Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths

By Gerald R. McDermott | Go to book overview

3
OUR NOBLEST FACULTY

The Promise and Limits of Reason in Religion

One day New England's philosopher was musing about the deists' refusal to raccept any Christian doctrine that seemed to contradict common sense. Deciding to conduct an experiment that would amount to a theological object lesson, he asked a thirteen-year-old boy in his parish if he believed that a twoinch cube was eight times as big as a one-inch cube.

When the boy replied that it seemed impossible, Edwards marched him out to his workshop and carefully cut out a two-by-two-by-two-inch block of wood. Then, to the boy's amazement, he cut the block into eight pieces, each measuring one inch on a side. But even then, the boy was not convinced. He continued to count the blocks, comparing them to another cube two inches on a side. The boy could not bring himself to believe it and wondered if magic had been at work.

Edwards concluded with satisfaction that the puzzle in this block of wood was a greater mystery to the boy than the Trinity "ordinarily is to men." Its apparent contradiction (a two-inch cube being eight times as large as a one-inch cube) was a greater difficulty than "any mystery of religion to a Socinian or Deist"1 -- clear evidence that if revelation contains mystery, so does the nature prized by deists.

The deists of the early eighteenth century somehow failed to see that it is not self-evident that all propositions must be self-evident in order to be true. But this failure may have been inevitable, given their understanding of knowledge. Following Locke, they conceived of knowledge as the agreement or disagreement of ideas. Edwards, however, said knowledge is the perception of the "union or disunion of ideas, or the perceiving whether two or more ideas belong to one an

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1
Misc. 652; SPW, 388.

-55-

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Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • Abbreviations xi
  • Introduction - A Strange, New Edwards 3
  • 1 - Deists and the Scandal of Particularity 17
  • 2 - Edwards S War Against Enlightenment Religion 34
  • II - Strategies of Response 53
  • 3 - Our Noblest Faculty 55
  • 4 - Signatures of Divine Majesty 71
  • 5 - Trickle-Down Revelation and Religious Entropy 87
  • 6 - Parables in All Nations Typology and the Religions 110
  • 7 - A Possibility of Reconciliation 130
  • III - Strategies Applied 147
  • 8 - Judaism 149
  • 9 - Islam 166
  • 10 - Greece and Rome 176
  • 11 - American Indians 194
  • 12 - The Chinese Philosophers 207
  • Conclusion - Confounding the Enfightemnent 217
  • Selected Bibliography 229
  • Index 241
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