Crisp: Edwards Was A Panentheist

…Such a picture of God’s relation to the creation is undoubtedly striking, combining as it does aspects of classical theism, theological aesthetics, panentheism, and the doctrines of continuous creation and occasionalism (about which, more presently). Far from being the product of some febrile imagination, however, this summary represents the views of the eighteenth- century colonial British New England puritan, Jonathan Edwards. Those enamoured of the more practical and pastoral of Edwards’ writings may find this a rather different thinker from the author of the Religious Affections, the hagiographical Life of David Brainerd, or sermons like ‘God Glorified in Man’s Dependence’. But Edwards was a man of many parts, like a number of early modern thinkers.

…Although (as previously noted) the attribution of a doctrine of divine simplicity and occasionalism to Edwards is not uncontroversial, ascribing panentheism to him is perhaps the most contested of these three claims. Nevertheless, there are a number ofreputable Edwards scholars who maintain he does hold to some version of this doctrine, and there is evidence of it in his work.14 Sometimes he says rather unguarded things which border on pantheism (roughly, the idea that God and the world are identical). For instance, his comment that ‘being includes in it all that we call God, who is, and there is none else besides him’.15 Or again, ‘God is the sum of all being and there is no being without his being; all things are in him, and he in all’.16 But his more measured remarks are consistent with panentheism, not pantheism. The clearest indication comes from his dissertation, Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. There he says things like, ‘This propensity in God to diffuse himself may be considered as a propensity to himself diffused, or to his own glory existing in its emanation/ Or again, ‘God looks on the communication of himself, and the emanation of the infinite glory and good that are in himself to belong to the fullness and completeness of himself, as though he were not in his most complete and glorious state without it. 17 What is more, ‘that a disposition in God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fullness, was what excited him to create the world; and so that the emanation itself was aimed at by him as a last end of the creation’.18 In the last section of this dissertation, Edwards even goes as far as to say this:

In the creature’s knowing, esteeming, loving, rejoicing in, and praising God, the glory of God is both exhibited and acknowledged; his fullness is received and returned. Here is both an emanation and remanation. The refulgence shines upon and into the creature, and is reflected back to the luminary. The beams of glory come from God, and are something of God, and are refunded back again to their original. So that the whole is of God, and in God, and to God; and God is the beginning, middle and end in this affair.19

This Neoplatonism (for that is what it amounts to) is something Edwards picked up from his voracious reading, particularly in the writings of Cambridge Platonists like Henry More, an early influence on Edwards.20 But like Plotinus, Edwards is a kind of idealist, and his Neoplatonism, baptised into the Reformed faith, implies the doctrine that the world exists ‘in’ God and that it is ‘emanated’ by God. The precise shape of Edwards’ panentheism need not detain us here.21 The fact that he is a panentheist should be evident, however.

Oliver Crisp, “On the orthodoxy of Jonathan Edwards,” Scottish Journal of Theology 67.3 (2014), 307, 313–14.


14. John Cooper says, ‘All things considered, his affirmation that “the whole is of God, and in God, and to God” [in YE8, p. 531] is best construed philosophically as panentheism which borders on Spinozan pantheism.’ Panentheism, p. 77. Similar sentiments are expressed by Douglas Elwood in The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, and, more recently, Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards’ Vision of Reality, especially appendix A, and Crisp, Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation, ch. 7. But this line of interpretation is resisted by, among others, Sang Lee in The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, expanded edn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000 [1988]), ch. 7, and, more recently, Steven Studebaker and Robert Caldwell III, The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards: Text, Context, and Application (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), ch. 9.

15. Miscellany 27a, in YE13, p. 213.

16. Miscellany 880, in YE20, p. 123

17. YE8, p. 439.

18. YE8, p. 435. Italics in the original.

19. YE8, p. 531.

20. For discussion of early philosophical influences on Edwards, see Wallace Anderson’s editorial introduction to YE6 and, on Edwards’ reading, YE26.

21. See Bombaro, Jonathan Edwards s Vision of Reality, appendix A; Oliver D. Crisp, ‘Jonathan Edwards’ Panentheism’, in Don Schweitzer (ed.), Jonathan Edwards as Contemporary (New York: Peter Lang, 2010); Crisp, ‘Jonathan Edwards, Idealism and Christology’, in Oliver D. Crisp, Revisioning Christology: Studies in The Reformed Tradition (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), ch. 3, and Elwood, The Philosophical Theology ofJonathan Edwards.


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  1. So interesting. Edwards was so close to the Joseph Priestley’s views on the nature of God, despite that first of them was trinitarian, and the second socinian and denied Trinity. [See Priestley’s “Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit” (1777)].

  2. John Norton, The Orthodox Evangelist (1654): “The objective Being of the Creatures in God is the very Being of God.”

    I wish I understood what that means, but just offer it as evidence that similar-sounding arguments were being made in New England, too.

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