Sam Storms: Edwards on Original Sin

Note: this article originally appeared on where dozens of excellent articles can be found on the theology of Jonathan Edwards. 

Perhaps no one in the history of the Church (aside from Pelagius) was more vocal and persistent in objecting to the reformed doctrine of imputation and original sin than was John Taylor (1694-1761) of England. His views were made explicit in a volume he wrote in 1735 entitled,The Scripture-Doctrine of Original Sin. Certainly the best testimony to the influence of Taylor’s work was that provided by Jonathan Edwards (1703-58):

“According to my observation, no one book has done so much towards rooting out of these western parts of New England, the principles and scheme of religion maintained by our pious and excellent forefathers, the divines and Christians who first settled this country, and alienating the minds of many from what I think are evidently some of the main doctrines of the gospel, as that which Dr. Taylor has published against the doctrine of original sin.”[1]

Taylor’s disdain for the reformed doctrine of imputation and original sin was grounded upon one foundational principle that he held to be inviolable: sin and guilt are entirely personal.One person’s sin is his alone and cannot be reckoned or charged to the account of another. Neither can guilt in any sense be corporate apart from the voluntary consent of all persons involved. “A representative of moral action,” said Taylor, “is what I can by no means digest. A representative, the guilt of whose conduct shall be imputed to us, and whose sins shall corrupt and debauch our nature, is one of the greatest absurdities in all the system of corrupt religion.”[2]Concerning Adam and Eve, he insisted that as the sin “they committed was personal, done only by them; so also must the real guilt be personal, and belong only to themselves; that is, no other could, in the eye of justice and equity, be blameable and punishable for that transgression, which was their own act and deed, and not the act and deed of any other man or woman in the world.”[3]

Taylor argues that only the person who has a “consciousness” of sin can justly be held guilty for it. It is absurd to suppose that an infinitely righteous God would charge with a crime persons who had no hand or choice in its execution, indeed, a crime committed before they even existed. Such is possible only on the “purely imaginary”[4] supposition that one man’s consciousness, and therefore liability of guilt, is transferable to another. To charge God with such an act is “highly profane and impious.”[5]

Finally, in a statement that fairly shook with indignation, Taylor sums up his feelings concerning the reformed doctrine of original sin:

“But that any man, without my knowledge or consent, should so represent me, that when he is guilty I am to be reputed guilty, and when he transgresses I shall be accountable and punishable for his transgression, and thereby subjected to the wrath and curse of God, nay further that his wickedness shall give me a sinful nature, and all this before I am born and consequently while I am in no capacity of knowing, helping, or hindering what he doth; surely anyone who dares use his understanding, must clearly see this is unreasonable, and altogether inconsistent with the truth and goodness of God.”[6]

Is imputation immoral? Is it unjust? Is it wrong for God to hold us accountable for the sin of Adam? Many have responded to these questions, but none with more creativity and depth than Jonathan Edwards. What was his solution to the problem posed by the doctrine of original sin?

If we are to understand Edwards’ solution to this problem we must come to terms with two crucial and controversial concepts he developed: his doctrine of “continuous creation” and his theory of “personal identity.” We will begin with the doctrine of continuous creation (creatio continua).

Who “Caused” It?

According to this doctrine, the initial creation ex nihilo of all things was but the first act in a never-ending series of creative acts whereby God each moment preserves and upholds the existence of all things. The same power required to bring an entity into being is required to sustain it in or as being. Therefore, the distinction between “creation” and “preservation” or “conservation” is only semantic, not conceptual. Edwards argues that it is by means of a continuous creation from instant to instant that all created substance, both material and immaterial, is preserved in being. Thus he says that

“God’s preserving created things in being is perfectly equivalent to a continued creation, or to his creating those things out of nothing at each moment of their existence. If the continued existence of created things be wholly dependent on God’s preservation, then those things would drop into nothing, upon the ceasing of the present moment, without a new exertion of the divine power to cause them to exist in the following moment.”[7]

The doctrine of continuous creation simply asserts that the existence of any and all entities at any and all times is the immediate effect of divine power. Edwards would insist that event B always follows event A, not because A is the efficient cause of B, but because God has ordained that when A occurs (an event that God produces ex nihilo), B will follow. What you and I might call a causal sequence Edwards calls a series of divine acts. All substance and all events are productions of divine power, continuous creations. Event B does not follow event A because of some mechanistic impact of A on B. The principle on account of which B necessarily follows A is the will of God operating on B so that it will follow A. It is the divine wisdom which has determined that it was fitting for B to follow A and for A to precede B in the order of nature (and not anything in A or B themselves).



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