The Covenant Theology of Jonathan Edwards: Law, Gospel, and Evangelical Obedience, by Paul J. Hoehner. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021. Pp. xxxii + 330. $42.00 (softcover). ISBN: 978- 1725281578. [Reviewed by David J. Engelsma]
The reader of this journal will readily understand that this volume leaped off the book table into this reviewer’s hands and clamored to be reviewed in the journal to which he is permitted access. The publisher did not send a copy for review. But the reviewer became aware of the book at a Puritan conference. He bought it.
It is not the theology of Jonathan Edwards as such, but it is the covenant theology of Edwards. It is a volume, therefore, that promises to set forth the doctrinal thought of Edwards on the covenant in a more or less comprehensive form by a learned Edwards scholar. The book offers escape from wading through the voluminous Edwards in order to ascertain the great Puritan’s theology on the fundamental doctrine of the covenant. Even if one would have to disagree, learning Edwards’ theology of the covenant would be rewarding.
Hence, this review.
The book fulfills its promise. Not only does it summarize (as much as is possible), vigorously defend, and carefully explain Edwards’ doctrine of the covenant, but it also convincingly contends that all of Edwards’ theology is covenantal. Edwards viewed all the revelation of Holy Scripture as embraced in the framework of the covenant of God in Jesus Christ. In short, biblical truth is covenantal. The covenant theology of Jonathan Edwards is all of theology in light of the covenant.
The question then is, what for Jonathan Edwards is the covenant? Here, at the crucial point, the book disappoints. The fault is not that of the author, but that of Edwards himself. For Edwards is not clear and consistent. At one time, he speaks of the covenant as a relationship of fellowship of Christ and the believer, rooted in the communion of the Father and the Son in the triune being of the Godhead; at other times, he speaks of a contract. At one time, he refers to three distinct covenants, that of the Father and the Son as a covenant of redemption in eternity, that of a covenant of works with Adam in Paradise before his fall, and that of a covenant of grace between Christ and the church; at other times, he stresses the unity of the covenant, with three phases. And at one time, he insists that the covenant is conditional; at other times, he denies that the covenant is conditional, strictly speaking, and affirms the unconditionality of the covenant as a covenant of grace.
It is especially this last description of the covenant that interests this reviewer, and that ought to be of great importance to contemporary Reformed and Presbyterian theologians. Evidently, Edwards taught that faith and obedience are conditions of a [covenantal] salvation, thus jeopardizing the fundamental gospel-truth of justification by faith alone. Edwards wrote:
Universal and persevering obedience is as directly proposed to be sought and endeavored by us, in Scripture, as necessary to salvation [and] as the condition of our salvation, as faith in Jesus Christ. (261)
He becomes emphatic: “To suppose that there are any promises of the covenant of grace, or any covenant promises, that are not conditional promises seems an absurdity and contradiction” (160). As vigorously as the author exerts himself to deliver Edwards from the charge that such statements of the conditionality of the covenant and of its blessing of justification teach the dependency of justification and salvation upon the sinner, he—the author—is compelled to acknowledge Edwards’ doctrine of a dependency of the covenant upon the sinner:
The Covenant of Grace [in Edwards—DJE] does, once consented to, place demands on the believer, including a persevering in faith as exhibited by a progressive growth in holiness (sanctification). But those conditions of the Covenant of Grace between Christ and the believer are also the promises of the Covenant of Redemption…The elect believer’s “working” faith, as the ground for union with Christ’s justification…. (272)
Such was Edwards’ teaching of the necessity of good works in the matter of justification that the author himself, defensive of the orthodoxy of Edwards to a fault, admits that on this subject namely, justification, Edwards is “confusing” and “prone to misinterpretations” (260). Although the author does not mean it so, this judgment is damning. No orthodox Protestant theologian may be “confusing” on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, without works. Besides, Edwards’ teaching that “works are ‘necessary conditions’ for justification” does not seem “confusing”—heretical, but not confusing (289).
In addition to the disturbing, un-reformed, and anti-creedal statements regarding fundamental truths of Scripture noted above, Edwards was not averse to explaining justification as the “infusion” of righteousness. “Edwards uses the term ‘infusion’ in his discussions on justification.” “Edwards uses the term ‘infusion’ or ‘physical infusion’ [in explaining justification—DJE] throughout his writings” (241). The author denies that Edwards meant by “infusion” the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, but words have established, creedal, and traditional meaning in theology, and Edwards knew the linguistic issue and the traditional controversy over “infusion” and “imputation” between Rome and Protestantism. In addition, was not Jonathan Edwards bound by the Reformed and Presbyterian creeds, which explicitly confess justification as “imputed” righteousness and explicitly condemn the teaching of “infused” righteousness? (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.1: “not by infusing righteousness into them”). Ignoring the language of the Protestant tradition and of the creeds, to create a theology de novo smacks of arrogance, which also is a sin.
This ignoring and then contradicting the Reformed and Presbyterian creeds, not only regarding describing justification as the “infusion” of righteousness, but also regarding other fundamental aspects of Protestant theology, was a grievous fault of Edwards. Seldom did he begin his investigation and development of a doctrine by examining what the creeds confess concerning that doctrine. Nor did he allow the creeds to govern his theology. One gets the distinct impression that Edwards considered himself a theologian who was above the creeds, or, at least, an authority alongside the creeds.
The same questionable independency of theological thought characterized Edwards’ doctrine of the Mosaic covenant, including the Ten Commandments. Granting the difficulty of locating the Mosaic covenant within the overall revelation of the biblical doctrine of the covenant of grace and the differences of explanation of the Mosaic covenant by Reformed theologians, whether a repetition of the Adamic covenant or a form of the covenant of grace, Edwards’ conception of the Mosaic covenant is unique, and dubious. As is characteristic of Edwards, he embraces neither of the two main options but proposes a unique view of his own.
The Mosaic covenant, which includes all the laws delivered to Moses, was
another covenant that Edwards calls the covenant of God with Israel in the flesh…This is a “national” covenant made with an “external” temporal society that is characterized by its “this worldly” orientation. As external and carnal, it is solely concerned with Israel’s outward safety (from foreign invasion and captivity) and prosperity, having nothing to do with the internal salvation of individual believers. The blessings were external and carnal, involving the inheritance and life of Israel in Canaan and only pertained to Israel as a nation during this particular historic period. The stipulations of this covenant, in keeping with its external and carnal orientation, involved an outward and external conformity to the law of God, to the moral law as well as to the external and carnal laws embodied in the ceremonial and judicial law, along with an external and carnal worship. (203)
“This covenant was a ‘mixed covenant,’ partaking of the nature of both the Covenant of Works and of Grace” (203), but distinct from both as referring only to external behavior and merely to earthly blessings and curses. This invention of Edwards may be named, in distinction from the Adamic covenant and the covenant of grace, the temporary, carnal covenant of fleshly Israel.
Contributing to what clarity of conception of Edwards’ theological thought there is, in addition to the author’s own explanations, are the author’s apt references to acknowledged experts in the field of Edwards studies, very much including John H. Gerstner.
Edwards was constitutionally incapable of simplifying and thus clarifying a biblical doctrine. Perhaps his brilliance unfitted him for this instructional virtue. On the contrary, the truth being considered is more complicated at the conclusion of Edwards’ study than it was when first he applied his mind to it. Edwards’ gift was the discovery of the fullest depths and most intricate inter-relations of all aspects of the truth under consideration. Reading Edwards is demanding, and dizzying.
With regard to the nature of the covenant, Edwards had profound insights that subsequent theologians could explore profitably in their own development of the doctrine. Developing a consistently sound, unified, and clear doctrine of the covenant, originating in the Trinity and culminating in the unconditional (that is, gracious) covenant of God in Christ with the elect church, awaited later (Dutch Reformed) theologians. Their names would be Herman Bavinck and Herman Hoeksema.