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God's Nature

Miscellanies by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

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Edwards talks about the nature of God.

38. Harmony of God’s Attributes. The redemption by Christ is particularly wonderful upon this account, inasmuch as the justice of God is not only appeased to those who have an interest in him, but stands up for them, is not only not an enemy but a friend, every whit as much as mercy. Justice demands adoption and glorification and importunes as much for it as ever it did before for misery, in every respect that it is against the wicked it is as much for the godly. Yea, it is abundantly more so than it would have been for Adam: for him it would be only because he graciously promised, but it is obliged to believers on the account of the absolute merit of the Son of God and upon the account of an eternal agreement between God and his Son.

88. Name of the Lord. The children of Israel used to speak of the Name of the Lord in a manner to us very unintelligible. They used to attribute those things to it of which a name merely is not capable, but only Persons or Distinct Beings. Thus they spoke of it as what they trusted in, as what delivered them and defended them. They seem frequently to have meant, by the Name of the Lord, the sensible manifestations of his presence. Though they spoke of the Name of God as if it had been God himself, they yet also spoke of it as if it had been another Person, and made a distinction between the Lord and the Name of the Lord. The Name of the Lord was he who most immediately appeared in the Temple and is the only Redeemer of God’s Israel, and who manifested and declared God the Father all along from the beginning: who was the Shechinah, in whom they trusted, and for whose sake they desired that their prayers might be answered.

89. Justice. It appears plain enough that an omnipotent and omniscient being can have no desire of having us seek his own ends, because he can as easily bring about all his ends without it. And this appears of every and all objects. And if we consider the case of excellency (which is being’s consent to entity, and we have shown that this must necessarily be consistent and agreeable to existing being, and on the contrary, contradiction, dissent to entity, must necessarily be disagreeable to it), from hence it follows that all excellency, when perceived, will be agreeable to perceiving being, and all evil, disagreeable. But God being omnipotent must necessarily perfectly perceive all excellency and fully know what is contrary to it, and therefore all excellency is perfectly agreeable to his will, and all evil perfectly disagreeable. Therefore, he cannot will to do anything but what is excellent, but justice is all excellency.

135. Deity. Many have wrong conceptions of the difference between the nature of the deity and created spirits. The difference is no contrariety, but what naturally results from his greatness and nothing else, such as [i.e., which] created spirits come nearer to or more imitate, the greater they are in their powers and faculties. So that, if we should suppose the faculties of a created spirit to be enlarged infinitely, there would be the deity to all intents and purposes, the same simplicity, immutability, etc.

194. God. That is a gross and an unprofitable idea we have of God, as being something large and great as bodies are, and infinitely extended throughout the immense space. For God is neither little nor great with that sort of greatness, even as the soul of man — it is not at all extended, no more than an idea, and is not present anywhere as bodies are present, as we have shown elsewhere. [See The Mind, No. 2] So it is with respect to the uncreated spirit. The greatness of a soul consists not in any extension, but its comprehensiveness of idea and extendedness of operation. So the infiniteness of God consists in his perfect comprehension of all things and the extendedness of his operation equally to all places. God is present nowhere any otherwise than the soul is in the body or brain, and he is present everywhere, as the soul is in the body. We ought to conceive of God as being omnipotence, perfect knowledge, and perfect love, and not extended any otherwise than as power, knowledge, and love are extended, and not as if it were a sort of unknown thing that we call substance, that is extended.

453. Free Grace. The righteousness of a judge consists in his judging according to law, or to the rule of judgment which has been fixed by rightful legislators, especially if the law and rule of judgment fixed be good, whatever good principles influenced the legislators in making such laws, whether justice or goodness and mercy. But God, in the blessings he adjudges to his people, judges according to the fixed rule of judgment which is his covenant. God shows his holiness by fulfilling his promises to his people. God’s faithfulness is part of his holiness, and this is what is meant by righteousness.

1077. God’s Holiness. God’s holiness is his having a due, meet, and proper regard to everything, and therefore consists mainly and preeminently in his infinite regard or love to himself — he being infinitely the greatest and most excellent being — and therefore a meet and proper regard to himself is infinitely greater than to all other beings. Now as he is, as it were, the sum of all being, and all other positive existence is but a communication from him, hence it will follow that a proper regard to himself is the sum of his regard.

1196. God’s Moral Government. So much evidence of the most perfect exactness of proportion, harmony, equity, and beauty in the mechanical laws of nature and other methods of providence, which belong to the course of nature, by which God shows his regard to harmony and fitness and beauty in what he does as the governor of the natural world, may strongly argue that he will maintain the most strict and perfect justice in proportion and fitness in what he does as the governor of the moral world.

1263. Arbitrary Divine Operation. God’s immediate and arbitrary operation, in all instances of it at least in this lower world, whether through all ages on men’s minds by his spirit, or at some particular season extraordinarily requiring it in what is called miracles, is that which there is a strong and strange disposition in many to object against and disbelieve. But for what reason, unless it be something in the disposition of the heart, is hard to imagine. (See concerning such prejudices, McLaurin’s Discourses, p. 314, 315, etc.) If there be a God who is truly an intelligent, voluntary, active being, what is there in reason to incline us to think that he should not act, and that he should not act upon his creatures, which, being his creatures, must have their very being from his actions, and must be perfectly and most absolutely subject to and dependent on his action? And if he acted once, why must he needs be still forever after and act no more? What is there in nature to disincline us to suppose he may not continue to act towards the world he made? And if under his government, and if he continues to act at all towards his creatures, then there must be some of his creatures he continues to act upon immediately. It is nonsense to say he acts upon all mediately, because in so doing we go back in infinitum from one thing acting on another without ever coming to a primary, present agent, and yet at the same time suppose God to be such a present agent.

There are many who allow a present, continuing, immediate operation of God on the creation (and indeed such are the late discoveries and advances which have been made in natural philosophy, that all men of sense, who are also men of learning, are content to allow it), but yet, because so many of the constant changes and events in their continued form in the external world come to pass in a certain exact method, according to certain fixed, invariable laws, are averse to allow that God acts any otherwise than as limiting himself by such invariable laws, fixed from the beginning of the creation (when he precisely marked out and determined the rules and paths of all his future operations), and that he ever departs since that from those paths. So that, though they allow an immediate divine operation in those days, yet they suppose it is now limited by what we call laws of nature, and seem averse to allow an arbitrary operation to be continued or even to be needed in these days.

But I desire it may be well considered whether there be any reason for this. For of the two kinds of divine operation, viz., that which is arbitrary and that which is limited by fixed laws, the former, viz., arbitrary, is the first and foundation of the other and that which all divine operation must finally be resolved into, and which all events and divine effects whatsoever primarily depend upon. Even the fixing of the method and rules of the other kind of operation is an instance of arbitrary operation. When I speak of arbitrary operation, I do not mean arbitrary in opposition to an operation directed by wisdom, but only in opposition to an operation confined to, and limited by, those fixed establishments and laws commonly called the laws of nature. The one of these I shall therefore, for want of better phrases, call ‘a natural operation,’ the other ‘an arbitrary operation.’ The latter of these, as I observed, is first and supreme, and to which the other is wholly subject and also wholly dependent, and without which there could be no divine operation at all, and no effect ever produced, and nothing besides God could ever exist. Arbitrary operation is that to which is owing the existence of the subjects of natural operation — the manner, measure, and all the circumstances of their existence. It is arbitrary operation that fixes, determines, and limits the laws of natural operation.
Therefore arbitrary operation, being every way the highest, is that wherein God is most glorified. It is the glory of God that he is an arbitrary being — that originally he, in all things, acts as being limited and directed in nothing but his own wisdom, tied to no other rules and laws but the directions of his own infinite understanding. So in those that are the highest order of God’s creatures, viz., intelligent creatures, that are distinguished from other creatures in their being made in God’s image, it is one thing wherein consists their highest natural dignity, that they have an image of this. They have a secondary and dependent arbitrariness. They are not limited in their operation to the laws of matter and motion, but that they can do what they please. The members of men’s bodies obey the act of their wills without being directed merely by the impulse and attraction of other bodies in all their motions.

These things being observed, I would now take notice that the higher we ascend in the scale of created existence and the nearer we come to the Creator, the more and more arbitrary we should find the divine operations in the creature, or those communications and influences in which he maintains an intercourse with the creature. And it appears beautiful and every way fit and suitable that it should be so, See B. 1, M tt.
But before I proceed particularly to show this, I would observe how any divine operation may be said to be more or less arbitrary, or to come nearer to that which is absolutely arbitrary, in the sense I have spoken of it, in opposition to a being limited by that general rule called laws of nature. An operation is absolutely arbitrary when no use is made of any law of nature, and no respect had to any one such fixed rule or method.

There are these ways that the operations which are not absolutely and perfectly arbitrary may approach near to it:

1. One is, by arbitrary operations being mixed with those that are natural, i.e., when there is something in the operation that is arbitrary and tied to no fixed rule or law, and something else in the operation wherein the laws of nature are made use of, and without which the designed effect could not take place. Instances will be given of this afterwards.

2. Another way is when, though some law or rule is observed, the rule is not general or very extensive, but some particular rule makes an exception to general laws of nature, and is a law that extends to comparatively few instances. This approaches to an arbitrary operation, for the less extensive the limitation of the operation or the smaller the number of instances or cases by which it is limited, it is manifest, the nearer the operation is to unlimited, or limited to no number of cases at all.

Thus supposing there were an exception to the general law of gravitation towards the center of the earth, and there were one kind of bodies that, on the contrary, had an inclination to fly from the center, and that in proportion to the quantity of matter, but that sort of bodies nowhere to be found but in some one certain island, and very rarely to be found there. This kind of operation would be nearer to arbitrary and miraculous than other divine operations — than those that are limited by the general laws of nature that obtain everywhere through the world.

3. Another way wherein a manner of operation approaches to arbitrary is when the limitation to a method is not absolute, even in the continued course of that sort of operations, so that the law fails of the nature of a fixed law — as all that are called laws of nature are. God generally keeps to that method but ties not himself to it, sometimes departs from it according to his sovereign pleasure.

Having mentioned these things, I now proceed particularly to observe how, the higher we ascend in the scale or series of created existences and the nearer, in thus ascending, we come to the Creator, the more the manner of divine operation with respect to the creature approaches to arbitrary in these respects or in one or the other of them. Thus, in the first place, if we ascend with respect to time, and go back in the series of existences or events in the order of their succession to the beginning of the creation, and so till we come to the Creator, that after we have ascended beyond the limits and rise of the laws of nature, we shall come to arbitrary operation. The creation of the matter of the material world out of nothing, the creation even of every individual atom or primary particle, was by an operation perfectly arbitrary. And here, by the way, I would observe that creation out of nothing seems to be the only divine operation that is absolutely arbitrary, without any kind of use made of any antecedently fixed method of proceeding, such as is called a law of nature.

After the creation of the matter of the world out of nothing, the gradual bringing of the matter of the world into order was by an arbitrary operation. It was by arbitrary act divine that the primary particles of matter were put into motion, and had the direction and degree of their motion determined, and were brought into so beautiful and useful a situation, one with respect to another. But yet the operation by which these things were done was not so absolutely, purely, and unmixedly arbitrary as the first creation out of nothing. For in these secondary operations, or the works of what may be called secondary, some use was made of laws of nature before established, such, at least, as the laws of resistance and attraction or adhesion and vis inertiae, that are essential to the very being of matter, for the very solidity of the particles of matter itself consists in them; but the putting those particles into motion supposes them to exist in the moving, inert, resisting, and adhering matter. There is use made of the laws of resistance and adhesion. They are presupposed as the basis of this secondary operation of God in causing this resistance, vis inertiae, and adhesion to change place, and in causing the consequent impulses and mutual influences which is the end of those motions and dispositions of the situation of particles. So that the creation of particular natural bodies — as the creation of light, the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, of earth, air, and seas, flowers, rocks and minerals, the bodies of plants and animals — was by a mixed operation partly arbitrary and partly by stated laws. And thus it is as we descend from the first creation out of nothing through the rest of the operations of the six days.

But it may be proper here to remark these following things: 1. Immediate creation seems not entirely to have ceased with this first work by which the world in general was brought out of nothing. But after that there was an immediate creation in making of the souls of Adam and Eve, and also with respect to the greater part of the body of Eve. 2. The mixing of arbitrary with natural operations was not only in arbitrarily making use of laws already established, as in putting material things in motion, variously compounding them, and the like, but also in establishing new, more particular laws of nature, with respect to particular creatures as they were made — as the laws of magnetism, many laws observable in plants, the laws of instinct in animals, and the law of the operation of the minds of men. 3. Most things in the visible world were brought into their present state so as to be of such a particular kind, or to complete their species of creatures by a secondary creation, which is a mixed operation, excepting the creation of the highest order of creatures, viz., intelligent minds, which were wholly created, complete in their kind, by an absolutely arbitrary operation. What may be said hereafter may lead us to the reason of this.

And if we proceed in the succession of existences till we come to the supreme being the other way, viz., to the end of the world (for though proceeding thus from preceding to future be, according to a more common way of speaking, descending, yet it is as truly ascending towards God as proceeding the other way, for God is the first and the last, the beginning and the end), now I say, if we ascend up to God this way, proceeding in the succession of events till we come to the end of time, this way of proceeding will again bring us to a disposition of the world by a divine arbitrary operation through the universe. For God will not leave the world to a gradual decay, languishing through millions of ages under a miserable decay till it be quite perished and utterly ruined according to a course of things, according to the laws of nature. But he will himself destroy the world, will roll the heavens together as a scroll, will change it as a man puts off an old garment and wears it not till it gradually drops to pieces, and will take it down as a machine is taken down when it has answered the workman’s end. And this he will do by an arrest in the laws of nature everywhere, in all parts of the visible universe, and by an entire new disposition and mighty change of all things at once. For though all the laws of nature will not be abolished — those laws before mentioned in which is the being of the primary particles of matter will be continued — yet the arbitrary interposition, entirely beside and above those laws and in some respects contrary to them and interrupting their influence, may be said to be universal, as it will be in all parts of the material creation; and very many of the laws of nature will be utterly abolished, particularly many of the laws peculiarly respecting plants and animals and human bodies and man’s animal life.

If we ascend towards God in the scale of existence according to the degrees of excellency and perfection, the nearer we come to God the nearer we shall come to arbitrary influence of the Most High on the creature, till at length, when we come to the highest rank, we shall come to an intercourse that is, in many respects, quite above those rules which we call the laws of nature. The lowest rank of material things are almost wholly under the government of the general laws of matter and motion. If we ascend from them to plants, which in many things are governed by more particular laws, distinct from the laws common to all material things, the laws of vegetation are doubtless, many of them, distinct from the general laws of matter and motion and therefore, by what was observed before, nearer akin to an arbitrary influence. If we ascend from the most imperfect to the most perfect kind of plants, we shall come to more particular laws still. And if from thence we rise to animals, we shall come to laws still more singular, and when we rise to the most perfect of them, we shall find particular laws or instincts yet nearer akin to an arbitrary influence. If we rise to mankind, and particularly the mind of man, by which especially he is above the inferior creatures, and consider the laws of the common operations of the mind, they are so high above such a kind of general laws of matter and are so singular that they are altogether untraceable. (The more particular laws are the harder to be investigated and traced.) And if we go from the common operations of the faculties of the mind and rise up to those that are spiritual (which are infinitely of the highest kind and are those by which the minds are most conversant with the Creator and have their very next union with him), though these are not altogether without use made of means and some connection with antecedents (the connection, after the manner of the immutable laws of nature, never erring from the degree and exact measure, time, and precise state of the antecedent) and what we call, though improperly in this case, second causes, yet the operation may properly be said to be arbitrary and sovereign. And if we ascend from saints on earth to angels in heaven, who always behold the face of the Father which is in heaven, and constantly receive his command on every occasion, the will of God not being much known to them by any such methods as the laws of nature but immediately given on all emergencies, we shall come to greater degrees of an arbitrary intercourse. And if we rise to the highest step of all next to the supreme being himself, even the mind of the man Christ Jesus who is united personally to the Godhead, doubtless there is a constant intercourse, as it were, infinitely above the laws of nature. N.B. When we come to the highest ranks of creatures, we come to them who themselves have the greatest image of God’s arbitrary operation, who it is, therefore, most fit should be the subjects of such operations.
And if we ascend towards God conjunctly, proceeding in our ascent both according to the order of degrees and that order [i.e., of time], we shall find the rule hold still — the more arbitrary shall we find the divine influence and intercourse, and to a higher degree than by ascending in one way solely.

Thus if we ascend up to intelligent creatures, men and angels who are next to the Creator, and then go back to the beginning of the world, even to their creation, we shall find more of an arbitrary operation in their creation, and being brought to perfection in their kind, than in the creation of any other particular species of creatures. Thus it was not in the creation of angels as it was in the formation of sun, moon, and stars, minerals, plants, and animals — who were formed out of preexistent principles by a secondary creation, as it is called, presupposing, making use of, and operating upon these principles or subsisting by certain general laws of nature already established. But the angels were immediately created and made perfect in their kind at once, by a primary creation, an operation absolutely arbitrary, as perfectly so as the creation of the primary particles of matter themselves. And so with respect to the creation of the soul of man.
And after these intelligent beings were created, at first the divine intercourse with them must be much more arbitrary than it is now. They could not be left to themselves and to the laws of nature to acquire that knowledge and exercise of their faculties by contracted habits and gradual association of ideas, as we do now, gradually rising from our first infancy. If man had been thus left, he must needs have soon perished. But we must suppose that there was an extraordinary influence and intercourse God had with man far above the law of nature, immediate instincts enlightening and conducting him, and arbitrarily fixing those habits in his mind which now are gradually established through a great length of time. So afterwards for some time, God continued a miraculous intercourse with our first parents; and we see that, for many of the first ages of the world, there was an arbitrary intercourse of God with mankind, not only some particular prophets of one nation or posterity but with eminent saints of all families. I say, such an arbitrary intercourse was much more common in those first ages than afterwards.

And if we proceed in the order of time the other way to the end of the world and till we come to him who is the end as well as the beginning, it is true we shall find that an arbitrary influence will then be exerted everywhere throughout the creation, but more especially and many more ways towards intelligent being — for instance, towards mankind, in bringing souls departed from the other world, in raising the dead to life, in miraculously changing the living, in taking up the saints to meet the Lord, in gathering all, both good and bad, before the judgment seat, and in all the process of that day. The laws of nature must be in innumerable ways departed from, and an extraordinary operation found in the manifesting of the judge and in the manifestation of the judged one to another, in manifesting and declaring the actions of particular persons, and the secrets of their hearts, and the grounds of the sentence, and in all the process of that day. If the law of nature were not in numberless ways to be departed from, in these things, the day of judgment would take up more time by far than the world has stood. And in the execution of the sentence on both the righteous and the wicked, the glorious powers of God will be wonderfully and most extraordinarily manifested, in many respects, above all that ever was before in the arbitrary exertions of it. And if we look to the beginning and end, the birth and death of each individual person of mankind, we shall find the same rule hold, as concerning the beginning and end of the race of mankind in general. The soul of every man in his generation or birth must be immediately created and infused. Or if we say that it is according to a fixed law of nature that the Creator forms and introduces the soul, it being determined by a law of nature what the precise state of the proper body shall be when the soul shall begin to exist in it, yet it must be a law of nature that is most peculiar and widely differing from all other laws of nature, and independent of them. And so, again, the Creator immediately and arbitrarily interposes when a man comes to die, in disposing of that soul that he infused in his birth.

So if we consider the beginning or creation and end of each individual saint or member: thus in their beginning or creation (I mean their beginning as saints or their conversion), commonly at the time of that, God’s sovereign arbitrary interposition and influence on their hearts is much more visible and remarkable than ordinarily they are the subjects of in the course of their lives. And when they come to die, the positive effects of God’s arbitrary influence are immensely greater in the souls of the saints in their glorification than in the souls of the wicked in their damnation.
Thus let us proceed which way we will in the series of things in the creation, still the higher we ascend and the nearer we come to God in the gradation or succession of created things, the nearer it comes to this, that there is no other law than only the law of the infinite wisdom of the omniscient first cause and supreme disposer of all things, who in one simple, unchangeable, perpetual action comprehends all existence in its utmost compass and extent and infinite series.

It is fit that it should be so, as we proceed and go from step to step among the several parts and distinct existences and events of the universe, that which way soever we go, the nearer we come to God the less and less we should find that things are governed by general laws, and that the arbitrariness of the supreme cause and governor should be more and more seen. For he is not seen to be the sovereign ruler of the universe, or God over all, any otherwise than he is seen to be arbitrary. He is not seen to be active in the government of the world any other way than it is seen he is arbitrary. It is not seen but that he himself, in common with his creatures, is subject in his acting to the same laws with inferior beings, any other way than it is seen that his arbitrary operation is every way and everywhere at the head of the universe and is the foundation and first spring of all.

Consider the following two works by Edwards that have been updated and republished for easy reading:

Ripe for Damnation: Sermons on the Book of Revelation – by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). Are you hungry for more of Edwards’ sermons? On the book of Revelation? These new works are not found anywhere on A Puritan’s Mind, and there are new ones not found in his large 2 volume works. 4 deal with the plight of the wicked, and 2 deal with the bliss of saints in heaven. These sermons are powerful, practical, and biblical, glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ, and contain 2 never before published sermons.

Justification by Faith Alone – by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). In this classic work, Edwards covers the intricacies of how believers are made righteous only through Christ’s merits, and that this justifying righteousness is equally imputed to all elect believers. This is accomplished by the condition of faith as an instrument.

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