Omnibenevolence and the Flying Spider

I ran across the word ‘omnibenevolence’ while reading Jonathan Edwards, A Guided Tour to His Life and Thought by Stephen J. Nichols. I tried to look it up in my everyday dictionary, the M-W Collegiate 11th Ed. Finding nothing, I dusted off the trusty giant Webster’s Third, again to no avail. Then, I went online. I was not surprised that Wikipedia sports a five-paragraph article about the word (you can find that here), but I would not recommend the contributor’s point of view (e.g. a supposed biblical contradiction). Googling the term nets 15,100 results with a broad spectrum of ideas, many relating to debates in Theodicy (the branch of theology that deals with the question: how can God be good [just] while evil exists?).

After giving up on the internet, I set Libronix search engines to work combing through my electronic library; again, nothing (though a search for the word ‘benevolence’ and its variants scored 1715 hits, including 12 occurrences in Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections).

Though rare, the meaning of the word is plain. ‘Omni’ comes straight from the Latin and means ‘all, everything, universal’. ‘Benevolence’ (which comes to us [via M.E.] from the Latin benovolentia) essentially means ‘kindly disposition towards an object; good will’. Hence, the statement ‘God is omnibenevolent’ means that God is completely good and has perfect (uncorrupted) good will towards us. Of course, this is a biblical notion and an axiom of conservative Christian theology: God is perfectly good.

So what did Jonathan Edwards write that prompted Stephen Nichols to brandish this seminary-type gem of a word? Nichols was commenting on Edwards’ observations of the flying spider. When Jonathan Edwards was 19 years old, he conducted research on this famed spider to understand how a wingless arachnid could fly. He even wrote a scientific essay about it. The spider fascinated young Edwards so much that he wrote:

There are some things that I have happily seen of the wondrous and curious works of the spider. Although everything pertaining to this insect is admirable, yet there are some phenomena relating to them more particularly wonderful.

Edwards looked at the spider and saw the spider’s incredible, wise, and omnibenevolent Creator. He viewed creation (and God’s care of creation) as a benevolent gift of God, and in the intricacies of creation, he believed that one could clearly see the hand of God. He shared this idea with Paul, who wrote:

… his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. (Romans 1:20 ESV)

I should look around and take in the details of creation more often; and think twice before mushing little creatures. To find out how the spider flies, you can order the above-mentioned book or The Works of Jonathan Edwards and read the essay. 🙂

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