Was Jonathan Edwards a Panentheist?

The ever-insightful Oliver Crisp has a chapter in the newish volume Jonathan Edwards as Contemporary arguing that Edwards was, in fact, a panentheist. The difficulty in reading Crisp, I have found, is the knowledge that before you finish the article or chapter you are reading he has already written two others. That aside, I want to address the broad contours of his argument.

Crisp starts with a working definition of panentheism: “The being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part exists in Him, but His Being is more than, and not exhausted by, the universe.” Continuing in Crisp’s analytic mode, he offers several key constituents:

P1. The world exists in God. “World,” here is a gloss on “the entire created order.”

P2. God is not the world. God and the world are distinct entities. This point undermines the possibility that Edwards was a pantheist (as some have claimed).

These first two thesis lay the foundation and major contours for what Crisp sees as Edwards panentheism. In addition, to help round out the account, Crisp adds:

P3. God is essentially creative. He must create a world because it is in his nature to create a world. He is ‘disposed’ to create a world.

P4. Although it is radically contingent upon divine fiat, this world is the necessary product of God’s essential creativity.

P5. The world is created by eternal divine fiat, though it begins to exist in time.

P6. God must create the best possible world.

P7. The created world is ideal; it exists in the divine mind.

P8. God continuously creates the world ex nihilo. God eternally decrees that no created thing persists through time; each ‘moment’ of creation is numerically distinct from the previous one; God constitutes these many world-stages one four-dimensional entity, namely, ‘the world’ (i.e. the created order).

P9. God is the sole causal agent, that is, the efficient cause of all that comes to pass. (p. 110-112)

P1-P2 put us well within an account of panentheism, but is not, yet, a full-blown account. P3-P5 push much closer to that. Here, we find that God necessarily creates this world, the actual world that is the best possible world (according to God’s nature). This leads to Edwards’s idealism. As Crisp summarizes, “We all exist provided God continues to think us because all created existence is ideal” (114). Edwards’s idealism, Crisp argues, is a form of antirealism, where “antirealism” is taken to be the view that there is no “mind-independent” reality. Building on his antirealist idealism, Edwards adds a doctrine of continuous creation. God is the only “efficient causal agent” (115) in the world because change across time and cause and effect are merely human attempts to grasp God’s continuous creation. In all of this, therefore, Edwards is a panentheist of this type (fitting into these 9 theses).

Assuming this is the case, and, furthermore, recognizing Edwards as a father of Reformed Orthodoxy (in some sense) and Evangelical Orthodoxy (in a greater sense), what do we make of this? In my mind, we can assume that panentheism is a mistake, and yet, at the same time, recognize it as the right mistake. Is this the case or is this simply a mistake?

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4 thoughts on “Was Jonathan Edwards a Panentheist?

  1. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (6/10) « scientia et sapientia

  2. Let me leave some further thoughts here about my initial post since I didn’t really give any critical reflection concerning Crisp’s article. Broadly, I think he is correct. There are aspects of his argumentation that I didn’t add into my overview, that I disagree with, but in general I think he is correct. I also think he is right to say that an Edwardsian form of panentheism is not outside the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy. It is, in my words, the “right mistake,” even if we still want to label it a mistake.

  3. Some kind of reconciliation between Christianity and Pantheism/Naturalism, is possible, without heresy. And in fact, working this reconciliation out. is extremely important, for our own time.

    In part, it might be accomplished along the lines of Edwards. Though some changes in Edward’s version would probably need to be made. The classic idea of this being the “best of all possible worlds” of course, was lampooned in “Candide” and elsewhere.

    The idea that God somehow underlies it all, seems necessary. But of course, we would need to deal with Theodicy. We would need to accept that somehow, God could create a material universe, that does not appear entirely “good,” from our present human perspective.

  4. Pingback: A word in favour of panentheism | winged keel and crumpet

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