Discarding Images in the 18th Century

Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards's Incarnational Spirituality within the Christian TraditionPostmodernism has demonstrated the power enculturation has over a person’s ability to examine the world impartially. Changing one’s view of the world—not just a single idea here or there, but a complete revamping of that mental map we use for understanding reality—does not come easily. When we write about “discarding images” on this blog, it is with this in mind. Images are those mental maps, frameworks, paradigms, or horizons that we humans use to make sense of things. We discard old images for new ones when the evidence for a new perspective is too strong to ignore.

But is this thinking solely the product of the contemporary mind?

While he is far from being a proto-postmodern thinker, the 18th-century theologian, Jonathan Edwards, does have something interesting to offer in this area. This week I am guest blogging at Peter Enns’s blog, Rethinking Biblical Christianity on a strand of thought that comes from Edwards’s thinking and which is based on my new book, Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality within the Christian Tradition.

My book is an historical examination of Edwards’s life and thought as it connects to the Christian tradition. Edwards was faced with the possibility that the theology he was raised with had problems. His search for better answers to life’s questions led him to see that there is always the possibility that a person could be wrong and never see it due to his or her current place in the world. “We find that those things that are received as principles in one age, and are never once questioned,” says Edwards, since “it comes into nobody’s thought that they possibly may not be true,” are “exploded in another age, as light increases.”

In my guest posts at Rethinking Biblical Christianity, I follow the historical and intellectual challenges that led Edwards to conclusions like these and how it could contribute to the discussion of religion and science today, particularly on the question of human origins. To be upfront, I’m not an Edwardsian. I personally don’t need a theological warrant for accepting, what is to me, a well-substantiated observation from nature. However, I recognize that Edwards is a thinker looked to for insight by many Evangelicals—one of the largest blocks of Christians who resist the idea of evolution, according to surveys—and I think that what Edwards has to say might be of interest for them. What he does with his beliefs is formulate an orthodox Christology that changes how one might read the Bible.

As I say in part 1: “I would be remiss if I did not bring to the attention of my Evangelical friends some interesting, and relevant, intellectual artifacts that could help change the current discourse between religion and science.” I will update this post with part 2 this Thursday. Read the full posts at Rethinking Biblical Christianity.


  • John

    Can you apply the principles you discuss here to a case where change has occurred  –  the enslavement of Africans in the United States ??   Both, for whatever Jonathan Edwards says about this situation,   and for whomever later appealed to the work of Edwards in the long and painful effort to put a stop to this dreadful practice.

  • Yeah, I think that is a way to read Edwards here. He “owned” a slave, but he had more restrictions on the practice than some others of his day. And in a day like his, to question slavery in white society required more foresight than the average person. And yet, while Edwards did not move towards abolitionism, his theological posterity, the New Divinity movement, did do that, as I think you are noting above.

    Samuel Hopkins used Edwards’s notion of “disinterested benevolence” to argue against slavery. For Edwards this meant that one should love and sacrifice for others without regard to one’s personal interest, even be willing to suffer hell for another person. For Hopkins, this meant that one should also then be willing to forfeit slavery. I think Edwards’s idea of new light exploding old ideas, which were commonly accepted by others, but now prove untenable, could be applied to this category of change.

In search of belief changing ideas