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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Jonathan Edwards. Next Post.

When my son, Luke, was a little boy, I would lie in bed with him sometimes to help him fall asleep and send him off with a prayer. One night, he asked, “Daddy, you pray to the Father like He is God, and you pray to Jesus like you think He is God. Which is it?” Being a professor of theology, I seized on this moment to launch a stimulating monologue on the doctrine of the Trinity. I’ll never forget the simple, childlike honesty of his response, “Man, this Trinity stuff is hard!” My son is now sixteen and taller than his daddy. And this Trinity stuff is still hard, isn’t it?

Theological Traveling Companions

One of the things I tell my students when I teach seminary classes is that pride will beat you out of the ministry, or the ministry will beat the pride out of you. I tell them they must not go at it alone, that they will need traveling companions. By this, I mean fellowship with family, brothers and sisters in the Lord, and fellow ministers. But I mean more than that. I want to draw them into the company of some of those in the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 11–12)—saints who have gone on before us who, though dead, still speak. Where would I be, after all these years in ministry, were it not for Augustine calling me to God as my life and joy, as I journal through his Confessions? Where would I be were it not for Martin Luther showing me the strength of God in the weakness of the cross in most everything he wrote? Where would I be if John Calvin did not invite me to meditate on my union with Christ in his Institutes? Where would I be, apart from John Owen fortifying my battle with indwelling sin by guiding me in the realities of deep communion with God? Where would I be if that little boy Jack didn’t peer out the windows of Little Lea across the horizon to the crawling Castlereagh Hills of northern Belfast, later imaginatively incorporating that scene into an invitation to Narnia? Where would I be were not that great London Baptist Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, ready with a sermon tailor-made to lift my troubled soul, or John Newton with a letter he must have written to me, or Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, or Herman Bavinck taking me so much deeper still?

The Impact of Jonathan Edwards

Of all my traveling partners, there is one whose holy intoxication with the glory of God, whose constant vision of the beauty of Jesus, has done more for my own spiritual formation than anyone else, inviting me to see, to taste, to have the Trinity as the “cream of all my pleasures.” I am speaking of that powdered-wigged American Augustine, as he has been called, Jonathan Edwards. Born October 5, 1703, in East Windsor, Conn., this precocious young man flew through his studies at Yale and eventually became an associate minister alongside his maternal grandfather, the great Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729), in Northampton, Mass. Following Stoddard’s death, Edwards would help light the fuse for the First Great Awakening with a series of lectures on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. His preaching, known by many primarily through the startling imagery in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is a deep well of practical, experiential Calvinism. He wrote significant, weighty tomes of theological discourse, eventually moving to Stockbridge, Mass., to teach Native Americans how to speak English so that he could preach the most basic, childlike, but warm and wooing evangelistic sermons to them. The last several weeks of his life were spent as president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), where he died on March 22, 1758, due to complications from a smallpox vaccination.

Whether one reads an Edwards sermon, plunges into the cavernous depths of his treatise The Freedom of the Will, ventures into the labyrinthine corridors of his ethical writings, or reads a few of his extemporaneous notes-to-self, known as his Miscellanies, the power and purpose of the Trinity are never far away. I am inviting you to join me for a handful of articles, tracing the Trinity in the thought of Jonathan Edwards, specifically, how he thought in a Trinitarian fashion about things such as Christology, covenant theology, justification and sanctification, and even the hard work of prayer and the glories of heaven.

The power and purpose of the Trinity are never far away.

The history of theology is in many ways a long story of wrestling with the intricacies of the doctrine of the Trinity and its implications for the person and work of Christ. We see this from the Trinitarian thought given creedal form at Nicaea (325) and then defended by Athanasius contra mundum in opposition to the sub-divinity of Arius’ teaching on Christ, to Michael Servetus (1509/11–53) reviving and revising the third-century heresy of Sabellianism or Modalism (with us still today in Oneness Pentecostalism) in his persistent dustup with John Calvin, or during the days of the Westminster Assembly, the Socinianism of John Biddle (1615–62) and Paul Best (c. 1590–1657), which undermined the Trinity, denied the divinity of Christ, and laid the groundwork for later Unitarianism. These and others are in the background of Edwards’ own writing and preaching on the Trinity.

Humbly, Edwards confesses:

But I don’t pretend fully to explain how these things are, and I am sensible a hundred other objections may be made, and puzzling doubts and questions raised, that I can’t solve. I am far from pretending to explain the Trinity so as to render it no longer a mystery. I think it to be the highest and deepest of all divine mysteries still, notwithstanding anything that I have said or conceived about it. I don’t pretend to explain the Trinity, but in time, with reason, may [be] led to say something further of it than has been wont to be said, though there are still left many things pertaining to it incomprehensible. It seems to me that what I have here supposed concerning the Trinity is exceeding analogous to the gospel scheme, and agreeable to the tenor of the whole New Testament, and abundantly illustrative of gospel doctrines; as might be particularly shown, would it not exceedingly lengthen out this discourse.1

Six Trinitarian Priorities

As you read through Edwards’ treatises and sermons, you begin to see a set of priorities emerge in his theological program regarding the Trinity and its implications for various aspects of the Christian faith.

  1. Edwards wants to demonstrate and defend the unity of essence of the three members of the Godhead.
  2. Edwards wants to distinguish between the three persons of the Godhead.
  3. Edwards wants to show the inseparable relationship between the ontological and economic Trinity.
  4. Edwards wants to explain and defend the equal honor of each person of the Godhead primarily by explaining the work of each person of the Trinity in the work of redemption.
  5. Edwards wants to magnify man’s dependence upon the Trinity for salvation.
  6. Edwards wants to take care of a perceived limitation in the way covenant theology is sometimes explained.

Indeed, the Trinity is hard stuff. But I’ll never forget Dr. Sinclair Ferguson’s comments on the first seminary paper I ever wrote that the church always needs a good dose of Trinitarian doctrine for its spiritual and theological health. In this series of articles, we will walk with our traveling partner and physician of the soul, Jonathan Edwards, as he diagnoses and prescribes concerning these six priorities in his doctrine of the Trinity and its implications for Christology, covenant theology, justification and sanctification, prayer, and heaven. With Edwards as our traveling partner, we’ll look to our triune God for hope, humility, holiness, and happiness.

 

  1. “Discourse on the Trinity,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Sang Hyun Lee [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003], 21:135. ↩︎

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