Jonathan Edwards and the Deists
In Freedom of the Will, published in 1754, Jonathan Edwards refers to 'the supposed rational and generous principles of the modern fashionable divinity'1 – 'that noble and generous freedom of thought, which happily prevails in this age of inquiry'. 2Again, in Original Sin, published in 1758, Edwards comments in ironic and sardonic vein that 'it must be understood, that there is risen up now at length, in this happy age of light and liberty, a set of men, of a more free and generous turn of mind, of a more inquisitive genius, and of better discernment'.3Thus it is evident that Jonathan Edwards had firmly within his sights 'a set of men' who were characterised in their thinking by the spurious generosity of the Age of the Enlightenment, namely, the freethinkers or deists that were now flourishing in the Age of Reason.
Now it is vital that Jonathan Edwards should be understood not merely in the context of New England religion, but also in the wider context of the Transatlantic intellectual community of the first half of the eighteenth century. Through his wide, eclectic reading Edwards was well aware of the rising tide of deism and the remarkable growth of scepticism in this period. In his History of Redemption, for instance, Edwards specifically mentions England as 'the principal kingdom of the Reformation'4but then goes on to remark that 'in this kingdom, those principles on which the power of godliness depends, are in a great measure exploded, and Arianism, Socinianism, Arminianism, and Deism, prevail, and carry almost all before them. History gives no account of any age wherein there was so great an infidel apostasy of those who had been brought up under the light of the gospel; never was there such a disavowal of all revealed religion' 5
The basic tenets of deism were articulated in 1624 by Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), the man universally regarded as the father of deism. In that year he published his De Veritate which identified the five following articles of deistic belief. Firstly, there is one Supreme God. Secondly, this Supreme Being is to be worshipped. Thirdly, virtue is the chief element in this worship. Fourthly, repentance for sin is a duty, and upon repentance a man may cherish the hope of pardon. Fifthly, there are rewards and punishments in the world to come. Later deists, such as John Toland (1670-1722), Anthony Collins (1676-1729), and Matthew Tindal (1655-1733), built upon this foundation. There was this denial of supernatural revelation. Christianity, it was declared, was 'not mysterious'; it was 'as old as the creation' and was simply 'a republication of the law of nature'. Man himself was exalted, and above all, God was removed to a great distance from the world.
Reason and the Light of Nature
Both in his sermons and his theological treatises Jonathan Edwards reveals a remarkable preoccupation with the threat of deism. In Original Sin he refers to 'the folly and great evil of deism'.6Again, in his sermon on Man's Natural Blindness in the Things of Religion, he contends that the rise of deism so soon after the Reformation was itself an example of 'the sottish blindness and folly of the heart of men'7— a classic illustration of man's proneness 'to fall into such gross delusions, soon after they have been favoured with clear light'.8Edwards stresses not only the fallenness of man, but also the fallenness of man's reason. Deism was simply one manifestation of man's extreme natural blindness. Thus Edwards emphasised very strongly the inadequacy and insufficiency of human reason and the light of nature. Indeed, Edwards' works provide a very detailed and thorough critique of the optimistic concept of reason as entertained by the mind of the Enlightenment. 'Mere reason',9'unassisted reason',10he contended, could never bring fallen men to the knowledge of God.
With regard to specific doctrines of the Christian faith, Edwards argued that the doctrine of the Trinity, the method of the sinner's justification, and even the doctrine of a future general judgement are not discoverable by the light of nature, but depend upon a revelation from God. Again, with regard to the immortality of the soul,
Edwards argues interestingly that 'there is no one probable opinion in the world which mankind, left entirely to themselves, would have been more unlikely to have started. Who, if he was not assured of it by good authority, would ever take it into his head to imagine, that man, who dies, and rots, and vanishes for ever, like all other animals, still exists? It is well, if this, when proposed, can be believed; but, to strike out the thought itself, is somewhat, I am afraid, too high and difficult for the capacity of men'.11
Indeed, it is interesting to note the extent to which Edwards minimises the light of nature. 'It is one thing', he writes in his Miscellanies, 'to work out a demonstration of a point, when once it is proposed; and another, to strike upon a point itself. I cannot tell whether any man would have considered the works of creation as effects, if he had never been told they had a cause'.12Certainly, Edwards concedes, man's reason and learning prove to be 'an excellent handmaid to divinity', 13but it is essential that man's reason should first be enlightened. Only then can those truths which are above reason be seen to be agreeable to reason. 'Reason may greatly confirm truths revealed in the Scriptures'.14Reason confirms revelation, it undergirds revelation, it elucidates revelation. But a revelation from God Himself is absolutely indispensable.
In his Miscellanies Edwards puts considerable emphasis on the connection between revelation and certainty.
Were it not for divine revelation, he writes, I am persuaded, that there is no one doctrine of that which we call natural religion, which, notwithstanding all philosophy and learning, would not be for ever involved in darkness, doubts, endless disputes, and dreadful confusion.15
Natural religion, he maintains, leads only to 'abundance of uncertainty',16 'infinite confusion', 17'ten thousand different schemes'.18Now Edwards' critique of deism is twofold here. Firstly, he argues that the heathen darkness of the Gentile nations is in itself a great and lasting proof of the utter inadequacy and insufficiency of man's natural reason. Indeed, Edwards draws an interesting parallel between the light of the heathen and the light of the deists:
Those nations, who all that time lay in such gross darkness, and in such a deplorable helpless condition, had the same natural reason that the deists have.19 Again, it is strange, that the natural light should be so clear, and yet the natural darkness so great, that in all unassisted countries the most monstrous forms of religion, derogatory to God, and prejudicial to man, should be contrived by some, and swallowed by the rest, with a most voracious credulity. I could wish most heartily, that all nations were Christians; yet, since it is otherwise, we derive this advantage from it, that we have a standing and contemporary demonstration of that which nature, left to herself, can do.20
Then, secondly, Edwards contends that the deist's light of nature in fact flows from God's revelation! 'It was the Christian religion', he maintains, 'that opened the eyes of the polite nations of Europe, and even of the deists of this age'.21'All the right speculative knowledge of the true God, which the deists themselves have, has been derived from divine revelation'.22In effect, Edwards charges the deists here with taking divine revelation for granted. The deists, he claims, borrow from Christianity. Natural religion, whilst rejecting revelation, in fact rides upon the back of revelation. Natural religion, so vaunted by the deist, in fact builds its flimsy edifice on the very foundations laid by the Christian religion itself. Indeed, Edwards extends this argument back in time to the heathen nations in the Old Testament era. 'Judea', he asserts, 'was a sort of light among the nations, though they did not know it'.23Rome, Greece, Egypt, Syria, and Chaldea were to some extent beneficiaries of that light which God imparted to the nation of Israel. Those nations that lay in close proximity to Israel thus enjoyed a kind of reflected light from divine revelation itself; they learned from the principles and practices of the Jews, so that that which is hailed as the light of nature has in fact been handed down, via tradition, from revelation. Edwards reminds the deists of the significance of 'Eastern traditions'.24Thus he asserts, in effect, that pagan moral philosophy and also deistic moral philosophy were unconscious imitators of God's revelation to Moses and of God's revelation through Christ respectively. In each case, the light of nature in fact consisted of 'relics of revelation'. 25
Man and Original Sin
For Jonathan Edwards, one of the most significant features of the rationalistic mind was its doctrine of man and sin. By the mid-eighteenth century the optimistic Enlightenment view of man, with its belief in man's ability and goodness, had engulfed much of Europe and England, and was now, Edwards felt, encroaching dangerously upon America. Edwards' own view of man — essentially Calvinistic — is well summarised by this statement of his in Thoughts on the Revival:
What a poor, blind, weak, and miserable creature is man, at his best estate!26However, as Clyde Holbrook points out, by the 1750s, the notion of man as a fundamentally rational, benevolently inclined individual was emerging as the unquestionable postulate for the expansionist mood of Western culture. But the doctrine of original sin marred this flattering image. It stood for everything the spirit of the Enlightenment detested.27
Thus the New England stage was well set for a clash between the Enlightenment view of man and the Reformation view of man — a clash that is epitomised in the 1750s by the controversy between Dr John Taylor and Jonathan Edwards.
Dr John Taylor (1694-1761) of Norwich was initially an orthodox Presbyterian, but in the 1730s he appears to have moved in the direction of Arianism and Unitarianism. In 1738 Dr Taylor openly identified himself with the rising tide of Arminianism and Pelagianism by his attack on the doctrine of original sin. His influential 'Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin' enjoyed a wide circulation in England, Scotland, and America, and did much to undermine the foundations of Calvinism in New England and to reinforce the rationalism and the moralism of the Enlightenment. As far as John Wesley was concerned, Taylor's work was 'old deism in new dress'.28Edwards' aim in Original Sin was to establish 'the innate sinful depravity of the human heart'.29He therefore took up his initial position on ground conceded by Dr Taylor himself, namely, that men 'universally run themselves into that which is, in effect, their own utter eternal perdition'.30From this fact, established by both Scripture and experience, and also acknowledged by Dr Taylor, Edwards goes on to conclude that there is in man a natural tendency or propensity to sin.
The natural dictate of reason, he writes, shows, that where there is an effect, there is a cause, and a cause sufficient for the effect; because, if it were not sufficient, it would not be effected; and that therefore, where there is a stated prevalence of the effect, there is a stated prevalence in the cause. A steady effect argues a steady cause.31
Since there is in mankind 'a propensity that is invincible, or a tendency which really amounts to a fixed, constant, unfailing necessity,32this tendency or propensity must lie, not in any external circumstances, but in something inherent in man himself; it is seated, Edwards maintains, in 'that nature which is common to all mankind'.33
It is thus that Edwards reasons, step by step, and with irresistible logic, from premises conceded by Dr Taylor to a conclusion most unwelcome to Dr Taylor!
It is particularly interesting to note the way in which Edwards disposes of Dr Taylor's argument that man's own free will, rather than any depravity of nature, is sufficient to explain the great and general wickedness of the world. Here Edwards turns his opponent's argument back upon his opponent:
But I would ask, how comes it to pass that mankind so universally agrees in this evil exercise of their free will? If their wills are in the first place as free to good as to evil, what is it to be ascribed to, that the world of mankind, consisting of so many millions, in so many successive generations, without consultation, all agree to exercise their freedom in favour of evil? If there be no natural tendency or preponderation in the case, then there is as good a chance for the will being determined to good as to evil. If the cause be indifferent, why is not the effect in some measure indifferent? If the balance be no heavier at one end than the other, why does it perpetually preponderate one way? How comes it to pass that the free will of mankind has been determined to evil, in like manner before the flood and after the flood; under the law and under the gospel; among both Jews and Gentiles, under the Old Testament, and since then, among Christians, Jews, Mahometans; among papists and protestants; in those nations where civility, politeness, arts, and learning most prevail, and among the Negroes and Hottentots in Africa, the Tartars in Asia, and Indians in America, towards both the poles and on every side of the globe; in greatest cities and obscurest villages; in palaces and huts, wigwams, and cells underground? Is it enough to reply, it happens so, that men everywhere, and in all times, choose thus to determine their own wills, and so to make themselves sinful, as soon as ever they are capable of it, and to sin constantly as long as they live, and universally to choose never to come up half way to their duty?34 It is thus, with relentless logic, that Edwards exposes the weaknesses, the inconsistencies, and intrinsic absurdities of Dr Taylor's own avowed principles, and indeed appears to have entirely baffled and confounded his opponent with superior force of argument. It is not in the least surprising that the great Scottish theologian of the nineteenth century, William Cunningham, asserted of Edwards' Original Sin that it 'never has been, and never can be, successfully assailed.35
Hell and the Humanitarians
For Jonathan Edwards, another dangerous feature of deism was its scepticism of the orthodox doctrine of hell. The doctrine of the eternal torment of the damned, so clearly taught in the Bible and in the great Calvinistic confessions, was under attack. John Tillotson (1630-1694), for instance, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1691, had sought to tone down the Calvinist doctrine of strict reprobation by emphasising God's mercy at the expense of his justice. In 1690, Tillotson had preached before the Queen a most significant sermon on The Eternity of Hell Torments. This was a subtle, suggestive, insinuating sermon in which Tillotson, whilst purporting to defend the doctrine of the everlasting misery of the damned, in fact deliberately subverted this very doctrine. He cast doubt upon the everlasting nature of God's punishment of sinners. Everlasting punishment, he suggested, was not so much a certainty as a possibility. He suggested that the Bible's teaching on eternal punishment was given to 'deter men'36; it was a deterrent rather than retributive. Moreover, by using the example of Nineveh, Tillotson suggested that whilst God is obliged to fulfil His promises, He is not in fact obliged to fulfil His threatenings.
For there is this remarkable difference between promises and threatenings, wrote the future Archbishop of Canterbury, that he who promiseth passeth over a right to another, and thereby stands obliged to him in justice and faithfulness to make good his promise; and if he do not, the party to whom the promise is made is not only disappointed, but injuriously dealt withal: but in threatenings it is quite otherwise. He that threatens keeps the right of punishing in his own hand, and is not obliged to execute what he hath threatened any further than the reasons and ends of government do require: and he may without injury to the party threatened remit and abate as much as he pleaseth of the punishment that he bath threatened: and because in doing so he is not worse but better than his word, nobody can find fault, or complain of any wrong or injustice thereby done to him.37
In this same sermon, moreover, Tillotson flirts and toys with the heterodox notions of the Greek father Origen who held that punishment in the world to come is reformatory and rehabilitative, and who suggested that such punishment may last only for a thousand years.
It is important to note that in 1714 Tillotson's writings arrived in New England; and it is not surprising that as a famous preacher and as a former Archbishop of Canterbury, his writings should exercise a considerable influence amongst New England divines. The historian Perry Miller has characterised Tillotson's approach as 'moderate', 38'reasonable',39'latitudinarian'.40
Anthony Collins, the freethinker and deist, regarded Tillotson as the head of all freethinkers. For Jonathan Edwards, however, Tillotson was the fountain-head of much that was objectionable in eighteenth-century liberal Christianity, and in April 1739, almost fifty years after the preaching of Tillotson's own sermon, Edwards himself preached a sermon on The Eternity of Hell Torments that was based on Tillotson's own text from Matthew 25:46 — 'And these shall go away into everlasting punishment'. Indeed, the Northampton divine specifically mentions the Canterbury divine in this sermon — 'Archbishop Tillotson, who has made so great a figure among the new-fashioned divines'. 41Both here, and also in his Miscellanies, Edwards launches a brilliant counter-attack upon 'the infidel humour'42of the age. Reasoning both from the Scriptures and also from the philosophical premises of opponents such as Tillotson and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Edwards attacks the psychological optimism and the sentimental humanitarianism of the benevolist school. He strongly rejects the ethics of pity and compassion with its emphasis on 'a God of universal benevolence'. 43He dismisses the notion of the punishment of hell as a 'kind of benevolent chastisement'. 44 'This life', Edwards insists, 'is the only state of trial'.45'There is no other day of trial after this life'.46
There is, Edwards maintains, an inalienable connection between the nature of sin and the nature of hell:
Our obligation to love, honour, and obey God being infinitely great, sin is the violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment, an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves: therefore such punishment is just.47
Edards thus rejects the Origenist notion that the torments of hell are simply 'purifying pains'; 48they are not 'Inedicinal',49Edwards contends — they are not reformatory or rehabilitative. Edwards totally rejects the idea that there are 'offers of mercy' 50in hell and that there is any possibility of repentance in hell. He also proceeds to destroy Tillotson's suggestion that although God threatens eternal punishment, He may not in fact fulfil His threatenings.
The doctrine of those who teach, that it is not certain that God will fulfil those absolute threatenings, is blasphemous another way; and that is, as God, according to their supposition, was obliged to make use of a fallacy to govern the world ... But what an unworthy opinion does this convey of God and his government, of his infinite majesty, and wisdom, and all-sufficiency! — Beside, they suppose that though God has made use of such a fallacy, yet it is not such an one but that they have detected him in it.51
Now Archbishop Tillotson was not, of course, himself a deist, but he was a precursor of the deists, and Edwards did not underestimate the threat posed by Tillotson's 'moderate' and 'reasonable' Christianity. He regarded the 'generosity' of Tillotson's views as a spurious and dangerous generosity; and in combating the views of the Archbishop, Edwards sought to provide a reasoned and scriptural counterblast to the benevolist and humanitarian pull of the age.
The Immediacy of the Living God
Tis a strange disposition that men have, Edwards insists, to thrust God out of the world, or to put Him as far out of sight as they can, and to have in no respect immediately and sensibly to do with Him. Therefore so many schemes have been drawn to exclude, or extenuate, or remove at a great distance, any influence of the Divine Being in the hearts of men, such as the scheme of the Pelagians, the Socinians, etc.52
Edwards does not specifically mention the deists here, but there can be no doubt that he had the scheme of the deists very much in mind For the great tendency of the deists was precisely that of putting God at a distance. The deists believed, of course, in the existence of God, but their God was a God that was distant, passive, inert, and remote. God was the Supreme Being — the great Architect or Mechanic who had created the universe in the beginning but who then left the universe to run its own course as a self-operating machine. God was not involved in the world — He did not intervene or interfere in the affairs of men. The deists denied supernatural revelation; they denied miracles, the Incarnation, God's moral government, His providence, the communications of His Spirit. The God of the deists was a Deity in absentia, a depersonalised God, the unmoved Mover of the universe. Now it is vital to remember that Jonathan Edwards lived in the age of Newtonian physics. Sir Isaac Newton died in 1727, when Edwards was twenty-three, but Newton had already opened up a universe which was governed by natural law. The Newtonians, however, tended to move in a distinctly deistic direction. The post-Newtonian universe was conceived by Newton's followers as a mechanical, mathematical universe. God's creation was conceived as an intricate, impersonal, inert machine. Science was now dominated by the notions of mechanical causation and the uniformity of natural law. This new emphasis ruled out the immediate activity of God in the world, and God was thus pushed to the remote edge of the universe. Dr Douglas J. Elwood comments that 'the chief problem of the eighteenth century became one of relocating God in a post-Newtonian universe'. 53The deists were seeking to put God at a great distance from the world, whilst Edwards, with his remarkable emphasis upon divine immediacy, was consciously opposing this deistic notion of a First Cause operating at a remote distance from its effects. For Edwards, deism was the very acme of those related schemes, Pelagianism, Socinianism, Arminianism, and Deism, which all sought, in varying degrees, to distance man from God. The deists denied the immediacy of God, but for Edwards the immediacy of God was a great and glorious reality. Indeed, Dr Elwood has argued very cogently that Edwards' concept of divine immediacy is the controlling idea or principle of correlation that runs throughout his works. 'His whole theology', writes Dr Elwood, 'stands out against all forms of deism ... It rises in opposition to any view that tends to separate God from the world he has made'.54This emphasis of Edwards is evident, for instance, in his remarkable doctrine of creation. Edwards believed in continuous creation — he believed in 'the continued immediate efficiency of God'. 55In Original Sin he makes the following assertion which stands in such stark contrast to the emphasis of the deists:
As the child and the acorn which come into existence according to the course of nature, in consequence of the prior existence and state of the parent and the oak, are truly immediately created by God, so must the existence of each created person and thing, at each moment, be from the immediate continued creation of God. It will certainly follow from these things, that God's preserving of created things in being, is perfectly equivalent to a continued creation, or to his creating those things out of nothing at each moment of their existence. If the continued existence of created things be wholly dependent on God's preservation, then those things would drop into nothing upon the ceasing of the present moment, without a new exertion of the divine power to cause them to exist in the following moment.56
Edwards' insistence upon the immediacy of God emerges also in his understanding of God's moral government over the world of mankind. In contradistinction to the deists, who separated the concept of God as Creator from the concept of God as the Moral Governor of the world, Edwards explained that God is not 'an indifferent spectator' 57of the conduct of His highest creatures, nor will He 'act as a perfectly indifferent spectator'.58Edwards insists that 'the Creator of the world is doubtless also the Governor of it'. 59For Edwards any divorce between God as Creator and God as Moral Governor of the world is unthinkable. Indeed, so intense is Edwards' determinism and his concept of the sovereignty of God, that all question of Arminian contingency, conditionalism, or self-determination in human affairs is excluded. God is 'the supreme Orderer of all things'; 60God is 'the all-wise Determiner of all events'. 61Edwards' insistence on 'an universal determining Providence' 62coheres very well with his insistence upon the involvement and immediacy of God in the world.
Again, this same correlating principle, emerges in Edwards' doctrine of regeneration. In his Treatise on Grace Edwards again takes the offensive against the deistic tendencies of those that deny the immediate influence of the Spirit of God.
This doctrine of a gracious nature being by the immediate influence of the Spirit of God, is not only taught in the Scriptures, but is irrefragable to reason. Indeed there seems to be a strong disposition in men ... to disbelieve and oppose the doctrine of immediate influence of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men, or to diminish and to make it as small and remote a matter as possible, and put it as far out of sight as may be.63
Moreover, in one of early sermons entitled 'A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine', Edwards maintained that this light is imparted in regeneration without the use of any intermediate natural causes. In this sense it is quite different from other knowledge.
Dr Elwood's central thesis that the works of Jonathan Edwards are characterised by the correlating principle of divine immediacy can in fact be extended into Edwards' theology of revival. For Edwards revival involved 'remarkable communications of the Spirit of God', 67remarkable effusions at special seasons of mercy' 68In times of revival or awakening the Spirit of God Himself is poured out — the Spirit of God Himself is communicated. Thus the outstanding characteristic of revival is the presence of God. 'God appears unusually present'69writes Edwards. 'God ... is then extraordinarily present'.70Edwards had personally witnessed the phenomenon of revival in Northampton in 1734-35, and in the Great Awakening in New England in 1740-42. Moreover, it is clear that Edwards regarded one's attitude towards these awakenings as a touchstone of one's theology:
Can any good medium be found', he writes in his Thoughts on the Revival, 'where a man can rest with any stability, between owning this work, and being a deist? If indeed this be the work of God, does it not entirely overthrow their scheme of religion; and does it not infinitely concern them, as they would be partakers of eternal salvation, to relinquish their scheme? Now is a good time for Arminians to change their principles. 71
Edwards had in mind here men such as Charles Chauncy and those that were known as the 'Old Lights' — rationalistic Arminians opposed to the concept of divine immediacy and whose Arminianism was virtually incipient deism.
'With remarkable prescience', writes C. C. Goen, 'Edwards foresaw that the Great Awakening was to become a decisive watershed in American religious thought. As history would eventually reveal, many of the rationalistic opposers were really pre-Unitarians who would develop an ever more self-conscious antithesis to evangelicalism until the result could fairly be called Deism'. 72
Inseparably linked to Edwards' theology of revival is his concept of 'divine discoveries' to the soul of the believer.
God sometimes is pleased to remove the veil, to draw the curtain, and to give the saints sweet visions. Sometimes there is, as it were, a window opened in heaven, and Christ shows himself through the lattice; they have sometimes a beam of sweet light breaking forth from above into the soul; and God and the Redeemer sometimes come to them, and make friendly visits to them, and manifest themselves to them. 73
Jonathan Edwards himself had known such experiences; Sarah Edwards, his wife, had known such experiences also; so too had Abigail Hutchinson in the awakening in Northampton in 1734-35. Such 'discoveries' were in Edwards' mind 'a kind of beatific vision of God'. 74
Such, then, is Edwards' concept of the immediacy of the divine presence. There is in his writings this remarkable emphasis upon the immanence of God, the reality of God, even the visibility of God. 'God is a communicating Being'75Edwards insists. 'With his vision', comments Dr Joseph Haroutunian, 'he demolished deism'. 76And whilst certain aspects of Edwards' thought — notably, perhaps, his doctrine of continuous creation — can be explained in terms of his recoil from deism, yet essentially his vision of the immediacy of God in His Providence, His moral government, in redemption, regeneration, and revival, and indeed in the possibility of the beatific vision in this world, is to be traced to the Scriptures.