Stop reading Jonathan Edwards? Ignore any Edwardsean influence in American culture or evangelical theology? Would the first be safe, and would the second be possible?
The recent call to say “Farewell” to Jonathan Edwards was replaced with a more manageable observation to take the good and dismiss the bad. This initial call was based on Edwards’s ownership of a female slave named Venus. Let’s assume two propositions. First, in order to examine the rationality of the present “cancel culture,” suppose the first impulse to bid Edwards farewell remained as the unvarnished desire and, thus, something we would attempt to do. What would the advice be in such an instance? Stop reading Jonathan Edwards? Ignore any Edwardsean influence in American culture or evangelical theology? Would the first be safe, and would the second be possible?
Second proposition: if, for the sake of proceeding with the discussion (taking seriously the proposal to accept the good while rejecting the evil), one admitted that Edwards was wrong in possessing a slave in his household (and it is by no means certain that that can be proved), would it not still be a tough call to bid him farewell without wrecking modern evangelical Christianity? Would it be desirable? We will look at four areas in which an attempt to extricate Edwards would be, not only impossible, but unalloyed intellectual suicide.
Without the influence of Edwards, the idea of “disinterested benevolence” would have had to find another thinker for its provenance. But that would be most unlikely, unless it could be tied to an ethical system other than that set forth by Jonathan Edwards in The Nature of True Virtue. Edwards defined true virtue as “benevolence toward being in general.” He contrasted this to a number of ethical systems that had some degree of self-love or private interest as fundamental to virtue, in which care for other beings and love of beauty and love of apparent virtue in others is sublimated to self-love. Edwards argues that “a benevolent propensity of heart to being in general, and a temper or disposition to love God supremely, are in effect the same thing.” Benevolence toward a private sphere, no matter how extensive, is simply a veiled form of self-love and stops short of one’s chief object of benevolence—being in general—which means God, for he is the only self-existent being and is the source and sustaining power of all other being. Edwards shows that the command to love God with all the heart, mind, soul, and strength is the most consistently defensible of all systems of virtue. Arising from the ministers to whom he was tutor came the concept of “disinterested benevolence.” Though Samuel Hopkins had his own critique of the aesthetic qualities of Edwards’s concept as well as Edwards’s discussions of secondary virtue and negative moral virtue, he could not have produced his activist ethic apart from Edwards. After all, Edwards’s twelfth sign of true “Religious Affections” was that “Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice.”
This not only included personal holiness and devotion to Christ sustained throughout life, but an active doing of good: “They prosecute the business of religion, and the service of God with great earnestness and diligence, as the work which they devote themselves to, and make the main business of their lives” (387, RA). Hopkins could operate as an ethicist because Edwards had cleared the ground of skepticism, sentimentality, utilitarianism, and rationalism. Hopkins took the highest point of virtue in humanity as propounded by Edwards—a disinterested benevolence toward being in general—turned it around and made that standard a necessity also for the true goodness of God. God must be as interested in the happiness of his creatures as he is in being worshiped and loved by them. Even so, men must have, not an ethic driven by any degree of self-love, but by a consuming desire for the welfare of one’s neighbor. Hopkins saw himself as a corrector of certain flaws in Edwards’s concept of virtue. His line of reasoning, whether better or worse, arose only in conjunction with Edwards’s majestic concept of benevolence toward being in general. Hopkins initiated his personal assault on slavery bolstered by the idea of disinterested benevolence.
Without the influence of Edwards, the Particular Baptist Missionary Society would have had to find another thinker to articulate the difference between natural ability and moral ability. But that would be most unlikely unless it found its way into the circle of Andrew Fuller and company by some way other than that that of Jonathan Edwards’s classic volume A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the modern prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will, which is supposed to be essential to Moral Agency, Vertue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame. Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, Jr., John Sutcliff, Samuel Pearce, and William Carey all read Edwards and found the particular explanation he gave of that distinction the very key for the escaping of hyper-Calvinism. Fuller wrote, “In them I found familiar and faithful brethren; and who, partly by reflection, and partly by reading the writings of Edwards, Bellamy, Brainerd, & c. had begun to doubt of the system of False Calvinism to which they had been inclined when they first entered on the ministry, or rather to be decided against it” (56, Memoir).