1902 Encyclopedia > Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards
English metaphysician and divine
(1703-58)




JONATHAN EDWARDS, (1703-1758), the most distinguished metaphysician and divine of America, was the son of the Rev. Timothy Edwards, and of Esther, daughter of the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, of Northampton, and was born at East Windsor, Connecticut, October 5, 1703. He was the only son in a family of eleven children, of whom four were older than himself. Even in his very early years the religious instruction communicated to him by his parents seems to have engaged a large share of his interest, and to have exercised a strong influence on his character. In a state-ment of his religious views in youth, he says, " I had a variety of concerns and exercises about my soul from my childhood," and also, " from my childhood up my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God's sovereignty " In his eighth or ninth year he experienced, he tells us, " two remarkable seasons of awakening ;" but these objections against the doctrine of God's sovereignty continued to trouble him more or less until about his 17th year, " when," he says, *' I seemed to be convinced and fully satisfied as to this sovereignty of God, and his jus-tice in th'^s eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure, but never could give an account how or by what means I was convinced, nor in the least imagined at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extra-ordinary influence of God's Spirit in it." Until he entered college his education was conducted by his father, with the occasional assistance of his elder sisters. At the age of six he began the study of Latin, and in that language, as well as iu Greek and Hebrew, he attained to considerable proficiency. In September 1716 he entered Yale College. He took his B. A. degree in 1720, but with a view to prepara-tion for the ministry he continued his residence at college for two additional years. In 1718 he read Locke on the Human Understanding, and it was from its perusal that his intense passion for abstract thought was first kindled. He declared that it had afforded him " far higher pleasure than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up hand-fuls of silver and gold from some newly discovered treasure." He received licence to preach in 1722, and in August of that year, on the invitation of a number of ministers in New England, he went to preach to the Presbyterians in New York, where he continued eight months. He was in-vited by the congregation to continue with them per-manently, but on account of doubts as to his future use-fulness in that particular sphere, he declined their invitation, and returned to his father's house at East Windsor. Here he prosecuted his studies in theology and metaphysics till June 1724, when he was appointed tutor in Yale College. About this time he completed the series of seventy resolutions begun during his preparation for the ministry, and designed to " regulate his own heart and life." No, 11 of these may be mentioned as specially characteristic:—" Resolved, when I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances do not hinder." He resigned his tutorship in September 1726, on receiving an invitation from Northampton to become colleague and successor to his grandfather, the Rev. Samuel Stoddard, and in February 1727 he was ordained to that office. In the following July he was married to Sarah, daughter of the Rev. James Pierrepont, of New Haven. He continued at Northampton till June 22, 1750, when, on account of a dispute that had arisen from an attempt on his part to prohibit some of the younger members of his congregation from perusing certain books, which in his opinion were obscene, he found himself compelled to resign his charge. On learning of his resignation some of his friends in Scotland advised him to settle in that country, and he was also invited to a church in Virginia, but he ac-cepted in preference to either invitation the proposals made to him by the " Society in London for Propagating the Gospel in New England," that he should become missionary to the Housatonnuck Indians, who were settled at Stockbridge, Berkshire Co., Massachusetts. The nature of his work now left him in possession of considerable leisure, of which he made use to such advantage that, within the six years of his residence at Stockbridge, he completed four of his principal treatises, including that on the Freedom of the Will, which was published in 1754. On account of the fame which this work acquired for him he was in 1757 called to succeed President Burr of Princeton College, New Jersey. He was installed February 16, 1758, but was scarcely spared to enter upon the perfor-mance of his duties. On account of the prevalence of small-pox in the neighbourhood, he submitted to inocula-tion and the disease taking an unfavourable turn, he died on the 28th March. Edwards says of himself that he possessed " a constitution in many respects peculiarly unhappy, attended with flaccid solids, vapid, sizy, and scarce fluids, and a low tide of spirits, often occasioning a kind of childish weakness and contemptibleness of speech, presence, and demeanour." Notwithstanding this unhappy constitution, he was throughout life a laborious student, often prosecuting, pen in hand, his arduous metaphysical researches for thirteen hours daily. As an orator he some-times held not only the feelings but the intellects of his hearers completely under his sway. The extraordinary influence which he thus exercised was not due to any personal advantages, for even when his oratory was most effective the " contemptibleness of his speech and demeanour " still remained, although it was no longer felt by his hearers, nor to any special excellences of style, for though his language conveyed his meaning without ambiguity, it did so not only without any of that peculiar felicity of arrangement which is usually one of the chief elements of successful oratory, but in a bald, even in a lumbering and awkward, manner. His eloquence was simply intense moral earnestness, expressed in the form of what, in more senses than one, might be called " merciless logic1."





His writings present a very remarkable conjunction of apparently contradictory qualities, a conjunction attribut-able partly to a peculiar combination of natural mental characteristics, and partly to a habit of solitariness which rendered him almost completely ignorant of the dominant tendencies of contemporary thought, and placed him almost beyond the reach of any external influences fitted to aid him in freeing himself from the shackles of past systems. The outstanding features of his character were undoubtedly his sense of reverence and his passion for ratiocination. In one respect these two opposite characteristics combined to produce a harmonious result, namely, to impress him with an almost overwhelming conviction of the claims of duty. His awe of the Supreme Power was in one aspect of such a nature as to seem consistent only with the grossest superstition, but from the very fact that it was the awe of an intellect, within the sphere of logic, so keen and penetrating, it was necessarily a moral awe, an awe which intensified that sense of duty whose requirements his logical faculty revealed with a distinctness which admitted of no fallacy or evasion. It was his overwhelming convic-tion of duty which gave to his system, theological, moral, and metaphysical, what unity it possesses. That unity is, however, nothing more than seeming; the positive and negative elements are held apart in different spheres; if they were brought into contact the necessary result would be an utterly destructive explosion. The basis of his whole system is the " sovereignty of God;" and of his conviction of God's " sovereignty " he tells us that of how or by what means he arrived at it he could give no account. This mysterious and unaccountable conviction he, however, endeavours to justify by a protracted logical process, with-out being at all conscious of any incongruity between means and end. This unconsciousness is due to the fact that the strength of his original conviction prevented him from dis-cerning the real difficulties he had to surmount. We have thus presented to us the spectacle of a mystic endeavouring to expound his belief by a mere process of reasoning, almost mathematical in its cold and definite precision and in its rigour. It is quite possible that his strong prepossessions would in any case have prevented him from estimating at their proper importance the new problems that were beginning to appear on the horizon of con-temporary thought, but, so far from having given these problems the attention necessary in order to understand them, he was scarcely aware of their existence. The impulse he received from Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding did not lead him to seek full acquaintance with the whole circle of the philosophical speculation of his time,—partly no doubt because his circumstances prevented him from doing so, but partly also because he had a strong bias towards the pursuit of solitary trains of thought. In his essay on the Freedom of the Will he confesses having never read Hobbes; and although he mentions in a letter having read one of Hume's works, this would appear to have been subsequent to the publication of the essay on the Freedom of the Will, and its perusal does not seem to have impressed him with any idea of its author's exceptional metaphysical ability, for he merely says of it and of some other books, "I am glad of an opportunity to read such corrupt books, especially when written by men of considerable genius, that I may have an idea of the notions which prevail in our country." He was scarcely conscious of the presence of the new influence which was then stirring the stagnant waters of speculation; but it certainly influenced him unconsciously, and compelled him to check his vague unrest by more stedfastly clinging to his old convictions. He succeeded in doing so, but not without the exercise of constant watchfulness, for, apart from any immediate external influence, his strong and eager logical faculty seems often as if bent on carrying him beyond the bounds of traditional opinion, and requires frequently to be pulled up with a certain measure of abruptness.

The theological system of Edwards emphasized all the sterner features of Calvinism and revealed them in strong relief. Calvinism in its original form was founded on extreme statements regarding "God's sovereignty" and "man's depravity by nature," but the inferences implied in these statements are set forth by Edwards in their terrible and repulsive aspects with a thoroughness and a logical completeness not previously attempted. The argu-ment he employs to establish his propositions is unanswerable as against the Libertarians of his time, for he shows conclusively that their plight is, if anything, rather worse than his own; but when he seeks to go beyond this very circumscribed sphere he involves himself in a labyrinth of scholastic quibbling, where all that seems to present itself is only a choice of two evils,—either to remain for ever utterly bewildered by the contradictory paths which open up before him, or by selecting one of them to wander irre-vocably beyond the bounds of what he recognized as orthodox. We have an example of this when he endeavours to prove that though men are born utterly depraved, God is not the author of their depravity. His theory is that Adam was originally possessed of two prineiples,—one which may be called natural, being the mere principles of human nature, or as it is called in Scripture the flesh, and another called the supernatural principle, or as in Scrip-ture the divine nature. "When Adam ate of the tree of forbidden fruit the divine nature was withdrawn from him, and thus his nature became corrupt without God infusing any evil thing into it. "So," says Edwards, " does the nature of his posterity ; they come into the world mere flesh, and entirely under the government of natural and inferior principles." Here it will be seen, not only that Edwards appears to very little advantage as a reasoner, but that he is in imminent peril of overthrowing the central position of his own system; for, first, if to represent sin as a merely negative quality in any degree solves the difficulty of God being its author, it does so at the expense of denying to it a real existence ; and secondly, to re-present men as born into the world "mere flesh" entirely destroys the distinction, so essential to Edwards's system, between "moral and natural inability." He soon, however, escapes back to his old position although not by the way he set out. " If any," he says, " should object to this that, if the want of original righteousness be thus according to an established course of nature, then why are not principles of holiness, when restored by divine grace, also communicated to posterity, I answer, the divine law and establishments of the Author of nature are precisely settled by Him as He pleaseth, and limited by His wisdom.'

The moral theory of Edwards is but a corollary from his theolo-gical system. Virtue he places in love or benevolence towards being in general, or more accurately in a " disposition to benevolence towards being in general," for he does not mean to affirm that " every virtuous act must have universal existence for its direct and immediate object," but merely that " no affections towards parti, cular persons or beings are of the nature of true virtue, but such as arise from a generally benevolent temper." He shows that this love cannot be primarily a "love of complacence," that is, a love having any regard to excellence in the object, for that "would be going in a circle, and the same as saying that virtue consists in love to virtue," and that it cannot consist in "gratitude, or one being benevolent to another for his benevolence to him," because "this implies the same inconsistence;" consequently that "the first object of a virtuous benevolence is being simply considered, and, if being simply considered, then being in general." There is, however, "a second object of a virtuous propensity of heart, namely, benevolent being, for one that loves being in general will necessarily value good-will to being in general." True virtue must, therefore, chiefly consist in love to God, for "he that has true virtue, con-sisting in benevolence to being in general, and in benevolence to virtuous being, must necessarily have a supreme love to God both of benevolence and complacence." This theory he applies to support the theological dogma that no one whose virtuous acts are not the result of real conscious love to a personal God can possess any true righteousness, or be in any other moral condition than that of utter depravity. As to the merits of the theory in itself, these are not helped by the form in which it is stated. Being in general, being without any qualities, is too abstract a thing to be the primary cause of love. The feeling which Edwards refers to is not love, but awe or reverence, and, moreover, necessarily a blind awe. Properly stated therefore, true virtue, according to him, would con-sist in a blind awe of being in general, and a love of complacency to those who possess a blind awe of being in general—only this would be inconsistent with his definition of virtue as existing in God. In reality, as he makes virtue merely the second object of love, his theory becomes identical with that utilitarian theory with which the names of Hume, Bentham, and Mill are chiefly associated ; but it is utilitarianism necessarily expressed in very awkward terms, because these are hampered by its derivation from certain theological principles, and its necessary connection with a theological belief. Unlike Hume and Mill, he deduces his theory primarily from certain scholastic propositions regarding God's purpose in the creation of the world. He accepts the Scripture statement that God makes himself his own chief end, and he endeavours by scholastic reason-ing to snow the "reasonableness " of his doing so. He is, however, unable to proceed a step in his argument without committing him-self to such pantheistic statements as that " God's existence, being infinite, must be equivalent to universal existence," and that "the eternal and infinite Being is in effect being in general, and com-prehends universal existence." He is, therefore, obliged to confess that '' there is a degree of indistinctness and obscurity in the close consideration of such subjects," and to fall back " on revelation as the surest guide in these matters ; " although affirming at the same time that, in his endeavours '' to discover what the voice of reason is so far as it can go," he has been successful in " obviating cavils insisted on by many."





The fame of Edwards is associated chiefly with his treatise on The Freedom of the Human Will. The will is defined by him as that by which the "mind chooses anything." By "determining the will " he means "causing that the act of the will or choice should be thus and not otherwise." And, "with respect to the inquiry, What determines the will ?" he answers, " It is that motive which as it stands in the view of the mind is the strongest." Liberty, according to him, belongs not to the will itself, but to the person, and the liberty which any one possesses is merely liberty to act as he wills. Any other kind of liberty, he affirms, implies three supposi-tions :—(1) "A self-determining power in the will," (2) " Indifference,—that previous to the act of volition the mind is in a state of equilibrium;" and(3) "Contingence,—that events are not necessarily connected with their causes." These suppositions, as involving in different forms denials of the law of causality, are severally shown to be: absurd. That Edwards demonstrates the position of his opponents to be utterly untenable must without the least qualifica-tion be admitted; but he is unconsciously equally successful in overthrowing his own theological position. Accordingly Edwards's theory of the will, like his ethical theory, is now held only by those who, in regard to the supreme power, are agnostics. His theory differs in no respect from that of John Stuart Mill, except that his statement of the law of causality is a little confused, and that he gives a different account of the origin of our knowledge of causality. He so far anticipated Hume as to recognize that by cause is often meant " any proposition which affirms that event is true, whether it has and positive influence in producing it or not." There is, of course, some confusion here, as the word "reason" is, in the position in which it stands, ambiguous, showing that Edwards never properly grasped the distinction between causality and mere sequence ; and further differing from Hume in recognizing that there are causes which have a positive influence in producing their effects, his state-ments are rendered additionally perplexing by his unconsciously making use of either signification of the word cause, according to the exigencies of his argument. Thus he makes our knowledge not only of the law of positive causality but of mere sequence to depend not on experience but on a primary intuition "implanted by God in the minds of all mankind," which is virtually a con-tradiction in terms. There is also the further difficulty as to how, con-sistently with his theory in regard to the will, he can hold any other doctrine regarding causality than that it is that mere sequence whieh experience enables us to believe in; for it seems impossible that we can have a primary intuition of causality unless from the conscious-ness of our own casual energy.

That part of Edwards's argument in which be most decidedly fails is his endeavour to reconcile his theory of the will with his own views in regard to moral agency, and more particularly in regard to the nature of reward and punishment. John Stuart Mill admits that, on his own theory, the only ends that can justify punishment are the benefit of the offender himself and the pro-tection of others, and the only " feeling of accountability " he con-tends for is that'' caused by the experience of punishment." It has been disputed whether even the kind of punishment contended for by Mill is on his theory justifiable, but he has endeavoured to obviate objections to it by distinguishing between what he calls "modified fatalism" and what he calls the "true doctrine ot causation." The distinction is similar to that drawn by Edwards between "moral" and "natural" necessity. It may be questioned whether Mill's doctrine of causality leaves room for this distinction, but undoubtedly Edwards's doctrine does not; for by tracing our knowledge of causality not to experience but to a primitive intuition, he becomes not merely a " determinist," but a "necessitarian." Whether the doctrine of the will held by Edwards, Hume, and Mill be the correct one, or whether the true solution of the problem or its true statement is to be found in some form of the transcen-dental philosophy which received itp great impulse from Kant, it is not our province to inquire ; but there need be no hesitation in affirming both that Edwards is successful in showing that the doc-trine of the freedom of the will must be stated in different terms and justified by different methods than those employed up to his time, and that, on account of his attempting to build on principles so vvidely removed from each other as to be utterly irreconcilable, his own well-planned structure, notwithstanding extraordinary ap-plications of architectural skill, inevitably collapses.

The collected works of Jonathan Edwards, including a large number of sermons, were first published at Worcester, Mass., 1809, in 8 vols. 8vo. Among various other editions afterwards published may be mentioned that by his relative Sereno E. Dwight, 1830, in 10 vols., containing a memoir by Dr Dwight. This edition, with an introductory essay by Henry Rogers, was published at London in 1840, in two vols. Edwards's principal treatises are:—Religious Affections (1746); Life of Brainerd (1749) ; Freedom of the Will (1754); God's Last Endin the Creation oj the World (1755); Original Sin (1758); the uncompleted History of Redemption (1777); and Nature of Virtue (1788J. There is an interesting sketch of Edwards's life, character, and opinions in Leslie Stephen's Hours in a Library (2d series, 1876). (T. F. H.)







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