Was Jonathan Edwards Slippery on Justification?
Jonathan Edwards enjoys rockstar status among many evangelicals. After all, the 18th-century pastor from Northampton, Massachusetts, is arguably the greatest theologian America has ever produced. But when you dig deeply into his writings, you might quietly wonder, Was Edwards heterodox on the crucial issue of justification? Jonathan Edwards and Justification (Crossway, 2012), edited by Josh Moody, is a new book intended to explore this controversial question from an array of angles.
I corresponded with Moody, senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, about Edwards's views on the subject, how Edwards conceived of the relationship between justification and sanctification, the risky beauty of creativity, and more.
What are some popular misconceptions about Edwards's view on justification?
Where to start! In general terms, Edwards tends to be seen through the lens of his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and this has the effect of distorting people's view of Edwards if their understanding of that sermon isn't encased in grace. In particular, people tend to think Edwards's doctrine of justification is either heterodox (risqué, on the edge of diverging from the traditional view) or thoroughly traditional in every way. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between, though it's hard work to locate exactly where that truth lies. Edwards' doctrine of justification was traditional in the sense that he held to the Protestant Reformed standard of biblical interpretation on the matter, but as was typical for Edwards in many areas of his work, he was more than willing to express that position with creativity according to his own lights.
Why are we, as you put it, "especially rewarded" by studying what Edwards thought about justification?
I think Edwards helps shape the doctrine of justification in ways that address some of the critiques of the traditional view without moving one inch from what I understand to be the biblical view. I suspect that at a theological level, in that crossover space between the pastoral and the academic, few matters in recent years have achieved more attention than justification. While some of the heat has probably dissipated, the debate has positioned us to see with better clarity the light regarding Edwards's approach to justification.
Why did Edwards speak in terms of an "infusion" of righteousness? Hadn't the Westminster divines decried this language a century earlier?
Yes, they had, but Edwards was always willing to "push the envelope" a little and employ language in his own way for his own purpose. As you say, that was a century or so before Edwards and in a very different context, though of course the language would be familiar to all those in Edwards's "camp." I address this matter at some length in the book, but in broad strokes Edwards is tackling one of his major bugbears at the time, which wasn't so much latent Roman Catholicism but Deism and what he called Arminianism---generally speaking, the rationalizing effects of the Enlightenment. So by using this language, Edwards, as his "Miscellanies" and elsewhere make clear, is referring to regeneration, the divine and supernatural light, and the reality of Christ in us. In essence, he's placing the discussion of justification in the context of Galatians 2:20, and that's a helpful thing to do.
What prevents Edwards's undeniable creativity from rendering him heterodox on justification?
He is not "creative" with the doctrine; he is creative with how he expresses it to answer the questions of his day. Those who are looking for someone just to repeat ad infinitum the form of words of the past will always find Edwards a little uncomfortable, if not confusing. But those who are glad that you can have a brain and employ it while still being a "sound" Christian will rejoice in the unusual gifts God gave Edwards.
For Edwards, what's the relationship between justification and sanctification/Christian living?
Generally speaking, I would say that for Edwards the "fruit" of Christian living is a result of the "seed" of the gospel being accepted by faith alone. Sanctification is a necessary sign of having been converted. Basically Edwards takes this teaching of Jesus (fruit and tree in the Sermon on the Mount), of Paul (fruit of the Spirit in Galatians), and of the English Puritans (who used it extensively in their pastoralia as they were famed "doctors of the souls") and applies it to assessing the at-the-time highly controversial movement of the Great Awakening. That's what all the books (Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Religious Affections, etc.) and sermons on assessing revival are basically about.