Jonathan Edwards and the Philosophy of History: Part 2

Picking up where we left off, I start the major section of the work, entitled simply “Time.” Zakai places Edwards in a day divided by biblical-centric evangelicals focusing their intellectual capacities on religious experience, while the world increased in scientific and philosophical imagination. Zakai offers some explanation:

One of the main reasons for the growing privatization of religious life and experience was that during the eighteenth century the Christian theological and teleological explanation of the nature of reality had steadily declined in persuasiveness because of the attraction of scientific thought in interpreting the nature of the material world and the influence of the British school of moral sense, which developed the rationalistic idea of disinterested benevolence as the criterion for moral judgment” (135).

This age saw a major conflict between reason and revelation, the former taking precedent and the latter being dethroned from its former glory. As a helpful summary, Zakai states, “The disenchantment of the world led therefore to the reenchantment of the soul, or the heart, as the main locus of religious life and experience” (136). It is here where Zakai slowly turns his attention to the Holy Grail of Edwards studies – what Edwards meant when he claimed that he was planning a great theological work in an entirely new method, “thrown into the form of a history.” Zakai notes,

His philosophy of history in turn was based upon the notion of God’s work of redemption, a mode of historical thought according to which God continuously unveils his redemptive power and activity in time and history through the close connection between the effusions of the Spirit and the emergence of revivals and awakenings” (139).

Zakai ties this task with Edwards reenchantment of reality, pulling God’s sovereignty down to the life of an atom and upholding all of reality within his own consciousness. While Edwards’ day was pushing ahead on the linear path of “enlightenment,” Edwards sees a cyclical and teleological machine of God’s bidding unfolding his decrees in his theatre of glory. Zakai claims, “Edwards’s redemptive mode of historical thought, however, endowed history with sacred meaning by defining revival as the locus of history and awakening as the main agent in the historical process. Furthermore, understanding progress within history in terms of conversion and awakening, he defined history as a span of time in which the drama of salvation and redemption is played out before the end of the world” (161).

Zakai places Edwards’ historical analysis in the register of an “ecclesial history,” or a “general history of the Christian church.” As a definition of Ecclesial history, he suggests, “Eccleisastical history is sacred history, for it concerns the divine dispensation of God and his revelatory redemptive acts, or more precisely, the whole of Christ’s divine economy of salvation and redemption on earth” (164). The historic economy of salvation is constitutive of ecclesiastical history as the story of salvation, redemption, and importantly for Edwards, damnation (in my mind at least). In comparison with other ecclesiastical theologians, Edwards reimagined this historical mode of thought around the events of revival and awakening:

To him the true mark of sacred, ecclesiastical history was not the social and political event but the religious revival, whereby the Spirit of God transformed the human condition. Edwards’s theology of history was thus based not on alienation from the world but on reconciliation with it through revivials and awakenings, leading to its true transformation into the kingdom of God” (180-181).

It is here where Zakai makes an interesting note in light of my addition of damnation to Edwards’ repetoire. He states, “In other words, he [Edwards] identified God’s work of redemption with the whole span of history. As he came to believe, there is no history without redemption, no redemption without history” (186). In my mind, Edwards orients everyting around redemption, true enough (including creation interestingly enough). But redemption itself is oriented around God’s self-glorifying through creation, which includes both redemption and damnation. It could be that Zakai makes this point further on, but I have yet to see this central aspect of Edwards’ thought shine through. Again, later in the volume, Zakai seems to make the same mistake: “Hence, time and history should be defined by the theme of a series of effusions of the Spirit and its historical manifestations in the shape of a succession of revivals and awakenings stretching from creation to the end of the world” (236). Edwards’ great treatise was to be composed of three parallel spheres: Heaven, Earth and Hell. Zakai seems to remove the Hell portion from Edwards’ thought, which, at face value is fine for a study dealing with redemption itself, but not for a study dealing with history. The history of Hell was, for Edwards, central to God’s self-glorification.


One thought on “Jonathan Edwards and the Philosophy of History: Part 2

  1. A few words of caution: 1) “enchantment” is a bad word in the Bible; it refers to false prophets and sorcerers, feeding us delusions, illusions, lies, and … enchantments. So that the contemporarly “re-enchantment of the world” may not be biblical. Or at any rate, not on the right side of bibical God/devil dualisms.

    Another problem: 2) if Edwards and others were continually in the world, trying to convert it, that does not however connote respect for the world itself; indeed, it usually means the opposite of that. The world is seen as evil in itself, and can only become good to the extent that it reflects another, more divine sphere. So it would not quite be right to imply that Edwards or Calvinism really, fully respected the world.

    More intresting to me, are 3) those moment when heaven comes down to earth; when God made the material earth (cf. “world”) and said it was “good,” not evil. Which gives a far more fundamental dignity and worth to the earth.

    4) Edward’s deification or baptism of “atoms” might be closer to the mark; but still not quite as good in justifying the earth, the world, again. And rediscovering Christianity as more compatible with science. Which would be my own goal.

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