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Edwards’s Definitions of Nature and Supernatural

February 21, 2009

Jonathan EdwardsIn the following quote Jonathan Edwards clarifies, in a footnote, what he means when referring to certain natural and supernatural principles given to Adam:

To prevent all cavils, the reader is desired particularly to observe, in what sense I here use the words natural and supernatural: – Not as epithets of distinction between that which is concreated or connate, and that which is extraordinarily introduced afterwards, besides the first state of things, or the order established originally, beginning when man’s nature began; but as distinguishing between what belongs to, or flows from, that nature which man has, merely as man, and those things which are above this, by which one is denominated, not only a man, but a truly virtuous, holy, and spiritual man; which, though they began in Adam as soon as humanity began, and are necessary to the perfection and well-being of the human nature,  yet are not essential to the constitution of it, or necessary to its being: inasmuch as one may have every thing needful to his being man, exclusively of them. If in thus using the words, natural and supernatural, I use them in an uncommon sense, it is not from any affectation of singularity, but for want of other terms more aptly to express my meaning. (On Original Sin, IV., ch. 2.)

To begin, Edwards makes it very clear that by these terms he is not referring to some hypothetical universe in which God created Adam in a state of mere nature and then added supernatural gifts to that nature. Rather, he is referring to a specific man, Adam, who had supernatural qualities “as soon as nature began.” This is essentially in agreement with Thomas’s view, which many have mistaken as that very view from which Edwards seeks to distance himself.

Furthermore, Edwards clarifies that when he makes a distinction between nature and the supernatural he is distinguishing between that which belongs to or flows from mere man, and that which is above mere man. Virtue, holiness, and spiritualness may be terms that describe the imago Dei but in terms of humanity they “are not essential to the constitution of it, or necessary to its being.” The truth of this statement is self-evident, since God has allowed many individuals to exist even though they have lost these supernatural characteristics. Sin does not take away man’s “man-ness,” but sin does distort it. Therefore, if it is not already clear, the concept of a donum superadditum  added to Adam’s nature is perfectly Reformed, as long as the “superaddition” is not thought to have come upon Adam in real time, i.e., after he was created.

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