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Jonathan Edwards and His Ethical Reasoning


Among those who have played an important role in the development of American thought in the XVIII century we should mention Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). The man, who removed far from social and political storms era (he died too early to participate in debates on national self-determination), he finished his creative activity with the range Puritanism problems, with some certain provisions of his philosophy he still slightly anticipates the movement of Enlightenment.

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Edwards shared the desire of his era thinkers to identify the best opportunities for people, who tried to get rid of class restrictions.

Interpretation of Puritanism

While educators, speaking in defense of human freedom, most of them started with the criticism of injustice class relations, Edwards considered the human personality and history outside of the categories of social life. Referring only to the sphere of consciousness, even though he had not suspected the existence of economic, social and legal foundations of freedom of the human mind and will. Moreover, all the forces he has given to the proof of doctrines, in his time, remained popular, even within the Puritan orthodoxy. This has limited not only his comprehension of the general laws of historical process, but the extent of his impact on his contemporaries. Nevertheless, in the proposed challenges of the traditional interpretation by Edwards of Puritanism significantly affected new developments.

In his philosophical writings, Edwards, proceeding from the absurdity of the assumption of absolute nothingness, proves the need of the existence of eternal life, which is infinite, omnipresent and always shaky. This existence, according to Edwards, can only be God. From the point of view of Edwards, consciousness and existence are identical to each other, since the assumption of eternal existence is not reflected in any consciousness, it is absurd. He agreed with the British sensualist of the XVII century that the secondary qualities, such as color and taste, do not exist in objective reality, they are presented only in the mind. Edwards argues that the primary qualities have the same nature: hardness – resistance, the form – this is the termination of resistance, and movement – this is the transfer of resistance from one point to another space. Thus, the resistance – it is nothing but a manifestation of God’s power, it exists in the mind of God, and therefore the world is by nature perfect, and there in the mind of God through a free act of creation, as well as in our mind – in the form of ideas, constantly tells us God (Kuklick, 2003).

Thoughts about God

According to Edwards, physical laws can not explain the physical reality, which is the result of God’s permanent choice. This approach does not prevent Edwards to agree with the most of the Newtonian view of the world. He argued that to ascertain the cause of things in naturalistic philosophy, you can only measure to determine if the actions of God in them, which inevitably must lead to the conclusion that the world – is the creation of feelings. “The true essence of all things – he wrote in his “Mind” – is precise and unwavering idea in the mind of God, combined with his unwavering faith; an idea that is gradually communicated through our mind is firmly established and strictly defined in laws and funds (Stanlick, 2003).

From the point of view of Edwards, as the world totally dependent on God who continues to create, it means, that our will is completely dependent on the causes, pre-God. The followers of Jacob Arminia in times of Edwards believed that the choice of an individual arbitrary and depends only on the individual, thus volitional act is determined by the strongest motives of individuals. Such a submission violates the principle of universal causality, which Edwards borrows from Newton. The allegation that in committing act of free will depends entirely on free choice, necessarily implies an infinite regress: that free choice should depend on the previous free choice, which in turn depends on the preceding to infinity. The solution to the problem lies in the complete Edwards rejection of any talk about free will.

From his point of view of freedom is not characteristic of the will, and personality: a free person – it is a personality that is not obstructed in carrying out their wishes. Edwards states that on the one hand, the choice is fully predetermined by God, because he is responsible for the circumstances in which the desires of the subject takes place smoothly, but on the other hand, the subject makes a choice, is free if you do not create obstacles to the implementation of its solutions. Thus Edwards reconcile the freedom of not only the teachings of Calvinism, but also with the Newtonian view of the world, which sees the nature of completely deterministic. Central idea of the theological system of Edwards is the following: every person – sinful by nature and never wants to glorify God, while God does not change their nature, or, in the words of Edwards, will not give a new “sense of the heart.” (Kuklick, 2003)

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Rebirth, the action of God, there is a cause for repentance, treatment and all follow-up action of any person. All of humanity was represented at the fall of Adam, and thus it suffers from the consequences of sin. Thus Edwards tries to combine the individual responsible for their sinful acts with full authority over the fallen nature of his personality. Edwards argues that moral judgments are based on feelings rather than reason: because of the sense of the beautiful person can see the beauty of the heart, or a virtuous motive, to act righteously. There are two kinds of beauty.

Favor and love of substance in general, which is the only true, the spiritual and the divine beauty, perceived through the sense of man, which God awakens in some people elected them to heaven. Another beauty is the harmony, proportionality, integrity, diversity. This beauty of a secondary course, the beauty of the lowest, it is perceived by the natural feelings. While all that is one of the senses of beauty finds beautiful, another sense also of the view beautiful, but the true righteousness is to acts committed in accordance with the first sense of beauty. Only a man whose inner desire radically changed by God, can do without self-interest, which is inherent in even the most fair and altruistic deeds “unaltered” of people.

Here Edwards connects his philosophy of irreligious thought with secular ethics, the sanctity of ethical guidelines. Most of the philosophical and theological explorations Edwards intimately intertwined with ethical issues. He opposed the new moral philosophy of the Enlightenment. Many philosophers of the time – F. Hatcheson and A. Shaftesbury and others defended the view that the individual has a natural ability or a sense that, with proper development could lead to a truly virtuous life. In response to this widespread view, which is essentially a consequence of improving the treatment of human nature, Edwards declared that true virtue can not be outside of God and the revelations about him. In the paper “Nature of True Virtue”, published posthumously, he argues that the true Morality derives from reviving the grace of God (Stanlick, 2003).


His ethical reasoning is based on the idea of conditionality of the individual through the grace. His mission is to show why the theological concept of updating the hearts with spiritual revival developed by Augustin and puritanical theologians, differ from natural Sentimentalism of Shaftesbury and Hatcheson, and to protect the puritanical view of the piety that the true righteousness of God is impossible without action on the human heart. Ethical concept of Edwards is as follows. He argues that philosophical research in the field of ethics of the modern philosophers did not have high value. People by nature, due to the common grace of God, covering all have the ability to act morally in a strictly defined sense.

Natural consciousness to some extent regulates the behavior, a sense of symmetry and beauty, gives understanding of the nature of human morality, virtuous and respectful attitude towards the parents helps to stabilize the situation in the society – a natural sense of morality gives the knowledge of the need for morality in the world. Edwards insists that the public benefit the natural quality of righteousness can not substitute for true righteousness, which is the basis for reviving the grace of God. In other words, all the existing good always and everywhere depends on God.

Edwards trying to show that the essence of virtue, which he anticipated by the modern philosophers, is simple prudence, and even selfishness. In doing so, he tries to emphasize the primacy of grace, thus hoping to prove that the goodness of God is the only source of true virtue. Edwards made a significant contribution to the development of American philosophy, synthesizing religious and secular philosophical thought and a possibility of their coexistence.


Kuklick Bruce , A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000, Oxford University Press, USA , 2003.

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Stanlick Nancy A., Silver Bruce S. , Philosophy in America, Volume 1, Prentice Hall, 2003.

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