The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: A Study in Divine Semiotics

By Stephen H. Daniel | Go to book overview

V

THE ONTOLOGY OF ORIGINAL SIN

Though often treated merely as a topic for theological polemics, Edwards' doctrine of original sin provides yet one more entrance into his philosophy of communicative significance. For it is in the doctrine of original sin that Edwards finds the theological equivalent for the displacement of the Stoic-Ramist logic of supposition by the classical-modern logic of predication. Rather than explaining why the original sin occurs, his doctrine highlights formal discrepancies between prelapsarian and postlapsarian discourses. By thematizing those discrepancies, he is able to identify original sin as the fall into individual subjectivity and the loss of guaranteed significance in discursive exchange.

Edwards' discussion of original sin appeals to both divine and human discursive practices without collapsing one into the other. Indeed, the initial appearance of sin signifies something that cannot be explained by anything other than itself. No theory of agency, freedom, or moral responsibility characteristic of subsequent human action can explain why Adam sins; nor can original sin be attributed to an act of God, because the fall itself defines a new meaning for what constitutes an action. In juxtaposing two absolutely incompatible mentalities, Edwards discerns what is truly original about original sin: It is the point at which aboriginal signification is lost and in its place is substituted the divided, fallen condition of representation.

In Edwards' philosophy, original sin marks the boundary between the discourse of the Trinity and the natural discourse of human beings. It provides the framework for his doctrines of human freedom and virtue and outlines the conditions for the retrieval of intelligibility through grace. It reveals how the juxtaposition of incommensurable mentalities or epistemes itself does not have to appeal to some metanarrative in terms of which each mentality is allowed to maintain its individual integrity.

Even though Edwards' arguments are themselves limited by the strictures of a fallen discourse, they nevertheless are formulated to avoid contradictions commonly attributed to him by his critics. To describe original sin, Edwards does not rely on ways of speaking about Adam that would otherwise characterize human subjectivity. Instead, he portrays Adam not as simply another individual human being, but as the prospect that humanity might become individuated, isolated from God and one another in the arrest of the semiotic movement of creation.

-130-

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The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: A Study in Divine Semiotics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Introduction 1
  • I - The Prospect of Semiotics 11
  • II - The Discourse of Typology 41
  • III - The Logics of Creation 66
  • IV - The Trinity and Creation 102
  • V - The Ontology of Original Sin 130
  • VI - Freedom and Moral Agency 152
  • VII - The Knowledge of Beauty 177
  • Concluding Remarks - The Propriety of Christ 197
  • Bibliography 201
  • Index 208
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