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Book Review – John Carrick, Jonathan Edwards and the Immediacy of God. [Review by Dr. Marco Barone]

John Carrick, Jonathan Edwards and the Immediacy of God. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2020. 172 pages. $ 22.00, paperback. [Reviewed by Dr. Marco Barone]

This book has two goals. First, to demonstrate that “the concept of divine immediacy is Ariadne’s thread that runs throughout … Edwards’ thought” (136). Second, to demonstrate that that very same concept of divine immediacy is “the Achilles’ heel of his [Edwards’s] entire philosophical-theological system (136).

The author is successful in reaching the first goal. Carrick demonstrates how the immediacy of God’s presence and action is a constant that connects any theological or philosophical topic discussed by Edwards, either explicitly or implicitly.

Chapter 1, “God and the Creation,” is a helpful summary of Edwards’s God-infused view of reality. Carrick rightly notices that most, if not all, of Edwards’s philosophy was either directly or indirectly set against deism. While the deists wanted to conceive of a God distant from and disinterested in creation, Edwards powerfully argued for a God whose continual creative and sustaining power is necessary for the being and existence of all things.

Chapter 2, “The Will,” contains helpful considerations about the relationship between Edwards’s idealist and occasionalist view of God-creation and Edwards’s doctrine of the will; in fact, Carrick points out that, just like the deists wanted to relegate God outside of the cosmos, in a similar way Edwards believes that also the broad group of “Arminian” theologians, perhaps inadvertently, exiled God from man’s inner life.

Chapter 3 is, perhaps, the most interesting chapter of the book. Carrick shows how Edwards’s opposition to “Mr. Stoddard’s way” and to the “Halfway Covenant” find their ultimate origin in Edwards’s doctrine of the immediacy of God. Edwards’s desire to preserve “exclusiveness, purity, internalization, and immediacy” (105) in religion contrasted with Stoddardism and the Halfway Covenant which, according to Carrick, Edwards saw as leading to “inclusiveness, worldliness, externalization, and distance” (105) in religious matters.

In good continuity with chapter 3, in chapter 4, “Spiritual Experience,” Carrick expounds on Edwards’s view of religious experience. Also here, we find Edwards developing a “theology of the immediate influence of the Spirit” (133), which Edwards opposes to the “anti-immediacy” of both deists and Arminians. However, Carrick reminds us that Edwards was no “enthusiast.” Quite the opposite, he opposed the “ultra-immediacy” of Anabaptists and Quakers in favor of a via media between anti-immediacy and ultra-immediacy.

The Conclusion offers an overview of the author’s findings.

Regarding the second goal, one may detect some problems. Carrick argues that Edwards’s view of the relation between God and creation dissolves the creature-Creature distinction (39-45, claim x) makes God the author of sin (60-62, claim y). Quoting John Locke, Carrick goes so far in claiming that Edwards’s view of continuous creation can be described as “the ungrounded fancies of a man’s own brain” (135).

The problem is not that arguments for these claims cannot be given. They can, and they have, but the book does not seem to offer a complete case in that direction. Especially in the first two chapters and in the conclusion, Carrick detects problems and difficulties with Edwards’s position, which are reasonable and understandable concerns. However, a philosophy’s prima facie problems do not necessarily prove positive claims about said philosophy. Though the book raises lawful concerns and offers indications, these by themselves do not constitute a developed argument for either x or y. For example, Edwards’s doctrine of continuous creation (23-27) and his occasionalism (33-38) do not by themselves necessarily entail x and y. However, this seems to be the conclusion made in the book, supported simply by, firstly, the unusual nature of those teachings, and, secondly, because Edwards’s language and concepts at times differ from the classical ones. X and y, however, need a much larger positive development in order to be proved. On the basis of Edwards’s own works and of some secondary literature (e.g., Bombaro, 207-232; S. Mark Hamilton), a strong case could be made according to which x and y are mistaken. Relatedly, y is a charge from which all sorts of Christian theisms need to defend themselves, not simply Edwards. What follows is about George Berkeley, but it can be discerningly applied to Edwards as well.

In the Three Dialogues, Berkeley again treats the problem of evil, but this time the subject is moral evil rather than natural evil. With regard to immoral actions performed by human beings he notes first that “the imputation of guilt is the same, whether a person commits such an action with or without an instrument,” where in this context the “instrument” on the matterist’s account is understood to be material substance. In this way, Berkeley argues that his immaterialism is, for good or ill, on equal footing with realism when it comes to the problem of moral evil. If given his principles, the benevolence of God must be denied because of the presence of moral evil in the world, then the same follows for the philosopher who assumes the principles of matterism. Interposing material substance between God and human misconduct provides no buffer against divine responsibility. Just as a murderer is equally culpable for his act whether he uses a gun or his fist, God is culpable (if culpable at all) for natural evil whether or not he created the world using corporeal substance. Thus, Berkeley’s intention here is simply to show that any theodicy that works here for the matterist works equally well for the immaterialist. There is no difference between them on this issue … Anyone within this [Christian] tradition, including those of the matterist stripe, must grapple with the thorny problem of reconciling divine determinism, human responsibility, and the goodness of God … Berkeley’s immaterialist metaphysics does not subject him to any more formidable problem of evil than that which confronts certain other matterists. For both the task of forging a satisfactory theodicy in light of the sovereignty of God is equally onerous.” (James S. Spiegel, “The Theological Orthodoxy of Berkeley’s Immaterialism,” in Idealism and Christian Theology, 15-16).

Some essential entries from the secondary literature have not been considered, which perhaps would have been a way to help navigate these difficult issues of philosophical theology.

However, the reader should not be put off. Although the book’s second goal has not been reached, the first goal has and it does not need the second goal in order to stand. One of Edwards’s many fascinating features is that one can detect some treads which run across the entirety of his theological and philosophical corpus, and show how Edwards’s system is explained and clarified by that tread. For example: God as a communicative being (Schweitzer), Trinity and participation in the divine (Strobel and Tan), dispositional theocentrism (Bombaro), and others. Carrick has offered some useful analyses regarding the omnipresence of the doctrine of God’s immediacy in Edwards’s thought. Especially Edwards’s ecclesiology is rarely considered in this light, and Carrick offers some important reading keys to better understand Edwards’s ecclesiastical writings and to better place them in his theocentric view of all things. These reasons make the book an informative reading which encourages further discussion.