Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Complex Relationship of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Jeongmo Yoo, John Edwards (1637-1716) on Human Free Choice and Divine Necessity: The Debate on the Relation Between Divine Necessity and Human Freedom in Late Seventeenth-Century and Early Eighteenth-Century England, vol. 22 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013). 311pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

The relationship between human volition and God’s sovereignty has generated much theological controversy. Jeongmoo Yoo examines John Edwards’s teaching as representative of classic Reformed teaching on this subject. Edwards was an Anglican Reformed minister who was one of the few remaining Reformed orthodox theologians in a church increasingly dominated by Arminianism. Yoo explains Edwards’s teaching on the relationship between human choice and divine necessity and he challenges ably theological and historical caricatures of Reformed theology as a philosophically deterministic system. This book clarifies this complex issue, and it should prevent caricatures of Reformed teaching on the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Yoo treats free choice in Edwards’s thought in relation to predestination, foreknowledge, providence, the origin of sin, and conversion. He sets Edwards in his seventeenth and early eighteenth century British context, though with less emphasis on the international character of Reformed orthodoxy at that time, other than giving evidence that scholastic distinctions diminished in the eighteenth century (151). However, Yoo draws from an impressive array of primary source material from both continental and British authors. His primary contention is that secondary literature has largely caricatured Reformed theology as a deterministic system. He argues instead that Reformed theologians, such as Edwards, taught that God ordained free and contingent causes freely and contingently without offering violence to the will of the creatures. Yoo proves his thesis so abundantly that the citations from Reformed authors become almost monotonous. Edwards breaks this monotony at one point with the surprising suggestion that there are possible exceptions to the divine decree infallibly and unchangeably determining all actions (131-133). It is difficult to see how such a a view is compatible with his otherwise standard Reformed theology. For these reasons, this work is useful to both systematic and historical theologians in their quest better to grasp Reformed orthodoxy.

The primary drawback of this volume relates to its style. There are a surprising number of typos and grammatical errors throughout the book. This includes frequent and obvious misspellings both of English and Latin terms, using the definite article in superfluous and awkward ways, confusing singular and plural nouns, and an inordinate number of superfluous sentences that increase the length of the book unnecessarily. The text reads as though the author is not at home expressing himself in the English language. It is more surprising that the publishers did not ensure that the author obtain help fixing these problems. While the work also expresses clearly the content of Edwards’s Reformed theology, there is very little analysis of the formulation and significance of that theology.

In short, Yoo’s work is a well-researched but simple book on a complex issue in Reformed theology. It is simple in that its arguments are clear, but perhaps too simple in its analysis. However, his research will likely help many readers better understand Reformed teaching on divine sovereignty and human freedom.

This review was previously published in the Calvin Theological Journal.