Edwards and the Trinity: A Debate

In a collection of essays honoring the life and work of acclaimed Edwards scholar Sang Hyun Lee, Lee’s former student at Princeton Seng-Kong Tan asserts, “Edwards’ trinitarianism is Nicene and Western.” (“Trinitarian Action in The Incarnation”) Regarding the former there can be little doubt that Edwards was orthodox in his Trinitarian thinking. However, of the latter there has been considerable debate within modern Edwardsean historiography: was Edwards’ doctrine of Trinity actually “Western”? The extent to which Jonathan Edwards employed Augustine’s psychological analogy of the Trinity has been the subject of a prodigious amount of literature, particularly in the last decade. This is the Trinitarian view adopted in one form or another by the Western church. It holds that the Son of God is the Father’s perfect idea of Himself, and that this divine reflexive knowledge then generates God’s infinite love for and delight in Himself, which is the Holy Spirit. In other words, according to Edwards, the Son of God isn’t simply a mere representation of the Father, but rather “there must be a duplicity” within the mind of God. God’s idea of Himself is necessarily perfect, and therefore this divine idea must be equal and identical to the God that conceives it. Hence the Son is both one with and distinct from the Father. According to Edwards,

Thus, that which proceeds from God ad extra is agreeable to the twofold subsistences which proceed from Him ad intra, which is the Son and the Holy Spirit – the Son being the idea of God, or the knowledge of God, and the Holy Ghost which is the love of God and joy in God. [Misc. 1218]

Historically speaking, this psychological view of the Trinity, named so from Augustine’s analogy of the memory, intellect, and will of a human being, has emphasized the unity of the Godhead, suggesting that the ousia is the more fundamental ontological reality in the divine being. As Robert Letham explains, the psychological analogy also helped Augustine reconcile the filioque doctrine: “For Augustine, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as one principle of origination. The Father is the sole principle of deity, the Son is begotten of the Father, and from their common love proceeds, as a single principle, the Holy Spirit a patre filioque.” (The Holy Trinity, 206) As a result, Western Christianity has traditionally affirmed the dual procession of the Holy Spirit while the Eastern church has not. Moreover, the Western church has historically emphasized the unity of the Godhead over its mutual relationality, while the Eastern church has tended toward the opposite. Over the years the Western church has endured charges of modalism and the Eastern church accusations of tritheism. This strong Trinitarian dichotomy is precisely what makes Edwards such a conundrum for scholars wishing to place him neatly in one camp or the other. At times it appears Edwards should be placed in both.

What cannot be denied is that Edwards consistently employed the psychological analogy in some way. Edwards’ provisional notes in the Miscellanies (especially 94, 181, 308, 702, and 1062), his manuscript “On the Equality of the Person of the Trinity,” and his “Essay” or “Discourse on the Trinity” bear this out ostensibly. In his recent article in the Journal of the Evangelical Society, Ross Hastings states, “Edwards’ favored model when it comes to the workings of the Trinity to effect human redemption is without doubt, the psychological Trinity.” (“Jonathan Edwards on the Trinity”)

However, the psychological analogy is not without its theological (and specifically pneumatological) challenges. For Augustine as well as Edwards, the Holy Spirit is the indestructible and ineffable bond of love that exists between the Father and the Son. But to many critics, this seemed to de-personalize the Spirit into a semi-God of sorts. After all, isn’t the Holy Spirit more than a “bond”? Citing Romans 5:5, Augustine went so far as to equate the Spirit with love itself, and Edwards did the same. In his sermon “Heaven Is a World of Love,” the Northampton pastor described the Holy Spirit as “the spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, all flows out or is breathed forth in love, and by whose immediate influence all holy love is shed abroad in the hearts of all the church [cf. Rom. 5:5].” Excerpts such as this give further credence to Richard Niebuhr’s famous assertion that Edwards is “America’s Augustine.” However, the psychological analogy did little to vindicate the full deity and co-equality of the Spirit. For this reason, many scholars believe that Edwards also fully employed the social analogy of the Trinity, traditionally credited to the Cappadocian fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea).

Unlike Augustine, who grounded the unity of God in substance metaphysics, Edwards also defined unity in terms of mutual participation in an identical idea. The Son of God is not simply a representative of the Father, but a “repetition” of the Mind of the Father, who begets an idea that perfectly reflects the Mind that generates it. Furthermore, Edwards believed that love could be further emphasized by the social Trinity whereby individuality is defined in terms of relationality. According to Edwards, “All beauty consists in similarness, or identity of relation.” (The Mind) At the end of his sermon “Excellency of Christ,” Edwards refers to saints being “admitted into the society of the blessed Trinity,” indicating a social understanding of the Trinity. In The Trinitarian Ethics of Jonathan Edwards (2004), William J. Danaher, Jr. explains why Edwards chose to fuse the psychological and social analogies:

“The second reason that Edwards’ social analogy does not degenerate into tritheism is that he believes that the psychological and social analogies provide complementary, rather than alternative, accounts of the Trinity. Therefore, the emphasis that the social analogy places on the individuality and agency of the divine persons is balanced by the emphasis that the psychological analogy places on the perichoretic unity and identity of the divine nature.” (108)

Amy Platinga Pauw, following Sang Lee, posits in her The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards that Edwards’ Trinitarian understanding was a “cobbled” mix of both Western and Eastern traditions, although Pauw favors the social analogy in Edwards’ thinking. Ross Hastings has also keenly observed that Augustine himself was an inheritor of the Cappadocian tradition, and therefore one will logically contain traces of another. Edwards himself seems to reflect the social Trinity when he upholds the co-equality and individuality of all three divine Persons, yet he seems to betray Calvin’s doctrine of autotheos when he speaks of the Son deriving his deity from the “fountain” of the Father. Hastings’ article contributes a helpful fourfold guide to the idea of “perichoresis,” which will no doubt guide this ongoing conversation over Edwards’ Trinitarianism, which has now tended away from poles and welcomed a more nuanced definition of terms. In the coming years, what is no doubt needed in this conversation is a more particular explanation of these analogies as they appears in Edwards, and a further exploration into the sermons of Edwards, as they often appear to present a different Trinitarian tone than many of his treatises. In sum, Edwards once again defies tidy, sanitized theological categories, prompting us once again to read him directly instead of clinging to historiography on its own.


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