Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Jonathan Edwards's Concept of an Original Ultimate End

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Jonathan Edwards's Concept of an Original Ultimate End

Article excerpt


In his dissertation, Concerning the END for which GOD created the World,1 we have the final version of Jonathan Edwards's painstaking labors to state precisely God's purpose and motive in creating the world.2 In the Introduction Edwards writes, "It may be observed, that when I speak of God's ultimate end in the creation of the world, in the following discourse, I commonly mean in that highest sense, viz. the original ultimate end."3 Edwards's concept of an original ultimate end is crucial to his argumentation and in spite of his insistence that he means original ultimate end, it remains the least explicated feature of his view of God's end in creation. In these introductory remarks, I describe the background necessary for an appropriate appreciation of the centrality of this concept in Edwards's argument in End of Creation.

Edwards's lifelong concern was to experience and then to explain, promote, guide, and defend a view of Christian piety as a "work" of God by which redeemed persons actually experience God's own trinitarian self-knowledge, love, and joy. He strove to convince pastors, theologians, and philosophers in Great Britain and colonial America that only thereby can created persons truly know God and worship him, delight in his presence, and love each other in genuine fellowship. Thus, Edwards's primary goal in writing the Two Dissertations was to show, on shared assumptions, that such "true virtue" is God's ultimate end in creation. It is the content of the promise to Abraham, the culmination of redemption, the realization of the Kingdom of God.

Many of the ideas of God's end in creation that were proposed before and while Edwards was alive could be classified as ultimate ends in Aristotle's sense. However, in Edwards's opinion, given their content they actually tended to promote a view of religious experience contrary to the gospel. Since before the turn of the eighteenth century New England and Great Britain had been moralizing Christian experience by placing greater stress on natural goodness and ability-contrary to the Bible. It was thought that one could ascertain how to live by reason without revelation and that one could achieve such a life by self-determined choices and self-sustained effort. Thus, Edwards's secondary goal was to undercut this contrary view of religious experience. In his 1757 letter to his friend, Thomas Foxcroft, Edwards wrote, "I have also written two other discourses, one on God's End in Creating the World; the other concerning The Nature of True Virtue. As it appeared to me, the modern opinions which prevail concerning these two things stand very much as foundations of the fashionable scheme of divinity, which seems to have become almost universal."4

Awareness and concern regarding such "fashionable schemes" were widespread among Reformed pastors in mid-18th-century New England. Only two years earlier, at the 1755 meeting of the General Association of the Colony of Connecticut, Thomas Clap, President of Yale, gave an address defending Calvinistic doctrines and describing an emerging contrary view. According to the scheme Clap refers to, "The only End and Design in Creation is the Happiness of the Creature." This principle "naturally leads to most, if not all the rest," namely that "The only Criterion of Duty to God is Self-Interest .... Sin consists in Nothing but a Man's doing or forbearing an Action contrary to his own interest; and Duty to God, is Nothing but the Pursuit of our own Happiness."5

Joseph Bellamy attended the meeting and is the same person whom Samuel Hopkins refers to in his diary dated February 12, 1756: "Mr. Bellamy came to my house last Tuesday, with whom I went to Stockbridge and stayed there two nights and one day, to hear Mr. Edwards read a treatise on 'The Last End of God in the Creation of the World.'" Whether Bellamy and Edwards discussed Clap's address, it is likely that Clap's concern was widely shared even before the address and that refuting such "fashionable schemes" is part of Edwards's intent. …

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