A question for Jonathan Edwards

I am currently reading Jonathan Edwards' sermons on the parable of the sower (currently unpublished but forthcoming from Cascade). They are mostly very good — very challenging!

However, there are aspects of the sermons that I am not comfortable with.

For instance,

Thorns are an useless growth of the earth; so are carnal affections and cares the useless produce of the heart. They bring forth no fruit, either to the glory of God or to their own benefit. Those that are under the power of a worldly spirit, are an useless kind of persons; they are barren trees in God’s vineyard, mere cumberers of the ground; they live to no purpose; they don’t answer the end of their creation. God can have his glory of such persons no other way but in their destruction. (Italics mine.)
Really? No other way? How about redemption?

Interesting that JE says that they "don't answer the end of their creation." In other words, they are not fulfilling the purpose for which God created human beings. So why not enable them to fulfill those purposes. God can do that, right? Answer: Yes.


Tom Nicholson said…
Thanks Robin, this is very interesting.

As you point out, there is that contradiction: on the one hand, God controls every outcome; on the other hand the sinner is to blame!

The other thing I felt was his dismissal of "... carnal affections and cares the useless produce of the heart. They bring forth no fruit ..." Everything human is deplored by God, it seems.

Maybe this psychological disconnect with reality helped Edwards also to believe the kind of stuff he preached in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Maul P. said…
This is interesting! It'd take some thought to defend. Edwards may be thinking of Hebrews 6. There, those who make up the thorny ground always have been barren ground. On judgment day, they will be revealed as such. They never were fertile ground, even if they at times appeared to be. Thus these people are reprobate. Now, if Edwards means by 'no other way' something like conditional impossibility, then his claim would be that, *given* that god has decreed to pass by members of the set {THORNY GROUND}, he cannot do anything but destroy them, for to redeem them would work at cross purposes from his decree. And, Edwards might say with Crisp that any decree to create fallen humans must include the salvation of some and the damnation of others, otherwise God cannot display all of his attributes (the cross not being a full *display* of the attribute of justice, even though it may *satisfy* justice for those Christ died for. (I know you briefly responded to Crisp, but I'm just raising the point for Edwards without defending it currently).

Now, if we want to say for Edwards that God could have decreed that the members of {THORNY GROUND} trust in Christ, this bring's up various issues. Perhaps Edwards is a modal anti-realist, and, with Bas van Fraassen, thinks it makes no sense to talk about other versions of him in other possible worlds, where these versions are = to the actual Bas. So given that God decreed some person to be an element of {THORNY GROUND}, he can not treat them other than with final judgment. To claim he could have made *them* to trust in Christ in another possible world is dismissed since it wouldn't be *them* who trust in Christ, and Edwards is saying God can't treat *these people*, i.e., members of the set {THORNY GROUND} in the actual world, any other way.

Or, perhaps Edwards is given to endorsing a position that leads to a modal collapse, such that the actual world is the only possible world (there's some evidence to suggest this). Thus, members of {THORNY GROUND} could not have been members of the set {REDEEMED}, so in this sense God could not have his glory of such persons in no other way.

Anyway, not saying I agree with either of these, but perhaps Edwards could make use of them.

-Paul (of the blog Analytic Theology, which you commented on a month ago or so).
Maul P. said…
when I said "there's some evidence to suggest this" I mean *in Edwards*! Not that there's evidence that suggests the actual world is the only possible world!
Matt said…
And yet without a thorn in his side would Paul really understand that God's grace is sufficient to him?

From a biological point of view thorns are as beautiful as roses or as useful as wheat - it depends on one's perspective. JE assumes that God is like us as a farmer - only interested in what is profitable for him, but surely God is interested in beauty too - that's why we grow roses - yet what purpose do they really serve?
Jon Hughes said…
Jonathan Edwards, and people like John Piper who drink heavily from him - as great as he no doubt was - surely was out of balance with the thrust of Scripture as a whole.
Auggybendoggy said…
Agreed Robin. Calvinists polarize to one side of th coin when it comes to man being in the image of God. To them only the elect bear the image of God and no one else does. But we know that scipture bears that even after the fall God values "man" because he was made in God's image - meaning he still hold's that status. Similarly Paul appeals that we're all children of God because we come from him. But scripture plays that polarization by saying only those who believe does he give the right to be called children of God. So on one hand Calvinists accept one side of the coin (that only believers are children of God) and Arminians accept the other side (man is still in God's image). Since Edwards is polarized then it's only logical to him that God can treat these maggots accordingly since that's what they are. Where as to us, we see the other side of the coin is also true, we are all children of God and God does not stop seeking his child until he finds him.
Peter Gurry said…
Robin, what's the title of the book? It seems a number of publishers are jumping to publish more Edwards sermons which is a good thing. It's just keeping track of them all that's the trouble.

Tom, have you read Edwards on the freedom of the will? For what it's worth, he actually gives a pretty thorough defense of your sarcastic statement that "God controls every outcome; on the other hand the sinner is to blame!"
Robin Parry said…

Cascade books are publishing a set of three books of Edwards's sermons on parables in Matthews Gospel. They have been produced by the Yale center.

I seem to recall that this post was about something from the first (and by far the longest) of the three:

Sermons by Jonathan Edwards on the Matthean Parables
Volume I:
True and False Christians
(On the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins)

They'll be a fine set.

You are right that the Freedom of the Will is an excellent book.

I have a love-hate thing with Edwards. I find him really inspiring at times and yet at other times he presses the wrong buttons (although I don't question his motives for doing so).

But I will persevere with him. (Funny thing is that I suspect that with a few tweeks here and there his theology works well with universalism! Of course, he'd be mortified at that thought!)
Tom Nicholson said…

Thanks for your challenge.

Prov. 12:1 says (GNB) "Anyone who loves knowledge wants to be told when he is wrong. It is stupid to hate being corrected."

I can see how my remark came over as sarcastic, and I'm sorry it did so. It's just that when certain axioms of the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition are put together, then a certain conclusion is inevitable.

I know there are all kinds of explanations given to mitigate these conclusions, but I don't find them very convincing.

Peter, it would be a great help to me if you were able to point me to the most persuasive part of Edward's argument. Thanks. I've bookmarked the following contents list for the book, if that's helpful:
Anonymous said…
No one worked harder on this problem than Jonathan Edwards. But the editor of his Works (John Smith) said that Edwards, after attempting to explain how God is not the author of sin, “ended lamely.” I very much agree with that. While I think Edwards was a brilliant scholar and great evangelist and pastor, I think he does not deserve the applause he receives: many of his notions are nonsensical (e.g., continual creatio ex nihilo and his idea that God foreordains and renders certain sins but is not responsible for them because his motive is pure while the sinner’s is evil).
Peter Gurry said…
Robin, thanks for the heads-up.

Tom, I hate to say it, but I think you'll just have to read the book. But for me, there are two pieces to the argument that are very persuasive: (1) libertarian free will destroys responsibility rather than establishing it and (2) a person is responsible for what they want to do regardless of the ultimate cause.


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