Why is Jonathan Edwards considered so great?

Why is Jonathan Edwards considered so great? July 31, 2012

I know. I’m almost committing blasphemy by questioning Jonathan Edwards’ greatness. I wouldn’t be doing it except there seems to be a kind of cult of Edwards’ veneration–especially among American evangelicals. It’s not limited to American evangelicals, of course. Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson called Edwards “America’s Theologian.” New books are published every year about Edwards. The current (or now immediately previous) issue of Christian Century contains a review of a newly published b00k extolling Edwards’ virtues as a great Christian and great thinker. Most famously, perhaps, evangelical historian Mark Noll has often held up Edwards as THE paradigm of a great Christian intellectual whose example we should all follow.

Far be it from me to impugn Edwards’ deserved reputation as a great Christian preacher and intellectual. I just think it’s overblown. It tends to lead Christians who read these books (about Edwards) to overlook his flaws.

First, though, let me step back from criticism of Edwards (and those who extol him too much or too loudly) and criticize what our American public school system curriculum has done to him. I’ve taught college/university/seminary students for thirty years now and there’s one thing they (who attended public schools) agree on: they were misled about Edwards. The only thing most of them learned about Edwards in school was that he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” They were led to picture him as a fire-breathing hell-fire preacher who denied the Lord’s Supper to parishioners he considered less than fully converted (viz., he was intolerant).

The facts are different, of course. His delivery of sermons, including that one, was not loud or coercive. Reports indicate that he read it or delivered it from memory in a calm voice (at least compared with the stereotypes of hell-fire and brimstone fundamentalist preachers). Also, Edwards was an intellectual who stood head and shoulders above most of his peers. He was well read in Enlightenment philosophy and science and ahead of his peers in understanding human psychology and nature.

What I like to tell students about Edwards is that he was harshly critical of New Englanders who stole land from the Native Americans. He told them to pay the Indians for the land they took from them and to treat them humanely. When his congregation expelled him from his pulpit (partly, at least, for that), he went off to the frontier and lived among the Indians. For his time, Edwards was progressive in some areas of social thinking. On the other hand, he owned a slave, so he wasn’t consistent.

Toward the end of his relatively brief life, Edwards became president of what is now Princeton University (the College of New Jersey). He died of a smallpox vaccination gone wrong. We have no idea what he would have gone on to do in terms of intellectual contributions to American philosophy, science and theology had he lived longer.

Without doubt, Edwards was a great man and deserves more and better respect than he gets in American public education.

Having said all that, I still do not understand why so many of his fans overlook or excuse Edwards’ very significant errors. I can identify with Charles Finney who said of Edwards “The man I adore; his errors I deplore.” It seems to me that many of Edwards’ fans (especially among American evangelicals) are too quick to pass over the obvious logical flaws in his theology.

For example (and here you will have to trust me or look at my chapter on Edwards in The Story of Christian Theology and my many allusions to him and his theology in Against Calvinism): Edwards argued that God’s sovereignty requires that he create the entire universe and everything in it ex nihilo at every moment. That goes far beyond garden variety creation ex nihilo or continuous creation. It is speculative and dangerous. He also asserted that God is space itself. And he came very close to denying that God’s creation of the world was free in any libertarian sense as if God could have done otherwise. (He said that God always does what is most wise, something with which few Christians would argue, but somehow one must admit the possibility that God might not have created at all. Otherwise the world becomes necessary even for God which undermines grace.)

All of those ideas can perhaps be dismissed as the speculations of a mind obsessed with God’s greatness, glory and sovereignty. But things get much, much worse when Edwards deals with free will. Free will, according to him, only means doing what you want to do–following the strongest inclination provided to the will by the affections. It does not mean being able to do otherwise. In fact, Edwards seemed to deny the whole idea of “otherwise”–even in God. He did not merely argue that libertarian free will as ability to do otherwise was lost in the fall; he argued that the very idea is incoherent. If that’s true, then we cannot attribute it to God, either. And the fall becomes not only inevitable but necessary.

The question that naturally arises is: from where did the first evil inclination come? Edwards claims a creature formed it; it arose from a creature’s (Lucifer’s and later Adam’s) own nature. God simply “left ’em to themselves” so that sin and evil followed inevitably or necessarily. That is to say that God withdrew or withheld the grace creatures needed not to sin. God rendered the fall and all its horrible consequences inevitable or even necessary. And yet, creatures are to blame for sinning even thought they could not do otherwise.

Edwards wanted to get God off the hook for being the author of sin and evil, but ultimately he couldn’t. And he didn’t draw back from admitting that IN SOME SENSE God is the author of sin and evil. But he insisted that God is not guilty of sin or evil because…God’s motive in rendering them certain was good.

Now, let’s stop and examine this line of reasoning a bit. First, the very idea of libertarian free will is incoherent so even God cannot have it. God, too, is controlled by his strongest inclination/motive. Where do God’s inclinations come from? If one says “from his nature,” then, with the denial of libertarian free will, God becomes a machine. Everything God does is necessary–including rendering sin and evil certain. And why does God render sin and evil necessary? For his glory. (See Edwards’ Treatise Concerning the End for Which God Created the World.) So, sin and evil are necessary and serve God’s glory.

And yet, Edwards insisted that God abhors sin and evil. Why? If they are determined by his wisdom and necessary for his glory, why would he abhore them? Edwards tried to resolve this by appealing to God’s larger and narrower views. In the grand scope of things, seen from the widest perspective possible, sin and evil are part of the grand scheme of God to glorify himself. On the other hand, in the narrower perspective, God abhors them and commands creatures not to do them. And punishes them with eternal suffering for doing what serves his glory and is necessary.

Need I go on making my case that Edwards’ theology contains massive flaws? The single greatest flaw is the character of God. This inevitably makes God the author of sin and evil (something Edwards reluctantly admitted) and makes sin and evil not really awful at all but necessary for the greater good. It’s not just that God brings good out of them. For Edwards they are necessary for God’s full glorification.

Now don’t anyone say “Only in this creation; not overall or in general.” That won’t work. This creation is necessary if God does not have libertarian free will which he cannot have if the concept itself is logically impossible (incoherent).

In attempting to pay God too many and too large metaphysical compliments, Edwards ends up chasing his tail and contradicting himself. Is that the mark of a great mind? Well, I’m not saying he didn’t have a great mind. I’m only saying that he either didn’t seem to notice his own contradictions or he chose to overlook them while vehemently pointing out and condemning contradictions he thought he saw in Arminianism.


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  • Praveen

    Brother Olson
    i have a question; If adam and eve were created good ( Gen 1:31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning —the sixth day.)
    then where did the evil thought of disobedience, come to eve and then to adam. How did a good thing made, get an evil thought? Or what that matter, how did a good will and mind of eve, get so easily deceived by the serpent? Shouldn’t a good will and mind of Eve, recognize the lie? Before the fall they were extraordinarily intellectually savants (without the Savant syndrome, of course) – adam name all the beings created !!! (Gen2: 1920 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.)
    So how did good produce in his/her will/thought/emotion to doubt God’s word and believe a lie?
    thanks for taking the time to answer.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know, but I’d rather live with that mystery than think that God planted evil inclinations in them. Of course, Edwards didn’t say that, but I think it’s implied in his extreme view of God’s sovereignty. Calvinists and Arminians agree that the origin of the first evil inclination is a mystery. Where we disagree is whether God wanted the first humans to develop evil inclinations or not. Edwards is clear that God foreordained and rendered certain their evil inclinations and sin. He rendered it certain by “withholding” the grace they would have needed not to sin. I think that implies more of a flawed nature than Arminianism implies. According to church father Irenaeus, Adam and Eve were tricked into sinning. They were vulnerable, immature people, like children, and that’s why Satan bore special responsibility for their fall and why God did not punish them harsher.

      • Praveen

        Hello Brother
        So here’s what I don’t get about Greg Boyd (and Rob Bell). And to be clear, Greg Boyd is a thinker whose work I truly admire and have used in bible study classes. I come from an Arminian tradition so I see myself in Greg’s camp rather than with the Reformed (whom I find very strange, theologically speaking). But as a psychologist my understanding of human volition–about what it is really capable of (e.g., work in a psychiatric hospital has taught me that minds can become ruined and change is very, very hard)–prompts me to push back a bit on all the free will-based theological work out there…..

        • rogereolson

          I can’t always go and see what’s on a youtube clip so I delete the link. Arminians and other free will theists do not claim that everyone has unlimited free will. That’s absurd, of course. Even God doesn’t have that; his free will is governed by his character. Much of what we as fallen creatures do and experience is not about free will. All I understand free will theists to be saying is that, when it comes to responsible evil or responsible good (truly good, not just felt or perceived as good by someone), we are not determined. If a belief or decision or act is determined by someone or something other than the self (I said determined, not influenced), then it is not responsible. It just is what it is. We shouldn’t judge issues like free will by abnormal psychology–the fact that some people do things out of impulses that are not free and responsible.

  • I affirm your concern about the argument from desire. I have always been uncomfortable with this anthropology as a final explanation for human choice. Of course, for Edwards and others this meant that true conversion is heart conversion – a change of affections that reoriented the mind and the will. And since this is the nature of conversion, then the usual model of conversion in the Reformed church that emphasized the ordinary means of grace over time for a true conversion lost its explanatory power. Thus the New Side/Old Side controversy. My seminary was decidedly Old Side, and though it affirmed Edward’s Calvinism. Piper is New Side. People as “desire driven” is, interestingly enough, too mechanical for me. The power of contrary choice is certainly more interesting and dramatic – the moral battle seems to be given its due worth. The “desire driven model” has some initial explanatory power and attractiveness but I believe it falls short of the Romans 7 description of the true nature of the severe conflict within. I continue to believe that in evangelism we appeal to the mind and address the will, even while we understand the power of desire.

  • Bruce K. Oyen

    Dr. Olson, this is very interesting. Please give us some information on the source of Edwards’ views. Calvin? Augustine?

    • rogereolson

      Of course, Edwards thought he was just expounding Scripture. But the influences of Augustine and Calvin are clear as is the influence of John Locke.

  • Other odd features of Edwards’s metaphysics are:
    1. There are no material objects (he was an idealist)
    2. There is no secondary causation within creation (he was an occasionalist)
    3. There are no enduring substances (he was a perdurantist; for every slice of time, the world was instantiated ex nihilio)
    4. There is nothing that God is not in (he was a panentheist).
    If evangelical Edwards fans were to know more about his metaphysics, they would be less inclined to call him their “homeboy.”

    • rogereolson

      Entirely agreed. That was my point. Thanks for adding to its support. I simply cannot understand why so many evangelicals are so enthusiastic about Edwards when his metaphysical beliefs were so speculative and inclined toward panentheism if not pantheism.

    • Rob

      That all sounds really sophisticated and places him among Malebranche and Hume as a thinker. If he really was a perdurantist then he foreshadowed David Lewis–the most important Anglophone metaphysician of the last fifty years. I had no idea he was in such good company so you can add me to the list of admirers!

      • rogereolson

        How do you resolve the problem of evil, then. How do you free God from responsibility for sin and evil? If my or your self is only constituted by God momentarily ex nihilo, then why am I responsible for the evil that I do and not God?

        • Rob

          First, I am not saying that I am a follower of Edwards, I am just saying that he must have been an incredible thinker. The next great American philosopher was who? C.S. Pierce?

          Second, how does anyone resolve the problem of evil? I don’t think the problem of evil is a problem specific to any variety of Christianity although surely it is easier to tackle it from some perspectives compared to others.

          I think Edwards must have had a compatibilist understanding of moral responsibility like Locke. I think compatibilism is false. But look, if it were true, then determinism and moral responsibility would be compatible. Edwards thought it was true, so there was no problem for him. We look at it and shake our heads because we DO NOT accept compatibilism. Compatibilism does not create that problem, it is a solution–one which I think fails because it is false.

          God is responsible for evil no matter what. There would be no evil of God had not created at all or only created non-free creatures. Now we might protest that there should be a moral distinction between causing evil via creating a responsible moral agent who does evil and directly causing it as responsible moral agent. If such a distinction is valid, God might be the ultimate explanation for why there is evil without being morally responsible for it. I happen to think the morally responsible agents must have libertarian freewill, but Edwards did not think this necessary.

          I understand theological determinists (like Edwards) to see God as intending and causing evil whereas freewill theists (such as myself) think God only forsees and allows evil. It is worth pointing out that on consequentialism, the most popular moral outlook today, there is NO moral distinction between causing/allowing and intending/forseeing. That puts theological determinists and freewill theists in the same boat in the eyes of many moral theorists.

          • rogereolson

            Agreed. I just think the problem of evil has no solution within two philosophical outlooks–atheism and theistic determinism. Edwards was a theistic determinist. In the end, because of that, he could not solve the problem of evil and ended up implying that God is the author of sin and evil and therefore sin and evil are not really evil at all (because they are foreordained and rendered certain by God for his glory–the greater good). I just don’t understand why Edwards is considered so great when he (I believe) fell into so many contradictions.

  • R.A.

    Thank you. I’ve been thinking some of these very things about Edwards lately. And hero worship of ANY theologian or Church father is dangerous. Every single one of them was flawed (even Paul); sometimes people forget that.

  • A Citizen

    Also, like Beethoven, he never had his picture on a bubble gum card. (/Lucy Van Pelt)

  • JamesT

    R.C. Sproul discussed this very issue on his radio program today i.e., compatibilistic free will. Can you please explain how this makes sense to a Calvinist. Am I correct in understanding that Sproul and others Calvinists say “everything” is ordained by God, but free will is compatible with determinism because we do whatever our strongest inclinations are and therefore responsible for the results? Is that stated correctly? I know you are in disagreement with this, but I can’t even understand it to agree or not agree with it. Is it explainable? Can I respond to my greatest inclination without God ordaining the outcome, and if so, then what’s the difference between that and some sort of libertarian free will?

    • rogereolson

      Libertarian free will includes belief in the power of contrary choice. We are genuinely able to choose between alternatives. In compatibilism, we are not so able. Our “choices” are determined by our inward, often unconscious, inclinations, motives, affections. My question to Sproul would be–does he think God has libertarian free will as power of contrary choice? He can’t if he thinks the very idea is incoherent (which he does think). But if even God does not have power of contrary choice, creation is necessary even for God and therefore not of grace. Creation becomes an appendage to God’s own nature–something orthodox Christianity has always opposed. Panentheism, if not pantheism, is then allowed.

      • I dont understand Libertarian free will here… It doesn’t make sense to me. If the power to do the contrary doesnt come from all our considerations, our inward, often unconscious, inclinations, motives, affections, where does it come from? It could either be random, or come from God. I don’t think its random.
        What I want to understand is, in Libertarian free will, what drives our choices?

        • rogereolson

          Our free choices are not “driven” which is why we are responsible for them. If you deny that a person has power of contrary choice, why hold him or her responsible or guilty or praise him or her?

          • Well, I dont see a necessary responsibility conflict demanding a need for contrary choice. But them we are talking about compatibilism again, and J.E. Edwards addressed that better below.
            What i want to understand is, in Libertarian free will, what is this power of choice? where is it located? How is it defined? How it works?

          • rogereolson

            How does love work? You have to know how power of contrary choice works to believe in it? I don’t. It’s self-evident, even if mysterious, and the only alternative, determinism, is blatantly impossible (if you take love and grace and judgment and responsibility seriously).

  • J.E. Edwards

    Oooooooh, you done went and done it now:) I know most of the Edwards I have read is sermons. I tend to like my theology mingled into the preaching I listen/read. Theology alone can have a tendency to become disconnected from living life, if that makes sense. I’m not saying we don’t need theologians such as yourself and others. However, I would rather get my the0logy from preaching. Which is why I like Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Piper and others. Even your last post was rather nice compared to a lot of bare-boned theology discussed here. I wish Mr. Edwards could respond to your post. I think he would say he’s doing the same thing you say you’re doing….defending the nature and character of God.
    You did bring up the discussion of the necessity of contrary choice, also. I still you think you are saying we MUST have the power of contrary choice (libertarian free will) or God isn’t loving and good. That is clearly the thing Paul is addressing in Romans 9:11-20. People were accusing Paul of the same things you’re accusing Edwards of.
    Nothing in Scripture says we MUST have the power of contrary choice to be held accountable. Paul is answering that in Romans 9:20 is saying. “How can He find fault? Who can resist His will, then?” or today’s version, “Oh, so we’re all puppets or machines then?” These are the same questions Paul was addressing.
    Also, no one on this side of the fall will ever know the freedom of will man had before the fall or how Lucifer fell into sin, or why God didn’t decide to redeem fallen angels, why did God even put that tree in there? Answers to those questions would be very helpful. I suppose, we won’t know those until we see Jesus.

    • rogereolson

      Ah, but the problem is that Edwards (and most Calvinist theologians) think they do know–for God’s glory.

      • J.E. Edwards

        Ultimately that is true, isn’t it? Rev. 4:11 would lead me to believe that. That is how they (Edwards and Calvinist theologians) would mean it, in the ultimate end all things will glorify Jehovah. However, there is a working out of it in history that we won’t understand in this life that we are living. They (Edwards et al) haven’t claimed to know what God is doing in that regard.
        It also seems that your pre-suppositions regarding Gen. 3 are a big point of contention in this discussion. Edwards (and most Calvinist theologians) would point to a literal Adam and Eve in history and that the fall of those 2 is a literal, historical account. You’ve alluded that that isn’t helpful. Based on your disagreement there, that alone will take you and Edwards in entirely different directions in the very things you’ve addressed here.

  • Fascinating, Roger. I know this is probably too much to hope for, but I’d LOVE to see a discussion between you and John Piper on Edwards in some context. It would be extremely interesting at the level of historical theology, systematics, exegesis …

  • John C. Gardner

    Jonathan Edwards was a great theologian. I myself do not find his exposition of predestination and free will convincing. This is a solid post. Congratulations. Can you also recommend a book for laity on Arminius himself?
    Thanks and God bless you.

    • rogereolson

      Carl Bangs’ biography is not difficult to read even if it is a little long. Otherwise, no, unfortunately, there are (to the best of my knowledge) no biographies or even theological treatments of Arminius for popular, lay consumption. I know Baylor University Press is about to publish a volume on Arminius, but I don’t know if it would appeal to lay people or not. The best I can do is recommend my Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. I quote Arminius extensively there.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    A statement from Dr. Olson’s blog: “Now, let’s stop and examine this line of reasoning a bit. First, the very idea of libertarian free will is incoherent so even God cannot have it.”

    I agree concerning libertarian free will that “God cannot have it.” In fact, God doesn’t need it. Free will can only be inherent in those who are afflicted with conflicting and competing decision-making. This is the common dilemma of double-minded fallen humanity. God, however, given his divine and perfect attributes, is never conflicted between decisions as demonstrated by scripture: “James 1:17 (NIV) “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

    Undoubtedly Edwards was a brilliant man, however, his greatest fault was not confusion about free will, but, rather, his belief in a medieval concept of a God who is made as hell and who will ultimately subject the work of his hands (humanity) to eternal conscious torture because of their sins. An example of this glaring fault may be found in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (ranked by many theologians as one of the greatest sermons ever preached in America). But I think it was one of the worst sermons ever preached in America and have written a critique as follows: “Actually (in my opinion) it was more of a screed than a sermon; a verbal assault on the spiritual sensibilities of his mixed audience. More importantly, Edwards’ sermon was a terrible mischaracterization of our heavenly Father whose mercy is the model we are urged to emulate by Christ himself: ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful'” (Lk 6:36).
    (An excerpt from a new book, DROPPING HELL AND EMBRACING GRACE, by Ivan A. Rogers. Available from Amazon.com, also on Kindle.

    • rogereolson

      One does not have to have “conflicting decisions” to have free will. God faced the decision whether to create the world or not. He chose to create it. The moment you say God couldn’t have done otherwise, you have made the world necessary to God and whatever is necessary cannot be of grace.

  • Dr. Olson,
    I just wanted to say how thankful I am for your scholarship. Thank you! You should hear it more often.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks! That makes my day. 🙂

  • Allow me to point this list of resources Refuting Edwards and Calvinist Compatibilism and Arguments against Genuine Free Will: http://evangelicalarminians.org/Determinism-Refuting-Edwards-and-Calvinist-Compatibilism-and-Arguments-against-Genuine-Free-Will.

  • Michael Hochstetler

    “Great” in what sense? As an Arminian, I too disagree with Edwards’ basic views (and I find some of his notions about hell, particularly those found in “The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous,” somewhat disturbing). Yet for all this, I am often drawn to Edwards, especially the entries in the “miscellanies.” There I find a depth and breadth of insight that never ceases to astound me and which I always find to be intellectually stimulating and spiritually uplifting. I think Edwards is often considered great for those reasons, even among those who disagree with many of his basic notions. A great thinker, writer and preacher, even if his system of thought wasn’t so great.

  • Chris

    Dr. Olsen, how would you respond to the argument then that in order to exercise true libertarian freedom one would have to be in a state of indifference? This has been a stumbling block for me with Edwards. Even though I want to affirm libertarian free will for the sake of coherence, personally I seem to make choices in a compatibilistic fashion. I don’t ever seem to be positioned in such a way that my choices don’t reflect what I want. In order for me to choose otherwise it would seem that either (A) I don’t care which way or the other concerning the outcome or (B) the outcome that I want to see reflected by my choice has changed. If it is the latter, then we fall into Edwards argument of compatibilism. Your insight would be greatly appreciated!

    • rogereolson

      Nobody I know claims that our free decisions or actions are made in a state of indifference. This is a rap on libertarian free will that annoys me greatly. Free will theists believe in “situated free will”–free will that operates under many influences but is capable (sometimes) of choosing between them. Again, as always, I ask–what’s the alternative? Compatibilism? Then where is moral responsibility?

  • Ray Wilkins

    Thank you for this post. As I have been working out the nuances of my own understanding of the “Ordo Salutis” your posts have been helpful. I just finished reading, “Redemption: Accomplished and Applied,” by John Murray. His discussion of regeneration is exactly that, Regeneration necessarily precedes faith. Yet, I remain at this point, unconvinced. I now plan to read, “Classical Arminianism,” by Forlines.

  • Mike

    Dr Olson, I’ve read many of your writings as well as “Against Calvinism” twice now, I love it. However I am struggling to find a viable alternative to divine determinism. It seems that everything that comes to exist (this includes our desires, disease, natural disasters etc.) require a cause, and the trail of causality always leads to God. I do not believe this to be true, as that would, as you would say “make God a moral monster”; and that he is not.

    So my question is what option is there? I have read up on “Influence and response” but is it not just word play on cause and effect? An influence is just a superset of causes and response is well, just the effect of said causes. I can understand retorting to mystery; and I would rather do that than believe “determinism”, however it just seems illogical to deny cause and effect in our time/space universe. My mind has been running wild lately, nearly to the point of insanity and or depression searching for some model of reality that doesn’t leave us as puppets on a string. You would think if that was the glorious design of an almighty God I wouldn’t be so let down by it.

    Thanks in advance

    • rogereolson

      I don’t have time to go into it in detail, but Horace Bushnell, the 19th century Congregationalist theologian, argued that free will–power of contrary choice–is by necessity supernatural. It is one thing that makes us like God more than like animals. Of course, much depends on whether you think God has free will/power of contrary choice. If not, then you have a whole other set of problems to deal with.

      • This is the difficulty with nominalism, for sure. If the good is whatever God does, then it is hard to dodge the charge of determinism. In this version of things, God does not make choices. He just does, and what he does is the good. But if the good is a real substance and is chosen, then God is free. There are problems here, I know, either way you go. But Piper’s nominalism allows him to say that it’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases and at the same time feel no compunction (Piper, that is) to provide even a moral defense of the act. It makes the blood run cold. Martin Luther was a nominalist and his overstatements about God can at times make God seem erratic and careless. The nominalist God cannot be dialogues about my human moral agents. There is nothing to dialogue about. God just is and good has no innate existence. Christians who believe this can end up being too comfortable with moral positions that cannot be rationally defended. There can be no natural theology is such an environment.

        • rogereolson

          I’ve come to the conclusion that neither Calvin nor Edwards intended to be nominalists/voluntarists, but they fall close, if not into, it anyway–especially when the question of God’s goodness comes up. “What? You think God has to be good? What do you mean by ‘good’? God doesn’t have to be good in any sense we mean by it. God’s glory is the summum bonum that trumps everything else and justifies whatever God does–including predestining millions of people to hell (having already determined their sin and guilt before and apart from any free choices they make).” Edwards tries to get God off the hood, preserve some semblance of meaning to words like “good” and “guilt” by saying God did not cause Adam and Eve or their posterity (us) to sin; he merely permitted it. But IMHO Luther and Zwingli were more consistent and bold. Zwingli simply rejected any attempt to explain how God is good when he causes sin and evil. God, Zwingli argued (in On Providence) is above all law. Whatever God does is simply good because he does it. Edwards seems rightly uncomfortable saying that, but what he ends up saying is really not much different. God does not cause sin and evil; he simply left Adam and Eve to themselves so that they sinned naturally. But the point is–God wanted their sin to happen. He manipulated them to sin. He set their feet in slippery places and made their sin inevitably if not necessary. How is that “good?” Oh, because it was necessary for God’s full glorification. God’s justice shown in wrath must be displayed so hell is necessary. God’s glory is goodness itself and justifies absolutely anything. So why not just bite the bullet and say (as Zwingli did) that God can do whatever he wants to, so long as it is for his glory, including causing Adam and Eve and their posterity to sin and do evil? Why strive so hard to put distance between God and sin? Why not just say sin is for God’s glory and therefore God causing it is good? That’s my complaint about Edwards. He works too hard to get God off the hook (so he obviously realizes there’s a problem with sheer voluntarism a la Zwingli) to preserve some sense of God’s goodness analogous to ours. And he defines goodness as “benevolence.” So one can see why he works so hard at it. What’s benevolent about manipulating sin and evil with eternal hell as the result (for many people)? So he has to put some distance between God and the first evil inclination. It’s not from God; it’s from them (Adam and Eve). But God rendered it certain because it (and its consequences) are necessary for Gods’ full self-glorification. So why not just come out and say “God caused them to sin; God is the author of sin?” I don’t think many of my readers here understand my point; I keep making it, it is obvious to me, but especially Edwards and Piper admirers miss it entirely. I’m simply saying they would be more consistent if they just stopped trying to get God off the hook and said, as Luther and Zwingli did, that God is the author of sin and evil–live with it, he’s God. But I think they knew/know if they said that, which is really what they are saying covertly, they would lose many followers and admirers. Somehow many Edwards fans and Piper fans think they have found a way to free God from being the cause of moral evil. They haven’t. Then there are those who see it and just say “Well, God is the cause of sin and evil and it’s okay for God to do that.” With them I have no quarrel except that is not the God of Jesus or the Bible as a whole. Now you’ve embraced God as a moral monster. Clearly neither Edwards nor Piper wanted/want to do that. I just don’t see how they escape it logically.

          • That’s even more inconsistent for Edwards that you make out. It is massively inconsistent, because it is not that God merely leaves Adam and Eve or anyone to themselves. God also decreed what they would be like as themselves, every desire, every thought, everything, according to Calvinism. So it’s not like he created them good and then left them to themselves (which has serious problems as you correctly point out). He created them good, but also decreed their state and inclinations and thoughts all along the way, bringing about every bit of it by his sovereignty. He planned/concocted how it all should be, and then brought it about. Remember, God planned all that unconditionally according to Calvinism/Edwards.

          • rogereolson

            Have you read Against Calvinism? If so, or if you’ve followed this blog very long, you know I agree with that. My point was simply that Edwards’ claim that God is not the author of sin and evil because he didn’t “cause” Adam and Eve (or anyone) to sin is unbelievable. And yet almost all Calvinists take that approach. Put within the larger context of divine determinism, that God did not “cause” them to sin but only “permitted” their sin (by an efficacious permission such as I described in my post) is transparent nonsense.

    • Mike,

      You really need to look at the link I provided above, which includes access to a comprehensive and definitive response to Edwards by Arminian theologian Daniel Whedon as well as other resources, including books and articles with some guidance about them. There is so much I could say, but you should really check out the resources. But perhaps this quote, which is not among them, will also help. This is from from Norman Geisler in the Elwell Evangelical Dictionary:

      “On this view a person’s acts are caused by himself. Self determinists accept the fact that such factors as heredity and environment often influence one’s behavior. However, they deny that such factors are the determining causes of one’s behavior. Inanimate objects do not change without an outside cause, but personal subjects are able to direct their own actions. As previously noted, self determinists reject the notions that events are uncaused or that they cause themselves. Rather, they believe that human actions can be caused by human beings. Two prominent advocates of this view are Thomas Aquinas and C S Lewis.

      Many object to self determinism on the grounds that if everything needs a cause, then so do the acts of the will. Thus it is often asked, What caused the will to act? The self determinist can respond to this question by pointing out that it is not the will of a person that makes a decision but the person acting by means of his will. And since the person is the first cause of his acts, it is meaningless to ask what the cause of the first cause is. Just as no outside force caused God to create the world, so no outside force causes people to choose certain actions. For man is created in God’s image, which includes the possession of free will.”

      In other words, free will is the God-given power to assign weight to the various influences upon us and is actually a creative power. This comment might be rendered clearer by reading this concise critique of the heart of Edwards’ view: http://evangelicalarminians.org/node/328 (listed in the resources of the link I gave earlier).

  • jdavis

    What do you mean by “whatever is necessary cannot be of grace”? How do you support this biblically?

    • rogereolson

      It’s self-evident. If someone does you a favor and then you find out they had no choice but to do the favor, how do you feel? Do you still think it’s a favor? No. Then you take back the gratitude you once felt. So it is with grace. Grace that is not free is not grace and does not call forth gratitude. If God had to redeem the world, then redemption is not a gift, not grace, but necessity, mechanical.

      • Eric E

        This is far from self-evident. First, how you feel about something doesn’t tell you how it actually is. Second, you say that “Grace that is not free is not grace” but you are using a libertarian view of freedom, not a compatibilist view so this is only self-evident if you already accept the libertarian view. But the libertarian view of free will is far from self-evident, so this cannot be either.

        • rogereolson

          No, you’re wrong. The main reason I don’t accept the compatibilist view of “freedom” is it destroys grace. My first commitment is to the gospel truth of God’s grace in creation and redemption. I don’t see any way to hold on to that truth without God having power of contrary choice.

          • Eric E

            I left a reply a few days ago but it must not have gone through.

            Basically my point was that grace is God’s unmerited favor towards us and that he doesn’t deal with us according to our works but out of His own compassion and kindness. And there is nothing in that that is destroyed by the compatibilist view of freedom. It certainly isn’t self-evident as you claim … it needs to be argued for.

          • rogereolson

            I argued for it. You’re just ignoring it.

      • I think i have got to my point of divergence here; My answer to the question “Do you still think it’s a favor?”, I would still respond “Yes”. Why? Because ive done it as a favor when asked. From my point of view, from the time I decided, it was a favor. I cant go back and change it. I coud even resent and take no gratitude from now on, but i cant wipe that before i felt gratitude.
        Thats also the way i find compatibilism more compelling.

        But I understand the point of libertarian free will much better now, why people agree/disagree with it, and this is great.

  • Orthodoxdj

    Someone mentioned panentheism earlier, so I would like to comment on that based on a thought I’ve had for a while.

    If Calvinism is true, then nothing happens outside of God’s decrees. In essence, the world is as it is because it is how God wants it. It couldn’t be otherwise. What this means then, is that everything is an extension of God’s will-directly. God Himself cannot be separate from His will. Thus, Calvinism implies a type of pantheism, maybe panentheism. If nothing has its own agency, then all is one, namely God.

    • rogereolson

      Exactly. Here’s how I express it: Edwards’ view of God and the world (creation) is “theopanism”–God does everything; everything that happens and is is the immediate work of God (continuous creatio ex nihilo). Theopanism cannot be saved from becoming acosmic pantheism–only God really exists–or at least panentheism.

  • Eric

    This discussion is on much too low a level to decide anything concerning Edwards’ thought. Depending on how it is qualified, panentheism may not even be contrary to orthodoxy. Even Paul might be accused of it in citing a pagan source with approval: “In Him we live and move and have our being.” [Acts 17:28] Edwards was no panpsychist and indeed held steady to the creator-creature distinction.

    Roger, I love your calm, your fairness, your balance. But sometimes it seems you decide theological issues based on your gut rather than Scripture. If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then he is in some way responsible for evil. There is no way around it. If that makes him a moral monster, then we have a moral monster on our hands…and I suggest you come to grips with it. (Emotionally, I consider the concept of eternal, conscious torment in hell as a moral monstrosity, no matter how much any mortal may deserve punishment. But that is what orthodoxy maintains.)

    In his book, God’s Passion for His Glory, John Piper says this about Jonathan Edwards’ grasp of mystery:

    “Those who have climbed highest see more clearly than those in the cloudy regions below how much higher the reaches of the mountains of God really are. Below, we talk about mystery because we cannot see above the clouds. But above the clouds, Edwards talks of mystery because the peaks of divinity stretch out into space without end.”

    I have always rejected God’s impassibility because it seems to make Him into an automaton incapable of a meaningful, dynamic relationship with His beloved children. Recently, I was “taken aside,” as it were, and “the ways of God were more adequately explained” to me. Now, I understand that no contradiction exists between God’s lack of “body, parts, and passions” and His unrelenting and vibrant love for us. Not only is there no contradiction, but the one enhances the other.

    I do not know enough about the intricacies of occasionalism and perdurantism to know whether one might be able to hold to them in an orthodox fashion. I don’t get the sense that you do either (though I would be glad for you to disabuse me of my incredulity).

    Quite honestly, Edwards often strikes me as harsh and over-the-top. I like some of what I see but am hardly an apologist for his overall message. I just don’t think you’ve made your case. Whether we agree with him or not, we may question the wisdom of applying his thought in an unquestioning manner, but we can scarcely question his greatness.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I did, didn’t I? I stand by it. As John Smith, editor of Edwards’ collected works, commented about Edwards’ discussion of free will–“He ended lamely.” Indeed. See Against Calvinism for the exact quotation and citation.

    • John Inglis

      The construct of TULIP Calvinism makes God a moral monster according to the presentation by Scripture of justice, mercy, and love, and the presentation by it of the differences between God and the immoral gods of the surrounding nations.


  • Dan

    Can’t resist citing Lucy from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”: “How can you say Jonathan Edwards was so great when he never had his picture on a bubblegum card?”.

  • Mike W

    Great article. Much needed. You can see why Edwards flawed theological ideas made the clear-headed Finney a bit crazy.

  • Eric

    Dr. Olson:

    Just a quick rejoinder. How is a quote from John Edwin Smith, who was a process theologian and philosopher, germane in a discussion between evangelicals?

    Here is a quote from the late Dr. Smith. Do you agree with it, as well?

    “Let us begin with the problems that have arisen in the modern world, as the result of retaining the traditional God of Theism endowed with the now familiar attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, completeness and utter transcendence.”

    The man is not disposed to think well of Edwards’ opinions on the Problem of Evil.

    • rogereolson

      Just because he wasn’t an orthodox Christian (something I am not aware of) doesn’t mean he was wrong about Edwards. He edited Edwards’ works; I know for a fact he admired Edwards. The point isn’t what Smith said, of course, but what Edwards said. Whatever Smith was, his conclusion that Edwards “ended lamely” is correct.

  • Andrew T.

    I admit, I too thought he was great until I read Daniel Denison Whedon’s “The freedom of the will as a basis of human responsibility and a divine government” (available freely at Google books).

    Now, I’m convinced he isn’t.

  • Jack Hanley

    I would like to start out by saying, I am not a student of Edwards. I have certainly read his sermon Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God. I have also read bits and pieces as I have read other authors who have cited him. Also this past school year, as I helped my daughter in her history, there was a section on Edwards, in which it described Edwards as one of the greatest thinkers in American history. Therefore I am in no position to either defend or criticize his efforts.

    This being said, as I read the title of this article, I imagined that you intended to throw some sort of criticism his way. However believe it or not, before I read the first sentence, it crossed my mind, as to what your opinion of Charles Finney might be. Now imagine my shock, (not really, I was not shocked at all) as I discovered, that you had actually cited, Finney. Now I cannot tell, from your citing of Finney, what your opinion of him might be, but I would like to know if you realize, that Finney, did not believe the Holy Spirit had to be involved in revival? He believed a revival could occur any where the right means, and or, techniques were employed. Also I wonder if you realize, that toward the end of his career, he pondered as to the effects on the people, as they continued to experience his many revivals? It seems his fears were realized, as the places where most of his revivals took place is now referred to by historians, as the burned over district. Now I cannot comment on the effect Edwards may have had on the state of the Christian faith here in the U.S. However, I will say that the effects of Finney are still being felt to this day, in that a good number of Christians base the truth of Christianity on what they believe they experience, rather than on it’s historical truth claims. Therefore it is my belief. that the Finney effect has not been a very good effect at all.

    The next point I would like to address is free will. I wonder if you have ever considered, that free will is not our problem? We all have a free will, and we can use our free will to do either good, or evil. Therefore, our problem is not free will, we have that, our problem is rather, our condition. Our condition according to the Bible is that, we are dead in trespasses, and sins, which means we are dead to spiritual things. Paul states that, the natural man cannot understand spiritual things, nor can he. He cannot because he is spiritually dead. This means I can use my free will to do good or evil in man’s sight, however in God’s sight it is all sin apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, changing my condition. It is only after God through the Holy Spirit has changed my condition, that I can truly please God.

    • rogereolson

      I know you’ve been following this blog for a long time, so I’m surprised you’d ask me that. I have always affirmed total depravity apart from supernatural, prevenient grace that frees the will from the condition you describe so that it is capable of making a free choice for or against the gospel.