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

There is something intimidating and at the same time inviting about Jonathan Edwards’ writings on the Trinity. First, I am intimidated because the very doctrine of the Trinity leaves me feeling at times as though I am standing on the shore of the ocean, trying to scoop it up with a Dixie Cup, feeling my smallness. Yet, I am drawn. I find myself over and again wanting to go there with Edwards, trying to feel something of the enamor of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which obviously laid hold of him.

Of course, if the history of the church bears one thing out, it is the ongoing essentiality and exploration of the Trinity. Two primary streams of Trinitarian conception, one from the West and the other from the East, are referred to throughout the history of theology as the “Psychological” and “Social” models of the Trinity. Augustine (354–430) represents the Western tradition, and in his classic study De Trinitate, he presents the Godhead in a tri-partite mental model of the mind knowing and loving itself; the mind remembering, knowing, and loving itself; and the mind remembering, knowing, and loving God. This provides an analogy for the Father, as the mind, as it were, eternally self-aware; the eternal self-knowledge accounting for the eternal generation of the Son; and the Holy Spirit as the love between Father and Son. The emphasis in this Western tradition is, of course, on the oneness and simplicity of God, lest there be any notion that God is somehow an amalgam of parts. However, some have erred by distorting this approach, so emphasizing the oneness of the mental model that the three are pressed into mere modes of the one God, rather than persons within the one God.

From the East, we have the great Cappadocian theologians, Basil the Great (330–79), his brother Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335/40–94/400), and Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 330–91). Trinitarian theology has always been a serious matter not only in the West but also in the East. In fact, an early heretic, Arius (250/56-330), who claimed the Logos was the first created being, thus denying the full divinity of the second person of the Godhead, actually tried to hire someone to kill Gregory of Nazianzus, who was considered “the theologian” of the Eastern Church. Basil’s famous work De Spiritu Sanctu (On the Holy Spirit), and his brother’s Against Eunomius were key treatises presenting not a psychological model built on the analogy of the mind, but a model illustrated by Peter, James, and John as three distinct persons in community, sharing one common human nature. The medieval theologian Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) would later articulate this more social model as well. Whereas, the Western psychological model tends to begin with the oneness of the essence of God, the Eastern social model tends to emphasize the threeness in God, and it accounts for the oneness through perichoresis, or the full, mutual indwelling of the three persons in the one being of God. Of course, any analogy shows its limits as it bumps up against the mystery of the infinite. And, any analogy is subject to distortion. In the case of the social model, for example the emphasis on the threeness of the persons has been at times virtually bifurcated from the oneness such that a form of tritheism has resulted.

I find myself wanting to feel something of the enamor of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which obviously laid hold of Edwards.

Edwards was not exclusively bound to either model, though a number of recent studies have debated his adherence to one model or the other. Some claim he was primarily committed to a psychological model, yet employed the language of the social model. Others argue he was largely social in his Trinitarian program. While it is difficult and perhaps even misses the point to attempt to place Edwards in one camp, I see him as primarily psychological, but definitely drawing upon the social model’s trajectory rather than merely its language. His favorite theological work, Petrus van Mastricht’s (1630–1706) Theoretico-Practica Theologia, seems to lean in the direction of the social construction. Edwards clearly affirmed what both models would, namely, the plurality of the three persons in the one God:

And though the word “person” be rarely used in the Scriptures, yet I believe that we have no word in the English language that does so naturally represent what the Scripture reveals of the distinction of the eternal three—Father, Son and Holy Ghost—as to say they are one God but three persons.1

Edwards, sounding rather social, has his own version of perichoresis:

There is such a wonderful union between them that they are after an ineffable and inconceivable manner one in another; so that one hath another, and they have communion in one another, and are as it were predicable one of another. As Christ said of himself and the Father, “I am in the Father, and the Father in me” [John 14:10], so may it be said concerning all the persons of the Trinity: the Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father; the Holy Ghost is in the Father, and the Father in the Holy Ghost; the Holy Ghost is in the Son, and the Son in the Holy Ghost. And the Father understands because the Son, who is the divine understanding, is in him. The Father loves because the Holy Ghost is in him. So the Son loves because the Holy Spirit is in him and proceeds from him. So the Holy Ghost, or the divine essence subsisting in divine love, understands because the Son, the divine idea, is in him.2

Again, infinite mystery bucks the confines of models and analogies. What is particularly beautiful about Edwards’ treatment of the Trinity, is not only his exploration of the ontological Trinity (God’s being) but also the economic Trinity (the roles of each member of the Godhead in the work of salvation). In my next post, we’ll see a lovely confluence of both models of the Trinity, particularly when we come to Edwards’ teaching on creation and covenant.


  1. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 21: Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, ed. Sang Hyun Lee (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2003), 181. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 133. ↩︎

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