“The problem of evil, free will, and God’s sovereignty” in Edwards’ thinking, explained by Marsden, and quoted here, in this very post

I’m pretty sure this will be the last quote from Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden.  Really.  These four paragraphs were so good, I really didn’t have the freedom of the will to resist.  From Chapter 26, “Against an ‘Almost Inconceivably Pernicious’ Doctrine”, pages 442-3.

As always, Edwards’ philosophy started with his theology.  While his opponents were starting with principles of human morality and psychology and from those inferring what God’s moral government of the universe must be like, Edwards was starting with what God must be like and then examining the human condition in that light.  If God is absolutely sovereign, as Scripture claimed and Calvinists emphasized, and if God is eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent, how can there be meaningful freedom and moral agency?

If God is the omnipotent creator and sustainer of the universe, then everything that happened must be the result of God’s will.  There is no escaping this conclusion.  God wills to govern creation in a variety of ways.  Everything that happens according to the sequences of nature, for instance, must happen because of the original design of nature.  God, of course, is not bound by nature and can will to interpose.  Yet whether God wills to interpose or wills not to interpose, whatever happens is still just as certainly dependent on God’s will.  It does not make sense to suppose that at every moment in the universe there are millions of uncaused free acts of will that are not the subject of God’s will, either positive or negative.

Such a universe is further unintelligible if we consider that God is eternal.  An eternal God cannot be waiting for uncaused and hence unpredictable acts to happen.  Rather, God sees all events simultaneously and so sees the sequences of events as they are determined by their antecedents.  God’s omniscience, or knowledge of these sequences, entails that they cannot be other than what they are, or in human terms, what they will be.  In short, there is no escaping that all that happens does so under the control of God’s will.

Such a rigorous Calvinistic view of a God-controlled universe might seem fatalistic and demoralizing if God were not supremely good and loving.  It is at this point that Edwards’ grand theological vision as articulated briefly in A Divine and Supernatural Light becomes most important for understanding his enthrallment with God-willed reality.  All created reality is like a quintessential explosion of light from the sun of God’s intertrinitarian love.  Though creatures experience this light in time, God sees it from beginning to end, from the perspective of eternity.  Unlike humans, God sees the ultimate consequences of everything.  So God wills to permit evil but only because that permission grows out of the ultimately loving and just will of God who can do no other than create what is ultimately the greatest good.

3 comments on ““The problem of evil, free will, and God’s sovereignty” in Edwards’ thinking, explained by Marsden, and quoted here, in this very post

  1. Peter Beimers says:

    I was very interested to read this blog. I think this is one of the hardest, if not THE hardest, issues for Christians to explain to non-Christians and Christians alike. More difficult than explaining the Trinity even? Maybe. If not, a close 2nd. I believe Edwards was right when he goes back to creation (inferred) and the Fall and the entrance of sin into the world. The events that happen, the evil as we see, are a natural result and consequence of sin. Examples are all around and it won’t take long for anyone to point to many examples. I’ve often heard the question, “If a loving God how come….” (you fill in the blank). What I didn’t see in these four paragraphs is how God responds to the one suffering. Does Marsden explain elsewhere what Edwards taught and believed? What you have quoted is bang-on theologically correct, but what is the heart? What is Edward’s pastoral answer to suffering (evil) in the world. I’m exceedingly interested in that. Am I making sense with my question? Lemme put it another way, if it were possible that Edwards was alive in 2008, what would he say to the mother of 3 boys under the age of 9 who is now widowed at age 29? To the parents who now bury their son? Etc.
    What, did Marsden say, was Edwards’ pastoral vibe?

  2. jsundberg says:

    I think part of the answer is in that fourth paragraph, and especially the last two sentences:

    “Unlike humans, God sees the ultimate consequences of everything. So God wills to permit evil but only because that permission grows out of the ultimately loving and just will of God who can do no other than create what is ultimately the greatest good.”

    God’s eternality and love allow/permit evil which rightly causes us pain in this life, but it all progresses towards the end of an ultimate greatest good which we can only see once we reach eternity. Granted, while I agree with Edwards and Marsed, that does sound clinical.

    I’ll string together some more quotes from the chapter “The Transitory and the Enduring” which shed light on the Edwards family’s griefs.

    “In an era when life was precarious and when on every return home one had to hope one would not be greeted by a new grave, the Edwards family had been remarkably free from such sorrows. At the beginning of 1758, when Edwards accepted the position at Princeton, both his parents were still living…Jonathan’s own health was seldom robust, but it may have been better than usual.”

    Edwards’ son-in-law, Aaron Burr had died the previous year at the age of 41, leaving his wife and two small children. Jonathan went to Princeton to replace him as the President of that college. Shortly after arriving he received a smallpox inoculation that went bad.

    “It soon became impossible for him to swallow the liquids that were considered necessary to prevent a secondary fever. After weeks of fever and starvation ravishing his ‘feeble frame’ he died peacefully on the afternoon of March 22 [1758]” He hadn’t seen his wife or most of his children since January when he left for Princeton.

    “When he realized that he would not survive, he called his daughter Lucy, who was attending him, and said…”Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue forever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children, you are now like to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a Father, who will never fail you.”

    “Sarah [his wife] was ill at the time she received the news in Stockbridge and was able to write only a few lines in comfort to Esther [their daughter whose husband had died the previous year]: O My Very Dear Child, What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. Oh that we may kiss the rod [of reproof – Marsden], and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him [Jonathan] so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. Oh what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God: and there I am, and love to be. Sarah Edwards”

    “Esther never saw this letter. Less than two weeks after her father’s death she was seized with a fever that soon turned severe, produced a violent headache, and then delirium. She died a few days later, on April 7. Apparently the fever was not from smallpox. Her sister Sally believed it was much like the sudden fever from which Jerusha [another daughter] had died.”

    “Despite knowing that such chastisements were to teach them to depend more on God, family and friends were suffering grievously. The oldest daughter, Sally, wrote from Stockbridge to her sister Mary Dwight in Northampton, ‘Sister I hope you are in a much better [way] under these trials than I am.’ She agonized for Lucy in Princeton and especially for the two orpaned children…What could be the meaning of such chastisements?…The family members were supposed to fit their personal agonies into the conventions of greater submission to God but, as Esther’s sisters knew, that was far easier said than done.”

    “In the Edwardses’ world, the meaning of life was found in intense loves, including earthly loves. Yet as overwhelming as earthly affections might be, they were supposed to have their true value only when subordinated to heavenly and eternal loves. In that proper relationship even the most humble lives and loves radiated with eternal significance. In such eternal perspective death lost its power to take meaning from life. In the face of a devastating loss, however, temporal loves often overwhelmed that perspective. Submission was the only proper response, the great lesson being taught, and ultimately the path to immense comfort. Yet for almost everyone in the Edwards circle, such submission involved heart-wrenching struggles.”

    “Though [Sarah Edwards] grieved deeply at her terrible double loss, still, says [Samuel] Hopkins, ‘she was quiet and resigned, and had those invisible supports, which enabled her to trust in God with quietness, hope, and humble joy.'”

    “We cannot know how much emotional turmoil may have lain beneath Sarah’s discipline and exterior calm in accepting such devastation, but it soon took its toll. She also faced immense responsibilities. She determined that she should take care of her two orpaned grandchildren herself. In September she traveled to Princeton and then to Philadelphia to pick up the children who had been staying there. Soon after arriving, she was seized with dysentery. She died October 2, 1758, aged forty-eight. She was buried next to Jonathan in Princeton. The family had lost another tower of strength, their fourth sudden loss in a year.”

    I don’t know if that helps or answers your questions in any way, but I think you can see “Edwards’ pastoral vibe” woven within those paragraphs and expressed through his family and their faith in God while in the midst of tragedy. I don’t think Edwards ever belittled or denied grief, sorrow or loss. I do think he held it in perspective to the sovereignty, goodness and love of God who wills and works all things for our ultimate good and his glory.

    I didn’t make the connection between your questions and your family’s personal loss until I went back and looked closer at your Facebook information. I’m sorry to hear about your brother. Was he a believer? How is your family doing overall?

  3. ponderingsofpadre says:

    That was helpful. I always find that “clinical” theology with the flesh of everyday life gives theology the attractiveness that people can more easily embrace. I have found, in the last 6 months, those who are well meaning in their sharing of theology as to the whys of tragedy without a context of their own tend to come off more hurtful than helpful. Comments such as “It was his time” or “God knew what He was doing when Jeremy was killed” or “God does these things to draw us closer to Him” stalls grieving; since they are so heavily laced in guilt. While they would say these things, we’d also hear, “Don’t grieve or be saddened since this was God’s will. Now buck-up and move on.” Death stinks and is evil and should be treated as such. Why else would the Bible call it our last enemy? As tragic as Edward’s life and extended family’s life was touched by death, it does give the reader some comfort knowing that Edwards isn’t speaking from a purely ideological stance- he knows from whence he speaks.
    As for my brother, yes he was a believer- but not a regular attender. The family has comfort in knowing he is in Heaven today. In the hours leading up and following his death and the days following, the LORD was gracious to give the family many many many miraculous signs to tell us that Jeremy is there with Him. I won’t get into some or all of them now; look for it in a coming blog! (Now that I’ve started, I got stuff I want to write about… me thinks “The Shack” may be the next blog with maybe the signs from the LORD next.) So let this be an advertisement to all who don’t think the LORD shares in these means today- stay tuned! Sorry for that commercial, where was I? Oh yeah…
    Jeremy was to turn 31 a month after his death. He left behind his wife Lisa and 3 young boys; the oldest of which turned 9 on Father’s Day… mere days after the death. Jeremy and Lisa met at RBC… seem to recall a few other couples doing the same thing. They lived in Texas and Lisa and the boys have since moved to Grand Rapids where she still had some connections (she being American couldn’t move to Canada). She still has her hard days, as do my parents, as do I. My other brother has ups and downs too. Jeremy certainly did have a full, albeit, short life. He served in the American military with the Army, was stationed in Iraq, drove taxi after his discharge and was 3 months into his new job with the railroad. Life was starting to turn around for all of them when this happened. Not fair. But the effects of sin never are. By far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was lead his funeral. Something I hope to never do again; lead a funeral for a family member younger than me.
    There are days that are naturally hard, his birthday, our birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and now Christmas time is coming- should be a challenge at times. But, time cruely marches on and life never pauses to let us catch our breathe.
    But, yeah, faith does sure take a hit in an instance such as this. I’ll never fault someone for not singing in church. Or other pious acts- sometimes it is simply too hard. Our various churches have been great upholding us all in prayer for which we are thankful. Speaking for myself, without them and our friends I’m not sure how soon I’d get up after my faith has been kneed in the balls then kicked in the head repeatedly while down on the ground in pain. Might still be there without them.
    But I’ve rambled on long enough and my 2 youngest are in the tub calling to come out of the tub.
    Thanks for your replies!

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