< Jonathan Edwards: Enlightened Puritan

Papers from Hillsdale College (1998)
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

Jonathan Edwards: Enlightened Puritan
Admixture of Old and New Ideas

by Peter Dassow

Jonathan Edwards is an intriguing individual in eighteenth-century America because of his theological beliefs regarding the nature of God, how He reflects Himself in the natural world, the relationship between human reason and Divine Will, and how he reveals himself. Edwards is complex since he subscribes to Puritan beliefs, meanwhile, rationalizing them with Enlightened principles. Edwards read Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and also read Newton, both Enlightened thinkers, meanwhile preaching a seemingly contradictory message of the sovereignty of God. The impact of this line of thinking is illustrated in Images of Shadows of Divine Things, and other writings. First, this paper will address Edwards's background and what appears to be contradictions between Puritan and Enlightened beliefs, and then go on to discuss Edwards's beliefs about Divine communication: 1) God is perfectly orderly and therefore, his creation is; 2) He reveals himself ontologically, through nature and history; and 3) because God is knowable through natural events and natural laws, He communicates to His creation in the natural world so it can glorify Him, which proves he is an Enlightened thinker. For the purposes of this paper, it will be assumed that the reader is familiar with Puritan beliefs, and that Edwards does indeed subscribe to theses beliefs; therefore, the focus will not be on Puritanism, but rather on Enlightened principles, and how Edwards has been influenced by John Locke, an Enlightend thinker.

First, Edwards amalgamates Puritan and Enlightened beliefs, which represents a shift in theology in the eighteenth century in America. Old beliefs under Puritan beliefs include: nature is evil, God is supreme, but mysterious; a change to new beliefs under Enlightened thought include: God is revealed in nature, God is knowable through reason and natural laws. What might clarify Edwards's position is his New England background. Edwards was born in Connecticut in 1703, and was raised in a Puritan environment, his grandfather being Solomon Stoddard, and his father being a local pastor. He had a keen mind, and was interested in science, and natural phenomenon, observing spiders, and rainbows at an early age, and writing of them. He later read Enlightened thinkers such as Locke, and Newton, and also Shaftsbury, and Francis Hutcheson.

This is a radical shift in the view of man and his relationship to God. Edwards reconciles these apparent contradictions, with an elaborate discourse on the nature of God, the role of the natural world, and human reason. Edwards keeps traditional theology while at the same time he adopts new methods for explaining God; however, Edwards is not a mysticist as some critics may claim, and this paper will argue the Edwards is both a Puritan, and an Enlightened thinker - an Enlightened Puritan.

Edwards believed that God was the most perfectly orderly being, and therefore, his creation must also be perfectly orderly. There is a relation between God and nature because God is seen in nature; Edwards is not a pantheist, saying that one can worship the trees, and see God in the tree, for instance, but he is saying that the goodness of God is manifest in the world. "Edwards embrace of nature as a type of the divine...coupled Newton's claims of divine uniformity in nature with Locke's principles of sensational psychology. ...[T]he pattern of the cosmos is infinite representation, and thereby intelligible" (Knight 534).

Edwards believed that because God was so great, it was his will to diffuse himself, thus creating a universe with systematic laws. "Though all of creation reflects the divine light or emanation, man's inner self, when gracious, provides the fullest reflection of divine reality" (Scheick 136).

As a result, since God has created man with reason, it is his duty to use it to its fullest capacity, and worship God through the goodness of his creation. According to Edwards, man knows God in two ways: ontologically, and historically. Man knows God ontologically through nature, and historically through the study of typology. However, only the redeemed are able to fully understand God's beauty in creation. "Grace endows the believer with a capacity to perceive God's presence in his own heart and in the wider world" (Knight 533). The believer will have "`a new kind of perception or spiritual sensation,' one in which he is given eyes to see and ears to hear' and taste to relish the `glory and beauty of God's nature'" (549). God progressively communicates with his people on earth, and so God will be more fully understood through science and history. Edwards claims that God will expand his communication with the approach of the millennium. Eventually, the world would be God's kingdom on earth.

Edwards loved to use analogies, and one such analogy to demonstrate how one knows God ontologically is using a river. Edwards also used the example of the cycle of the setting and rising of the sun and moon to explain Christ's life on earth. This is how man knows God ontologically, but one should note that it takes grace to know God. If Edwards was a strict empiricist, then he would say that pure reason and nature alone allows one to know God. However, He denies this claim. This is one reason for the confusion in trying to categorize Edwards as a theist, or deist, Puritan, or Enlightened.

Man's ontological understanding of God is manifest in Edwards work called Images or Shadows of Divine Things. Edwards "positively states that the natural things he describes were established by God to be representations, or types, or images, of those moral and spiritual matters" (Edwards in Scientific and Philosophic Writings 6). In this work, Edwards takes nature, God's creation, and uses them as analogies, and metaphors, explaining divine revelation. Edwards compares heavenly bodies, trees, and animals, making them relevant to the Bible. For example, entry 128 likens Christ to the sun. Just as the sun is life-giving, it is also fiercely hot; these two attributes are indicative of both the benign and wrathful nature of God. Furthermore, entry 135 likens trees to men. Just as if a tree is cut down if it is not fruitful, so God will cut down men and burn them into eternal fire it they do not bear the fruits of the Sprit. Also, in entry 142, Christ is likened to a silkworm. The silkworm dies in its work, making silk, just as Christ died doing His Father's business. Then the worm rises again as a butterfly, symbolic of Christ's resurrection. For Edwards, God's nature can be seen in physical events.

Accompanying this idea was the notion of knowing God historically, and Edwards employs typology to confirm this notion. Typology is the study of prefigures, or types. For Edwards, this meant looking for similarities between the Old and New Testaments, and history of mankind. Edwards looks to prefigures of Christ in Biblical characters: Abraham, Moses, David, and Solomon. These characters reveal the coming of Christ.

The Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament, and so God is progressively continuing to reveal himself in this world through personal types.

Edwards looked through the Old Testament for Messiah types. He wrote of his theory of typology, which has been compiled within his larger work, The Works of Jonathan Edwards. In his typological writings, he found great men of the Bible to be Christ-like: Moses, Joshua, Abraham, Joseph, David, and Solomon to name a few. In all these individuals, attributes of Christ were evident. First, Moses led Israel out of Egypt, and through the wilderness; second, Joshua led Israel into Canaan, the promised land. The analogy is simple: Christ is the leader, leading his people from destruction to a better place. Then, Abraham is known as "Father Abraham" since he was the head of the nation of Israel. Next, Joseph displayed wisdom, prudence and council through the Spirit like Christ, who is called "Wonderful," "Counselor." Subsequently, David was described as being a man after God's own heart. David was anointed with oil; Jesus was anointed with the Spirit of God. He stood before God for Israel, mediating for them as Christ does for his chosen. Christ was prophet, priest, and king, for the sake of his chosen as David served these three functions for the sake of Israel. Succeeding David was Solomon, who is said to be the wisest man ever to have lived. Solomon brought peace, and had wisdom, just as Christ brings peace, and wisdom to those who ask. This demonstrates how firmly Edwards believed the ability of man to understand God's revelation ontologically through history and typology.

Because of the claim by Edwards that God reveals himself, and that man is able to understand Him through reason/grace, he is a type of Enlightened thinker. This point will be proven by using Miller's argument that

Edwards adapts "Locke's theory that the mind receives ideas by means of the body's senses and such activities of mental reflection as perceiving and willing. This view makes man largely dependent on the world around him" (Scheick 10), which is a notion that permeates Edwards's essay called "The Mind." Locke wrote that one gains understanding from experience, or perception, which is either from personal, or second hand experience. Some critics argue that "Edwards's notion of the spiritual sense was not an 'imitation' of Lockean empiricism but rather an 'outright repudiation of the theory of simple ideas.' Locke had denied that faith via revelation could lead to knowledge; instead, revelation flouted its pursuit" (Weber 560). However, this is not the case. Locke was open to the possibility that God may choose to enlighten human understanding if He desired. For Locke it was sensory experience along with revelation, while for Edwards it was grace that enabled one to perceive God in the world. "The divine light of grace enables a person to see what she or he could not otherwise see.... [T]he unregenerate person cannot obey God apart from grace, so in his teaching on the divine light Edwards insisted that the unregenerate cannot know God apart from grace" (214). For Edwards there seems to be two ways through which to know God: 1) the Holy Spirit, and 2) the Lockean notion of empiricism. "With regard to conversion, knowing God, enlightenment of reason accompanies the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; knowledge through empirical observation does not lead one to conversion, a revelation of God" (Scheick 144). For both Locke and Edwards, one can arrive at the truth, natural laws, beauty through human reason, but divine understanding cannot be reached except through some divine enlightenment.

As one can see, Edwards is a complex figure, an admixture of old Puritan and new Enlightenment ideas. One can fully appreciate the beauty of God in nature, but only if God has given one grace. "God, heaven, hell, and the Bible as a solid, uniform block of revealed truth are for Edwards the framework within which the self must be considered and consider itself" (Laurence 199). In order to understand Edwards, one must study him as a person who, within the framework of Puritan ideas, uses Enlightened principles to observe and know God.


Aldridge, A. Owen. Review of Jonathan Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context, by Norman Fiering. In Eighteenth-Century Studies. Vol. 17. Fall 1983. 89-92.

Edwards, Jonathan. Images or Shadows of Divine Things. Edited by Perry Miller. Westport: Greenwood Press. 1977.

- - - . Scientific and Philosophical Writings. Edited by Wallace E. Anderson. Vol. 6. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. New Haven: Yale UP. 1980.

- - - . Typological Writings. Edited by Wallace E. Anderson. Vol. 11. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. New Haven: Yale UP. 1993.

Knight, Janice. "Learning the Language of God: Jonathan Edwards and the Typology of Nature." The William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. 46. Oct. 1991. 531-5.

Laurence, David. Review of Jonathan Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context, by Norman Fiering. In Early American Literature. Vol. 18. Fall 1983. 187-214.

Lesser, M.X. Jonathan Edwards. Boston: Twayne Publishers. 1988.

McClymond, Michael J. "Spiritual Perception in Jonathan Edwards." The Journal of Religion. Vol. 77. April 1997. 195-216.

Miller, Gordon. "Jonathan Edwards's Sublime Book of Nature." History Today. Vol. 46. July 1996. 29-35.

Scheick, William J. The Writings of Jonathan Edwards: Theme, Motif, and Style. College Station: Texas A&M UP. 1975.

Weber, Donald. Review of Jonathan Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context, by Norman Fiering. In American Quarterly. Vol. 35. Winter 1983. 556-64.

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Last updated: 25 May 1998