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Jonathan Edwards on the Knowledge of God and Self

jonathan edwards

R.C. Sproul once said that Jonathan Edwards’ monumental Freedom of the Will (1754) stands as “the most important theological work ever published in America.” Such high praise is indicative of Edwards’ genius and his ability to speak with relevance to the church. After all, since Edwards first took on the Enlightenment thinkers of his day, the issue of the will has only grown exponentially in modern theological circles.

For Edwards, as for John Calvin before him, all forms of knowledge could be deduced to two kinds: knowledge of self and knowledge of God. The intersection of these two realms was located in the human will. According to the Northampton preacher, “the knowledge of ourselves consists chiefly in right apprehensions concerning those two chief faculties of our nature, the understanding and will.” (xi) Therefore the issue of the will was more than an academic exercise. It was the nexus of theology and anthropology.

The Freedom of the Will was both a critique and a reformulation of modern theology and psychology. For example, one of Edwards’ primary invectives against the Arminian notion of “freedom” concerns the self-determining power of the will. For him, it was “plainly absurd” that the will itself determines all of the free acts of the will, precisely because there must be some antecedent act that influences, orders, and determines the act. Borrowing from the thought of John Locke in his “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Edwards contends that “actions are to be prescribed to agents, and not properly to the powers of agents.” (37) In other words, “the will itself is not an agent that has a will…That which has the power of volition or

Borrowing from the thought of John Locke in his “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Edwards contends that “actions are to be prescribed to agents, and not properly to the powers of agents.” (37) In other words, “the will itself is not an agent that has a will…That which has the power of volition or choice, is the man or the soul, and not the power of volition itself.” (32)

The will is not self-determined, but is determined by “that motive which, as it stands in the view of the mind, is the strongest.” (6) Herein lies the seminal idea to John Piper’s so-called Christian Hedonism. For Edwards, “the will always is as the greatest apparent good is.” (7) And by “apparent,” the Connecticut River Puritan meant “the will always follows the last dictate of the understanding.” (14) For Locke, the will and desire were distinct. However for Edwards, the will and the desire, while mildly distinct, were not capable of contradicting one another. The future president of the college of New Jersey (later Princeton University) took the faculty psychology of John Locke and reformulated it for an aesthetic theology fixed on the affections.

This Arminian notion of a self-determining will was utter nonsense to Edwards, not simply for the endless loop of antecedent causes it created in the will, but for its undercutting of Christian apologetics! If “nothing ever comes to pass without a cause,” how are we to explain a self-existent will? (48) According to Edwards, “Yea, if once it should be allowed, that things may come to pass without a cause, we should not only have no proof of the being of God, but we should be without evidence of the existence of any thing whatsoever, but our own immediately present ideas and consciousness.” (51)

What Edwards describes in the latter of this excerpt is essentially the beginning of modern philosophy. The man most regard as the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, was the Renaissance mind that gave us the famous dictum: “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I am.” In many ways, Descartes’ new philosophy was a reaction against Anselm’s medieval dictum “Credo ut intelligam,” or “I believe so that I may understand.” Here we have two vastly different methods and worldviews.

Modern philosophy spelled a dramatic shift in human epistemology: no longer was God’s existence the starting point for knowledge. It was now human consciousness. For Anselm, the beginning and end of science was faith. For Descartes, the starting point for science was man. And this is precisely why Edwards takes exception with the self-determining will: “if things may be without causes, all this necessary connection and dependence is dissolved, and so all means of our knowledge is gone.” (51)

To demonstrate his point biblically, Edwards takes his readers to Romans 1:20: “The invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; even his eternal power and Godhead.”

Paul’s assertion is that we know God’s existence as the eternal cause of everything from a posteriori evidence! We judge a cause from its effects, including the will! If things can come into existence without any cause, then natural theology as we know it is worthless and our glorious “evidence” for God is cut off. Romans 1:20 is our evidence not only for a necessary Being, but for a first divine cause.

In response to Rene Descartes’ dictum “I think therefore I am,” Jonathan Edwards would undoubtedly have replied “I think therefore there is a God.” This is why the definition of the understanding and will was so utterly important. If we are to reach a true knowledge of ourselves, ultimately we must be led to an awe-inspiring knowledge of God’s complete sovereignty in creation. And that begins with our own faculties.

Our identity as moral agents begins with the One Edwards identifies as the perfect moral agent, “the fountain and rule of all virtue and moral good.” (35) According to the preacher from Northampton, “we argue his being from our being.” (49) Ultimately, the argument for the human will isn’t about philosophy and psychology. It’s about defense of the one true and living God.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Freedom of the Will. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011)

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