Chapter XI

New England Theology

Prior to the rise of Edwards, the theology of New England had always been strictly conformed to that of the body of the Reformed Churches. His own theological views, as to the doctrines of the Reformed confessions, were in general harmony with the Westminster divines. In two respects, however, he must be recognized as the spring, whence have flowed many heresies, to plague the Church of God, which he loved; in the nature of some of his opinions; and in the mode of discussion which he introduced. Holding, in accordance with the Cartesian philosophy, then prevalent, that God himself is the only cause of all phenomena and events, he hence deduced his extraordinary theory of identity, and incorporated it with the fundamental doctrines of theology. There is no such thing, according to this view, as real continued existence among the creatures. The moon that now is, is not really the same that was a moment ago. That, has fled into nothingness; and this, is a new creation, which is in the act of giving place to another; and so on continually. Upon this assumption, he proceeds to reason thus. If the existence of created substance, in each successive moment, be wholly the effect of God’s immediate power, in that moment; without any dependence on prior existence; as much as the first creation out of nothing, then, what exists at this moment, by this power, is a new effect; and, simply and absolutely considered, not the same with any past existence; though it be like it, and follows it according to a certain established method. And there is no identity or oneness in the case, but what depends on the arbitrary constitution of the Creator, who, by his wise sovereign establishment, so unites these successive new effects, that he treats them as one, by communicating to them like properties, relations and circumstances; and so leads us to regard and treat them as one.” This divine constitution, he says is “the thing which makes truth, in affairs of this sort.” By such a “constitution,” by asserts that God made Adam and his posterity to be one, so as to involve the imputation of his sin to them.

That is, when “he spake, and it was done, he commended and it stood fast,” God did not give permanent existence to anything. He only arranged matters so as to mislead the popular mind into that belief, by a “constitution” of so strange a character, that whilst the divine sovereignty ” makes truth” out of the really false appearances, it is truth of a texture so flimsy that the acuteness of this philosophy detects and exposes it as unreal and deceptive. And so in regard to our relation to Adam.

On this subject, two diverse views had obtained more or less currency in the Reformed Church, prior to Edwards. The first was the doctrine of the mediaeval realists, who held, that human nature is an impersonal substance, created in Adam and diffused from him to his posterity, each individual being a mere phenomenon or mode of this substance. This nature had a will of its own, which apostatized from God, and carried with it, in the fall, Adam and all the race.

The other view was more generally prevalent; and was embodied in all the Reformed confessions. According to it, we “being in Adam’s loins, as branches in the root, and comprehended in the same covenant,” “sinned in. him and fell with him, in his first transgression.” As Boston clearly expresses it, “We are not only made liable to punishment, by this disobedience, but we are made sinners by it. Not only is the guilt ours, but the fault is ours: we not only die in Adam, 1 Cor. xv 22, but we sinned in him, as our federal head, Rom. v. 12 ; we broke the covenant in him; that breach, in law reckoning, is ours; and is reckoned ours, because it is ours, by virtue of our being one with him, in his loins, as our natural and federal head.”

“It is reckoned ours, because it is ours.” Here, precisely, is the point of difference between the old, the true, Reformed theology, and the Edwardean theory. The former teaches that we are, by generation one with Adam, and, therefore, so treated in the covenant. Edwards inverts this order, and teaches that we are regarded and treated as one with him; and are thus, contrary to the real fact, “constituted” one with him, and, therefore, legally, so recognized and dealt with.

In addition to Edwards’ metaphysical gloss upon the doctrine of imputation, he held and propagated two or three pregnant errors. The first was, that all sin consists in selfishness; and all holiness or virtue in disinterested benevolence. The second grows out of this. If holiness consists in disinterested benevolence, God, when he brought creation into existence, was, bound, as a holy being, to produce that system which would secure the greatest possible amount of happiness to the universe. Edwards also insisted upon the distinction between natural and moral ability. Of the latter only is the sinner devoid, with respect to evangelical obedience.

The peculiarities of Edwards have, in themselves, a very harmless appearance. But, not only did they involve consequences which he would have utterly repudiated—they were, moreover, so incorporated by him into his doctrinal system of theology, that, when they are taken away, nothing but a wreck remains. In this respect, his influence has been most disastrous, leaving his disciples afloat on the deep, without guiding star or compass. “New England theology,” in all its phases, is characterized by the adoption of Edwards’ definitions of sin and holiness; and by a rejection of the doctrine of imputation; identified as it was supposed to be with his doctrine of identity.

The first fruits of Edwards’ speculations were seen in the teachings of Hopkins, West, Spring, Emmons, the younger Edwards, and their followers. The school of Emmons, with unflinching courage and logic, followed out the premises to their legitimate consequences. The larger number of Edwardeans stopped short, in the milder system, which goes by the name of Hopkins. The logical process was brief and simple, and the conclusions inevitable. If the creatures be no causes, if God be the sole and immediate cause of all effects, he and he only is the cause of sin, in Adam and in us. If there be no powers in man’s nature, if the phenomena of his affections and actions are the immediate effects of the power of God, there can be, in him, no native tendencies and dispositions, either sinful or holy. These qualities can only be predicated of exercises or acts of the will and affections. If Adam’s nature is no cause to his posterity, it does not cause their depravity; God, the only cause, must in some way, be its author. If we are one with Adam, only by .a “constitution,” making seeming truth out of a falsehood, then he was only seemingly, and not really and truly, our head; and, hence, could not have been, and was not, our covenant head and representative. No covenant, therefore, was made with him for his posterity. His sin was not their sin. They did not, in him, break the covenant, and justice cannot, therefore, exact its penalty of them. God may, in sovereignty, act toward us as he would toward sinners, but the inflictions so visited upon us, on account of Adam’s sin, cannot be, in any proper sense, punitive nor judicial. For the same reason, Christ could not so unite himself to us as to covenant for us, or to be held accountable to justice for our sins. Nor, on the other hand, can we, by union with him, acquire a property in his righteousness. The consequence is, that Christ’s atonement is denied any properly vicarious character. It was a governmental display, not a satisfaction; it was made for sin, in general, and not specifically for the sins of his elect; and his work was not determinate of the redemption of a covenant people, but only made way for the salvation of those who shall believe. The system ignores and precludes the spiritual union of Christ and the believer—that union which fills so large a place in the old theology of the Church, and a knowledge of which oar fathers thought of so much importance to the maintenance of vital religion.

Such were the teachings of the earlier disciples of Edwards. Some of them still clung to his untenable appeal to the distinction between a privative and a positive cause, to account for God’s agency in the production of sin. Untenable, for, if God be the only cause, as Edwards insists, what avails the distinction ? Privative; or positive, God is the cause. From this difficulty, many took refuge in ambiguous phrases; whilst others did not hesitate to attribute all their sins direct to the efficiency of God. But they fell back upon the optimistic theory, and maintained that, since God was bound to produce the best possible system, and is a most powerful and excellent being, we are shut up to the conclusion that the present system is the best; and, sin being found in this system, we must conclude it to be an incident of the best system, and necessary to it. Sin, therefore, is not„ upon the whole, an evil, but a good. Hence, it is consistent with God’s holiness to produce it. It is only evil, in that the sinner is actuated by no such apprehension, but by selfish and malevolent feelings. Retaining partially the old forms of speech these theologians utterly rejected the old doctrines of original sin, the atonement and justification.

The new divinity was first presented to the public, in systematic form, in Hopkins’ “System of Doctrines,” which was published in 1793. Its author, the Rev. Samuel Hopkins of Newport, was not only a personal pupil of the elder Edwards, with whom he resided, as a student of theology, but was also his literary executor.

“Upon the death of Mr. Edwards, Mrs. Edwards, in consequence of verbal directions, given to her by Mr. Edwards in his life-time, put all his manuscripts and his library into my hands and care,” says Hopkins, in his autobiography; “his manuscripts to be disposed of by me, and two other ministers. And Mrs. Edwards solicited me to write the life of Mr. Edwards, to be published, with a number of sermons, to be selected from his manuscripts.” He complied with the request, and says that “as these manuscripts were in my hands a number of years, I paid my chief attention to them, until I had read them all; which consisted of a large number of volumes, some of them larger besides sermons; of which sermons, I did not read the whole. In doing this, I had much pleasure and profit. My mind became more engaged in study, rising, great part of my time, at four o’clock in the morning, to pursue my study; in which I took great pleasure.” So intimately were Edwards and Hopkins related; and so thoroughly was the mind of the latter imbued and moulded by the teachings of the former.

The following were some of the leading points of peculiarity, in the system, which, in contradistinction to Old Calvinism, was, by its advocates, early styled, the New Divinity.

  1. Holiness consists altogether in disinterested benevolence.

  2. All sin consists in selfishness.

  3. All holiness and sin consists in voluntary exercises or actions.

  4. The moral law is the rule of duty, because it is founded in the nature and fitness of things; and, therefore, God could not but promulgate and enforce it.

  5. Adam’s sin is not imputed to his posterity; but by a divine “constitution” it was determined that if he, the father, should sin, all his posterity should also become sinners.

  6. The depravity into which man is fallen is wholly of his will; and is total, because the will is entirely prone to evil. But it is not universal, inasmuch as the understanding and conscience remain, at least, partially unimpaired.

  7. Men are possessed of a natural ability to do all the will of God. They, are sinners, only because of indisposition of will, to what is right.

  8. Christ’s obedience and sufferings were fulfilled by him, not distinctively, as the Head of his body, the elect; but as, in general, the substitute for sinners; in whom is made an exhibition, of divine justice, in consequence of which God can safely and consistently bestow pardon on whomsoever he will. It is not, however, such in its nature as to involve a demand of justice for the salvation, specifically, of any.

  9. In order to true faith, we must feel perfect acquiescence in the will of God, though it demand our perdition.

  10. Faith implies a right taste and disposition. It thus shows the heart to be in harmony with the mind of Christ; and, so, renders it fit and proper that the Mediator’s righteousness should be reckoned in the party’s favor. Christ’s righteousness does not, however, become the property of the believer, but it constitutes the meritorious ground for the acceptance of his faith for righteousness.

  11. God, as a holy being, is bound, in all his works, to do that which is wisest and best; whence we may conclude the present. system, sin included, to be the best possible system.

  12. Hence, upon the whole, sin is not an evil; but incident to the greatest good; and, as such is caused by the efficient agency of God. Moral good and evil are equally the consequences of the divine disposal. Here, division arose. While Hopkins and others talked obscurely, and left it undecided, whether the divine efficiency employs different modes of operation, concerning the production of good and evil, Emmons did not hesitate to accept the logical conclusion from the premises; and to insist that sin and righteousness are, in the same manner, the results of the agency of the Only Cause.

In another line of deduction, the teachings of Edwards were, in their consequences, fatal to the gospel. No point of theology can be more important and vital than that which is involved in the exposition of the moral character of God. An exhaustive answer to the question, What is God? would contain all theology; and a false definition of any one of the divine attributes, as it would infuse poison into the fountain-head, must convey death through all the streams. How evidently must this be the case, if such a definition should obscure or obliterate some of the most conspicuous attributes of the divine nature! Yet this, and no less, was done by Edwards, in his definitions of sin and holiness. “All sin is selfishness;” and “All holiness or virtue is disinterested benevolence.” The holiness of God is the consummate attribute, comprehensive of all the moral perfections of the divine nature. If this all-embracing attribute is adequately described by disinterested benevolence, it is manifest that the divine character is divested of every moral perfection not included in this definition. If disinterested benevolence covers and controls the whole case, then, justice and truth are subordinate, and their exercise must be determined, not by their own several claims, but by the demands of benevolence. In a word, they are excluded from among the essential attributes of God. The divine administration, determined by disinterested benevolence, may sometimes seem to conform to their requirements, but may also utterly disregard them, if benevolence should require it. The doctrine, therefore, that God is “a just God and an avenger,” means nothing, and is ignored; whilst the fact that he” is of great kindness” is supposed to determine every issue in his moral government.

Now, whilst it is true that the loving-kindness of God is largely insisted on in his Word, it is also true that his truth and justice or righteousness are exhibited as entirely distinct from the other, and every way as essential, conspicuous and prevalent, in determining the plans and administration of the Most High. If mercy goes before his face, it is in the companionship of truth; while justice and judgment are the habitation of his throne. And the whole problem of the gospel was, to discover how God could be just, and yet good to men; and its glory is that on behalf of sinners, mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other, in the Lord Jesus Christ.

As relating to systematic theology, Edwards’ definitions were effectual, in the hands of his son, the younger Edwards, in essentially modifying the doctrines of the atonement and justification. On this subject, three sermons, preached by him, were of signal importance. “They did much toward changing the previously common mode of thinking and teaching, on the subject; and led to the adoption of those consistent and scriptural views,” says Dr. Pond, “which have since generally prevailed among the evangelical clergy of New England.”

The discourses, which occupy so important a position in the history of New England doctrines, have in view the obviating of a Socinian objection, which the author thus states: “If we be, in the literal sense, forgiven, in consequence of a redemption, we are forgiven on account of the price of redemption, previously paid. How, then, can we truly be said to be forgiven; a word which implies the exercise of grace? And, especially, how can we be said to be forgiven, according to the riches of grace? This is, at least, a seeming inconsistency. If our forgiveness be purchased, and the price already paid, it seems to be a matter of debt and not of grace.”

To this, the true and scriptural answer is found in the words of Christ, “I and My Father are one.” True, justice is fully satisfied; the debt is paid; and so, justification is by process of law, at the tribunal of justice. But it is God who has paid the debt. And, not content, merely to blot out the handwriting. of condemnation, not satisfied with a mere removal of the curse, he has procured for us a perfect righteousness, not only sufficient to secure acquittal at the bar, but to confer a full title to life and glory. And is not this riches of grace? “He hath raised us up together and made us sit together, in heavenly places, in Christ Jesus; that, in the ages to come, he might show the exceeding riches of his grace, in his kindness toward us, through Christ Jesus.”

The objection was anticipated and answered by the Westminster divines. But, in the estimation of Dr. Edwards, there is no grace, if the law and justice of God are satisfied. Justice, he discriminates as of three kinds. The first is commutative justice, “which respects property and matters of commerce, solely; and secures to every man his own property.” But, although the Scriptures use the terms, redemption, ransom, bought with a price, these “are metaphorical expressions, and therefore not literally and exactly true. We had not deprived God of his property; we had not robbed the treasury of heaven. God was possessed of as much property, after the fall as before; the universe and the fullness thereof still remained his. Therefore, when Christ made satisfaction, he refunded no property.”

Does this mean, that there can be no property in anything that does not have a money value? And, that there can be no debt. nor payment that is not pecuniary? Do we owe God nothing at all? Commutative justice is, of course, by Dr. Edwards, put out of the account. Christ paid no money for us.

The second kind of justice, named by Edwards, is distributive justice, by which a man is treated according to his personal character or conduct. “Nor is distributive justice satisfied. If it were, there would be no more grace in the discharge of the sinner, than there is in the discharge of a criminal, when he bath endured the full punishment, to which, according to law, he had been condemned.”

If, then, the judge were to take the condemned criminal’s place, in the dungeon, that the transgressor may go free, there would be no grace in this!

The third kind of justice, is general or public justice, and comprehends all moral goodness. “To practice justice in this sense, is to practice agreeably to .the dictates of general benevolence.” This it is, which, according to Dr. Edwards, is satisfied in the atonement of Christ. But of this third kind of justice, he states that “as this is improperly called justice, as it comprehends all moral goodness, it is not at all opposed to grace; but comprehends that, as well as every other virtue; as, truth, faithfulness, meekness, forgiveness, patience,” etc. So, then, this all-comprehending grace, of general, or disinterested, benevolence, does not include justice, properly so called. To save appearances, the name is given to an attribute, to which Edwards admits it does not belong. It is not justice; and that attribute is formally excluded from the scheme, as inconsistent with grace. The end of the whole matter is, either, that justice is not an attribute of God; or, that, in the salvation of men, by the blood of Christ, violence is done to it, and for ever, even in heaven, must the blood-bought throng be under its frown. In either case, justice is excluded from any part in the administration of God. “Justice and judgment are” no longer “the habitation of his throne!” Then, woe, to the universe! woe to his own people!

To this theory of the atonement, Dr. N, S. S. Beman is fully committed; while it, more or less pervades and enfeebles all the writings of Mr. Barnes, on the subject.

The New Divinity, by degrees, spread through the churches of New England, during the closing years of the last, and the first quarter of the present century. Then arose the school at New Haven, for the propagation of the system, developed by the professors there; and it is a significant fact, that the first formal announcement of a new school of doctrine, by those divines, addressed a challenge to the optimists of the prevalent school, to justify themselves in assuming that God could prevent all sin in a moral system. Thus, the fatalism, which was involved in. the Edwardean theory of divine efficiency, induced a recoil to the opposite extreme, in the assertion of the Pelagian heresy of free‑will; and, by both, the whole system of biblical theology was corrupted, with doctrines having no pretence, even, to a scriptural basis; but growing wholly out of false philosophy.

The divines of New Haven found, in the very heart of the Hopkinsian system, some of the fundamental and most efficient principles of the Pelagian heresy—That Adam was not the cause of his posterity; that, consequently, they were not in him, in the covenant; that they are not, therefore, punishable for the first sin; nor is depravity derived from him to them; and, that sin consists, only, in exercise, or action. Accepting these, as unquestionable principles, and recoiling, with just abhorrence, from the idea that God is the author of men’s sins, they adopted the alternative, deducible from the same premises; and concluded that men are created without moral character; and that their depravity and sins are the result of circumstances, and beyond the control of God; and that regeneration is the effect of moral suasion, and not wrought by the immediate agency of the Spirit of God.

Boldly repudiating the system of “constituted” relations and fictitious intendments, which the Hopkinsians generally insisted on, the New Haven school, openly and unequivocally, denied Adam to have been the representative of his race, or Christ of his people. They held that every man comes into the world in the same moral and legal attitude in which Adam was created., Each one sins and falls, for himself, by his own free will. Christ died, not as a legal substitute for his people, a vicarious expiation for their sins, but as an exhibition of the love of God to sinners, and a display of the evil of sin, its just desert, and the goodness of God, in passing it by; so that, consistently with the welfare of the universe, he may forgive sin. Thus, the sinner is pardoned, and not justified; sin is forgiven not blotted out; and justice is waived, not satisfied, Again, inasmuch as man’s free will sins, and can sin, in spite of God’s opposing power, it follows, that the regeneration and conversion of the sinner are beyond the power of the Spirit of God. All he can do, is to present the motives to the sinner’s mind, which should induce him to turn from his sins. The rest must be the product of man’s free will. Regeneration is, therefore, to be accomplished only by means of moral suasion. Man is thus induced to exert his own powers, which are altogether adequate to turn from sin unto God.

Such is the nexus of the system, the seeds of which were planted in the theology of New England by the genius of Edwards. Germinating under the stimulus given by his writings to metaphysical speculations in theology, the scheme has reached a position where it is impossible to remain, and, upon which, logically, the only advance can be to the open adoption of the more specious heresy of Arius, or the avowed Deism of Socinus. Already, an infinite atoning Priest and King and an almighty Renewer and Sanctifier are eliminated from the system; and the divinity of the Son and Spirit of God, although acknowledged, is meaningless and inane. The whole history, is a mere rehearsal, in slightly modified form, of the process through which the Church of Geneva, the English Presbyterians and the non-subscribers of Ulster, in the eighteenth century and the nineteenth, passed; and from whence they plunged into the abyss of apostasy. Such, in fact, was the result of the ministry of the younger Edwards, himself; who was, by many, held to have been as much the author of the Hopkinsian system as was he whose name it bears. For twenty-six years, Edwards ministered to a church in New Haven; and was then constrained to leave, by the prevalence of Unitarian and other fatal heresies among his people, the proper fruits of a quarter of a century’s training in the new theology.

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