What Was Jonathan Edwards’ Central Doctrine?

In 1988, Robert Jenson famously contended that Jonathan Edwards was “America’s theologian.” Such an assertion speaks to the tremendous shadow Edwards still casts over American theology – both liberal and orthodox. From Harry Emerson Fosdick to Charles Finney to William Carey to John Dagg, American Evangelicalism has never lacked for those seeking to claim Edwards as their theological forbear. Edwards was, of course, more than a theologian. Charles Lanphier called him “the great metaphysician of his century.” By the same token, renowned historian Sydney Ahlstrom has designated Edwards “possibly the Church’s greatest apostle to the Enlightenment.” Rooted in Reformed heritage, Edwardsian theology was imbued with modern philosophy, science, psychology, etc. Therefore, understandably, the task of locating Edwards’ central doctrine requires us to wipe away a degree of secular language. By “central,” what is meant here is an indelible idea that supports the explanation and application of all other Edwardsian doctrines. This biblical idea is love. Within the vast corpus of his writings, Edwards’ doctrine of love serves as a theological Rubicon, an irrevocable mark upon his system of thought the likes of which cannot be altered without serious perversion of Edwardsian theology.

In 1944, Joseph Haroutunian labeled Jonathan Edwards “the Theologian of the Great Commandment.” For Edwards, love of neighbor was important; but love of God was essential. It drove both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In the nineteenth century, New England Theologians (e.g. Edwards Amasa Park) and Old School Presbyterians (e.g. Charles Hodge) would be divided on just how to reconcile Edwardsian theology with Edwardsian ethics. For countless post-Edwards scholars, the difficulty was found in clarifying and explicating his doctrine of love as a whole. Subsequent generations only attested to the genius of Edwards in holding seeming tensions in order. For this reason Timothy Dwight, Edwards’ grandson and former president of Yale (1795-1817), called Edwards “that moral Newton, and that second Paul.” The nexus of Edwardsian theology and morality lay in the doctrine of love.

In a time of revivalism, love formed the epicenter of Edwardsian conversion. For instance, the Northampton pastor identified love as “first and chief of the affections.” (Religious Affections, 1746) Even hatred itself springs from misplaced love. Conversely, a fervent love of God is also abhorrence of sin. According to Conrad Cherry, Edwards’ doctrine of love proved distinct from that of Luther and Calvin. Whereas the Reformers had held love to be the fruit of faith, Edwards posited that love was sine qua non with faith itself. (Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal, 1966) In the realm of Christian ethics, love was also foundational. In The Nature of True Virtue (1765), Edwards famously stated that “True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to being in general.” The Northampton Sage located a bifurcation in virtuous love: love of benevolence and love of complacence. The first is that “affection or propensity of the heart to any being, which causes it to incline to its well-being.” The latter has the delight in the beauty of its objection as its foundation. According to Edwards, in keeping with John 13:35, the mark of the Christian is love – or disinterested love to being.

Edwards’ disciple and co-leader of the New Divinity Joseph Bellamy would later take this principle of “disinterested benevolence” to claim that Christians should be willing to be damned to Hell in order to prepare their souls for Christ. To many this seemed to contradict Edwards’ other teaching on self-love. In his sermon True Grace Distinguished from the Faith of Devils (1752), Edwards took note of two common, sinful delusions: natural understanding and self-love. Sinners were prone to abuse the former, mistaking it for their own autonomous wisdom and intellect apart from the grace of God. The latter was something common to all sinners, but perverted by the unregenerate in favor of self-interest, something distinct from self-love. In his Miscellanies, Edwards opines, “Self-love, taken in the most extensive sense, and love to God are not things properly capable of being compared one with another; for they are not opposites or things entirely distinct, but one enters into the nature of the other… Self-love is only a capacity of enjoying or taking delight in anything. Now surely ’tis improper to say that our love to God is superior to our general capacity of delighting in anything.”

Pastor, theologian, and self-professed Edwards junkie John Piper uses this principle in his Christian Hedonism and explains, “In other words you can never play off self-love against love to God when self-love is treated as our love for happiness. Rather love to God is the form that self-love takes when God is discovered as the all-satisfying focus of our happiness.” (“Was Jonathan Edwards a Christian Hedonist?”) Self-love motivates the sinner to find his ultimate fulfillment and happiness in God. Our best interest is finding our good in Christ. In the words of Piper, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” (Desiring God, 1986)

Still, Edwards’ doctrine of love wasn’t simply relegated to soteriology. It was the bedrock of His theology. His doctrine of God was consonant with love. Finding his biblical foundation in 1 John 4:8, Edwards argued that the Godhead subsists in love. Furthermore, the Northampton theologian adopted the Augustinian notion that the Holy Spirit was in fact the bond of love between the Father and the Son. (Discourse on the Trinity, 123-125) In turn, love is proof of the Spirit’s presence in the believer. The Holy Spirit works Himself out in our lives through love. (1 John 3:23-24, Phil 2:1, 2 Cor 6:6, Rom 5:5, 15:30, Col 1:8, and Gal 5:13–15) In the end, love informed Edwards’ ethics as well as his Trinitarianism. In The Nature of True Virtue, Edwards believes it reasonable and necessary that God should agree with Himself and be united with Himself and love Himself. Similarly, in The End for Which God Created the World, Edwards contends that the love of God’s excellency is to be esteemed just as God loves and esteems His own excellency.

In a recent article entitled “The Metaphysics of Jonathan Edwards’s End of Creation,” Walter Schultz summarizes the Edwardsian sense of loving glory: “Jonathan Edwards holds that God’s ‘internal glory’ is the knowledge, holiness (love), and blessedness (joy and happiness) that characterize God’s intra-trinitarian life.” (JETS, 59, No. 2, 340) Subsequently, God’s external glory emanates and is communicated to His creation, which in turn reflects that glory back in conscious love to Him. According to Edwards, “God communicates himself to the understanding of the creature, in giving him the knowledge of his glory; and to the will of the creature, in giving him holiness, consisting primarily in the love of God; and in giving the creature happiness, chiefly consisting in joy in God. These are the sum of that emanation of divine fullness called in Scripture, the glory of God.” God’s highest end is Himself, and we ascribe Him glory by loving Him. In this way, we prize Christ above all else and also love ourselves by seeking what’s best for our souls – simultaneously honoring Him who created us in His image. For those attempting to traverse the ocean of Edwardsian thought, Edwards’ doctrine of love is a theological bridge essential for understanding the triune God, His purpose for humanity, and our own identity in His Kingdom. Love proves to be the central doctrine in Edwardsian theology.


3 thoughts on “What Was Jonathan Edwards’ Central Doctrine?

      1. Yes, we had a good time in Durham. Maybe 70-80 in attendance on each of the 2 days, with around 50 there for the evening worship. (Good by UK standards). The audio is slowly appearing on the web page (http://www.edwardsconference.org/2016-talks-sermons); Bill, our conference chairman, will soon be editing the papers for the forthcoming book (with EP) (he’s at the PCA GA at the moment). I took my 12 year old son on the 2nd day, and he’ll probably remember for some time being asked by Doug Sweeney whether he’d ready any Edwards! (I think he enjoyed the snacks most of all, my son that is). Mrs Sweeney was also a pleasure to meet. At the moment, we’re gathering feedback from attendees, so, God-willing, 2018 will be ‘for the church’ again, if not more so. (P.S. Bill was my pastor for 5 years and I read his book when our 2nd daughter was born four years ago and enjoyed it very much. I often need Edwards mediated through someone else, and Bill does a good job of re-stating things succinctly when that is required. He also makes a good case about Edwards’ central idea being that of God ‘communicating Himself’. All the best.

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