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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.]


What is “beautiful” to you?

What comes to your mind first when you hear the word “beautiful”? When you want to describe the beauty that’s in the world, what’s your go to analogy? For me, it’s easy:

  • a waterfall
  • a single blade of grass
  • a child’s smile

What about you?

by Baaker2009 (via Flickr)

.We’re coming to the end of Jonathan Edwards week. And one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of Edwards’ theology was his appreciation of beauty. For Edwards, you really don’t know anyone or anything until you have come to appreciate his/her/its particular beauty – i.e. its particular “fit” in the universe as a whole.

And, you can’t really appreciate how something fits into the whole universe until you know how it relates to God. So, for Edwards, the experiencing the beauty of creation is ultimately about experiencing God’s own beauty.

Indeed, Edwards thought so much of the world’s beauty that he could say:

the reason why almost all men, and those that seem to be very miserable, love life: because they cannot bear to lose the sight of such a beautiful and lovely world. (Beauty of the World)

So, again I ask, what is “beautiful” to you? In what do you most often experience the beauty of the world and, consequently, God’s own beauty? If you want to leave a comment and tell us about it, great. If not, at least give yourself a chance to see beauty today. Go find it somewhere. It shouldn’t take long if your eyes are open.

Happiness is the end of creation

Happiness is the end of creation, as appears by this, because the creation had as good not be, as not rejoice in its being. For certainly it was the goodness of the Creator that moved him to create; and how can we conceive of another end proposed by goodness, than that he might delight in seeing the creatures he made rejoice in that being that he has given them?

It appears also by this, because the end of the creation is that the creation might glorify him. Now what is glorifying God, but a rejoicing at that glory he has displayed? An understanding of the perfections of God, merely, cannot be the end of the creation; for he had as good not understand it, as see it and not be at all moved with joy at the sight. Neither can the highest end of the creation be the declaring God’s glory to others; for the declaring God’s glory is good for nothing otherwise than to raise joy in ourselves and others at what is declared.

Wherefore, seeing happiness is the highest end of the creation of the universe, and intelligent beings are that consciousness of the creation that is to be the immediate subject of this happiness, how happy may we conclude will be those intelligent beings that are to be made eternally happy!

Jonathan Edwards, Miscellanies 3.

Free audio downloads of works by Jonathan Edwards

We’re still celebrating Jonathan Edwards week around here. Yesterday I posted a variety of audio resources about Jonathan Edwards. Today’s list focuses instead on audio resources by Jonathan Edwards. So, if you’re looking to gain some exposure to the famous American theologian while you’re driving around town, exercising, or whatnot (be careful with the whatnot), you might be interested in some of these.

The following are all available as free downloads. (The first two include many of the works in the rest of the list. But, I just found those links and I haven’t tested them yet. So, I kept the others on the list anyway.)

Jonathan Edwards around the blogosphere

The Real Situation Room (via 22 Words)

In honor of Jonathan Edwards week, today’s Flotsam and Jetsam has been replaced by a variety of links related to Edwards’ life and ministry. If you know of any good posts that I’ve missed, please let us know is the comments. (By the way, the picture has nothing to do with this post; I just liked it.)

Given the recent Rob Bell brouhaha, it’s no surprise that several authors looked at Jonathan Edwards’ view of heaven and hell. Sam Storms devoted a four-part series to the topic (part 1part 2part 3part 4). Justin Taylor and Wes Pastor both comment on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and reflect on the challenges of preaching about hell.  And, Kevin DeYoung comments on Edwards’ sermon, “Heaven as a World of Love.” And, for further reading Justin Taylor offers a number of links to other discussions of Edwards views on the afterlife.

At the same time, Paul Helm has been working his way through a fascinating series on Jonathan Edwards. Sean Lucas chimed in at one point with a helpful correct, to which Helm offered his own response. Here are the relevant posts.

Several other posts addressed other aspects of Edwards’s life and ministry. Ray Ortlund looks at Edwards’s revival writings in two posts: “How to Know What a Real Revival Looks Like” and “How to Pray for a Revival,” while Aaron Armstrong focuses on Edwards’s view that God’s glory is the conjunction of all God’s excellencies.

Update: Dane Ortlund also reflects on Edwards’s account of Sara Edwards’s renewal experience.

And, returning to the theme from the beginning of this post, here’s an interview with Owen Strachan about his book Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell.

Jonathan Edwards on true boldness vs. false pride

There is a pretended boldness for Christ that arises from no better principle than pride. A man may be forward to expose himself to the dislike of the world, and even to provoke their displeasure, out of pride. For ’tis the nature of spiritual pride to cause men to seek distinction and singularity; and so oftentimes to set themselves at war with those that they call carnal, that they may be more highly exalted among their party. True boldness for Christ is universal and overcomes all, and carries ‘em above the displeasure of friends and foes; so that they will forsake all rather than Christ and will rather offend all parties, and be thought meanly of by all, than offend Christ. And that duty tries whether a man is willing to be despised by them that are of his own party, and thought the least worthy to be regarded by them, is a much more proper trial of his boldness for Christ, than his being forward to expose himself to the reproach of opposers. (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, 352)

HT Kevin DeYoung

My favorite resolutions from Jonathan Edwards

When I was 17, I was busy playing video games. When Jonathan Edwards was 17, he was busy writing a series of resolutions that would guide the rest of his life. I think I got the short end of that stick.

From 1720 to 1726, Jonathan Edwards wrote his famous 70 resolutions, which he vowed to read once a week as he sought to monitor his entire life against the high standard to which he felt he’d been called as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel. As Edwards himself writes:

Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.

You can read all 70 resolutions here. But, to celebrate Jonathan Edwards week, I thought I’d highlight a few of my favorites.

1. Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God, and my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration; without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved, to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved, so to do, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many soever, and how great soever.

4. Resolved, Never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God, nor be, nor suffer it, if I can possibly avoid it.

5. Resolved, Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.

6. Resolved, To live with all my might, while I do live.

8. Resolved, To act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings, as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God. Vid. July 30.

15. Resolved, Never to suffer the least motions of anger towards irrational beings. (except cats)

21. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the more meanly of him.

28. Resolved, To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.

33. Resolved, To do always what I can towards making, maintaining, and preserving peace, when it can be done without an overbalancing detriment in other respects. Dec. 26, 1722.

41. Resolved, to ask myself, at the end of every day, week, month, and year, wherein I could possibly, in any respect, have done better. Jan. 11, 1723.

52. I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: Resolved, That I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age. July 8, 1723.

53. Resolved, To improve every opportunity, when I am in the best and happiest frame of mind, to cast and venture my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and consecrate myself wholly to him; that from this I may have assurance of my safety, knowing that I confide in my Redeemer. July 8, 1723.

61. Resolved, That I will not give way to that listlessness which I find unbends and relaxes my mind from being fully and fixedly set on religion, whatever excuse I may have for it—that what my listlessness inclines me to do, is best to be done, &c. May 21, and July 13, 1723.

67. Resolved, After afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them; what good I have got by them; and, what I might have got by them.

70. Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak. Aug. 17, 1723.

It’s Jonathan Edwards Week!

I’ve decided to designate this as Jonathan Edwards Week, since it’s the week leading up to my class on Jonathan Edwards. And, to celebrate Jonathan Edwards Week, I’ll be posting a variety of Edwards links, quotes, and resources every day this week. (I will, of course, post on other issues as well. I couldn’t stick to one topic for an entire week if I wanted to.) So, if you’re interested in Edwards, stay tuned for more.

And, I thought the following clip would help get things started on the right note.

HT Brian’s Life

Jonathan Edwards on commonsense as a failure of the imagination

Americans have a long history of touting commonsense as providing a solid foundation for sure knowledge of the world. We’re often skeptical of those whose ideas sound too “theoretical” or “abstract,” and we scoff at people who posit ideas that seem radically contrary to the world as we experience it.

This attitude often displays itself most clearly in how people react to scientific theories. People laugh at the idea that the universe could be made of “strings,” because obviously we don’t experience reality that way. And, many mock the idea of global warming because it happened to be colder in their part of the world the last couple of years. Now, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether these theories, and others, are right. My only point is to comment on how many people use commonsense experience to reject or “refute” more abstract ideas.

For Edwards, this suggests a complete lack of imagination.

I’ve been re-reading Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and this section stood out to me the other day. The specific context has to do with Edward’s philosophical idealism and how contrary to commonsense it is to suggest that the “physical” is not what is ultimately real. But, Marsden goes on to point out that the same imaginative openness to new ideas also characterized Edwards’ approach to scientific developments.

The problem with thinking that commonsense experience was ultimate, he was convinced, was a failure of imagination….’Imagination’ at the time meant literally the faculty by which one forms images of things. The case of prejudices, said Edwards, was that people get so used to perceiving things in common ways that they ‘make what they can actually perceive by their senses, or by immediate and outside reflection into their own souls, the standard of possibility or impossibility; so that there must be no body, forsooth, bigger than they can conceive of, or less than they can see with their eyes; nor motion either much swifter or slower than they can imagine.” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 80)

This isn’t to say that Edwards rejected commonsense. In most situations, commonsense is a fine guide to understanding the world. But, Edwards point is that our perspective is inherently limited. So, if we insist on judging the world on the basis of our own limited experiences, we will necessarily be prejudiced against much larger truths. And, Christians in particular should be able to look beyond our limited horizons and imagine possibilities that border on the absurd.

Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will

Why did I choose to follow Jesus? Did God reach out and cause me to want to follow Jesus? Or, did I weigh the various options and choose to follow Jesus as one choice among many?

Why did I pick up my coffee cup and drink just now? Did something cause me to drink? Or, was it a relatively arbitrary expression of my own free choice?

Is there a difference between these two scenarios?

According to Paul Helm, Jonathan Edward viewed both of these from basically the same perspective. And, in the process, he departed from earlier Reformed theologians in significant ways.

As I’m getting prepared for my seminar on Jonathan Edwards this summer, I’m going to blog occasionally on any interesting resources that I’ve run across. Today, I read Paul Helm’s post on “Jonathan Edwards and the Freedom of the Will.” According to Helm, Edwards’ understanding of free will was driven by the “all-encompassing metaphysical principle” that nothing happens without a cause. So, if I make a choice, that choice must have a cause. And, for Edwards, the cause in that case would be my desires. I chose X because I wanted X. And, this same basic framework holds no matter if we’re talking about choosing God or choosing coffee.

For Edwards, operating in a world increasingly influenced by the emerging natural science, and by the empiricist philosophy of John Locke, human action is the result of one sort of cause, a ’volition’, which is in turn the outcome of certain beliefs and desires. Such causal links, of different kinds, necessarily pervade the entire creation. Edwards’s stress is on this all-encompassing metaphysical principle.

All events must have causes.

Helm argues that this is a very different argument from that offered by earlier Reformed theologians. Looking specifically at Calvin, Helm contends that earlier theologians in the Reformed tradition focused more narrowly on “the loss of moral and spiritual freedom as a result of the Fall.” This isn’t because Calvin disagreed with Edwards (which would be hard to do, since Edwards wasn’t alive at the time), but because the nature of the free will debate was different in Calvin’s day. They weren’t concerned with the broader issue of whether every particular event must have a cause, but on the narrower question of whether the human person is free to choose God.

The difference between Edwards and Calvin, according to Helm’s argument, is really the scientific/philosophical context that Edwards operated in. With the rise of modern science and the philosophical turn that took place with John Locke, the issue of causation took a much more prominent place in discussions of free will. So, it’s not that Edwards and Calvin necessarily disagreed on the free will. Helm actually argues that one can find ” clear evidence for what later came to be called a compatibilistic outlook” in Calvin’s theology. But, it does mean that they addressed the issue from very different cultural contexts, and that we need to understand these historical/cultural differences if we are really to appreciate what they were saying.

For more resources on the subject of free will see:

Contemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come FromContemplating Classical Compatabilism and Where Desires Come From