Jonathan Edwards On “Covenant” (pt. 2)

from Nov 25, 2008 Category: Articles

De Jong in his Covenant Idea made a mountain out of Miller’s relative mole hill. He found Edwards to be the chief underminer of New England covenant theology. The broad structure of his book and Jonathan Edwards’ place in it can be seen in the table of contents:

Part Two — Development:
The Early Puritan Conception of the Covenant
The Beginnings of Change
The Synod of 1662: The Half-Way Covenant Adopted
Stoddardeanism: The Half-Way Covenant Modified
Jonathan Edwards: The Half-Way Covenant Attacked
The New Divinity: The Half-Way Covenant Overthrown
The Loss of the Covenant Conceptions

De Jong has many indictments of Edwards’ view of the covenant, which is seen to be a direct or indirect, conscious or unconscious, attack on the covenant as understood by De Jong.

Conrad Cherry confuses the situation somewhat, though improving on De Jong and Miller. He sees the Puritan doctrine of the covenant as a way of construing revelation so that it did not bind God to man. Cherry sees a problem that he imagines the Puritans suffered from, though his citations prove no such thing. The Puritans were supposed to be unable to conceive of God binding Himself to man by the latter’s faith because God and man are so unequal. Hence the doctrine of the covenant is thought to solve that problem. But instead of solving a “problem” Edwards sees the covenant as merely illustrating the way of God’s gracious acting.

The Rom. 9:18 sermon shows God at His deepest condescension without any requirement of covenant. The covenant is, in Edwards’ mind, the form the binding takes, but the binding is no way dependent on covenant. It is not covenant that makes binding possible, but binding that makes covenant necessary. That God could “become bound to us worms of the dust, for our consolation!” is what amazes Edwards, not the form that binding takes, except that the form of covenant by an oath shows the extremity of the condescension. Believers can actually demand salvation through Christ as a debt! The sermon ends with the emphasis on sovereignty. “This is the stumbling block on which thousands fall and perish; and if we go on contending with God about his sovereignty, it will be our eternal ruin.”

Cherry corrects Perry Miller effectively enough by showing that Edwards himself corrected him. Through the covenant of grace the sinner “may in justice demand delivery” Edwards had preached. Cherry also sees that God can be “tied up” to human claims. What he does not clearly see is that the elect sinner has no merit of his own, but only that God, in His sovereignty, does not acknowledge it to be such. Cherry states Edwards’ view in these words: “The possibility of the believer’s demanding salvation on the basis of his own godliness is precluded.” The sentence should read “The possibility of the believer’s demanding salvation on the basis of his own initial godliness is precluded.” But God Himself supplies the regenerate’s godliness.

Cherry, unlike Miller, gets a fundamental aspect of Edwards’ doctrine: “Man does not ‘tie up’ God, but God ties himself to man in the covenant.” However, immediately after this, Cherry sells the covenant short: “This is Edwards’ interpretation of the Incarnation… .” The Incarnation was, however, only the first step in the covenant of grace which was “finished” in the atonement, resurrection and ascension. Another error follows: this “demand” of the covenant beneficiary is “never through or on the basis of his own goodness or obedience.” But without that “obedience” the person is not in the covenant and cannot “demand” anything of God. Again, the point is that the blessing is not on the person’s benefiting from any merit of his own obedience.

Showing that he never gets completely out of the Millerian thicket, Cherry comments: “The notion of God’s indebtedness to man borders on blasphemy — in fact it is a kind of ‘blasphemy of faith’.” No one could so write who understood Edwards’ work on Satisfaction which shows that Jesus Christ so perfectly satisfied divine justice that if God the Father questioned the Son’s work He would be blaspheming.

Cherry does agree with Miller at the very point he ought not to agree. He imperfectly critiques Miller’s attack on covenant only to agree with him on an even more egregious error — Miller’s attack on “preparation.”

Cherry is as far from understanding the Puritan and Edwards’ doctrine of preparation or seeking as Miller was. Though he cites John Preston’s eloquent statement of the doctrine, Cherry still does not get the message. Preston (and Peter Bulkeley) have the convicted sinner pleading with God for covenantal mercy which Cherry interprets:

In other words, it is still [emphasis added] the sovereign God with whom the soul deals in the covenant-relation, but not the arbitrary God. God still has the power to withdraw his hand of mercy, but we have his sound testimony in Christ that He wills not to do so. He has the power to withhold salvation from the saints, but on the basis of his promise of salvation in Christ man may ‘pleadingly sue’ him for it with the assurance that he has freely bound himself to give it.
Every Puritan who ever lived, and Jonathan Edwards most of all, would have been apoplectic about such an interpretation of their doctrine. That a holy God would bind Himself and still have it in His “power” to break that promise is blasphemy to the Puritan mind. Miller was consistently wrong in this area; Cherry is sadly inconsistent.

Edwards is sometimes supposed to mitigate the imagined problematic nature of faith by distinguishing between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace. That there was first a covenant between the equal Father and equal Son is thought to make the covenant between the divine Christ and human sinners somehow tenable. Yet manifestly, if God could not bind Himself to infinitely inferior creatures, having made an a priori agreement with an equally infinite person would make it no more possible for the infinite condescension to man.

One more item should be noted in Cherry before we leave him on the covenant. He raises a question about the covenant of grace, the covenant of redemption and their bearing on human faith as a condition:

[H]ow determinative of grace is man’s act of faith — the covenant of redemption between Father and Son notwithstanding? Put another way, how are the two distinct conditions — Christ’s work and human faith — related? Edwards’ answer appears to be that the covenant of grace and its condition are the implementation of the covenant of redemption. Yet this simply puts the problem at one remove; it does not explain to what extent faith is determinative of the efficacy of either covenant for the man of faith. If the covenant of grace (which has as its condition the act of belief) is the implementation of the covenant of redemption, does this mean, then, that the covenant of redemption is not applicable to a specific saint until the condition of the covenant of grace is performed by the saint? Edwards’ distinction between the two covenants leaves this question unanswered and hence does not clear him of the shortcomings, noted above, of viewing faith as the condition of the covenant.

Edwards would surely say that the covenant of redemption is “applicable” but not applied salvifically until faith is born in the elect’s heart. All God’s covenants are eternal and certainly applicable to whom they concern since God’s intention and power are as sure as He is. This includes the covenant of grace as well as the covenant of redemption. Cherry says that “Edwards’ distinction between the two covenants leaves this question unanswered and hence does not clear him of the shortcomings, noted above, of viewing faith as the condition of the covenant.” The only “shortcomings” of Edwards here would be the “shortcomings” of God who utterly guarantees that all conditions” will be met. If any theologian ever stressed that God provided all conditions and had no “shortcomings,” it was Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards and the Puritans generally never had any problem with God’s binding Himself to creatures if He chose to do so. The problem in this union was not because of the infinite difference but because of the sinfulness of man. Because of this a holy God could have no communion with unholy man. The problem was overcome by the Son undertaking and the Father appointing Him to His mediation for the elect, agreed to in the covenant of redemption, and applied to man in the covenant of grace.

Yet many of Edwards’ interpreters cannot seem to grasp this point. Some, as we have seen, even represent Edwards as virtually eliminating the doctrine, returning to the imagined purer Calvinism of Calvin. More recent studies of this subject, however, have begun to correct this persistent mistake. For example, Harry Stout, the present general editor of the Yale University Press edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, maintains that, “[Edwards] was every bit the federal theologian that his Puritan predecessors were.” This is a conclusion for which my Steps to Salvation gave extensive textual evidence as well as theological foundation as early as 1960, and for which Carl Bogue offered support on almost every one of the 312 pages of his 1975 book on the subject. Perhaps the reign of Miller’s mistake concerning Calvinism, Edwards and the covenant is finally drawing to a close.

This excerpt is taken from The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, by John Gerstner.