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 (1748–1784) 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 (1571–1630), 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 (1588–1679) advocated a philosophical materialism which effectively collapsed all of reality into the physical realm. Conscious of the threat this posed to religious faith, Descartes (1596–1650) 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
The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) 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 (1685–1753) 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 (1549/1550 — 1610) 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.
2. To read more about Henry Alline, see my article ‘The Strange Outbreak of Canadian Gnosticism’↑
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.↑
14. See William B Evans, Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), 90.↑
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. 180–181.↑
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. 402–403.↑
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 , The “Miscellanies,” (Entry Nos. 501–832 in (WJE Online Vol. 18 at http://edwards.yale.edu/) , Ed. Ava Chamberlain.↑
26. Jonathan Edwards , 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 , 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”↑