Taking Johnathan Edwards to Task: or, The Limits of Theology and Philosophy

jedwardsRev. Elijah Lovejoy was more famous in death than in life and is not known as a great theologian of the church. But as I was reading through his memoirs I ran across a great entry on “Vain Philosophy” where he takes Johnathan Edwards to task for his rationalism. Today it is generally recognized that while Edwards the theologian was strongly Calvinistic, the trajectory of his philosophical method (influenced by Lock and Berkeley) was in another direction. His immediate disciples, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins and Johnathan Edwards Jr. developed his “improvements” into the New England Theology, which paved the way for 19th century protestant liberalism. Below is an extended quote from Lovejoy.

If there ever was a sincere inquirer after truth it was Jonathan Edwards… And yet his great work on the Freedom of the Will is, in one respect, a signal failure. He has indeed abundantly proved that man is a free agent, as also that all his actions are foreknown and fore-determined by his Maker. But their needed no long train of philosophical reasoning to prove these doctrines — the Bible had already done it before him. Yet in his attempt to reconcile these great truths to each other he has entirely failed. And if he failed, who shall succeed?

…Now here lies the great error of too many men. Instead of being satisfied with ascertaining the existence of a truth, they must needs determine the mode of its existence. But this is an abuse of their powers of reasoning, and it is of such very persons that Paul speaks, when he says, ‘ Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools…

The Being and attributes of God may be learned from the Book of Nature, but of his purposes we can know nothing, except by revelation! And it is equally an abuse of this revelation and our own faculties, if we seek to know farther than the simple facts revealed. Here it is that “Men rush in where Angels fear to tread”…

But secondly, it is presumption in the highest degree, because we cannot understand the reasons of a revealed truth, therefore to reject it altogether. In very few instances, indeed, has God condescended to explain the reasons of his moral enactments, and in none have we a right to require them. “Thus saith the Lord,” should at once put to rest the impertinent curiosity of man…

Again, if we cannot reconcile two revealed truths so as to make them consistent with each other, we have not, in consequence, any right to conclude that their agreement is impossible. Yet how often has this been done to the shipwreck of faith as of souls. The doctrines of the Trinity, of Election, &c. are beyond our reason, but what right have we to say, that they are contrary to it? Who, of mortal man, or of created beings, is authorized to pronounce upon the possible limitations of the Uncreated One? …We are finite, and how can we expect to fathom and comprehend the questions of Freedom, Necessity, and die Origin of Evil, which reach through Infinitude, and take hold of the very Throne of God?

…We were sent into this world not to dispute about the next, but to prepare for it. Of the next world we can know nothing but by revelation from Him who made it. That revelation has been given us, and now let us not seek to be wise above what is written…as we journey towards our heavenly home…”

Remembering Rev. Lovejoy

lovejoy3In antebellum South there were many ministers and Christian scholars who defended at length the unity of the human race. They spoke passionately about how we are all children of Adam with immortal souls, sinners estranged from God and in need of salvation through Jesus Christ. Unfortunately the only application most were willing to draw from their theological formulations was that white men ought to treat their human property with respect and instruct them in the Christian faith.

There was broad agreement that all were created in God’s image, but few challenged the institution of racial slavery because, in part, few challenged the assumption that the black man was less capable of self-governance than the white man.

lovejoy21One man who championed the cause of emancipation was Princeton Theological Seminary alum Rev. Elijah Lovejoy (1802-1837). Theologically he stood in the tradition of Luther, Calvin and President Edwards. His was the editor of the St. Louis Observer, and the Alton (Il) Observer, which he used as a platform to speak out against slavery. Although he received many threats and endured mobs destroying his printing press three times, he continued to denounce slavery as piracy. On Nov 7, 1837 a pro-slavery mob set on fire the shed that contained his fourth printing press and shot Rev. Lovejoy five times with a shotgun.

Lovejoy frequently lamented that Christians were too often accustomed to twisting Sacred Scripture to fit the prevailing philosophies and social mores of the culture. Those who expect Christianity to be comfortable and endorse the status quo do not see themselves as pilgrims who are in the world but not of it.

lovejoy31In a sermon on missions, Lovejoy noted that “Thus, most or all of the benevolent efforts of the human mind have been confined to one’s own kindred.” But the Christian “moves in a far higher sphere of action. All men are his brethren, in each he sees a soul for which Christ died; and looking to the immortal destinies of that soul, all earthly distinctions vanish. Here is neither rich nor poor, nor bond nor free, nor black nor white, but all are one in his view…. In all plans that are laid, and all the deliberations that are held, this is the end kept in view, the regeneration of every son and daughter of Adam” (Memoirs, p 79).

The Son of Pharisees

paultheophaneskrisWhen the Apostle Paul stood before the Sanhedrin to answer for his teaching he “perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees [and] he cried out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial’” (Acts 23:6). It is clear that there was broad doctrinal agreement between the Pharisees and the Christians. Both held to the Law and the Prophets as the Word of God. Both taught the immortality of the soul, of eternal punishment and rewards in the afterlife, the resurrection at the end of the age, and the reality of angels and demons. The Sadducees denied all of this.

Josephus highlights another doctrine of the Pharisees held in common with Christians: the belief in God’s complete sovereignty and the corresponding believe in divine predestination.

Josephus explains that the Pharisees, “ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action.… But the Sadducees… take away fate entirely…and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at man’s own choice (War 2.8.14). “And when they [the Pharisees] determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit; since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a temperament, whereby what he wills is done” (Ant 18.1.3).

What can we say except that the New Testament teaches a similar view of divine sovereignty and human responsibility? For example, it should be evident to any student of Scripture that the Apostle Paul’s Pharisaic training is on full display in Romans 9. After Paul explains God’s election of Jacob over Esau and God’s hardening the heart of Pharaoh, Paul anticipates the objection we all have. “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ … What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (11, 19-20, 22-23).

Like the Pharisees, the Apostle does not deny that the human will is free to choose what it desires. He denies that this choice is in any way outside of God’s eternal decree. Paul also insists that the will of man is not by nature inclined toward God (Rom 8:6-7; 1 Cor 2:14), so that conversion requires God’s supernatural intervention – a new birth.

Given Paul’s Pharisaic background, any alternate interpretation of Paul is frankly impossible. Controversies give rise to clarifying distinctions used to demarcate truth from error. For example, Jesus and Paul carry out a sustained polemic against the Pharisees on those areas where Christianity swerves sharply from the standard Pharisaic orthodoxy. Jesus and Paul condemned the “tradition of the elders” as either beside or contrary to the Word of God – our sole authority for faith and life. They condemned the Pharisees for emphasizing legal minutia and ritual at the expense of love and justice. Finally, the Pharisees believed God would account them righteous for their observance to the law while Christians insist that we are justified by Christ alone, through whom we have redemption – the forgiveness of sins, and that we receive the benefits of Christ through faith alone, apart from works of the law. Yet when speaking of God’s sovereignty, Paul sounds like a Pharisee.

It seems undeniable, therefore, that the Apostle Paul was not only a “son of Pharisees” regarding the doctrine of the resurrection, but also regarding the doctrine of God’s sovereign predestination.