How Jonathan Edwards Made Me Laugh

Today I spent eight hours reading Freedom of the Will, one of Jonathan Edwards’ most intense writings.  It’s my last assignment for my Winterim class, and it’s a Th.M.-specific assignment.  We were allowed to choose one of three major Edwards works, read it, and write a ten-page analysis and critique of it: History of Redemption, Original Sin, or Freedom of the Will.  John Hannah told us that if we really wanted to have some fun and tackle the hard stuff, we should go for Freedom of the Will.  So tonight my brain is feeling the effects of my attempted academic heroism.

If I tried to translate Edwards’ 300-page metaphysical argument for you, I would confuse both you and myself.  Instead, I thought I’d pass along something that made me laugh.  Don’t get excited — it probably won’t make you laugh since you didn’t spend eight hours reading the guy.  But this is how Edwards illustrates one aspect of his opponents’ arguments which he believes is philosophically self-contradictory.  He’s basically saying, “This is what my opponents sound like.”  Read slowly — it’s Edwards.

“If some learned philosopher, who had been abroad, in giving an account of the curious observations he had made in his travels, should say, he “had been in Tierra del Fuego, and there had seen an animal, which he calls by a certain name, that begat and brought forth itself, and yet had a sire and a dam distinct from itself; that it had an appetite, and was hungry before it had being; that his master, who led him, and governed him at his pleasure, was always governed by him, and driven by him as he pleased; that when he moved, he always took a step before the first step; that he went with his head first, and yet always went tail foremost; and this, though he had neither head nor tail”: it would be no impudence at all, to tell such a traveler, though a learned man, that he himself had no notion or idea of such an animal as he gave an account of, and never had, nor ever would have” (Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, ed. by Paul Ramsey [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957], 345-46).

I wouldn’t want to be his theological adversary or the object of his metaphysical sarcasm. 

P.S.   I’ve found more quotes from John Hannah in some other sections of my Winterim notes, so there will probably be a couple more posts on “Wit and Wisdom from John Hannah.”  I know you’re disappointed.


11 thoughts on “How Jonathan Edwards Made Me Laugh

  1. I love Edwards.

    His theological dependence on scripture alone (a seen, for example, when he finally got the nerve up to break with his famous grandfather and family elite on the “half way covenant”, and the creeping Arminianism of the day, and pay the price of rejection by the world that always accompanies it) has always been a distinguishing trait to me. Much like Bunyan. He went where the Word and Spirit led him, spoke what they taught him to say, regardless, most of the time (it took him a while to work up the nerve to break with his elders and family in Northhampton).

    As to his complexity of expression. It is a crying shame that it exists as it does, because the ideas are not really all that complex. Rather, it is more a matter of writting style, and manner of expression, some of this due to change in language due to the passage of time (anachronistic), some of it just needless formality, run on sentences, with multiple dependent clauses. Witness the example given above. it could have been said much more simply, clearly and with greater clarity and precision, and with far few words, and needless confusion.

    Too bad someone hasn’t gone through the whole body (notice I didn’t say corpus) of his work and cleaned it up for the great mass of those of us that could benefit greatly from it without the great waste of time and frustration involved in wading through it.

    Still, until that happens, sermons like “A Divine and Supernatural Light” and “The Excellency of Christ”, are unsurpassed.

    May He bless and keep all of His children

  2. I love Edwards. His theological dependence on scripture alone (a seen, for example, when he finally got the nerve up to break with his famous grandfather and family elite on the “half way covenant”, and the creeping Arminianism of the day, and pay the price of rejection by the world that always accompanies it) has always been a distinguishing trait to me. Much like Bunyan. He went where the Word and Spirit led him, spoke what they taught him to say, regardless, most of the time (it took him a while to work up the nerve to break with his elders and family in Northhampton).

    As to his complexity of expression. It is a crying shame that it exists as it does, because the ideas are not really all that complex. Rather, it is more a matter of writting styly, and manner of expression. Witness the example given above. it could have been said much more simply, clearly and with greater clarity and precsion, and with far few words, and needless confusion.

    Too bad someone hasn’t gone through the whole body (notice I didn’t say corpus) of his work and cleaned it up for the great mass of those that could benefit from it without the great waste of time and frustration involved in wading through it.

    Still, until that happens, sermons like “A Divine and Supernatural Light” and “The Excellency of Christ”, are unsurpassed.

    May He bless and keep all of His children

  3. Laugh or cry! I have done both. I am required to do a 500 word critique on the whole work, “Freedom of Will.” Ha! Reading this is like riding one of those crazy joy-rides at the State Fair. At times you can’t tell if you are going up or down, having fun, or horribly miserable; and when done, you just want to throw-up! Edwards makes me mentally dizzy.
    Tess

  4. Thanks for an excellant post of encouragement! I chose Freedom of the Will as my reading assignment for Philosophy Class this semester … unfortunately, I only just realized how impossibly hard it is to understand. I picked this because I thought it would be simple and relaxing – a difference from last semester’s fool-hardy choice of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason! Yeah right. I’m getting a head-ache just thinking about it. I may have to hold my breath and try to tackle it all in one day as well.

  5. I hope Edwards did not write this on the Lord’s Day or he would have been in violation of his 38th resolution:

    “Resolved, never to speak anything that is ridiculous, sportive, or matter of laughter on the Lord’ s day. Sabbath evening, Dec. 23, 1722.”

    Thanks for the post.

  6. Charles: I feel your pain. Basically Edwards is giving an illustration of someone completely contradicting himself over and over in very overt ways. If you read the sentence and look for contradictions, you’ll find them.

  7. Dude, I guess I should have been there because I have no idea what Edwards is saying. Oh well, Some of us Okies aren’t blessed with what I could call “quick thinking.”

  8. One of the wonderful things about this particular book is that Edwards beat the Enlightenment philosophers at their own game. He was able to point out the errors in their reasoning. I especially liked his explanation of “free will” – God allows mankind choices that are THEIR choices. We choose what we want to choose. He defended “free will” in the highest intelligible meaning of the term, he didn’t deny it. It was the Rationalist view of “uncaused free will” that was really the logical absurdity.

  9. Gunner, your post reminds me why I have not personally tackled a complete work of Edwards–though “Freedom of the Will” has been an interest of mine. Hmmmm, maybe when I’m old and gray–and hopefully wiser!

    I so appreciate Edwards, but am only able to take in “bite sizes” of his thinking. His life–and that of his wife–is an enormous testimony which I suppose will have to suffice until I’m can tackle his works on my own.

    I guess that’s one of the many reasons I so appreciate Hannah–he skillfully breaks down Edwards, Owen, etc.!

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