Review: Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians (Crisp)


Crisp, Oliver. Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians. Grand Rapids, MI: 2015.

Oliver Crisp paradoxically expands and summarizes key elements of his previous research. By contrasting Edwards with several Reformed thinkers, Crisp highlights some of Edwards’ unique (and sometimes bizarre) views.

Anselm and Edwards on the Doctrine of God

Anselm: God is a simple being. All attributes = to the divine essence. A perfect being can’t have parts of whatever size because they can be diminished through division (Crisp 19).

Per divine ultimacy, God’s knowledge is causal. God’s locution, therefore, isn’t a created thing. It is identical with God, since God has no parts (22). God’s knowing (and Speaking) knows by “layers of strata” (23). The nearer something is to God, the closer it is to his essence. The first layer is the divine nature itself, “an eternal act of self-reflection.” The second layer contains the instances of divine ideas. The third layer has creaturely ideas.

Edwards: while he agrees with divine simplicity, he takes the whole project in a different direction. “The world is continuously emanated by God” (YE: 526-536). Physical bodies are not such because they extend into space, pace Descartes, but because they “possess resistance.”

Edwards then moves to the odd conclusion, or rather suggestion, that in the eschaton we will be “enlarged infinitely….Deity to all intents and purposes” (31). If by this Edwards means that there will be an infinite outer range to our theosis in heaven, then fine. All of the Greek fathers taught the same thing. But in that passage he says we will have “the same simplicity” (YE 13:298). That doesn’t follow. If my parts are enlarged infinitely, I still won’t be a simple being.

Edwards on the Excellence of the Trinity

On first glance Edwards appears to follow the post-Reformation Thomist and Scotist views on God. God is a pure simple act. However, he introduces a new move: the doctrine of divine excellency. For something to be excellent, it will be irreducibly plural in aspect. It will have an aesthetic component (beauty, symmetry), a relational component (agreement), and the equality between the parts (42).

The tension is obvious: how does a pure simple act have irreducible parts? Traditional theology claims that the “irreducibility” aspect is solved by the divine persons–and Edwards certainly goes there. But he goes much further. He says that some of the divine attributes are the persons. God’s understanding is his idea is his Son. Well, we can find comments like that in Athanasius. And since, per perichoresis, each of the divine persons indwells one another, then each person has that attribute.

Crisp summarizes JE’s position:

  1. God is a simple pure act (51).
  2. God is excellent.
  3. God’s excellency is expressed in Triunity.
  4. The divine persons are the Father, the Logos, and the Agape.
  5. These three persons exhaust the distinctions in the Godhead.
  6. They share one essence.
  7. There is only one understanding and will.
  8. These do not constitute further real distinctions.
  9. The understanding of God is identical to the Son.
  10. The Will of God is identical with the Spirit (but contrast with Athanasius, who said the will of God was the Word).
  11. The divine persons indwell perichoretically.
  12. This mutual-indwelling is a person-constituting relation.

Problems with Edwards

What do we say of the “modes and relations” held in common which aren’t persons of the Trinity? Would this “remainder” constitute what is the divine essence? Crisp sees another problem: “How can the personhood of one divine person be constituted by the other two” (58)? I don’t see why this is a new problem. This is the very point of the whole Filioque! I am surprised Crisp didn’t mention the Filioque at this point. There might be some logical difficulties with it, but it is part and parcel of Western Christendom.

Arminius and Edwards on Creation

There is a rich irony in this chapter. Edwards spent much of his career attacking “Arminians,” yet Arminius was the one who actually had an orthodox view of creation. Edwards is innovative on this point, as seen in the following:

  1. God is essentially creative. God must create the world (70). This is very close to the Origenist problematic. Edwards is now hard-pressed to affirm God’s freedom and aseity.
  2. God is continually creating out of nothing. “Nothing persists through time” (74). We will come back to this problem. Premises (1) and (2) seem to imply:
  3. Edwards is a panentheist. He even says creation is emanated (and remanated) from God.

Giradeau and Edwards on Free Will

Crisp distinguishes between libertarianism simplicter and what he calls libertarian calvinism. Both hold to the following claims: determinism is inconsistent with free will, and determinism is false. They differ, though, in that Libertarian Calvinism some human actions post fall aren’t free (84). Crisp’s (and presumably Girardeau’s) claim is that there are some actions that are determined and some that are free in the libertarian sense, and that we are responsible.

Edwards’ view on free will is well-known, so I will only highlight one aspect of it. There is no faculty psychology. “Will” is just another way of speaking of an agent’s doing something. Further, there is no indifference.

Girardeau’s view is a bit more complex, but Crisp neatly summarizes it (106):

  1. Adam and Eve were created with LFW.
  2. After the fall humans are in bondage
  3. This bondage places certain choices out of our reach.
  4. We no longer have LFW with respect to God without a prior intervention of grace.
  5. We still have LFW with regard to some moral choices.

As Edwards denies contingency, it’s hard to see how he can avoid making God the direct author of sin with regard to (1). In which case the Covenant of Works is a mockery.

Original Sin, Again

Like all Augustinians, Edwards has to explain how God can legitimately hold me guilty for something I didn’t do. Edwards initial answer, like WGT Shedd’s, is that the real is the foundation of the legal. I am really in Adam, so I really did sin. Edwards, however, takes this in a new direction: Adam and his progeny are one metaphysical whole (113). Let’s try to unpack this:

  1. Adam and I are one metaphysical whole.
  2. God creates continuously.
  3. Therefore, created things can’t continue in time, unless they are bound together by God’s reconstituting them.
  4. This reconstituting God counts as one entity.

There are some major problems with this. If God’s reconstituting humanity at each new moment does all the heavy lifting, then why is there any need for a metaphysical oneness with Adam? Couldn’t God just view it like that? “Divine fiat is doing all the explanatory work” (121). Further, it appears that not only is God recreating the world at every moment, he is creating sin at every moment. This is a fatal price to pay.


Crisp wants to defend Edwards’s relative orthodoxy, but he knows he can only do so by modifying some of Edwards’ claims. Edwards is forced upon the following dilemma: he must either abandon the classical view of divine simplicity or accept panentheism. Edwards’ dissertation The End for Which God Created the World is on first glance panentheist. You can’t say things like the world is an “emanation” of God and not be panentheist. And panentheism, of course, is incompatible with divine simplicity. It makes creation “a part” of God, and God doesn’t have parts.

Crisp explores this dilemma and mostly salvages Edwards’ reputation.

If JE rejects the strong version of divine simplicity, he could say something like God is similar to a soul in immateriality and distinct mental states. While this is a stark move away from Reformed orthodoxy, it does stem the tide of panentheism. The lesser evil, I suppose.

We still have the problem of occasionalism. JE could jettison it, to be sure, but it forms the basis of his metaphysics concerning sin. Crisp summarizes the occasionalist claims:

  1. God is the only causal agent. “The actions of created agents are only ‘occasions’ of divine action” (177ff).
  2. God is the only moral agent. Since created beings don’t persist through time, they don’t exist long enough to be the cause of any moral action.
  3. God is causally but not morally responsible for evil

The problem is obvious: if God is the only causal agent, and God is the only moral agent, then (3) is wrong.

This critique of Edwards should not diminish his reputation or sheer power as a thinker. He is that rare breed of Reformed theologian: an actual constructive thinker engaged in high levels of metaphysics. Even where he is wrong–occasionalism + continuous creation–he advances new ideas, even at times creating new metaphysical systems (at least from a reformed perspective).


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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1 Response to Review: Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians (Crisp)

  1. Pingback: Saving Calvinism (Oliver Crisp) | Theological Geometry

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