On why Perry Miller wanted Jonathan Edwards to be John Locke

Regarding Miller’s landmark study on John Locke Jonathan Edwards…

Miller, Perry.  Jonathan Edwards.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1949 [2005].

The late John Gerstner described this book as one of the most important books written on Jonathan Edwards.  And when he said this in the 1960s, he was correct.  Edwards studies has exploded since then.  One must be careful of being too critical of Miller’s work.  When he wrote this few academics took the Puritans or Jonathan Edwards seriously.   Now we have almost a glut of material.   For all of Miller’s faults, he did the the project started.

Miller offers two keys to interpreting Edwards’ life and thought:  the philosophy of John Locke and the internecine politics of New England.   To phrase it more precisely:  Jonathan Edwards’ use of John Locke was a focused and indirect attack on the soon-to-be-labeled “Old Lights” in New England (pp. 3-35).  This is (allegedly) seen in Edwards’ early sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” from which we understand that the senses in themselves do not deceive (45, emphasis added).  This is very important for Miller’s reading of Edwards’ reading of Lock, for this is how Miller will interpret Edwards’ work The Religious Affections.  In short, Miller reads Edwards as saying “God does not impart religious truth outside sensory experience” (55).

No doubt Edwards was enthralled with John Locke early on.  Further, Miller does cogently argue that Edwards’ use of Locke allowed him to formulate his ideas the way he did.  However, few of Edwards’ modern interpreters have placed the same level of importance on Locke as Miller did.  George Marsden suggests, pace Miller, that Edwards, like any respectable New England thinker of his day, tried to keep apace of modern intellectual currents and this meant reading men like John Locke (Marsden, 60ff).

Nonetheless, there are aspects of John Locke’s thought that did leave a permanent impression on Edwards.  Miller asserts, “Metaphysically, this led to the immense conclusion that the entire universe exists in the divine idea” (Miller, 63).  Indeed, Edwards will further develop this idea in his defense of Original Sin, arguing that in the realm of the mind all of humanity, like an atom, is a single concept (278).  Miller suggests it but doesn’t develop the conclusions:  Edwards had implicitly rejected the older substance-ontologies for an ontology based on mind and atom.

Divine Causality

Edwards understands “cause” to mean “a sequence of phenomena, with the inner connection of cause and effect still mysterious and terrifying” (79).  Cause, for Edwards, is not simply that which determines an effect.  Rather, it is that which is “necessarily antecedent” (257).  The first premise in the argument against free will:  perception is not the import of an object, for the object is without significance, but the object as seen, the manner of view, and the state of mind that views. Miller adds another premise to clinch the argument:  just as the will follows perception’s view of things, rather than the things themselves, so the will lies within the tissue of nature and is caused by something external to it (257).

Against Modernity

Miller sees Edwards as an enlightened critic of modernity, and he places Edwards within a larger anti-modern narrative.   In discussing the implications of a Lockean-Newtonian worldview, Miller notes that the “science” of modernity cannot answer the basic questions upon which it is founded:  if atoms are so hard that they never break, how small is the smallest atom (83)?  Said another way:  if atoms are the fundamentally smallest entity in the world, of which all other entities consist, and that is all reality is, then what holds the atoms together?  Is that which holds atoms together also made up of atoms?  And so the questions could go on.   The important point, though, is that the aforementioned questions represent a fatal weakness in modern Scientism.   Scientism of its day could not answer one basic question:  what holds the atoms together?  Miller has a simple answer:  magic (83).   Unfortunately, Miller does not pursue this.  Many of the Enlightenment thinkers were deeply involved in the occult and Miller could have had a field day exploring this.

Now, I like beating up unbelieving science as much as the next guy, but this picture has largely eclipsed Jonathan Edwards.  Yes, Edwards would have been aware of this discussion.  Further, Edwards would have been a critic of modernity, but as Marsden notes elsewhere, this isn’t the heart of Edwards, and Miller has wasted a lot of time shadow-boxing dead Englishmen.

The Religious Affections

This is the weakest and most frustrating part of Miller’s narrative.  Miller is insistent that Edwards be read according to Locke’s dictum that what we can know, we can know from sense experience.  During the Great Awakening, so the argument goes, many people had “visible signs” of something at work.  Miller, being a pagan, has no understanding of the Holy Spirit, and can only see external effects.   Missing this key fact, virtually everything he says about Edwards from this point on is painfully incorrect.  The reader is encouraged to consult Iain Murray’s biography on this point.

Conclusion: Pros and Cons

Like any work by Perry Miller, the prose is a delight to read.  Unfortunately, that is why the book is misleading.  Much of Miller’s scholarship on Puritanism has since been refuted.  The Puritans didn’t invent the idea of “covenant” to soften a mean God.   To the degree this might have been the case in New England owes more to the structurally flawed nature of Congregationalism and the Half-way covenant than it does to Reformed theology.   And to the extent that Miller captures on key ideas in Edwards, he tends to overplay minor issues and miss major points.   Further complicating things is that none of Miller’s quotations of Edwards point the reader to specific works.  Perhaps accessible editions of Edwards’ corpus weren’t available then (it’s amazing to think of how much good Banner of Truth Trust has done the world on this point).

On the other hand, when it comes to Edwards’ major doctrines Miller summarizes Edwards quite well, and for what it’s worth, cuts off Arminianism at the knees.  Should you read this book?  I suppose.  Any major work on Edwards should consult Marsden first, then Murray, and lastly Miller.

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