Book Review – A Treatise on Jonathan Edwards: Continuous Creation and Christology, by S. Mark Hamilton

S. Mark Hamilton has written a very exceptional and handy new volume on the metaphysics of Jonathan Edwards, especially as regards his somewhat unusual ideas of continuous creation and idealism, and their respective relationship to Christology.

Entitled, “A Treatise on Jonathan Edwards: Continuous Creation and Christology,” this work is published by the emerging new leader in Edwards publication projects, JESociety Press. Before we get to a review of the book itself, we should take a moment to note what a good thing this is for Edwards scholarship in general.

Having a press that is devoted to Edwards alone is a marvelous thing. This means that it can be small, nimble, and tightly focused on projects that advance our specialized field. JESociety Press plans to remain concentrated on publishing new projects by both respected scholars and emerging new writers alike for the tailored audience that eagerly anticipates them. While bigger publishers like Crossway do gobble up manuscripts on Edwards from time to time, they are not always as willing to give more technical treatises like the one being considered in this review the availability they deserve.

Moreover, JESociety Press, with this volume as a first foray, is also introducing a new line of monographs entitled “A Series of Treatises on Jonathan Edwards.” This new lineup promises to give readership “lively, assessable and in-depth treatments of Edwards-specific subject matter.” Each of these new volumes is also promised to be concise (Continuous Creation is only around 100 pages), which I believe will make these books all the more valuable. Hamilton

S. Mark Hamilton’s own learned contribution to Edwards scholarship on continuous creation (pictured: right) comes with high recommendations from Gerald McDermott, Douglas Sweeney, Sam Storms, and Oliver Crisp (his doctoral adviser), so my hopes were high for this volume. Thankfully it did not disappoint me in any way. Actually, even the very Forward by Crisp had me intrigued; here the esteemed professor at Fuller Seminary admits that his student will be challenging some of his own ideas within. Drama!

Crisp also admits that the concepts contained herein by his student are heavy and rank among some of the great thoughts that can be entertained by the human mind. As I delved in to the introduction, I considered myself duly warned.

In the beginning of the work, Hamilton introduces the reader to the concept of Edwards’ idea of continuous creation; that is, that God is constantly re-creating the universe at every instant, which is akin to His sustaining the universe (Colossians 1:15-17). Rather than creating just once, and then letting the universe spin (so the enlightenment machinists), Edwards has an idea that God is always and constantly recreating everything that is. But this idea, if accepted, comes with some tangential “baggage” that likewise must be toted to keep the concept coherent. Thus, in order to make this view hold together (note: Hamilton is not arguing a defense of continuous creation; he is only trying to help readers understand Edwards more clearly) he will have to dig into related areas that this notion of continuous creation may affect.

On page 11, Hamilton gives the outline for the book. First, he will deal with the fact that Edwards held to some form of immaterialism. That is to say, the universe is actually a product of God’s uncreated mind, and all else that “is,” consists of either created minds with the power to perceive, or else the mental impressions that God places upon those minds. As I understand it, Edwards’ believes that the universe is somewhat like the movie the Matrix, with reality somehow impressed into the minds of God’s intelligent creatures, all the while they perceive that they are actually “there.” This chair that I am sitting on as I write is not really here. My created mind perceives it to be there; but there is no “stuff” below me. All that exists in Edwards’ metaphysical world is the Uncreated Mind of God impressing ideas into our created minds.

But this is all not so simple. What do we make of time itself? Does it progress? Is it eternally present to God? Does it lapse moment by moment? Does the past still “exist” once it is gone, or is it destroyed? All of these questions, Hamilton tries to explain in his second chapter on time, a view which he calls “stage theory.” In the third chapter, Hamilton deals with occasionalism which is the idea that God is the sole causal factor in all that transpires in the universe. Hamilton does not think that Edwards believes God needs to recreate the lesser created minds instant by instant, but he does argue that the percepts given by God to those minds are in a constant state of being “updated” through God’s direct agency. And while all of these things are interesting enough on their own, where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, is in the Christology of Jonathan Edwards.

Here we see the subtitle of the work coming into full effect, “Continuous Creation and Christology.” True enough, if the doctrine of the Incarnation suggests that the Son of God took on humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, this opens up quite a few other questions about Edwards’ metaphysics: What of Jesus’ physical body? Does it possess physicality (material) outside of its “idea,” or does it too exist as an impression from the Uncreated Mind (God) to the created minds of men? And even more startling, we must ask, what about the mind of Jesus of Nazareth itself; is it created or uncreated? Does the human mind of Jesus of Nazareth need be constantly recreated? If Jesus is to be truly incarnate as a human being, he must exist in his humanity in the same way as all human creations do, right? And yet this is made quite a bit more complex still by the fact that the Son is also eternal and timeless; begotten by the Father. The reader is challenged to work through these complex questions alongside Hamilton as he considers each one in turn.

When Hamilton is working through Edwards’ first hand materials, he is primarily doing work in his Miscellanies and his book Original Sin. It is in the latter that we see his doctrine of continuous creation explained most fully, and in the former that Edwards talks about such ideas as idealism and occasionalism freely. There are moments when Hamilton, in order to explain what Edwards likely thought, is somewhat forced to make conjectures and leaps to fill in that gaps that are not fully explained by Edwards himself in his extant writings. Of course, he rigorously works through the relevant literature, and especially interacts with Crisp in the footnotes.

Since the book is short, the reader moves through these questions a bit fast. Perhaps too fast at times, although Hamilton tries to give the reader enough illustrations and examples to keep his or her mind focused on the topic at hand. Several times, just when my focus was about to “tap out” from mental perplexity, Hamilton would give just the right illustration that helped me to jump back on board and cling on a bit longer. Readers will find themselves preserved from mental fatigue by helpful handholds such as the recurring “cupcake” illustration (p. 32-33), a Monet painting reference (page 38), an illustration of an actor watching himself on film (p. 40), a memorable old-school slide projector (p. 56) and so on.  The constant use of these illustrations gives the reader the assurance of “Okay, I’m still with you!”

Without giving too many spoilers, Hamilton holds that Edwards does have a coherent view of continuous creation that sustains challenges from other problematic issues related to Christology. Edwards’ view of immaterialism is that the universe consists of minds and ideas only. He holds that the ideas must be constantly recreated, but not the minds. This prevents him from having to admit that the created mind of Jesus of Nazareth (as distinct from the uncreated mind of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity) need be remade continually. This makes Edwards, in Hamilton’s view an “immaterial realist.” Thus, Hamilton concludes the following propositions can be discerned in Edwards’ metaphysics:

  • The humanity of Jesus is a real substance, composed of an immaterial mind and a body composed entirely of ideas presented to Him by the Spirit
  • The mind of Jesus persists through time by enduring moment-to-moment whereas the body of Jesus, like all other perceptible objects, is continuously created and re-presented ex nihilo to the mind of Jesus (p. 92-93).

The book does get embroiled in quite a bit of jargon. Each chapter introduces new terms to the reader that must be considered before one or the other is finally preferred by the author. Is time discreet or dense? We must become familiar with fusion theory and fission theory. Neophytes will struggle to keep up with terms like idealism, occasionalism, substances, minds, immaterialism etc. Readers may do well to keep the new Edwards Encyclopedia close at hand. Thus, the constant introduction of new terms may give some uninitated readers the sense of playing “catch up” throughout the book. On the other hand, the brevity, clarity, and illustrations of the book make it an attainable read for all who are interested to go further into Edwards’ somewhat idiosyncratic thoughts on metaphysics.