Jonathan Edwards and the New England Theology

By Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield
Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 1912

JONATHAN EDWARDS, saint and metaphysician, revivalist and theologian, stands out as the one figure of real greatness in the intellectual life of colonial America. Born, bred, passing his whole life on the verge of civilization, he has made his voice heard wherever men have busied themselves with those two greatest topics which can engage human thought — God and the soul. A French philosopher of scant sympathy with Edwards’ chief concernment writes:

“There are few names of the eighteenth century which have obtained such celebrity as that of Jonathan Edwards. Critics and historians down to our own day have praised in dithyrambic terms the logical vigor and the constructive powers of a writer whom they hold (as is done by Mackintosh, Dugald Stewart, Robert Hall, even Fiechte) to be the greatest metaphysician America has yet produced. Who knows, they have asked themselves, to what heights this original genius might have risen, if, instead of being born in a half-savage country, far from the traditions of philosophy and science, he had appeared rather in our old world, and there received the direct impulse of the modern mind. Perhaps he would have taken a place between Leibniz and Kant among the founders of immortal systems, instead of the work he has left reducing itself to a sublime and barbarous theology, which astonishes our reason and outrages our heart, the object of at once our horror and admiration.”

Edwards’ greatness is not, however, thus merely conjectural. He was no “mute, inglorious Milton,” but the most articulate of men. Nor is it as a metaphysician that he makes his largest claim upon our admiration, subtle metaphysician as he showed himself to be. His ontological speculations, on which his title to recognition as a metaphysician mainly rests, belong to his extreme youth, and had been definitely put behind him at an age when most men first begin to probe such problems. It was, as Lyon indeed suggests, to theology that he gave his mature years and his most prolonged and searching thought, especially to the problems of sin and salvation. And these problems were approached by him not as purely theoretical, but as intensely practical ones. Therefore he was a man of action as truly as a man of thought, and powerfully wrought on his age, setting at work energies which have not yet spent their force. He is much more accurately characterized. therefore, by a philosopher of our own, who is as little in sympathy, however, with his main interests as Lyon himself. F. J. E. Woodbridge says:

“He was distinctly a great man. He did not merely express the thought of his tune, or meet it simply in the spirit of his traditions. He stemmed it and molded it. New England thought was already making toward that colorless theology which marked it later. That he checked. It was decidedly Arminian. He made it Calvinistic… His time does not explain him.”

Edwards had a remarkable philosophical bent; but he had an even more remarkable sense and taste for divine things. and, therefore (so Woodbridge concludes, with at least relative justice), “we remember him, not as the greatest of American philosophers, but as the greatest of American Calvinists.”


It was a very decadent New England into which Edwards was born, on 5th October 1703. The religious fervor which the Puritan immigrants had brought with them into the New World had not been able to propagate itself unimpaired to the third and fourth generation. Already in 1678, Increase Mather had bewailed that “the body of the rising generation is a poor, perishing, unconverted, and (except the Lord pour down His Spirit) an undone generation.” There were general influences operative throughout Christendom at this epoch, depressing to the life of the spirit, which were not unfelt in New England; and these were reinforced there by the hardness of the conditions of existence in a raw land. Everywhere thinking and living alike were moving on a lowered plane; not merely spirituality but plain morality was suffering some eclipse. The churches felt compelled to recede from the high ideals which had been their heritage, and were introducing into their membership and admitting to their mysteries men who, though decent in life, made no profession of a change of heart. If only they had been themselves baptized, they were encouraged to offer their children for baptism (under the so-called “Half-Way Covenant”), and to come themselves to the Table of the Lord (conceived as a “converting ordinance”). The household into which Edwards was born, however, not only protected him from much of the evil which was pervading the community, but powerfully stimulated his spiritual and intellectual life. He began the study of Latin at the age of six, and by thirteen had acquired a respectable knowledge of “the three learned languages” which at the time formed part of the curricula of the colleges — Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Before he had completed his thirteenth year (September 1716), he entered the “Collegiate School of Connecticut” (afterwards Yale College). During his second year at college he fell in with Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” and had more satisfaction and pleasure in studying it, he tells us himself, “than the most greedy miser finds, when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold, from some newly discovered treasure.” He graduated at the head of his class in 1720, when he was just short of seventeen years of age, but remained at college (as the custom of the time was) two years longer (to the summer of 1722) for the study of Divinity. In the summer of 1722 he was “approbated” to preach, and from August 1722 until April 1723 he supplied the pulpit of a little knot of Presbyterians in New York City. Returning home, he was appointed tutor at Yale in June 1724, and filled this post with distinguished ability, during a most trying period in the life of the college, for the next two years (until September 1726). His resignation of his tutorship was occasioned by an invitation to become the colleague and successor of his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in the pastorate of the church at Northampton, Mass., where, accordingly, he was ordained and in-stalled on 15th February 1727.

By his installation at Northampton, Edwards’ period of preparation was brought to a close. His preparation had been remarkable, both intensively and extensively. Born with a drop of ink in his veins, Edwards had almost from infancy held a pen in his hand. From his earliest youth he had been accustomed to trace out on paper to its last consequence every fertile thought which came to him. A number of the early products of his observation and reflection have been preserved, revealing a precocity which is almost beyond belief.

It is in these youthful writings that Edwards propounds spiritualistic metaphysics, and it is chiefly on the strength of them that he holds a place in our histories of philosophy. His whole system is already present in substance in the essay . “Of Being,” which was written before he was sixteen years of age. And, though there is no reason to believe that he ever renounced the opinions set forth in these youthful discussions — there are, on the contrary, occasional suggestions, even in latest writings, that they still lurked at the back of his brain — he never formally reverts to them subsequently to Yale period (up to 1727). His engagement with such topics belongs, therefore, distinctively to his formative period, fore he became engrossed with the duties of the active ministry and the lines of thought more immediately called into exercise by them. In these early years, certainly independently of Berkeley, and apparently with no suggestion from outside beyond what might be derived from Newton’s explanations of light and color, and Locke’s treatment of sensation as the source of ideas, he worked out for himself a complete system of Idealism, which trembled indeed on the brink of mere phenomenalism, and might have betrayed him into Pantheism save for the intensity of his perception of the living God. “Speaking most strictly,” he declares, “there is no proper substance but God Himself.” The universe exists “nowhere but in the Divine mind.” Whether this is true “with respect to bodies only,” or of finite spirits as well, he seems at first to have wavered; ultimately he came to the more inclusive opinion.

Edwards was not so absorbed in such speculations as to neglect the needs of his spirit. Throughout all these formative years he remained first of all a man of religion. He had been the subject of deep religious impressions from his earliest boyhood, and he gave himself, during this period of preparation, to the most assiduous and intense cultivation of his religious nature. “I made seeking my salvation,” he himself tells us, “the main business of my life.” But about the time of his graduation (1720) a change came over him, which relieved the strain of his inward distress. From his childhood, his mind had revolted against the sovereignty of God: “it used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me.” Now all this passed unobservedly away; and gradually, by a process he could not trace, this very doctrine came to be not merely a matter of course to him but a matter of rejoicing: “The doctrine has very often appeared exceedingly pleasant, bright, and sweet; absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.” One day he was reading 1 Tim. 1:17, “Now unto the King, eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory, for ever and ever, Amen,” and, as he read, “a sense of the glory of the Divine Being” took possession of him, “a new sense, quite different from anything” he “ever experienced before.” He longed to be “rapt up to Him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in Him for ever.” From that moment his understanding of divine things increased, and his enjoyment of God grew. There were, no doubt, intervals of depression. But, on the whole, his progress was steadily upwards and his consecration more and more complete. It was this devout young man, with the joy of the Lord in his heart, who turned his back in the early months of 1727 on his brilliant academic life and laid aside forever his philosophical speculations, to take up the work of a pastor at Northampton.


Edwards was ordained co-pastor with his grandfather on 15th February 1727, and on the latter’s death, two years later, succeeded to the sole charge of the parish. Northampton was relatively a very important place. It was the county town, and nearly half of the area of the province lay within the county. It was, therefore, a sort of little local capital, and its people prided themselves on their culture, energy, and independence of mind. There was but the one church in the town, and it was probably the largest and most influential in the province, outside of Boston. It was not united in sentiment, being often torn with factional disputes. But, under the strong preaching of Solomon Stoddard, it had been repeatedly visited with revivals. These periods of awakening continued at intervals during Edwards’ pastorate; the church became famous for them, and its membership was filled up by them. At one time the membership numbered six hundred and twenty, and included nearly the entire adult population of the town. Stoddard had been the protagonist for the later views of admission to Church ordinances, and early in the century had introduced into the Northampton church the practice of opening the Lord’s Supper to those who made no profession of conversion. In this practice Edwards at first acquiesced; but, becoming convinced that it was wrong, sought after a while to correct it, with disastrous consequences to himself. Meanwhile it had given to the membership of the church something of the character of a mixed multitude, which the circumstance that large numbers of them had been introduced in the religious excitement of revivals had tended to increase.

To the pastoral care of this important congregation, Edwards gave himself with single-hearted devotion. Assiduous house-to-house visitation did not, it is true, form part of his plan of work; but this did not argue carelessness or neglect; it was in accordance with his deliberate judgment of his special gifts and fitnesses. And, if he did not go to his people in their homes, save at the call of illness or special need, he encouraged them to come freely to him, and grudged neither time nor labor in meeting their individual requirements. He remained, of course, also a student, spending ordinarily from thirteen to fourteen hours daily in his study. This work did not separate itself from, but was kept strictly subsidiary to, his pastoral service. Not only had he turned his back definitely on the purely academic speculations which had engaged him so deeply at Yale, but he produced no purely theological works during the whole of his twenty-three years’ pastorate at Northampton. His publications during this period, besides sermons, consisted only of treatises in practical Divinity. They deal principally with problems raised by the great religious awakenings in which his preaching was fruitful.

It was in his sermons that Edwards’ studies bore their richest fruit. He did not spare himself in his public instruction. He not only faithfully filled the regular appointments of the church, but freely undertook special discourses and lectures, and during times of “attention to religion” went frequently to the aid of the neighboring churches. From the first he was recognized as a remarkable preacher, as arresting and awakening as he was instructive. Filled himself with the profoundest sense of the heinousness of sin, as an offense against the majesty of God and an outrage of His love, he set himself to arouse his hearers to some realization of the horror of their condition as objects of the divine displeasure, and of the incredible goodness of God in intervening for their salvation. Side by side with the most moving portrayal of God’s love in Christ, and of the blessedness of communion with Him, he therefore set, with the most startling effect, equally vivid pictures of the dangers of unforgiven sin and the terrors of the lost estate. The effect of such preaching, delivered with the force of the sincerest conviction, was overwhelming. A great awakening began in the church at the end of 1735, in which more than three hundred converts were gathered in, and which extended throughout the churches of the Connecticut valley. In connection with a visit from Whitefield in 1740 another wave of religious fervor was started, which did not spend its force until it covered the whole land. No one could recognize more fully than Edwards the evil that mixes with the good in such seasons of religious excitement. He diligently sought to curb excesses, and earnestly endeavored to separate the chaff from the wheat. But no one could protest more strongly against casting out the wheat with the chaff. He subjected all the phenomena of the revivals in which he participated to the most searching analytical study; and, while sadly acknowledging that much self-deception was possible. and that the rein could only too readily be given to false “enthusiasm” he earnestly contended that a genuine work of grace might find expression in mental and even physical excitement. It was one of the incidental fruits of these revivals that, as we have seen, he gave to the world in a series of studies perhaps the most thorough examination of the phenomena of religious excitement it has yet received, and certainly, in his great treatise on the “Religious Affections,” one of the most complete systems of what has been strikingly called “spiritual diagnostics” it possesses.

For twenty-three years Edwards pursued his fruitful ministry at Northampton; under his guidance the church became a city set on a hill to which all eyes were turned. But in the reaction from the revival of 1741-1742 conditions arose which caused him great searching’s of heart, and led ultimately to his separation from his congregation. In this revival, practically the whole adult population of the town was brought into the church; they were admitted under the excitement of the time and under a ruling introduced as long before as 1704 by Stoddard, which looked upon all the ordinances of the church, including the Lord’s Supper, as “converting ordinances,” not presupposing, but adapted to bring about, a change of heart.

As time passed, it became evident enough that a considerable body of the existing membership of the church had not experienced that change of heart by which alone they could be constituted Christians, and indeed they made no claim to have done so. On giving serious study to the question for himself, Edwards became convinced that participation in the Lord’s Supper could properly be allowed only to those professing real “conversion.” It was his duty as pastor and guide of his people to guard the Lord’s Table from profanation, and he was not a man to leave unperformed a duty clearly perceived. Two obvious measures presented themselves to him — unworthy members of the church must be exscinded by discipline, and greater care must be exercised in receiving new applicants for membership. No doubt discipline was among the functions which the Church claimed to exercise; but the practice of it had fallen much into decay as a sequence to the lowered conception which had come to be entertained of the requirements for church membership. The door of admission to the Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, had been formally set wide open; and this loose policy had been persisted in for half a century, and had become traditional. What Edwards felt himself compelled to undertake, it will be seen, was a return in theory and practice to the original platform of the Congregational churches, which conceived the Church to be, in the strictest sense of the words, “a company of saints by calling,” among whom there should be permitted to enter nothing that was not clean. This, which should have been his strength, and which ultimately gave the victory to the movement which he inaugurated throughout the churches of New England, was in his own personal case his weakness. It gave a radical appearance to the reforms which he advocated, which he himself was far from giving to them. It is not necessary to go into the details of the controversy regarding a case of discipline. which emerged in 1744, or the subsequent difficulties (l748-1749) regarding the conditions of admission to the Lord’s Supper. The result was that. after a sharp contest running through two years, Edwards was dismissed from his pastorate on 22nd June 1750.


By his dismissal from his church at Northampton. in his forty-seventh year, the second period of Edwards’ life — the period of strenuous pastoral labor — was brought to an abrupt close. After a few months he removed to the little frontier hamlet (there were only twelve white families resident there) of Stockbridge, as missionary of the “Society in London for Propagating the Gospel in New England and the Parts Adjacent” to the Housatonic Indians gathered there, and as pastor of the little church of white settlers. In this exile he hoped to find leisure to write, in defense of the Calvinistic system against the rampant “Arminianism” of the day, the works which he had long had in contemplation, and for which he had made large preparation. Peace and quiet he did not find; he was embroiled from the first in a trying struggle against the greed and corruption of the administrators of the funds designed for the benefit of the Indians. But he made, if he could not find, the requisite leisure. It was at Stockbridge that he wrote the treatises on which his fame as a theologian chiefly rests: the great works on the Will (written in 1753, published in 1754), and Original Sin (in the press when he died, 1758), the striking essays on “The End for which God created the World,” and the “Nature of True Virtue” (published 1765, after his death), and the unfinished “History of Redemption”(published 1772). No doubt he utilized for these works material previously collected. He lived practically with his pen in his hand, and accumulated an immense amount of written matter — his “best thoughts,” as it has been felicitously called. The work on the Will, indeed, had itself been long on the stocks. We find him making diligent studies for it already at the opening of 1747; and, though his work on it was repeatedly interrupted for long intervals, he tells us that before he left Northampton he “had made considerable preparation, and was deeply engaged in the prosecution of this design.” The rapid completion of the book in the course of a few months in 1753 was not, therefore, so wonderful a feat as it might otherwise appear. Nevertheless, it is the seven years at Stockbridge which deserve to be called the fruitful years of Edwards’ theological work. They were interrupted in the autumn of 1757 by an invitation to him to become the President of the College of New Jersey, at Princeton, in succession to his son-in-law, Aaron Burr. It was with great reluctance that he accepted this call; it seemed to him to threaten the prevention of what he had thought to make his life-work — the preparation, to wit, of a series of volumes on all the several parts of the Arminian controversy. But the college at Princeton, which had been founded and thus far carried on by men whose sympathies were with the warm-hearted, revivalistic piety to which his own life had been dedicated, had claims upon him which he could not disown. On the advice of a council of his friends, therefore, he accepted the call ,and removed to Princeton to take up his new duties, in January 1758. There he was inoculated for smallpox on 13th February, and died of this disease on 22d March in the fifty-fifth year of his age.

The peculiarity of Edwards’ theological work is due to the union in it of the richest religious sentiment with the highest intellectual powers. He was first of all a man of faith, and it is this that gives its character to his whole life and all its products; but his strong religious feeling had at its disposal a mental force and logical acuteness of the first order; he was at once deeply emotional, and, as Ezra Stiles called him, a “strong reasoner.” His analytical subtlety has probably never been surpassed; but with it was combined a broad grasp of religious truth which enabled him to see it as a whole, and to deal with its several parts without exaggeration and with a sense of their relations in the system. The system to which he gave his sincere adhesion, and to the defense of which, against the tendencies which were in his day threatening to undermine it, he consecrated all his powers, was simply Calvinism. From this system as it had been expounded by its chief representatives he did not consciously depart in any of its constitutive elements. The breadth and particularity of his acquaintance with it in its classical expounders, and the completeness of his adoption of it in his own thought, are frequently underestimated. There is a true sense in which he was a man of thought rather than of learning. There were no great libraries accessible in Western Massachusetts in the middle of the eighteenth century. His native disposition to reason out for himself the subjects which were presented to his thought was reinforced by his habits of study; it was his custom to develop on paper, to its furthest logical consequences, every topic of importance to which his attention was directed. He lived in the “age of reason,” and was in this respect a true child of his time. — In the task which he undertook, furthermore, an appeal to authority would have been useless; it was uniquely to the court of reason that he could hale the adversaries of the Calvinistic system. Accordingly it is only in his more didactic — as distinguished from controversial — treatise on “Religious Affections,” that Edwards cites with any frequency earlier writers in support of his positions. The reader must guard himself, however, from the illusion that Edwards was not himself conscious of the support of earlier writers beneath him. His acquaintance with the masters of the system of thought he was defending, for example, was wide and minute. Amesius and Wollebius had been his textbooks at college. The well selected library at Yale, we may be sure, had been thoroughly explored by him; at the close of his divinity studies, he speaks of the reading of “doctrinal books or books of controversy” as if it were part of his daily business. As would have been expected, he fed himself on the great Puritan divines, and formed not merely his thought but his life upon them. We find him in his youth, for instance, diligently using Manton’s “Sermons on the 119th Psalm” as a spiritual guide; and in his rare allusions to authorities in his works, he betrays familiarity with such writers as William Perkins, John Preston, Thomas Blake, Anthony Burgess, Stephen Charnock, John Flavel, Theophilus Gale, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Shephard, Richard Sibbes, John Smith the Platonist, and Samuel Clark the Arian. Even his contemporaries he knew and estimated at their true values: Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge as a matter of course; and also Thomas Boston, the scheme of thought of whose “View of the Covenant of Grace” he confessed he did not understand, but whose “Fourfold State of Man” he “liked exceedingly well.” His Calvin he certainly knew thoroughly, though he would not swear in his words; and also his Turretin, whom he speaks of as “the great Turretine”; while van Mastricht he declares “much better” than even Turretin, “or,” he adds with some fervor, “than any other book in the world, excepting the Bible, in my opinion”. The close agreement of his teaching with that of the best esteemed Calvinistic divines is, therefore, both conscious and deliberate; his omission to appeal to them does not argue either ignorance or contempt; it is incident to his habitual manner and to the special task he was prosecuting. In point of fact, what he teaches is just the “standard “ Calvinism in its completeness.

As an independent thinker, he is, of course, not without his individualisms, and that in conception no less than in expression. His explanation of the identity of the human race with its Head, founded as it is on a doctrine of personal identity which reduces it to an “arbitrary constitution” of God, binding its successive moments together, is peculiar to himself. In answering objections to the doctrine of Original Sin, he appeals at one point to Stapfer, and speaks, after him, in the language of that form of doctrine known as “mediate imputation.” But this is only in order to illustrate his own view that all mankind are one as truly as and by the same kind of divine constitution that an individual life is one in its consecutive moments. Even in this immediate context he does not teach the doctrine of “mediate imputation,” insisting rather that, Adam and his posterity being in the strictest sense one, in them no less than in him “the guilt arising from the first existing of a depraved disposition” cannot at all be distinguished from “the guilt of Adam’s first sin”, and elsewhere throughout the treatise he speaks in the terms of the common Calvinistic doctrine. His most marked individualism, however, lay in the region of philosophy rather than of theology. In an essay on “The Nature of True Virtue,” he develops, in opposition to the view that all virtue may be reduced ultimately to self-love, an eccentric theory of virtue as consisting in love to being in general. But of this again we hear nothing elsewhere in his works, though it became germinal for the New England theology of the next age. Such individualisms in any case arc in no way characteristic of his teaching. lie strove after no show of originality. An independent thinker he certainly claimed to be, and “utterly disclaimed a dependence,” say, “on Calvin,” in the sense of “believing the doctrines he held because Calvin believed and taught them.” This very disclaimer is, however, a proclamation of agreement with Calvin, though not as if he “believed everything just as Calvin taught;” he is only solicitous that he should be understood to be not a blind follower of Calvin, but a convinced defender of Calvinism. His one concern was, accordingly, not to improve on the Calvinism of the great expounders of the system, but to place the main elements of the Calvinistic system, as commonly understood, beyond cavil. His marvelous invention was employed, therefore, only in the discovery and development of the fullest and most convincing possible array of arguments in their favor. This is true even of his great treatise on the Will. This is, in the common judgment, the greatest of all his treatises, and the common judgment here is right. But the doctrine of this treatise is precisely the doctrine of the Calvinistic schoolmen. “The novelty of the treatise,” we have been well told long ago, “lies not in the position it takes and defends, but in the multitude of proofs, the fecundity and urgency of the arguments by which he maintains it.” Edwards’ originality thus consists less in the content of his thought than in his manner of thinking. He enters into the great tradition which had come down to him, and “infuses it with his personality and makes it live,” and “the vitality of his thought gives to its product the value of a unique creation.” The effect of Edwards’ labors was quite in the line of his purpose, and not disproportionate to his greatness. The movement against Calvinism which was overspreading the land was in a great measure checked, and the elimination of Calvinism as a determining factor in the thought of New England, which seemed to be imminent as he wrote, was postponed for more than a hundred years.


It was Edwards’ misfortune that he gave his name to a party; and to a party which, never in perfect agreement with him in its doctrinal ideas, finished by becoming the earnest advocate of (as it has been sharply expressed) “a set of opinions which he gained his chief celebrity in demolishing.” The affiliation of this party with Edwards was very direct. “Bellamy . . and Hopkins,” says G. P. Fisher, tracing the descent, “were pupils of Edwards; from Hopkins, West derived his theology; Smalley studied with Bellamy, and Emmons with Smalley.” But the inheritance of the party from Edwards showed itself much more strongly on the practical than on the doctrinal side. Its members were the heirs of his revivalist zeal and of his awakening preaching; they also imitated his attempt to purify the Church by discipline and strict guarding of the Lord’s Table in a word, to restore the Church to its Puritan ideal of a congregation of saints. Pressing to extremes in both matters, as followers will, the “Edwardseans” or “New Divinity” men became a ferment in the churches of New England, and, creating discussion and disturbances everywhere, gradually won their way to dominance. Meanwhile their doctrinal teaching was continually suffering change. As Fisher puts it, “in the process of defending the established faith, they were led to recast it in new forms and to change its aspect.” Only, it was not merely the form and aspect of their inherited faith, but its substance, that they were steadily transforming. Accordingly, Fisher proceeds to explain that what on this side constituted their common character was not so much a common doctrine as a common method: “the fact that their views were the result of independent reflection and were maintained on philosophical grounds.” Here, too, they were followers of Edwards; but in their exaggeration of his rational method, without his solid grounding in the history of thought, they lost continuity with the past and became the creators of a “New England theology “which it is only right frankly to describe as provincial.

It is a far cry from Jonathan Edwards the Calvinist, defending with all the force of his unsurpassed reasoning powers the doctrine of a determined will, and commending a theory of virtue which identified it with general benevolence, to Nathaniel W. Taylor the Pelagianizer, building his system upon the doctrine of the power to the contrary as its foundation stone, and reducing all virtue ultimately to self-love. Taylor’s teaching, in point of fact, was in many respects the exact antipodes of Edwards’, and very fairly reproduced the congeries of tendencies which the latter considered it his life-work to withstand. Yet Taylor looked upon himself as an “Edwardsean,” though in him the outcome of the long development received its first appropriate designation — the “New Haven Divinity.” Its several successive phases were bound together by the no doubt external circumstance that they were taught in general by men who had received their training at New Haven.

The growth of the New Divinity to that dominance in the theological thought of New England from which it derives its claim to be called “the New England Theology” was gradual, though somewhat rapid. Samuel Hopkins tells us that at the beginning — in 1756 — there were not more than four or five “who espoused the sentiments which since have been called ‘Edwardsean,’ and ‘New Divinity’; and since, after some improvement was made upon them, ‘Hopkintonian.’ or ‘Hopkinsian’ sentiments.” The younger Edwards still spoke of them in 1777 as a small party. In 1787, Ezra Stiles, chafing under their growing influence and marking the increasing divergence of views among themselves, fancied he saw their end approaching. In this he was mistaken: the New Divinity, in the person of Timothy Dwight, succeeded him as President of Yale College, and through a long series of years was infused into generation after generation of students. The “confusions” Stiles observed were, however, real or, rather, the progressive giving way of the so-called Edwardseans to those tendencies of thought to which they were originally set in opposition. The younger Edwards drew up a careful account of what he deemed the (ten) “Improvements in Theology made by President Edwards and those who have followed his course of thought.” Three of the most of these he does not pretend were introduced by Edwards, attributing them simply to those whom he calls Edwards’ “followers.” These are the substitution of the Governmental (Grotian) for the Satisfaction doctrine of the Atonement, in the accomplishment of which he himself, with partial forerunners in Bellamy and West, was the chief agent; the discarding of the doctrine of the imputation of sin in favor of the view that men are condemned for their own personal sin only – a contention which was made in an extreme form by Nathaniel Emmons, who confined all moral quality to acts of volition, and afterwards became a leading element in Nathaniel W. Taylor’s system; and the perversion of Edwards’ distinction between “natural” and “moral” inability so as to ground on the “natural” ability of the unregenerate, after the fashion introduced by Samuel Hopkins — a theory of the capacities and duties of men without the Spirit, which afterwards, in the hands of Nathaniel W. Taylor, became the core of a new Pelagianizing system.

The external victory of the New Divinity in New England was marked doubtless by the election of Timothy Dwight to the Presidency of Yale College (1795); and certainly it could have found no one better fitted to commend it to moderate men; probably no written system of theology has ever enjoyed wider acceptance than Dwight’s “Sermons.” But after Dwight came Taylor, and in the teaching of the latter the downward movement of the New Divinity ran out into a system which turned, as on its hinge, upon the Pelagianizing doctrines of the native sinlessness of the race, the plenary ability of the sinner to renovate his own soul, and self-love or the desire for happiness as the spring of all voluntary action. From this extreme some reaction was inevitable, and the history of the so-called “New England Theology” closes with the moderate reaction of the teaching of Edwards A. Park. Park was of that line of theological descent which came through Hopkins, Emmons, and Woods; but he sought to incorporate into his system all that seemed to him to be the results of New England thinking for the century which preceded him, not excepting the extreme positions of Taylor himself. Reverting so far from Taylor as to return to perhaps a somewhat more deterministic doctrine of the will, he was able to rise above Taylor in his doctrines of election and regeneration, and to give to the general type of thought which he represented a lease of life for another generation. But, with the death of Park in 1900, the history of “New England Theology” seems to come to an end.

From the Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume IX  pp.515-538.

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