Book Review: The New England Theology

The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park. Edited by Douglas A. Sweeney and Allen C. Guelzo. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. 320 pages. $29.99/hardback.

(Review copy courtesy of Baker Academic.)

ne_theology.jpgPurchase: Baker Academic | Amazon | CBD

Special Features: Bibliographic references and index

ISBNs: 0801027098 / 978-0801027093

LCCN: BX7250.N49 2006

DCN: 230’.580974

Subject(s): New England Theology; Edwards, Jonathan, 1703-1759; Calvinism; New Divinity Theology; Congregational churches—Doctrines.

Douglas A. Sweeney (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University) is associate professor and chair of the church history and the history of Christian thought department and director of the Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Allen C. Guelzo (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College.

What is the legacy of Jonathan Edwards? The accomplishments of his biological posterity are well-known—scores of college presidents, doctors, lawyers, judges, preachers, and even one vice president. But what about his theological legacy? Edwards was arguably America’s foremost philosopher theologian. Who followed in his theological train, and where did they end up? Would it surprise you to find Charles Finney and his followers claiming to be the rightful heirs of Edwardian theology? They may not be that far off-base according to Douglas Sweeney and Allen Guelzo, editors of The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park.

In their book, Sweeney and Guelzo trace the development of the New England Theology from the “well-spring” of Jonathan Edwards in the mid-1700’s to the “last of the consistent Calvinists,” Jonathan Amasa Park, in the mid-1800’s. There are other good books that explore this roughly 100-year span of American theological history (e.g., America’s God by Mark Noll and Theology in America by E. Brooks Holifield), but this book is notable in that the authors present the actual writings of the key theological players of that era. We get to read excerpts from Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., Nathanael Emmons, John Smalley, Timothy Dwight, Nathaniel Taylor, Charles Finney, and Edwards Amasa Park, among others. There is some analysis, but on the whole, this book lets the key figures plead their case with their own writings.

Jonathan Edwards and his immediate predecessors faced several complex challenges due to the religious landscape of the day. On the one hand, there were a significant number of unsaved church members due to the “half-way covenant” and other compromises instituted to keep the colonial population members in what amounted to the “state churches” of New England congregationalism. On the other, there were the widespread effects of the Great Awakening, including emotional expressions (both legitimate and contrived) of Spirit-led conviction, conversion, and revival. Edwards and his disciples wrote to deal with these challenges.

Sweeney and Guelzo begin their book with excerpts from Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Bellamy, and Samuel Hopkins as they address these concerns. They include, for example, Edwards’ Religious Affections, Bellamy’s True Religion Delineated, and Hopkins’ An Inquiry into the Nature of True Holiness. These writings were an attempt to explain the nature of the new birth and to identify legitimate evidences of such. In a deft move, Sweeney and Guelzo give us not only a glimpse into these major works but also examples of what that true piety looked like to these men. The examples consist of excerpts from two personal journals, Edwards’ famous An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd and the less-known journal of one Sarah Osborn. Of note is a remarkable 45-stanza poem by Mrs. Osborn in which she meditates on the delights of a believer as he enters into heaven.

In addition to the aforementioned concerns, there was the ever-present desire on the part of these men and those who followed to make their theology reasonable, especially in regard to the sovereignty of God in salvation, the imputation of sin and righteousness, and the nature of the atonement. Jonathan Edwards, for example, in his Freedom of the Will, from which we get to read an excerpt, explains the difference between natural and moral inability in an attempt to show that God is not unjust to condemn those with no moral ability in themselves to turn from sin to the savior. There is no physical or natural restraint that prevents them from responding properly to divine truth, only their corrupt hearts. From this “well-spring” came the development of a post-Edwards theology, the New Divinity, and eventually what became known as the New England Theology.

It is fascinating and sometimes shocking to watch the development of this theology. In the very next generation, you had men such as Nathan Strong questioning the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as the basis of our justification because it could “turn the grace of GOD into licentiousness” (p. 112; contra Romans 6, I might add) and Nathanael Emmons taking the Edwardian concept of natural ability and extending it to a practical denial of the sin nature and the need for spiritual illumination. He says in The Duty of Sinners to Make Themselves a New Heart that “if sinners are free and voluntary in making them a new heart, then regeneration is not a miraculous or supernatural work” and “there is a plain absurdity in calling the renovation of the heart a miraculous or supernatural change” (p. 121). These ideas led to a rejection of the forensic view of justification and necessitated a change in their view of the atonement.

No longer propitiatory in nature, the atonement, according to Stephen West in The Scripture Doctrine of Atonement, was designed to “discover his [God’s] infinite hatred of iniquity” and thus uphold the honor of His “moral government” (p. 137). John Smalley went so far as to say that it was a “wrong idea” to suppose the atonement “to be like the payment of a debt, or the making of a purchase between man and man.” Thus he rejected the particular nature of redemption while arguing for the “sufficiency of the death of Christ to atone for the sins of all men” (p. 147).

The New England theologians wrestled with the concept of man’s sin nature, particularly where that nature came from and the extent of its depravity. Nathanael Emmons was an Exerciser in that he believed that “all moral agency consists in choosing” (p. 173) so that “moral depravity consists in the free, voluntary exercises of a moral agent” (p. 177). Asa Burton on the other hand was a Taster. He argued that “the whole man is governed” by a “feeling” or an “active faculty … from which all his exercises and actions proceed” (p. 186). In other words, it was a natural and depraved taste that led to sinful choices. At issue was the integrity of God’s character. Can God legitimately hold man responsible for sin if man by nature cannot help but sin?

These concerns eventually lead to the denial of the imputation of sin by Nathaniel Taylor in his Concio Ad Clerum (“Charge to the Clergy”). “Nor does the moral depravity of men consist in a sinful nature, which they have corrupted by being one with Adam, and by acting in his act” (p. 196). Interestingly, he leans upon both Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Bellamy for support, thus demonstrating the ultimate source of his theology, even if he departed from their actual views.

Edwards and Bellamy did not deny imputation, but their philosophical reasoning laid the foundation for future doctrinal aberrations. Reading the theological works of these New Haven theologians, I am struck by the lack of exegetical support for their positions. Now it may be that the excerpts in this book just happen to leave that part out, and certainly Edwards used plenty of exegesis in his works, but he was also a philosopher; and it really appears that these men went astray by following the philosophy example of their forefather, rather than by determining their theology by grappling with the biblical text. That may be an unfair criticism, but it is one that is hard to avoid when one reads statements like, “To what purpose do we preach the Gospel to men, if we cannot reach the conscience with is charge of guilt and obligations to duty?” (p. 202, Nathan Taylor). This type of thing is human reasoning, not biblical conclusion. Edwards Amasa Park basically says as much when he writes in his New England Theology that “New England divinity has been marked by strong, practical common sense” (p. 261).

Even though the book ends with works from Edwards Amasa Park and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the most intriguing aspect of the New England Theology comes with the presentation of Charles Finney and his student James Fairchild. Even in their day, the theological aberrations of their movement required them to defend those positions from attack. Finney’s divergent views on the atonement, justification, and man-centered evangelistic methods are well-known. What may not be as well known is that both he and Fairchild defended their theology on the basis of the New England Theology that developed from Jonathan Edwards. Sweeny and Guelzo do a good job of bringing this connection to light.

In many ways, this book is all about that connection. For the most part, each selection contributed well to the overall theme of the book. There were a few chapters, however, that seemed out of place or at least unnecessary. The sections on New England missionary endeavors and their opposition to slavery, while interesting, did not contribute much to the basic purpose. The last section dealing with the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe also seemed out of place except to show a contemporary understanding of the typical New England minister.

Each generation faces many of the same philosophical objections to sound doctrine that the New England theologians faced. There is nothing new under the sun. If we don’t want to end up where Finney ended up, perhaps we should not start down the same path. The value of works such as this is that we can observe historical concerns, study their arguments, and see how a philosophy of doing theology works out. For me it demonstrated anew the need to steadfastly hold to sound theology and find a way to effectively pass that theology down to successive generations. The New England Theology is thus recommended, both for historical study and present day application.

Andy EftingAndy Efting attends Grace Baptist Church (Dacula, GA) where he serves as deacon, treasurer, and Adult Sunday school teacher. He has degrees in Mathematics from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Clemson University (Clemson, SC) and currently works for Emory University (Atlanta, GA) as a Network Security Analyst. He is married to Daphne and has three wonderful children—JD, Jennifer, and Anna Grace.
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