A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

By Bruce Kuklick | Go to book overview

1 Calvinism and Jonathan Edwards

Calvinists in America

In the seventeenth and even into the eighteenth century, ministers dominated New England—Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Haven (initially a separate colony), and some of the early New Hampshire towns. Their intellectual focus was the Bible, whose meaning had been determined by the European Protestant leader John Calvin, and Calvinist Protestants adhered to the 'federal' or 'covenantal' theology. According to it, two agreements, or covenants, that God made with man were essential to understanding history. As the Bible's first book, Genesis, related, God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where they could live forever in happiness and tranquility provided they obeyed his law. God could have prohibited any sort of behavior, but since he simply wished to test human obedience, he forbade eating the fruit of a certain tree. This arrangement was called the covenant of works. If Adam and Eve obeyed—if their works were good—all would be well. No sooner had God issued his command, however, than the couple violated it, and were banished from the Garden.

Because of Adam's disobedience, God first punished him with death. Adam was also demeaned by the ills that flesh is heir to as premonitions of what was to come, and was threatened with the everlasting torment of the damned in the fires of hell. Indeed, after Adam disobeyed, all his descendants were destined to sin like him and therefore to die. Finally, as a result of the Fall, God in his infinite mercy made a new arrangement called the covenant of grace. He said in effect: it is now impossible for individuals to be obedient; they will sin no matter what. But if they confessed their iniquity, and recognized their corrupt nature, then, after their physical death, they would not be punished eternally but rewarded with something even better than the Garden of Eden. The coming of Christ revealed the meaning of this new covenant of grace: if individuals had faith in Jesus, they would be redeemed. God knew, the Calvinists argued, that people would continue to sin and would never merit salvation. They would never be obedient as they could have been before the Fall, but they

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