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Was Jonathan Edwards a Gnostic? – JESociety.org
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Was Jonathan Edwards a Gnostic?

He that would know the work­ings of the New Eng­land mind in the mid­dle of the [eigh­teenth] cen­tury, and the throb­bings of its heart, must give his days and nights to the study of Jonathan Edwards. So writes Ban­croft in his A Reli­gious His­tory of the Amer­i­can Peo­ple.

Ban­croft was right. In Edwards we see the last of the great Puri­tans and the first of the great revival­ists. He rep­re­sents both the era that was clos­ing and the age that was about to be ush­ered in.

But what exactly were dynam­ics of the age that was being ush­ered in and what were the lines of con­ti­nu­ity that these dynam­ics had with the thought of Jonathan Edwards?

This post will begin by attempt­ing to answer the first part of this ques­tion. To do so, I will be sug­gest­ing that 18th cen­tury Amer­ica was a time that began to be char­ac­ter­ized by a dual­ism rem­i­nis­cent of clas­si­cal Gnos­ti­cism. I will then go on to attempt to answer the sec­ond part of this ques­tion, explor­ing the con­ti­nu­ity that these Gnos­tic impulses had with the thought of Jonathan Edwards.

This arti­cle assumes a read­er­ship already famil­iar with the cat­e­gory of Gnos­ti­cism; how­ever, if this is not the case, read­ers are advised to refer to my arti­cle “Review of Against the Protes­tant Gnos­tics”1 for a brief overview of Gnosticism.

Gnos­tic Dual­ism in 18th Cen­tury America

As the cur­tain closed on the 18th cen­tury, many changes were appar­ent on the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent. From their hum­ble begin­nings as a scat­tered col­lec­tion of unsta­ble set­tle­ments, the colonies in Amer­ica and Canada emerged as an effi­cient trad­ing empire capa­ble of com­pet­ing with Europe. When the 18th cen­tury began, the colonies had hardly been able to defend them­selves against local Indi­ans; by the century’s close, the Amer­i­can colonies could boast of hav­ing defeat­ing Europe’s most for­mi­da­ble mil­i­tary empire. Such social and polit­i­cal changes were par­al­leled by equally mon­u­men­tal shifts in reli­gion. So sig­nif­i­cant were these shifts that by the end of the 18th cen­tury, New World evan­gel­i­cal­ism was enter­ing an era which dif­fered from its ear­lier coun­ter­part as much, if not more, than ref­or­ma­tion Chris­tian­ity dif­fered from medieval Catholicism.

Nowhere is this bet­ter illus­trated than in the recep­tion that Henry Alline (17481784) received in Nova Sco­tia and New Brunswick. An itin­er­ant evan­ge­list and church planter, Alline took it upon him­self to replace the region’s tra­di­tional Calvin­ism with an exis­ten­tial mys­ti­cism. Hos­tile to the mate­r­ial world, Alline denied the future res­ur­rec­tion of the body and taught that Adam and Eve had no cor­po­real bod­ies before the fall. Even the phys­i­cal world itself was a kind of cos­mic blun­der that only arose because the angels had fallen. By the time of his death in 1784, Alline had helped to lay the foun­da­tions for the Bap­tist move­ment in the Mar­itime provinces, and left behind a num­ber of hymns that were included in the stan­dard 19th cen­tury hym­nals.2 What is sig­nif­i­cant about Alline is not his Gnos­ti­cism so much, but that he found such a fol­low­ing among Chris­tians with a Puri­tan back­ground, many of whom were for­mer New Eng­lan­ders who had expe­ri­enced the Great Awak­en­ing under the the­o­log­i­cally ortho­dox George White­field. What was it about the reli­gious con­text of late 18th cen­tury North Amer­ica that gave Alline’s Gnos­ti­cism such plau­si­bil­ity among so many thou­sands of pre­vi­ously ortho­dox believers?

The answer to this ques­tion lies in the real­iza­tion that Alline both echoed and ampli­fied many of the dom­i­nant motifs that were becom­ing a groundswell towards the close of the 18th cen­tury. Through­out Amer­ica and Canada, reli­gious dis­course came to be dom­i­nated by the themes that Alline typ­i­fied: rad­i­cal egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, an exul­tant anti-​​intellectualism, a fiercely anti-​​establishment eccle­si­ol­ogy, an elit­ist approach to reli­gion, and a divide between spirit and mat­ter that would find expres­sion in every­thing from anti-​​sacramentalism to the rejec­tion of medi­a­tion within the spir­i­tual econ­omy. While most of these motifs did not become dom­i­nant until the 19th cen­tury, they were all in place by the mid to late 18th cen­tury. As I have shown in my ear­lier arti­cle, “The Prob­lem of Medi­a­tion in the First Great Awak­en­ing”,3 even as early as the First Great Awak­en­ing many Amer­i­can revival­ists echoed clas­si­cal Gnos­ti­cism in find­ing it offen­sive that God’s grace could be medi­ated through phys­i­cal instru­ments. For the Gnos­tic, the only legit­i­mate type of rela­tion­ship to the divine is the unmedi­ated, direct rela­tion­ship. Prov­i­dences and sec­ondary means, espe­cially those rooted in the phys­i­cal world, were dis­missed by the Gnos­tics as unspir­i­tual, dead and dis­tract­ing from true spir­i­tual enlight­en­ment. Though many of the Gnos­tics con­sid­ered them­selves to be Chris­tians and true heirs of Jesus’ legacy, they felt jus­ti­fied sep­a­rat­ing from the rest of the church on the grounds that the church was in bondage to rudi­men­tary ele­ments such as bread and wine and bap­tismal water. Spir­i­tual life could not be trans­mit­ted through mate­r­ial means, because the spir­i­tual and the mate­r­ial were absolutely anti­thetic to each other.

These were the very val­ues that per­me­ated so much of the revival­ists think­ing in 18th cen­tury North Amer­ica and which became espe­cially potent in the new con­ver­sion­ist sote­ri­ol­ogy. Many (but not all) 18th cen­tury Amer­i­can revival­ists taught that reli­gion had to come to man like a bolt from the sky, inde­pen­dent of any rela­tion to the past prov­i­dences of life, includ­ing the reli­gious envi­ron­ment in which one had been nur­tured. Just as the Gnos­tics objected to grace being trans­mit­ted through phys­i­cal means such as the sacra­ments, so many revival­ists objected to grace being medi­ated through phys­i­cal means such as grad­ual parental nur­ture. What emerged was a highly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic par­a­digm that min­i­mized the cat­e­chiz­ing influ­ence of the church and the fam­ily. If the church had any role to play in the nur­ture of chil­dren, it was to preach the gospel to them, not to nur­ture and cat­e­chize them from infancy as covenan­tal mem­bers. In fact, to treat a child as a mem­ber of the covenant would be to impart a dan­ger­ous secu­rity to him or her. The idea of grow­ing up in grace was itself an oxy­moron for many of the revival­ists. The light of God had to come all at once in a def­i­nite con­ver­sion moment, and that con­ver­sion had to be self-​​conscious. Not only did the con­ver­sion have to be self-​​conscious, but you had to be able to ver­bal­ize it in a way that con­formed to the canons of a cred­i­ble “profession.”

The stress on auton­omy and imme­di­acy brought a sec­tar­ian hue to the revival­ist project which bore a remark­able sim­i­lar­ity to both the method and con­tent of ancient Gnos­ti­cism. In my arti­cle, “Reli­gion by the peo­ple, for the Peo­ple, and of the Peo­ple”,4 I have explored fur­ther the roots of this sec­tar­ian spirit as it man­i­fested itself in 18th cen­tury Amer­ica; how­ever, for our present pur­poses it should suf­fice to say that just as Gnos­ti­cism sub­sti­tuted the pub­li­cally acces­si­ble reli­gion of Chris­tian­ity for a pri­va­tized elit­ism avail­able only to those who had a par­tic­u­lar type of illu­mi­nat­ing expe­ri­ence, so the ten­dency among many revival­ists was to deny the legit­i­macy of those pub­li­cally acces­si­ble means of grace offered by the church, at least where such means were not accom­pa­nied by a cer­tain type of sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence. This approach drifted towards the Gnos­tic obses­sion with the invis­i­ble through down­play­ing the role that the insti­tu­tional church could play in the nur­ture, growth and cat­e­chis­ing of believ­ers from an early age. Since the vis­i­ble church con­tained many who, though trust­ing in Christ for their sal­va­tion, had never had the type of vio­lent con­ver­sion expe­ri­ence that sup­pos­edly marked out the true peo­ple of God, the orga­nized church began to be seen as a dis­trac­tion from “vital reli­gion” at best and a con­duit of decep­tion at worst.

These are only a few exam­ples of the way that Amer­i­can evan­gel­i­cal­ism began to col­lude with Gnos­ti­cism and its sus­pi­cion of all medi­at­ing struc­tures. This cre­ated a social-​​spiritual cul­ture in which matter/​spiritual dual­ism became a dom­i­nant motif. The type of dual­ism I have in mind was help­fully defined by Suzanne Selinger as follows:

Dual­ism in it reli­gious sense in west­ern culture…divides real­ity into two forms or qual­i­ties — that is, real­ity is dyadic — with onto­log­i­cal par­ity and with oppo­site moral val­u­a­tion.”5

Such dual­ism “does not refer to a meta­physic in which two dif­fer­ent kinds of real­ity are sup­posed, but one which con­ceives two real­i­ties as either oppo­sites or con­tra­dic­tions of each other…Dualism denies such an inter­ac­tion, either explic­itly or by con­ceiv­ing the two in such a way that it becomes impos­si­ble con­sis­tently to relate them.”6

A ques­tion that has been too lit­tle explored is what role, if any, Jonathan Edwards played in this process? Did the ris­ing cli­mate of dual­ism, rep­re­sent a sharp dis­con­ti­nu­ity with the thought of Edwards, or are there commonalities?

Mod­ern Sci­ence and the Despir­i­tu­al­iza­tion of Matter

In the 17th cen­tury, under the impe­tus of new advances in sci­ence, a par­a­digm shift had taken place in how man thought of the world. When medieval man had looked up into the sky and con­tem­plated the heav­ens, he was greeted not with a deep vacu­ity, but with a delight­ful dance; not a machine unwind­ing like clock­work, but a mag­nif­i­cent cer­e­mony unfold­ing like a dance. It was a cos­mos that the medieval and renais­sance scholar C.S. Lewis described as “tin­gling with anthro­po­mor­phic life, danc­ing, cer­e­mo­nial, a fes­ti­val not a machine.”7

By con­trast, in roughly the 17th cen­tury under the impe­tus of new advances in sci­ence, man began to com­plete a process that Lewis described as “emp­ty­ing” the uni­verse. Man, with his new pow­ers of obser­va­tion and sci­en­tific analy­sis, “became rich like Midas but all that he touched had gone dead and cold.”8 It wasn’t that thinkers at the advent of the mod­ern age had actu­ally stopped believ­ing that the world was cre­ated by God; rather, they began to view the mech­a­nisms of the uni­verse as sep­a­rate from spir­i­tual cat­e­gories. The uni­verse that emerged under the tele­scope of mod­ern sci­ence was “dead and cold” pre­cisely because it was an autonomous, math­e­mat­i­cal machine, no longer radi­at­ing with the sense of alive­ness so preva­lent not only in the medieval poets, but also in the medieval cosmologists.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, the Ger­man astronomer Johannes Kepler (15711630), a key fig­ure in the 17th cen­tury sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion and pre­cur­sor to New­ton, began his career within the medieval tra­di­tion of explain­ing the motion of the plan­ets by their anima motri­ces. By the end of his life, how­ever, he was describ­ing the stars mechan­i­cally. The net effect of the new mech­a­nis­tic sci­ence was towards a dis­en­chanted, de-​​spiritualized view of mate­ri­al­ity. One could, of course, argue that there was no nec­es­sary con­nec­tion between mod­ern cos­mol­ogy and the reduc­tion­is­tic view of mat­ter that Lewis described as “empty.” One need only invoke Aristotle’s dis­tinc­tion between mate­r­ial causes and for­mal causes to rec­og­nize that there is a dif­fer­ence between what a thing is and what a thing is made of. How­ever, as a point of his­tory it can­not be denied that mod­ern sci­ence invoked a par­a­digm shift in the ontol­ogy of mat­ter which chal­lenged, not merely medieval cos­mol­ogy, but the theo­cen­tric cat­e­gories on which such cos­mol­ogy had pre­vi­ously been grounded.

In the 17th cen­tury, this despir­i­tu­al­ized view of mat­ter had become explicit. Thomas Hobbes (15881679) advo­cated a philo­soph­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism which effec­tively col­lapsed all of real­ity into the phys­i­cal realm. Con­scious of the threat this posed to reli­gious faith, Descartes (15961650) had tried to give a ratio­nal­is­tic grounded for the exis­tence of both the spir­i­tual and mate­r­ial realms. How­ever, he did so at the expense of their inte­gra­tion. The polar­ity he intro­duced can best be under­stood by con­trast­ing his approach with that of Plato.9 For Plato, the true nature of phys­i­cal real­ity, includ­ing the body, was appre­hended by con­cen­trat­ing one’s atten­tion on the immutable Ideas of which mate­ri­al­ity was but a dim reflec­tion. For Descartes, who dis­en­gaged the mate­r­ial world from all spir­i­tual real­ity, there was no longer a higher world to turn to. Thus, as Charles Tay­lor has pointed out in Sources of the Self, in order to come to “a full real­iza­tion of one’s being as imma­te­r­ial”, one had to first dis­tinctly per­ceive “the onto­log­i­cal cleft between the two [the soul and the mate­r­ial], and this involves grasp­ing the mate­r­ial world as mere exten­sion.” It also involved the rad­i­cal dis­en­gage­ment of human rea­son from all phys­i­cal encum­brances. Thus, when Descartes wished to have his thought unfet­tered by error, he tried to first dis­en­gage him­self from all the fur­ni­ture of the mate­r­ial world. In the end, how­ever, even knowl­edge of the phys­i­cal world required this type of dis­em­bod­i­ment: as Descartes put it, “bod­ies are not prop­erly speak­ing known by the senses…they are not know from the fact that they are seen or touched, but only because they are understood…”

Descartes’ polar­ity between spirit and mat­ter, mind and body, sim­ply made explicit the dual­ism already impli­cated of mod­ern sci­ence. The corol­lary of this dis­junc­tion was the divi­sion of the world into two autonomous realms: thought and exten­sion. As Wal­lace E Ander­son has aptly pointed out:

Despite its demon­stra­tions of the exis­tence of God and the imma­te­ri­al­ity of the soul, the Carte­sian meta­physics so extended the scope of the mech­a­nis­tic sys­tem of mat­ter and motion as to explain all ani­mal and the most overt human behav­iour by mech­a­nis­tic prin­ci­ples alone; and it so lim­ited the role of God’s oper­a­tions in nature as to rule out all pos­si­bil­ity of rec­og­niz­ing divine prov­i­dence in the word.10

Descartes was fol­lowed quickly by devel­op­ments in the sci­ences which appeared to give fur­ther sci­en­tific legit­i­macy to the project of explain­ing how the uni­verse oper­ated inde­pen­dent of all spir­i­tual cat­e­gories. New­ton­ian physics threat­ened to irrev­o­ca­bly divide the realms of mat­ter and spirit, by elim­i­nat­ing the need for the lat­ter. Prior to New­ton many sci­en­tists had made head­way towards the goal of under­stand­ing the laws by which the uni­verse was ordered. Galileo had estab­lished the laws of ter­res­trial motion; Kepler had demon­strated the laws gov­ern­ing plan­e­tary motion; Descartes had showed that the uni­verse oper­ated mech­a­nis­ti­cally. But what made New­ton stand out above his pre­cur­sors was the way he effec­tively inte­grated all pre­vi­ous knowl­edge into a sin­gle, com­pre­hen­sive the­ory. New­ton showed that the motion of all objects fol­lowed the same set of rules. His dis­cov­er­ies about the laws of motion allowed him to take a state-​​description of any sys­tem and work out from that descrip­tion what the future state-​​descriptions would be and what the past state-​​descriptions had been. The same descrip­tions that held true of the uni­verse also held true of the tra­jec­tory of a ping-​​pong ball and the fall of an apple.  If the posi­tion and momen­tum of every point-​​particle is given, then a sys­tem can be com­pletely described in mech­a­nis­tic terms. Applied to the cos­mos as a whole, this meant that the uni­verse was ratio­nal, intel­li­gi­ble, oper­at­ing in con­stant obe­di­ence to the laws God had cre­ated.11 Newton’s uni­verse was “mechan­i­cal” in the sense that it oper­ated accord­ing to fixed laws like a giant machine, but it was not “mate­ri­al­ist”, in Hobbes’ sense. This is because New­ton never col­lapsed the spir­i­tual into the phys­i­cal, nor did he believe that his dis­cov­er­ies ren­dered unnec­es­sary the realm of the spirit. Nev­er­the­less, for those who did not share Newton’s the­is­tic com­mit­ments, it was easy to assume that his dis­cov­er­ies had some­how given a sci­en­tific under­pin­ning both to philo­soph­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism as well as to Carte­sian dual­ism. George Mars­den reminds us that early in Newton’s career “he became par­tic­u­larly alarmed by what he saw as an absurd dual­ism in Descartes’ phi­los­o­phy that sep­a­rated mat­ter from spirit and thus, in Newton’s view, could lead to an athe­ism in which mat­ter oper­ated inde­pen­dently of God.”12 Nev­er­the­less, “Not only Carte­sians but many New­to­ni­ans, despite New­ton him­self, were mov­ing in this dual­is­tic direc­tion.”13

Enter Locke

The Eng­lish philoso­pher John Locke (16321704) was a con­tem­po­rary and friend of New­ton. But unlike New­ton, Locke was a hard deter­min­ist, who seems to have held that both human beings and the uni­verse are com­pletely gov­erned by deter­min­is­tic forces. In his epis­te­mol­ogy, Locke did not hes­i­tate to draw the impli­ca­tions of what Charles Tay­lor has called “the rel­a­tive close­ness of fit between [Locke’s] views on knowl­edge and the tri­umphant New­ton­ian model…” Such impli­ca­tions involved the sup­po­si­tion that every­one who enters the world does so tab­ula rasa – a blank slate, upon which expe­ri­ence writes. Expand­ing on the Aris­totelian maxim that “there is noth­ing in the intel­lect that was not pre­vi­ously in the senses,” Locke argued that all the ideas in the mind (includ­ing ideas of spir­i­tual real­i­ties) are either “pro­duced in us” by direct sense-​​impressions (as a pho­to­graphic film responds to light) or else the result of the mind reflect­ing on the data pre­sented to the senses. The mind brings to such reflec­tion only that which it has pre­vi­ously received through sense obser­va­tion. In stress­ing the fun­da­men­tal depen­dence of every­thing upon our expe­ri­ence of the world, Locke laid the ground­work both for an epis­te­mol­ogy of scep­ti­cism as well as an all-​​encompassing mate­ri­al­ism that would effec­tively col­lapse the spir­i­tual into the phys­i­cal. Yet Locke also tried to be a real­ist, assert­ing the inde­pen­dence of the objects of expe­ri­ence from our expe­ri­ence of them. How­ever, he left no guar­an­tee that human ideas of things gen­uinely resem­bled the exter­nal objects they were sup­posed to represent.

The Ide­al­ist Solution

Bishop George Berke­ley (16851753) had reli­gious rea­sons for want­ing to res­cue the world from the non-​​realist impli­ca­tions left by Locke. Yet iron­i­cally, he did so by press­ing Locke’s empiri­cism one stage fur­ther and reject­ing mat­ter alto­gether. He pointed out that since all objects of human knowl­edge come as ideas in the mind, it is impos­si­ble to know for sure whether there is an out­side real­ity that those qual­i­ties gen­uinely rep­re­sent. Human per­cep­tions are not auto­matic pho­tographs of an exter­nal real­ity, he said, for the mind is only aware of its own per­cep­tions and has no way to ascer­tain whether these per­cep­tions rep­re­sent the objects that are assumed. This led Berke­ley to his famous the­sis – stated in all seri­ous­ness – that there is no exter­nal, mate­r­ial world at all. Trees, rocks, houses, and the like are sim­ply col­lec­tions of “ideas.” Yet, at the same time Berke­ley was a real­ist. There is objec­tive con­tent to our ideas of mat­ter because God is the one who pro­duces these ideas in our minds. You and I really do exist, we just do not exist exter­nally; rather, we are all ideas in God’s infi­nite con­scious­ness. By locat­ing mat­ter in the mind of the deity, Berke­ley saw him­self as res­cu­ing phi­los­o­phy from the scep­ti­cism towards which Locke had steered it. Whereas the impli­ca­tion of a con­sis­tent Lock­eanism was to col­lapse the spir­i­tual into the mate­r­ial, Berke­ley ide­al­ist solu­tion did just the oppo­site: he let the spir­i­tual com­pletely absorb the phys­i­cal world. Indeed, Berke­ley argued that to even allow the exis­tence of mat­ter was in essence to deify it (“Mat­ter once allow’d. I defy any man to prove that God is not mat­ter”), and since that was unthink­able, the only solu­tion left was to sub­or­di­nate all mat­ter to knowl­edge and con­scious­ness.14

Jonathan Edwards the Idealist

The philo­soph­i­cal legacy left by Descartes, New­ton, Locke and Berke­ley remains the sub­ject of intense debate. Yet for all their com­plex dif­fer­ences, the cur­rency each of them (except­ing New­ton) traded in was that of a deeply divided world – a world in which the inte­gra­tion of spirit and mat­ter could no longer be taken as given. This was the intel­lec­tual legacy bequeathed to Jonathan Edwards. It is uncer­tain how much direct influ­ence, if any, Berke­ley had on Edwards, while the degree to which he was influ­enced by Locke has been highly exag­ger­ated by Perry Miller.

Nev­er­the­less, it is clear that at col­lege Edwards became well versed in Locke, New­ton and many of the other mod­ern thinkers of his day. Locke in par­tic­u­lar, “was cru­cial in set­ting Edwards’ philo­soph­i­cal agenda and shap­ing some of his cat­e­gories.” His first biog­ra­pher and friend, Samuel Hop­kins, reported that at age thir­teen “he read Locke on human under­stand­ing, with great delight and profit.” In his later years Edwards told friends that when he read the Essay Con­cern­ing Human Under­stand­ing in his youth he was “beyond expres­sion enter­tained and pleased with it…that he was as much engaged and had more sat­is­fac­tion and plea­sure in study­ing it, than the most greedy miser in gath­er­ing up hand­fuls of sil­ver and gold from some new dis­cov­ered trea­sure.”15

Like Berke­ley, Edwards was a cler­gy­man who endeav­oured to give a theo­cen­tric ground­ing to the new devel­op­ments in phi­los­o­phy and sci­ence. He sought to over­come matter/​spirit dual­ism by posit­ing that mat­ter is not a sub­stance at all. Though his meta­phys­i­cal schema echoed both the imma­te­ri­al­ism of Berke­ley as well as the neo-​​Platonism of Descartes, Edward’s did not tech­ni­cally elim­i­nate the mate­r­ial world itself, though his lan­guage some­times comes close to doing so. What is clear, how­ever, is that he refused to grant to mat­ter any abid­ing con­ti­nu­ity over time. In each mil­lisec­ond of the universe’s exis­tence, the world is being cre­ated anew out of noth­ing. What appears to us to be chains of causes and effects are sim­ply the occa­sions of God’s direct inter­ven­tion. This ‘occa­sion­al­ism’ is dif­fer­ent than merely rec­og­niz­ing that God is nec­es­sary to con­stantly sus­tain or pre­serve the uni­verse; rather, in each sec­ond God recre­ates the uni­verse, pro­duc­ing a suc­ces­sion of self-​​contained frames that unfold and give the appear­ance of con­ti­nu­ity, con­tin­gency and cau­sa­tion, even though there is no inher­ent con­nec­tion between the antecedents and con­se­quences of the sequence.

The rela­tion between an antecedent and its con­se­quent is, “per­haps rather an occa­sion than a cause; most prop­erly speak­ing…”16 Else­where, Edwards writes, “If the exis­tence of cre­ate sub­stance, in each suc­ces­sive moment, be wholly the effect of God’s imme­di­ate power, in that moment, with­out any depen­dence on prior exis­tence, as much as the first cre­ation out of noth­ing, then what exists at this moment, by this power, is a new effect; and sim­ply and absolutely con­sid­ered, not the same with any past exis­tence, though it be like it, and fol­lows it accord­ing to a cer­tain estab­lished method. And there is no iden­tity or one­ness in the case, but what depends on the arbi­trary con­sti­tu­tion of the Cre­ator; who by his wise sov­er­eign estab­lish­ment so unites these suc­ces­sive new effects, that he treats them as one, by com­mu­ni­cat­ing to them like prop­er­ties, rela­tions, and cir­cum­st­naces; and so, leads us to regard and treat them as one.”17

Ulti­mately for Edwards, there can be no per­sis­tence within a thing pre­cisely because noth­ing per­sists long enough to bring about any acts.18 Though Edwards’ imma­te­ri­al­ism did not exactly col­lapse the world of mat­ter into pure mind as Berke­ley had done, Edwards does come close to elim­i­nat­ing the mate­r­ial world. He wrote, “We would not, there­fore, be under­stood to deny that things are where they seem to be…Though we sup­pose that the exis­tence of the whole mate­r­ial uni­verse is absolutely depen­dent on ideas, yet we may speak in the old way, and as prop­erly and truly as ever.” He also asserted “that no mat­ter is, in the most proper sense, matter.”From “Things To Be Con­sid­ered” (cited in Mars­den, p. 74.) The con­text of the quo­ta­tion is reveal­ing, as it comes from a reminder Edwards wrote to him­self for a book he was plan­ning. In the book, Edwards reminded him­self “to bring in an obser­va­tion some­where in a proper place, that instead of Hobbes’ notion that God is mat­ter and that all sub­stance is mat­ter; that noth­ing that is mat­ter can pos­si­bly be God, and that no mat­ter is, in the most proper sense, mat­ter.” Speak­ing of Edwards’ meta­physics, William Evans noted that “Though not pre­cisely and unequiv­o­cally iden­ti­fied, God and the world are brought into the clos­est of rela­tions in a way rem­i­nis­cent of Neoplatonism….Strictly speak­ing, there is no sec­ondary cau­sa­tion in the finite sphere – what we per­ceive as causes are merely the divinely con­sti­tuted reg­u­lar occa­sions for divine action.”19

More­over, Edwards meta­phys­i­cal struc­ture elim­i­nated the laws of nature in any mean­ing­ful sense, entail­ing the sup­po­si­tion that “The sub­stance of bod­ies at last becomes either noth­ing, or noth­ing but the Deity act­ing in that par­tic­u­lar man­ner in those parts of space where he thinks fit. So that, speak­ing most strictly, there is no proper sub­stance but God him­self.”20 Else­where he wrote,

In nat­ural things means of effects in meta­phys­i­cal strict­ness are not the proper causes of the effects, but only occa­sions. God pro­duces all effects but yet he ties nat­ural events to the oper­a­tion of such means or causes them to be con­se­quent on such means accord­ing to fixed, deter­mi­nate, and unchange­able rules which are called the laws of nature.”21

Edwards thus made explicit a tra­di­tion that had been implicit in Descartes, who had writ­ten that “in order to be con­served in each moment in which it endures, a sub­stance has need of the same power and action as would be nec­es­sary to pro­duce and cre­ate it anew.” Like Carte­sian dual­ism, Edwards’ occa­sion­al­ism ended up devalu­ing the mate­r­ial world. As Brad Lit­tle­john has noted in his excel­lent book The Mer­cers­burg The­ol­ogy and the Quest for Reformed Catholic­ity, the approach of Berke­ley and Edwards “destroyed the prob­lem of dual­ism, to be sure, since there was only one kind of sub­stance – spir­i­tual – but it merely exac­er­bated the prod­uct of dual­ism, namely, the ten­dency to under­value the mate­r­ial world.”22 This prob­lem, notes Kuk­lick, was to haunt the New Eng­land The­olo­gians who fol­lowed in Edwards’ wake, many of whom “again and again dis­played an inter­est in ide­al­ist meta­physics that might over­come osten­si­ble dualisms.”23

How­ever, for­ma­tive the legacy of British empiri­cism and Euro­pean ide­al­ism was for Edwards, it remains only one side of the pic­ture. Edwards was influ­enced as much, if not more, by the reli­gious legacy left by the New Eng­land Puri­tans. This was espe­cially true in the lat­ter half of Edward’s life. Even Edwards’ pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with meta­physics arose out of his desire to defend the prov­i­dence and sov­er­eignty of God – a desire he shared in com­mon with the best Puri­tan divines. To neglect this impor­tant aspect of Edwards’ intel­lec­tual pedi­gree would be to fail to take him on his own terms.

Jonathan Edwards the Puritan

The Puri­tan legacy that Edwards inher­ited was deeply para­dox­i­cal. The reformed tra­di­tion in which Puri­tanism was rooted remained robustly incar­na­tional, com­mit­ted to order­ing of all life accord­ing to the prin­ci­ples of Christ’s Lordship.

The Puri­tan notion of an inner group within the insti­tu­tional church would ulti­mately lead to an elit­ism that would tend to down­play the impor­tance of the vis­i­ble, mate­r­ial church. Yet it was surely when reformed teach­ers approached the sub­ject of images that a sub­tle dual­ism was most likely to creep in. When Calvin had dealt with the sub­ject of images, he fre­quently sep­a­rated the spir­i­tual from the mate­r­ial in a way quite dis­tinct from his dis­cus­sions of the incar­na­tion.24   Puri­tan icon­o­clasm of the 1640s retained this markedly dual­is­tic char­ac­ter, as Julie Sprag­gon has shown in his book Puri­tan Icon­o­clasm dur­ing the Eng­lish Civil War. More­over, when Bishop Ger­vase Babing­ton (1549/​15501610) took up the sub­ject of images, his pas­sion against idol wor­ship led him to embrace a docetic Chris­tol­ogy which, in any other con­text, would have been dis­coun­te­nanced among ortho­dox Calvin­ists. Yet the extreme earth­i­ness of the Puri­tans, a sense of grate­ful­ness about the cre­ated order and a high pre­mium on eccle­si­o­log­i­cal and covenan­tal cat­e­gories, kept both the elit­ism and the dual­ism of the Puri­tans within check. Iron­i­cally, even their deep mys­ti­cism mit­i­gated against the Pla­tonic devalu­ing of mat­ter since it meant that their keen­ness to de-​​physicalize the spir­i­tual was matched by an equal eager­ness to exter­nal­ize the sub­jec­tive. More­over, their the­ol­ogy was highly polem­i­cal, so that when their writ­ers begin to veer into a dis­em­bod­ied Pla­ton­ism, it was often for pur­poses of engage­ment with per­ceived excesses on the other extreme. By the early 18th cen­tury Puri­tanism had begun to take on a more extreme per­sona, how­ever, slowly iso­lat­ing cer­tain dual­is­tic ten­den­cies in their Calvin­ist back­ground with­out the dialec­ti­cal bal­ance that had been Calvin’s genius. The Puri­tan hos­til­ity to para­pher­na­lia such as alter pieces and priestly vest­ments, or their dis­dain for phys­i­cal ges­tures such as mak­ing the sign of the cross dur­ing wor­ship, kneel­ing dur­ing wor­ship and exchang­ing rings as part of the wed­ding ser­vice, had begun to intro­duce a sub­tle polar­ity between the realm of the spir­i­tual and the realm of the mate­r­ial. While their objec­tions to such prac­tices were grounded in the prin­ci­ple that all aspects of wor­ship not explic­itly com­manded in scrip­ture were thereby pro­hib­ited, the net result was to dis­en­gage form from con­tent, heaven from earth, spirit from mat­ter in a way that Calvin never had. Addi­tion­ally, their assump­tion that a true church was a pure church, together with an increas­ingly tight cri­te­ria for what con­sti­tuted a pure church, fos­tered a sense of elit­ism that could not help but invoke a pejo­ra­tive view of the wider vis­i­ble church, thus rein­forc­ing a dual­ism between the invis­i­ble spir­i­tual and the vis­i­ble material.

This was the rich, com­plex and ambigu­ous legacy bequeathed to Jonathan Edwards from his Puri­tan back­ground. While it is impos­si­ble to know how much Edwards’ ide­al­ist meta­physics was moti­vated, con­sciously or oth­er­wise, by this the­o­log­i­cal pedi­gree, it can­not be denied that he shared with his Puri­tan ances­tors an affir­ma­tion of the mate­r­ial world that was tinged with a qual­i­fied dual­ism. The dual­ism emerges in a num­ber of places, not least when Edwards waxes Pla­tonic on the insignif­i­cance of the mate­r­ial world in his Shad­ows of Divine Things”, 53 & 64, in Typo­log­i­cal Writings

the mate­r­ial world…[God] makes the whole as a shadow of the spir­i­tual world…. That the earth is so small a thing in com­par­i­son of the dis­tance between us and the high­est heaven, that if we were there, that not only the high palaces and high­est moun­tains would look low whose height we gaze and won­der at now, but the whole earth would be less than noth­ing. … It seems to typ­ify how that worldly things, all worldly honor and plea­sure and profit, yea, the whole world or all worldly things put together, is so much lower and less than heav­enly glory, that when the saints come to be in heaven, all will appear as it were infi­nitely less than nothing.

In the same source, ‘worldly things’ would seem to include “the cor­po­real and vis­i­ble world” itself:

… one thing seems to be made in imi­ta­tion of another, and espe­cially the less per­fect to be made in imi­ta­tion of the more per­fect, so that the less per­fect is as it were a fig­ure or image of the more per­fect— so…why is it not ratio­nal to sup­pose that the cor­po­real and vis­i­ble world should be designedly made and con­sti­tuted in anal­ogy to the more spir­i­tual, noble and real world?

…when the soul of the saint leaves the body and goes to heaven, it will be like com­ing out of the dim light of the night into day­light…. We can’t in the present state see clearly, because we have a veil before us, even the veil of the flesh.25

Jonathan Edwards the Platonist

The inher­ent dual­ism in the above quo­ta­tions is not that Edwards rec­og­nizes, or even that he dis­tin­guishes, the spir­i­tual and the phys­i­cal realms. The Pla­ton­ism arises pre­cisely at the point where he implies an oppo­site moral val­u­a­tion for each. The cor­po­real realm, the flesh and “the world” are mere shad­ows of the more noble spir­i­tual real­i­ties. This gives a the­o­log­i­cal val­i­da­tion to the deval­u­a­tion of mat­ter that was a con­comi­tant of Edwards’ occa­sion­al­ist meta­physics. In light of this, it is not sur­pris­ing that when he wishes to find a fit­ting metaphor to describe man’s inner deprav­ity, Edwards imag­i­na­tion turned to the phys­i­cal body:

Man’s inwards are full of dung and filth­i­ness, which is to denote what the inner man, which is often rep­re­sented by var­i­ous parts of his inwards— some­times the heart, some­times the bow­els, some­times the belly, some­times the veins— is full of: spir­i­tual cor­rup­tion and abom­i­na­tion. So as there are many fold­ings and turn­ings in the bow­els, it denotes the great and man­i­fold intri­ca­cies, secret wind­ings and turn­ings, shifts, wiles and deceits that are in their hearts.”26

At other times the cor­po­real world itself fur­nished the appro­pri­ate anal­ogy for spir­i­tual pollution:

This world is all over dirty. Every­where it is cov­ered with that which tends to defile the feet of the trav­eler. Our streets are dirty and muddy, inti­mat­ing that the world is full of that which tends to defile the soul, that worldly objects and worldly con­cerns and worldly com­pany tend to pol­lute us.27

While Edwards allowed that the phys­i­cal body could be involved in the wor­ship of God, since “there is an indis­sol­u­ble, unavoid­able asso­ci­a­tion, in the minds of the most ratio­nal and spir­i­tual, between things spir­i­tual and things bod­ily”, he argued that the more mature we grow, the less involved our phys­i­cal body must be in wor­ship­ing God:

I acknowl­edge, that the more ratio­nal a per­son, the less doth his dis­po­si­tion of mind depend on any­thing in his body; and that if he prac­tises ges­tures of body in wor­ship, where there is no nec­es­sary and unavoid­able asso­ci­a­tion, it tends to make him, or to keep him less ratio­nal and spir­i­tual.” …Where­fore the weak and beg­garly ele­ments are rejected, and the child­ish bod­ily cer­e­monies cashiered, as being fit only for chil­dren, and unwor­thy of those who are come to riper years; and the wor­ship that is now required of [us] is only that which is manly, ratio­nal and spir­i­tual.”28

The idea that spir­i­tual matu­rity is approx­i­mate to being out of touch with one’s body was not lost on Edwards’ wife, Sarah, who once wrote: “My soul seemed to be gone out of me to God and Christ in heaven, and to have very lit­tle rela­tion to my body. God and Christ were so present to me, and so near me, that I seemed removed from myself…the glory of God seemed to be all, and in all, and to swal­low up every wish and desire of the heart.”29

To call Edwards a Gnos­tic would be to fail to appre­ci­ate the com­plex­ity and multi-​​faceted nature of his larger the­o­log­i­cal sys­tem, not least because he vig­or­ously defended the doc­trine of future bod­ily res­ur­rec­tion.30 Yet he both reflected and rein­forced a sub­tle devalu­ing of the phys­i­cal cos­mos had seeped into the cul­tural blood­stream. Edwards’ views about the mate­r­ial world and the phys­i­cal body would be omi­nous fore­bod­ings of things to come. Speak­ing of the era of Edwards Philip Lee has noted that

Most schol­ars, would agree that at about this point in the Amer­i­can story, a thank­ful view of the Cre­ation was being replaced by some­thing very different….Many Chris­tians would attempt to return to a purer, sim­pler appre­ci­a­tion of God and His Cre­ation, but their efforts would require an unusual courage and would always be met by vig­or­ous oppo­si­tion. A sense of alien­ation had set in – a fun­da­men­tal doubt as to whether the beauty of holi­ness and the holi­ness of beauty could be rec­on­ciled – and there was no turn­ing back.”

Jonathan Edwards the Gnostic?

If, as I argued at the begin­ning of this arti­cle, 18th cen­tury Amer­ica was a time char­ac­ter­ized by a grow­ing approach of dual­ism towards the mate­r­ial world rem­i­nis­cent of Gnos­ti­cism, then what role, if any, did Jonathan Edwards play in jump start­ing that dual­ism? In explor­ing this ques­tion we saw that ever since the advent of mod­ern sci­ence in roughly the 16th cen­tury, an abid­ing prob­lem for philoso­phers and the­olo­gians has been how to relate the mate­r­ial and the spir­i­tual realms. While dif­fer­ent thinkers pro­posed dif­fer­ent answers, the basic tem­plate they worked within tended to be dyadic, pre­sup­pos­ing an onto­log­i­cal par­ity between the spir­i­tual and the phys­i­cal, or between mind and mat­ter. We saw how this was illus­trated in Descartes and the philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion that fol­lowed in his wake. The Puri­tans inher­ited a sim­i­lar legacy, but one which was rooted, not in sci­ence, but in the revolt against Rome that had been one of the hall­marks of Protes­tantism. Though the Puri­tans man­aged to main­tain a praise­wor­thy inte­gra­tion of the spir­i­tual and the social, their quest for dis­em­bod­ied reli­gion did feed into the same tem­plate as that of mod­ern sci­ence.  Jonathan Edwards rep­re­sented the con­flu­ence of these two pedi­grees. Within his writ­ings we see the ten­sion between mat­ter and spirit that was endemic of both the post-​​Cartesian philo­soph­i­cal legacy as well as Puri­tan spirituality.

Was Jonathan Edwards a Gnos­tic? To say yes would be to over­state the mat­ter. Yet it should be clear by now that he did share many of the same pre­oc­cu­pa­tions as clas­si­cal Gnos­ti­cism, par­tic­u­larly as con­cerns the dual­is­tic view of the mate­r­ial world. He saw the mate­r­ial world at best as an obsta­cle to true spir­i­tu­al­ity and at worst a hin­drance. He left evan­gel­i­cal­ism with a deeply divided world­view that may help to explain how the divi­sion between spirit and mat­ter would become the dom­i­nant motif char­ac­ter­iz­ing Amer­i­can evan­gel­i­cal­ism in the years to come.




1. http://​atg​so​ci​ety​.com/​2010​/​09​/​r​e​v​i​e​w​-​o​f​-​a​g​a​i​n​s​t​-​t​h​e​-​p​r​o​t​e​s​t​a​n​t​-​g​n​o​s​t​i​cs/
2. To read more about Henry Alline, see my arti­cle ‘The Strange Out­break of Cana­dian Gnos­ti­cism’
3. http://​robin​phillips​.blogspot​.com/​2010​/​11​/​p​r​o​b​l​e​m​-​o​f​-​m​e​d​i​a​t​i​o​n​-​i​n​-​f​i​r​s​t​-​g​r​e​a​t​_​15​.​h​tml
4. http://​robin​phillips​.blogspot​.com/​2010​/​11​/​r​e​l​i​g​i​o​n​-​o​f​-​p​e​o​p​l​e​-​b​y​-​p​e​o​p​l​e​-​f​o​r​-​p​e​o​p​l​e​.​h​tml
5. Suzanne Selinger, Calvin Against Him­self: An Inquiry in Intel­lec­tual His­tory, Archon Books, 1984, p. 182.
6. Colin E Gun­ton, Yes­ter­day and Today: A Study of Con­ti­nu­ities in Chris­tol­ogy (Lon­don: Dar­ton, Long­man & Todd, 1983), 86. Though Gun­ton is speak­ing of dual­ism within the imme­di­ate con­text of Chris­tol­ogy, the basic cat­e­gories of his def­i­n­i­tion are applic­a­ble within the con­text of the present dis­cus­sion.
7. C.S. Lewis, Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture in the Six­teenth Cen­tury, Exclud­ing Drama, p. 4.
8. See C.S. Lewis’s intro­duc­tion to Dou­glas E. Hard­ing, The Hier­ar­chy of Heaven and Earth, Uni­ver­sity Press of Florida, 1971.
9. My com­par­i­son between Plato and Descartes fol­lows the lines taken by Charles Tay­lor in chap­ter 8 of Sources of the Self.
10. Wal­lace E Anderson’s ‘Editor’s Intro­duc­tion’ in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 1980), p. 59.
11. See J. R. Lucas’s dis­cus­sion of New­ton in The Free­dom of the Will (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1970), p. 105.
12. Mars­den, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, p. 71.
13. Ibid.
14. See William B Evans, Impu­ta­tion and Impar­ta­tion: Union with Christ in Amer­i­can Reformed The­ol­ogy (Mil­ton Keynes: Pater­nos­ter, 2008), 90.
15. Mars­den
16. Jonathan Edwards, Free­dom of the Will in The Works of Jonathan Edwards Vol­ume 1, ed. P. Ram­sey, (New Haven, CT: Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 1957), pp. 180181.
17. Jonathan Edwards, Orig­i­nal Sin in The Works of Jonathan Edwards Vol­ume 3, ed. Clyde A. Hol­brook (New Haven, CT: Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 1970), pp. 402403.
18. See Oliver D. Crisp, Jonathan Edwards and the Meta­physics of Sin, p. 131.
19. William Evans, Impu­ta­tion and Impar­ta­tion: Union with Christ in Amer­i­can Reformed The­ol­ogy (Mil­ton Keynes: Pater­nos­ter, 2008), p. 91.
20. Jonathan Edwards, ‘Of Atoms,’ cited in Nor­man Fier­ing, “The Ratio­nal­ist Foun­da­tions of Jonathan Edward’s Meta­physics” in Jonathan Edwards and the Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence, ed. Nathan Hatch and Harry Stout, p. 90.
21. Jonathan Edwards, “Mis­cel­la­nies,” No. 629
22. Lit­tle­john, p. 19.
23. Bruce Kuk­lick, Church­men and Philoso­phers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey , p. 44.
24. See John Calvin, Insti­tutes, Book 1, Chap­ter 11; John Calvin, Geneva Cat­e­chism, in The­o­log­i­cal Trea­tises, J.K.S. Reid (trans. And ed,), (Lon­don: SCM Press, 1954); John Calvin, Com­men­taries on The Four Last Books of Moses, Arranged in the Form of a Har­mony, Vol. II, C.W. Bing­ham (trans, and ed.) (Edin­burgh: Calvin Trans­la­tion Soci­ety, 1853), p. 109.
25. Jonathan Edwards [1731], The “Mis­cel­la­nies,” (Entry Nos. 501832 in (WJE Online Vol. 18 at http://​edwards​.yale​.edu/) , Ed. Ava Cham­ber­lain.
26. Jonathan Edwards [1744], Typo­log­i­cal Writ­ings (WJE Online Vol. 11 avail­able online at http://​edwards​.yale​.edu/)„ Ed. Wal­lace E. Ander­son­Ma­son I. Lowance, Jr.David H. Wat­ters.
27. Jonathan Edwards, “Shad­ows of Divine Things”, 94, in Typo­log­i­cal Writ­ings (WJE Online Vol. 11 at http://​edwards​.yale​.edu/), Ed. Wal­lace E. Ander­son, Mason I. Lowance, Jr., David H. Wat­ters.
28. Jonathan Edwards [1722], The “Mis­cel­la­nies”:  (WJE Online Vol. 13 avail­able at http://​edwards​.yale​.edu/), ed. Harry S. Stout.
29. Also see the sec­tion, “Jonathan Edwards and the Prob­lem of Means” in my arti­cle, “The Prob­lem of Medi­a­tion in the First Great Awak­en­ing
30. http://​robin​phillips​.blogspot​.com/​2010​/​10​/​j​o​n​a​t​h​a​n​-​e​d​w​a​r​d​s​-​o​n​-​r​e​s​u​r​r​e​c​t​i​o​n​.​h​tml

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Author: Robin Phillips (1 Articles)

Robin Phillips studied philosophy at London University and received his B.A. [Honors] in Western Civilization from the UK’s Open University, where he graduated summa cum laude. While living in England he worked as a political journalist and researcher for the pressure group Christian Voice and appeared on national television to debate social issues. In 2007, he moved to America to take the position of history teacher at the Classical Christian Academy where he developed a six year curriculum spanning all of Western Civilization.

Robin currently lives in the Pacific Northwest of America where he is working on a PhD in historical theology through King’s College, London. He is a regular contributor to the Kuyper Foundation’s biannual Journal ‘Christianity and Society’ and writes the monthly ‘Letter from America’ and ‘The Persecuted Church’ columns for the Christian Voice magazine. He directs the Alfred the Great Society in addition to writing for a variety of publications including World Net Daily, the Spokane Libertarian Examiner, Salvo Magazine and their blog ‘Signs of the Times.’

His book The Decent Drapery of Life is currently under publication with Wipf and Stock publishers while another book, Light in a Time of Darkness, is currently under publication with Canon Press.

In his spare time, Robin enjoys blogging at Robin's Readings and Reflections.


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