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

Jonathan Edwards on Nature

by Shannon Green

For Jonathan Edwards, nature is an intricate tapestry, woven by God to represent man's relationship to the spiritual world. All its beauty is apparent when paralleled with the spiritual world, as earthly beauty is a type, a shadow, of ultimate beauty. God modeled His creation after His own Being and His relationship with us; it is ordered and complex, as He is. In "Beauty of the World," "The Spider Letter," "Images of Divine Things," "Miscellanies," and in his "Personal Narrative," Edwards eloquently illustrates exactly how man should view the world around him. Each treatise, devoid of pantheistic leanings, reveals insight into the order and purpose in the manifestation of beauty in the physical world, as well as how types (or shadows) of the spiritual world are seen in the material world. Edwards also scatters throughout his work a fairly comprehensive set of criterion for the determination of such "shadows," since a disregard toward the true nature of God must be avoided at all costs when specifying analogous relationships between the divine and the corporeal.

Edwards defines the concept of "beauty" in numerous ways; the one most pertinent to this topic is found in his treatise "The Mind:"

An expansion on this definition is clear in his essay, "Beauty of the World." Edwards identifies the beauty of the world as "consist[ing] wholly of sweet, mutual consents, either within itself, or with the Supreme Being." However, these acquiescences are never more beautiful than when they parallel the spiritual world. For example, Edwards cites "the resemblance of a decent trust, dependence and acknowledgment in the planets continually moving round the sun, receiving his influences by which they are made happy, bright and beautiful . . . an image of majesty, power, glory and beneficence in the sun in the midst of all." A perfect correlation to our relationship with the Creator (the sun's being God and human beings' being the planets) can be derived from his mellifluous analogy: the only reason anything humankind does can even be considered beautiful is because God's glory is manifested in our world. It is His divine light that makes us happy, bright, and beautiful. ("Beauty of the World," 14)

This sort of beauty can only be found in God's creation; it transcends any product of mankind. Edwards describes in eloquent detail the accordance of beauty in nature:

Beauties can unmistakable or clandestine: the former's regularities, which make a beautiful thing so pleasing to us, can be easily pin-pointed; the latter type of beauty pleases us but we cannot realize exactly why. "These hidden beauties are commonly by far the greatest, because the more complex a beauty is, the more hidden is it. In this latter sort consists principally the beauty of the world." Edwards cites light as a primary example of a more complex beauty; light in and of itself is "pleasing" to the mind, and mankind always "represent(s) glory and extraordinary beauty by brightness." White light, for example, is a mixture of all the hues of light, and is harmonious with each individual hue. In nature, the emerald greens of the earth and the azure skies which turn unbelievable shades as the sun sinks and rises above the horizon please the eye of man to no end. Edwards reminds his reader that even the most downtrodden and disconsolate man would rather live "in much pain and misery" than die and lose sight of this frequently overlooked beauty which ever-presently brings such joy to the heart. ("Beauty of the World," 15)

One might wonder, however, just how Edwards decides which analogies actually work. He clearly defines his concept of beauty, he efficiently catagorizes this concept into the unmistakable and the clandestine, and he gives plenty of analogies throughout his body of work that make sense and seem correct. But how exactly does one make sure that an analogy rings true?

One form of criteria stands out most in Edwards's treatise, "The Mind," where he writes of the concept of "excellency" (22). In the context of this piece, Edwards states that: "some have said all excellency is harmony, symmetry or proportion; but they have not yet explained it." He goes on to say that disproportion is unpleasant to the mind, and proportion is pleasant. Proportion he defines as "an equality, a likeness of ratios; so that it is the equality that makes the proportion." Basically, Edwards thinks that anything that is beautiful is seen as such because it has a certain order, harmony or precision, in other wards a certain aspect of the nature of God to it. Simple beauties exist; beauties which are full of equalities but nothing more. Proportion is a more complex sort of beauty, and this must be what he uses to create his analogies. Edwards creates proportions with scripture, and with his concept of the orderliness and harmoniousness in God's nature. In the text of each analogy, he either quotes scripture passages or describes how a thing is "good" or "ordered" according to the revealed nature of God. When his logic tells him something is orderly, he automatically puts that in the equation of a lesser ratio with an aspect of God being the greater ratio, or he analyzes scripture and finds parallels in natural phenomena. This is seen in "The Spider Letter," "Personal Narrative," and "Images of Shadows of Divine Things," while in the "Miscellanies" Edwards critiques nature as a sole means of coming to know of God's existence.

In "The Spider Letter," Edwards takes his scientific observations of one abominable insect, and, amazingly, relates it to the wisdom and goodness (the order and hence the beauty) of God. He penned this letter in October of 1723 to Judge Paul Dudley, who had some influence over what was published in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London ("The Spider Letter," 1). In it he outlines in detail the actions of the common, tree-inhabiting spider and relates its characteristics to those of God. His main interest in the spider was its "wingless flight," which baffled Edwards, motivating him to observe spiders very closely and present his results to friends and family, who perhaps served as a critical audience for his discoveries. He notes that spiders seem to change direction in mid-air, and draws a step-by-step diagram of the exact path taken by the spiders. He observes carefully that they lower themselves into the seaward wind from a twig or branch of some sort by a thinly spun thread, allowing the air current to carry them farther and father out. Inevitably, Edwards reasons, they must reach the sea and drown, leaving their eggs behind to hatch into a new generation the next season. ("The Spider Letter," 1-8)

Even in this, an overwhelmingly scientific account of his observation of spiders, Edwards draws the beauty of God into his letter through four distinct points. He points out the wisdom in God's provision of "that wonderful liquor with which their bottle tail is filled, that may so easily be drawn out so exceeding fine," as well as the manifestation of His "exuberant goodness" in the fact that He provides for "the pleasure and the recreation of all sorts of creatures, even the insects" ("The Spider Letter," 5) He goes on to elaborate that God "so nicely and mathematically" adjusts "their plastic nature" so that they have a static population each season, as well as His provision that every aerial insect (flies, etc.) flies toward the sea to be buried in the ocean, ridding the air of the "corruption and nauseousness" which "such exceedingly multiplying creatures" could bring without such an end ("The Spider Letter," 7). How beautiful it seemed to Edwards that God orders nature so precisely even for something as insignificant as a spider: through Edwards' writings we see that everything in nature is significant.

Even in his "Personal Narrative," which H. Richard Niebuhr deemed "the most moving confession of faith in all religious literature," Edwards relates his conversion experience in a natural analogy and gives even greater insight into the beautiful shadows he finds apparent in the corporeal world (Oberg, 126). Edwards believed that the gospel announced the chief end of God's creation: the "happiness of creatures" and "the declarative glory of the Creator" (Oberg 126). So Edwards, when relating his conversion, writes of the soul of a true Christian, describing it as "a little white flower, as we see in the spring of the year; low and humble on the ground, opening its bosom, to receive the pleasant beams of the sun's glory; rejoicing as it were, in a calm rapture" ("Personal Narrative," 288).

In "Images of Divine Things," Edwards illustrates many analogous representations of the spiritual world as seen in physical world, and at times in accordance with a direct scriptural analogy. In #7 Edwards explains that "the things of this world are ordered [and] designed to shadow forth spiritual things," as evidenced by Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 15:36: "Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies." This is a direct analogy with the death and resurrection of Christ, and Edwards logically reasons that if the resurrection is not what Paul is referring to, then such a verse has no meaning at all; scripture obviously supports the representation of the divine as the temporal. In #27, we are reminded that the "terrible wrath of God" is the antitype for natural phenomenon such as the waves of the sea during a storm, or the "dire cataracts" of rivers. This is evidenced in scripture as well, as God's wrath is compared to both of these aspects of nature in Psalms, Job, and Hosea. In #8, Edwards advises that the ends to which God works are purposefully constant and in harmony throughout nature. He adds that in the material world God makes one part agree with another part, no matter how peculiar, and ends with the question: "why is it not reasonable to suppose he makes the whole as a shadow of the spiritual world?" In #35 he sees the silkworm as a type of Christ because through its death it too yields beautiful clothing, just as Christ gives us glorious spiritual clothing through his death on the cross. Number 61 reveals a comparison of ravens to types of devils, who feed on the decaying souls of the dead with delight, just as ravens feed upon dead flesh, represented by their black color, which represents the prince of darkness. We are warned that just as a squirrel or a bird may be charmed into the mouth of a serpent, we may easily be lured into the clutches of the devil in #87. Number 118 explains the type and antitype relationship, which is really like the sacrifices of the Old Testament and the death of Christ. The sacrifices were often made over and over again, but "the antitype is continual and never comes to pass but once. Thus sleep is an image of death . . . morning is the image of the resurrection." In #156 Edwards relates that the Bible interprets nature in two ways: it reveals to us the "spiritual mysteries" that are "signified in the natural world," and it applies these types and signs in nature as representations of spiritual enigmas. Edwards goes on to say in #212 that the:

In all these images of the divine Edwards uses reason or scripture to back up his claims that the spiritual world is most definitely a sort of antitype for the material world. ("Images of Divine Things," 16-21)

Though Edwards believes that the natural world reveals much about God, he does not think that nature in and of itself is a viable way to find Him. In fact, Edwards states in "Miscellanies" that it is "almost impossible [for example] for unassisted reason" to display that "the world, and all things contained therein, are effects, and had a beginning" (Wainwright, 8). He explains that reason can be confused by "mystery," "paradox," and "seeming inconsistence," and that only with enlightened reason is it possible for the nature of the material world to impart the knowledge of God to a person "left to himself" (Wainwright 8-9). Yet, Edwards states that grace is crucial to aid "the natural principles against those things that tend to stupefy it and to hinder its free exercise," and that it also will "sanctify the reasoning faculty and assist it to see the clear evidence there is of the truth of religion in rational arguments" (Wainwright, 9). Also, in "Miscellanies," Edwards states that it would be pure foolery to think for a moment that all the order and beauty in the universe is wrought by chance (Carse, 127). In fact, in #880 he likens the absurdity of such a thought to assuming that "in the showers of rain that fall out of the clouds on all the face of the earth for a whole year the drops should universally fall in order on the ground so as to describe such figures that would be Roman letter in such exact order as to be Vergi[l's] Eneid written on every acre of ground all over the world" (Carse, 127-128). Perhaps these are only contradictions at first glance. Edwards, given the grace to understand creation and the beauty God made manifest as a shadow of the spiritual realm, probably had sympathy for the unlearned but at the same time saw the purpose of creation as being painfully clear, as intelligent and learned as he was.

Jonathan Edwards' habit of intertwining themes of nature with his theological and philosophical analogies is a powerful way to make humans understand more clearly exactly how mankind fits with everything else in God's ordered universe. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this, however, is that his excellent facility with words combined with the use of natural analogies make his philosophical and theological writings read more like poetry. Growing up, Edwards was the only boy of eleven children, and his strict Calvinist upbringing combined with the eleven women in his life created an overwhelming aura of femininity: as Carse further elaborates, "an uncommon combination of order and tenderness". Such a childhood may account for the way in which he formulates his experiences through concepts like order, harmony, rectitude, and beauty. "So long as the brilliance of God illumined his world, he could behold there nothing but beauty; and in the beauty and order of the world he could see nothing but the immediate presence of God." As his writings plainly show, this outlook, beginning in his youth, never left his heart as his thoughts on beauty for true virtue pervade throughout his portfolio.

Works Cited

Carse, James. Jonathan Edwards & the Visibility of God. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967.

Edwards, Jonathan. "Beauty of the World." A Jonathan Edwards Reader. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Edwards, Jonathan. "Images of Divine Things." A Jonathan Edwards Reader. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Edwards, Jonathan. "Personal Narrative." A Jonathan Edwards Reader. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Edwards, Jonathan. "The Mind." A Jonathan Edwards Reader. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Edwards, Jonathan. "Miscellanies." A Jonathan Edwards Reader. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Edwards, Jonathan. "The Spider Letter." A Jonathan Edwards Reader. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Oberg, Barbara B. and Harry S. Stout, eds. Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, and the Representation of American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Wainwright, William J. Reason and the Heart. London: Cornell University Press, 1995.

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Last updated: 25 May 1998