Aaron Sandvig




The Light of Understanding


            Many people laud Jonathan Edwards as a thinker unlike anyone else of his time. Much of this comes from the relatively obscure section of the world in which he grew up as well as the many insights he made into such things as God’s work of redemption through history, the nature of salvation in an individual, and the way that humans know and understand the world around them. This latter subject, Edwards’ epistemological philosophy, is unique among his other pursuits. He primarily dealt with these questions when he was younger and before he began his career as a pastor in earnest. Although he might have been unique in New England for pursuing such difficult philosophical fields, he certainly did not lack counterparts in the world at large. Such figures as Locke, Leibniz, Descartes, Newton, Bishop Berkley and Malebranche were forging arguments about the nature of existence and our interaction with it that Edwards was simply trying to tap into. Despite the fact that he borrowed much from these thinkers, the way he applied these ideas to his doctrines of Christian Faith were more significant to his life’s work and also rather distinct from these other thinkers.

            Edwards was born just at the end of what is typically deemed the Enlightenment. Although New England was a backwater location at that point in history, Edwards came from a long and hearty line of pastors who were the core of the educated class of the time. When he was a young boy he began college and at Yale came into contact with many of the ideas popular in England and on the European continent. His most famous encounter, if not most significant, of his early youth was his reading of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edwards’ most significant biographer of the last century says of The Essay that “the reading of it had been the central and decisive event in his intellectual life” (Miller, 52). Much of this perception comes from an account written not long after Edwards’ death by a friend:

he said to some of his select friends…that he was beyond expression entertained and pleased with it, when he read it in his youth at college; that he was as much engaged and had more satisfaction and pleasure studying it , than the most greedy miser in gathering up handsful [sic]of silver and gold from some new discovered treasure (Marsden, 62).


There are those, however, who argue that Locke was not the primary influence upon the young Edwards and that Edwards should not even be considered a Lockean. Instead he might be ranked with such Lockean critics as Bishop Berkley and Malebranche. The reason is that while they all read and admired Locke’s attempts at his work, they each found fault with certain tenets of his philosophy. Locke’s position was generally that experience of this world is the only way to really know anything. Ideas are not communicated in any way other than through direct encounter. Further, what we do know, such qualities in things as colors and the like, are ideas in the mind. Since color is not an inherent thing in an object and requires the observer to process that “color,” such things exist first in the mind as an idea. Then, each experience of such things as colors allows individuals to create ideas on his own. Berkley and Edwards took issue with Locke’s claim that a color might exist only in the mind without also claiming that all matter exists first in the mind (Miller 61-2). Along with Malebranche, Edwards denied the possibility of forming ideas independent of God. They each held, albeit it in Lockean fashion, that all existence was first an idea, but an idea primarily in the mind of God. Therefore it followed that an idea had to be received from God by the individual if at all (Hatch, 87). For such reasons, claims that Edwards developed early on under the heavy influence of Locke must be mitigated by an understanding that this was largely true only incidentally and not always directly.

            Edwards’ ultimate goal in life was to highlight God’s hand in everything. He did not pursue epistemology or the nature of existence merely out of fascination but out of a reverence for the person and work of God in history. Therefore, when he asserted something it always tended toward God’s ultimate magnification. He usually started with basic principles and built upon them to create a grand picture. Such was the case with his theories of existence and our understanding of it.

            Edwards lived during a period in which the understanding of existence underwent rapid and radical changes. Barely more than a century before his birth everyone understood that objects such as rocks fall to the ground simply because that is where they are naturally inclined. When they stopped falling it was merely because some other stuff had gotten there first. Edwards lived in a time, however, when Sir Isaac Newton among others were taking massive steps in determining how and why objects moved on the earth the same as they did in the heavens. This would have astounded even the most astute 15th century monk. It did not take long for people to go even further and question exactly what the essence of those moving objects was.

            Edwards liked the idea that existence is made up of ideas. He did not try to stem the tide of this new philosophy but instead grabbed hold of it and sanctified it. As mentioned above Edwards saw no reason to stop with qualities of material as Locke had done, but asserted that all material must first and foremost exist as an idea. He even went so far as to assume that it was blatantly obvious to everyone: “But we know that the things are objects of this sense, all that the mind views by seeing, are merely mental existences…all will acknowledge they exist only mentally” (Mind, 350).

His defense for this idea was rather confusing. He began by asserting that colors as well as anything in the physical body have some form of existence outside of the body, i.e. the mind. Then qualifying this he asserted that there is nothing which exists outside the mind except the power of resistance. His idea of resistance stood contra the Cartesian idea of physical reality as “extension,” or a mechanical propagation of matter throughout all space. The Cartesians saw everything as touching a thing next to it and all activity working through this medium (Hatch, 88). Resistance however was merely a power of a body to stand in one place rather than another. Resistance naturally ceases to exist when it no longer resists anything. Edwards then defined resistance as a power stemming directly from God’s will. Since nothing existed outside the mind except this power, and a power cannot act against itself, Edwards concluded that even resistance must be in God’s mind alone (Mind 350). Although one might agree with Edwards’ final conclusion in this matter, it is hard to follow his logic and often one is forced to assume Edwards’ own assertions in order to get to the next step in his reasoning.

Edwards’ understanding of the mind of God or the divine Will is the next important step to understanding the universe as Edwards did. It seems as though Edwards was not satisfied with the previous conclusion and was still intending to maintain that there is something real in what we perceive as the “physical world.” He said,

body and solidity are the same, and…resistance or solidity are by the immediate exercise of divine power, it follows 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 (Atoms, 215).


This premise suited Edwards’ previous claims that the universe is not mechanistic, that it is not based off of a determination by extension and that the real stuff behind everything is in fact only power and the mind. All these things fit together and allowed Edwards to say,

That which truly is the substance of all bodies is the infinitely exact and precise and perfectly stable idea in God’s mind, together with his stable will that the same shall gradually be communicated to us, and to other minds, according to certain fixed and exact established methods and laws (Mind, 44).

This all pointed to a reality which seemed most unlikely to the average person. It is difficult to understand at times whether Edwards was actually advocating that the material world exists in reality or whether it is merely a construct of the mind. In one sense he was certainly saying that all of reality hinges on an idea in the mind. However, this idea, if it all really is only an idea, is not deficient. It still allows for us to assume that things exist which do not appear only to be mental. The reason is basically that we have an idea of a particular place and this is as good as having that place actually. For we are unable to discern a difference between the two: “And so that which we call place is an idea too. Therefore things are truly in those places, for what we mean when we say so is only that this mode of our idea of place appertains to such an idea” (Mind, 353). However, in asserting that it is the mind of God in which all of this is contained, Edwards cleverly superceded all of these ambiguities. Whether or not the rock at one’s foot is an independent and physical entity is irrelevant. If it is merely a mental idea within God’s mind, it is just as real to the person who is also an idea within his mind. This seems rather logically consistent if one is willing to agree with the premise that all is from God’s mind. So much so that one wonders whether it was necessary at all for Edwards to discuss a material existence within or without the human.

            Edwards wanted further to know how it was that the individual mind became aware of the surrounding world. Whether one was interacting with the world or with the Divine Will, there had to be some way in which knowledge of that world was communicated to the person. Edwards, like Locke, thought that this came through the senses:

Things that we know by immediate sensation, we know intuitively, and they are

properly self-evident truths: as grass is green, the sun shines, honey is sweet. When we say that grass is green, all that we can be supposed to mean by it is, that in a constant course, when we see grass, the idea of green is excited with it; and this we know self-evidently (Mind, 346).

Edwards in many ways didnot concern himself with finding out the true or hidden nature of things. He did not believe that there was any use for trying to discover the meaning behind the screen of appearances. Whether he really thought there was no truth hidden behind what was seen, or whether he simply did not consider it a valuable consideration, is uncertain. However, his main efforts were in discovering what “appeared”: “Edwards saw that accuracy and truth had to do with what ‘appeared,’ not with what was ‘really there’” (Carse, 336). For this reason he gave himself to say, “We would not, therefore, be understood to deny that things are where they seem to be, for the principles we lay down, if they are narrowly looked into, do not infer that…we may speak in the old way, and as properly and truly as ever” (Mind, 353). For Edwards the concern was not to read into things and discover secret and hidden meanings. He wanted to understand God and man in the context of the world God had created. For him this meant to experience it as it appeared, which Edwards thought was the way God wanted us to see it.

            All of these philosophical inquiries of Edwards’ were undertaken at an early age. He did not concern himself with these considerations in later life when he had settled into his career as a pastor. As a result, his discussions of knowledge and God’s world were much more scripturally specific and did not venture too far in making claims that were not in some manner explicit. How closely he held to these views throughout the rest of his life is uncertain and difficult to tell, primarily because he rarely ventured from the path of showing how a believer was distinct from an unbeliever in his understanding of spiritual things. He did not ask whether things were really there or if it were possible for him to know something. Things were as they seemed and anything God made available was knowable.

            Understanding spiritual matters was Edwards’ only desire when it came to discussing how one knows. He said, “spiritual understanding consists in a cordial sense of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things, together with all that discerning and knowledge of religion” (Affections, 283). This understanding was not just an understanding of what happens to a tree when it grows or an awareness of a rock in a field. It was rather knowledge of the highest order, knowledge of the spiritual decrees of God. Even awareness of sin, the disobedience of God’s decrees may be known without this supernatural light: “Those convictions that natural men may have of their sin and misery, is not this spiritual and divine light…nature is much more concerned in it than in the communication of that spiritual and divine light that is spoken of in the doctrine” (Divine Light, 13). This supernatural light became a tenet of Edwards’ theology throughout his career. For it he had the greatest appreciation and reverence. There are many things that man might know and many ways of knowing it, but Edwards always maintained that nothing but the enlightening of the soul by the Holy Spirit was truly the Divine Light: “in the renewing and sanctifying work of the Holy Ghost, those things are wrought in the soul that are above nature, and of which there is nothing of the like kind in the soul by nature” (Divine light, 13). He said in another sermon, “Such enlightenings of the understanding as these, are entirely different in their nature, from strong ideas of shapes and colours, outward brightness and glory, or sounds and voices” (Affections, 282). This most distinctly showed Edwards’ separation from his earlier emphases in knowledge and understanding. Whereas he had been primarily concerned with the physical world and how we might know about it, he later concerned himself entirely with spiritual knowledge of God and his moral will. This development is striking in its contrast.

            Edwards’s earlier concerns about knowledge of the world were appropriate for the time in which he grew up. He was merely partaking in the common discussions of the day. However, although Edwards had many insights into that area, he was not entirely successful in his attempt to create a synthesis of existence and knowledge. His attempts were scattered and often unclear. For a boy of college age they were significant and certainly noteworthy. However, his genius seems not to have extended into this field with as much ease as it did into fields of theological and pastoral care. Although his thoughts were very insightful and erudite, the coherence of his system was very deficient in contrast to his many theological works. It is interesting to note that there seems to have been very little transformation from his earlier thoughts to his latter in terms of content. The largest difference is that his later works attempted only to deal with Biblical ideas and to derive the core of their support directly from the Bible. His earlier philosophical works seem intended largely to support a general doctrinal position which was that God is in absolute control at all times. His method for determining the truth of existence seems to approach the problem with this doctrine in mind beforehand. At times when Edwards’ support for a point seemed to have been deficient, it seemed so often to have been the result of a desire to maintain this doctrine. For these reasons it seems possible that Edwards did not take philosophy as rigorously serious as he did his Biblical exegesis. Rather, his philosophy was largely an exegesis itself.










Carse, James P. “Mr. Locke’s Magic Onions and an Unboxed Beetle for Young            Jonathan,” Journal of Religion 47, no. 4 (1967): 331-339.

Davidson, Edward H. “From Locke to Edwards,” Journal of History of Ideas 24, no. 3            (1963): 355-372.

Edwards, Jonathan. Collected Works. Peabody, Ma., Hendrickson Publishers. 2003.

Edwards, Jonathan. Scientific and Philosophical Writings. Ed. Wallace E. Anderson.

New Haven, Yale U.P. 1980.

Laurence, David. “Jonathan Edwards, John Locke, and the Canon of Experience,” Early            American Literature 15, no.2 (1980): 107-23

Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press. 1973

Nathan O. Hatch, Harry S. Stout, eds. Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience.

New York, Oxford U.P. 1988.

Scheick, William J. Critical Essays on Jonathan Edwards. Boston, G.K Hall & Co.