Thursday, February 17, 2011

Edwards On Free Will and the Fall (Part 5)

An Analysis of Edwards' Problem of the Fall

As we discussed in the last post, Jonathan Edwards concluded that God was the negative primary cause of the Fall, even as Adam was the secondary cause of the Fall. Most problematic was Edwards' view that Adam's nature contained both a principle of Flesh and a principle of Spirit. In Edwards' view, God continuously gave grace to Adam that he might favor Spirit over Flesh, but when God removed His grace, Adam necessarily fell into sin.

What of the Reformers?

Many Biblical Christians have considered and faced down the implications of the Fall and the sovereignty of God. Those who are of the same school of thought as Edwards, so far as his conception of the freedom of the will and also of God’s sovereignty, may have been led to consider in their own minds the issues that Edwards tackled, but very few have ever chosen to tackle the problem so directly as he did.

When Calvin chose to comment on Genesis chapter three and its implications so far as the Fall and God’s decreeing the Fall, Calvin would go no farther than to say that it must have been God’s will that the Fall occur, or else it would not have occurred.[1] Anything beyond what we have been told, he said, is dangerous. Now, an Arminian who reads in Calvin’s commentary on the Fall that it indeed was God’s will for man to fall will not find his assessment conservative at all, but to someone with a working and comprehensive knowledge of Reformed doctrine will see that Calvin’s own thoughts on the subject are quite standard.

Luther, likewise, took a very conservative and safe stance, compared to the daring of Edwards. “People who are not wary allow themselves to be drawn away from the Word into dangerous discussions. Because they are not satisfied with the Word, they ask: ‘Why and wherefore do these things happen thus?’”[2]

Beza went just as far as Calvin and taught that “the Fall was both wonderful and necessary.”[3] In his writings in this regard, Beza merely pointed out that since everything tends towards God’s glory, then even the Fall brought God glory, and more-so than if the Fall had not occurred. In many respects, what Edwards was doing was explaining how these things that Calvin and Beza taught (either explicitly or implicitly) could actually come to pass.


Though some readers may find it surprising, Edwards was not the most outspoken theologian on this matter, though many had implied what he taught. According to both Berkhof[4] and also Gerstner,[5] the only other theologian to speak so boldly with regard to the Fall was Nathanael Emmons. However, to put him in the same theological heritage may be fair but to say that their theologies agreed would be a vast overstatement. Emmons differed dramatically from Edwards by saying that sin was positively created in Adam. His somewhat Berkleyan influences fostered his rejection of original sin in favor of his belief that God produces sin in all people, whenever they sin. Emmons also taught that infants who die before becoming moral agents are annihilated. He also taught that “believers, at the time of their justification, are only partially and conditionally forgiven.” In its review of Emmons’ complete works, the Princeton Review commented, “Such is Emmonism; To say that it is not Calvinism, is only to say that black is not white, or that preposterous and exorbitant absurdity is not scriptural wisdom.”[6] The Calvinist author of this article goes on to say that Emmons’ theology is “evil and only evil.”

Needless to say, whereas Edwards staunchly defended God’s holiness and inability to sin or to positively cause sin (which is dramatically different from negatively causing sin), Emmons produces unwarranted conclusions, and supports them by broad, unscriptural assertions. Whereas Edwards places the blame for our sinfulness squarely upon our own shoulders, Emmons never hesitated to say that we are at every moment volitionally determined by God in a positive sense. For Edwards, though he attempted to offer a most rational explanation for the Fall, logically following Biblical truths and sound reason, Emmons stripped the Fall of all mystery and laid open what for most has been nothing more than a sneaking suspicion.

So on one end of the spectrum, you have Emmons who was not afraid to be bold and accuse God of sin. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the classic Reformers who believed it dangerous to plum the depths of God’s secrets and mysteries. Indeed, they knew what the abyss they were looking into probably contained, but, constrained by Biblical wisdom, chose to keep their assertions within the realm of absolute truth and scripture. Emmons, however says that “[t]hey looked over the brink, but they beheld an abyss and they returned. They distrusted the sounding line, when its lead sank into the depths of divinity, and ceased to read off the fathoms…”[7] This heresy was utterly rejected by nearly all New England theologians, and now Emmonism is a practically extinct theology, leaving little behind, save the works of its somewhat eccentric creator.

The occurrence of Emmonism is in the least fascinating, however, because it shows indeed the darkness that plumbing the depths of God’s hidden nature could bring about. It seems that there was never a darker picture of God drawn than what we see in Emmons’ theology. If anyone so desires to go to the length that Emmons did, to assert that God positively causes sin, one may get drawn away “up, into God,” but in order to do so, they must release their hold on the scriptures, which prevent such speculations from happening. The Scriptures are our only safe foundation and anchor.

In the final part of our series, I will offer some concluding thoughts on Edwards' views with regard to what we've discussed.

Next Up: Part 6


[1] Calvin, John Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster Press. 1960) Pg. 956-957
[2] Luther, Martin Luther’s Works (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis. 1958) Volume 1, Pg. 148
[3] Beza, Theodore “Supralapsarianism: The Fall was Both Wonderful and Necessary” Quæstionum Et Responsionum Christianarum Libellus (1570) Questions 190-194
[4] Berkhof, Louis The History of Christian Doctrine (Baker Book House, 1983) Pg. 156
[5] Gerstner Pg. 315
[6] Princeton Review Book Review of the works of Nathaniel Emmons (Princeton Review, October 1842) Pg. 1
[7] Emmons, Nathaniel Works Edited by Jacob Ide (Crocker & Brewster. 1842) as quoted in Princeton Review (October 1842). Pg. 3

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