A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Bennet W. Rogers
Who was John Edwards of Cambridge and why does it matter? Those are the two questions Jake Griesel seeks to answer in Retaining the Old Episcopal Divinity: John Edwards of Cambridge and Reformed Orthodoxy in the Later Stuart Church. More recent scholarship tends to see Edwards as a marginalized Calvinist with minimal influence in the later Stuart Church of England. While the older primary and secondary sources afforded him considerably more prominence. Who is right – who was John Edward of Cambridge?
Griesel argues that Edwards:
…was one of the pre-eminent English conforming divines of the period, that he was recognized as such in his own day and in the immediately following generations, and that his theological works, despite provoking some Arminian opposition, enjoyed a very positive reception among significant segments of the established Church’s clergy, many of whom shared his Reformed theological convictions (198).
In short, recent scholarship has significantly underestimated Edwards’ influence, and the Reformed conformity more generally, within the Church of England in the time between the Restoration and the Evangelical Revival.
Chapter 1 introduces the reader to John Edwards and his interpretations by later historians. Chapter 2 focuses on Edwards’ life, ministry, and written works up to the turn of the eighteenth century. His earliest published works (1692-95), which were explicitly reformed in nature, reveal that Edwards enjoyed the approval of the Cambridge University establishment, as well as a number of prominent bishops, including the archbishop of Canterbury. Edwards also played a leading role in the so-called Socinian Controversy (1695-1700), and his anti-Socinian writings, including his responses to John Locke and The Reasonableness of Christianity, proved to be incredibly popular with leading men in the Church, government, and universities, despite being explicitly reformed – a near-impossible feat for a supposedly fringe and marginalized Calvinist.
Chapter 3 examines Edwards’ considerable literary contribution to the Calvinist-Arminian debates within the Church at the turn of the 18th century. As previously noted, modern scholarship tends to depict Edwards as an isolated and unpopular Calvinist – a lone voice crying out in an ecclesiastical wilderness. But upon closer examination, this caricature falls apart completely. Edwards’ anti-Arminian works were “fueled by clerical support, received glowing reviews, and enjoyed the approval of considerable segments of the clergy (93).” Reformed conformists, like Edwards, may not have held a majority position within the Church, but they formed a large and influential minority, and Edwards was one of their leading lights.
How large was this minority? In chapter 4 Griesel identifies 122 post-Restoration divines who ministered during Edwards’ active years that professed Reformed doctrines of election, efficacious grace, justification by faith alone, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. These included bishops, deans, professors of divinity, college heads and fellows at Cambridge and Oxford, influential lay intellectuals, and a host of clergymen. Edwards maybe have been the most outspoken Calvinist churchman judging by the sheer quantity of his anti-Arminian writings, but he was far from alone. He was merely the tip of the Reformed iceberg in the Established Church between the Restoration and Evangelical revivals.
Chapter 5 examines Edwards’ defense of the reformed doctrine of faith and justification against his Arminian contemporaries, such as Tillotson, Sherlock, Patrick, Fowler, and others. More specifically, he argued for 1) faith as fiducia (trust), as opposed to bare assent; 2) the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (i.e. his active obedience) to the believer in justification; 3) and the inseparable yet distinct nature justification and sanctification. Edwards noted that his position was hardly marginal – it was enshrined in the Church’s Articles and Homilies, and it was affirmed by many churchmen, including several bishops, nearly all reformed conformists, and even some Arminians.
Chapter 6 discusses Edwards’ role in the Arian Controversy, as well as his churchmanship, more generally. Edwards played a limited role in the Arian Controversy, which centered around the views of William Whiston and Samuel Clarke, but the reception of his anti-Arian works proved to be welcomed by churchmen and further enhanced his standing within the Church. The rest of the chapter explores Edwards’ view of the episcopacy, Whig political views, and moderation toward dissenters. Edwards did not embrace a high church attitude toward the episcopacy as ius divinum but opted for a reduced episcopacy, similar to that of Archbishop Ussher’s model, in which there was parity between bishops and presbyters. And he defended ‘sober’ dissenters and advocated toleration for orthodox nonconformists, such as Presbyterians and Independents. Even so, Edwards was a devoted son of the Church of England, and his advocacy of “the old episcopal divinity” (Reformed orthodoxy) was fueled by his dedication to the Church’s Articles and Homilies. Once again, Edwards occupied a minority position, but he was far from alone.
The seventh and final chapter explores the reception of Edwards’ works within the Church of England and beyond after his death in 1716. His works enjoyed extensive popularity within the eighteenth-century Church of England, especially among Reformed evangelicals. They were also held in high regard outside of the Church in Scotland, America, and even Germany. His legacy rested largely on his anti-Arminian polemics, which appealed to a broad swath of English-speaking Calvinists, who could employ his arguments in their own ecclesial contexts. In short, he was widely recognized, both in his own day as well as in the generations that followed, as one of the preeminent theologians within the established Church of his era.
Griesel’s survey of Edwards’ life, works, and reception has challenged – and convincingly demolished – the older view that Edwards was an ostracized Calvinist misfit, deprived of any patronage, supporters, or sympathizers. Instead, the evidence suggests that he was a preeminent, popular, and decidedly mainstream divine in the later Stuart Church. And it reinforces Steven Hampton’s thesis that the post-Restoration Church of England was theologically divided between an Arminian majority and a large and influential Reformed minority – a fact which has bearing both on our understanding of Anglican identity, on the one hand, and Reformed Protestantism, on the other.
Bennet W. Rogers