Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy

By Leon Chai | Go to book overview
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Freedom of the Will

WE CAN ONLY IMAGINE the scene: Jonathan Edwards, on July 1, 1750, preaching his farewell sermon to the congregation at Northampton. At that moment he must have recalled what it was like when, more than twenty years before, he had ascended the same pulpit for the first time as Solomon Stoddard's successor. Now, as Edwards surveyed the faces of his audience, he would no doubt have recognized many of the same people who had welcomed him then as their new pastor. The same people would also have heard him when he delivered his sermons in November 1734 on "Justification by Faith Alone." Subsequently, they would have witnessed with him the remarkable revival in Northampton during the winter and spring of 1734-35. Still later, they would have experienced with him the tumultuous passion of the Great Awakening. But now these same people had, with equal passion, pursued and finally brought about his dismissal.

The immediate dispute between minister and congregation had revolved around the qualifications for church membership. Beyond the question of church membership, however, lay a larger issue. In a letter to the Reverend John Erskine, written just five days after the farewell sermon, Edwards implies that the basic reason for his dismissal had stemmed from his opposition to Arminianism. 1 If we take Arminianism as a belief in the conditional nature of divine grace (i.e., its dependence on God's foreknowledge of the recipients' faith), a particular attitude becomes indispensable to salvation. Nevertheless, the conditional nature of this relationship between divine grace and faith demands that those involved possess free will. If God alone can produce faith, on the other hand, the argument that divine grace depends on his foreknowledge of the recipients' spiritual condition becomes no different in substance from the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace. In either case, salvation follows solely from God's will. To refute Arminianism, then, Edwards must demonstrate the impossibility of Arminian free Will. 2

In addition, both form and content of the Arminian scheme dictate that this demonstration should be essentially rational. For to argue against the Edwards Arminian position simply on the basis of Scripture, in other words, will not suf


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