Does Jonathan Edwards Agree with N.T. Wright?

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Founder & Teacher,

In his ongoing efforts to come to terms with the language of “the righteousness of God” in Scripture, John Piper recently came across a pair of posts by Edwards scholar, and friend of Desiring God, Kyle Strobel. Piper wrote the below response to Strobel, and we sent to him and offered the opportunity to respond. Below is Piper’s article followed by Strobel’s reply.

Response by John Piper

Five years ago Kyle Strobel, whom we have turned to often for wisdom, especially in regard to Jonathan Edwards’s vision of God, wrote a couple posts arguing that Jonathan Edwards “held to the same view as [N.T.] Wright” concerning the meaning of “the righteousness of God” as covenant faithfulness.

He was responding to an article by Paul Helm in which Helm was agreeing with me that defining God’s righteousness as “covenant faithfulness” is a biblically unwarranted limitation of what is more fully and deeply meant by the righteousness of God in the Bible (Future of Justification, 62–71).

The point of the present post (five years late!) is not to discuss N.T. Wright, but whether Jonathan Edwards can be summoned to support a definition of God’s righteousness as covenant faithfulness. The key word is definition. For there is no debate that God’s righteousness includes an infallible commitment to keep his covenant promises. Everyone agrees God would be unrighteous to break his word.

How Edwards Put It

Kyle cites Edwards’s sermon from 1739 on Isaiah 51:8, “For the moth shall eat them [up] like a garment and the worm shall eat [them] like wool: but my righteousness shall be [forever], and my salvation from generation to generation.” In his exposition, Edwards comments,

Wherein [that happiness here spoken of] consists, viz. in God’s righteousness [and] salvation towards them. By God’s righteousness here is meant his faithfulness in fulfilling his covenant promises to his church. . . . So the word righteousness is very often used in Scripture for his covenant faithfulness . . . . And so we are very often to understand righteousness and covenant mercy [to] be the same thing. (Works, Yale, vol. 9, 114, emphasis added)

Is it warranted from this to say that Edwards “equated” or “defined” God’s righteousness as his covenant faithfulness the way so many biblical scholars do today?

Probably not.

One Exercise Among Many

Edwards says too many other things about God’s righteousness that do not fit with such a narrowing of its meaning. For example, in this same paragraph from which these quotes are taken Edwards says,

[The benefits of the covenant], though they are bestowed of free and sovereign grace as being altogether undeserved, yet as God has been pleased by the promises of the covenant of grace to bind himself to bestow them, so they are bestowed in the exercise of God’s righteousness or justice. (Ibid., emphasis added)

Here he gives an account of why covenant keeping is included in (not synonymous with) God’s righteousness — namely, because God bound himself to bestow the promises by virtue of a covenant “so [key word!] they are bestowed in the exercise of God’s righteousness.” In other words, it is not the bestowal of covenant promises per se that constitutes God’s righteousness, but rather this bestowal is one way of “exercising” his righteousness, which is greater than, and not equivalent to, this one exercise alone.

Holy, Righteous, and Good

Edwards brings things to greater clarity in his Controversies Notebook (Works, Yale, vol. 21, 344–354), where he devotes ten pages to this one issue: the meaning of the righteousness of God, engaging in detailed original language examination of the Hebrew vocabulary for righteousness.

There he says,

The words Tzedhek, Mishpat [Hebrew for righteousness and judgment], etc. were originally forensic terms, but by degrees they at length expressed everything that was good and right by those terms, the words still retaining their forensic sense as their principal signification. (351, emphasis added)

He argues that the reason this law-court-related “righteousness” came to signify God’s mercy was that the main reason for having courts in the first place was largely to protect the innocent poor who were so often oppressed by people of wealth and power. Thus giving right and just judgments on behalf of the poor became associated with mercy and salvation, because that is what was, in fact, brought about in the course of justice. “Hence acts of mercy and compassion to the poor and afflicted came to be called his [God’s] righteousness” (347).

Then he argues that God’s dealing with his own people in mercy came to be called his righteousness toward them, because they were so often in the role of the poor and helpless and oppressed, so that his intervention on their behalf was “as a righteous judge to plead the cause of his poor afflicted people, to vindicate them, to protect and deliver them” (348).

And ’tis with regard to these exercises of God’s mercy towards them that it is called his righteousness: not with regard to any proper merit of theirs — far from it — but as it was in God the part of a holy, righteous and good judge thus to vindicate his people from their oppressors. And so God’s acts of mercy and salvation towards his people under or after affliction and oppression are called by the name of his righteousness (ibid, emphasis added).

Thus Edwards explains his understanding of God’s righteousness expressed in covenant mercies as “the part of a holy, righteous and good judge.” In other words, Edwards is not equating God’s righteousness with covenant keeping; he is laboring to explain how covenant keeping — especially merciful covenant keeping — would come to be treated as part of God’s righteousness.

From Where His Actions Flow

Edwards is jealous to distinguish his understanding from those in his own day who equated God’s righteousness with God’s “salvation, or saving mercy in general.” Rather, he says that God’s righteousness, justice, etc., were “used as forensic terms, in the very sense in which Calvinistic divines have generally supposed, and that when they are used to signify salvation, ’tis only metonymically putting the effect for the cause, viz. a right judgment between the oppressed and the oppressor” (352).

In other words, more basic to the meaning of “covenant faithfulness” was the underlying “right judgment.” What is meant, Edwards says, by using the word “righteousness” to refer to God’s saving his people, “is that these acts . . . show God’s moral excellency as a judge between them and their injurious enemies, judging rightly between them, in vindicating them from their injuriousness” (353).

Thus Edwards traces the meaning of God’s righteousness in his saving work of covenant keeping back to “the moral excellency” of God from which his particular actings as judge are flowing.

Which brings us back to Edwards’s statement that God’s righteousness “is very often used in Scripture for his covenant faithfulness.” My point has been that, for Edwards, this did not mean the two are equated, nor that covenant faithfulness is a sufficient definition of God’s righteousness. Rather, he puts it like this in his conclusion:

Though the word righteousness be in its original and principal signification a forensic term, yet as moral terms in general were taken from courts of judgment, so the word righteousness came to express moral good in general; and particularly, God’s faithfulness is often called his righteousness. And it is often found that when the Scripture speaks of God’s mercy and favor and saving goodness by the name of God’s righteousness, his covenant faithfulness is what is intended. (353–354, emphasis added)

The Showcase of God’s Moral Excellency

Simply put, for Edwards, God’s righteousness is larger and more basic than covenant faithfulness. God’s faithfulness to his covenant, both as promise keeping and as mercy to the oppressed, is only one expression of his righteousness. The reason I say that God’s righteousness is “more basic” than his acts of covenant keeping is that texts like Nehemiah 9:8 abound: “And you have kept your promise, for (kiy) you are righteous.” The act of keeping the covenant is grounded in what God is. Exegetically the ground and the effect are not the same.

I am not making any metaphysical pronouncements here about what “attributes” or “properties” or “essences” “must” exist in God as the foundation of his actions. I am simply saying that in Edwards’s mind, the reason the covenant faithfulness of God is described so often as an expression of his righteousness is that this specific kind of divine action is prominent among the many divine actions that “show God’s moral excellency.”

Reply from Kyle Strobel

I would like to thank John for taking the time to look at a five-year-old post and respond! Amazing. As I wrote at the time, I was not directly familiar with the debate he was in with N.T. Wright, but had both books in a pile on my shelf waiting to be read (sadly, they still are!). I had hoped to engage in the debate directly when I published an essay on Edwards and justification (published as “By Word and Spirit: Jonathan Edwards on Redemption, Justification, and Regeneration” in Jonathan Edwards and Justification, edited Josh Moody [Crossway, 2012]). Unfortunately, it was impossible to find room in that essay to address modern movements in relation to the doctrine, but this is a topic I would love to pick up one day, Lord willing.

Here, instead of responding, let me engage what Piper has laid out as Edwards’s view and simply raise some questions to it. As with many places in Edwards’s corpus, there may be some tensions that have to be discerned, and potentially some places where Edwards changes his view. Originally, when I wrote the post, I had read another post claiming that a key area of disconnect between Piper and Wright concerned the definition of righteousness. When I heard that Wright was defining righteousness as covenant faithfulness, I was intrigued because I had just read Edwards say the same thing (and proceeded to write with the quote that John mentioned).

I am still intrigued, to be honest, that Edwards turns to the language of “covenant faithfulness” exegetically, even though his overall hermeneutics differ radically from someone like Wright. My purpose in the post was not, therefore, to offer a robust claim about “righteousness” in Edwards, but to address two major issues:

  1. Presuppositions that all of the Reformed are identical on issues like this; and
  2. The interesting issues concerning God’s attributes in Edwards’s thought.

So let me raise some questions concerning what John developed here. As I read it, I am still not convinced he makes his case. In other words, nothing he says strikes me as undermining the claim that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness. It could be, admittedly, that I just did not understand what he was saying, but I think there are deeper questions to address.

For instance, John claims, “Edwards is not equating God’s righteousness with covenant keeping; he is laboring to explain how covenant keeping — especially merciful covenant keeping — would come to be treated as part of God’s righteousness.” This ordering gives a certain kind of preference, not in value but in order, to righteousness over the covenant. I think this is a problematic claim in relation to the broad movement of Edwards’s corpus.

In Edwards’s famous work End for Which God Created the World, he suggests that God has certain attributes that are unexercised in God’s inner-life, having no reason to be exercised in his eternal perfection, such as infinite power, wisdom, righteousness, and goodness. These are attributes extrinsic to God, or, as Edwards delineates them, they are relative.

In other words, God’s righteousness is not something exercised in his own life, but is an attribute that is predicated of God only in relation to his creation. Importantly, this is a change of position from his earlier reflections. In Miscellanies, Edwards states that “wisdom, power, goodness, and justice” are “the four attributes of God that have [to do] with the world.” Somewhere along the line Edwards changed his view of righteousness and justice (even though they remain clearly connected).

So what do we do with this? Ultimately, it means we cannot address the question, “What is God’s righteousness?” and avoid the “metaphysical pronouncements” that John did not address in his post. With Edwards, we simply cannot bypass these questions since righteousness is an unexercised attribute of God that means it functions in relation to God’s economic movement. This movement would, if nothing else, function under the “mutual free agreement” among the persons of the Trinity — a kind of covenant between the Father, Son, and Spirit that determines their economic activity. Could righteousness be faithfulness to be this kind of Redeemer for his people?

I think John is right to nuance Edwards’s view, something I would want to do from five years ago, but I’m not sure it is as clear as he wants it to be. Righteousness in Edwards’s thought is not the same thing as righteousness in his own. I think Edwards is incredibly peculiar on this point actually. But what his position does is orient the exercise of this attribute to the economy and ground it on God’s relation to his creatures. So it seems that John is certainly right to say, “The act of keeping covenant is grounded in what God is” (although I would rather say “who” than “what”), we nonetheless have to nuance the “what” a bit.

God is righteous in relation to his creatures, but he relates to his creatures in a “covenant kind of way” to which he remains faithful. But it is certainly true that God is righteous in a sense more fundamental than God is “covenant keeping.” But in my mind, the key here necessitates unlocking the notion of “unexercised attributes” and how that influences Edwards’s view of what it means to say that “God is righteous” at all.

I have not looked into all of the nuanced issues here, which have to do with Edwards shifting his position, the unique (and odd!) role the “unexercised attributes” play in his thought, and the relation of the various covenants have to Edwards’s understanding of God’s righteousness, but I think there is more to explore, and more to be said. Someone, write a dissertation on it!