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Jonathan Edwards in a New Light: Remembered for Preaching Fire and Brimstone, He Was Actually One of the Great Intellectuals of His Era.

By Marilynne Robinson | HUMANITIES, November/December 2014 | Volume 35, Number 6

When I was in college, and even earlier because my older brother introduced me to Modern Thought as he was introduced to it, I felt gloomily captive to the determinisms of Positivism, Behaviorism, Freudianism, Marxism, and the rest. I was troubled by all this for years. Then I was assigned by a philosophy professor to read Jonathan Edwards’s treatise The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, Part Four, Chapter III. I found in it a glorious footnote on moonlight, and was liberated.

I know this sounds improbable on its face. We are told that it is modernity that liberates, and Puritanism, with its famous defense of predestination and its all-devouring work ethic, that we ought to be, and perhaps never are, liberated from. I have always been unperturbed by these criticisms. First, despite its many difficulties, the doctrine of predestination, which is nearly universal among Christian theologies, though used polemically against Puritans, at least holds the line against the notion that we get what we deserve, which is conceptually even cruder, and an invitation to self-righteousness and judgmentalism that flies in the face of central teachings of Christ. Second, the satisfactions of work may reinforce an ethic, but they are more than sufficient as reward all by themselves. More generally, no major conceptual system has ever dealt satisfactorily with every problem it raises. Theology, like cosmology, pushes at the limits of the knowable and the articulable. Dogmatism and hostile criticism alike can make the difficulties that arise in thinking at this scale seem to be its whole meaning and substance. So we learn how not to read a great literature for its actual value.

Sometimes, to step out of the echo chamber of clichés in which the history of American Puritans and Puritan culture is held in durance, I look to the Eleventh Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. The long and respectful essay on Edwards found there says a number of useful things, for example:

Though so typically a scholar and abstract thinker on the one hand and on the other a mystic, Edwards is best known to the present generation as a preacher of hell fire. The particular reason for this seems to lie in a single sermon [“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”]. . . . The style of the imprecatory sermon, however, was no more peculiar to him than to his period . . . His insight into the spiritual life was profound. Certainly the most able metaphysician and the most influential religious thinker of America, he must rank in theology, dialectics, mysticism and philosophy with Calvin and Fénelon, Augustine and Aquinas, Spinoza and Novalis; with Berkeley and Hume as the great English philosophers of the eighteenth century, and with Hamilton and Franklin as the three American thinkers of the same century of more than provincial importance. 

In any case, Jonathan Edwards provided me with a metaphysics that made the phenomenal world come alive for me again and that seemed to me to undercut every version of determinism, including even predestination, without obliging me to accept an alternative.

Never departing from strict reason, Edwards sanctified the unknowable. I experienced a quiet, cerebral awakening of my own, as much secular as religious, as much scientific as theological, though these categories are not so clear-cut as they are often made to seem. Edwards intended from his earliest work to create an all-unifying metaphysics and, though he did not achieve this, his thought feels shaped by the intention to keep the possibility implicit. It accommodates Locke and Newton, the best philosophy and science of his period. His thought asserted a great influence on the intellectual/activist movement that arose out of the Second Great Awakening that created many educational institutions across the country, among them Grinnell and Oberlin, and that pressed for the containment and abolition of slavery. Lyman Beecher, his sons Edward and Henry Ward Beecher, his daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe and the large circle associated with them accepted the need for the kind of conversion experience Edwards famously described, and adhered as well to the model of intellectual rigor he presented.

Edwards’s metaphysics is first of all an esthetics. His statements about fundamental reality are based on the nature of light, not as metaphor but as model for all aspects of being, from time to consciousness and selfhood, to love, to the experience of the sacred, to ontology, to God Himself. In Edwards’s understanding, these things participate in one another so deeply that their radical likeness is a kind of identity. Light for him is a virtual synonym for beauty, and the given world is saturated with it. Natural light is an analog or a metaphor for “supernatural light,” an important phrase that makes an important distinction, though his exploitation of the character of ordinary light is essential to his argument.

In his great treatises, Edwards dealt directly with aspects of orthodox teaching that were and are most problematic, taking on himself, in the eyes of posterity, the dark associations that had caused many within his own tradition to renounce them. Original Sin was a crucial element in his theology in a way dependent on his and his tradition’s understanding of it. For him it had little or nothing to do with sin as we ordinarily understand the word, taking its character instead from a kind of unawakened experience or perception that is blind to the glory of God and therefore to the glory that pervades being. Since at present all tenets of all traditions are merged in the public mind, the most sensational being most dominant, it is important to specify that for Calvinism, and for Edwards, Adam’s transgression was disobedience to God and had nothing to do with sex, nor was our fallen state sexually transmitted. In his treatise, Edwards insists that Adam alone brought down the great curse, and that the naming of Eve after the Fall, Adam’s calling her “Life,” “was her new honor, and the greatest honor, at least in her present state, that the Redeemer was to be of her seed.” I note this because the mention of this Doctrine brings to mind notions invidious to human sexuality and to women that were not a part of Puritan exegesis, though their culture is interpreted in light of an assumption that this interpretation must be universal and inevitable.

For Edwards, sin was the state everyone was in, in the absence of a conversion experience, which was a kind of religious ecstasy that began with a profound awareness of guilt and a sense of utter dependency on God’s grace. Religion without conversion was almost a kind of "Pharisaism," the enactment of faith and virtue without the substance of either. It was, at the same time, where the predisposition to conversion was formed. Edwards meant by his preaching and teaching to lift his hearers into the realm of spiritual light, where they would be capable of true faith, true hope, true love. They would be raised to a heightened esthetic experience, beside which the manifest natural glory of the world would seem a poor thing. Minus the theological frame, the same impulse to apprehend reality through a vision of it that is both higher and truer is present in much American poetry, from Whitman to William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.

Again, for Edwards as for Emerson, this was not contempt for the world but transcendence of a kind that allowed the world and being itself to be seen in its real glory. Given his very fixed association with hellfire preaching, it is important to remember that it was not particular transgressions that interested Edwards finally, though of course from the pulpit he deplored failures of honesty and charity. Nor was he much concerned with meritorious acts, since these were equally beside the point in the matter of personal salvation. Salvation was for him a revolution of consciousness that opened on an overwhelming sense of the beautiful, the glory of God in all its manifestations. In Edwards’s view, fallenness, the natural state of any human being, as blindness, takes no specific form as behavior and is not to be mitigated by any act of will. But the ontological nearness of humankind to God means that, through grace, perception of the purest, highest and truest kind, itself a kind of ecstasy, can be enjoyed by them, eternally and in this life. The belief that “In Adam’s Fall We sinn’d all” was central to Edwards’s epistemology.

The “awakenings” that were an effect of the preaching of Edwards and others met with objections on the part of conservative churches and leaders in his tradition. While he was defending orthodoxy in insisting that original sin was a real and crucial element in the human situation, his insistence on conversion, at least in the form it took under his influence, was not orthodox. Calvinism had clearly felt free to part ways with Calvin here and there as the centuries passed. Edwards never cites him as an authority. This matter of “visible saints,” people who indicated by any sign other than a faithful Christian life that they were the redeemed, has no basis in Calvin. That is, for Calvin there is no single threshold experience, like the conversion Edwards urged, that marked one in this world as among those who are saved.

The doctrine of original sin need not seem especially strange or fearsome. We know we all do sin inevitably as an aspect of our humanity, and therefore that we have excellent grounds for forgiving ourselves and one another. Our shared identity as children of Adam has different meanings in different contexts, often very humane, as for example when Calvin says that to hate any human being is to hate our own flesh. But Edwards is committed to an understanding that would find us damnable in the sight of God as inheritors of guilt incurred by a literal Adam. So Edwards has the problem of explaining within the terms of his tradition how the human race as a whole could be implicated in one primordial act.

His explanation is extraordinary. Edwards argues that humankind can inherit Adam’s sin and its consequences because there is no reason intrinsic to reality for the world to exist as it does. The world’s going on is not simply the turning of the wheels of an original creation, a following out of laws established in the beginning, but is in fact a new creation in every instant. So the world in every particular exists as it is the will of God to change or sustain it. God’s creating effective identity between ourselves and our first parent is no more improbable than His maintaining the selfhood of every individual person. The felt continuity of history and memory is the consequence of the will of God as it manifests itself in this continuous recreation. Edwards likens all being to an image in a mirror. “The image constantly renewed, by new successive rays, is no more numerically the same, than if it were by some artist put on anew with a pencil, and the colors constantly vanishing as fast as put on. . . . The image that exists this moment, is not at all derived from the image which existed the last preceding moment.” He might be interested to read current thought that suggests the universe is a kind of holograph.

He is arguing that there is no point in dismissively describing the ascription of Adam’s sin to humankind as arbitrary when the whole of being is arbitrary, always a fresh assertion of God’s will in creation. Within the bounds of His own great constancy, God is free. “The whole course of nature, with all that belongs to it, all its laws and methods, and constancy and regularity, continuance and proceeding, is an arbitrary constitution. In this sense, the continuance of the very being of the world and all its parts, as well as the manner of continued being, depends entirely on an arbitrary constitution: for it don’t at all necessarily follow, that because there was sound, or light, or color, or resistance, or gravity, or thought, or consciousness, or any other dependent thing the last moment, that therefore there shall be the like at the next. All dependent existence whatsoever is in constant flux, ever passing and returning: renewed every moment, as the color of bodies are every moment renewed by the light that shines upon them; and all is constantly proceeding from God, as light from the sun.” 

The problem that arises—that this would seem to make God the origin of evil in permitting it to work itself out in time—arises in any monotheism, any conception of God as omnipotent. It must be said in defense of traditional theology that evil is anomalous in its terms, always a problem, never to be naturalized to the world with talk of the superiority of lions to lambs. The What-kind-of-God? question that haunts all the traditions is always rhetorical. Edwards, speaking from the perspective of a century that suffered more affliction in ordinary life than most of us can imagine, remarked that we suffer for a reason or we suffer for no reason, the second possibility no better vindication of cosmic justice than the first. For a theist like Edwards, the vision of an ultimate goodness—he describes a reality effulgent with love—is too real and powerful to let considerations of this kind compromise it. In fairness to him, no mitigation of those evils would come with holding in a lower estimation the God who tells us to do justice and love mercy, to love the stranger. Evil is the injury done to the profound goodness of the created order, and should not be made to obscure the fact that this goodness is essential and evil merely contingent. Edwards does insist that the damnation to which he, like Augustine and Aquinas, feels many of us are predestined, is good and just—too readily assimilating this doctrine to a divine nature, which seems by his own account of it entirely incompatible with it, an instance of a familiar effect of system on vision. That the ontological centrality of God is not apparent to more than a few, that this understanding, which is granted rather than achieved, is the manifest form of salvation, and that damnation is the alternative to it, is not inconsistent with Edwards’s epistemology, though it is profoundly at odds with his vision of God as absolute love.

But the value of his or anyone’s best insights should not be denied because of difficulties in his premises or his conclusions. There is nothing in modern physics to contradict the insight into the nature of being that Edwards elaborates in the Defense, that like sunlight, being itself is seemingly continuous in the fact that it is constantly renewed, though there is nothing in its nature to account for its persistence as itself over time. Light can cease: A candle is blown out, the sun passes below the horizon. Edwards says being can cease also, and would, if it did not emanate continuously, like light, from the center and source of being. Physics posits no source for this persisting newness, offers no account of time. Scientists have made lists of the extraordinarily diverse features of our universe that had to be about exactly as they are to accommodate life as we know it, even to allow the accretion of matter. However this apparent fine-tuning is interpreted, it makes clear that we live in an intricate web of contingencies, assuming, and able so far to assume, lawfulness and consistency within a hectically expanding cosmos made of volatility and explosion. Presumably a few subtle systemic changes could put an end to it all.

Edwards as a Christian theologian begins with belief in a creator, whose role in existence and experience no doubt elaborated itself in his understanding as he pondered the imponderable problem he had posed to himself. The intuition is sound in any case. It places humankind in any moment on the farthest edge of existence, where the utter mystery of emergent being makes a mystery of every present moment even as it slides into the mysterious past. This by itself elevates experience above the plodding positivisms that lock us in chains of causality, conceptions of reality that are at best far too simple to begin to describe a human place in the universe. Edwards’s metaphysics does not give us a spatial locus, as the old cosmology is said to have done, but instead proposes an ontology that answers to consciousness and perception and feels akin to thought. I have heard it said a thousand times that people seek out religion in order to escape complexity and uncertainty. I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards’s vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.

*This article was updated on January 23, 2015. Quotations were put on the word Pharisaism to reflect the disputed status of the usage.

About the Author

Essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson is a National Humanities Medalist and the author of Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Home, winner of the Orange Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Lila, her most recent novel, was published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Funding Information

Since 1980, NEH has supported seventeen projects pertaining to Jonathan Edwards. Most recently, Yale University, with $680,635 in NEH funding, has created an online open-access archive of the works of the eighteenth-century theologian and preacher.