Edwardian Considerations

One of the distinctions that I’ve long appreciated and which I got from Jonathan Edwards is the distinction between a natural and a moral inability. Edwards understands, I understand, that human beings are responsible before God because we possess no natural inability to respond as God wishes, but we in fact do not, lacking a moral ability to do so. That is to say, human beings fail to respond to God because they culpably lack any desire to do so, not because they are unable to do so otherwise. So he distinguishes a moral and a natural inability.

This is something of which Richard Muller is extremely dubious and of which I have been wanted to inquire. There is a pervasive but not altogether clearly defined (at least to me) distrust in confessional Calvinist circles—which are not of the experimental variety—of the theology of Edwards. Theology, changes with him, they suggest, or, alternatively, they wonder what his underlying philosophical categories are, intimating they are not those of reformed scholastics. Why after all, the aspersion goes, is he the patron saint of something so terminally dodgy as American Evangelicalism? Why indeed.

Can it be that to distance oneself from experimental Calvinism—experimental Calvinism with its affinities to pietism, with its tendencies toward conversionism—is the result of an occult anthropological intellectualism? I find it a most tangled issue. I have found that those who are wary of experimental Calvinism tend to be more strict confessional types with a definite rational (in the sense of thought being primary) take on things, foregrounding that which is noetic over what is moral. That is, head over heart guys, rational over affective. (Of course, it may be that it is how I perceive them because I’m a heart over the head guy. Perhaps they maintain both equally and because of my point of view I distort them. I am temperamentally of the romantic rather than the classic persuasion, no doubt of that. I also think in the end you will be judged by what you desire, that what is most fundamentally you is what you want, that your desires are the core of your being, and so depravity is that you desire anything but God.)

Here is a bit of the issue, in terms of reliable documents made by professional theologians back when the underlying philosophy was still the perennial philosophy:

Q. In what consists the sinfulness of that state into which man fell?

A. The sinfulness of that state into which man fell consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the lack of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin, together with all actual transgressions that proceed from it.

‘The corruption of the whole nature’ is what I want to bring to your attention. Is my way of taking Edwards not entirely what the catechism expects? Is nature what Edward’s has in mind when he stresses that we have no natural inability? I don’t think so. The distinction been a natural and a moral ability is one that qualifies the corruption of the whole nature, not one that denies that corruption. It specifies the pervasive corruption by locating its ground or core, and so it fits with more general statements.

Shedd however, says: “he differs from the elder Calvinists, who regarded a mental faculty and its moral condition as inseparable.”

Really? Inseparable is not the same as indistinguishable, which latter is the domain Edwards actually moves in. Perhaps this confusion is why Shedd is able to utter this enormity: “Edwards conceives of the will abstractly and separate from its inclination, and as so conceived contends that it is ‘naturally able’ to obey the law of God. The elder Calvinists denied that the will can be so conceived of.” And so, as I understand him, did Edwards. Shedd is being a bit unsympathetic to a necessarily abstract consideration of something handled in distinction to other things but not in absolute isolation from the whole of man. One of Muller’s reservations about Edwards is that he is no longer a faculty theologian as the ‘elder Calvinists’ were, which I think neutralizes Shedd’s reading.*

Because I think an anthropological voluntarism with a moral inability specifies the pervasiveness of the corruption by locating it precisely at the core of the nature and from there radiating to all of it, which is not, after all, separate from moral considerations, but is distinguishable nevertheless.

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*Can we therefore not say that Muller takes Shedd to the shed?

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