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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