Jonathan Edwards: Shadows or Realities?

Jonathan Edwards: Shadows or Realities?

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I’m reading a remarkable little book, Images or Shadows of Divine Things, by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). It was edited by the noted Harvard historian Perry Miller, and was one of Miller’s earlier books (Yale University Press, 1948). His books included The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939), Jonathan Edwards (1949), and Errand into the Wilderness (1956).

Miller’s work has now been superseded by more recent Edwards research, but this little book (150 pp.) is interesting especially for Miller’s long introduction exploring the significance of Edwards’ fascination with typology.

Types and Antitypes

What are we to make of Edwards’ wide use of “types” and “antitypes”? I am interested in the question for three reasons. First, Edwards was fascinated by the beauty and complexity of the created world (what he simply called “nature”). Second, he was writing in the wake of Newton and the scientific discoveries of the late 1600s. Third (most important for me), he was trying to understand and explain the relationship between the physical world and the spiritual.

This is still a key question facing the church. Is the “natural” or created world “really real,” or is it just an “image” or “shadow of divine things”? How we answer this shapes everything we do and how we understand the meaning of Jesus, discipleship, and mission.

From the time he was young, Edwards kept a homemade private journal of thoughts and observations about the created order. The journal contains 212 numbered entries. Edwards referred to it variously as “The Images of Divine Things,” “The Book of Nature and Common Providence,” and other titles.

Perry Miller argues that Edwards in his “most secret moments” was trying through typology to discern “the supernatural scheme of redemption articulated in terms compatible with the material order” (p. 39).

Here are two typical(!) examples:

“[T]here is a great and remarkable analogy in God’s works. . . . [This] is very observable in the visible world; therefore it is allowed that God does purposely make and order one thing to be in agreeableness and harmony with another. And if so, why should not we suppose that He makes the inferior in imitation of the superior, the material of the spiritual, on purpose to have a resemblance or shadow of them? We see that even in the material world, God makes one part of it strangely to agree with another, and why is it not reasonable to suppose He makes the whole as a shadow of the material world?”

Or again: “We are told that marriage is a great mystery, as representing the relation between Christ and the church. (Eph. 5.32.) By mystery can be meant nothing but a type of what is spiritual. And if God designed this for a type of what is spiritual, why not many other things in the constitution and ordinary state of human society and the world of mankind?”

I have added the italics above in order to show how Edwards viewed typology.

Christians recognize of course that there are “analogies,” parallels, correspondences in all God’s works. For he is the Creator. This is why parables work.

But there is a deeper question, suggested by Edwards’ use of words like “shadow” and “nothing but a type.”

Is the World Real?

Typology like this may today seem quaint and irrelevant. But the underlying issue is a immense. How do the worlds of spirit and matter relate? At the first creation, now, and eschatologically? Is the created order we experience day by day a mere shadow? “Nothing but” a type of what is truly real—that is, spiritual things? If we believe this, aren’t we really working with an unbiblical, possibly Platonic, dualism?

Trying to understand the Bible and the economy of salvation, we face three options:

1. Created things are mere shadows, types, or symbols of reality—by God’s design. This is Edwards’ position, though at times he seems to be reaching for more. (Edwards the Calvinist makes constant use of verbs like “designed” and “ordered.” Divine sovereignty and predestination are never far from his mind.)

2. Materialism: There is no reality beyond the physical. “This world is all there is.” “Spirit” is only a way of speaking of beauty or emotion or the subjective experience of sublimity. We find spirituality in the beauty of nature, in art and poetry, in explorations of the human spirit. This seems to be the worldview of many people who say, “I am very spiritual, but not religious.”

3. The created order is real, and there is no essential divide between things spiritual and things physical. There is no spirit-matter split. Rather, by the creative and sustaining power of God, all things material and spiritual interpenetrate and interrelate.

This world, in other words, is much more than a shadow.

Lord of History

I argue that this is and must be the Christian view. It is the only view compatible with Scripture, history, and science.

Scripture – In the Bible, the material world comes from the hand of God, is sustained by him, and moves toward perfection and fulfillment as God works with his whole creation, human and nonhuman. Humans play an absolutely key role due to creation in the divine image. Yet the Bible insists that the earth and all creation is full of and reflects God’s glory. Really.

So there’s no dualism here. The only biblical “dualism” (biblically the term is anachronistic) is between good and evil; justice and injustice; holiness and the profaning of the holy. In contemporary terms, the Bible is ecological, not dualistic. In ways beyond our knowing, both “material things” and “spiritual things” are real manifestations (not shadows) of God’s energy. Behind this is the fundamental biblical distinction between Creator and the creation.

History – The story of history in all its complexity is therefore real, not a shadow or myth. Creation birthed history (Genesis 1-12), and God works in history in all kinds of interactions with the created order, both human and nonhuman. It matters that Jesus was born in space, time, and history; that he lived a historical life in harmony with God’s purposes; and that he died and rose again to life within history. His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection transformed history and history’s direction. But it is real history all the way through.

Thus the kingdom of God is historical and God’s will being done on earth as in heaven is a real historical concern and promise.

Science – The progress of science has been a long journey from various forms of holism, through varieties of dualism, to an understanding of ecology.

Ironically, the operational dualism we deal with today is not so much the spirit-matter split. Rather it is the chasm between those who recognize the truth of ecology but fail to see its biblical dimension (revealed uniquely in Scripture and in Jesus Christ), and those many Christians who think the material world is of no ultimate significance; that the only thing that matters is “spirit.”

Christians who see the material order as a mere “shadow of spiritual things” are like secular dualists. It’s just that the dualism is reversed. In one case, matter is real and spirit is not. In the other, spirit is real and matter is not. Neither view is biblical.

Few but growing is the number of Christians who understand that spiritual and physical reality are dimension of the larger reality of the created order as it comes from the hand of God.

“The whole gospel for the whole world” is not whole if it sees the material world as a mere shadow, image, or symbol of the spiritual world, the only sphere of reality thought to be of ultimate importance. Unsurprisingly, Christians with that view fail to understand the biblical stewardship mandate to care for God’s good creation.


7 Responses

  1. Note that Edwards is also the guy that told “unconverted” kids that they are “going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God that is now angry with you everyday, and everynight”.

    1. Like John Wesley and everyone else in history, we attempt to measure what they said and did in the light of Jesus and of God’s Word. Thank you.

  2. Hi,
    I think Edwards affirms the reality of the material world AND sees it as a picture/full of images of divine things.
    In the Misscellanies(I can’t spell) he tslks about this in terms of OT types and shadows fulfilled in the NT. But the shadows were real, there really were animals sacrificed, there was a temple etc. And yet these were shadows,types of the things to come. So it is possible to view the world as Edwards does while maintaining it’s reality and not descending into unscriptural disregard for the physical.

  3. On the opposite end of the spectrum (from Edwards), George Macdonald was the guy who unfortunately believed that everyone would eventually end up in heaven; a true mystical universalist and one who, again unfortunately, was the one of whom CS Lewis referred as “his mentor.”

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