“Resemblance of Every Grace”:

Jonathan Edwards’ Scientific-Theological Answer to Materialism










REL 319: Eighteenth Century Theology: Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

Allison Deckert

26 April 2018



There is that, which is peculiarly wonderful in Trees, beyond any thing that is to be found in the inanimate world, even the manner of their growing from the seed…successively from one seed after another, in the same manner, from age to age, forever.” [1] So reads one of the entries in Jonathan Edwards’ journal “Things to Be Considered and Written Fully About, Second Series.” The quote reflects a mind keenly tuned to the beauties and complexities of nature, childlike delight in things not fully understood, and subtle praise for the glories of a creation that reflects the attributes of its Creator—full of wonder, full of surprises, eternal from age to age. Edwards received the highest education available to men in the colonies in the early eighteenth century, at Connecticut’s Collegiate School. This education provided him with an introduction to the principles of “natural philosophy,” the field of study we would now call “science,” as thorough as any he could have received in the colonies. Edwards’ strong background in theology and natural philosophy, his childlike wonder at nature’s beauties, and his extremely high view of Scripture allowed him to engage with the idea of materialism that came out of the eighteenth century’s Age of Enlightenment, while remaining steadfastly true to the truth that his God ruled over all nature with sovereignty.

In order to form a proper understanding of Edwards’ conception of nature and its relation to God, his ideas and writings must be placed within the proper context. It would be erroneous and misleading to “[adapt] him to the more expansive currents of modern thought foreign to his theological and cultural situation.”[2] The predominant disagreement between the fields of science and theology today comes down in the area of creation, particularly on the question of a young versus an old earth, and then on the question between theistic or atheistic evolution. Charles Darwin had not yet written his work On the Origin of Species—indeed, he had not even been born—when Edwards lived, nor had any of Darwin’s immediate predecessors begun publishing the works that would prepare the way for Darwin’s ideas. Therefore, it would be anachronistic to pit Edwards against evolution, or on either side of the debate between an old and a young earth, the debate on the interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis as they provide an account of creation’s timeline. The current of contemporary thought that he did write within overwhelmingly accepted the fact that there was a Creator God behind the complexities of the physical world, even that he had a hugely significant role in its continued existence and direction, though the philosophy of Deism differed in this area. Marsden writes that “the educated of the early eighteenth century did not abandon their firm belief that God held New England and everything else in his providential care and that he might arrange nature,” though his generation of religious thinkers had moved away from the hysteric supernaturalism of the seventeenth century.[3] Though he and other preachers attributed cosmic significance to physical phenomena—for example, describing the Great Earthquake of 1727 “as a portentous sign of God’s anger with his people” and as a “fusion of natural science and providential history”—they would not have looked for signs of witchcraft or to nature’s minutiae for signs of specific outcomes.[4]

The intellectual adversary that Edwards did confront was the philosophy of materialism, an Enlightenment idea that postulated that reality consists of matter, with physical matter being the cause and result of all actions, including human thought and consciousness. Because everything can be explained as a material interaction, materialism rules out the need for a spiritual conception of reality or spiritual explanations for any phenomena. Thomas Hobbes represented the philosophy of materialism in Edwards’ educational experience, as he was the most widely-read proponent of the philosophy at the time. Edwards’ interest in combating this philosophy provided the strongest impetus for the writing of his journal “Things to Be Considered” while at Yale.[5]

Edwards essentially engaged with materialism by running away from it as far and as quickly as possible. Far from a world in which all being and actions and motions result from material interactions, Edwards argues that “all the space there is without the bounds of the creation, all the space there was before the creation, is God himself.”[6] Indeed, he could not conceive that “the world has a being but only in the divine consciousness.”[7] Everything relates back to a spiritual, immaterial cause in Edwards’ conception. At times, because of this view that “God is space,” he flirts with the philosophy of pantheism, that God is equated with creation and exists spiritually in every part of His creation. McGiffert writes that, during Edwards’ life, he alternated “back and forth with no apparent jolt or difficulty from a pantheistic to a personalistic interpretation of God…It seems not to have dawned on him that there is a contradiction in speaking of God as at the same time a person and an expansive substance.”[8] In his sincere desire to disprove materialism, Edwards probably took a spiritual conception of the universe one step too far. His deep convictions about the reality of God’s existence and sovereignty also led him to write and preach on the assumption that God is real, that spiritual things are true. The presence of God in creation was self-evident to him, and there was no need to set up a systematic proof of God’s existence.

Regardless of how much Edwards erred by espousing pantheistic ideas, he may be credited for his ruthless condemnation of materialist ideas. He points out the folly of reducing spiritual things to physical phenomena by asking, “How large is that thing in the mind which they call thought? Is love square or round? Is the surface of hatred rough or smooth? Is joy an inch, or a foot in diameter? These are spiritual things. And why should we then form such a ridiculous idea of spirits, as to think them so long, so thick, or so wide.”[9] Furthermore, the spiritual world not only exists alongside the physical world, and “the spirit…can [in the body] immediately produce effects,” but spiritual things are superior in value and quality to physical things.[10] For him, “the reality of the physical universe with its space and time and natural laws is secondary” to the “literally cosmic” reality of such concepts as “the goodness of virtue,” “the beauty of the Holiness of God, of Saints, of the Angels who remained loyal to God,” and “justice as a precise apportionment of pain to guilt.”[11] Finally, since the universe only exists within the divine consciousness, “in theory spirit does not require body at all.”[12]

Just as Edwards must be read and understood within his context of religious thought on the dual physical-spiritual reality of the universe, so he must be understood in the context of the debate on human free will. On one extreme, the philosophical idea of determinism came out of the Enlightenment and postulated that all actions and all things in existence can be explained as the inevitable, physical consequences of actions that existed previously. Though it applies to all physical phenomena and so relates closely to materialism, determinism reaches its most troubling conclusions in relation to human action and responsibility. On the opposite side of the argument, and a movement which Edwards sought to disprove for a huge portion of his career, were the Arminians, who asserted that in order for humans to be responsible for their moral actions, they had to be free to choose those actions over others, and thus that humans have some measure of responsibility for their own salvation. Edwards saw both mechanistic determinism and the Arminian insistence on extensive human free will as direct threats to the Calvinist idea of human responsibility and God’s total sovereignty. However, the underlying error in both viewpoints, from Edwards’ perspective, comes down to an insufficiently high view of God’s nature and redemptive work. Importantly, Edwards insisted on God’s total sovereignty because without it, the world would not only devolve into chaos but it would cease to be. He writes in Images or Shadows of Divine Things that “things are in a state of great confusion before God works some great and glorious work,” that “before God appears in such a work and so causes light to shine, things are commonly in a most dark, confused and wofull state, and appear most remote from anything that is good.”[13] In Edwards’ conception, God must reign with complete power in order for the world to remain properly ordered, so he steers much closer toward determinism in an effort to avoid Pelagianism. However, it is a spiritual determinism rather than mechanistic, one in which God wills all things but does so out of love and in the ordered structure of a redemptive plan. This is a far better reality than a world of human and natural chaos.

While Edwards’ education prompted him to think about the natural world in the context of religion so he would be prepared to defend his theological views against the idea of materialism, his preparation for this intellectual work had begun in his earliest youth. Edwards’ fondness for nature and his capacity for close observation of it developed partially as an inevitable consequence of his childhood environment. Holbrook describes the pristine surroundings in which Edwards grew up and lived much of his life. The Connecticut River Valley consists of “extensive fertile plains suitable for agriculture and hunting,” set beside the Connecticut River and surrounded by mountains.[14] These favorable surroundings helped attune him to the many manifestations of the beauty and complexity of the natural world. Modern readers mostly think of Edwards’ work “Of Insects,” which he wrote as a young adult and in which he observes the method by which spiders “[march] in the air from tree to tree, and these sometimes at five or six rods distance,” as the [15]

This vision for natural beauty persisted his whole life, as evidenced by the work Images or Shadows of Divine Things. In college, as we have seen, he firmly cemented his view that science could confirm theology but was naturally, properly subordinate to theology. Hornberger calls this phenomenon “his own peculiar subordination of science to religion”[16] and it appears in a multitude of his writings. Two alternative titles to Edwards’ work “Images or Shadows of Divine Things” are “The Book of Nature and Common Providence” and “The Language and Lessons of Nature.”[17] These unused titles show both the degree to which Edwards affiliated nature with nature’s God and an essential property of that affiliation, that it signifies an avenue through which God can be better known and loved. Nature speaks and teaches lessons—it holds truths for those who will take the time to look and listen.

The content of the book Images or Shadows of Divine Things demonstrates the extent to which Edwards was willing to connect spiritual qualities with the physical world. Though he does express pseudo-pantheistic views in other places, in this work Edwards operates on the more symbolic paradigm of typology, talking about natural objects and phenomena as types or signifiers of a specific grace or evil. He asserts that “the sun’s so perpetually, for so many ages, sending forth his rays in such vast profusion, without any diminution of his light and heat, is a bright image of the all-sufficiency and everlastingness of God’s bounty and goodness.”[18] Similarly, “the extreme fierceness and extraordinary power of the heat of lightning is an intimation of the exceeding power and terribleness of the wrath of God,” and “the silk-worm is a remarkeable type of Christ, which when it dies yields us that of which we make such glorious clothing.”[19] No element of the natural world was too lowly, too minute, or too odd for Edwards to connect it to a spiritual reality. The catalogue in Images or Shadows demonstrates this principle, listing everything from “bread corn,” “cataracts,” “clothes off in sleep,” “hog,” and “straining utensils” to “creation of the world,” “hieroglyphics,” and “scarlet and purple robes of princes.”[20]

Like he does with his views on the pantheistic presence of God in creation, Edwards moves beyond his contemporaries in his search for images, symbols, and types in nature. Anderson describes this as his “willingness to view typology in a more expansive way than his contemporaries and to give the discipline a metaphysical component.”[21] Edwards used typology extensively in his sermons but never at the expense of teaching Scripture. For some preachers, an aptitude like Edwards’ for drawing connections between natural phenomena with which the audience is familiar and spiritual principles which are harder to grasp could become a preaching crutch. Edwards resisted this, always preaching from Scripture and compiling in his personal notebooks over five hundred commentary notes on various passages from the Bible. Nature provided one text that pointed to God, but just as the natural world had to be considered of secondary importance to spiritual reality, so too did the “language and lessons of nature” only have their proper place as handmaidens to the language and lessons of the Old and New Testaments.

Edwards’ view of nature must be considered in the context of his times. We must remain “historical-minded,” and hold up his tendency toward extremism in his conception of God’s presence in the universe against the alternative, an equally extreme view of the world in which spiritual realities have no existence or no importance. [22] This conclusion, for Edwards, was completely unacceptable. He embraced science and philosophy only insofar as they supported and served the ends of God’s glory and making that glory known. From his adolescent musings on the behavior of spiders to the notebooks on Things to Be Considered, and throughout all his preaching, Edwards remained committed to the primacy of God in all things. And far from believing that he left his interest in scientific inquiry after college in order to pursue doctrine and ministry, “the picture we should see is that of a man whose career was quite homogeneous, unmarked by any deviation from science into theology, but progressing steadily in a straight line from his juvenile productions, like the letter on the materiality of the soul, to his last great work, The Freedom of the Will.”[23] After all, science and theology both observe reality, taking precise account of the way things are, and they are happily wedded in Edwards’ writing in which we see “how much a resemblance is there of every grace in the field covered with plants and flowers when the sun shines serenely and undisturbedly upon them.”[24]





Anderson, Wallace E. “Editor’s Introduction to ‘Images of Divine Things’ and ‘Types.’”

Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. Accessed April 21, 2018. http://edwards.yale.edu/archive?path=aHR0cDovL2Vkd2FyZHMueWFsZS5lZHUvY2dpLWJpbi9uZXdwaGlsby9nZXRvYmplY3QucGw/Yy4xMDo0LndqZW8=.


Cooey, Paula M. Jonathan Edwards on nature and scientific destiny. Lewisoton, NY: The

Edwin Mellen Press, 1985.


Edwards, Jonathan. "Of being." A Puritan's Mind. Accessed March 17, 2018.



---. “Of insects.” A Puritan’s Mind. Accessed March 17, 2018.



---. Images or shadows of divine things. Edited by Perry Miller. 2nd ed. Westport, CT:

Greenwood Press, 1977. 


---. “Things to be considered, second series.” A Puritan’s Mind. Accessed March 17, 2018.



Faust, Clarence H. “Jonathan Edwards as a scientist.” American Literature 1, no. 4 (Jan. 1930):

393-404. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed March 17, 2018).


Holbrook, Clyde A. Jonathan Edwards, the valley, and nature: An interpretive essay. Cranbury,

NJ: Associated University Presses, 1987.


Hornberger, Theodore. “The effect of the new science upon the thought of Jonathan Edwards.”

American Literature 9, no. 2 (May 1937): 196-207. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed March 17, 2018).


Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.


McGiffert, Arthur Cushman, Jr. Jonathan Edwards. 2nd ed. New York: AMS Press, 1980.


Stout, Harry S. The New England soul: preaching and religious culture in colonial New

England. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.


Suter, Rufus. “The strange universe of Jonathan Edwards.” The Harvard Theological Review 54,

no. 2 (Apr. 1961): 125-128. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed March 17, 2018).


Townsend, H. G. “Jonathan Edwards’ later observations of nature.” The New England Quarterly

13, no. 3 (Sept. 1940): 510-518). JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed March 17, 2018).






[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Things to Be Considered, Second Series,” number 48.


[2] Clyde A. Holbrook, Jonathan Edwards, The Valley, and Nature: An Interpretive Essay (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1987), 127.

[3] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 69.


[4] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England, second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 184-185.

[5] Ibid., 73.


[6] Jonathan Edwards, “Of Being.”


[7] Ibid.


[8] Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Jr, Jonathan Edwards, New York: AMS Press (1980), 181.

[9] Jonathan Edwards, “The Mind.”


[10] Ibid.


[11] Rufus Suter, “The Strange Universe of Jonathan Edwards,” The Harvard Theological Review 54, no. 2 (Apr. 1961), 125-126, retrieved from JSTOR Journals, March 17, 2018.


[12] Paula M. Cooey, Jonathan Edwards on nature and scientific destiny (Lewisoton, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1985), 90-91.


[13] Jonathan Edwards, Images or Shadows of Divine Things, edited by Perry Miller (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1977), 70.

[14] Holbrook, The Valley and Nature, 15.


[15] Jonathan Edwards, “Of Insects.”


[16] Theodore Hornberger, “The Effect of the New Science Upon the Thought of Jonathan Edwards,” American Literature 9, no. 2 (May 1937), 200, retrieved from JSTOR Journals, March 17, 2018.


[17] H. G. Townsend, “Jonathan Edwards’ Later Observations of Nature,” The New England Quarterly 13, no. 3 (Sept. 940), 511, retrieved from JSTOR Journals, March 17, 2018.


[18] Edwards, Images or Shadows, 45.


[19] Ibid., 50.


[20] Catalogued in Townshend, “Later Observations,” 513-516.

[21] Wallace E. Anderson, “Editor’s Introduction to ‘Images of Divine Things’ and ‘Types,’” Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, retrieved April 21, 2018, paragraph 9.


[22] Suter, “Strange Universe,” 127.

[23] Clarence H. Faust, “Jonathan Edwards as a Scientist,” American Literature 1, no. 4 (Jan. 1930), 394.


[24] Edwards, Images or Shadows, 136.