Some Problems with Jonathan Edwards’ view of Original Sin

[This is a guest post by Andreas Lunden. Andreas is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

In The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended; Evidences of its Truth Produced, and Arguments to the Contrary Answered, Jonathan Edwards engages in the controversy over human depravity, a topic that occupied much of the eighteenth century. Edwards’ eagerness to refute his opponents on this matter indicates that a major cultural shift was ultimately at stake, since the Western man was viewing himself with increasing positivism regarding his nature and potentialities. In other words, Edwards was combating an increasingly prevailing drift of opinion that had begun in Europe and was now slowly but surely invading America.


An Outline of Edwards’ Argument

The argument of this book is straightforward. Edwards spends well over three hundred pages defending the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. More specifically, for Edwards, Original Sin means, (1) the innate depravity of heart of all men OR, (2) the imputation of Adam’s sin to all men. Those who hold to one of these statements usually also hold to the other. On the contrary, those who oppose Original Sin usually oppose both these statements. According to Edwards, such “new interpretations”, which stray from Christian tradition, are unlikely to be correct. For Edwards, “mankind are by nature in a state of total ruin, both with respect to the moral evil they are subjects of, and the afflictive evil they are exposed to, the one as the consequence and punishment of the other, then doubtless the great salvation by Christ stand in direct relation to this ruin.” He finds support for his views both in general observations of man’s inclinations and behaviors (history), as well as the witness of the Christian scriptures.

The flow unfolds as follows:

  • Part One: Evidence of Original Sin from Observation, Experience & Scripture
  • Part Two: Observations from Scripture Proving Original Sin
  • Part Three: Observations Relating to the Process of Redemption
  • Part Four: Answers to Common Objections

What stands out is Edwards’ brilliant exposition concerning man’s inability to present evidence for capacity of goodness despite God’s “great means” to promote such virtue. He analyzes both the Old and the New Testament, focusing on the means used by God to draw man to Himself: from Adam to Noah, from Abraham to Jesus in relation to the Gentiles, from Abraham to Jesus in relation to the Jews, and finally the “Church age.” For John Taylor (the main opponent of Edwards), the ongoing failures to pierce the heart of man were simply due to a wrong representation of the gospel. Such a view must have caused unpleasant affections in the heart of Edwards. According to our defender of Original Sin, the problem of man’s depravity stems ultimately from something much deeper than an “unfortunate” misunderstanding. Man’s apparent failure to respond to God lies in the realm of a thoroughly corrupted heart. Consequently, man’s redemption is obviously connected to a restructured heart, which is exclusively the result of the Holy Spirit’s work.

Some Problems with Edwards Argument

Edwards has a talent for arguing in such a way that he answers not only the questions currently on the table, but also possible “follow-up” issues that may surface in response to his own writings. However, one possible weakness in Edwards’ argument (as discussed in class) is his view that creation is a continuous event ex nihilo (from nothing). In arguing that God recreates the whole of the universe every instant, he is able, not only to combat Deist notions, but also maintain a sense of oneness, and connectedness between the first Adam, and the whole of mankind (as opposed to Taylor’s view that sin and guilt are to be seen as entirely personal). However, this begs the question, if history is divided into an infinite number of independent frames, how is the now related to the past or the future? What, then, is a person? How does one in this view understand personal identity?

Another area that I find problematic is Edwards’ somewhat condescending posture in relation to his opponents. His argumentation is ruthless, in style but first and foremost in intellectual force. While, I agree with most of Edwards’ argument it’s possible that his aggressiveness caused a more polarized debate, rather than mutual learning from one another. I am by no means arguing we should compromise truth, only that we constantly need to be on the lookout for ways to communicate creatively in a spirit of truth and grace, simultaneously.

Edwards’ Opponent

Finally, I conclude from this reading that nothing is new under the sun. I found myself chuckling at Taylor’s arguments since they sometimes sound similar to contemporary objections to Christian doctrines of Sin, Hell, Judgment, etc. Here are a few examples:

The doctrine of Original Sin…

…disparages divine goodness in giving us our being, so that we have no reason to thank God for our being.

…pours contempt on human nature.

…gives us an ill opinion of our fellow humans.

…hinders comfort & joy, and promotes sorrow & gloominess.

…is not mentioned by Jesus in the gospels.

Jonathan Edwards offers sound answers to every one of these objections, but I’m curious, how would you respond?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]


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Posted on June 13, 2011, in Metaphysics, Th.M. Program, The Enlightenment and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Thank you Andreas for your concise yet helpful post on Original Sin. I can imagine how hard it is to boil down this writing into one post. I really like how you posted the comments by Taylor on Original Sin. I appreciate knowing the other side of Edwards’ writings and seeing what some of his opponents were saying about them.

    I also liked your point on his attitude towards his opponents. I came away from the little readings that I have done with the same understanding. Although I like how he tried in his writings to answer questions that could come up from his views it came across to me as him trying to nip their arguments in the bud without giving them a chance to defend their opposition to his writings. This is something that I have tried a lot harder to do in my own study because I was very much against listening to what others had to say against my own beliefs but I have found that when I listen and try to understand them my beliefs are strengthened but I better understand what the opponents to my views have to say and I feel like there is a dialogue rather than a monologue.

    I did wonder about this writing though because I thought it was written in response to what Taylor was putting forth on original sin. Was this written before or after/in response to comments made by Taylor?

    Overall I do like Edwards argument on personal identity where he shows that all who follow Adam are identified (or maybe even identical) with Adam when he fell, and are thus culpable. Thanks again for a good post.

    • Andreas Lundén

      Hey Andrew,

      It was written in response to Taylor’s argument (and others). Edwards defines his own writing as a general defense, but responds throughout the book primarily to Taylor. A few hundred pages in I would assume most readers forget about the “general”, since he is constantly going after an individual’s views.


  2. Thanks Andreas! The conversation never gets old. Edwards speaks in truly Calvinistic fashion as he takes on his contemporaries in the verbal joust. I like how you highlighted the propositional truth vs. the condition of the heart. Is it really up to man to use the most effective and creative tools of communication in furthering the gospel? Edwards seems to think not. In so many ways that takes the pressure off of being a great orator and emphasizes the pray and watch aspect which Edwards seems to have held to.

    The idea that God is the one that draws man to Himself through great means is so fascinating and begs the question of why? Why is God so kind and generous with man? Why is He so patient with our excesses?

    Do you think that understanding our involvement with bringing others to Christ would cause man to stand back and ignore his responsibilities? On the other hand, Edwards crass words and seemingly harsh treatment of contemporaries is really of no ‘means’ at all.

    There are so many ministries that we love and appreciate because of their attitude toward the lost and less fortunate of societies, but the only reason any of these ministries would stand a chance of being successful is due to the providential hand of Christ. Thanks for the encouragement!

    • Andreas Lundén

      Hey Ron.

      Thanks for your response. My only concern is that we sometimes in our engagement become the stumbling block, rather than Christ. I would hate to stand in the way of Christ’s pursuit, whether this means bringing a message with an emphasis on grace or truth. This is a tricky matter, though. For example, I realized the other other day the same means I tend to take issue with today (traditional missions, tracts, etc.), brought me to Christ 15 years ago…


  3. Good post, Andreas, thank you!

  4. Dr. Dre(as) wrote: “While, I agree with most of Edwards’ argument it’s possible that his aggressiveness caused a more polarized debate, rather than mutual learning from one another…we constantly need to be on the lookout for ways to communicate creatively in a spirit of truth and grace, simultaneously.”

    I appreciate what you are getting at here, but I wonder if Edwards didn’t think that he was doing exactly that in his own time and context, namely communicating in a spirit of truth and grace. He was assuming that he was engaging not only Taylor but other ministers who were “listening in” on the discussion, and likely to be influenced one way or another. Just like Edwards interlocutors felt free to bring the heat against him, he did the same since the stakes were relatively high. 18th century debates were a bit more “chippy” than we are used to, or even like.

    • Andreas Lundén

      Fair point, and you’re probably right, the times were different. I was thinking in more in terms of other possible outcomes, though. What if he had been softer, had that changed the nature of the debate or even the way they understood each other?


  5. As mentioned by others, Andreas provides a nice summarization of Edwards’ argument.

    Andreas seems to be inferring that Edwards’ “Mind of God ex nihilo continuous re-creation” philosophical framework is a poor foundation undergirding his argument for the imputation of Adam’s sin to all mankind. As mentioned in the early part of the post, imputation of Adam’s sin is only half of what is commonly understood in this doctrine, the other half being the depravity of man.

    Those in our class will remember that I am vociferously opposed to Edwards’ claptrap, um position, on the ex nihilio re-creation thing, but it does not seem to inhibit the depravity of man position, at least not within the questions Andreas’ poses in opposition to it. So do others of you see where this philosophical framework might inhibit this half of the argument? If not then we are led to question the relationship between the two parts of this doctrine. Can they be divorced from each other? Can one logically hold one and not the other?

    If we accept (shudder) Edwards position of moment by moment re-creation as the basis for imputation of Adam’s sin, and we hold the two doctrines to be necessarily conjoined, then the negation of the validity of the position (YAY!!) would then necessarily undermine both parts of the doctrine. If they are not necessarily conjoined however, the failure of this argument weakens only the argument for imputation of sin (at least until find a better foundation for the argument) but leaves depravity of man untouched.

    • Andreas Lundén

      If I tell you Jonathan Edwards was a dispensationalist and strongly disliked Karl Barth, would you agree with Edwards on these matters? 😉

      While I think Edwards take is quite creative, I also find it speculative (see Marc’s post below). Don’t really see a problem with that, as long as we maintain the connection between us and Adam. This is a necessary because it reflects both scripture and the world as we know it.

      For me, if anything, Edwards view reminded me of God’s active involvement with creation and that I’m fundamentally messed up.


  6. It seems that difficult doctrines that don’t sit well with man’s philosophical constructs of freedom or divine goodness are always reshaped in some way to be more palatable. Pertaining to the objections you cite that Taylor makes in his rejection of Edward’s doctrine of Original Sin, I would say that they are all viable objections. Knowing that all men are depraved, and imputed with the guilt of Adam, surely would make one “pour contempt on human nature” or have an “ill opinion” of humanity. However, isn’t that the point. Just because a conclusion is objectionable or unpopular, doesn’t make the conclusion wrong, it just makes it objectionable and unpopular. To be fair, Taylor objected because his interpretation of Scripture differed from Edwards. At this point, where do you go. I resonate with much of Edward’s argument here because, as you have pointed out, his logic is so comprehensive. He not only appeals to the authority of Scripture, but to the experience of individuals, and the testimony of history.

    • Andreas Lundén

      Just to be clear, I chuckled because Taylor’s objections were all too familiar (he has been called a pioneer of liberal theology). I agree with your post, however, let’s be careful how we communicate these unpopular views. There are perhaps good ways and bad ways…

  7. I’m with Tim (a3w275). I’d love to hear more about what you think of Edwards’ ontology as it relates to original sin. For Edwards, God can view us all as being “one” with Adam even though we’re apparently distinct beings in precisely the same way that he can view me as being “one” with my previous “self,” even though in reality there’s no ontological connection between me and prior-me except as that connection exists in God’s consciousness. So, our oneness in Adam is no more unusual than our oneness as persons.

    Two questions come to mind. First, as Tim asks, do you find this at all convincing/useful? Or, do you agree with Tim that this is overly strained, overly philosophical, and completely unnecessary. In other words, do you find any value in this aspect of Edwards’ ontology?

    Second, do you find it necessary to explain original sin at all? Edwards developed this argument because he felt that he needed to explain our connection with Adam in order to explain universal total depravity. I’ve run across others recently who argue that we don’t need to speculate on the precise nature of our connection with Adam (which the Bible never explains), and should just affirm universal total depravity. What do you think? Does Edwards press too far in the direction of speculative theology? Or is this an important question that theologians need to wrestle with?

  8. Felicia Wetzel

    Hahaha before I venture to try to respond to Taylor’s objections, I’d like to respond first to your comment that “his aggressiveness caused a more polarized debate”… My initial reaction is to say, “Great!!! Let’s get some polarization, and then we can dialogue…” I think the polarization might only come after years of separation from the time, but his tone and objections might have been more than apropos during his time. I mean, if anything, the polarization that resulted from his articulation of original sin and its implications only goes to show that sin is just that devastating and is so serious that people would so readily reject it and minimize it’s significance.

    I mean, as soon as someone gets in touch with the seriousness and reality of sin, then they’re forced to have to make a decision about whether or not they will respond to God in a personal way. In an attempt to justify their “okay”-ness, they might move to the other extreme, declaring they’re alright and have no real need for humility or confession of sin.

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere (06.14.2011) « Near Emmaus

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