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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.

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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.]


Time to spend some quality time with Jonathan Edwards – any suggestions?

Every year I get to lead a Th.M. seminar focusing on key figures in historical theology. This year, it’s Jonathan Edwards. (So far I’ve done seminars on Augustine, Luther, and the Greek Fathers. I love my job.)

So, as I get ready for the seminar this summer, it’s time for me to brush off old favorites and explore new resources. I’m just about to dig into Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word by Douglas A. Sweeney and The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics by Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, which I’m thinking about using as a resource for orienting students to the broader Puritan context of Edwards’ theology. In the next few days, I’ll also be reading through Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life again, since that will be the key biography for the course.

I have several other books on my reading list and I’m looking forward to digging more deeply into Edwards than I have in the past. But, I’m also open to suggestions. So, I have two questions. What are your favorite books about Edwards? And, what are your favorite works written by Edwards?

For extra credit, if there are any journal articles or book chapters that you think do a particularly fine job of addressing some aspect of Edwards’ life and/or theology, please feel free to pass those along as well.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/19)

Book giveaway – The Theology of Martin Luther

As I mentioned after last month’s book giveaway, a generous individual has decided that he would also like to share the wealth (i.e. give away a book that he accidentally bought two copies of). So, this month we’re giving away a new copy of Paul Althaus’ The Theology of Martin Luther. Although this book was published in English in 1966, I think this is still one of the best books around for understanding Luther’s theology. So, if you’re interested in engaging Luther’s thought more closely, this would be a great place to start.

As with our previous giveaway, the rules are simple. If you’d like a chance to win the book, you need to do at least one of the following. Each different way that you enter the contest will increase your chances of winning. (Assuming that I don’t just decide to give the book to the person whose name has the same numerical value of the guinea pig I had when I was a kid.)

  • Blog about the giveaway and link to this post
  • Link to the post from Twitter and let me know in the comments
  • Link to the post from Facebook and let me know in the comments
  • Comment on this post and indicate that you want the book
  • Come up with a list of 95 Theses that you’d really like to debate with someone. Write your theses on an old-looking piece of paper and making a video of you nailing your theses to the front door of some church (not your own). Bonus points if you can get the pastor to come out and yell at you.

Flotsam and jetsam (8/24)

I’m off to a faculty retreat this morning, so just some quick links today.

The importance of being fair to dead people

Guest post by Demetrius Rogers

One thing I am reminded of when I present information about historical people is that I am vested with a trust to represent them well. And it dawned on me that their reputation is largely (if not wholly) dependent on us. And I get this sense from the Lord to be as kind and fair to each one. They cannot defend themselves. And the shear fact of respecting the dead should add a dimension of sacredness to the matter (at least for me). How would I like some punk kid smearing me all over the place come 250 years from now? First, they better get it right. Second, try to understand and be kind. Hardly on one does what they do out of bad motives. People typically mean well. They think they are doing the right thing, however, misguided it appears to us. It is easy to judge, it is more difficult (yet more noble) to understand. The Bible says to respect your elders and these fathers and mothers of the faith (if you will) can very well fit into this class. So at times when I would like to trash this or that person I always feel checked to back to back the truck up and be more level headed about it.

Do unto others as I would have them do unto me is a principle that still is applicable to dead people. I do not believe they fall off of God’s radar once they die. Obviously God still cares about them and cares about what we say about them and how we do it. Really, they are still alive – just in another location. Respect is not reserved to earth. And we cannot forget that they are still people; dead, but still very much alive!

What would your church history family reunion look like?

If your family was made up of famous people from church history, what would your family reunion look like? For a recent church history project, one of my students used the metaphor of a family to explain what he thought about various figures in church history. He gave me permission to pass it along, so here’s what he came up with:

  • The family members he gets along with the best: Jerome, Wycliffe, Susanna Wesley, Finney, Spurgeon, Chesterton, William Seymour, Dostoyevsky, Jim Elliot, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Family members that just rub him the wrong way: John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards
  • Family members that he just flat doesn’t like: The Crusaders
  • The embarrassing uncle of the family: the snake-handling preacher

I liked the idea, so I thought I’d put together my own family:

  • Parents (formative early, even if we may not get along now): C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Frank Peretti, Charles Sheldon
  • Wise uncles (mentored me as I got older): Augustine, Maximus, Luther, Calvin, Dostoyevsky, Barth
  • Weird uncles (part of the family, but embarrassing): televangelists (e.g. Jim and Tammy Faye Baker), many Christian “artists” (e.g., Kinkade), TBN
  • Siblings (closely related, but we fight a lot): Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur
  • Cousins (related to me, but I don’t know them very well): Isaac Backus, Walter Rauschenbusch, A.H. Strong,
  • Bob (that one family member you wish would stop coming to the reunions): Joel Osteen

And, if that’s my family, I can only imagine what the family reunion would look like:

C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are outside smoking their pipes and drinking a couple of beers. Peretti is standing a few yards away, desperately wanting to join in but afraid that they’ll make fun of his books again. Augustine is out back sneaking peaches from the peach tree. Meanwhile, Luther is busy spiking the bunch bowl to see if he can get the folks from TBN drunk, and Thomas Kinkade is waiting for him to finish because he’s thirsty again. Barth’s off in the corner discussing socialism with Sheldon and Rauschenbusch, while trying to explain the inadequacies of the social Gospel. Osteen’s there too, nodding his head regularly, though he has no idea what they’re talking about.  Warren, Driscoll, and MacArthur tried to ignore each other for a while, but accidentally ended up going for food at the same time. Now they’re standing around the food table having a loud argument about whether it’s okay to put mustard on hot dogs. In a little while, they’ll probably end up wrestling on the floor and knocking several lamps over. Isaac Backus and A.H. Strong are sitting on the couch listened in horrified fascination as Jim and Tammy Faye Baker tearfully explain why God really wanted them to have all that money for their ministry. And, Maximus and Dostoyevsky are watching the whole thing from the kitchen while having the most fascinating discussion about what all of this means for understanding human nature.

One of the things that I appreciated about this whole exercise was the reminder that we are all part of the same family (though I’m pretty sure Osteen is actually an alien impostor switched at birth with a real family member). Although we might be distantly related in places, we certainly don’t get along all the time, and I may not have gotten to know all of them very well yet, we’re still part of the same, big, messy, obnoxious, often embarrassing family – united to the same Christ, empowered by the same Spirit, glorifying the same Father.

I won’t try to turn this into a meme, but I would be curious to know about your family. Feel free to comment on what your family looks like. Or, if you choose to blog about it, drop us a link so we can follow along.

Slides 10 & 11 introduces ten of my personal best friends from Church History.

Jerome, John Wycliffe, Susanna Wesley, Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon, G.K. Chesteron, William Seymour, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jim Elliot, and Martin Luther King. And I gave the reasons why I like each so much and consider them as my family.

Slide 12 includes two men that particularly rub me the wrong way. Thankful for their contributions, but men I am not drawn to… just like certain members of any family.

John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards

Slide 13 is people that I flat out disagree with

The Crusaders

Slide 14 is the embarrassing uncle of the family.

Snake-handling preacher.

Greek Fathers Annotated Bibliography

We’ve started posting a number of papers and abstracts that some of the Th.M. students wrote during last semester’s class on the Greek Fathers. The class started with Irenaeus and Origen as two fathers who exercised a profound influence on the later Greek Fathers. We then worked our way from Athanasius to John of Damascus. So far we’ve posted the papers that were written on Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and John of Damascus. We’ll be posting a few others over the next couple of weeks.

We also compiled a working Greek Fathers Annotated Bibliography. This is far from an exhaustive bibliography, but it does provide good resources on each of the individuals studied as well as a number of resources on theosis.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Infinite Progress: A challenge for an integrated theology

Here is an abstract of my [Adam Bottiglia] paper Gregory of Nyssa’s Infinite Progress: A challenge for an integrated theology.

One of the greatest challenges to a theologian is to take all of the education in philosophy and exegesis and the finer details of theology and convert them into a digestible and useful form for the church. In Gregory of Nyssa we find a great example to emulate. He is the paradigm of an integrated theology, a theology that has as much to say to the heretic as it does to the devoted believer. In this paper I will be looking at his doctrine of God’s infinite nature in order to show that Gregory had a knack for taking even the most weighty theological and philosophical concepts and applying them significantly to the spiritual life of the believer.