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…”