Creative and Conservative is the Ideal: A Review of “Original Sin” by Jonathan Edwards

edwardsbookCreative and conservative theology is the ideal, and yet it is a hard balance to retain. Often the most creative theologians drift off into such ungrounded speculation that they end up going far beyond the boundaries of Scripture. Other theologians end up being so tied to their traditions and past formulations that they fail to contribute anything worthwhile to the study and advancement of the knowledge of God. The Evangelical church in particular, in my opinion, needs far more conservative creative theologians today. It has always needed it and many would cite Jonathan Edwards as a great example of the ideal. Edwards was both conservative and creative as a theologian, and yet in writing on Original Sin he lost his balance. The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin is far more creative than it is conservative.

The work is actually a response to John Taylor, who in 1740 had written on the doctrine of Original Sin but had so clearly done damage to the Biblical witness. Edwards wrote to challenge and correct Taylor’s erroneous views. Edwards begins with a lengthy defense of the nature and extent of depravity in the human heart. Sin he says is propensity of the human heart towards self-love without God. It is an “unfailing necessity,” he says. It is present in the least and the greatest of all people in all the world. In one particular part of the work he highlights the fact that even children are born with sinful natures. Infants died under the just punishment of God in the Old Testament just the same as their parents, and upon such fact Edwards concludes children too are sinners. This sin is a universal disobedience found in all.

There is too an infinite guilt associated with this sin, Edwards write:

There is no great merit in paying a debt we owe, and by the highest possible obligations in strict justice are obliged to pay; but there is a great demerit in refusing to pay it. That on such accounts as these there is an infinite demerit in all sin against God which must therefore immensely outweigh all the merit which can be supposed to be in our virtue, I think, is capable of full demonstration; and that the futility of the objections, which some have made against the argument, might most plainly be demonstrated.

Our obligation is to love God, an infinitely lovely being. By failing to do this we are infinitely guilty of this sin. Edwards uses an impeccable logic as he develops his arguments.

In dealing with the presence of sin in the human heart Edwards must go back to Adam, our forefather and the first sinner. Having proven the universality and nature of sin in the human heart, his second goal is to defend the justice of the imputation of Adam’s sin. Here Edwards brilliance and creative are on clear display. In many ways his writings are much in line with the standard Reformed explanations of Scripture and doctrine. Here, however, in the last part of this work he parts ways with this tradition and begins to plow new ground. How could the imputation of Adam’s sin to the rest of the human race be just? Edwards offers here an original metaphysics that states we were one with Adam. As the theologian explains it, we were “fully consenting and concurring” with Adam in his sin. God views Adam and all his successive heirs as one in relation to this act of treason in the Garden.

To establish this Edwards developed an argument for what he called “continued creation.” That is God creates “things out of nothing at each moment of their existence.” God is consistently creating all that exists ex nihilo. God treats us in Adam because “his wise sovereign establishment so unites these successive new effects, that he treats them as one.” Edwards elaborates:

Therefore the sin of the apostasy is not theirs, merely because God imputes it to them; but it is truly and properly theirs, and on that ground, God imputes it to them…All are looked upon as sinning in and with their common root.

This is certainly a creative development and yet it does not derive from Scripture itself. Certainly the Bible teaches that God “upholds the universe by the power of his word,” but that is quite distinct from saying that he creates everything at every moment anew. The creativity goes even father afield as Edwards tries to explain how Adam could commit this first sin.

In dealing with human primal sin Edwards struggles to explain the same thing that all theologians before and after him struggle to explain: how do perfectly moral people choose to do immoral things. Adam is free from all sinful inclinations, and yet he chooses sin in the Garden. In order to explain this Edwards suggests that Adam and Eve had their judgment deceived. The Serpent convinced them that what was best for them was disobedience and so their will, influenced by their natural appetites, was overpowered and thus their rational judgment was perverted. We must ask, of course, how perfect man had his judgment deceived, and Edwards, of course, has an answer. Edwards believed that God had granted to our first parents “sufficient grace” to help them control their rational judgment, and yet he did not give them “efficacious grace” to hep him resist temptation. In fact, Edwards goes so far as to say that God withheld this “efficacious grace” making sin a necessary reality. Here Edwards creativity has caused him no small theological quandary.

Edwards, in trying to defend God’s justice, has raised serious questions about the author sin. By withholding “efficacious grace” God has directly been the cause of sin. Many have critiqued Edwards on these very grounds. John Gerstner accuses him of fatalism. Sam Storms accuses him of making God the positive agent behind sin. Others have critiqued his “Occassionalism” (the idea of God creating a new at each moment), including Oliver Crisp and Charles Hodge. There is every reason to critique and, I believe, reject this theology. It is not Biblical and it frames the origin of sin in such a way as to make God the cause of sin. Edwards tries to avoid this conclusion, but his attempts are not successful.

Jonathan Edwards was a supremely gifted theologian. I love reading him because he is not willing to be bound by his tradition, but he does aim to be bound by Scripture. His failures here remind me, however, just how difficult the balance of creative and conservative is. We all need to seek this ideal, and yet even our creativity must be submissive to the Word of God. The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin is creative, confusing, and sadly not as thoroughly Biblical as one would hope.

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