Two Tensions in Edwards’s View of History

One of the great challenges for those of us who love and embrace “the supremacy of God in all things” is to push this glorious truth into the corners. We must get specific. The supremacy of God in science. The supremacy of God in technology. The supremacy of God in literature. And, in light of our reflections on Jonathan Edwards’s “A History of the Work of Redemption,” the supremacy of God in history.

In addition to what we’ve seen so far, Edwards also helpfully highlights two recurring motifs that appear throughout history; for simplicity’s sake, let’s call them the cyclical motif and the progressive motif (see the obscenely-expensive-but-good book, Encounters with God: An Approach to the Theology of Jonathan Edwards [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998]).

History is a Cycle

On the one hand, history is repetitive and cyclical. What goes up must come down. Civilizations, movements, kingdoms: all of them rise and fall. Ecclesiastes is right: there is nothing new under the sun. Moreover, history is a running battle between God and Satan, between the powers of light and the powers of darkness. In this motif, the church is a beleaguered minority, surrounded by powerful enemies and carried to the brink of destruction before God swoops in to save the day. Edwards writes,

Thus it was the darkest time with the Christian church just before the break of day. They were brought to the greatest extremity just before God appeared for their glorious deliverance, as the bondage of the Israelites was the most severe before their deliverance. Their enemies thought they had swallowed them up just before their near destruction, as it was with Pharaoh and his hosts when they had hemmed in the Israelites at the Red Sea (394).

History is a Progression

On the other hand, history is a progression from one degree of glory to another. History is not merely spinning in place; it is moving forward. Like a wheel, it does turn round and round, but also, like a wheel, it goes somewhere. Edwards again:

Thus you see how the light of the gospel, which first began to dawn and glimmer immediately after the fall, gradually increases the nearer we come to Christ's time (189).

And Edwards didn’t believe that the light “paused” with the coming of Christ. Rather, God is moving history forward, often by fits and starts, often by convulsions and leaps, and always toward greater displays of his glory.

History is Circling Forward

McClymond combines these two motifs into a helpful analogy. History is like a corkscrew which, when viewed head-on appears to simply be going in circles. However, when viewed from the side, the corkscrew is steadily moving through the wood (Encounters with God, 71). So then, this is the God of history. He is the God of the last minute save, the true Deus ex machina. But he is also the God of the Dawning Light, the God who is inexorably moving history further up and further in.

Joe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary