Kyle Strobel - "Joanthan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought"
8:55PM Jul 7, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
We are honored today to be speaking with Kyle Strobel. Kyle Strobel is Associate Professor of spiritual theology at Talbot School of Theology. Dr. Strobel, welcome. Hey, thanks so much. We're really glad to have you with us. And on the side, how did you feel about your film performance as a small child in the recent Christ film,
I can tell you this, nothing could have prepared me for the weirdness of sitting in a movie theater watching myself be born.
I tell you that that is incredible. Because probably it is indeed an honor to be speaking with you. And we're delighted today to be speaking the book that you wrote with Oliver crisp, Jonathan Edwards, and introduction to his thought, produced by Oliver crisp and Kyle Strobel. I can trouble let's just jump straight into it if we've made so Jonathan Edwards is said to be not only one of the greatest theologians to be born and bred on American soil, but also one of the greatest philosophers. In your view, what aspect of Jonathan Edwards legacy best showcases this extraordinary genius?
Yeah, well, Edwards, you know, it's funny the way he's been received. I think a lot of that, particularly on the philosophical side, if you look at the secondary literature in the legacy and Edward studies, we have such a massive amount of work done on AdWords today. And it all stems from Perry Miller, an atheist, who basically is looking at Edwards thinking man, if only this guy would have been a poet instead of a pastor. And he sees his theology as a detriment to his genius. And so I think in a lot of ways, you know, Edwards Edwards is one of the great minds. But what's funny about that, I don't think I don't think we could doubt that. I mean, I think he is genuinely one of the, you know, I don't know top 10 minds in church history. But his corpus isn't written that way. Right. It's not like he's just mute, you know, writing these highly sophisticated intellectual works all the time. Like he's mostly preaching. You know, one of his most famous works that have never been out of print to this day is the life of David Brainard. You know, it's like, this is, you know, Edwards, as a pastor theologian, had a real orientation towards these developments on the ground of caring for his people. And so while he could turn into a purely philosophical mode, I mean, you think of a work like true virtue, or in some of his work on Original Sin, you get this highly philosophical and many times peculiar sort of philosophy of the enlightenment. He shows his intellect and he really is working in a conversation that is European, you think of this post Locke kind of discussion of folks like male branch like Barclay and Edwards is is doing that kind of work, but I But I kind of think it is on the a little bit on the side of his thinking. I mean, he, we're getting a lot of it from his notebooks. He's not publishing the bulk of it. I mean, this Edwards, I think, as a person was much more captivated by the, by the theological ideas and what drove him into the philosophical discussions was that he lives in a world, particularly an intellectual world that couldn't kind of contain the Christian, particularly the reformed view of reality. And so suddenly, he's presented a world and he has to figure out how do I maintain a distinctively kind of reformed view, when we have this kind of mechanistic causation. Now, when we have this post Newton kind of idea that this world is this series of kind of gears almost, it's like, well, what is what is left for God to do? And so Edwards is constantly turning to these philosophical notions in order to say what he wants to say theologically and so on. tend to look at Edwards as a theologian first and foremost, who had the kind of wildly impressive philosophical mind. And yet, I think a legacy that sees him primarily as a philosopher is more of a secular one that wants to see him in the vein of kind of a theoretical version of Ben Franklin or something. This kind of, you know, great mine on the on the wilderness front. Whereas I see Edwards much more as this churchmen who is trying to wield his intellect for the glory of God in whatever comes up and it comes his way whether that's the revivals, whether that's Brainerd dying on his couch, whether you know, its original sin being kind of undermined by these great texts that he takes on I mean, it's, it's Edwards trying to be faithful and whatever the Lord is kind of brought his way in a very theological vein that takes on this very philosophical structure to it. Thank you so much, Dr. Strobel, Dr. Strobel, if I'm hearing you rightly, I'm hearing the Jonathan Edwards
with his voracious mind is putting things together that that create a friction or create a problem for his reformed theological positions. And he's reaching out to philosophical resources in order to massage those back into order or to create continuity. Again, if I'm hearing you rightly on that, what are some of the the, the the impetus is for this, that these problems, these theological problems that force him to reach to philosophical resources?
Well, I think, you know, I think Edwards would have seen his own theological views is right in line with with reformed thought. And I think he's basically trying to just further that the problem now, unlike, you know, a couple hundred years before, is we have a view, particularly of cosmology, that inhibits the thinking about about how do we understand the god relation, and then how does that affect how we come to understand these things. Let me just give you an example. You know, a lot of evangelicals may look at someone like Edward just having a standard reformed view of freedom. And I think that's just false. I think it was a very radical view of freedom. By and large, I don't think the reformed have ever struggled with freedom until you get to around Edwards. And now and the way I read Edwards Edwards is because many people just assume Edwards is a determinist. And in one sense, that's true. He has a very deterministic framework. But I think what's a more accurate way of putting that is Edward just handed determinism. Edwards is handed a structure that is deterministic. And when he writes on freedom, he's trying to carve out space for creaturely freedom in a deterministic framework. Well, that's a different way that leads him to kind of kind of changing the discussion a bit about freedom and what freedom was and how to think about it, how it changes, definitions of things a little bit. But when you're handed this kind of either or, like, either God must do nothing, and therefore you get like a deist kind of frame and that was on the rise in his day, or God does everything. Edwards is gonna have gone through everything, but then he's gonna try to figure out how do I say what I want What with the reformed have always wanted to say, even if God is doing everything, like how do I make sense of that? And I, and we'll talk about this a bit more, no doubt, but I have a way to think about this to say, Well, I think Edwards his instinct is right. But there's there was just actually better resources in the tradition to do so then he had to deal with. But I kind of think, I think to read Edwards, charitably, we have to kind of understand how new a lot of these ideas are. I mean, he's on the forefront of an entire wave of enlightenment ideas. And he is kind of spinning his wheels immediately trying to make sense of reality in light of this new, this new frame of understanding the world. And it leads him into some problems. There's no doubt about that. But I think if you attend to his theological instincts, think his theological instincts actually point to a way beyond them. That Unfortunately, the philosophy that he he was kind of forced to turn to to make sense of them ended up stifling him more than helping him at times. I think.
Becker Strobel I'm very grateful for that response. We're working through Jonathan Edwards and introduction to his thought by Oliver crisp and Kyle Strobel, thanks again for joining us today. Mike Strobel, Jonathan Edwards worked for the extent of his professional life as a village pastor, not as an academic theologian or a philosopher, for whom was Edwards writing when he develops these technical, philosophical, or at least philosophically in crop inclined theological treatises?
Well, you know, Edwards, very much. I mean, one of the things I think we have to remember about Edwards is he wasn't American, right? He was technically British. This is before. There's America, right? And so he sees himself as in a sense a European, he sees himself as a part of this British and European conversation. And he wants to be seen that way. And so I mean, when when a book gets written against Original Sin, all these people start saying it's no one can defeat this book. I mean, that's like a guarantee Edwards is gonna write against Edwards understood him. So he kind of recognized his place. He kind of knew he, he, at least particularly in the colonies, he's one of the great minds. And he's got to defend orthodoxy. Right. And so he's going to give an account of justification by faith, he's going to give an account of, of original sin. He's going to take on the these various kind of hot button questions of the day, because then that was all mine. Like if he doesn't do it, who's going to write who's going to pick up the mantle? And it was very clear, even his own lifetime that he was a radical mind. I mean, he really was profound. And yet, it's funny, you know, and I think we, we sometimes neglect, you know, one of one of my favorite works of Edwards is charity, and it's fruits is a biblical meditation on love, or that he takes time to do the life of David Brainard, or that he writes and probably is best known probably, other than the sinner sermon, probably best known for religious affections. Like here's the book that is an attempt to discern what is it? What does it mean to discern the work of the Spirit? Like how do we understand that and, and some of the things that these all have in common is that Edwards is kind of at heart A polemicist. And so like I think some of the philosophical kind of instinct in his argument is driven by his his desire to enter into these polemics and to fight for orthodoxy. And there really were battles on every front. I mean, I think you have all of the, the post reformation heresies, you know, all the after the reformation of all the old heresies come back, that are driven by biblical wisdom. And so you have the city and you have these Neo Aryans, you have these anti trinitarians of all stripes. Plus, you have these groups like the Quakers like these mystical groups, even some we don't know about anymore, like the family of love, often called the familiar lists and these groups that are doing this really radical mystical stuff. You even have in the colonies, some of the holdover from the century before with like Anne Hutchinson, and they say so there's all these heresies everywhere you look. And then there's even within the broader orthodoxy, you have a group of people that are kind of highly intellectual kind of rejecting the revivals, and Edwards is even against them. So, everywhere he turned there were certain kind of polemical partners. He's engaging and I think Edwards approach was, I'm gonna write something so profound, that I'm just going to blow you over with the sheer kind of intellect, intellectual rigor of this thing. And that's often kind of what he ended up doing.
Dr. Strobel, your study begins with a with an outline of Edwards theology on the Trinity. What is it precisely if you would that is new in Edwards presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity?
Yeah, you know, on first glance, it appears Augustinian, like, in a very broad way. I mean, even using that term, that's debatable what that means. But he's I by that, I mean, he's using a psychological analogy. God has a mind that is understanding and what Edwards ends up radicalizing a Gustin a Gustin explicitly says, Now what I don't mean is that for the father to kind of intellect, that now you have the Son and the son kind of is the father's like and that is exactly what Edwards does. The Holy Spirit just is the will of God. And so on Edwards account you have this, this kind of understanding of, of the persons as attributes of of the divine life understanding well respectively, and what only makes them persons is that they're interpenetrating one another. And so here's what I think's interesting about that, like, traditionally, at least, you know, I mean, this is a little bit kind of superficial, but often how this gets taught, right is that well, you're always going to leaning towards one thing, like leaning a little too much towards the readiness and you're getting closer to try theism or you're pushing a little too hard on oneness and and maybe we don't get a robust enough thriftiness, the way Edwards runs the discussion is It's I mean, it's obviously really focused on the kind of unity this the singularity of God. So much so that at first glance you don't even have three persons yet. But then by focusing so much on their personhood through their interpenetration Edwards uses social language quite readily. And he can talk about the three penis really robustly because to kind of push on three is only makes the Unity tighter. There's another way of looking at it would be, you know, one of the great axioms of the early church is going to be the external action of God is on divided right so we might see God in history as the sun. That isn't to say the sun sun is somehow working apart from Father in spirit, right? Like these are undivided actions. Edwards kind of reads that back up into the inner life of God. So much so that, that the personhood of the three are divided in that regard. So you can't ever get towards three individuals. And you know what's so profound about this. And the reason I think Edwards is doing it in part is again, you get all this anti trinitarianism going on. And Edward starts his work on the Trinity called the discourse in the Trinity with basically a singular God, who's a person with understanding and will. And so every anti Trinitarian, and they're all big pluses. They're all reading the Bible and saying, okay, we agree this, he then starts reading scripture and saying, isn't it interesting that God's understanding shows up in history? And we have, you know, the Word became flesh. So that's interesting. Well, what is the word other than an inner understanding or, and he begins doing all this biblical work to talk about, Well, wait a second, what is it? How is it meaningful to say that, that these attributes, so to speak, are actually entering creation as persons? And then at the tail end of his work in the Trinity, he's going to give an account of, well, how do we make sense of that? And so he kind of brings the anti trinitarians along with him, saying Well, okay, As a single person, sure, but now the Bible reads this way. But these seem to be persons. How do we actually speak meaningfully about that? And so that that ends up being how he develops it. And there's several things about that that are unique. I mean, he really focuses pretty heavily on the blessedness of God. God is infinitely happy and himself. He is as I would put a he's infinite religious affection that God is affection overflowing infinitely in himself. And, and one of the things that is somewhat peculiar is God's life the way Edwards understands the sun proceeding and the spirit proceeding is through the lens of the beatific vision. And so God just is having the beatific vision with himself and the beatific vision is the traditional Christian way of thinking about, you know, the end of the believer being to see God face to face. But now God's own inner life is the father gazing upon the sun, the sun gazing upon the father and love pouring forth between them And I think Edwards would say and of course, this is just image to us in Jesus's baptism. When the heavens are opened, the father gazes upon the sun and the beloved pneus of the Spirit pours forth down upon him. That's an image of what's going on internal the gods life. And those things aren't. None of those things are totally unique. But he kind of pulls them together in a pretty unique package. And the way he understands that, that kind of personhood idea, it seems to Oliver and eyes like there is something that we can generally call a kind of an Edwardian model of the Trinity that I don't know if anyone else has quite done this before.
But there's trouble if I can ask you in chapter three, which is titled God and idealism, you discuss Edwards conclusion that quote, all existing things are ideal. And what this means is that all that exists, exists as an idea and not as a material reality. And this is not a alone instance of a philosophically driven notion in Edwards. Thought that you Really foreign to myself and other modern readers perhaps. What do you do when you come across and are trying to make use of Edwards today when you find one of these, perhaps obtuse philosophical inclinations?
Yeah, I mean, fortunately, a lot of these like Edwards would actually say like he to himself in notebooks, like I can speak to the average person who still believes in matter, just like we all believe in the same sort of thing. So for him it It didn't make a radical difference in terms of like he didn't always have to leave. Now remember, I'm an idealist, therefore that's going to change all of this. He's also an anatomist, which is peculiar and so he believes in atoms, but basically, at bottom atoms don't have solidity. There's God's immediate presence that upholds them. And so for equities, you know, it's idealisms interesting, you know, once you recognize that matter isn't chunks of stuff, so to speak, but it plainly like it does on a chunk. Stuff that kind of makes makes things, then the question becomes, well, what's what's underneath that materiality? You know what? Well, it turns out to be a bunch of things that don't look like matter anymore. And so I actually think in the next 20 years, we're gonna see the rise of idealism. Actually, we're already seeing the rise of idealism. I think someone like Stephen Hawking was an idealist, for instance, although I don't think he quite knew the term. The there's actually been a major to volume study on idealism just published with Barclay being the philosophical kind of genius and Edwards actually being the theological genius behind it. So there's actually being a recovery of this view. I kind of look at it as the right mistake to make I think it's I think it's a mistake. It's obviously a very, it's, it's, in my mind, a much better view than materialism, which we tend to assume. Although again, the materialism we tend to assume tends to be very non material. And what I don't know if we spent a lot of time really thinking about What materialism entails like, like when what, in light of what we think matter now is, is that actually materialism? And like, how do we make sense of what, what we're talking about when we talk about something like matter. And so for Edwards, he's looking at the world. And he's saying, you know, idealism doesn't make this stuff less substantial. It's just that all of this is resting on ideas, and ultimately, what's upholding our ideas. And that, therefore this is all kind of partaking in God's knowing of it, that what makes something real is that God knows it as such. And so I, I think, as we were talking earlier about, you know, Edwards again is he's got this worldview that's been handed to him where it's very mechanistic forces are back in play, and you know, gravity and all these things are held together, all these kind of ways of seeing reality that seemed to push God outside of it. Edwards is relocating God in the midst of it in his idealism. And I think if you look at it that way, most of Edwards radical Philosophy makes sense. Where Edwards is trying to make a case for God's action in creation, while assuming the kind of newer worldview for him that creation is this kind of mechanistic reality, and so how does how do we make sense of God's action in that kind of reality, while you make God the gears, you actually make God the undergirding of this sort of thing. And so I think that he was trying to make sense of of a reality that is still substantial, while also having God as the kind of fundamental bedrock of the whole thing.
That was troubling if I can fast forward just a little bit in your book to chapter six. Chapter six is titled salvation as participation. You write that Edwards advances a reformed doctrine of theosis. First of all, would you be willing to define for us in our viewers what is the osis and then barely, isn't that contrary to a reformed view of the world.
Yeah, so theosis I get so this is a bit of a stickier conversation. So theosis is the, in my mind. Now this is keep that. keep remembering that in my mind. So this is my view, it feels is the Christian view of salvation, I actually don't think there is another.
There's a lot of confusion about it today. Sometimes you'll see like five, five use books on justification with theosis as one of them but theosis isn't a view of justification. So that that is a category fallacy. Basically, if you go back to Athanasius Athanasius is going to say things like God became man so that man can become God. And they call that theosis. Now, that sounds really bad. And they had all sorts of worries about it as well. And what you see coming out of the patristic era are two distinct strands of that tradition. one strand really focused on the creature, the Christian kind of gaining attributes of God like incorruptibility, And other sorts of attributes, all the while never becoming God, right? So we never partook of the divine essence. The way this develops among the Eastern Orthodox is they develop much later of view of the divine energy. So they say, well, we partake in the divine energies, that's not becoming God. But it is. And most of these discussions are predicated on a reading of Second Peter one, four, we are partakers of the divine nature. So they're trying to make sense of that. There's another line and this is the line that the Protestants whether Wesleyan, Lutheran or reformed always followed on this is that theosis was a sharing among the relations of the Divine persons. So as a much more relational relational notion, and even in the patristic era, theosis was seen as synonymous with adoption. And so we are adopted in the life of God in the sun, and therefore we share in the son's life with the Father. And so the this gets developing even Calvin, yo, Calvin and his comments are in a second Peter gets the second page One four it says this is deification which is just another synonym of theosis. What's happened for us? I mean, I think one of the problems we see currently, particularly among kind of Protestant academics is, my friend Carl mosers done really great work on the showing that actually in the 20th century, everyone had forgotten about theosis. Eastern Orthodox Catholics, Protestants, no one talked about it. It was recovered by a group of Russian, Eastern Orthodox theologians, and people began to assume that was an Eastern Orthodox doctrine. And then it became like, oh, the east is into this sort of thing. Whereas the West we do something different. Well, that that it turns out historically, that's just not true. That there is at the broadest level of salvation, a kind of meta narrative of sharing and God's life. And I would say this is exactly what Paul does in Ephesians, two through four, which is why when in Ephesians, four, he Paul's saying kind of what the Gentiles have missed out on because they are darkened in their understanding is they do not get to hearing God's life. That's what they've missed out on. And so this takes a distinctively relational strand that comes from folks like Athanasius. And Cyril, these very ancient, very, obviously, like you medically oriented patristic theologians. And yet it is taken a distinct direction by the West. And so it doesn't compete with justification. They kind of functionally trade in different kind of registers. You can have a view of justification fully on board with a view of, of theosis. But that's going to get developed in unique ways and each of these strands and so you out, you often see edited volumes come out nowadays on like, the different views of the osis. And you'll see the Baptist view in there, you'll see your Calvin's view, you'll see Edwards so there's a recognition of there's all these different strands of things, and everyone wants to be very careful not to say we are ever becoming God. But what the reformed tend to do from Calvin on is when they read Computer one four and see that we are partakers, the divine nature, that nature is kind of characterological and relational. Right? It is sharing the divine persons. And this is why, even though some Protestants have tried to use the eastern language of energies, I'm really worried about that because the at least the eastern theologians are clear the energies aren't kind of entering creation through the sun and spirit. So suddenly, it's like, well, there's this other economy of God that I worry about. Whereas what Edwards would say no, to partaking cuts, life is to be adopted into the life of the sun by the Spirit, and it's to become, you know, I think of Jesus's high priestly prayer and he ends in john 1726 by praying Father, give them the love that you love me. He doesn't pray, Father, love them, but love them with that same love that you love to me that God is internalizing us in that love of the Father upon the son. I'd say that is the osis at least in this tradition. And what's interesting in Edwards his own day, when he Religious affections he had to qualify because the these more intellectual kind of people who were against it by intellectual mean more to kind of not inch in the affections, just the intellect. They were attacking the revivals, with folks like Charles Chauncey. And he would try to link Edwards with the mystical kind of radical mystical groups in the century before who would say things like we are guarded with God and Christ did with Christ. And so Edwards picks that language up in the religious affections and say, No, we are not God with God, we are not Christ with Christ. But he does that to try to give an account of we are partakers of God's life. We are, we are participating in that, that life of the Father gazing upon the sun and the sun gazing upon the father because we have been internalizing the sun we have union with Christ.
cause trouble thank you so much reflection, and if I can ask a concluding question that we've asked all of the guests that we've had on this program Is it that we recognize Christian unity? And how is it that we as as individual Christians can pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17?
Yeah, well, I mean, I think the, at the end of the day, there is going to have to be a really honest, self understanding, a really honest attempt to humbly and patiently sit with the text of Scripture, to sit with the voices of the church throughout the tradition, and to listen very well to one another. I mean, I think, you know, even as AdWords as a model for this, AdWords actually saw quite a lot of divisiveness. But Edwards, you know, when he responds to these, these people that are attacking him, he's very carefully to listen to what what are they saying, actually? And how can I clarify, look, I'm not doing that. Like, I know you think I'm doing that You know, I mean, just to, on a personal note, you know, I teach spiritual theology, I'm a part of a conversation known as the spiritual nation conversation, although that's a very broad sort of thing these days. And I've been attacked pretty brutally I in a, to a degree that I wasn't prepared for, quite honestly. And I've never been attacked for something I've said, or a belief I hold. And when I'm attacked, it's never been because they've actually listened to my view. And so then I've had to wrestle with Well, my instinct is to attack but now that's that's not the call though is it? I've got to figure out a way to kind of, you know, do what they need and this is in my for my mind what funds this for me is the weaker brother discussion and First Corinthians eight and First Corinthians 210, right? Like, how do if this if I'm writing this person's wrong, which I'm assuming is true. How do I care for them as the weaker brother and weaker sister like if they're attacking me because they don't like the source on me? Well, then what sources do they want me to use? I'll read those. If they, you know, how can I help to kind of create a conversation where we're actually patiently listening to one another. And we're creating a context of, of pushing into one another in charity, where that doesn't mean we're kind of glossing over difference, but we're speaking really decisively and well, in a way that we truly can love one another and therefore exude what Christ said we should, which is that we love one another,
that are delighted today to be speaking with Dr. Kyle Strobel, associate professor of spiritual theology at Talbot School of Theology and also co author of the text we've been discussing today, Jonathan Edwards and introduction to his thought. Thank you so much,
Dr. Spiegel, for joining us. Thank you so much for having me. So good to be here.