Tag Archives: governmental theory

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.

Locating Atonement

[This is the final “Atonement Week” blog post.]

This past Thursday and Friday I attended The 3rd annual Los Angeles Theology Conference – the topic was “Locating Atonement.” I especially enjoyed Ben Myers’ Atonement & the Image of God and Michael Horton’s Atonement and Ascension. Ben’s lecture was really stimulating, especially in light of the research I’m doing on T.F. Torrance’s view on universals. Matthew Levering was a lot wittier Los Angeles Theology Conference - LATCthan I expected. Eleanore Stump’s lecture stumped me (how many times has that been said!), mainly because no body responded to her synergistic account of salvation. But Bruce McCormack’s lecture (by the way Bruce is gigantic, and not just compared to me…) elicited a concerned response from me. At one point in his lecture Bruce said that atonement is located in the crucifixion, and not in the resurrection. Initially that doesn’t seem so bothersome – of course atonement happens on the cross! Duh! But then I got to thinking (in a rather Torrencian fashion), “Doesn’t atonement happen over Christ’s the whole life lived? Isn’t the incarnation a part of atonement? Isn’t his life a part of atonement? Isn’t his resurrection and ascension a part of atonement?” I know I am making some rather Torrencian presuppositions (namely that atonement occurs involves union + recapitulation and can be cashed out in something like the vicarious humanity of Christ); but even for people who don’t follow T.F. Torrance’s logic it would seem to me that Atonement can’t be exclusively located on the cross!

Let me make my self clear – I’m not denying what P.T. Forsyth called the “cruciality of the cross” – I follow Paul in declaring that we are to preach Christ crucified. I too have chosen to know nothing but Christ crucified. But, that does not me that I believe atonement is located exclusively at the cross as Bruce McCormack wants to suggest.

Let me break this down….

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

  • Necessary Condition: A necessary condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that must be satisfied in order for S to obtain.
  • Sufficient Condition: A sufficient condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that, if satisfied, guarantees that S obtains.

Here are a couple of examples.

  • Having gasoline in the gas tank is a necessary condition for me to drive to work.
  • Being 18 years old is a necessary condition for a person to serve in the military.


  • Being 18 years old is not a necessary and sufficient condition to serve in the military, one would need to meet certain health requirements too.
  • Having gasoline in the gas tank is not a necessary and sufficient condition to drive to work, one needs to have tires as well.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Atonement

Lets assume for a second that atonement literally means “at-one-ment.” It signifies something like the reconciliation between God and man. (I’m not going to explain the mechanism by which this happens, you can fill this out with your own mechanism/theory.) We might want to ask whether or not the crucifixion of Christ is a necessary condition for atonement to occur. I think the answer is a simple yes. I can’t think of a single (orthodox) atonement theory which would say that atonement can happen without the cross. Penal substitution, satisfaction, christus victor, moral exemplar, recapitulation, governmental theory, and vicarious humanity theories all make clear that the cross is crucial to atonement in some way. Alright, so we might now ask – is the crucifixion of Christ a sufficient condition for atonement? This is a crucial question, because if we answer in the negative, then we have to say that some other condition or event is necessary for atonement and then we can’t say that atonement is located solely on the cross. Well lets start with this question: If Christ was not tempted by Satan, and came out victorious would atonement have happened? Some theories would say no. Allright, now another question: If Christ had not undergone an unjust trial, would atonement have happened? Again, some theories would say no. If the ascension would not have happened would atonement have been made complete? Again, some theories want to say no! Now, one final important question: If Christ had been crucified and not resurrected would atonement have been made? Paul is clear in saying: No! If Christ is not raised then our faith is in vain. Why is it in vain? Because atonement has not been made! The resurrection is a necessary condition for atonement!

What does this all mean? It means that the crucifixion is not a necessary and sufficient condition for atonement (you at least need to add resurrection to it). Thus we can’t say that Atonement is strictly located on the cross. You cannot separate the cross from the resurrection when speaking of atonement. Sorry Bruce.