Panentheism and Jonathan Edwards

Michael S. Horton
Saturday, April 30th 2016
May/Jun 2016

While most of our attention has been on atheistic critiques of Christianity, another worldview has gained wider acceptance. It’s called panentheism. Unlike pantheism”all is divine’’panentheism means, literally, ‘all is in God.’ In practice, it also can mean ‘God is in all.’ Many thinkers and movements that have been designated ‘pantheist’ throughout the ages have been closer to panentheistic. What’s the difference? In pantheism, there is no distinction between God and the world; everything that exists is an extension of God. But panentheism acknowledges some distinction between God and the world. God is more than the sum total of everything that exists. At the same time, panentheists believe that God and the world need each other. Of course, the world would not exist without God, but the reverse is also true: God would not exist without the world. Why? Because it is his very nature to bring forth the world, just as it is the sun’s nature to shine and a fountain’s nature to discharge water.

There are generally two ways to go with this panentheism. One version emphasizes God’s dependence on the world, as seen in approaches such as process thought and in varying degrees among many modern theologians such as John Cobb, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Jürgen Moltmann: Both our history and God’s being are evolving together; God is realizing his own being in and through the flow of history. A second version emphasizes the world’s dependence on God to the extent that the world itself is pretty unreal. The only entity that really exists is God, and creaturely actions are little more than divine actions in their visible manifestations. This is the idealism of Jonathan Edwards and others. In either case, God needs the world to manifest his glory, and the world needs God to (sort of) exist. You can emphasize that your acts of thinking are actually God’s or vice versa, but either way there isn’t a sharp Creator-creature distinction.

Panentheism faces insurmountable difficulties from a biblical perspective. Biblical theism affirms that God created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo). The world has no existence apart from God, but it is also not a part of God. Creation is just that: created. It doesn’t emanate from God’s being but exists contingently’in other words, not out of necessity but out of God’s freedom and love. Neither divine nor demonic, creation is God’s workmanship. Many other doctrines are affected by a rejection of this biblical view of the God-world relation.

As Professor Baugus points out in his review article, the great Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards at least approached panentheism. Indeed, Charles Hodge warned that he couldn’t discern ‘a hair’s breadth’ between what he called pantheism and Edwards’s idealism. Although Edwards has proved an enduring source of sound teaching on a variety of topics, I suggest rather strongly that anyone concerned to stay within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy remain wary of his more speculative meanderings.’

Pantheism: "All Is Divine"
No distinction between Creator/creature

Panentheism: "All Is In God" or "God is in All"
Some distinction between Creator/creature

Emphasis 1: God's dependence on the world; modern theologians: John Cobb, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Jürgen Moltmann

Emphasis 2: The world's dependence on God; modern theologian: Jonathan Edwards

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Saturday, April 30th 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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