. I think his overemphasis on the presence of PSA is an important move for Crawford. He needs PSA to be the standard atonement theory in order to say that in downplaying or ignoring PSA the Edwardseans were being unfaithful to orthodoxy.

After three chapters of historical context Crawford finally gets to the heart of the matter: Edwards’s doctrine of atonement. He begins with a chapter addressing Edwards’s theology of God’s glory. Although it is an accurate overview of the topic he hardly engages with any scholarship on the topic, he also doesn’t do a great job of connecting the topic of this chapter to the main topic of the book: atonement. The connection is there but it is not very explicit. The next two chapters present Edwards’s account of salvation history and his definition of sin (ch.5) and the Penal Substitutionary nature of Edwards’s doctrine (Ch. 6). This latter chapter was the most interesting. Here he shows that Edwards conceived of atonement mainly as 1) Penal Substitution and 2) Penal Example. Crawford says, “Edwards believed that Christ’s death also served as a penal example, publicly vindicating God’s honor and law, which God also required before sin’s penalty could be fully satisfied.” (119) Crawford concludes:

Edwards’s doctrine of atonement, then, included two prominent concepts: Christ as penal substitute and Christ as penal example. As the two concepts are placed side by side it becomes apparent that these ideas were not contradictory in Edwards’s mind, but complementary.

Crawford follows up on this chapter with a chapter addressing other themes in Edwards’s doctrine of atonement. However, chapter 6 sticks out as the most significant, at least in my mind, for addressing the debate about Edwards’s legacy.

Crawford’s conclusion about Edwards’s legacy is that Edwards was classically Reformed and that his followers deviated from Edwards’s reformed orthodoxy. According to Crawford, Edwards bears some responsibility for this, as he “may not have sufficiently guarded against the separation of the substitution and governmental components of his system… Yet Edwards does not bear all of the responsibility. He is not responsible for how his words may have been misunderstood by his successors after they took possessions of his manuscripts.” (140). This is a fair and even-keeled conclusion, which I think is argued for persuasively in chapter 6. However, I think it could have been argued for in a journal article rather than in a whole book.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.


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