Edwards’ Trinitarian Redemption

[This is a guest post by Andrew Finch. Andrew is a new Th.M. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

This post is another part of the on-going series of posts on Jonathan Edwards and his writings. I chose to read the book, Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writing, which was edited by Paul Helm. This book included three of Edwards writings specifically on the Trinity. First, just a quick plug for the book, Helm does an amazing job of connecting these writings with the more major/well-known writings by Edwards and shows how these writings flow and connect with the other major themes in his bigger writings. This was worth the price of the book itself especially as I will be writing my paper on Edwards’ Trinitarian theology.

I found it very interesting in my readings of Edwards as a whole that there was not an explicit Trinitarian theology presented in them. But after reading, Treatise on Grace, Observations Concerning the Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, and An Essay on the Trinity I realize that much of Edwards’ Trinitarian thought is in his writings just not explicitly. It is hard to understand his use of terms like: love, idea, unity, and beauty, without seeing them in a Trinitarian perspective. Thus, his Trinitarian thought weaves its way into much of his other thought life and treatises but we would not know it if that is all we read. I believe that this also plays a part in Edwards being characterized by his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon. There are many other facets that make up who Edwards is just as Sinners is only one view of who God is to Edwards (see for instance his sermon Heaven is a World of Love, which gives a picture more of God as love).

Edward’s explicit Trinitarian writings are very interesting because he doesn’t seem to take sides on the plurality vs. unity. Today, scholars find it hard to approve of both, arguing that there is only one or the other in the Trinity. But Edwards seems to affirm both. In all three of the writings mentioned above he portrays the Son as the Wisdom and the Spirit as Love of the one God. And by doing this emphasizes their unity. But also in these same writings he reveals the Trinity as a family of Persons thus revealing plurality.

Flowing from this seems to be Edwards’ basis of an Augustinian model of the Trinity. The terms Edwards used for the Son as the Idea, Image, Word, and Wisdom of God brought to my mind the same terms that Augustine used to define the Son. The same goes for the Spirit where both define the Spirit as the divine Love or Joy.  His social model of the Trinity with the focus on love and communion brought to my mind what I studied about the Cappadocians, especially Gregory of Nyssa. It seems as though he was borrowing from the thought of Gregory especially when he said in his essay on the Trinity, “…the society and family of three.” I believe seeing these two connections with Edwards’ Trinitarian thought are keys to interpreting his understanding of these themes throughout the rest of his writings.

These writings presented in this book reveal the close connection between Edwards’ understanding of grace and the connection it has to the Trinity and redemption in general. First as was said above most of the things said in these writings are ideas that are stated elsewhere in Edwards’ writings but are given more discussion here specifically. The idea that each person in the Trinity plays a part in redemption is explained more fully. He says in An Essay on the Trinity, “Glory belongs to the Father and the Son that they so greatly loved the world: to the Father that He so loved that He gave His only begotten Son: to the Son that He so loved the world as to give up Himself. But there is equal glory due to the Holy Ghost, for He is that love of the Father and the Son to the world.” Edwards goes on to say in his Treatise on Grace, speaking of the dependence of believers on each person of the Trinity for redemption. “The Father approves and provides the redeemer, and Himself accepts the price of the good purchased and bestows that God. The Son is the redeemer, and the price that is offered for the purchased good. And the Holy Ghost is the good purchased; for the sacred Scriptures seems to intimate that the Holy Spirit is the sum of all that Christ purchased for man (Ga. 3:13-14).” For me personally I have never thought of the doctrine of the redemption in these terms and I love the way Edwards expressed it. Seeing the Holy Ghost’s involvement in redemption was very interesting especially when seen how Edwards characterizes the Holy Spirit as grace that is given to the believer. He concludes his Treatise by saying, “I suppose there is no other principle of grace in the soul than the very Holy Ghost dwelling in the soul and acting there as a vital principle.” I very much appreciated the importance Edwards placed on the Holy Spirit’s role in redemption and in the life of the believer. It seems as of late that the focus on the Spirit’s work in people’s lives is not as important as it once was and I think Edwards has a lot to say on this to bring the Holy Spirit back to the forefront of our minds.

One question I have concerning his Trinitarian thought especially as it pertains to the Son is his overuse of type-antitype. I know that during his day typology was very frequent in all the writings and sermons but he seemed to use it excessively to the point where he was pushing the bounds of seeing Christ in the Old Testament. I know we discussed this a little in class but I am wondering what others thought of his use of typology in his writings (not just the ones listed above)?

About no1kingsfan

ThM student at Western Seminary in Portland, OR.

Posted on July 9, 2011, in Historical Theology, Th.M. Program, Theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. There was a book, The Trinitarian Ethics of Jonathan Edwards. I have read it, you might want to look into it.

    • Thank you for your input. I did purchase that book and I am looking forward to reading it while writing my paper.

  2. Andrew,

    Thanks. Like you, I had never really thought of JE has having a theology of the Trinity, since he didn’t write about it in the same way he did other topics. Then you realize, he is operating with a full blown Trinitarianism that he weaves throughout his reflections on so much. He doesn’t just have opinions about the Trinity, He “applies” it.

    BTW, Amy Plantinga Pauw has also done some extensive work on Edwards’ Trinitarian theology. (cf. Supreme Harmony of All). She thinks Edwards does privilege the plural reading of God, rooting it in JE’s distinct view of God’s simplicity (e.g. “if God is excellent, there must be a plurality in God; otherwise, there can be no consent in Him.” – Miscellanies, 117).

    • Thanks for the heads up on the book by Pauw. I picked it up and it looks pretty helpful. I browsed over Marc’s but didn’t purchase it but with your recommendation I decided to pick it up. I guess it would have been hard to talk about Edwards’ Trinitarian view without it.

  3. Thanks for your post. It is interesting how much more relational theology becomes once applying it to every other doctrine (not just redemption). This is something, as you say, that seems to have been lost in the Church. I think Trinitarian theology calls the believer to a deeper self examination. For instance, sin in this view is not merely a matter of lawbreaking, but rooted deep in the human heart, in relation to the other.

    It seems to me that Edwards’s theology of the affections derives its foundations from such an understanding. In this reading, God wants transforms the heart of man through His love poured out by the Holy Spirit. Unless He is present man’s heart remains turned inward, isolated from true community.

    • I agree…I feel like Edwards theology is very relational and I hope my becomes more relational. This relational theology is almost a complete 180 for me because my theology was very individualistic. The more I read Edwards the more I see that Trinitarian aspects in his theology. When I first read them I missed them completely but after reading the works I described above and re-reading some of his writings it is amazing how much emphasis Edwards puts on the Trinity.

  4. Thanks for the post Andrew.

    To think of God in a plurality seems quite new age (to me) but I can see the argument. How do you think we could marry the concept of ‘essence’ with ‘plurality’ within the Trinity. What I’ve always been taught is under the umbrella of essence and of course one in nature. Did you feel like JE was attempting to take a middle ground on the discussion rather than give a hard line as to his own perspective?

    We always seem to steer so far away from the deeper theological discussions within the church, particularly those that are hard arguments to grasp, how do you think we could best teach this concept to our congregations?

    • I can see how this would seem to be a middle ground understanding of the Trinity and to be honest as of right now I am unsure if this is to be taken as a middle ground. Edwards seems to make this a pretty hard line aspect of his theology because he uses this over and over again throughout his writings. It is interesting to note to that he developed this understanding of the Trinity pretty early on in his life so the basis of many of his writings was this Trinitarian concept.

      For me personally I would tackle these types of discussions by using the pulpit or a Sunday school class to help with these types of theological issues. It will take time but if we are patient with our congregation I believe they will come to understand who God is in His Triune form. I know that is very broad by saying the pulpit and Sunday school but I agree with you that these issues are sometimes left out for easier to understand principles of theology and need to talked about by pastors and teachers.

  5. I must admit to having a knee-jerk reaction to this kind of formulation Calling the Son God’s Idea, and the Spirit God’s Love seems almost a soft modalism. This kind of formulation strikes me as weakening the distinctions between persons that Christianity has fought for theologically since its inception.

    However, I do thoroughly agree that Christians are equally reliant upon all three members of the Trinity, and that each has a distinct and necessary role in both salvation and daily Christian life.

    I am curious if Edwards discusses the indwelling of the Trinity in the Christian (Jn 14:20-21, 23; Rom 8:10).

    • I can see where you are coming from with the soft modalism argument but Edwards would have none of that. He would not see this as modalism at all (although others who argued against him brought up that same argument). I also don’t think that Edwards would see this as a weakening but as a strengthening of the relationships between the persons of the Trinity. There is such a close connection within the Trinity that is a mirror of our connection to one another and God.

      I am not sure if he has specifically dealt with the indwelling of the Trinity in the Christian life in the writings I have read. He might have something to say about that in Affections but I am not sure as of right now. I am sure I will have more to say on this topic after I am done writing my paper though 🙂

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