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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Jonathan Edwards's Typology of Nature

Within the Christian tradition, the practice of typology has generally been recognized as a hermeneutical category. The study of types and symbols in the Bible largely dictates the framework with which someone interprets the entire metanarrative of Scripture. Jonathan Edwards’ A History of the Work of Redemption (1739), for example, is an intricate work of biblical typology. However, for Edwards, typology wasn’t simply hermeneutical; it also shaped his philosophy of nature. Scholars have suggested that Edwards “expanded typology beyond the confines of Scripture into nature, history, and human experience, thereby anticipating the Transcendentalists of nineteenth-century New England.” (“Editors’ Introduction,” A Jonathan Edwards Reader)

In Edwards’ mind, natural beauty was primarily designed to “shadow forth” the spiritual beauty of divine things. Ultimately, “to find out the reasons of things in natural philosophy is only to find out the proportion of God’s acting.” Therefore, at times, Edwards seems to spy God behind every rock and leaf. In his Images of Divine Things (1728), Edwards sets “waves and billows of the sea in a storm” as a type for God’s wrath, the silkworm as a “remarkable type of Christ,” and even the ravens as “remarkable types of devils who with delight prey upon the souls of the dead.” For this reason the author can boast that “there is a great and remarkable analogy in God’s works.” Perhaps Edwards’ most common analogy in nature was the sun, which he commonly used as a natural symbol for any of the three Persons of the Godhead. In his sermon “He That Believeth Shall Be Saved,” Edwards states that “the preaching of the gospel was like the rising of the sun in the morning that drove away all darkness and filled the world with light.”

Edwards’ typology of nature was so strong and pervasive in his writings that Edwardsean scholars Sang Lee and Avihu Zakai have located his philosophy of nature in greater theological proximity to Classical, Medieval, and Scholastic thought than to Modern science. Nature wasn’t dictated strictly on its own scientific terms as Descartes or Newton supposed, but was instead extremely teleological, akin to Aristotle in many ways. According to Zakai, “As in Renaissance thinking, nature for him was a great treasure for divine signs and metaphors…Typology was then dispelled by modern science.” (“Edwards Philosophy of Nature,” Jonathan Edwards as Contemporary) Unlike modern natural philosophy, Edwards saw the world of nature as inextricable from a grand divine scheme rather than simply mechanistic in nature. Therefore Edwards viewed the learning that took place as a result of the Enlightenment as a part of a “grand teleological enterprise” aimed at the glory of Christ. According to Zakai, Edwards hence recovered the idea of philosophia ancilla theologiae, or “philosophy as handmaiden to theology.”

Ultimately Edwards felt that natural typology was not only possible but mandatory in light of natural revelation. The license with which he employed this theological device, however, was linked to his high view of Scriptural typology: “The Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature.” For Edwards, nature was a book to be interpreted in light of Christ as well as a Theatrum Dei Gloria.

As to the corporeal world, though there are many other sorts of consents, yet the sweetest and most charming beauty of it is its resemblance of spiritual beauties.” –Edwards, Beauty of the World (1725)

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