Reason and Revelation

Like the second-century Christian apologists, Edwards believed that all philosophical truth embodied remnants of divine revelation and that ''the doctrines of revealed religion, are the foundation of all useful and excellent knowledge.'' He followed a tradition known as the prisca theologia (ancient theology), inaugurated by such fathers of the church as Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215), Origen (ca. 185-ca. 245), and Eusebius (ca. 260-ca. 340), who employed it to prove that the wisdom of Greek philosophy came from the revelation to the ancient Jews. Renaissance thinkers adopted and altered the tradition in the sixteenth century to prove the compatibility of Christian truth and Neoplatonic philosophy. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Protestants like Ralph Cudworth (1617-88) at Cambridge, Philip Skelton (1707-87) in Ireland, and Chevalier (Andrew Michael) Ramsay (1686-1743) in France used it to show that non-Christians could have knowledge of the Christian God. Edwards read these thinkers, and they convinced him that non-Christian religions could contain fragments of truth even about such Christian mysteries as redemption and the Trinity. For him, however, the chief implication in the idea of a prisca theologia was that all seemingly natural religion — and natural theology — rested on the foundation of the original revelation to Adam and the ancient Jews. The deists might have assumed that their theologies came from reason alone, but Edwards thought that they had unwittingly absorbed revealed truth transmitted through cultural traditions.10

He held conventional views about the harmony of reason and revelation. While revelation was above reason, right reason did not conflict with revealed truths. Edwards also believed, however, in accord with Calvinist tradition, that unassisted fallen reason, left to itself, could never avoid idolatry. In matters of religious truth, reason required the illumination of both the biblical revelation and the Spirit. Edwards therefore spoke of three levels of religious knowledge, the first drawn from natural theology, the second grounded in biblical knowledge, and the third constituted by the perception of divine excellency made possible when the Spirit opened the mind and will to the deepest level of biblical truth.11

At the first level, the ''light of nature'' could discover multiple truths about God. Edwards thought nothing was more demonstrable than the ''Being of a God,'' and he used the standard rational arguments for God's existence. The order of the world suggested an orderer; the creation required a sufficient cause; the complex human soul could not have resulted from chance; and the yearnings and habits innate in the mind—as well as the mind's inclination toward excellence—required God for their fulfillment. The supposition of a self-moving first cause provided a better explanation for an ordered world than any alternative. Edwards employed the arguments that had long been standard in both the Catholic and the Reformed traditions.12

The most distinctive argument in his natural theology probably had its immediate source in his reading of the Cambridge Platonist Henry More. The argument first appeared in Edwards's essay ''Of Being,'' which he began as a graduate student at Yale in 1721. He observed that it was impossible for the mind to conceive of ''a state of perfect nothing,'' for to conceive of nothingness was implicitly to assign to it a form of being. In order to avoid self-contradiction, therefore, one must necessarily concede that ''some being should eternally be.'' Eternal being was logically necessary. This was a scholastic style of argument, similar in form to the metaphysical dialectics of Heerebord and Burgersdyck, as well as the Spanish Catholic metaphysician Franciscus Suarez (1548-1617), but the closest parallels were in More. Edwards drew explicitly on an argument about space advanced earlier by More and by Sir Isaac Newton: one could not conceive of a place where pure nothing existed, for even empty space was a form of being: ''So that we see this necessary, eternal being must be infinite and omnipresent.''13

In yet other ways, Edwards spoke of reason as a channel of religious truth. Reason could demonstrate that human beings were imperfect and fallen, that they owed a duty to their Creator that they could not fulfill, and that some form of mediation between God and humanity was necessary. Reason could also show that it was plausible to expect a divine revelation making known the means of this mediation. Edwards could even say that a mediation ''like that of Christ might be absolutely Proved to be necessary by pure naked demonstration,'' though logic alone could never show that Jesus Christ was the mediator to whom the argument pointed. He could assert, in a manner foreign to more conservative Reformed scholastics, that it was ''within the Reach of naked

Reason to perceive Certainly that there are three distincts to God,'' though he added that reason could not know the full truth about the Christian Trinity. Edwards sounded frequently like a ''catholick'' Congregationalist entranced by the promise of natural theology.14

At the same time, he wrote far more often than the Congregational ''catho-licks'' about the limits of reason. He reflected on the problem that reason alone, when it tried to consider truth about God, encountered paradoxes that it could not unravel. The notion of a being who was ''self-existent and without any cause'' struck him as ''utterly inconceivable'' to pure reason. The idea of an infinite spiritual being, which implied omnipresence without extension, was a mystery. The notion of eternity—whether conceived as an endless succession or as duration without succession — seemed to reason as either empty of meaning or contradictory. Injustice and suffering in a world overseen by an infinitely holy and good God baffled reason. Edwards confined these more skeptical thoughts to his private ''Miscellanies,'' where they functioned mainly as a critique of the deists, but they reflected his belief that any adequate theology required a revelation above the capacity of reason.15

What fallen humanity needed was the knowledge of Christ as the second Person of the Trinity incarnate and as the mediator in the ''gospel scheme,'' and Edwards was especially convinced that reason could never have discovered these ''mysteries'' apart from revelation. Whatever its capacities to discern religious truths, naked reason was also subject to ''extreme and brutish Blindness in things of Religion.'' Like Calvin, Edwards contended that unaided reason invariably distorted the religious truth that it discovered. Like Calvin, he concluded that ''Christian divinity, properly so called'' was therefore not evident by ''the light of nature.'' In a fallen world, the truths of salvation were matters ''of pure revelation, above the light of natural reason.''16

This revealed knowledge—the second level of religious knowledge—came through the Bible, which Edwards understood as ''God's own words.'' He found the idea of revelation itself highly rational, since it was ''fit and requisite'' that a sovereign and gracious God would reveal something of his design in the world. Like his predecessors in the evidential tradition, Edwards found proof of the authenticity of scriptural revelation in the credibility of the miracle accounts and the fulfillment of the prophecies, especially those of Christ. He defended the biblical miracles against the derision of the English deist Thomas Woolston, and throughout his career he displayed an avid interest in supporting, against such deists as Anthony Collins, the argument that the biblical prophecies proved Jesus to be the Messiah.17

In 1757 he told the trustees of the College of New Jersey that he was writing a ''great work, which I call The Harmony of the Old and New Testaments.''

Since the mid-seventeenth century, Christian writers had shown an interest in reconciling the differences in the four gospels—John Eliot had written such a harmony in New England—but Edwards's project was more ambitious. Since the second century, one stream of Christian thought had emphasized the unity of the Old and New Testaments. This stream had flowed into the Reformed tradition through John Calvin, and Edwards followed Calvin in laying out the details of the unity by showing that the Old Testament prophecies of a coming Messiah found their fulfillment in Christ, that the Old Testament types pointed toward New Testament antitypes, and that the two testaments displayed a ''harmony'' in ''doctrine and precept.'' His project, for which he wrote five hundred manuscript pages, countered deist attacks on the unity of the Bible, but the theme of harmony was of special interest to him even apart from polemical intentions because it illustrated the Bible's ''excellency.''18

So impressed was Edwards by biblical harmonies that he could account the ''internal'' evidence for revelation as far more important than ''external evidences'' like miracles and prophecies. The gospel carried its own ''light and goodness with it,'' both in the grandeur of its contents and in its internal ''harmony,'' its ''consistency'' and ''concurrence.'' The Bible contained a ''vast variety of parts,'' each with a ''various and manifold respect to others,'' connected in ''one grand system.'' Just as Edwards viewed the natural and spiritual realms as networks of relations, so also he read the Bible as a revelation marked by internal harmony, and the consistency of its interrelated parts manifested for him a proof of the book's divine origin.19

His admiration for these harmonies accounts for his immense interest in typology. Edwards prepared extensive commentaries on the biblical text, and the greater part of them explored types and antitypes. In 1724 he began his ''Notes on Scripture,'' which by 1758 had become 507 numbered entries, with typology as the unifying theme. In 1730 he began his ''Miscellaneous Observations on the Holy Scriptures,'' otherwise known as the ''Blank Bible,'' which placed equally heavy emphasis on the deciphering of the types. Reading widely in biblical history, chronology, and geography, Edwards found in the places and figures of the Old Testament an extensive foreshadowing of New Testament truths that underscored the harmony of the Bible.20

He was so attracted to typology that he found types not only in scripture but also throughout the natural world. Edwards joined a number of other eighteenth-century theologians in expanding typology beyond scriptural boundaries. The whole of nature sparkled for him with types of spiritual truth. Nonetheless, he never elevated nature to a level of authority coequal with revelation. The listing of types that he began to assemble in his notebooks in 1728 as ''Images of Divine Things'' rather displayed nature filled with types of biblical truths. Scripture interpreted nature by explaining the spiritual mysteries typified in the natural world. This project, like much of his biblical interpretation, was about excellency: the images showed the ''excellent agreement'' between nature and the Bible.21

Edwards's main concern, however, was that the reader grasp the ''spiritual sense'' of the text, the third and deepest level of religious knowledge. This spiritual apprehension depended on the movement of the Spirit within the heart, allowing the reader to have ''a true sense of the excellency of the things revealed'' and to grasp their ''truth and reality.'' Such a grasp of truth embodied a threefold apprehension of the ''excellency'' of God and Christ: it apprehended their intrinsic beauty; it imbued the heart with a ''sense'' of that beauty, more profound than any merely ''notional'' judgment; and it elicited a consent that the natural reason could never have given, since reason alone could never discover ''the beauty and loveliness of spiritual things.'' It was a commonplace of Protestant thought to distinguish intellectual assent from a heartfelt consent made possible by the Spirit. Edwards linked the distinction to his idea of excellency.22

Like his Puritan predecessors, Edwards was interested mainly in a form of knowing that moved the will as well as the understanding. Only through this kind of ideal apprehension, which Edwards described as ''sensible,'' could a person grasp the beauty of an object, or feel pleasure in it, or have longing for it. Some forms of sensible ideal apprehension grasped only natural objects, such as the beauty of a landscape, but to grasp the beauty of God required an ideal apprehension that was actual (consisting of more than assent to words), sensible (rather than speculative), and spiritual (created by the immediate activity of the Spirit). To know God in this way was to ''have a sense'' of God's excellency, or of the beauty of God as an end in itself. This intuitive perception of the divine excellency was the deepest form of divine knowledge available to human beings.23

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