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

Warning: Deep waters ahead. As duly noted in our previous study of Jonathan Edwards on the Trinity, it’s hard stuff. It really is. But it is everything. The triune God permeated Edwards’ deepest theologizing and his most delightful thoughts. Depth and delight were never far apart for him. Nor, are they for God. Edwards begins his Discourse on the Trinity, “When we speak of God’s happiness, the account we are wont to give of it is that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving, and rejoicing in, his own essence and perfections.”1 If God is infinitely happy in His own self-awareness, then Edwards invites us to get in on God’s own enjoyment of Himself. Despite naive caricatures of Edwards as a stoic, monolithically dour theoretician, he began his essay on the Godhead in 1730 with the earnest desire to connect Trinitarian orthodoxy (right belief) to Trinitarian orthopraxy (right living)—theology learned, doxology lived. Over the years, through the mid 1740s, he would add pages to his monograph. Eventually, it became a sort of collection of his thoughts, a working resource manual on the Trinity, a kind of Trinitarian treatise of treasures he could mine for sermon fodder and for material to use in his deeper theological writings. Perhaps the operative word here is “treasure.” Edwards found his deepest satisfaction in the Trinity.

This reminds me of that great London Baptist prince of preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–92). In my study are the colorful volumes of The New Park Street Pulpit and Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. These two sets alone consist of sixty-three thick volumes, comprising 3,563 gospel-rich, meaty, doctrinal sermons. Even more have been discovered and reprinted in recent years.2 God surely must love His church, that we have access to such gold. Well, at age twenty-two, a young Spurgeon mounted his pulpit to deliver the leadoff sermon of what would become the very first of these massive volumes. That sermon was “The Immutability of God”:

The most excellent study for expanding the soul, is the science of Christ, and Him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity.

. . . Would you lose your sorrow? Would you drown your cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in his immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of sorrow and grief; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead. It is to that subject that I invite you this morning.3

Had Edwards lived a century later, he would have offered a measured, controlled “Amen” from the balcony of the New Park Street Chapel.

When you scan Spurgeon’s many volumes, Spurgeon’s exposition unfolds the Trinity’s delightful demonstration of saving power throughout the many thousands of pages of sermons. When you pull the last volume from the shelf, not surprisingly, one of the final sermons in the collection, “Our Magnificent Savior,” pictures the “Divine Spirit” teaching the saving purposes of the Father in giving His Son, as “Heaven’s Eternal Darling bleeds.”4 The Trinity threads through all of the sixty-three volumes, evidencing Spurgeon’s years of preaching a Trinitarian gospel.

The point here is that for Spurgeon, as for Edwards, Trinitarian theology was for life, precisely because it was the life-giving doctrine of the living God. Now, Edwards had an active, creative, speculative, voracious, yet biblically submitted mind. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that his doctrine of the Trinity showed his willingness not only to reach for words but to reach for very transcendence itself. Never one to content himself with generic repetition, the transatlantic, post-Enlightenment context in which he found himself meant he had to press in so that he could press on. What I mean is that he did not shy away from peering into the mystery of the ontological Trinity in order to attract people to the economic plan and provision of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The following observation is programmatic for Edwards:

And this I suppose to be that blessed Trinity that we read of in the holy Scriptures. The Father is the Deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the Deity in its direct existence. The Son is the Deity generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of himself, and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the Deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth, in God’s infinite love and delight in himself. And I believe the whole divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the divine idea and divine love, and that therefore each of them are properly distinct persons.5

Let’s unpack this statement together. Edwards viewed God as pure, infinite, self-existing Being. He also held that God is absolute excellence. For him, excellence is Being existing in relationship, or as he described it, “being consenting to being.” In a rather technical philosophical treatise, titled The Mind (begun as early as 1716, during his student years at Yale), he wrote: “Again, we have shown that one alone cannot be excellent, inasmuch as, in such case, there can be no consent. Therefore, if God is excellent, there must be a plurality in God; otherwise there can be no consent in him.”6 For God to be God, for God to be love, He has to be personal. For true personhood, there must be relationship or consent. Poignantly, Edwards says, “That in John, ‘God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), shows that there are more persons than one in the Deity: for it shows love to be essential and necessary to the Deity, so that his nature consists in it; and this supposes that there is an eternal and necessary object, because all love respects another, that is, the beloved.”7

For Spurgeon, as for Edwards, Trinitarian theology was for life, precisely because it was the life-giving doctrine of the living God.

Borrowing the philosophical ideas and nomenclature of his day, Edwards accounts for the eternal existence of the Son:

When we speak of God’s happiness, the account that we are wont to give of it is that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving, and rejoicing in, his own essence and perfections. And accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of himself, as it were an exact image and representation of himself ever before him and in actual view. And from hence arises a most pure and perfect energy in the Godhead, which is the divine love, complacence and joy.

. . . Therefore as God with perfect clearness, fullness and strength understands himself, views his own essence (in which there is no distinction of substance and act, but it is wholly substance and wholly act), that idea which God hath of himself is absolutely himself. This representation of the divine nature and essence is the divine nature and essence again. So that by God’s thinking of the Deity, [the Deity] must certainly be generated. Hereby there is another person begotten; there is another infinite, eternal, almighty, and most holy and the same God, the very same divine nature.

And this person is the second person in the Trinity, the only begotten and dearly beloved Son of God. He is the eternal, necessary, perfect, substantial and personal idea which God hath of himself. And that it is so, seems to me to be abundantly confirmed by the Word of [God].8

If God has self-awareness, and idea of Himself, then that awareness, that idea, in order to actually be an awareness and idea of God, necessarily implies existence. Hence, God’s perfect idea of Himself is the Son, the Logos.

God not only knows Himself, He delights in Himself, and that love between Father and Son is personal and perfect act, just as God, Himself, is perfect and pure act. So:

The Holy Spirit is the act of God between the Father and the Son infinitely loving and delighting in each other. Sure I am, that if the Father and the Son do infinitely delight in each other, there must be an infinitely pure and perfect act between them, an infinitely sweet energy which we call delight. This is certainly distinct from the other two; the delight and energy that is begotten in us by an idea is distinct from the idea. So it cannot be confounded, either with God begetting or [with] his idea and image, or Son. It is distinct from each of the other two, and yet it is God; for the pure and perfect act of God is God, because god is a pure act, and nothing but act.9

Being mindful of Edwards’ transatlantic context is helpful for understanding some of the “why” behind the “what” of his methodology in writing about the Trinity. As rationalism and deism came by the boatloads from England and the European Continent, Edwards sought to formulate his thought, from theological treatises, to pulpit sermons in an apologetic cast, ready to meet the Enlightenment challenge. While always laboring to have the Bible reign supreme in all matters of faith and practice, Edwards nonetheless was rather fearless, at times, in his willingness to speculatively seek to penetrate what appeared to be deep conundrums of the Christian faith, even using nomenclature and formulas that were not carbon copies of the Puritan and Reformed scholasticism of the previous century.

Many in the catholic (universally Christian) tradition will resonate with the Western and Augustinian emphasis on what theologians call “divine simplicity.” This doctrine holds that God is not a composite of constituent parts. He is not like a set of Legos, which, when all pieced together, form the being of God. He is not made up of a little justice, along with a dash of mercy, and a heaping helping of sovereignty. Instead, He is His attributes. The attributes of God do not exist in autonomous abstraction. They are not characteristics to which He must attain or in which He must grow. Augustine’s emphasis on divine simplicity especially guards against Arianism, with regard to the second person of the Godhead. However, Edwards’ approach in writing about the Trinity, while certainly consistent with the Western Augustinian tradition, did place a marked emphasis on the three persons of the Godhead, perhaps more often than the typical Western entry point of the oneness of divine essence. This marked emphasis on the three persons has often been noted to be more consistent with how the Eastern Orthodox churches approach the doctrine of the Trinity, since it is commonly held that they tend to begin with the three persons and not the one divine essence.

More will be said about these divergent traditions in our next post. For now, it is important to note that this has caused some to wonder just how consistent Edwards is with traditional Trinitarian orthodoxy. Much could (and has) been said about this. Perhaps, most pertinent to this caveat is Edwards’ insistence that the Father is self-satisfied and self-delighted (happy), the Son is the self-understanding of the Father, and the Spirit is the love existing within the Godhead such while that the Son accounts for the Father’s understanding, the Spirit accounts for Their love. This is Edwards’ attempt to get at the mystery of perichōrēsis, or the mutual indwelling of the three. This has caused some to wonder if Edwards has, in fact, departed from the Western tradition in favor of some sort of Eastern hybrid. My opinion is that Edwards was ultimately Western in his basic commitment, yet he began with the threeness of the persons and utilized economic (God in His inter-Trinitarian relationships) categories and nomenclature in tight conjunction with his explanation of the ontological (God in His being). While acknowledging the head-swimming effects of trying to track with the relentless efforts of Edwards to ensure that rationalistic currents in epistemology and theology being imported across the Atlantic would not confuse his flock with regard to a doctrine so mysterious as the Trinity, the careful reader of Edwards will recognize that he is, in the end, quite consistent with the simple, straightforward orthodoxy of the catholic creeds and the concise clarity of Westminster Confession of Faith 2.3:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Admittedly, Edwards’ rivers run deep. Thanks for jumping in with me. We will learn in our next study that Edwards is bringing East and West into dialogue over covenant and soteriology, as he draws upon Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers to give us a Trinitarian teaching that gives life (regeneration and justification) and guides life (sanctification).

Editor’s Note: This post was first published on June 11, 2018.

  1. Jonathan Edwards, “Discourse on the Trinity,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 21, Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, ed. Sang Hyun Lee (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002), 114. ↩︎
  2. For instance, see, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, CH Spurgeon’s Sermons Beyond Volume 63, (Leonminster, England, 2009). ↩︎
  3. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Immutability of God,” in The New Park Street Pulpit, 1855–1856, vols. III, (Pasadena, Tex., 1981), 1. ↩︎
  4. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Our Magnificent Savior,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1916–1917, vols. 62–63, (Pasadena, Tex., 1980), 109–20. ↩︎
  5. Edwards, Works, 21:131. ↩︎
  6. Jonathan Edwards, “Miscellanies 117,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 13: The “Miscellanies,” a–500, ed. Thomas A. Schaefer (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994), 284. ↩︎
  7. Edwards, Works, 21:113–14. ↩︎
  8. Edwards, Works, 21:116–17. ↩︎
  9. Edwards, “Misc. 94,” in Works, 13:260. ↩︎

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