Jonathan Edwards on Fellowship

It was Jonathan Edwards’ belief that no reasonable creature could be happy without fellowship and society with others. In fact, this principle extended beyond his doctrine of the church; it also informed his theological ethics. Solitary Christianity was altogether immoral. According to Edwards, goodness is the inclination to “delight in making another happy in the same proportion as it is happy itself.” God’s plan for creation and redemption is born out of his nature to express Himself and to communicate His goodness to others. God is gregarious, and humans are hardwired in the same fashion. Ultimately, God’s moral perfection is inextricable from His social identity, demonstrated most vividly in the love between the Father and Son, with the Spirit Himself as the bond of love between them.

Edwards explains, “all excellency is harmony, symmetry, or proportion.” We witness supreme harmony in the triune God, and therefore our need for fellowship is but a shadow of the splendid fellowship between the Persons of the Godhead. Moreover, salvation is entrance into the very life of the Trinity: “Christ has brought it to pass that those that the Father has given him should be as it were one society, one family, that his people should be in a sort admitted into that society of the three persons of the Godhead.” Salvation is a Trinitarian work, and this is precisely why Edwards upheld the complete and utter sovereignty of God in redemption. Salvation was the Lord’s. For this reason Sang Lee concluded that for Edwards, “Arminianism was fundamentally anti-trinitarian.” (“Editor’s Introduction,” in Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith) God is Alpha and Omega over every step of salvation.

In The Trinitarian Ethics of Jonathan Edwards (2004), William Danaher, Jr. examines Edwards’ blend of Augustinian and Cappadocian visions for the Trinity. In it he observes, “Where the psychological analogy conceives of the Trinity in terms of self-consciousness, the social analogy conceives of the Trinity in terms of interpersonal participation. Consequently, the social analogy conceives of the love of God in terms of self-donation, mutuality, and inclusion.” (68) Edwards conceived of the imago Dei in two ways: self-consciousness and interpersonal communion. Therefore to be human is to be capable of self-reflection and to enjoy fellowship with others. Edwards doesn’t define personhood in terms of individual substance but in regards to participation and fellowship, defying many modern concepts of individuality. According to Edwards,

One alone, without any reference to any more, cannot be excellent; for in such a case there can be no manner of relation no way, and therefore, no such thing as consent. Indeed, what we call “one” may be excellent, because of a consent of parts, or some consent of those in that being that are distinguished into a plurality some way or other. But in being that is absolutely without plurality there cannot be excellency, for there can be no such thing as consent or agreement.

True excellency is defined in one’s relation to others; it is never something inherent. After the perfect beauty of the Trinity, humanity is fashioned in such a way that moral goodness is impossible without plurality of some kind. Edwards argued that metaphysical attributes such as immutability, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. do not identify the “real attributes of God.” Only the relations that derive from God’s triune nature reveal what is truly “distinct in God.” For Edwards, Scripture primarily ascribes two: Logos and Agape. In the divine mind, the Son of God is the Father’s “perfect idea” (logos) of Himself. Consequently, the Spirit is the “delight” that the Father has in the Son and the bond of love (agape) between them.

This theme of fellowship and proportion also informs Edwards’ aesthetics. In The Nature of True Virtue (1765), Edwards explains that beauty “does not consist in discord or dissent, but in consent and agreement.” Virtue itself is not an individualistic category, but rather “most essentially consists in benevolence to Being in general.” Once again, just like his doctrine of the church and his ethics, Edwards defines beauty in terms of fellowship and relations. God Himself, of course, demonstrates his beauty in the moral perfections of His Son, the image of the invisible God and the Savior of His church. Beauty is a collective category.

This theme also applies to nature. In Beauty of the World (1725), Edwards begins by suggesting that this kind of beauty “consists wholly of sweet mutual consents, either within itself, or with the Supreme Being.” The beautiful flower isn’t seen by the naked eye but by the rays of the Sun, splashing color upon the optic nerve and displaying all of its petals in collective brilliance. Likewise, the Father is only known and shown to be excellent through the Son, who is only confessed, praised, and glorified through the Spirit. (John 14:9, 1 Cor. 12:3) The church itself is a group of believers, and its beauty is only found in a body, not in one member. (1 Cor. 12:14) Jonathan Edwards recognized that fellowship was much more than simply a doctrine for the church. It was Trinitarian at its core and something that pervaded all of human life.

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