Rationalist Foundations of Jonathan Edwards’s Soteriology

It has become accepted in Jonathan Edwards’s studies that “America’s Greatest Theologian” was influenced not primarily by John Locke (a la Perry Miller) but an eclectic host of thinkers predating Edwards (McClymond & McDermott, Marsden, et al). This shift in scholarship is due, in part, to Norman Fiering’s Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context (1981), where he emphasizes the influences of Nicolas Malebranche and, his disciple, John Norris, among a few others. While some have since explored other influences beyond Locke and Malebranche (Sang Hyun Lee, Leon Chai, Adriaan Neele) or published comparisons of Edwards to other thinkers on particular issues (The Ecumenical Edwards [edited by Kyle C. Strobel] and Oliver Crisp), the influence of Malebranche is at least now frequently mentioned if not given extensive treatments (Copan, Chai, another work from Fiering). Most of the comparison works juxtaposing Malebranche and Edwards are focused on fundamentals of their metaphysics and religious epistemologies. When it comes to soteriology, however, comparisons between Edwards and–not Malebranche but–Locke abound (Robert E. Brown, John E. Smith, Ryan Jared Martin, et al.). While there have been precious few analyses of Edwards’s incorporation of Malebranche’s Nature and Grace (Fiering), no studies that I have found do so regarding Edwards’s soteriology, despite there being clear signs of Malebranchian influence in his Miscellanies and elsewhere on that count.

This paper will place Jonathan Edwards’s soteriology in its eighteenth-century context, including the earlier works of occasionalists like Urian Oakes, Malebranche, Arnauld, and others. I will suggest that Edwards’s views on soteriology and grace have elements of continuity with Malebranche’s Nature and Grace. For instance, Edwards asserts that, at times, less grace is required to regenerate someone depending on what that person believes beforehand, and that people have a greater probability of being saved, the more they interact with the means of grace. While Malebranche would say that God is obligated to act in such a way because his laws of nature and grace must be simple, general, constant, and uniform, Edwards would say not that God must, but that it appears that God tends to act in that way. What is more, although Malebranche is not necessarily the only source of Edwards’s thinking here, he is one that had a profound effect on him and his soteriology. The upshot of this paper is more precise comparative work between Jonathan Edwards and his influences in soteriology beyond Locke.

This paper will be composed of a few parts, each with sub-parts. After my introductory section, including a state of the question, Part I will look at the occasionalist theologies of nature versus grace, especially that of Malebranche. Part II will point to elements of Malebranche’s Nature and Grace found in the soteriological thought of Jonathan Edwards. I will end with concluding thoughts and index potential further studies.

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