Jonathan Edwards’ Philosophy of History

After reviewing Ben Quash’s volume addressing von Balthasar’s theology of history, I thought I would wade back over Zakaito my personal area of interest and take a look at Jonathan Edwards’ philosophy of history. Avihu Zakai’s volume, put out by Princeton Press (and mostly written at the Center of Theology Inquiry) is entitled: Jonathan Edwards’s Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment. I will skip over the initial chapter covering biographical material and move right into his argumentation.

The Soul

In the second chapter, entitled: “Young Man Edwards: Religious Conversion,” Zakai focuses in on Edwards’ conversion experience, asserting, “This spiritual experience informed Edwards’s theology of nature and led directly to his quest to reconstruct the whole material world after the model of his newly acquired religious vision” (54). He then builds on his already provocative thesis, asserting baldly,

This cosmological vision of a divine universe, which sustained Edwards throughout his life and constituted the underlying theme of his whole theological and philosophical undertaking, can only be explained by the crucial effect of his conversion” (55).

Zakai tracks Edwards alongside Luther’s distinction of theologia gloriae and theologia crucis, claiming that Edwards takes the way of glory. Comparing Edwards conversion with Luther and Augustine, he notes that the impetus for Edwards was not Christ, per se, but the reality of a “God-entranced world.” Edwards points to 1 Tim. 1:17 as the key passage upon which his conversion took place: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.” Zakai links this experience, gravitating around and towards glory, to function as the major theme through Edwards’ life work, and is one of the key differences compared to someone like Luther:

Edwards, on the other hand, absorbed in the infinite of God’s sovereignty, was much more occupied with the history of redemption and salvation and the cause for which God created the world. Consequently, in contrast to Luther, who showed little interest in the cosmos, divine universe, and salvation history, the issue of the history of the work of redemption was an inextricable part of Edwards’s theocentric thinking” (71-72).


Zakai moves into the age of scientific reasoning quoting the ever-interesting notebook on the mind; “To find out the reasons of things in natural philosophy is only to find out the proportion of God’s acting” (86). Here, Zakai focuses in on Edwards as philosopher and scientist, pulling his theorizing through his “God-entranced world.” Edwards’ mission, Zakai muses, is to reenchant a world grown disenchanted through the mechanism of reality. He suggests, “Edwards’s entire philosophical enterprise may be understood within this wider ideological context, as an attempt to provide a plausible teleological and theological alternative to the emergence of modes of thought that were leading to the disenchantment of the world” (95).

To develop his larger theo-centric project, Edwards commandeered atomism for his own ends, arguing, at one point that every “atom in the universe is managed by Christ.” Edwards’ atomism functioned as a corollary to his idealism and occasionalism, where atoms were indestructible entities of God’s upholding power. Edwards attacked the mechanism of his day, not by bypassing mechanistic images or terminology, but by saturating it with God’s presence and power. The material universe moves from one moment to the next not because of its innate sustainability, but because of God’s faithfulness to uphold. Zakai notes,

What arises, then, from his concept of atoms as a metaphysical-theological principle, is a universe structured according to a teleological and theological order in which God becomes the sole foundation of all natural phenomena: through the agency of the atom, his absolute sovereignty is established; and divine omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience are affirmed by the smallest particle in the universe, thus securing divine immanence and redemptive activity in creation” (99).

We will move into Zakai’s account of time, which is the major thrust of the volume, in the next post. For now, any thoughts about this? I’ve found that those not familiar with Edwards are often surprised by his idealism and occasionalism, not to mention other areas of his thought. What do we think about this kind of project in general? Is this what a theologian should be doing?


9 thoughts on “Jonathan Edwards’ Philosophy of History

  1. When much of Protestantism decided that the material “world” and “works” were unimportant, or that the science of the Bible was not true; that religion and theology was therefore at best a field having to do, effectively, not with the material world, but with only the “spirit”?

    At that point, theology halved the amount of things, the parts of God, it was looking at.

    Edwards therefore, was right in at least attempting a spirit/world, religion/science reconciliation. Though perhaps his exact hypotheses regarding the nature of the connection, might not work well. And science was better left in its own separate sphere, without interference … for a while.

    Still, theology for its own part, should never become entirely spiritual, and give up on the “world” of material things. Since indeed, God made heaven “and earth,” etc.. And indeed, the very nature of Jesus was in part, to bring spirit, to “flesh.”

  2. It is a painting called: Last Judgement (I’m not sure if the gratuitous “e” is meant to signify anything). I don’t think it has anything to do with the book. I think the designer thought – this looks awesome and weird, this book seems awesome and weird – boom!

  3. There are lots better attempts to bring world and word, science and religion, together – though not always in total harmony. In scholarly, rational theology; Religious Studies; scientific religious scholarship; even HIgher Criticism/Biblical Criticism.

    Which to be sure, at times apply the “mind” or reason in ways above and beyond strict fidelity to the ancient texts. Rather than totally subordinating reason, to old theologies, in the way that Edwards attempts.

    Though perhaps recent theology finds even biblical justification, for giving reason rather freer sway then it had earlier?

    “Come let us reason together,” etc..

    Jesus and Paul often used at least apparently reasoned arguments.

  4. It’s by Hieronymous Bosch (SP?); and might be more appropriate to Edwards than one thought, if it reflects early European Calvinism.

    If you look at it in fact, it seems to be typically, heaven/vs. earth, dualistic; all creatures on earth are depraved, and in marked and total contrast to the serenely ideal, perfect figures in heaven. The dualism is so pronounced, that it is difficult to imagine how anyone might get from our hopelessly depraved earth, to that ideal sphere.

    Typically Calvinst in fact?

  5. Thanks to the author here (Kyle? Griffin?) for the note on Edward’s philosophy of history.

    I’m curious about the status of the links.

    Are the links between Edward’s philosophy and his conversion direct, explicit, articulated on the face of Edward’s autobiographical references?

    Are the links more inferential? – more like eisegesis by his corps of professional laurelists? –

    Somewhere in between?

    I know that conversion accounts ordinarily do not blast off from qualitative descriptions of love, light, inner movings, and so on, and launch directly into heavy tomes of hifalutin philosophies. But, some of the more prolific authors might sooner or later wax autobiographical with explicit, even step-wise references, linking their subjective experience in conversion to explicit philosophies-of-things.

    Wondering about Edwards’ explicitness in these links?

  6. Jim, actually over on this side of the pond it is Edwards’ rather than the American Edwards’s.

    In terms of explicit links between Edwards’ conversion narrative and his theology, there isn’t anything that I can think of. The issue here is whether the conversion narrative is what we would consider an historical retelling or actually Edwards’ theology read back into his conversion.

    Zakai’s account seems to push the issue a bit too far for my liking, but I understand his inclinations. I do think that Edwards’ conversion marked an important moment for how he came to explicate regeneration and develop his understanding of the sense of the heart, but in terms of a theology of nature I think Zakai is stretching.

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