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.