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Jonathan Edwards on the Literal Meaning of Genesis

According to Jonathan Edwards—the great eighteenth century New England Puritan who worked as a missionary among the Native Americans and who played a central role in the First Great Awakening—all truth claims must be tested in the light of Scripture. Human reasoning apart from divine revelation can easily lead the mind astray. God is revealed in nature but not in so immediate or transparent a way that he can be “proved” by scientific methods or arguments for “intelligent design.” Hence, believers should not conform their readings of God’s Word to the proofs of a freestanding rationalistic science or speculative logic (as in Maimonides’ hermeneutics) but must instead conform their reasoning and science to the teachings of Holy Writ. This included, in Edwards’ thinking, the plain language of the Genesis narrative. Arguably the most brilliant American theologian and philosopher of all time believed in a literal six-day creation.
But while many Adventist literalists will resonate strongly with Edwards’ hermeneutics and epistemology (and I do as well), his approach to questions of reason and revelation in fact led him to a theology of creation that, in Adventist perspective, may be deeply heretical. What was the “heresy” and how could a literalist who held such a high view of the authority of Scripture fall into it?
The Sense of the Heart
Despite the high value he placed on the authority of Scripture, Edwards recognized that all readings of the divine Word must inevitably be precisely that: readings. There simply does not exist any pristine position unburdened by background conditions and exegetical assumptions. Every truth claim is an interpretive act. Those who hold to the idea of sola scriptura also engage in complex reasoning and logical justifications (and frequently appeals to the authority of non-biblical writers) to support their views, no less than anyone else. How, then, are we to sort out correct and incorrect ways of reasoning, both from and about biblical passages?
For Edwards, the interpretive key to reading Scripture lay in what he referred to as “the sense of the heart” or religious “affection.” What Edwards meant by the “sense of the heart” was that believers must be assisted by the Holy Spirit as they read Scripture so that their interpretations are in fact an act of loving responsiveness to the personal revelation of God to them as individuals. The result of reading Scripture in this way is “sanctified reason”—an ability to understand what Scripture means not through human speculative power alone but through a living relationship with the Creator God, and through spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation.
Reading the Bible with a “sense of the heart” or “affection” does not simply remove obstacles to reason. It causes reason itself to come alive. “It makes even the speculative notions more lively,” Edwards wrote:
“It assists and engages the attention of the mind to that kind of objects, which causes it to have a clearer view of them, and more clearly to see their mutual relations. The ideas themselves, which otherwise are dim and obscure, by this means have light cast upon them, and are impressed with greater strength, so that the mind can better judge of them; as he that beholds the objects on the face of the earth, when the light of the sun is cast upon them, is under greater advantage to discern them in their true forms and mutual relations, and to see the evidences of divine wisdom and skill in their contrivance, than he that sees them in a dim star-light, or twilight.”
Sanctified Reason and Continuous Creation
Yet Edwards was not simply a Christian mystic who happened to believe that the creation occurred in six literal days. He was also a philosopher with a rigorously logical mind who saw that certain truths flowed deductively from a high view of God’s absolute control over the creation as recorded in Genesis and apprehended by “sanctified reason.” If all things were originally created by God ex nihilo and by divine fiat, this meant that all things in the beginning were absolutely dependent for their existence on God’s sovereign will. It was a logical fallacy, however, to think that the fact of antecedent existence in any way guaranteed or explained the continued existence of created things. Like the Scottish empiricist David Hume, Edwards saw that we inductively infer that things in nature are causally linked to the things that preceded them, but in reality we have no direct access to what it is that actually links things together from one moment to the next. We simply see them constantly joined together and conclude that whatever comes later was created or caused by whatever came before, and we call this the “laws” of science.
But in the light of Genesis, the only reason things continue to exist in a continuous way, Edwards deduced, is because at every single moment God wills that these things continue to exist. Nature could not have been self-generating in the beginning. It cannot be self-generating in the present. The laws of “science” are in reality the laws of God, which is to say the will of God. There was not simply one creation once and for all. Rather, there is a “continuous creation” in Edwards’ theology in which things in nature are supernaturally sustained and re-created ex nihilo at every single instant following God’s sovereign decrees. Every single atom of existence is at every moment a miracle radiant with God’s presence and power. It is only habituation to the miraculous that prevents us from seeing that all of life is infused with God’s presence and creative agency.
This did not mean for Edwards that God is to be identified with nature as in pantheistic doctrines. Instead, it implied that the creation is utterly at God’s mercy. Apart from God’s creative will operating at every instant, everything that is would vanish into nothingness.
And herein lie the seeds to Edwards’ “heresy.”
Look to the Spider
Edwards was a strict Calvinist whose vision of God’s absolute sovereignty over the creation compelled him to the doctrine of pre-destination. Nature does not simply unfold according to natural laws and principles of freedom, leading to both good and evil results which God permits while sustaining existence. Instead, all things are directly willed and supernaturally created by God, moment by moment, according to his mysterious purposes, which Edwards did not hesitate to describe as “arbitrary” to human minds. The problem of natural evil, including animal suffering and geological catastrophes, is in reality a problem of perception from the perspective of fallen human beings. But “sanctified reason” leads us to view even the destructive aspects of animal existence as glorious manifestations of God’s providence, redounding to his glory.
From his early childhood, Edwards was particularly impressed by spiders. He spoke more admiringly and effusively of the spider, according to Clyde Holbrook, than any other animal. “Of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider,” Edwards wrote, “especially in respect to their sagacity and admirable way of working.” Their webs for trapping and killing other insects were evidence of the mathematical orderliness and economy of God’s creation. Birds meanwhile providentially restrained the fertility of insects by “adjusting their destruction to their multiplication” so that there would always be an “equal number of them.”
The reason God supernaturally causes the natural world to include predation, destruction, and suffering, Edwards suggests, is because he desires that all of existence (the great “chain of being”) be analogously interrelated. Lower creatures are “types” of higher ones, so that there are certain similarities between minerals and plants, and plants and animals, and animals and humans, and humans and angelic beings. God’s wrath upon human sin must therefore be analogically mirrored in the natural world, so that the shadow side of creation can serve a kind of moral pedagogical function.
Where other believers moved from rationalistic analysis of natural history to allegorical readings of Genesis, Edwards’ literalistic reading of Scripture thus led him to an allegorical reading of nature. The same spiders that reveal to us the absolute mathematical orderliness of God’s universe also serve as “lively representations of the Devil’s catching souls by his temptation.” When we observe spiders devouring each other when shut up together, we are reminded of how the devils will torture each other on the day of judgment. Sinners are meanwhile no different than spiders dangling from the hands of “an angry God,” who might decide at any moment to drop them into the fires of hell. These sinners—you and I—can only repent and turn to God if God himself arbitrarily wills and ordains it according to his sovereign freedom—not ours. All is decided by God, whether in nature or human nature. All.
Literalists and Non-Literalists in the Hands of a Loving God
Several important questions arise for Adventists from Edwards’ approach to Scripture and his teaching of continuous creation, which is closely linked to his understanding of pre-destination. The first important thing to note is that a pietistic and woodenly literalistic approach to Scripture—precisely the kind of hermeneutical path urged by many Adventists—is no safeguard against doctrinal disagreement or “heresy”. Yet from Edwards’ perspective it is in fact Seventh-day Adventists with their Arminian doctrine of extreme free will who are the real heretics. How, then, are doctrinal questions to be decided when literalists employing exactly the same hermeneutical frameworks begin to turn on each other? Is a literalistic approach based upon notions of “sanctified reason” and the “sense of the heart” a sure guide to doctrinal purity? Or does this path–vital as it might be in certain ways–also contain the seeds of unending doctrinal schism and controversy?
An additional question arises as to what is most important for Adventist literalists in their polemical struggles against non-literalist “heresy” (although non-literalism on Genesis has never been defined as a heresy by any major church council in church history). Are Adventists truly concerned with protecting a biblical theology of creation? Or are notions of textual inerrancy and the authority of Adventist tradition—entirely apart from other theological issues—the real burning concern?
Adventist literalists have not hesitated to make common cause with biblical literalists of other denominations, including those who stand within the conservative Calvinist or Reformed traditions. The Creation Research Society formed in the 1960s, for example, was led by an alliance of creationists that included Seventh-day Adventists as well as members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church and Christian Reformed Church. The assumption of many Adventists therefore seems to be that the most critical doctrinal issue related to the creation is its fixed chronological time. In fact, I would suggest, Adventist literalists and Adventist non-literalists might find good reasons to stand together—on the basis of their shared understanding that there are principles of freedom at work in the natural world as well as the human—against Calvinistic literalisms that ascribe animal suffering to God’s supernatural and arbitrary creation of every natural event. And of course literalists and non-literalists of all denominations can stand together in opposition to philosophical naturalism or materialism, which to my mind is the real heresy believers need to resist.
Clyde Holbrook, Jonathan Edwards: The Valley and Nature (New Jersey: Associated University Press, 1987).
Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (London: John Childs and Son, 1834).
R.C. De Prospo, Theism in the Discourse of Jonathan Edwards (University of Delaware Press, 1985).

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