Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation

Written by Oliver D. Crisp Reviewed By Joe Rigney

As his title suggests, Oliver Crisp’s book deal with “two central concepts” in the thought of Jonathan Edwards: “the divine nature and the created order” and the relationship between them. In what amounts to an overview of the foundation and structure of Edward’s theological vision, Crisp’s monograph explores Edwards’s view of metaphysics, divine freedom, divine simplicity and excellency, the Trinity, the God-world relation, and the final state. In the process, Crisp locates his own reading of Edwards in relation to other key Edwards scholars, most notably Sang Lee, Stephen Holmes, and Amy Plantinga-Pauw. Methodologically, Crisp attempts to give appropriate weight to the various genres of Edwards’s writings, privileging published treatises and sermons over private notebooks and outlines. This is a welcome move, since some scholars give inordinate weight to Edwards’s more obscure musings and speculations, as opposed to the writings that he commended to the public.

The book proceeds by focusing on various metaphysical and theological foci that are central to understanding God and creation. As a result, some of these subjects are treated more than once, as they are brought into relation to new topics in what amounts to a spiraling effect. Crisp begins in Chapter 1 by engaging with Sang Lee’s dispositional ontology, arguing that while Lee’s reading has many merits, Edwards does not completely abandon an essentialist metaphysics that utilizes substances and properties. Instead, Edwards modifies an essentialist metaphysics, combining it with an idealism and occasionalism (on which see below). In Chapter 2, Crisp argues that Edwards is closer to the Reformed tradition from which he emerged when it comes to his theology proper, particularly in relation to the pure act understanding of the divine nature. Moreover, Crisp, invoking and modifying Lee, argues that Edwards held that God has an essential disposition to create. This raises the question of whether God must create and how a positive answer to that question relates to divine freedom. Chapter 3 explores these questions in detail, arguing that Edwards held both that God must create and that this does not impinge upon his freedom, since divine freedom, like the creaturely version, is compatibilistic. In other words, for Edwards, not even God has libertarian freedom, since liberty of indifference is an incoherent concept in itself. Thus, creation can be both necessary and freely willed by God. The necessity of creation seems to pose a challenge to divine aseity, a criticism made against Edwards by scholars such as James Beilby and Michael McClymond. Crisp takes up this question in Chapter 4, arguing from The End For Which God Created the World that Edwards has the resources to withstand the attack, even if some puzzles and questions remain. The fifth chapter is devoted to Edwards’s peculiar notion of divine excellency, in which Edwards argues that “one alone . . . cannot be excellent . . . for there can be no such thing as consent” (quoted on p. 84). Excellency requires plurality, which seems to pose a challenge to the classical notion of divine simplicity. Engaging with McClymond and Pauw and drawing up Muller’s work on the Reformed Scholastics, Crisp argues that Edwards held to an apophatic account of simplicity, which, though idiosyncratic in relation to individuating the persons of the Trinity, stands well within the Reformed tradition. Chapter 6 focuses on Edwards’s doctrine of the Trinity, especially his attempt to reduce the attributes of God to persons. Crisp finds Edwards’s arguments at this point irredeemable and incomplete, though it is unclear to the reviewer that Crisp has sufficiently and clearly understood them. Chapter 7 returns to Edwards’s occasionalism and links it to his panentheism, the notion that the world exists, in some sense, “in God.” Offering a charitable reading of Edwards on this point, Crisp finds Edwards’s panentheism to be consistent with classical theism, and that any residual problems in Edwards’s view apply in equal measure to others in the Augustinian Neoplatonic tradition. The final chapter focuses on the consummation of all things. For Edwards, Crisp argues, heaven is an ever-increasing, asymptotic union of God with his elect creatures. Moreover, Crisp responds to objections from Holmes and Plantinga-Pauw with respect to Edwards’s doctrine of hell, noting that his views on the subject are consistent and rooted in his understanding of the Bible, however out of step they may be with modern notions of divine love. The result is that Crisp offers a careful, well-reasoned, illuminating, and at times provocative analysis of Edwards’s thought.

For all of Crisp’s benefits, however, there are a handful of areas where he falls short. For example, he doesn’t always heed his own methodological cautions. In his chapter on the Trinity, he reiterates the circumstantial nature of Edwards’s writing on the subject, noting that Edwards’s thinking “was never in the final form he wished it to be,” and that he “never published a sustained treatment of the doctrine” (p. 118). However, later in that same chapter, he chastises Edwards for making a “peculiar oversight” and obvious “mistake” (in relation to how to individuate the persons of the Trinity). But, what would one expect, if Edwards’s writings were ad hoc and not in their final form?

Additional methodological criticisms revolve around Crisp’s mode of comparing Edwards to other thinkers. At times, such as in his treatment of Edwards and the pure act tradition, Crisp ably and helpfully locates Edwards in relation to his own theological influences, notably Turretin, van Mastricht, and Ames. At other times, Crisp runs far afield, evaluating Edwards in light of modern theological notions of divine simplicity (p. 114), or anachronistically linking his views to metaphysical philosophies such as Humean bundle theory (pp. 18–21), which may or may not have any direct bearing on Edwards. Moreover, Crisp’s penchant for breaking Edwards’s views up into propositions for the sake of philosophical analysis is a two-edged sword (see chs. 2, 5, 6, 7). On the one hand, at times it does bring clarity to the subject at hand. On the other hand, it sometimes untethers Crisp’s analysis from the text and Edwards’s own language and framing, resulting in reductionisms and mischaracterizations of Edwards’s thought. The most significant example of this is Crisp’s persistent claim that Edwards held that God must necessarily create. To demonstrate this claim, Crisp repeatedly appeals to passages in The End For Which God Created the World in which Edwards says that there is “a disposition in God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fullness.” Crisp uses this passage (and others like it) to claim that for Edwards, “God is essentially disposed to create some world” (p. 50), and that “the divine nature is configured such that God must create a world, because the act of creation is a ‘propensity of nature,’ a ‘necessary consequence of’ God’s ‘delighting in the glory of his own nature’” (p. 146). But notice that the word “create” does not appear in the passage; instead, Edwards consistently uses the word “emanation” to talk about this original property. What’s more, in End, Edwards is at pains to distinguish emanation from creation, since it is this original disposition to an emanation that moves God to create the world. Now, Crisp may respond that this is a distinction without a difference, given Edwards’s commitment to divine compatibilism. But the point is that Edwards does clearly make this distinction, and therefore regards it as significant at some level. Therefore, to collapse the distinction (and to do so perhaps unknowingly?) is a defect in one’s analysis.

The other major area of criticism lies in Crisp’s treatment of Edwards’s occasionalism. Crisp argues that for Edwards, “the world is an infinite series of numerically distinct entities created ex nihilo, moment by moment, and arranged in the divine mind seriatim, so as to produce the effect of continuous activity over time” (p. 36). The world is like a motion picture made up of still frames that God stitches together and projects in his mind (p. 160). In itself, this seems like a fair summary of Edwards’s view. However, Crisp goes on to argue that this entails the denial of secondary causality and makes persistence through time illusory. In fact, Crisp repeatedly stresses throughout the book that, for Edwards, creatures “strictly speaking, do not persist through time” (p. 86). Persistence and change over time are only a matter of appearances (p. 150). What’s more, Crisp finds this incredibly problematic in his discussion of hell, since “the damned are not the agents that cause the acts by which they are condemned and do not cause the acts they perform in hell; God does” (p. 186). At this point, Crisp has gone substantially beyond Edwards’s view to draw conclusions that Edwards would clearly not accept because they don’t accurately reflect his claims. Crisp’s error comes from failing to take seriously Edwards’s argument in the key passage supporting occasionalism from Original Sin, a passage that Crisp repeatedly quotes.

It appears, if we consider matters strictly, there is no such thing as any identity or oneness in created objects, existing at different times, but what depends on God’s sovereign constitution. . . . [I]t appears, that a divine constitution is the thing which makes truth, in affairs of this nature. (quoted on p. 150, Crisp’s italics)

Crisp takes this to mean that Edwards denies that creatures persist through time, that there is no “identity” between the Joe Rigney who ate breakfast this morning and the Joe Rigney writing this review. But Edwards says precisely the opposite. Rephrasing the quotation, Edwards claims that the only identity in created objects is that which depends on God’s sovereign constitution because God’s constitution is what makes truth in these matters. Edwards doesn’t deny persistence; he accounts for persistence through total divine dependence understood in an occasionalist manner. Put another way, Edwards is not offering an occasionalist account of apparent persistence; he’s offering an occasionalist account of actual persistence. The persistence is real precisely because, as Edwards says, God makes this the “truth” of the matter. It’s only by privileging a non-occasionalist metaphysics that Crisp is able to characterize Edwards’s thought in the way that he does.

Despite these shortcomings, Crisp’s book offers a comprehensive and careful treatment of his subject. Even when he errs, Crisp clarifies issues by helping us to see the fundamental interpretive issues facing Edwards scholars. Because of this, Crisp’s book is an essential read for anyone doing serious study of Edwards’s theology.

Joe Rigney

Joe Rigney
Bethlehem College & Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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