A Reasoned Defense of the Christian Faith

Jonathan Edwards: Reformed Apologist by Scott Oliphint


O, how is the world darkened, clouded, distracted, and torn to pieces
by those dreadful enemies of mankind called words!1

Though when Jonathan Edwards penned these words he was discussing morality, particularly of the Sabbath, his exclamation could just as easily be applied to the debates over his own words. Due to the sheer volume of Edwards’ publications as well as the depth of his insight, there seems to be no end to the potential debates with regard to the “real Edwards” on a given topic or position.2 Perhaps Jonathan Edwards’ many exegetes are the clearest example of the influence of one’s presuppositions on any interpretive endeavor.3

The title of this article displays, at least implicitly, its twofold purpose. First, I will be attempting faithfully to explicate Edwards with a view toward a Reformed apologetic. More specifically, I will look briefly at Edwards’ ontology and then a bit more specifically at his view of man, particularly as that view relates to the unregenerate. Secondly, in explicating such a view, I will be attempting to distinguish Edwards’ insights from a so-called “classical” approach to apologetics and further to incorporate his work into a presuppositional or transcendental framework of apologetics. I am not trying to ask whether or not Edwards was a Van

1 Jonathan Edwards, “Miscellanies #4,” in The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards (ed. H.G. Townsend; Connecticut: Greenwood, 1955) 209. All “Miscellanies,” unless otherwise noted, will be from the Townsend source.

2 Note, for example, Fiering’s contention that Edwards was no Lockean (contra Perry Miller) in Norman Fiering, “The Rationalist Foundations of Jonathan Edwards’s Metaphysics,” in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience (ed. N. O. Hatch and H. S. Stout; New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) 77ö78. See also Douglas J. Elwood, The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), who seems to want to make of Edwards a neo-orthodox theologian, as one untimely born. Speaking of one of Edwards’ arguments, the author says, “It is an argument from revelation, though not revelation as authority but as living encounter” (p. 16). Such misrepresentations can be found frequently throughout the book.

3 It may be important at this point to acknowledge my own bias. When I began to study Edwards’ view of man, I suspected that Edwards was, at bottom, too heavily influenced by secular rationalistic thought in his view of man. Having looked closer, however, I am now convinced that my suspicion of Edwards’ thought in this area was unwarranted. Though I began thinking Edwards to be non-Reformed in some significant anthropological areas, it seems to me now that, by and large, he was a Reformed, presuppositional apologist.



Tilian. Rather, in seeking to understand Edwards’ view of man, because he was a Reformed theologian, I will inevitably be asking if such a view is, in fact, Reformed, and therefore if it will incorporate itself into a Reformed apologetic. In so doing, I am well aware of the fact that interpreters of Edwards, as well as of Van Til, will see me missing the mark on one or both counts. I am convinced, however, that Edwards’ insights can offer stimulating applications to Reformed, Van Tilian apologetics and also that the symbiotic nature of the two positions will provide mutual health to both sides.

I. Introduction

In the book Classical Apologetics, the authors, at least one of whom is a renowned Edwardsean expert, 4 have much to say about the disparity that exists between Van Til and so-called “classical” (read “Thomistic”) apologetics. One of their reasons for rejecting Van Til’s position is the latter’s supposed departure from the classic Reformed orthodoxy of Calvin and Edwards.5 Though these men approach their subject from various sides, it appears that (1) their misunderstanding of Van Til and (2) what I will contend is their mishandling of Edwards in light of that misunderstanding are due more to their “rationalism with a vengeance”6 than to their oftentimes insightful analyses. I will contend that Edwards can indeed be legitimately incorporated into Van Til’s apologetical framework and thus the latter (rather than being in the tradition of Kierkegaard, Barth, and Brunner as the authors want to insist) is in the tradition of both Calvin and Edwards and therefore of classic Reformed orthodoxy.7 I will approach the subject dealing primarily with Edwards’ anthropology and its relation to the noetic effects of sin. It is on this particular point that the authors denounce Van Til and run to Edwards. It is at this particular point that the authors misunderstand Van Til, sometimes inexcusably so, and thus pit Edwards against him.8 It is my contention that Van Til’s apologetic is

4 R. C. Sproul, John H. Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984). Dr. Gerstner is without question one of the best of theologically conservative Edwardsean experts. This book will hereafter be cited as Gerstner, Classical Apologetics.

5 See ibid., 49, 185, 243.

6 See John Frame, “Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic,” WTJ 47 (1985) 284.

7 My intent is neither to make Edwards a Van Tilian nor Van Til an Edwardsean. As far as I know, Van Til never once referred to Edwards in all of his writings. My concern, however, is to show that because both men stand in the tradition of Reformed orthodoxy, then there should be a significant amount of harmony between the two. Classical Apologetics seems to start with the premise that Van Til and Edwards cannot be harmonized.

8 Frame (“Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic,” 282 n. 15) comments that Van Til’s critique of autonomy is “both more important and more cogent than, e.g., Van Til’s view of the noetic effects of sin.” While I think Frame is right from one perspective, I also think that the book’s view of autonomy, as well as Van Til’s, is inseparable from some view of sin’s noetic


consistent with Edwards’ theology and thus that Van Til is within the parameters of “traditional” Reformed orthodoxy as the authors define it. First, however, we will look briefly at the development of Edwards’ ontology in order to see both its connection with anthropology and the importance for Edwards of thinking biblically in any and every philosophical investigation.

II. The Problem of Being

But now, with respect to the Divine Being, there is no such thing as confined selfishness in him, or a love to himself opposite to general benevolence. It is impossible, because he comprehends all entity, and all excellence, in his own essence. The eternal and infinite Being, is in effect, being in general; and comprehends universal existence. 9

Elsewhere Edwards asserts,

The unity of the Godhead will necessarily follow from God’s being infinite; for to be infinite is to be all, and it would be a contradiction to suppose two alls, because, if there be two or more, one alone is not all but the sum of them put together are all. Infinity and omneity, if I may so speak, must go together, because, if any being falls short of omneity, then it is not infinite. Therein it is limited. Therein there is something that it don’t extend to or that it don’t comprehend. If there be something more, then there is something beyond. And wherein this being don’t reach and include that which is beyond, therein it is limited–its bounds stop short of this that is not comprehended. An infinite being, therefore, must be an all-comprehending being. He must comprehend in himself all being.10

It would take a mind with the acumen of Edwards’ to begin to wrestle with the problem of God’s relationship to the world. It is in Edwards’ notion of “being” that the focus of the problem becomes most pronounced. Such a notion of being may appear to have problems (if I may make these distinctions) philosophically, theologically and, consequently, anthropologically. As we will note below, however, the development of

effects. The authors of Classical Apologetics want to affirm some sort of “temporary” autonomy, presumably because “real” autonomy is impossible since God exists (could this be presuppositional?). Van Til, however, sees all attempts at autonomy as sinful (including sinful noetically). Thus, the authors’ misunderstanding of Van Til’s view of autonomy is linked to their misunderstanding of the noetic effects of sin, all of which has much to do with their opposing Van Til to Edwards, which opposition is, I think, unnecessary and misdirected.

9 Jonathan Edwards, “A Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, hereafter cited as Works (ed. Edward Hickman; 2 vols.; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1984) 1.105.

10 Edwards, “Miscellanies #697,” 262.


Edwards’ thought in this particular area climaxed with a strong affirmation of biblical truth.11

Philosophically, Edwards may, in his earlier writings, be too close to pantheism to be comfortable as a Christian theologian. In his early attempts to wrestle with the problem of God’s infinity and omnipresence in light of creation, he comes close to a Parmenidean notion of Being. John Gerstner maintains that the question of pantheism in Edwards was inevitable.12 It is because of Edwards’ initial compatibility with Parmenides that his view both of God and, consequently, of man can be confusing at points.13 True pantheism, wherein God is identified ontologically with his creation, cannot co-exist with biblical Christianity.

Theologically, Edwards’ early formulations in this area could be seen to be more or less in line with Thomistic metaphysics.14 Aquinas sought to maintain the transcendental character of Being. In so doing, it was his contention that all “beings” participate in God to the degree that their respective essences permit. This is why Aquinas’ metaphysics has been called “existential” (because turning on the analysis of existence) rather than essentialistic (as, for example, in Aristotle). Aquinas’ “principle of participation,” which was demanded by his existential metaphysics led him to his analogies, one of proper proportionality and the other of intrinsic attribution. In the former, which is more important for our purposes, Aquinas contends that beings participate in the transcendental notion of being by different degrees. Yet he was also forced to admit that such could not be the case with God since, as Pure Act, God’s Being was identical to his essence. The analogy of intrinsic attribution was meant only for One in whom essence and existence were identical. The connection between Aquinas and early Edwards could be seen not only in their concept of what Edwards called being in general or what Aquinas called the transcendental notion; the connection between the two can also be seen in its consequences for anthropology.

Gerstner contends that for Edwards, “the only difference between the divine and created minds is one of degree.”15 This must always be the case if being is conceived of in abstraction. If one’s contention is that abstract

11 For an excellent treatment of the development of Edwards’ ontology and cosmology, see Robert C. Whittemore, The Transformation of New England Theology (New York: Peter Lang, 1987) 47ö91.

12 John H. Gerstner, “Jonathan Edwards and God,” Tenth: An Evangelical Quarterly 10/1 January, 1980) 7. Gerstner concludes that Edwards was “pantheistic by implication and pantheistic by intention.” It seems, however, that Gerstner fails to take account of any development in Edwards’ thought in this area.

13 Gerstner’s discussion of Edwards’ ontology (ibid., 7ö11) is helpful in that it gives examples of Edwardsean interpreters such as Elwood, Whittemore and Allen. A study of these men would be profitable in the development of a Christian philosophy via Edwards.

14 Ibid., 8. He cites both Whittemore and Vincent Thomas as agreeing that Edwards’ ontology was a medieval, not a modern, type of thought.

15 Ibid., 7. Note the agreement between this statement and Aquinas’ analogy of proper proportionality mentioned above.


being is both all-inclusive and all-encompassing, such implicit pantheism leads to a virtual “deification” of at least some aspects of man–due, of course, to man’s participation in that (Divine) Being. Such participation could tend to exalt man’s metaphysical status before God while maintaining all the while that man’s ethical status needs repair. There could be, therefore, an exalting of man’s intellect (because in this schema knowledge was metaphysical)16 and a depreciating, due to sin, of the heart (which could be seen primarily as ethical). Thus, following our pattern of philosophical, theological, and anthropological, an implicit pantheism (philosophical) could lead to an abstract notion of God (theological) which could only be explained by some sort of principle of participation for man (anthropological) and creation.

This problem, however, if apparent in the “early Edwards,” is not insurmountable. The more Edwards puzzled over these matters, the more he was able to express himself biblically so that his later, most mature expression of ontology grounds the notion of Being squarely in the character of God and not in an abstract principle. Elwood has commented that “the Creator-creature distinction is as basic to Edwards’s thought as to Augustine’s.”17 So has Fiering suggested that for Edwards “the deepest truths of philosophy are rooted in religious revelation.”18 Assuming such comments to be true, we must view Edwards’ early notions in this area, not as the basic foundation for the entirety of his thought, but as a part of the process of his development. Even as Charles Hodge is concerned about Edwards’ pantheistic tendency, the five criteria Hodge uses to determine pantheism do not, either collectively or individually, apply to Edwards.19 And though we should be aware of the fact that, according to Gerstner, Edwards “reads at times like Hartshorne,”20 there is no question that Edwards saw the implications of pantheism in his own formulations and therefore applied his rigorous adherence to biblical truth to obliterate it. Edwards himself senses something of the problem when he writes,

I confess there is a degree of indistinctness and obscurity in the close consideration of such subjects, and a great imperfection in the expressions we use concerning them; arising unavoidably from the infinite sublimity of the subject, and the incomprehensibleness of those things that are divine. Hence revelation is the surest guide in these matters.21

Thus, the early problem in ontology was rectified as Edwards applied the truth of Scripture to his own philosophical understanding.

16 See Edwards, “Miscellanies #1340.”

17 Elwood, Philosophical Theology, 99.

18 Fiering, “The Rationalist Foundations,” 81.

19 Gerstner, “Jonathan Edwards and God,” 11.

20 Ibid.

21 Edwards, Works 1.106 (emphasis mine).


III. Edwards’ Anthropology

In order properly to understand Edwards’ anthropology, particularly as it relates to apologetics and the noetic effects of sin, we must first make clear what his position was with regard to the so-called “faculty psychology.” Since the Middle Ages, it had been assumed that man’s reason was that which controlled the imagination and will.22 The emotions were, in this scheme, subdued to the will. Because of this construct, it was thought that a direct appeal to the passions was immoral.23 Any appeal that sought to by-pass reason was seen as illegitimate. It was in this context that Edwards wrote what is considered by many to be his greatest work, A Treatise on the Religious Affections. In that work, Edwards had to show not only that such a scholastic psychology was unwarranted, but that his position of the organic unity of man was (1) biblical and (2) explanatory of the nature of revival. While the Enthusiasts were concentrating on the emotions, and the anti-Enthusiasts were focusing in on the intellect, Edwards was attempting to understand the person. As Heimert and Miller point out, not only did Edwards have to set forth what he believed to be a biblical view of the affections, he had also to set forth an anthropology that was completely foreign to his audience.24 He suffered, therefore, from a double handicap.

In his introduction to Religious Affections, John Smith emphasizes that Edwards neither identified nor separated the head and the heart.25 This is not only significant in light of the above-mentioned medieval scholasticism,26 but it will also become significant as we discuss Edwards’ anthropology and its relation to apologetics.

Edwards defines man in the following way:

God has indued the soul with two faculties: one is that by which it is capable of perception and speculation, or by which it discerns and views and judges of

22 See The Great Awakening (ed. Alan Heimert and Perry Miller; Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967) xxxv-xliii.

23 Ibid., xl.

24 Ibid.

25 John E. Smith, “Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (ed. J. E. Smith; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959) 13.

26 The influence of medieval thought on the culture in which Edwards was writing is emphasized again by Allen C. Guelzo in his book, Edwards on the Will (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1989) esp. the introduction. Though his book will be questioned among experts on New England theology in general and Edwards in particular, I believe his introduction to be, in the main, a sound interpretation of Edwards and his times. On p. 3 he notes, “According to the categories of the Protestant scholastic thought of the seventeenth century, the most critical relationship among the faculties of the mind was considered to be one of intellect and will, both of which were viewed, along with perception and judgement, as subdepartments of the overall phenomenon of mind. Because of the inherent bias of Christian theology toward teleological considerations, the Protestant scholastics–Turretin, Burgersdyck, Voetius, de Maastricht, all of whom Jonathan Edwards was to read as a Yale undergraduate–structured these subdepartments, or faculties, as a hierarchy, and graded them from the most important to the least.” I think it is safe to say that Edwards was reacting against such a hierarchy.


things; which is called the understanding. The other faculty is that by which the soul does not merely perceive and view things, but is some way inclined with respect to the things it views or considers; either is inclined to ’em, or is disinclined, and averse from ’em; or is the faculty by which the soul does not behold things, as an indifferent unaffected spectator, but either as liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting. This faculty is called by various names: it is sometimes called inclination: and, as it had respect to the actions that are determined and governed by it, is called the will: and the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, is often called the heart.27

It will be helpful for us to look at these two faculties (understanding and inclination) separately, though we must keep in mind that Edwards, while making distinctions, never separated the one from the other.

For Edwards, the will and the affections are essentially identical. He continues his opposition to medieval scholasticism: “The will, and the affections of the soul, are not two faculties; the affections are not essentially distinct from the will, nor do they differ from the mere actings of the will and inclination of the soul, but only in the liveliness and sensibleness of exercise.”28

While Edwards will not separate will and affections, he comes short of identifying them as well. He considers them to be “essentially” the same. The difference lies merely in the intensity with which one is inclined. All voluntary acts, by definition, include the will or the inclinations. Yet it seems also true to Edwards if we surmise that some voluntary acts would, more or less, exclude the affections, due to the relative “lifelessness” of such an act.

One of Edwards’ most insistent principles is the absurdity of supposing the will to be indifferent. Edwards will not tolerate such assumed neutrality. In his battle with the Arminians one of the primary tenets of their approach to “free will” was the will’s indifference, a tenet which Edwards annihilates in his book Freedom of the Will. Yet he does admit that certain exercises of the will are “but a little beyond a state of perfect indifference” while others are “more vigorous and sensible exercises.”29 The former, it seems, would be mere inclination; the latter would be the exercise of the affections or the heart.

Though Edwards does not separate the head and the heart, he clearly wants to emphasize that there must be a distinction made between them. Says Edwards,

Hence arises another great distinction of the kind of understanding of mental things, or those things that appertain or relate to spiritual beings, which is somewhat diverse from the former, viz. of speculative and sensible, or
1. That understanding which consists in mere Speculation, or the understanding of the Head; or

27 Edwards, Religious Affections, 96.

28 Ibid., 97.

29 Ibid., 96-97.


2. That which consists in the Sense of the Heart.
The former includes all that understanding that is without any proper ideal apprehension or view, or all understanding of mental things of either faculty, that is only by signs, and also all ideal views of things that are merely intellectual, or appertain only to the faculty of understanding; i.e., all that understanding of things, that does not consist in, or imply, some notion of the will, or in other words (to speak figuratively) some feeling of the heart, is mere speculative knowledge, whether it be an ideal apprehension of them, or no.30

In this passage, Edwards seems to be saying that there can indeed be “head knowledge” without “heart knowledge” and vice versa. Elsewhere he speaks of that kind of knowledge, e.g., of a square or a triangle, as mere notional knowledge, while sensible knowledge “not only beholds, but has inclination.”31 This distinction will prove to be important in our discussion below of reason. It seems that Edwards simply wants to distinguish between what I would call perceiving (which he calls speculation) and knowing (which he calls sensible knowledge), the latter of which must include perceiving but is “more than” mere speculation.32 One can “know” in the sense that one perceives, though with that perception come simply “signs,” as Edwards calls them.33 Such knowledge might be called “formal” knowledge. Edwards himself refers to Romans 2:20 in his explanation of speculative (notional) knowledge wherein the apostle asserts that there is a “form of knowledge, and of the truth in the law.”34 Such speculative knowledge is merely one way of thinking and understanding, or “apprehending,” to use Edwards’ term.35 The other type of knowing was that which included within it the sense of the heart.

In Religious Affections Edwards’ concern was always to transcend the assumed opposition between head and heart as seen, for example, in Charles Chauncey.36 Assuming the head and heart to be separate, one could contend, as did the Enthusiasts, that there could indeed be true religious affections without the understanding. Edwards adamantly opposed such an

30 From a fragment by Edwards, “Ideas, Sense of the Heart, Spiritual Knowledge or Conviction. Faith,” reproduced in Perry Miller, “Jonathan Edwards on the Sense of the Heart,” HTR 41 (1948) 123ö45, quotation from p. 136.

31 Edwards, Religious Affections, 272. In his analysis of this article, Dr. John Gerstner has reminded me that while Edwards affirms that unregenerate head knowledge brings unregenerate heart knowledge and regenerate head knowledge brings regenerate heart knowledge, one can have unregenerate head knowledge of the gospel without regenerate heart knowledge. In other words, and Edwards stressed this point, the unbeliever can have speculative knowledge of the gospel as an unbeliever!

32 For an example of the use of such language in Christian epistemology see H. G. Stoker, “Reconnoitering the Theory of Knowledge of Professor Dr. Cornelius Van Til,” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (ed. E. R. Geehan; Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971) 27.

33 Edwards, “Ideas,” in Miller, “Jonathan Edwards,” 135ö36.

34 Edwards, Religious Affections, 273.

35 Edwards, “Ideas,” in Miller, “Jonathan Edwards,” 135.

36 Smith, “Introduction,” in Religious Affections, 33.


idea. He was insistent that there could be no true heat (affections) without true light (understanding).37 Holy affections were always accompanied by true understanding. So, says Edwards,

As on the one hand, there must be light in the understanding, as well as an affected fervent heart [in true religion], where there is heat without light, there can be nothing divine or heavenly in that heart; so on the other hand, where there is a kind of light without heat, a head stored with notions and speculations, with a cold and unaffected heart, there can be nothing divine in that light, that knowledge is no true spiritual knowledge of divine things.38

The distinction, then, of head and heart is just that, a distinction and not a separation. While there can be head knowledge without a “sense of the heart” (because for Edwards “sense of the heart” is, by definition, Christian), there can never be a “sense of the heart” unless there is head knowledge first. “Knowledge is the key that first opens the hard heart.”39

To summarize, Edwards’ understanding of the faculties looks something like this: Man has two faculties of his soul, speculative knowledge (understanding) and sensible knowledge (the heart). Speculative knowledge in and of itself can perceive, speculate, discern, view, and judge certain things. Such actions can be, according to Edwards, disinclined or inclined. His example of one’s perception of a square or triangle illustrates an act of perception that is relatively disinclined. The other faculty, sensible knowledge, is also called by Edwards inclination, will, mind, or heart. This is the faculty in man’s soul that appropriates the notions of the understanding and applies them to its own disposition.40 This, in summary form, is what Edwards is setting forth as a biblical faculty psychology.

A central and most significant distinction in Edwards’ anthropology is that between the natural and the moral image of God in man:

As there are two kinds of attributes in God, according to our way of conceiving of him, his moral attributes which are summed up in his holiness and his natural attributes of strength, knowledge, etc., that constitute the greatness of God; so there is a two-fold imago Dei in man, his moral or spiritual image, which is his holiness·and man’s natural image, consisting in man’s reason and

37 Edwards, Religious Affections, 265.

38 Ibid., 120.

39 Ibid., 266.

40 Here Edwards seems to be consistent with his tradition. To use one example, John Owen contends that “the mind or understanding·is the guiding, conducting faculty of the soul. It goes before in discerning, judging, and determining, to make the way of moral actions fair and smooth to the will and affections. It is to the soul what Moses told his father-in-law that he might be to the people in the wilderness, as ‘eyes to guide them,’ and keep them from wandering in that desolate place. It is the eye of the soul, without whose guidance the will and affections would perpetually wander in the wilderness of this world.” See John Owen, The Works of John Owen (16 vols.; ed. W H. Gould; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977) 6.216.


understanding, his natural ability and dominion over the creatures, which is the image of God’s natural ability.41

This distinction is obviously crucial in Edwards’ anthropology, particularly in his view of man’s reason. Edwards contends that, while the moral and natural attributes of God are inseparable, man, on the other hand, lost the moral image at the fall while retaining the natural image. Man lost holiness, but retained (though not without sin’s effects) reason and understanding.42 Man’s reason, therefore, was not lost after the fall.

What that means for Edwards is that there is a further distinction to be made in terms of man’s ability and inability.

We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing, when we can’t do it if we will, because what is most commonly called nature don’t allow of it, or because of some impending defect or obstacle that is extrinsic to the will; ·Moral inability consists not in any of these things; but either in the want of inclination; or the strength of a contrary inclination; or the want of sufficient motives in view, to induce and excite the act of the will, or the strength of apparent motives to the contrary.43

There is still, however, in Edwards, a direct effect of the moral on the natural. Edwards writes that “Natural qualifications are either excellent or otherwise, according as they are joined with moral excellency or not. Strength and knowledge don’t render any being lovely, without holiness; but more hateful.”44

The moral permeates and always has an effect on the natural.45 This is not to say that there is no knowledge apart from the moral image. Unbelievers can and do know some things “after a fashion.” In speaking of the light of understanding that is given by the common influences of the Spirit, Edwards says that it consists only in a further understanding, through the

41 Edwards, Religious Affections, 256.

42 I am not sure at this point how reason and understanding differ in Edwards’ conception except to say that reason would be seen as a part of understanding the latter of which would also include perception.

43 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 159.

44 Edwards, Religious Affections, 257. When speaking of reason’s “independence,” I am attempting to summarize what is a difficult concept. “Independence” means a supposed inherent capability to make sense of any fact without giving full and due weight to the Creator and Lord of such a fact. Just how one gives “full and due weight” will vary with the fact itself. The point, however, is that reason cannot make sense of any fact by an appeal to itself alone. There is, of course, more to it than that but an attempt to explicate would go beyond the parameters of this article.

45 This point should be emphasized in light of our present discussion. In a transcendental approach to apologetics, it is stressed from the beginning that the ethical (what some call the “religious”) permeates everything else. One who is always and everywhere before the face of God cannot escape the implications of his presence in any activity, be it thinking, knowing, acting, etc. Thus, knowledge is qualified by its ethical (or religious) aspect. In the analytic tradition of philosophy and ethics, this is sometimes referred to as “supervenience” wherein what one knows is characterized by the extent to which other factors “supervene” on the facts known (or thought to be known).


assistance of natural principles, of those things which men may know, in some measure, by the alone ordinary exercise of their faculties.46 It is possible and we. could say “ordinary” that men may know certain things, such things being in accordance with their natural faculties. We have already seen that Edwards distinguishes between speculative or notional knowledge and sensible knowledge. Notional knowledge is true as notional, yet, in terms of the notional knowledge of God, the world, etc., because it is merely notional, it is in fact condemnable. Edwards insists that spiritual men are opposed to carnal men.47 In speaking of the faculty of the heart or mind, Edwards insists that there are two and only two exercises of it–either for or against. There is no neutral exercise of the heart.48 Affections are of two sorts–cleaving to what is in view or opposing it.49 Man’s notional knowledge, be it inclined or disinclined, is either opposing or cleaving to that which it knows. In terms of the knowledge of God by argument, man may accept such arguments as true, but be neither inclined nor disinclined in his affections, because of which he is guilty of opposing God. Other men may see the arguments as truth and reject them vehemently, or tremble at their truth. Edwards states (in part) what an unbeliever may know, not only notionally and speculatively, but sensibly and effectively.

But ’tis possible that those who are wholly without [special] grace, should have a clear sight, and very great and affecting sense of God’s greatness, his mighty power, and awful majesty; for this is what the devils have, though they have lost the spiritual knowledge of God, consisting in a sense of the amiableness of his moral perfections; they are perfectly destitute of any sense or relish of that kind of beauty, yet they have a very great knowledge of the natural glory of God (if I may so speak) or his awful greatness and majesty; this they behold, and are affected with the apprehension of, and therefore tremble before him.50

Does this statement support the notion that Edwards insists on reason’s proving God’s existence independently? We can look now at the subject of apologetics, trying to assimilate the previous material on Edwards with the debate between Gerstner-Sproul-Lindsley51 and Van Til.

IV. Reason and Apologetics

By reason, I mean that power or faculty an intelligent being has to judge of the truth of propositions; either immediately, by only looking on the propositions, which is judging by intuition and self-evidence; or by putting together several

46 Ibid., 276. By “alone” Edwards does not mean “autonomous.”

47 Ibid., 198.

48 Ibid., 96.

49 Ibid., 98.

50 Ibid., 263.

51 From here on, we will characterize the position set forth in Classical Apologetics, or its authors, as GSL (Gerstner, Sproul and Lindsley.)


propositions, which are already evident by intuition, or at least whose evidence is originally derived from intuition.52

In its precursory form, the relationship of reason to revelation in Edwards is most enlightening.

Tindal’s arguing in his Christianity as Old as Creation proceeds on this ground, That since reason is the judge whether there be any revelation, or whether any pretended revelation really be such; therefore reason, without revelation, or undirected by revelation, must be the judge concerning each doctrine and proposition contained in that pretended revelation. This is an unreasonable way of arguing.53

Edwards, in this “miscellaneous observation,” is refuting Tindal the deist’s view that reason has no need of revelation. Compare Tindal’s view to Gerstner’s understanding of Edwards. Says Gerstner, “It is clear that for Edwards man’s reason–even fallen reason–can and does prove the being of God independently of special revelation.”54

52 Edwards, Works 2.479. Another interesting question arises here, given Edwards’ description of the acquisition of knowledge, i.e., was Edwards an epistemological foundationalist? To the extent that his primary influence was John Locke, he must have been. However, there is serious question in Edwardsean studies as to Locke’s influence on Edwards. The question itself, though important, deals with Edwards’ notion of the structure of knowledge and not directly with the relationship of reason to revelation. We can, at this point then, ignore it.

53 Ibid. 2.479 (emphasis mine). Edwards’ specific point in this refutation is that reason can never be a substitute for revelation. By implication that which would be true for those wanting to substitute reason for revelation would also be true for those affirming reason’s supposed independence from revelation. Both positions seek to separate reason from revelation at some apologetically crucial points.

54 Gerstner, “Jonathan Edwards and God,” 5. There is an important matter implicit in this citation that cannot be dealt with here but that could perhaps be the cornerstone to the entire disagreement between GSL and Van Til, i.e., the relationship of general to special revelation. What does Gerstner mean by the phrase, “independently of special revelation”? Does he mean that God can be proven without quoting Scripture? Does he mean that the truths contained in Scripture are irrelevant to the proof itself? Does he mean that scriptural concepts and facts must not be brought into the proof?

There are further problems when one begins to consider the truth of Rom 1:18ff. GSL seem at some points to affirm the truth of this passage and at other points to deny it. For example, in Classical Apologetics, 50ö51, they affirm the truth that all men know God, concluding with the (Van Tilian) statement on p. 52 that “Any reasoning process that begins with the denial of the known and proceeds on the basis of prejudice can hardly produce light, no matter how lucid and cogent the argument may be after the initial error is made. In fact, the more consistent a dishonest thinker is the further away from basic truth his mind will carry him.” Yet further on in the book (p. 233), they insist, “But people do not necessarily consider themselves in opposition to God, whose existence they do not even know at the outset [emphasis mine]. They do not necessarily deny the divine being as Van Til insists they do. People do not assert their autonomy against an initially known God as Van Til insists they do. They simply operate according to human nature.” Now these are strange quotes, particularly from those who want to affirm the absolute application of the law of noncontradiction.,How does the fact that all men know God at the outset relate to the later statement that people do not know God at the outset? It seems GSL need to be pressed on their notion of general revelation and its


The relationship between reason and revelation seems to be clear in Edwards’ writings and seems to be much different than what GSL want to set forth. As a Reformed theologian, Edwards realizes that all knowledge is revelational of the God who created all things. Edwards insists that “there is perfect harmony” between reason and revelation. This would seem to indicate that, given Edwards’ understanding of the authority of revelation, that which is revealed to us by God is by definition reasonable. He says as much: “this is the truth which the mind first and most directly feels under a conviction of, viz., that the way of salvation which the gospel reveals is a proper, suitable and sufficient way, perfectly agreeable to reason and the nature of things.”55

In his sermon, “Man’s Natural Blindness in the Things of Religion,” Edwards says, “Were not the minds of men exceeding dark, they never would entertain such absurd notions at all; for they are as contrary as possible to reason: much less would they fall into them, after they had once been instructed in the truth.”56 Reason, for Edwards, is subject to that which is revealed. And while it is common for Christians, with the apostle Paul, to affirm the foolishness of the cross, Edwards wants also to affirm the fact that the gospel is “perfectly agreeable to reason.” This view places reason squarely within the context of and submissive to revelation. We could say, then, that reasoning for Edwards presupposes the truth of revelation. He confirms this elsewhere when he states,

·he that thinks to prove that the world ever did, in fact, by wisdom know God, that any nation upon earth or any set of men ever did, from the principles of reason only without assistance from revelation, find out the true nature and true worship of the deity, must find out some history of the world entirely different from all the accounts which the present sacred and profane writers do give us, or his opinion must appear to be a mere guess and conjecture of what is barely possible, but what all history assures us never was really done in the world.57

Again, the right use of reason, or the fact of “reasonableness,” presupposes revelation. Edwards, in the same “Miscellany,” asserts that “The only way, says Mr. Locke·that reason can teach men to know God must be from considering His works; and if so, His works must be first known and considered before they can teach men to know the author of them.”58 Edwards goes on to comment that men have not and cannot reason rightly apart from the presupposition of God’s revelation.

relationship to special revelation. I would not be surprised to find that there are significant non-Reformed and perhaps secular elements in such a relationship, given their adherence to Thomistic philosophy.

55 Edwards, “Ideas,” in Miller, “Jonathan Edwards,” 145 (emphasis mine).

56 Edwards, Works 2.249 (emphasis mine).

57 Edwards, “Miscellanies #986,” 213.

58 Ibid., 212.


But what about, as Locke calls them, “His works”? What does man know of the works of God? Edwards states succinctly, “There is not one thing whatsoever more plain and manifest, and more demonstrable, than the being of a God. It is manifest in ourselves, in our own bodies and souls, and in every thing about us wherever we turn our eye, whether to heaven, or to the earth.”59 In his sermon on Rom 1:20, Edwards says that every blade of grass gives overwhelming testimony to the divine being. Elsewhere Edwards affirms, “Indeed, we every moment see the same proof of a God as we should have seen if we had seen [him] create the world at first.”60 For Edwards, revelation is plain, manifest and demonstrable. It is inescapable and it imposes itself on all men.

Gerstner outlines seven “areas of harmony” between reason and revelation as set forth by Edwards.61 The first of these, “Reason must prove the existence of God, the Revealer,” is questionable and deserves closer attention in light of Edwards’ view of reason. Gerstner maintains, as we saw above, that “it is clear that the believer’s reason–even fallen reason–can and does prove the being of God independently of special revelation.”62 This is a curious quote in light of Edwards’ insistence to the contrary. In his “Observations on the Scriptures;–their authority–and necessity,” Edwards devotes a section to the limits of independent human reason, particularly, in this context, to the argument from effect to cause. In that section he states,

But, allowing that every man is able to demonstrate to himself, that the world, and all things contained therein, are effects, and had a beginning, which I take to be a most absurd supposition, and look upon it to be almost impossible for unassisted reason to go so far; yet, if effects are to be ascribed to similar causes, and a good and wise effect must suppose a good and wise cause, by the same way of reasoning, all the evil and irregularity in the world must be attributed to an evil and unwise cause. So that either the first cause must be both good and evil, wise and foolish, or else there must be two first causes, an evil and irrational, as well as a good and wise principle. Thus man, left to himself, would be apt to reason, “If the cause and effects are similar and conformable, matter must have a material cause; there being nothing more impossible for us to conceive, than how matter should be produced by spirit or any thing else but spirit.63

Edwards insists that “independent reason” cannot “prove” the existence of God. The best that it can do is surmise that if there is a god, he is good and evil, wise and foolish. In his argument against Tindal, Edwards refutes

59 Edwards, Works 2.252.

60 Edwards, “Miscellanies #125,” 76.

61 This is also reiterated in John H. Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Powhatan, VA: Berra Publications; and Orlando, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 1991) 1.94-106.

62 Ibid., 5.

63 Edwards, Works 2.476 (emphasis mine).


the view that reason can operate rightly apart from revelation. He spends much of the time showing that reason by itself can never prove the God of revelation. For example, he says, “It is evident that something now is.”64 Given that fact, reason is unable to show whether something has been from eternity, whether something came from nothing or whether there could be a being that is self-existent. There are difficulties, insuperable if met with reason alone, for the proposition that something now is. He then goes on to show how “unreasonable” it is to attempt to prove from the general principle that there is evil in the world that God is good.65 Edwards is insisting that if one starts with the proposition that something now is, unless revelation be presupposed, reason is unable to discover the truth of God’s existence. In “Miscellany #408,” Edwards speaks again of the limitation of reason,

Ratiocination, without·spiritual light, never will give one such an advantage to see things in their true relations and respects to other things, and to things in general·.
A man that sets himself to reason without divine light is like a man that goes in the dark into a garden full of the most beautiful plants, and most artfully ordered, and compares things together by going from one thing to another to feel of them all, to perceive their beauty.66

Reason and its processes will never give one the ability to see things truly.

V. The GSL Apologetic

We will return first to the problem of Being, mentioned above, which becomes significant now as we attempt to distance the GSL apologetic from Edwards. If our contention of the development of Edwards in this area is correct, then GSL, in failing to distinguish between earlier and later Edwards with respect to ontology, have sought to incorporate the earlier, Parmenidean notion of Being to their detriment.

The GSL apologetic claims to follow Edwards’ notion of ontology in their presentation of the ontological argument. These apologists “consider [Edwards’] work in Anselm’s argument to be superior to most others, and, indeed, to constitute the ultimate proof.”67 One of the reasons that we began by dealing with Edwards’ ontology was, not only to show its development, but also to show that when GSL choose to follow Edwards at that particular point, they are outside of the scope of Christian apologetics altogether. As John Frame noted in his review of Classical Apologetics,

There is an obvious objection to this [GSL’s ontological argument], however, which the book doesn’t even mention. However infinite being may be, our idea of being extends to finite being as well. Therefore, if “being” is divine, then finite

64 Ibid., 480.

65 Ibid., 480-81.

66 Edwards, “Miscellanies #408,” 249 (emphasis mine).

67 Gerstner, Classical Apologetics, 105-6.


beings are part of that divine being. In other words, without some modification, the argument proves pantheism. And the argument fails to draw any distinction between the kind of “infinity,” “eternity,” “omnipresence,” etc. attributable to a pantheistic god, and the very different (but similar-sounding) attributes revealed concerning the God of the Scripture.68

Thus, because Edwards’ earlier development in ontology smacks of Parmenides, there can be no biblical ontological argument beginning from it. And it is no doubt because of these implications that Edwards moved to a more biblical statement of the matter in his later published works. Unless the Creator/creature distinction is first presupposed in any ontological argument, “being” will either be lost in the world (because absorbed into everything that “is”) or totally detached from it (because wholly other than everything else). Either pure pantheism or Aristotle’s “thought thinking itself” results. And neither of those two options can fit within a Christian context. A Christian apologetic, therefore, cannot accept GSL’s ontological argument, nor would Edwards.

A further concern deals with the faculty psychology of Edwards in relation to the apologetic enterprise. I attempted to show above that while Edwards made helpful distinctions, his intent, against the grain of his culture, was always to keep the unity of man intact. GSL fail, at this crucial point, to follow Edwards closely. It is their suggestion that “classic Reformed orthodoxy saw the noetic influence of sin not as direct through a totally depraved mind, but as indirect through the totally depraved heart.”69 In this they claim to follow Edwards. There is something inherently confusing, however, about a faculty of man being indirectly, totally depraved. What would an indirect totally depraved mind do that a directly totally depraved could not do? How could one discern direct and indirect total depravity? Our previous discussion of Edwards’ faculty psychology should at this point make clear that Edwards would never sanction such a distinction if it meant, as the context indicates, that man’s mind is less than at enmity with God even when it discovers truth. As a matter of fact, Edwards identifies the faculty of mind and heart as one faculty (and in this he follows the Bible). Moreover, as noted earlier, one author insists that Edwards’ work, Religious Affections, was written as a treatise enquiring into the nature of the mind (not of a separate or distinct faculty of the heart, as GSL might wish). To distinguish between directly totally depraved and indirectly totally depraved is to rend asunder that which God has joined together. The contention of GSL, however, that reason is therefore capable of apologetical argumentation, contra Van Til, must still be addressed.

Probably the clearest exposition of Edwards’ apologetical approach (at least one aspect of it) comes from his Freedom of the Will. In speaking of the

68 Frame, “Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic,” 296.

69 Gerstner, Classical Apologetics, 243.


limitations of man’s ability (and here he must be speaking of moral ability) to know God, he summarizes his approach.

…the way that mankind come to the knowledge of the being of God, is that which the Apostle speaks of (Rom. 1:20), “The invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen; being understood by the things that are made; even his eternal power and Godhead.” We first ascend, and prove a posteriori, or from effects, that there must be an eternal cause; and then secondly, prove by argumentation, not intuition, that this being must be necessarily existent; and then thirdly, from the proved necessity of his existence, we may descend, and prove many of his perfections a priori.70

GSL will applaud this quote from Edwards as being in line with classical apologetics and contrary to a Reformed apologetic. Yet a closer look will show that Van Til himself could have written the same thing.

The demand of the doctrine of the Trinity·is that reality be interpreted in exclusively eternal categories inasmuch as the source of diversity lies in the Trinity itself and could never be found in a sense world beyond God. Hence the problem of the one and the many, of the universal and the particular, of being and becoming, of analytic and synthetic reasoning, of the a priori and a posteriori, must be solved by an exclusive reference to the Trinity. The only alternative to this is to assume responsibility for trying to explain the whole of reality in temporal terms, and therefore with man as the ultimate point of reference.71

Notice here that Van Til, though speaking in another context, approves of all kinds of reasoning based on the priority of revelation. The question at this point is not how one reasons but on what basis the Christian apologist reasons. Is Edwards here affirming that in reasoning a posteriori the natural man can reason independently to the existence of God? We have already seen that the natural man’s reason can discern some things truly as far as his reason can go (more of which below) but Edwards would not contend that such a posteriori reasoning is to be done in a vacuum, for two reasons. First, the context from which this quotation is taken is the context of God’s revelation to man in nature. Such revelation presupposes, even as one is reasoning a posteriori, that God in fact exists and reveals himself. Secondly, Edwards is elsewhere insistent that reason alone will never grasp the truth. In his “Man’s Natural Blindness in the Things of Religion,” Edwards says that the minds of men are so dark that they are as contrary as possible to reason.72 This suggests not only that men cannot reason independently of God, but also, and this is significant, that what is reasonable is biblical and vice versa. Reason itself is identified not as being independent of revelation, but as consistent with revelation. By that fact, reason itself must always presuppose revelation as its criterion and its content. In

70 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 182.

71 Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (2d ed.; [Philadelphia:] den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1977) 95-96 (emphasis mine).

72 Edwards, Works 2.249.


reasoning a posteriori it is safe to say that Edwards himself is presupposing, not neutrality, but biblical truth.

Elwood comments that while it is true that Edwards affirms a posteriori reasoning, such does not prove that way to be the best. “Edwards himself arrived at the knowledge of the being of God by the reverse order.”73 As a matter of fact, Edwards in “Miscellany #274” argues that “The being of God may be argued from the desirableness and need of it. This we see in all nature everywhere.”74 One, it seems, can start anywhere and everywhere in arguing for the existence of God, just because God is revealed anywhere and everywhere. This is, of course, thoroughly Van Tilian. I have contended elsewhere that one of the unique contributions of Van Til’s apologetic is the way in which he worked out what I have called, “A World View Apologetic.”75 Edwards, like Van Til, was willing to start anywhere, theistic proofs included, in order to argue for God’s existence.

So what part does reason play in these arguments? How much can the unbeliever really know? The two questions are interconnected, though distinct. For Edwards, reason’s role in the argumentation for God’s existence depended, in large measure, on the Spirit’s work of faith in the heart. This is what happens when a person discovers saving faith in the heart: “But when a person has discovered to him the divine excellency of Christian doctrines, this destroys the enmity, removes those prejudices, sanctifies the reason, and causes it to lie open to the force of arguments for their truth·. It not only removes the hinderances of reason but positively helps reason.”76 Edwards elsewhere asserts, “In thus assisting men’s faculties to an ideal apprehension of the natural things of religion, together with what assistance God may give men’s natural reason and judgement to see the force of natural arguments, consists the whole of the common works of the Spirit of God in men.”77 It seems that reason, for Edwards, can only be convinced of the truth of rational (biblical) argumentation if the Spirit of God infuses faith into the hearts of men with whom we reason. Thus, Elwood is correct to assert that it is Edwards’ view of faith, involving the whole man, that confirms him in the Augustinian dictum, credo ut intelligam, against the contemporary rationalists of Edwards’ day.78

Yet Edwards is caught in the paradox, so lamented by GSL, of having to admit that men see while not seeing and know while not knowing.79 Edwards himself admits to such a paradox.

73 Elwood, Philosophical Theology, 14.

74 Edwards, “Miscellanies #274,” 79.

75 K. Scott Oliphint, “Cornelius Van Til and the Reformation of Christian Apologetics,” in Die idee van reformasie: gister en vandag (ed. B. J. van der Walt; Potchefstoom: Potchefstroomse Universiteit vir Christelike Hoer Onderwys, 1991) 119ö54.

76 Edwards, Works 2.14 (emphasis mine).

77 Edwards, “Ideas,” in Miller, “Jonathan Edwards,” 142.

78 Elwood, Philosophical Theology, 127.

79 See, for example, Classical Apologetics, 41f.


And therefore religion raises so many shadows and seeming contradictions. And it is for want of distinguishing that in the meaning of words in divinity from what is intended by them in their ordinary use that arise most of the jangles about religion in the world. And to one who is not much for elevated thought, many things that are in themselves as easy and natural as the things we every day converse with, seem like impossibility and confusion. ‘Tis so in every case, the more abstracted the science is, and by how much the higher the nature of those things are of which that science treats, and by so much the more will that science abound in paradoxes and seeming contradictions.80

The paradox is explained somewhat by Edwards’. teaching of speculative and sensitive knowledge. Men may “know” speculatively that which they do not “know” sensibly. There are in Edwards, as in Vain Til, two levels of knowing; thus the paradox is that natural man may know and not know the same thing at the same time. In both of these “knowings,” reason, it seems, must be the primary faculty involved, thus the seeming contradiction.

Yet Edwards wants to be careful in his insistence that the unbeliever can indeed know something truly, though not adequately. Edwards says that we can endeavor to discover “what the voice of reason is, so far as it can go.”81 The “can” in the phrase emphasized is, I take it, referring to natural ability and moral inability. Reason can only take man so far. And how far, according to Edwards, can it take us? Remember that in Edwards’ distinction of moral and natural ability, he is willing to say that reason is capable of reasoning rightly, that reason has the natural ability to discern the force of those arguments that prove God’s existence.82 Though GSL would rejoice in this as anti-Van Tilian, Van Til says as much: “every man has the capacity to reason logically.”83 This is Edwards’ “natural ability” in a presuppositional context. “The mind of man,” says Van Til, “could not even follow an argument unless it was what Calvin, following Paul, says it was.”84 And what does Calvin, following Paul, say of the mind? That man is made in God’s image (Edwards’ natural imago Dei) and therefore is capable of reasoning. Van Til goes on to affirm, again in line with Edwards, that the theistic proofs are “objectively valid” and that Christianity is “the only reasonable position to hold.”85 This is Edwards’ position throughout his writings. When Edwards insists that man cannot reason rightly apart from revelation, as he does, for example, in refuting Tindal, he is only saying what Van Til has said:

80 Edwards, “Miscellanies #83,” 210.

81 Edwards, Works 1.106 (emphasis mine).

82 Edwards, “Miscellanies #732,” 112.

83 Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge ([Philadelphia:] Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969) 292.

84 Ibid., 292-93.

85 Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972) 179 (emphasis mine). It is as Van Til speaks of “objective validity” in the theistic proofs that we return to another correlation between him and Edwards. It was mentioned above that Edwards speaks on occasion of reason “in the abstract,” thus defining it “objectively.” Though these terms can be fuzzy at times, it is helpful to remember, against Van Tilian


The true theistic proofs undertake to show that the ideas of existence (ontological proof), of cause (cosmological proof), and purpose (teleological proof) are meaningless unless they presuppose the existence of God.
This involves interpreting human reason itself in terms of God. It involves saying that unless human reason regards itself as being what Scripture says it is, created in the image of God [Edwards’ natural imago Dei] then it has no internal coherence. To this must be added that it involves the fact of sin as darkening the understanding and hardening the will.86

This sounds Edwardsean. In speaking of spiritual understanding in Religious Affections, Edwards makes plain that such does not consist of any new knowledge or proposition, quoting Calvin for support. Thus, to use one example, the argument from the First Cause is simply an argument based on the revelation in Scripture and not on reason’s “independent” ability to discern “new” facts.87 The unbeliever can reason, can think and can understand. Yet both men agree that what the unbeliever reasons, thinks and understands is both sinful and in shadows. Edwards, as was seen above, sees the natural men’s knowledge as one of shadows. So also, says Van Til in explicating Calvin, “The distinction of the natural man is not primarily one of territory, his distinction is primarily that of a blurred and wholly unsatisfactory knowledge on the part of the non-regenerate man and the true knowledge of the regenerate man.”88

Thus, for Van Til and for Edwards, contra GSL, the natural man knows, but only to a limit. He reasons, but only so far. The distinction that Edwards makes of natural and moral ability could be seen as synonymous to Van Til’s distinction between man metaphysically and morally. Man is made in God’s image. He knows God. He knows the world. The fall did not obliterate his humanity. Yet that which he knows, he suppresses, twists, distorts, and rejects.

While holding tenaciously to total depravity (not “direct” or “indirect”) both Edwards and Van Til admit that knowledge of God is still possible and even ordinary for the natural man. Edwards, in his sermon on Luke 24:32, affirms that men may hold to the existence of God from the consideration of the works of creation.89 So also Van Til says that the non-Christian knows something about God and the world. From a relative point of view, the non-Christian knows something about all things. Yet he knows “after a fashion.”90 GSL are adamant about the primacy of the intellect as being

opponents and absolutist interpretations of Van Til, that Van Til saw some validity in objectification. In his syllabus Introduction to Systematic Theology, Van Til affirms a limited use of objectively defined reason. Thus, objectification is not always neutrality.

86 Ibid., 190.

87 Edwards, Religious Affections, 278ff.

88 Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974) 92.

89 Quoted in Elwood, Philosophical Theology, 77.

90 Van Til, Systematic Theology, 83.


both in line with classical apologetics and against presuppositionalism.91 They fail to see, however, that in the context of what an unbeliever can know and how one should approach the unbeliever, Van Til notes that “Calvin can agree with the philosophers [note the agreement with unbelievers] when they assert the primacy of the intellect as a matter of psychology as such.”92 Recall also, in the last section, the quote from Edwards that it is knowledge (presumably knowledge of the pagan) that is the key to unlocking the heart.93

Though there is much more that could be said with regard to Edwards, GSL and Van Til, it seems clear that Edwards is directly in line with Van Til’s approach and in conflict with the rationalism of GSL. While both Edwards and Van Til affirm the total depravity of man, not of just one of man’s faculties (GSL), both men also affirm that the Spirit of God, the image of God, and the works of God make the actual situation in the natural man “a mixture of truth and error.”94 This will come as somewhat of a shock to any skewed interpretation of Van Til that wants to reject out of hand all that the unbeliever says. Van Til, like Edwards, knew too much of the image of God in man and the works of God around man to allow for such a position. Van Til summarizes this point,

We are well aware of the fact that non-Christians have a great deal of knowledge about this world which is true as far as it goes. That is, there is a sense in which we can and must allow for the value of knowledge of non-Christians. This has always been a difficult point. It is often the one great source of confusion on the question of faith in its relation to reason. We should admit that we cannot give any wholly satisfactory account of the situation as it actually obtains. We cannot do that with respect to this question any more than we can with respect to the question how it is possible that God can give to those who are children of his wrath such natural blessings as rain and sunshine, or physical property in general. All that we can do with this question as with many other questions in theology, is to hem it in in order to keep out errors and to say that truth lies within a certain territory.95

Edwards “hemmed it in” in terms of his view of speculative/sensible knowledge and natural/moral ability/inability. Van Til “hemmed it in” in terms of metaphysical/moral continuity/discontinuity. The two men were consistent with their agreed theology. Perhaps the supposed disagreements lie in the presuppositions of those who seek to interpret them rather than in what they actually gave to the church.

91 Gerstner, Classical Apologetics, 227ö30.

92 Van Til, Systematic Theology, 33 (emphasis mine).

93 See also n. 40 citing Owen to the same effect.

94 Van Til, Systematic Theology, 27. For Van Til’s insistence that the Spirit of God works within the natural man, see p. 105.

95 Ibid., 26.


It would seem, then, that in terms of the noetic influence of sin in the unbeliever, both Edwards and Van Til are in agreement. Edwards’ approach to the unbeliever, like Van Til’s, fully recognized sin’s devastating influence and God’s revelatory exigency. Both men gave full weight to man’s logical and noetic capacities without destroying the depth of sin’s effects on man’s abilities. In the final analysis, both men persistently wrote of the absolute necessity of God’s revealing himself as the backdrop for any reasoning, any thinking, any apologetic.

Westminster Theological Seminary

Formatted By: Jonathan Barlow
Added to CRTA’s Online Resources: 4-22-97
Pagenation Retained
Quote As: Oliphint, Scott. Jonathan Edwards: Reformed Apologist Westminster Theological Journal [57, 1 (Spring 1995), 165-86].

Reformed Theology and Apologetics
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