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Jonathan Edwards' Place In The History of Christian Thought by John H. Gerstner

From Jonathan Edwards: A Mini-Theology, By John H. Gerstner

Born in 1703 in East Windsor, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards lived at a time when the Calvinistic Puritanism of the American colonies, particularly New England, was giving way to more man­centered thought coming out of Europe. Edwards held firmly to the theology of his Puritan heritage, yet he read with interest the philosophy coming out of Enlightenment Europe. He had both eyes on the biblical theology that had dominated the church for centuries ­ and both eyes on such new thinkers as John Locke and Isaac Newton.

There has been considerable debate over whether Ed. wards was the last of the medieval Scholastic theologians or the first of the modern American philosopher­theologians. The advocates of the former position point especially to his views of biblical authority, God and the Devil, heaven and hell. The latter are impressed with his development of Newtonian and Lockean thought, which was avant­garde in the 1700s.

Each of these views is correct Jonathan Edwards was a rational, logical theologian of the medieval sort; he was also something of a Lockean idealist with Newtonian overtones. Vincent Tomas is quite right Edwards 'took orders' from the Bible as truly and indeed more so than any Scholastic theologian of the Middle Ages.(1) But Perry Miller is also correct in noting that Edwards as a thinker was not only ahead of his time but also of our time, and was not only somewhat Lockean in his empirical approach but that he even extended Locke's ideas to homiletics, so that in this technical sense Ed. wards was a 'sensationalistic' preacher.(2) On the other hand, Clarence H. Faust insists that even Edwards' scientific studies were but a subtle form of grinding his theological axe(3), while Theodore Hornberger argues that Edwards employed the most modern philosophical means to save science from materialism, and that Edwards even used Newton's theory of atoms in the argument against Arminianism.(4) Douglas Elwood can see in Edwards a Neoplatonic panentheist,(5) while Robert C. Whittemore contends that the Neoplatonists were not panentheists and Edwards was simply a mystic,(6)

Each of these views is incorrect if considered mutually exlusive. The assumption that an orthodox theologian, devoted to the theology of the past, could not also gain in sights from contemporary philosophy is based on a misconception of traditional Christian orthodoxy. Critics assume that orthodox Christianity is fideistic and non-rational. They also wrongly fancy that Lockean thought is 'rationalistic' in such a sense as to exclude orthodox Christianity. John Locke (1632­1704) was, to be sure, the author of The Reasonableness of Christianity, but to make a rationalistic deist or Unitarian out of Locke because he thought of Christianity as rational only shows how little orthodoxy is understood. P. T. Forsyth wrote that the orthodox are more rational than the rationalists. The orthodox are not rationalists, but they can be rational.

Every evidence indicates that Jonathan Edwards was as orthodox in his view of reason as in everything else. It was no coincidence that his unfinished magnum opus was to be entitled A Rational Account. Even Douglas Elwood, who by no means does justice to the rational element in Edwardsean thought, grants in an understatement 'It must be admitted that there are places where Edwards sounds like any other eighteenth century apologist.(7) The truth about Edwards is, as his son Jonathan boasted, he was more rational than most of his fellow Calvinists ­ that is, he tended to explain rat tonally what most other Reformed theologians were inclined to leave in mystery. (8) (It should be remembered that mystery, for the orthodox, was not the irrational but simply the partially understood; they always assumed that what was mysterious was capable of being understood, and someday, at least in heaven, would be.) Edwards believed in mystery too, and was quite content to await heaven for the complete and perfect explanation; but he was more inclined to go further in his explanations of mystery than were most other theologians. For example, the difference between him and Martin Luther in the matter of human freedom in relation to divine sovereignty was characteristic Both believed the two doctrines, but Luther believed them though they apt peered (to him) absurd and Edwards believed them while refuting charges of their absurdity.(9) In other words, Ed wards felt that, using logic and the Bible, a man could reconcile the two doctrines and thus show that there was no absurdity at all. Edwards shared, with many secular philosophers of the Enlightenment, a faith in man's ability to reason properly and work out problems logically.

But Peter Gay, a specialist in the Enlightenment, thinks that Edwards had no place in that movement of the human mind. According to Gay, if a thinker were enlightened he was 'national,' and if he were rational he would be 'enlightened.' Edwards was in a cage (his Puritan theological heritage) and not enlightened (in Gay's use of the term), and therefore he was not a son of the Enlightenment or a genuine disciple of Locke. Locke (as seen by Gay), precisely because he believed in the 'reasonableness' of Christianity, reduced it to a simple belief in Jesus as the Messiah and rejected all that was supernatural. Gay even gives the impression that the celebrated English empiricist had no place for miracles in his system of thought.(10)

How a reader of The Reasonableness of Christianity and other religious writings of Locke could maintain such a view is difficult to understand. Locke, to be sure, was indisposed to over­much mystery and liked dear definitions (as did Rene Descartes; who was Roman Catholic), but he believed far more than just the doctrine that Jesus was the Messiah, though he believed this was all that was essential to salvation. Furthermore, he regarded miracles as establishing the 'credit of the proposer' of doctrine.(11) Locke was an orthodox Anglican, though he argued about some Anglican doctrines. The deists, who denied the reality of miracles and the divinity of Christ, were, unlike Locke, having their books burned and their very lives endangered. (Edwards reveals the status of deists in his own mind when, in an unpublished sermon preached in 1731, he refers to 'robbers, pirates and deists' with apologies to the robbers and pirates. (12))

Locke's own intimate friend and disciple, Anthony Collins, moved from deism to an outright rejection of Chris. tianity. But Locke himself never did. The doctrines he continued to affirm included the theistic proofs, miracles, the historic Adam, the historic Fall, the divinity of Christ, justificatdon by faith, and many others. It is significant that Jonathan Edwards had not only read Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding but was also familiar with his Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Galatians, Corinthians Romans and Ephesians Locke, like Isaac Newton, spent his latter days poring over the pages of the Bible, which he recognized as authoritative. Edwards' 'taking orders' from Scripture, therefore, does not prove him not to be a Lockean and a child of the Enlightenment in some of its aspects. Of course, if being 'enlightened' must mean being unorthodox and / or unchristian, then Edwards must be denied that classification, along with Newton, Locke, Leibniz, the Cambridge Platonists, and many other thinkers past and present.

John Opie's Jonathan Edwards and the Enlightenment is a very useful little anthology, but it is odd that a volume on Edwards and the Enlightenment would fail to mention how Edwards actually dealt with the negative conclusions of the 'enlightened' ones whom he knew as deists. In his unpublished 'Miscellanies' Edwards addressed himself (especially in Miscellany 1340) directly to Matthew Tindal, deistic author of Christianity as Old as the Creation, or the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature (1739) which is commonly called the 'Bible of deism. ' Edwards went directly to the fundamental principle of deism, its rejection of Christianity and all revelation in the name of what it thought to be reason. Just as Edwards was later to show that the champions of free will reduced freedom to bondage and, worse than that, to meaninglessness, so he shows that deism, in its attempt to glorify reason, actually destroyed it.

The fundamental principle of deism-and the kind of 'enlightenment' that Peter Gay has in mind is that reason is not only the test of whether a revelation had been given but also of each item in that revelation. The orthodox Puritan Christian agreed that reason should be used to test whether a true revelation had been given, but once it was satisfied on that point, then reason (to be reasonable) would accept the content of that revelation without further testing. Reason, the Puritans felt, was never more reasonable than when it refused to argue about the things which were above reason. This sentiment characterized virtually all enlightened orthodox thinkers, Liebniz, Locke, and Newton included.

Edwards not only justified the enlightened character of the orthodox position, but proceeded to demonstrate the unreasonableness of the deistic stance. First, he pointed out that once we satisfy ourselves that sense perception, memory, and tradition are reliable, we accept their testimony without further ado.(13) If we did not, we could know virtually nothing. Edwards argued that all knowledge would be reduced to hopeless paradox if we could not rely upon the processes of perception and testimony. 'That something now is,' for example, is about the most basic piece of information we have, and yet that would be a totally baffling, nonsensical statement if we did not trust the testimony of sense and experience.(14) Rubbing this rationalistic point into proud deistic heads, he reminded them that the divine knowledge which they took for granted (including such beliefs as the immortality of the soul, a divine Creator, an orderly universe, a moral law) had been gotten from the revelation of Scripture. He observes that only where the Bible has gone has the knowledge of God prevailed.(15) In this connection he stresses the point (also made by Locke) that it is one thing to recognize truth when it is revealed and another to discover it apart from that.(16) Edwards ends his treatise with the statement that the deists, who were great proponents of education and schools, were inconsistent inasmuch as, in their view, knowledge is native to the human mind and man should not need to be taught knowledge.(17) We will examine Edwards' position on revelation and reason much more thoroughly in the following chapter

Edwards maintains the common historic Christian viewpoint with unusual intellectual vigor. Many today misunderstand Edwards and Christianity precisely at this point. The historic Christian position has been, in spite of the prevailing contemporary notion to the contrary, a reason­plus­faith synthesis. Many today think that faith minus reason is the Christian position because it is so common in our time. That, however, is a caricature of Christian belief It is not the consensus of the church's tradition. But certainly reason' minus­faith, which may be a caricature even of rationalism, is not the consensus either. If one looks at the whole history of Christian thought, it is the reason­plus­faith synthesis of Edwards which emerges dominant.


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02/05/2008 07:21:42 -0800

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