Biblical and Systematic Theology: Edward's Grand Scheme

The Reformed tradition has had an ongoing discussion about the relation of systematic and biblical theology. In some ways this reflects the discussion in the broader Christian community. The debate in Reformed circles goes back at least as far as the dispute between Gijsbertus Voetius and Johannes Cocceius in the Scholastic era. Some might suggest that we ought also to consider the differences between the methods of, say, John Calvin and Peter Martyr Virmigli. Calvin aimed for brevity and clarity and his biblical commentaries were generally free of excursions into various theological loci. Calvin kept his discussions of theological loci or common places to his Institutes. Peter Martyr, on the other hand, followed the more common procedure of including in his biblical expositions excurses on various loci as the topics arose in the text being exposited. This dispute was given added impetus in the broader Christian world when Johannes Gabler argued in the late 18th century for an atheological biblical theology distinct from dogmatics. For Gabler biblical theology was purely descriptive and, as it turned out, anti-supernatural. Geerhardus Vos, the father of contemporary orthodox Reformed biblical theology, took up his task in opposition to the Gablerite model of biblical theology which saw the discipline as standing in opposition to systematic theology. Even in our own day we often hear of discontent between practitioners of systematic and biblical theology. Do we have to choose?

Even Jonathan Edwards has been pulled into this debate. Harry Stout, current general editor of the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards has suggested that Edwards was moving away from, if not actually rejecting, the traditional loci method of systematic theology as exemplified in the Summa Theologia of Thomas Aquinas.[1] Stout argues from comments Edwards made to the trustees of the College of New Jersey in a letter dated 19 October 1757 in which he offered reasons why he would not be a suitable candidate for the office of president of the Presbyterian school. Offering many reasons for his less than exuberant response to the trustees’ invitation, Edwards explained that he was working on a new kind of theological treatise

But besides these, I have had on my mind and heart (which I long ago began, not with any view to publication) a great work, which I call A History of the Work of Redemption, a body of divinity in an entire new method, being thrown into the form of an history, considering the affair of Christian theology, as the whole of it, in each part, stands in reference to the great work of redemption by Jesus Christ; which I suppose is to be the grand design of all God’s designs, and the summum and ultimum of all the divine operations and degrees; particularly considering all parts of the grand scheme in their historical order. The order of their existence, or their being brought forth to view, in the course of divine dispensations, or the wonderful series of successive acts and events; beginning from eternity and descending from thence to the great work and successive dispensations of the infinitely wise God in time, considering the chief events coming to pass in the church of God, and revolutions in the world of mankind, affecting the state of the church and the affair of redemption, which we have an account of in history or prophecy; till at last we come to the general resurrection, last judgment, and consummation of all things; when it shall be said, “It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End” [Rev. 22:13]. Concluding my work, with the consideration of that perfect state of things, which shall be finally settled, to last for eternity. This history will be carried on with regard to all three worlds, heaven, earth, and hell: considering the connected, successive events and alterations, in each so far as the Scriptures give any light; introducing all parts of divinity in that order which is most scriptural and most natural: which is a method which appears to me the most beautiful and entertaining, wherein every divine doctrine, will appear to greatest advantage in the brightest light, in the most striking manner, showing the admirable contexture and harmony of the whole.[2]

I would like to respectfully disagree with Harry Stout. Edwards is not pitting his “grand scheme” against systematic theology (Edwards lived well past the high point of Reformed Scholasticism and never wrote a systematic theology in the style of Thomas) but is noting its differences with the same. In other words, Edwards is not evolving away from or rejecting traditional systematic theology so much as creating his own biblical theological or redemptive historical treatise which finds its hub in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Edwards may be exaggerating when he notes that his “body of divinity” would be in an “entire new method.”

Edwards was familiar with the work of John Owen. Owen himself authored his own “biblical theology” known in the original Greek and Latin as the Theolegoumena Pantadapa. This is to say, Edwards’s attempt to craft a biblical theology was not itself new or unique. What may be unique is the systematic way he would draw out the historical settings of the various “divine doctrines.” As it turned out, Edwards never completed his History of the Work of Redemption. Fortunately we may have a sense of what he would have done in his sermon series by the same name and which has been published and is included in the Yale edition of Edwards’s Works.

My reading of Jonathan Edwards suggests that he creatively formulated both systematic and biblical theologies and he easily moved between the two disciplines in ways that might make contemporary scholars uncomfortable. In fact, I would argue that he blended the two ways of theologizing and provides a model for us to follow.

[1] See Harry S. Stout’s chapter, “Jonathan Edwards’ Tri-World Vision,” in The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: American Religion and the Evangelical Tradition (D. G. Hart, Sean Michael Lucas, and Stephen J. Nichols, eds. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 27-46.

[2] Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Vol. 16/Letters and Personal Writings. (G. S. Claghorn & H. S. Stout, eds. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1998), 727–728.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington