Most of what Americans know about our greatest theologian and philosopher comes from a sermon we read in a high school English class: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Perhaps teachers choose the sermon of the man sometimes called “the last Puritan” because they believe (wrongly) that it represents the dour, fire-and-brimstone focus of the Puritans. Or perhaps they choose it because it’s one of Edwards’s most accessible writings.
The theological riches of the Puritans’ writings are often hid from modern readers because of the archaic language. As Ben Stevens says in his introduction to Why God Created the World: A Jonathan Edwards Adaptation, Edwards’s “tone and grammatical acrobatics make the original text nearly impossible to read.”
In his new book, Stevens reworks the tone and style of Edward’s brilliant work, Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World (1765). Stevens’s efforts have resulted in making a daunting and difficult text accessible for a general audience.
We’re pleased to provide an excerpt from chapter two of the book that provides “first steps toward an answer” to the question, “Why did God create world?”
Let’s begin by considering the implications of what Christians already agree on about God’s personality. That will greatly reduce the scope of the things we need to consider, and given the size of this topic, that reduction would be a relief. Christians from across the spectrum agree on a surprising number of things on this point, but let me list the two that I think help us zero in on an answer.
First, we agree that God is glorious and happy, independent of any external circumstances. His glory and happiness are eternal, and he doesn’t live in fear that someone will steal or wound his joy. Second, we agree that the universe receives everything from God’s hand and consequently has nothing to give back to him that he didn’t already have before creation.
These are not radical Christian convictions, but they go a long way toward eliminating many popular suggestions about why God created the world. I would summarize their implications like this: If God does not need, and cannot receive, anything new from something he creates, then he must not have created in order to fill a need he had.
With one stroke this point wipes out much of what the world’s pagan religions have thought about their gods for millennia. But at the same time, it raises another question: If God didn’t create because of a need he had, then what prompted him to create at all? I think the most logical conclusion is that if creation does not arise to fulfill some need that God has, then it must arise because of the way it promotes something he values.
This short set of considerations has already carried us most of the way to our answer. Let’s take a final step by thinking about what makes things valuable. I think that piece will complete the puzzle.
As I explained in the last chapter, some things have value because of the way they serve a greater purpose. We might say they have a preliminary value. In this case, however, we are talking about things that are inherently valuable, things that God valued before there was any creation. Broadly speaking, we might say we’re looking for things that are, in and of themselves, good, true, and beautiful.
With this point in mind, ask yourself the question: What existed before the creation of the world that was good, true, and beautiful? I believe you will see that everything that existed before the creation of the world, which was good, true, and beautiful . . . was God. If there is a God who created the universe as we know it, then that means there was also a time when everything we love, which inspires us, and which gives us goose bumps, was all simply an aspect of his personality.
Life as we experience it now doesn’t force us to recognize this point. A man can experience love, for example, whether he believes in or acknowledges God at all. But this is a result of creation. It’s a result of the fact that God has diffused himself throughout human experience. There was a time before the creation of the world when the distinction would have been invalid, a time in which the thing we have come to know as love was literally embodied entirely in one (triune) being.
Creation must have arisen because of the way it accomplishes something God values. God values things like goodness, truth, and beauty. And yet those words are simply labels we have come up with to describe things that were, before creation, all him. So I think we are logical to conclude that if God could have created the universe to expand and increase himself—and, implicitly, all the things that we have come to know in the abstract as goodness, truth, and beauty—then that best explains the logic behind his decision to create a universe in the first place.
At first this may all sound very odd, but I am simply suggesting that God makes the same connection that we make in the course of properly setting our values and priorities. For example, we value things like paintings. But we would never value a single painting more than the artist who painted it. In fact we value the artist more because he is the source of such great beauty. Setting his value higher actually acknowledges the value of any one of his individual paintings. And Christians would want to take the last logical step and affirm that God, who first had the idea to make artists, should have an even higher place in our priorities for the same reason: that he is the source of artists.
The idea I want to propose is that the logic that leads us to value God more than anything else . . . must also lead God himself to value God more than anything else. He must, or at least ought to, come to the same conclusion about the importance and value of his role that we do: that he should have the greatest priority because his existence and work lead to the existence and work of all other good.
Let me take this a step further. We believe that God is good, not just because he’s divine, but because he makes perfect judgments, and because he faithfully evaluates and appraises whatever he sees. In contrast to the often haphazard way humans put one thing before another, God uses accurate weights and measures. So, although it seems strange at first, we put God’s judgment into question if we assume that he doesn’t accurately esteem the most valuable entity imaginable: himself.
[ . . . ]
I recognize that in some ways, the thesis I have offered here raises as many questions as it answers. But we still have plenty of time to fill in the gaps and think through the implications. For now, I believe it is logical to conclude that:
1. God created not out of a need he had but because of the way creation accomplished something he valued.
2. God ought to value himself and his attributes more than anything.
3. Creation must have resulted from the way God saw the value of expanding himself: his goodness, truth, beauty, and all the things that are a part of him.
That is my theory in its most essential form. What it means, whether it is true, and whether we can know it’s true—that’s where we’re headed next.