The Great Christian Doctrine

Original Sin

Expositions of Edwards's Major Works

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This article appears as a chapter in A God-Entranced Vision of All Things.


Jonathan Edwards was a tense, highly focused, and very intelligent man, a person of many parts. Ambitious too, while reserved and austere, as he himself recognized. Not just a preacher and revivalist, as he has come to be known to us through evangelical tradition, but a theologian, a philosopher, and a scientist. Part of the romance — or tragedy — of Edwards’s life is that he took it upon himself to play radically different roles at one and the same time. But he seems to have played each of these roles with characteristic thoroughness and commitment.

So it was at Stockbridge (where he moved in 1751) during the years in which he composed The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (page references provided in the main text are to volume 3 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, [Yale University Press, 1970]).

At the same time that he was still feuding with people from the Northampton church from which he had recently (in 1750) been dismissed, he was preaching to the Indians and fearfully preparing for war with other Indians (for a time Stockbridge became a stockade), while at the same time attempting to gain their confidence. More significantly for us, Edwards — who at that time endured an illness that “exceedingly wasted my flesh and strength, so that I became like a skeleton” (“The Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, [1834; reprint: Banner of Truth, 1974], 1:clxv) — was also composing two of the three great treatises for which he will ever be remembered as a theologian. The first of the three, The Religious Affections, appeared in 1746, while the second, The Freedom of the Will, was published in 1754, followed by Original Sin, published posthumously in 1758.

Another way of saying that Edwards was a man of many parts is to say that he addressed diverse audiences. While he was preaching to the Indians and attempting to have them taught English, and continuing to recriminate with people connected with the Northampton pastorate, Edwards was endeavoring to address a wider audience — not merely his fellow ministers in New England, nor even the Reformed constituency that included his English and Scottish correspondents and the churches that they represented, but (as he hoped and believed) the wider intellectual world of the eighteenth century.

For Edwards was nothing if not confident in his own God-given abilities to address the deepest currents of thought of his century. It has become a commonplace of contemporary Edwards scholarship to stress that he used many of the tendencies of the “advanced” thought of his time, the “late improvements in philosophy” as he called them (385) — John Locke’s philosophy, Sir Isaac Newton’s science — to reinforce the conservative theological position of his Puritan and Reformed forebears. The very ideas that in the minds of others strengthened latitudinarian tendencies, in the mind of Edwards were put to work to reinforce his own Puritan heritage not only against its obvious opponents, but even in the face of the writings of those, such as Thomas Ridgeley and Isaac Watts, whom Edwards recognized as valued members of his own tradition, but whom he thought of as waverers (410).

However, what he did have in common with his radical opponents — men such as John Taylor of Norwich, whom we shall meet a little later on — was a confidence in human reason. Not because he believed that it was the only reliable source of human knowledge, but because he believed that it was God-given, and that properly used it corroborated and undergirded the teaching of God’s special revelation, the Bible. On Edwards’s view, as we shall see in more detail later, in the Fall God had not so much disabled reason as isolated it from mankind’s original “supernatural” endowment.

Reason was capable of functioning properly, and in the right hands it was capable of confirming the teaching of Scripture or at least providing data that were consistent with it. It is entirely in keeping with this outlook that Edwards should devote a chapter of Original Sin (OS in what follows) to considering objections against the reasonableness of the doctrine of original sin (394). Such an approach was characteristic of the eighteenth century.

But in endeavoring to carry out such a program it was never Edwards’s intention to leave everything as it was in the world of Reformed and Calvinistic theology. To say that he was an innovator is too strong. But he was a re-formulator of those ways of expressing Reformed theology that he thought were outdated (outdated by the latest thought, that is) or unhelpful in other ways. We shall consider some of his innovations later.

We can see Edwards’s confidence in reason in the very structure of OS. It is a three-part defense of the doctrine of original sin: from the empirical evidence of human evil (most of Part One), from Scripture (Parts Two and Three), and from reason (most of Part Four and some of Part One). I suppose that if Edwards had been asked to rank Scripture, reason, and experience in order of importance for theology, he would undoubtedly have ranked Scripture first. But he would have thought that the choice that we were offering him was rather unnecessary, and indeed superficial. For it is evident from his patterns of thought elsewhere — for example, in his earlier treatise on free will — that he saw each of the three as complementing each other.

For if the doctrine of original sin (or his particular understanding of human action) is God’s truth, then we might expect to see evidence of its consequences in personal and social life, and perhaps even to demonstrate the incoherence of rival doctrines. If mankind is made in the image of God, and reason is a divine gift, then we should be able to show that some doctrine about the human will or about the propagation of sin, understood from Scripture, is in accordance with human reason, or that it is at least not repugnant to reason, as Edwards might himself have put it. (It is important to note that at no point does Edwards think that reason can independently prove the truth of the doctrine of original sin. But it can, he thinks, corroborate it by appealing to human experience and by answering objections to it devised from human reason.)

We must not allow ourselves to paint too romantic a picture of Edwards in Stockbridge. As we have noted, he wrote OS while feuding with the Northamptonites, helping to defend Stockbridge against attack (by having soldiers billeted in the Edwards home, for example), and trying to teach and preach to the Indians there. One can imagine the distractions and interruptions, though it would be wrong to conclude that these necessarily frustrated him.

After all, Edwards believed that Stockbridge was the place where he ought to be, for following the troubles in the pastorate at Northampton he had waited for the chance to go there. And so we must suppose that though often waylaid by the goings-on at the frontier and diverted by the machinations of the Williams clan — the family that had played a major part in having Edwards ousted from Northampton — he believed that what he was doing with the Indians mattered every bit as much as fine-tuning his thoughts on original sin.

It would also be inaccurate to think that Edwards wrote OS from scratch in a few months amidst the cares of Stockbridge. Readers of Edwards’s writings have for years been aware of his Miscellanies, the continuous, on-the-hoof notebook entries of his own thought, records of what he read, speculative asides, and the like. Recent scholarship, notably the outstanding work of Professor Thomas Schafer, has confirmed not only the voluminous, lifelong extent of these Miscellanies, but also the fact that Edwards composed many of his later writings by incorporating chunks of them, as well as passages from his sermons (and also material from what he called his “Book of Controversies”), directly into the text of whatever work was in progress.

So it would be misleading to suppose that Edwards sat down in Stockbridge one evening with a blank page before him having decided to write a book on sin. Rather, we must see OS as the accumulation of a life’s work of reflection on this and on kindred topics and see Edwards composing the work by actively incorporating his voluminous notes and jottings.

However, it does seem that in the case of OS Edwards was galvanized into action by what he feared the impact of John Taylor of Norwich’s view on sin might be. John Taylor was an example of “radical Dissent” of the sort that became increasingly common when, under the influence of Locke and others, Puritan orthodoxy quickly waned. What Edwards feared was the importing of Taylorian ideas from old England into New England. So OS is a polemical work in which from start to finish Edwards critically engages with Taylor (and to a lesser extent with another eighteenth-century challenger, George Turnbull).

Further, unlike Religious Affections, but very much like The Freedom of the Will, OS contains little or no references to Puritan writers, and only a few to continental Reformed theologians. Rather Edwards appeals to thinkers, such as the philosophers Francis Hutcheson and John Locke, whom his opponents Taylor and Turnbull respected. This reinforces the view that in both these works Edwards was endeavoring to be read and respected beyond the confines of New England Puritanism.

In what follows we shall try to distill Edwards’s positive position by reengaging with what is necessarily a dated controversy. We shall draw out Edwards’s views by briefly reviewing the most significant sections of each of the first three parts of OS. But since the distinctiveness of what he thought largely emerges in the course of the objections he considers in Part Four, we shall pay particular attention, later on, to that part.

The Argument of Part One

The form of the argument of Part One is as follows. Edwards notes that all men and women without exception “run into” moral evil. Furthermore this evil is very evil, it occurs immediately, it is continuous and progressive, and its effects remain even in the best of men, those who enjoy the benefits of God’s regenerating grace. Humanity is depraved, and the means adopted for the reformation and regeneration of human evil have had comparatively little effect. (One may wonder whether Edwards’s estimate of the relatively small impact of the gospel on human evil was affected by his own disillusionment with the revivals of the Great Awakening, and particularly by what had happened so recently in Northampton, which in the revivals had been a “a city set on a hill.”)

Edwards was a re-formulator of Reformed theology.

Edwards intends this survey of evidence to have a cumulative effect on the mind of the reader. One line of evidence reinforces each of the other lines in turn. So what is the best explanation of the evidence? Could it be that all human beings of all ages and cultures turn out this way simply as a matter of fact? That each individual case of human evil has its own separate explanation? Is it not more plausible to suppose that there is one underlying explanation of this exceptionless universality? Edwards offers this analogy:

If it be observed, that those trees, and all other trees of the kind, wherever planted, and in all soils, countries, climates and seasons, and however cultivated and managed, still bear ill fruit, from year to year, and in all ages, it is a good evidence of the evil nature of the tree: and if the fruit, at all these times, and in all these cases, be very bad, it proves the nature of the tree to be very bad. And if we argue in like manner from what appears among men, ’tis easy to determine, whether the universal sinfulness of mankind, and their all sinning immediately, as soon as capable of it, and all sinning continually, and generally being of a wicked character, at all times, in all ages, and all places, and under all possible circumstances, against means and motives inexpressibly manifold and great, and in the utmost conceivable variety, be from a permanent internal great cause. (191)

Of particular interest in this section is Edwards’s consideration of several evasions, which in some cases anticipate the objections that he will consider in Part Four. These evasions have the status of counterhypotheses, of other ways of accounting for the universal and deep sinfulness of the human race. The first is this. Scripture teaches that sin entered a world that was “very good.” There was a first sin. What is the explanation for that? By definition, that sin cannot have been inherited. So if one sin may not have been inherited, may not all sins not have been? May not the sin of each one of us be like the sin of Adam in this respect, that we are the originators of it? To which Edwards replies that the first sin of Adam did not come about from a fixed disposition but was “transient” (193).

For Edwards an action is transient if it is not the expression of a settled habit. Edwards argues that Adam’s first sin was transient in this sense, but that it produced fixed dispositions to evil in himself and those “in” him. This appeal to the transient source of Adam’s first sin will return to haunt Edwards later on in the argument. But may not the cause of the sin in each human being be that person’s free will (Evasion 2) (194)? To which Edwards replies: If the free will in question is the power to choose either good or evil as the chooser sees fit (a position that he had vehemently argued against in his treatise on the freedom of the will, but that he now allows for the sake of the argument), how is it that the result of this exercise of freedom is not something like a 50-50 incidence of good and evil?

But (Evasion 3) why may not the universality of sin be the result of the influence on the race of bad examples (196)? But, Edwards asks, how does it come about that there are so many, uniformly many, bad examples? Why were the children of Noah, who had a good example to follow, so wretchedly disappointing? How is it that efforts at the reforming of manners, or of the reviving of religion are so soon and so deeply dissipated?

When England grew very corrupt, God brought over a number of pious persons, and planted ’em in New England, and this land was planted with a noble vine. But how is the gold become dim! How greatly have we forsaken the pious examples of our fathers! (198)

And look at how the example of supreme goodness, Jesus Christ, was treated.

But (Evasion 4) may not the prevalence of sin be accounted for by the influence of the “animal passions” (201)? The trouble with this suggestion, Edwards says, is that it proves too much, since it looks to make God, who created us with a sensual nature, the author of evil. (Throughout OS Edwards is particularly exercised over the question of God’s authorship of evil: discussion of the problem recurs a number of times, and Edwards devotes a chapter of Part Four to rebutting the idea.) And what about Adam at the first, and what about Jesus? How do we then account for Christ’s sinlessness?

The final evasion is that human nature is in a state of permanent probation or trial, and it is of the nature of a trial that we combat vice in order to promote and solidify virtue. Hence, it is argued, the presence of vice is needed for the development of virtue in the human race. Edwards replies with his characteristic acuteness: Either the presence of temptation accounts for sin and evil, in which case the temptation is itself sinful and evil, or it does not, in which case how does it account for evil at all?

Edwards has not quite finished. In the concluding chapter of this part he argues that original sin is proved by the fact that we all, including many infants, die. In the light of the current theological preoccupation, if not obsession, with the Holocaust, leading to the development of “Holocaust theologies,” the following words of Edwards are, to say the least, cautionary:

How inconsiderable a thing is the additional or hastened destruction, that is sometimes brought on a particular city or country by war, compared with that universal havoc which death makes of the whole race of mankind, from generation to generation, without distinction of sex, age, quality or condition, with all the infinitely dismal circumstances, torments and agonies which attend the death of old and young, adult persons and little infants? (208)

In this part Edwards is chiefly rejecting the views of his two principal adversaries, Taylor and Turnbull, quoting them in their own words, at length, and then rebutting them. He is meeting them on their own territory and answering them with their own weapons, with general observations and rational argument. Although the discussion is dated, Edwards has the advantage that his opponents both held, with him, to the historicity of the biblical account of the Fall.

Had Edwards been arguing today, he would have had to start further back, so to speak, but there is no reason to think that his argument would not have been similar in structure. The debate is also dated by the fact that there is no reference to later theories, to the unconscious, or to the place of the economic or social order in promoting evil. Yet it is not hard to imagine how Edwards could have transposed his argument that the universality and depth of human sin is due to the presence in us all of original sin to meet these later views.

The Heart of the Work

Parts Two and Three of the work are the heart of Edwards’s positive exposition. Here he deals with Scripture in his usual trenchant way. In Part Two he chiefly has in view two main passages, the first three chapters of the book of Genesis (chapter 1) and Romans 5:12ff. (chapter 4). Sandwiched in between are sets of observations on relevant passages of the Old Testament (chapter 2) and on similarly relevant passages of the New Testament (chapter 3). Part Three has two chapters offering evidence of original sin from the accomplishment and application of redemption. We shall look at what Edwards has to say in chapters 1 and 4 of Part Two and both chapters of Part Three.

1) Genesis 1 — 3

As in The Freedom of the Will, so here Edwards denies that virtue arises from choice. Rather he maintains that virtuous actions arise from prior virtuous dispositions. Adam must have had an original God-given endowment of virtue — that is, original righteousness. How could he otherwise have been righteous? So Adam’s sin of taking the fruit must have occurred in the life of a man who was “perfectly righteous, righteous from the first moment of his existence; and consequently, created or brought into existence righteous” (228). More generally:

Human nature must be created with some dispositions; a disposition to relish some things as good or amiable, and to be averse to other things as odious and disagreeable. Otherwise, it must be without any such thing as inclination or will. It must be perfectly indifferent, without preference, without choice or aversion towards anything, as agreeable or disagreeable. (231)

This, Edwards thinks, is borne out by the Genesis narrative. Until Adam sinned, he was both happy and good. Had he been left alone, without virtue, in a position of neutrality, then (as Edwards puts it) “the curse was before the fall” (233). The Garden would not have been prepared as a fit environment for a virtuous man but would have acted as bait to lure the morally “neutral” Adam into sin. Edwards’s concern to protect God from the charge that he is the author of sin surfaces once again.

Section 2 discusses the “eternal death” with which Adam was threatened. Section 3 takes us to the heart of Edwards’s treatment, for here he considers whether what Genesis teaches implies that Adam was not to be considered a mere individual but was the “first father . . . of mankind in general” (245). He maintains that the language of Genesis 1 — 3 is replete with references to Adam as “father,” father of the race. Taylor had claimed that the threat to Adam was of “mere” mortality as an individual (246).

Some of Edwards’s reasoning here is weak, as he himself seems to acknowledge, as when he rather lamely states (251) that the sentence to Adam (“unto dust thou shalt return,” KJV) includes his posterity, “as is confessed on all hands.” But of course Taylor himself was not willing to confess this. Is not Edwards trying to get out of these passages more than is in them? For a corporate view of Adam, would he not have been better simply to rely on Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15?

2) Romans 5:12ff.

Edwards is certainly on stronger ground when he turns, in chapter 3 and especially chapter 4 of Part Two, to the New Testament, particularly (of course) to Romans 5:12 and the following verses. He holds strongly to the parallel between Adam and Christ (344). For the present-day reader one drawback of Edwards’s exposition is that it is a series of reactions to Taylor’s views.

For example, Taylor held that the death threatened to Adam was mere physical death. Edwards responds by arguing that Paul means by “death” here what he means by “death” throughout Romans. Taylor claims that the apostle merely taught that Adam was the first transgressor, while Edwards argues, surely correctly, that Paul has in view a much more “corporatist” view of the relation between Adam and his posterity and insists strongly on the parallel between Adam as the head of the race and Christ as the head of the church.

In his interpretation of Paul’s words in Romans 5, Edwards is particularly strong in his emphasis on what he calls the “causal particles.” When Paul says that it is “through the offense of one,” “by one that sinned,” “by one man’s offense,” “by the offense of one” (KJV), these expressions “signify some connection and dependence, by some sort of influence of that sin of one man, or some tendency to that effect which is so often said to come by it” (310). The expressions call for some explanation, which Taylor purposely evades.

Throughout this discussion it is Edwards’s aim to counter Taylor’s individualistic interpretation of the fall of Adam with one that stresses the solidarity of the race in Adam. In my view this is one of the strongest parts of Edwards’s overall case in OS.

So Edwards holds that Scripture teaches that there is solidarity between Adam and the human race, so that when Adam — created, as Edwards claims, in original righteousness (223) — fell, he sinned not simply as an individual, setting a bad example for the race, nor was the effect of his sin simply to infect his progeny with sin, as a person may infect her unborn child with HIV, but in sinning Adam was punished and the race was punished because in some sense the race was “in” Adam.

In so saying Edwards is simply echoing the teaching of the church, and particularly that of the Augustinian tradition that he inherited through the Puritans. For the Christian church has always held and explicitly taught since the time of St. Augustine (who drew on what Paul wrote in Romans 5) that when infants are born, they do not arrive holding a position of ethical or spiritual neutrality. Rather they are born as children of Adam, sinning because Adam sinned and also bearing the guilt that Adam bore through his disobedience to the Lord when placed in the Garden of Eden. And they are innately sinful and guilty because they fell “in” Adam.

Edwards lived in a strongly individualistic century (as he came increasingly to see and to deplore). Both socially and morally, emphasis was placed on the individual person, on his powers to accept or reject God’s grace and in these ways to possess the power to distance himself from God. So there came to be less and less recognition of original sin and of the corporate view of the human race that it implied. As we have seen, Edwards argued that boys and girls did not became sinful by the actions of their parents. (This, after all, evaded the question of why their parents behaved in that way.)

Rather, sinful actions occur because of what happened to the race when Adam fell. Adam’s “first disobedience” had an effect not only upon Adam, but also upon all who were “in” Adam, as Paul put it. He “brought death into the world and all our woe” (John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book i, line 1). That is, when boys and girls knowingly do wrong things, from wrong motives, they do so not only or simply on their own account but because they are in some way implicated in Adam’s first sin.

How are they implicated? Not simply because they are the biological offspring of Adam and so inherit his bad character. (For no one holds that Scripture teaches that the Fall resulted in a genetic change in Adam.) Rather, they are implicated because they are “in” Adam not merely in a biological sense, Adam being their first father, but in a more immediate and direct sense. Adam was not simply their first father, bearing a more distant but essentially similar position to their father and grandfather, but he was a unique figure. He was the head of the race. Evidence of this is provided by the fact that although Eve was the first person to sin, according to Paul it is “in Adam” that “all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

How is the headship of Adam to be understood? Edwards was faced with two competing accounts. One, going back to Augustine, laid stress on the oneness of the human race in its first father Adam. He encapsulated the race. When he was created, the race was created, and so all the subsequent members of the race, including you and me, were “in” him. Just as, according to the letter to the Hebrews, Levi was in the loins of his father Abraham when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:9), and so in effect he himself paid those tithes, so we were all in the loins of our father Adam and so were one with Adam. This was because Adam was not just an individual person but was in himself the whole race in essence. Put rather more drastically, on this view you and I were Adam, and so in virtue of that oneness with him, when he sinned we sinned because there is an inescapable unity between Adam and the race of which he was the first father.

On this view it does not matter that we do not think or feel or remember that we were in or with Adam. The idea of the solidarity of the race in Adam is not propounded as a social or psychological theory but as a metaphysical reality, as that reality which was at the first constituted by God. This is the so-called realist interpretation of the Fall, championed by Augustine, by Anselm, by some of the Reformers and Puritans, by one or two moderns since (notably W.G.T. Shedd and A.H. Strong), but not, as we shall see, by Jonathan Edwards himself.

The alternative view, which came into prominence with the rise of Reformed theology, and especially of the so-called Federal or Covenant theology, sees the relation between Adam and the race not as a real one (the race being in Adam and acting in him and so, with him, responsible for what he did) but as a representative relation. Adam is viewed as an individual just as you and I are individuals, but (as it happens) he was the first individual. And he was appointed by the Lord to be the representative of each member of the race, just as a Member of Parliament is taken to represent his constituents, even those constituents who have not voted for him in a General Election. Adam represents the race not because it is in his very nature to do so (the realist view), but because he was given this representative role by his Lord. So when he sinned, he did so not only as an individual but also on behalf of those whom he represented; and when he fell, they fell too, in virtue of that representative arrangement.

I think it is fair to say that Edwards also rejected or repudiated this view. So what position did he take? In order to find an answer to this question we must turn to Part Four of OS, where he considers objections to the doctrine of original sin. Here we find what many have regarded as Edwards’s innovations.

Edwards’s Innovations

Edwards’s distinctive position is drawn out in answer to objections (381ff.). We shall consider two of these answers.

1) The Occurrence of the First Sin

Here Edwards’s concern is dominated by the charge to which (as we have already noted) he seems especially sensitive, that the orthodox view of original sin makes God the author of sin. We have already seen how he approaches this question of Adam’s first sin by stressing its “transience.” Sin did not arise from a “settled principle,” since Adam was created good.

In creating Adam, God not only made him a man but endowed him with virtue.

The case with man was plainly this: when God made man at first, he implanted in him two kinds of principles. There was an inferior kind, which may be called natural, being the principles of mere human nature; such as self-love, with those natural appetites and passions, which belong to the nature of man, in which his love to his own liberty, honor and pleasure, were exercised: these when alone, and left to themselves, are what the Scriptures sometimes call flesh. Besides these, there were superior principles, that were spiritual, holy and divine, summarily comprehended in divine love; wherein consisted the spiritual image of God, and man’s righteousness and true holiness; which are called in Scripture the divine nature. These principles may, in some sense, be called supernatural, being (however concreated or connate, yet) such as are above those principles that are essentially implied in, or necessarily resulting from, and inseparably connected with, mere human nature. (381-382)

For Edwards, a person could be essentially a human being, lack the Holy Spirit, and so not possess the image of God. Holiness and true righteousness, the image of God, are not part of man’s essential nature. Adam was “naturally” a “mere” man, he had all the properties of human nature, but he was, in addition, “supernaturally” a virtuous person, because of this original endowment of righteousness and true holiness (381-382). But when he sinned, his supernatural endowment was (penally) removed, and he reverted to “natural” manhood, a prey to selfish desires, etc.

Edwards sees the answer to the charge that original sin makes God the author of sin to lie in this “two tier” view of Adam’s original condition. Mankind’s nature would (were it to be left to its own resources) inevitably be corrupted by becoming selfish and God-defying. But the “supernatural” influences with which the pre-Fall pair were endowed (the image of God in them) preserved them in holiness. These superior principles were removed (by divine judgment) when man sinned.

These divine principles thus reigning, were the dignity, life, happiness, and glory of man’s nature. When man sinned, and broke God’s Covenant, and fell under his curse, these superior principles left his heart: for indeed God then left him; that communion with God, on which these principles depended, entirely ceased; the Holy Spirit, that divine inhabitant, forsook his house. (382)

As a consequence, left to his own unsupported nature, the course of man’s life immediately became sinful, a condition that was both natural (i.e., universal, and a consequence of the possession of human nature) and penal (386). As a result, so Edwards concludes, God is not the author of sin even though he is responsible for continuing the sinful race in being after the Fall (387). God permits sin by withdrawing the supernatural virtues; he does not positively cause Adam to sin; and so he is not the author of Adam’s sin, and so not the author of sin. Edwards claims that since in other theological systems (such as Taylor’s) God permits Adam’s sin, his own system is in no worse case than theirs.

“God permits sin by withdrawing the supernatural virtues.”

Whether or not this argument of Edwards in fact succeeded in rebutting Taylor’s charge about the divine authorship of sin, it leaves him with a major problem. It is hard to see how he could have been satisfied with this theory or have been confident that it would convince opponents such as Taylor that God is not the author of sin. For either mankind sinned while still in possession of these supernatural principles, with all the virtuous influence they afforded, in which case it is hard to make the occurrence of the Fall plausible, or alternatively, if the Fall could occur while Adam had such principles and was under their influence, then they were hardly “supernatural” in the sense that Edwards intends, for they did not succeed in preserving him.

In any case, Edwards is stuck with his earlier claim that the first sin was “transient.” How, if it was transient, did it arise in the mind and heart of a person endowed with supernatural virtue so as to turn him from the path of obedience? John Gerstner avers that since in Edwards’s view this supernatural addition was none other than the Holy Spirit himself — the presence of whom must keep man from falling, and whose influence could not be overpowered by a mere human decision, since Adam in fact fell — “this divine super-added ‘gift’ must have been a mere offer” (Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, [Ligonier, 1992], 2:273). But this is pure surmise. Edwards does not say it is an offer, and the powerful language he uses regarding the actual presence of the Spirit strongly suggests otherwise.

If at this point Edwards were to stress the transience of the first sin (which he does not) and also to stress that Adam was created in such a condition as to turn his back on these supernatural principles, so making the Fall certain, then it is hard to see how this arrangement safeguards God from being the author of sin. Either way, Edwards has done little by this innovation to cast light on the mystery of the entrance of sin into a world made good by God.

Whether or not Edwards’s theory could account for the Fall, or at least be seen to be consistent with it, it does have one advantage. It offers an account of how it is that fallen, humankind possesses a settled disposition to do evil. That disposition immediately arises from the dominant effects of the “lower” nature that asserts itself in wicked ways once the supernatural virtues have departed.

2) The One-ness of the Race in Adam

We need now to give more detailed attention to the account that Edwards provided of the oneness of the race in Adam. It was suggested earlier that he was not satisfied either with the “realist” Augustinian position on the relation of Adam to his posterity, nor with the “representative” view beloved of classical Covenant theology. So what was his own view? (Some of the material in this section is adapted from “A Forensic Dilemma: John Locke and Jonathan Edwards on Personal Identity,” in Jonathan Edwards, Philosophical Theologian, [Ashgate, 2003], 45-49.)

As a result of his deep conviction about the immediate dependence of the creation upon the Creator, Edwards developed a unique account of the relation between Adam and his progeny as part of his overall defense of the reasonableness of the Christian doctrine of original sin in Part Four of OS. In chapter 3 of this Part he offers what can best be described as a daring (if not rather rash) metaphysical excursus in an attempt to answer “that great objection against the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity . . . that such imputation is unjust and unreasonable, inasmuch as Adam and his posterity are not one and the same” (389).

How, if Adam is distinct from his progeny, can it be fair to impute his sin and its consequences to them? It is at this point that Edwards appeals to the philosophy of John Locke. Edwards was a lifelong devotee of Locke’s philosophy, but no doubt he hoped that by citing Locke here he was appealing to an authority whom Taylor respected.

He replies to the objection by offering a “metaphysical” explanation of the nature of things, including their identity through time. According to this alternative, rather radical explanation, there is no such thing as strict or numerical identity through time. I am no more nor less strictly identical to Adam than I am to an earlier phase of myself. For both Adam and I are dependent things, and such unity as I have with an earlier phase of myself, or with Adam, is a unity constituted solely by the will of God.

A father, according to the course of nature, begets a child; an oak, according to the course of nature, produces an acorn, or a bud; so according to the course of nature, the former existence of the trunk of the tree is followed by its new or present existence. In the one case, and the other, the new effect is consequent on the former, only by the established laws, and settled course of nature; which is allowed to be nothing but the continued immediate efficiency of God, according to a constitution that he has been pleased to establish. (401)

A thing’s “new and present existence” is therefore an existence that is numerically distinct from its immediate past existence. Nothing can exist for more than a moment; the fact that nature, the temporally continuous order of things, is as orderly as it is, is due solely to the wisdom and power of God, not to the inherent natures of things that he has created. Not only was I (i.e., the present “me”) not around when Adam existed, I was not around yesterday or a moment ago. So if I’m to be held responsible for some of what went on yesterday (as seems reasonable), why may I not also be implicated in what Adam did?

It is in connection with this defense of the reasonableness of the doctrine of original sin that Edwards utilizes what Locke had written on identity in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He begins by adopting a Lockean approach to what he calls sameness or oneness among created things, as for example, in the following:

A tree, grown great, and an hundred years old, is one plant with the little sprout, that first came out of the ground, from whence it grew, and has been continued in constant succession; though it is now so exceeding diverse, many thousand times bigger, and of a very different form, and perhaps not one atom the very same. . . . So the body of man at forty years of age, is one with the infant body which first came into the world, from whence it grew; though now constituted of different substance, and the greater part of the substance probably changed scores (if not hundreds) of times. . . .

And if we come even to the personal identity of created intelligent beings, though this be not allowed to consist wholly in that which Mr. Locke supposes, i.e. same consciousness; yet I think it can’t be denied, that this is one thing essential to it. (397-398)

Turning from plants to people, Edwards starts with the Lockean account of personal identity through time, according to which same consciousness is necessary for personal identity. That is, persisting personal identity requires having the same enduring consciousness. But this cannot be the whole story for Edwards because it is obvious that you and I do not have the same consciousness that Adam had. As we shall shortly see, although he followed Locke in general, Edwards understands this sameness in a rather different way from Locke. For it is here that Edwards’s idea of creaturely dependence upon God, mentioned earlier, comes to play a crucial role in his argument.

Both in his account of plants and of people Locke had argued that their identity through time consists in a succession of overlapping parts, generated by the growth of a plant or (in the case of people) by temporally continuous mental organization, memories, trains of thought, and the like. From this it is a short step — but perhaps for Edwards a fatal step — to argue that (since, as he believed, nothing exists for more than a moment) identity is a succession of non-overlapping parts, a view particularly attractive to him given his strong view of creaturely dependence. Since according to Edwards nothing creaturely can exist for more than a moment, nothing can overlap or be overlapped. However, according to Edwards a succession of momentary parts, qualitatively similar in important respects, is treated both by ourselves and (more importantly) by God as if it were numerically one thing. That’s all the identity through time that there is and can be.

Edwards was concerned to stress, against the deists, for whom God’s power was mediated through the law-like dispositions given to created things, that God’s power was immediately exercised upon his creation, on all aspects of it equally. Here is Edwards in full cry against Deism:

That God does, by his immediate power, uphold every created substance in being, will be manifest, if we consider, that their present existence is a dependent existence, and therefore is an effect, and must have some cause: and the cause must be one of these two: either the antecedent existence of the same substance, or else the power of the Creator. But it can’t be the antecedent existence of the same substance. For instance, the existence of the body of the moon at this present moment, can’t be the effect of its existence at the last foregoing moment. For not only was what existed the last moment, no active cause, but wholly a passive thing; but this also is to be considered, that no cause can produce effects in a time and place in which itself is not. . . . From these things, I suppose, it will certainly follow, that the present existence, either of this, or any other created substance, cannot be an effect of its past existence. The existences (so to speak) of an effect, or thing dependent, in different parts of space or duration, though ever so near one to another, don’t at all coexist one with the other; and therefore are as truly different effects, as if those parts of space and duration were ever so far asunder: and the prior existence can no more be the proper cause of the new existence, in the next moment, or next part of space, than if it had been in an age before, or at a thousand miles distance, without any existence to fill up the intermediate time or space. Therefore the existence of created substances, in each successive moment, must be the effect of the immediate agency, will, and power of God.

. . . God’s preserving created things in being is perfectly equivalent to a continued creation, or to his creating those things out of nothing at each moment of their existence. If the continued existence of created things be wholly dependent on God’s preservation, then those things would drop into nothing, upon the ceasing of the present moment, without a new exertion of the divine power to cause them to exist in the following moment. (400-402)

So God can constitute the race as one individual, extended through time and space by his re-creating, upholding power. Adam is not a representative of the rest of us. But nor was Augustine correct in surmising that the race is “seminally” present in Adam and so one in him. According to Augustine the oneness of the race in Adam arises from the nature of things. But for Edwards the unity in question does not come from the nature of things but is one arranged by God, by his “arbitrary constitution” (as Shedd notes, Dogmatic Theology, 2:32).

There has been some difference of opinion regarding Edwards and what he thought was the relation of Adam’s sin to the sins of his posterity. The main line of Reformed theologians have favored a doctrine of immediate imputation: that in view of the representative relation with which Adam stood to his posterity, the guilt of his first sin was immediately imputed to them. It was reckoned to them, and they were judged guilty because of it. But others have favored a less direct view of imputation — namely, that the posterity of Adam is judged guilty, not on account of Adam’s sin, but on account of the sinfulness that they have inherited through Adam. This is a derived imputation, so-called mediate imputation.

Some, such as Charles Hodge, have reckoned that from some of the things that Edwards says in OS he must have favored mediate imputation. For instance, from these words:

Therefore I am humbly of opinion, that if any have supposed the children of Adam to come into the world with a double guilt, one the guilt of Adam’s sin, another the guilt arising from their having a corrupt heart, they have not well conceived of the matter. The guilt a man has upon his soul at his first existence, is one and simple: viz. the guilt of the original apostacy, the guilt of the sin by which the species first rebelled against God. This, and the guilt arising from the first corruption or depraved disposition of the heart, are not to be looked upon as two things, distinctly imputed and charged upon men in the sight of God. Indeed the guilt, that arises from the corruption of the heart, as it remains a confirmed principle, and appears in its consequent operations, is a distinct and additional guilt: but the guilt arising from the first existing of a depraved disposition in Adam’s posterity, I apprehend, is not distinct from their guilt of Adam’s first sin. (390)

Others, such as B.B. Warfield and John Murray, have believed, on the basis of other evidence from OS, that Edwards was in the Reformed mainstream, favoring immediate imputation.

But this difference of opinion and the way in which some theologians have tried to resolve it, by paying detailed attention to certain phrases that Edwards uses (Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin [Eerdmans, 1959], 57), is based upon a somewhat odd procedure. For given Edwards’s unique position on the unity of the race, on God’s reckoning the myriad members of the human race to be one with Adam, it should be clear that he must be committed to the strictest form of immediate imputation, since according to Edwards you and I and everyone else are each constituted one with Adam. And so his guilt must be ours.

Indeed “immediate imputation” is perhaps too weak an expression to convey Edwards’s view accurately. For according to him there is no question of guilt being reckoned from one person (Adam) to another (for example, to you and me) since we are each one with Adam. We are one with him and so are guilty of his sin, since his sin is our sin. As B.B. Warfield put it, since Edwards thinks that “all mankind are one as truly as and by the same kind of divine constitution that an individual life is one in its consecutive moments,” Adam and his posterity are one “in the strictest sense” possible in the case of things that persist through time, a sense in which that unity is conferred by God’s arbitrary will (Warfield, “Edwards and the New England Theology,” 530).

It ought to be borne in mind that on Edwards’s view, though each of us is constituted one with Adam, God has not in the same sense constituted us one with each other, with either our progenitors or our contemporaries. This is because we can be constituted one with Adam in a way in which we cannot with each other, not even with our own parents. They bear exactly the same relation to Adam as we do. They are constituted one with Adam, as we are, but we are not constituted one with each other. Nor, though we are one with Adam, is our guilt imputed to him. Why is this?

The short answer is: because of the arbitrary constitution of God. A longer answer may be: because Adam is the original phase of the human race, and we are later phases, like later branches from the original stock of a tree. So any later phase is related in the same fundamental way to the original phase. And all the arrangements that we have just mentioned are constituted so by a supremely wise fiat. Despite our earlier claim that Edwards distanced himself from the Augustinian view of Adam’s relation to his posterity, perhaps the rather selective way in which, according to Edwards, divine wisdom has chosen to configure the unity of the race suggests a vestigial attraction to that position. Or is Edwards simply making an appeal to the arbitrary will of God at each such point? It is not easy to tell.

As branches are affected by the root of the tree, so we are affected by Adam and his sin.

Edwards’s view of personal identity through time and of the unity and identity of the race through time is undoubtedly extravagant. His idea that each thing exists only for a moment seems bizarre, to say the least, though it would be wrong to deduce from this doctrine alone that Edwards thought that God is the only true cause in the entire universe. Presumably even things that exist for a moment may exercise their causal powers for that moment. Yet Edwards has one charming (if rather long-winded) aside that suggests that he thinks of his remarks on the oneness of the race more as a hypothesis than as a settled truth. He says:

On the whole, if any don’t like the philosophy, or the metaphysics (as some perhaps may choose to call it) made use of in the foregoing reasonings; yet I cannot doubt, but that a proper consideration of what is apparent and undeniable in fact, with respect to the dependence of the state and course of things in this universe on the sovereign constitution of the supreme Author and Lord of all, “who gives none account of any of his matters, and whose ways are past finding out,” will be sufficient, with persons of common modesty and sobriety, to stop their mouths from making peremptory decisions against the justice of God, respecting what is so plainly and fully taught in his Holy Word, concerning the derivation of a depravity and guilt from Adam to his posterity; a thing so abundantly confirmed by what is found in the experience of all mankind in all ages. (409)

In other words, if you object to Edwards’s philosophical reasoning here, and if you are a sufficiently modest and sober person, you will be content to take refuge in the sovereignty of God. We can be sure that this sentiment, while perfectly consistent with Edwards’s own theological outlook, would hardly have satisfied Taylor of Norwich! Unless Taylor favors Edwards’s “metaphysics,” then this response to his objections will hardly convince him.

Summing Up

We have seen that Edwards presents the case for the “great Christian doctrine” of original sin by drawing on the evidence from experience (including that provided by Bible history), from the biblical teaching about the human race’s relation to Adam, and from the weakness of many of the arguments of opponents of the doctrine. These strands of inquiry, when drawn together, combine to provide a powerful cumulative case for the solidarity of the race in the sin of Adam and of their guiltiness in him.

The Christian doctrine of original sin, and Edwards’s defense of it, invites us to think of human sin in a way that cuts across much contemporary Christianity where the focus is on the individual, not on the human race, and where sin, in order to be sin, must be consciously identified as such by the sinner. But on Paul’s or Augustine’s or Edwards’s view, sin is race-deep, arising in historical circumstances different from our own, from Adam with whom we are “one.” Human wickedness arises from depths that are beyond conscious awareness. For such human wickedness there is no natural cure — certainly not from efforts made to repent and reform of conscious sin — but only a God-given cure through union with the last Adam, Jesus Christ.

We have also seen that for Edwards the writing of OS in the trying and testing circumstances of Stockbridge in the 1750s was not an academic exercise. He was engaged in sustained polemic against the individualistic and moralistic interpretation of the gospel propounded by John Taylor and others, whose writings in his view embodied the worst features revealed in the dawning of a new age. In this situation Edwards was faced with a classic dilemma. He could simply restate the doctrine of original sin in a formulaic way, or he could attempt to take the argument into the enemy’s territory by offering arguments that are intended to convince him of the truth of this “great Christian doctrine.”

Being both a creative and courageous person Edwards inevitably chose the latter strategy, the one adopted by all the great apologists of the Church from Athanasius onwards. It is the program of faith seeking understanding, of endeavoring to gain a better grasp of revealed truth by drawing out the “good and necessary” consequences of Scripture in the light of some opposed view or other, often by using the language of the opposition, and doing so in the heat of argument.

This project has proved invaluable in the development of theological understanding across the centuries. But it has its dangers, especially when it is practiced, as Edwards practiced it, in an “age of reason.” The danger is that the taunts of the opposers will tempt the defender of the faith not only to express and epitomize the teaching of Scripture in language familiar to the opposition, but to be seduced into thinking that it is the job of the Christian theologian to offer explanations of biblical doctrine like a scientist offering an explanation of experimental data or like a detective clearing up a crime.

There is reason to think that Edwards did not altogether escape this danger. It seems that by his extravagant idea of the unity and identity of the human race through time, as well as his distinctions between transient and abiding principles of human character, and between natural and supernatural features of human nature, he endeavored to offer explanations of deeply mysterious features of the human condition: the solidarity of the human race in sin and the entrance of sin into a world created good by God. I think that he thought he could lessen the mystery.

There is a fine line to be drawn between true theological creativity and theological rationalism. Such was his concern to safeguard the deposit of the faith against its detractors that Edwards stretched his great intellectual gifts almost to the breaking point, but his failure to provide an increased understanding of these aspects of the faith serves only to underline their deeply mysterious character. The faith is mysterious at such points not because it is intrinsically incoherent or paradoxical, but because a comprehensive understanding of it is beyond the grasp of finite minds. In Jonathan Edwards’s endeavor to push theological understanding to the limits, and perhaps beyond the limits, there are, as in other aspects of his life, both heroic and tragic features.

is a teaching fellow at Regent College. His interests include all aspects of philosophical theology and Reformed theology, especially John Calvin, and issues in theological method. He is married to Angela, and they have five children.