Jonathan Edwards is probably the greatest thinker, and certainly the greatest theologian, to set foot on American soil. In the last decade, thanks to men like Tim Keller, Martin Lloyd Jones, and John Piper, there’s been a Jonathan Edwards Renaissance of sorts. I’m thankful for that renaissance, really. His Religious Affections is a work of genius and a bible-inflamed vision of the world. His sermons penetrate the heart with clear thinking and poignant illustration. His glorying in God’s sovereignty and supremacy over all things has infused new life, I believe, into early 21st century evangelicals. It’s a glorious thing.
But amidst the Edwardsian hullabaloo, I worry some have adopted an uncritical – even naïve – view of the man and his work. I have yet to hear, within the Calvinist tradition, a critique of Jonathan Edward’s theological vision. Edwards was not perfect. Genius and Biblicist though he was, Edwards’ vision was also deeply flawed.
The “Freedom” of the Will
When Edwards was a student at Princeton University, he had his glorious, captivating vision of God’s sovereignty: “I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.” These sweet words from his “Personal Narrative” have rung out time and again from the lips of Dr. John Piper, and a whole host of others espousing Edwards’ vision of God’s grandeur in sovereignty above all.
However, near that same time, Edwards experienced another cataclysmic shift in his thinking, due to another brilliant, rising thinker: John Locke. Locke was a Kingpin of rationalist thinking in the 17th century, and set the course for such philosophical giants as Kant, Hume and Rousseau. However, Locke’s main contribution was in the understanding of the self – each of us, at birth, are a blank slate (tabula rasa). Our consequent decisions arise not from a free act of the will – which would, according to Locke, be tantamount to senselessness – but all of the experiences, relationships and ideas implanted to us from our environment.
When Edwards read Locke, he was smitten. He speaks of it in his own writing, time and again, as a beautiful work of genius, to which he attributes much of his later thinking. However, Edwards built upon Locke a theological vision where he saw Locke falling short. The God of scripture, according to Edwards, was the first cause among causes, and, therefore, the ultimate determiner of every action in human history.
Edwards’ Surprising Defense
When I first read “The Freedom of the Will”, I was surprised. I’d expected a theological treatise, examining the common scriptures in defense of God’s sovereign action in electing sinners to salvation. What I read instead was a philosophical treatise – Edwards, borrowing heavily from Locke, makes what seemed to me at the time to be an airtight case for psychological determinism.
The Freedom of the Will, he asserted, was an illusion: complete freedom to choose was meaningless psychobabble – if there was such a freedom, it would render us neutral agents, seeing all things in 50/50, unable without any predetermining factors to make any decision whatsoever. If we are indeed inclined to one decision over another, says Edwards, is this not the true determining factor of our will? And so does it not follow that every action is predetermined, well before the moment of choice?
Edwards, then, saw human nature as something akin to a flag blowing in the wind – the will was utterly set by the winds that blew before it. The will indeed existed, but the disposition of the will could not itself be chosen. We were chosen by God’s winds, blowing our inclinations to and fro.
For many in Edwards’ day, this argument sealed the deal on Theological Determinsm. Those who contended with Edwards at the time were torn asunder by his logic (and the letters can now be found in the back of many appendices of “Freedom of the Will”, such as the Yale edition). And many today have embraced, and even endorsed, Jonathan Edwards’ case for the Freedom of the Will.
However, a deep reading of Edwards reveals inconsistencies at best. At worst, it succumbs to the Arminian accusation of attributing moral monstrosity to God’s nature.
For example, when Edwards approaches the doctrine of Original Sin, he can no longer embrace the classic Augustinian understanding of the will as “posse non peccare et posse peccare” – that is, “able to sin and able not to sin”. Even Edwards’ most adamant espousers (such as John Gerstner) admit that he flounders at this fountainhead. He has built his theological vision in homage to Locke, and recast Theological Determinism in terms of Psychological Determinsm. Therefore, he’s no longer able to say, “Adam and Eve could have chosen otherwise.” Instead, he must say: “God positively determined the decision of Adam and Eve.”
While he does attempt to retract his argument by asserting that God was merely “passive” in this moment, and simply removed the intellectual light necessary to make the decision – not the moral light – one can almost hear him drowning in his own philosophy. Jonathan Edwards, in deviating from the mysterious understanding of the nature of the will, stepped headlong into the trap of rendering God a moral monster: He, ultimately, was responsible for the fall: Adam and Eve were psychologically determined by God to sin. They could not choose otherwise.
Jonathan Edwards: Saint and Sinner
All of this to say: yes, read Jonathan Edwards. His theological vision was brilliant, and biblical. But it was also deeply flawed. Edwards was a product of his time, and his theories on psychological determinism flow from the overly optimistic rationalism that surrounded him. This led him far beyond the boundaries of scripture itself, and up into realms King David might have called, “Things too lofty for me.”
So yes, read him. Drink in his religious affections. Hear his sermons. Sit at his feet. But recognize that Edwards was both saint and sinner – Simul lustus et Peccator – like you and me. Don’t demonize him, please. Simply pick out the bones, and mind not the passersby who hail him theological chief.