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

Edwards and the Watchmaker's broken watch

by Sara Morrison

"The learned Grecians, and their great philosophers, by all wisdom did not know God, they were not able to find out the truth in divine things . . . it pleased God at length to reveal himself by the gospel, which they accounted as foolishness." Like the ancient Greeks, the thinkers of the Enlightenment searched for a Truth that was knowable and provable to man. The purpose of the Enlightenment was to "dispel the clouds of ignorance" and inspire man with an "inextinguishable love of truth . . . so that he may learn to know himself." In knowing himself, man would then base his morals and laws on his nature and wants rather than the accepted and tyrannical traditions of the church and her theoretical faith--this would [redound] to the common good. In chief, the Enlightenment sought to re-create man as a "virtuous and rational being, who cannot fail to become happy." Not unlike the Greeks, the thinkers of the Enlightenment refused what the Theists saw as the obvious truth of the gospel and replaced it instead with Newton's mechanical world view that explained our world and her axioms. Even though philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards found many aspects of Enlightenment thought very sensible and attractive, he was forced to part company with Deism because the mechanical world view based on a systematic universe of cause and effect ignored what he believed to be the true or first causes found only in an ever present God.

The Enlightenment essentially began when men, like Descartes, claimed that they could prove that our universe was "subject to physical laws expressed in mathematical symbols." They believed that the universe had an established order, a natural movement which maintained its vitality. This, not faith, was that which governed existence. Now all man had to do was discover these natural laws of human nature and the universe just as Newton had discovered gravity. During this time it was often conceded that something was needed to bind all of the natural laws together. Something must have created Nature and something of some sort must also keep it working. This need for a first and eternal cause is written across nearly all of the Enlightenment works, and is answered in Edwards' essay on the Freedom of the Will:

Interestingly, Edwards was not the only defender of God in this age; atheism was anything but fashionable. Most of the proponents of the Age of Reason believed in a "Supreme Being;" however, most regarded it as superstitious to think that he had any involvement in the world after it's creation. This belief was Deism. Deism explained God's role in creation to be like that of a watchmaker. The watchmaker makes his watch so perfectly that when he's done with it, he can wind it up and let it run on its own. Leibniz believed that because God was good, the world that he created was the best possible world one which did not need fixing. Because Deism did not eliminate all belief in God, "the main current of the religious establishment . . . appealed to the optimistic temper of the age by demonstrating that there was no conflict between the truths of Revelation and the new faith in human reason and its inference of a beneficent Providence from the spectacle of nature," thereby promoting a tendency in the educated to "drift by easy stages from Christianity to natural religion." In the spirit of the age, Locke declares that God is "the most obvious truth that reason discovers!"

However, Christians like Edwards, Locke and Newton could not support Deism in its view of a detached "Prime Mover" or unconcerned "First Cause". Newton asserts that God is a "free agent" whose intervention was crucial to the functioning of the laws of nature. Newton had discovered that the Deist's self-generating universe was an impossibility because, by his calculations, the earth was running on a limited supply of energy which could only be expelled. Without the periodic intervention of some Divine being regenerating the needed energy, the earth would permanently decay hence a broken watch. Hume responds to Newton's discoveries by commenting that while Newton seemed to provide answers to some of Nature's mysteries, it also "revealed the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy," thus maintaining her status as an enigma. Edwards pushes even harder. In his Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, he explains that the reason why it is so obvious to man that there is some binding force keeping the world together is because the present existence of each created substance is a dependent existence and therefore an effect. Knowing that all effects have causes, we realize that the being's cause must either be an "antecedent existence" or the power of a Creator. Edwards immediately illustrates that it cannot be due to an antecedent existence because the past existence of something is merely a passive existence. "It is plain, nothing can exert itself, or operate, when and where it is not existing," because, "what is past entirely ceases when present existence begins . . . it does no more co-exist with it, than it does any other moment that had ceased twenty years ago." Therefore, the past is incapable of creating the present, and existence in each moment must be the effect of the immediate intervention, agency, desire and control of the creator--God. In him we live, and move, and have our being [Acts 17:28]. Restated, this means that each moment is the result of God's continuous creation, making Him not only the first cause, but the ultimate and eternally continuous cause--by whom all things consist [Colossians 1:17]. In The Freedom of the Will, Edwards postulates that it might be possible to allow that things may not come to pass without a cause. However, if there is no cause, we not only eliminate God from the picture, but we would also "be without evidence of the existence of anything at all." From this, we lose all necessary connection and therefore lose all means of gaining knowledge.

The Age of Reason never produced one absolute "rationality" one obviously true interpretation. One of the great failings of the Enlightenment was that it was forced to conclude that the evidence revealed a variety of rationalities. This discovery opened the door to Post-Modernism and slammed the door shut on Hume and Rousseau's movement.

When the Deists lost at their own game, Edwards was able to win on their terms or at least terms that they couldn't refute logically. Edwards, along with the help of Newton, was able to prove logically that the universe had to be governed by an interested and active "cause". This conclusion then leads Edwards to define who or what this "cause" is in his Miscellaneous Observations. The intelligence of man must have come from another intelligence "Man's reason was the proof of God's existence and nature's harmony the sign of his benevolence." In part, Edwards was reacting to the general understanding of God's "being something large and great as bodies are, and infinitely extended throughout the immense space." Instead, Edwards' God had a "perfect comprehension of all things, and the extendedness in operation equally to all places." His God was omnipotent and perfect in knowledge and love. While Leibniz and Hume searched for Truth, Edwards had found it.

If we continue to follow Edwards' logic from earlier in this paper, it should be obvious that because God is the author of all causes and effects and is all that is perfect knowledge, he must also be Truth. In his essay The Mind, Edwards posited that there are two kinds of true things, the external and the abstract. The truth of the externals lies in the consistency of our ideas with those ideas that are part of God's stated law or order. The truth of the abstract is simply their consistency with themselves according to nature. Hence, truth "is the agreement of our ideas with existence." Because existence is part of God, so must truth be.

The scholars of this period were not only searching for Truth, but a clear understanding of how we come to realize it. In his Miscellaneous Observations on Scriptures, Edwards pointed out that the only way that we can reasonably know things to be true is if they are self-evident. However, our reason is not able to understand many of these self-evident propositions without the aid of some other self-evident propositions. The only way that man can tie these propositions together is through revelation. In this way, revelation is not only very reasonable, but necessary to thought. "Reason is to determine that there is a God and that he is an infinitely perfect being and that the scripture is his Word." Reason, however, is insufficient, and not a substitute for revelation.

Unlike his contemporaries, Edwards was able to provide answers to those puzzling questions which Deism was forced to ignore and Theism was afraid to touch. Further, Edwards was able to amend the face of traditional Theism, brining in a new respect for philosophy and science. In the end, Edwards declared himself the winner of this intellectual war between the reasonable and the obedient,

While Edwards danced along the fence that divided the skeptics from the faithful, he was able to borrow from both camps in order to create an Enlightened faith that was careful not to fall in to reckless abandonment.

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Last updated: 15 June 1998