On the orthodoxy of Jonathan Edwards

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Jonathan Edwards had some strange ideas. He was an idealist like Berkeley. He denied that the world persists through time, claiming that it is continuously created out of nothing by God moment-by-moment. He also denied creaturely causal action in his doctrine of occasionalism. Moreover, he thought that the world is the necessary output of the essential creativity of the deity, embracing the idea that this is the best possible world. Often these views are not reported in popular accounts of his work, though they are widely known in the scholarly community. But is his position theologically orthodox? This article argues that he is faced with an Edwardsian Dilemma: Either he must admit that his theology proper implies that God is not metaphysically simple, or he must embrace pantheism. Neither horn seems particularly attractive. Of the two, the second seems less appealing than the first. Nevertheless, it looks as if the logic of his position presses in this direction. His idealism and Neoplatonic conception of God's necessary emanation of the world imply panentheism. When coupled with his doctrine of divine simplicity, it looks as if his position could be pressed in a pantheist direction. However, if he opts for the first horn, he must deny the doctrine of divine simplicity, which he endorses in a range of works. If God is simple, then it looks as if all his ideas imply one another and the divine essence. Yet the world is an emanation of divine ideas, which Edwards believes God constantly ‘communicates’. Suppose with Edwards that the world is an ordered series of divine ideas. Then it looks as if they must imply each other and the divine nature as well, given divine simplicity. Clearly this is intolerable, as far as orthodoxy goes. One option is for the Edwardsian to revise divine simplicity, so that God is merely a metaphysical simple like a soul. Then he may have distinct states and properties. However, in addition to this revision one would need to amend Edwards’ occasionalism because it provides an apparently insuperable problem of evil for his metaphysics. Thus, revising the first horn involves more than a little tinkering with the deep structures of Edwards’ thought. However, I argue that this is what the Edwardsian must do if she wants to hold onto a broadly orthodox Edwardsian view on these matters.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)304-322
JournalScottish Journal of Theology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2014


  • Dilemma
  • Orthodoxy
  • Panentheism
  • Pantheism
  • Simplicity


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