Abstract:This article critically examines Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of the Trinity with a particular focus upon his understanding of the person of the Holy Spirit. While his restatement of Augustinian orthodoxy served the church well during a time of great doctrinal heterodoxy, it created some problems of its own. These problems were rooted in his use of philosophical idealism, his reliance upon trinitarian analogies, and his adapted doctrine of perichoresis.
In Jonathan Edwards’s first extant manuscript dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity, he declared that he was “not afraid to say twenty things about the Trinity which the Scripture never said.”1 He made the comment against the backdrop of early eighteenth-century attempts to deny the doctrine of the Trinity on the grounds that Scripture does not plainly teach it.2 Such objections were nothing new, and Edwards’s response was entirely consistent with historic defences of the doctrine.3 What was surprising was Edwards’s supplementary claim that “it is within the reach of naked reason to perceive certainly that there are three distinct in God.”4 This confidence was out of step with the approach of the seventeenth-century Reformed theologians whom Edwards so admired,5 but it reflects how Edwards defended Trinitarian orthodoxy using the tools of eighteenth-century philosophy. Edwards’s approach gave rise to a distinctive doctrine which, while remaining within the bounds of Western orthodoxy, was innovative in a number of important ways.
This article critically examines Edwards’s doctrine of the Trinity with a particular focus upon his understanding of the person of the Holy Spirit.6 While a full treatment of the topic would require an exhaustive survey of Edwards’s work, we will focus primarily (although not exclusively) upon Edwards’s Discourse (written in the early 1730s).7 This is justified because the Discourse was the product of more than a decade’s work on the Trinity as recorded in forty-four “Miscellanies.” Edwards wrote only fifteen more “Miscellanies” on the Trinity throughout the rest of his life, and most of these merely developed arguments in the Discourse.8 Thus, as Robert Caldwell has argued, it is relatively safe to conclude that the Discourse contains his mature Trinitarianism.9
The article has three parts. The first traces out Edwards’s trinitarian thought in the Discourse and other writings, noting the influence of Edwards’s philosophical thinking. The second sets Edwards’s doctrine in its historical context, noting continuities and discontinuities with Augustine and asking whether the “threeness-oneness” paradigm serves as a helpful model for understanding Edwards. The final part identifies possible weaknesses in Edwards’s doctrine relating either to his Augustinian heritage or his distinctive innovations.
1. Edwards’s Doctrine of the Trinity
It is commonly observed that Edwards’s doctrine of the Trinity was fundamentally influenced by his philosophical idealism and theory of excellency.10 He articulated the latter in his essay on “The Mind”:
This is an [sic] universal definition of excellency: The consent of being to being, or being’s consent to entity. The more the consent is, and the more extensive, the greater is the excellency. . . . One alone, without any reference to any more, cannot be excellent; for in such 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 a being that is absolutely without any plurality there cannot be excellency, for there can be no such thing as consent or agreement.11
Edwards applied this understanding to his conception of God, concluding, “if God is excellent, there must be plurality in God; otherwise there can be no consent in him.”12 Since God is excellent it follows that there must be plurality within his unity.
So where does this plurality come from? It is here that Edwards’s philosophical idealism comes to the fore. For Edwards, God the Father is “the Deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner.”13 He is the “fountain of the Godhead,” and thus Scripture rightly refers to God as “without any addition or distinction.”14 But since the Father is infinitely happy in himself, it follows that he “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.15 This perfect idea is exactly like him in every respect and therefore “is God to all intents and purposes.”16 Indeed “by God’s thinking of the Deity, [the Deity] must certainly be generated.”17 A second person of the Godhead is begotten, and that person is the Son.18 Edwards was convinced that this view was in agreement with Scripture, and he cited 2 Cor 4:4, Phil 2:6, Col 1:15, and Heb 1:3 in support. As Paul Helm has observed, Edwards developed “an ingenious and bold” ontological argument for the generation of the Son, arguing that where a person has an idea of a non-material object, that object comes into existence. Since God is a perfect spirit, his idea of himself is himself.19 There are problems with this line of reasoning (to which we will return), but it formed the basis for Edwards’s argument from reason for the existence of the Son. He claimed, “If God has an idea of himself, there is really a duplicity; because [if] there is no duplicity, it will follow that Jehovah thinks of himself no more than a stone.”20 In sum, the Son is “God’s perfect idea of God.” He is the Word of God and the wisdom of God since knowledge, reason, and wisdom are the same as God’s perfect idea of himself.21
Edwards identified the Holy Spirit as the divine act of love between the Father and the Son.22 Relying on 1 John 4:8, Edwards argued that the Godhead subsists in love. If we have love dwelling in us, we have God dwelling in us (1 John 4:12), and “that love is God’s Spirit” (1 John 4:13).23 Edwards believed that 1 John 3:23–24 reinforces this view: love is the sure sign of the Spirit’s presence in the believer. And 1 John 4:16 “confirms not only that the divine nature subsists in love, but also that this love is the Spirit: for it is the Spirit of God by which God dwells in his saints.”24
Edwards opined that both the Spirit’s name and work support the conceptualisation of the Spirit as the “pure act and perfect energy.” Scripture often uses the word “spirit” to describe “disposition, inclination or temper of the mind,” and thus “when we read of the Spirit of God, who we are told is a spirit, it is to be understood of the disposition, temper or affection of the divine mind” which in sum is love.25 The Spirit’s threefold economic office “to quicken, enliven and beautify all things” also evidences his immanent trinitarian activity.26 Such a work can be performed only by the “eternal and essential act and energy of God,” and since all “holiness and true grace and virtue” is resolvable into love, the Spirit must be the divine act of love that communicates divine love to the creature.27
Edwards furnished further scriptural support for his identifying the indwelling of love with the indwelling of the Spirit, including Phil 2:1, 2 Cor 6:6, Rom 5:5, 15:30, Col 1:8, and Gal 5:13–15.28 He also pointed to the biblical metaphors used for the Spirit, including the dove, oil, and the river of life, arguing that each alludes to divine love.29 He then asked why the Spirit is excluded from Paul’s salutations at the beginning of his epistles and why there is no mention of the Holy Spirit’s love for believers or love for the other two persons of the Trinity in Scripture. He concludes that it is because the Spirit is himself the divine love, as expressed both immanently within the Trinity and economically towards believers.30
Edwards succinctly summarized his doctrine midway through the Discourse:
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 to 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.31
In other words, the Trinity consists of God, his understanding (or idea), and his love.32 Although the three are distinct, they are co-eternal and equal in honour, both as to their common essence and as to their peculiar roles within the Trinity. The Father’s honour is that he is “the author of perfect and infinite wisdom.” The Son’s honour is that he is that perfect and divine wisdom. Together they are the source from which excellency proceeds, and the Spirit’s honour is that he is that excellency.33
2. The Historical Context of Edwards’s Doctrine
Having briefly overviewed Edwards’s doctrine and its philosophical underpinnings, we now set the doctrine in its historical context, noting continuities and discontinuities with the stream of orthodoxy that preceded it. Although dispute remains as to whether Edwards had access to Augustine’s work, it is clear that Edwards’s model of God, his understanding, and his love had close affinities with Augustine’s psychological triad.34
Crucial to Augustine was the fact that the Father and the Son are of the same substance or essence.35 Thus in the economy of the Trinity the actions of the three are inseparable. Augustine writes: “[N]ot only of the Father and Son, but also of the Holy Spirit; as there is equality and inseparability of persons, so also the works are inseparable . . . . The catholic faith does not say that God the Father made something, and the Son made some other thing; but what the Father made, that also the Son made, that also the Holy Spirit made.”36 In other words, while the persons of the Trinity remain distinct their operations are inseparable.37
In responding to the Arians who relied upon scriptural texts that describe the Son as being less than the Father, Augustine adopted the Aristotelian distinction between the substance of a thing and its accidents (incidental characteristics).38 Some things, such as those cited by the Arians, are said about God’s relations (the relations between the persons of the Trinity) and not about his substance. It is only what is said about God’s substance that is said about each person of the Trinity and of the Trinity itself.39 Importantly, however, what is true of God’s substance is true of each person. Each is fully God and therefore fully possesses God’s character and essence. Moreover, neither on their own is less nor greater than the three together. Augustine could write, “When the equal Son, or the Holy Spirit equal to the Father and the Son, is joined to the equal Father, God does not become greater than each of them severally; because that perfectness cannot increase. But whether it be the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit, He is perfect, and God the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit is perfect; and therefore He is a Trinity rather than triple.”40
In seeking to describe the Trinity, Augustine resorted to a number of illustrations from everyday life. In Book 8 of “On the Holy Trinity,” he introduced the triad of love: “he that loves, and that which is loved, and love.”41 In Book 12, he presented the triad of wisdom, rational knowledge, and animal knowledge. In Book 10, he provided what he considered to be the most “exact” illustration: memory, understanding, and will.42 And in Book 9, he provided the illustration closest to Edwards’s own illustration: the mind, knowledge, and love.43 As Studebaker has noted, Augustine used the mental triads in no less than five different forms and put them to use to illustrate numerous points.44 Moreover, Augustine himself acknowledged the ineffectiveness of the mental triad as an illustration of the triunity of God.45
Augustine described the Holy Spirit as “a certain unutterable communion of the Father and the Son,” “the gift of both,” and the “mutual love, wherewith the Father and the Son reciprocally love one another.”46 In seeking to justify this designation of the Spirit as “mutual love,” Augustine gave the following Scriptural defence:
[W]here the Holy Spirit is called Love, is to be found by careful scrutiny of the language of John the apostle [1 John 4:7, 19], who, after saying, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God,” has gone on to say, “And every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love.” Here, manifestly, he has called that love God, which he said was of God; therefore God of God is love . . . . “Hereby,” he says, “know we that we dwell in Him, and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.” Therefore the Holy Spirit, of whom He hath given us, makes us to abide in God, and Him in us; and this it is that love does. Therefore He is the God that is love. Lastly, a little after, when he had repeated the same thing, and had said “God is love,” he immediately subjoined, “And he who abideth in love, abideth in God, and God abideth in him;” [1 John 4:16] whence he had said above, “Hereby we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.” He therefore is signified, where we read that God is love. Therefore God the Holy Spirit, who proceedeth from the Father, when He has been given to man, inflames him to the love of God and of his neighbor, and is Himself love. For man has not whence to love God, unless from God; and therefore he says a little after, “Let us love Him, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:7–19). The Apostle Paul, too, says, “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us” (Rom 5:5).47
Augustine’s scriptural justification for the conception of the Holy Spirit as the divine love is quoted at length here simply to demonstrate its affinity with Edwards, particularly in its use of 1 John 4 and Rom 5:5. If Edwards was not directly reliant upon Augustine, he was certainly drinking from the same trinitarian stream.
2.2. The Threeness-Oneness Paradigm
The majority of commentators accept the influence (direct or indirect) of Augustine’s trinitarianism upon Edwards. Amy Plantinga Pauw, for example, writes that in his Discourse Edwards followed the Augustinian tradition and “brought together Augustine’s understanding of the Son and the vocabulary of philosophical idealism.”48 Danaher agrees, noting that Edwards followed the Augustinian tradition but reinterpreted it through the lens of his own philosophical idealism.49 This is relatively incontrovertible.50 Far more controversial is the authors’ claim that the Augustinian psychological model is one of two distinct Trinitarian models running throughout Edwards’s work.51 They argue that Edwards blended together a Western Augustinian psychological model of the Trinity emphasising the oneness of God with a social model following Richard of St Victor and emphasising the plurality of the Godhead.52
Basic to their argument is the view that Edwards’s theory of divine excellency and concomitant rejection of divine simplicity is incompatible with Augustine’s psychological model.53 For Pauw, divine excellency requires a “genuine trinitarian sociality” because it requires loving consent.54 Danaher agrees, noting that the psychological model is “unable to account for interpersonal relations of love among the three persons of the Trinity.”55 The problem with this view is that it misreads Edwards’s doctrine of divine excellency and overlooks the Augustinian framework in which it was developed. This is apparent when we consider a passage from “The Mind,” an essay to which Edwards refers in Msc. 117, and which Pauw and Danaher cite in support of their thesis:56
As to God’s excellence, it is evident it consists in the love of himself. For he was as excellent before he created the universe as he is now. But if the excellence of spirits consists in their disposition and action, God could be excellent no other way at that time, for all the exertions of himself were towards himself. But he exerts himself towards himself no other way than in infinitely loving and delighting in himself, in the mutual love of the Father and the Son. This makes the third, the personal Holy Spirit or the holiness of God, which is his infinite beauty, and this is God’s infinite consent to being in general.57
Here we clearly see that God’s excellence is his love for himself which is manifested in the mutual love between the Father and the Son which is itself the Holy Spirit—God’s infinite consent.58 Far from being a distinct social model of the Trinity this is Augustine’s mutual love model.59 Indeed, as Caldwell has noted, “excellency, as the consent of a plurality within a unity (subject, object, and consent), shows a striking resemblance to the mind-knowledge-love triad.”60 This is evident again in Msc. 571 where we see that the “society” or “family” of which Edwards speaks is not the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in a relationship of mutual love but rather the Father, the Son, and believers all having communion in the Holy Spirit.61 Again, in the Discourse, Edwards insists that the Spirit is neither the subject nor the object of love: “God is never said to love the Holy Ghost, nor are any epithets that betoken love anywhere given to him.”62 Instead “the love wherewith the Father loveth the Son is the Holy Spirit.”63 It is thus clear that Edwards did not develop a distinct social model of the Trinity. Instead the social language that he utilised in his discussion of divine excellency relates to his adoption and development of Augustine’s mutual love model of the Trinity and his particular conception of the person of the Holy Spirit.
Second, Pauw and Danaher’s claim that Edwards rejected divine simplicity is suspect at best. Pauw argues that the “notion of divine simplicity was never truly incorporated into his theology” on the basis that it is inconsistent with his notions of excellency, harmony and consent.64 But this overlooks a number of specific affirmations of simplicity in Edwards’s writings.65 Moreover, as Studebaker has shown, it misses the crucial role that simplicity plays for Edwards both in the eternal generation of the Son and the Spirit and in the identification of the divine persons with the divine essence.66
Pauw and Danaher’s insistence that Edwards rejected simplicity is based more upon their imposition of the threeness-oneness paradigm than on anything that Edwards actually wrote. Oliver Crisp remarks, “It would be anachronistic to think his conception of the Trinity, like that of much modern theology, involved casting off the divine simplicity of a previous age.”67 This brings us to the question of whether the paradigm itself is a legitimate one to apply. It has its roots in the nineteenth-century work of French theologian Theodore de Régnon and, as Studebaker has observed, has fallen out of favour among contemporary patristic scholars and systematicians.68 Moreover, it misrepresents Augustine by adopting a narrow reading of his trinitarianism (failing to observe the richness and diversity of models that he employs) and assuming that he worked within a Neoplatonic framework.69 While the paradigm has proven popular among modern social trinitarians, there is little if any justification for imposing it on Edwards since he appears to have worked squarely within the Augustinian tradition. His use of social terms should be read within that context and viewed as modifications of preexisting Augustinian notions.
2.3. Divergence from Augustine
The preceding discussion should not be taken to suggest that Edwards agreed entirely with the Augustinian tradition. He diverged from it in a number of important respects, three of which we consider here.
2.3.1. Edwards’s Use of Idealism
While Augustine developed his psychological model using the Aristotelian categories of substance, accidents, and relations, Edwards discarded this metaphysical framework in favour of philosophical idealism. This enabled him to avoid some of the difficulties associated with Augustine’s trinitarianism such as the de-personalising of the persons of the Trinity by virtue of their being understood merely relatively (in terms of origin) and not absolutely.70 Danaher notes that this marginalised traditional aspects of personhood such as “agency, or the capacity to will and consent to being an action.”71 By contrast, Edwards conceived of personhood in terms of self-consciousness meaning that a person was a “dynamic and relational state of being” rather than an individualistic entity.72 This created new problems to which we will return, but it also addressed one of the long-standing concerns with Augustine’s model.
2.3.2. Edwards’s Bridge between the Immanent and Economic Trinity
A corollary of the static conception of trinitarian relations is that Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity was, in the words of Catherine LaCugna, “largely cut off from the economy of salvation.”73 The same cannot be said of Edwards’s doctrine, for he was convinced that God’s trinitarian relations ad extra (externally) reflected his trinitarian relations ad intra (within the Trinity).74 Edwards writes, “’Tis fit that the order of the acting of the persons of the Trinity should be agreeable to the order of their subsisting.”75 Thus, just as “[g]lory belongs to the Father and the Son, that they so greatly loved the world,” so “there is equal glory due to the Holy Ghost, for he is that love of the Father and the Son to the world.”76 Indeed, just as the Holy Spirit is the bond of love and communion between the Father and the Son, so is he the bond of love and communion between God and his people.77 For Edwards, there was no disconnect between the internal relations of the Trinity and the great history of the work of redemption.78
2.3.3. Edwards’s Discussion of Perichoresis
As we have seen, Augustine insisted that each member of the Trinity is fully God and therefore fully possesses God’s character and essence. In places, Edwards appeared to reject that view in favour of understanding God’s attributes to be shared by the persons of the Trinity on the basis of mutual indwelling (perichoresis).79 In the Discourse, Edwards writes, “the Father understands because the Son, who is the divine wisdom, is in him. The Father loves because the Holy Ghost is in him. So the Son loves because the Holy Spirit is in him and proceeds from him. So the Holy Ghost, or the divine essence subsisting in divine love, understands because the Son, the divine idea, is in him.”80 In other words, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not wise and loving independent of each other. Rather “their relations to each other constitute who they are.”81 This is in stark contrast to Augustine, who insisted that, “the Trinity, which is God, is not so to be understood . . . as that the Father should be the memory of all three, and the Son the understanding of all three, and the Holy Spirit the love of all three; as though the Father should neither understand nor love for Himself, but the Son should understand for Him, and the Holy Spirit love for Him.”82
On its face, Augustine and Edwards appear to have taken directly opposing sides on this issue although it is possible that Edwards was much closer to Augustine than at first appears. In Miscellany 308, when seeking to avoid teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct beings, Edwards argued that it was the divine essence that understands, and therefore “the Father understands, the Son understands, and the Holy Ghost understands, because every one is the same understanding divine essence.”83 This is much closer to Augustine’s view that each person fully possesses God’s character and essence.84 It is unclear, however, whether Edwards would still have affirmed this view by the time he wrote the Discourse. Kyle Strobel has recently argued that Edwards’s thought radically changed during the writing of the Discourse. He moved from a standard view of the Son and the Spirit appropriating understanding and will from the divine essence to the view that understanding and will were the subsistences themselves. This, Strobel suggests, was due to Edwards’s recognition that understanding and will are personal actions which cannot be predicated of an essence.85 In so doing Edwards grounded personhood in perichoretic union rather than seeing it as something received by the divine persons from the divine essence.86 If this is correct, Edwards did indeed utilise personhood and perichoresis in a novel way which represented a significant departure from Augustine.87
3. Possible Weaknesses in Edwards’s Doctrine
This final part considers possible weaknesses in Edwards’s doctrine both as it stands within the Augustinian tradition and in the innovations that Edwards made.
3.1. The Inherent Danger of Trinitarian Analogies
Both Augustine and Edwards were very fond of Trinitarian analogies. In addition to his favoured analogy of the mind, understanding, and love, Edwards also drew on the image of the sun: the Father is as the substance of the sun, the Son is its brightness, and the Spirit is its rays.88 The problem with these as with all other illustrations is that they are inadequate and misleading.89 Gregory of Nazianzus rightly pointed this out in the fourth century: “I have failed to find anything in this world with which I might compare the divine nature. If a faint resemblance comes my way, the more significant aspect escapes me, leaving me and my illustration here in the world.”90 For example, the sun analogy gives the impression that the incomposite nature of God has a composition like that of the sun and that only the Father exists as an actual being.91 Gregory wisely concludes, “I resolved that it is best to say ‘goodbye’ to images and shadows, deceptive and utterly inadequate as they are to express the reality.”92
Edwards’s favoured analogy of the mind, understanding, and love is extremely problematic. As W. G. T Shedd has noted of the analogy as it appears in Augustine, it illustrates “the trinality of the Divine essence, but fails to illustrate the substantiality of the three persons.”93 This is because only the mind is a substance while knowledge and love are merely two activities of it. Thus, while the mind is substantial enough to know and love “an activity of the mind is not substantial enough to possess and employ the attributes of knowledge and love. We cannot say that the loving loves; or the loving knows; or the knowing loves.”94 As Robert Letham has observed, if the illustration is effective, it “would prove modalism, not orthodoxy.”95 Edwards’s use of philosophical idealism might overcome Shedd’s objection as it relates to the generation of the Son, but it is hard to see how it addresses problems with the substantial (and personal) nature of the Spirit. We return to this below.
One point of contrast between Augustine and Edwards is the relative weight that they placed upon the illustrations. Augustine acknowledged them to be “inadequate”96 and was alert to their tendency towards modalism.97 As Letham and J. N. D. Kelly observe, he was well aware of their limitations.98 Edwards, on the other hand, believed that his analogy provided ontological evidence for the existence of the Trinity.99 This makes the problems with the analogy all the more troubling.
3.2. The Personhood of the Spirit
Edwards was writing in an age of anti-Trinitarian sentiment and so was keen to emphasise the distinct personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit.100 His understanding of the Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son or the “personal energy . . . divine love and delight [that] proceeds from both”101 presented difficulties here because it gives the impression that the Spirit is an abstract quality rather than a distinct person. Edwards anticipated just such an objection in the Discourse: “One of the principal objections that I can think of against what has been supposed is concerning the personality of the Holy Ghost, that this scheme of things don’t [sic] seem well to consist with that, [that] a person is that which hath understanding and will.”102
Edwards’s answer is rooted, as we have seen, in the doctrine of perichoresis. The Holy Spirit understands because the Son, who is the divine idea, is in him: “God loves the understanding and the understanding flows out in love, so that the divine understanding is in the Deity subsisting in love.”103 We return to the difficulties with Edwards’s doctrine of perichoresis below. For now, we simply note the remarkable lengths that Edwards is forced to go in order to follow through with his argument. He asserts that the human will includes consciousness and that while it cannot properly be said of the human will that it is seeing or understanding, it “may truly and properly [be] said so in God by reason of God’s infinitely more perfect manner of acting.”104 It is unclear why the perfection of an action renders that action a substance or infuses it with personality. Edwards does not expand, and the argument here is very condensed. Shedd’s point (made in reference to Augustine’s doctrine) that “no psychology, ancient or modern, has ever maintained that the agencies of a spiritual entity or substance are themselves spiritual entity or substances” is compelling.105 If Edwards’s response is simply that God’s manner of acting is completely unlike ours, then the analogy is rendered nugatory. Edwards concludes his discussion by acknowledging that he does not “pretend fully to explain how these things are” or to be able to explain “the Trinity so as to render it no longer a mystery.”106 He is of course right to make such a concession, but he should not use it to justify a mystification of the Spirit which goes beyond what Scripture requires.107
Even if one accepts Edwards’s response based upon perichoresis, it does not fully resolve the difficulties created by the psychological analogy since the personality of the Spirit depends not just upon whether a consciousness can be predicated on the Spirit but also upon whether he interacts as a distinct person with the Father and the Son. As Danaher notes, the characteristics of personhood which Edwards accepts, understanding and will, “manifest themselves more clearly interpersonally rather than intrapersonally, in acts of self-donation rather than self-reflection.”108 Edwards’s conceptualisation of the Spirit leaves room only for intrapersonal manifestation of these fundamental characteristics.109
3.3. The Weaknesses Inherent in Edwards’s Idealism
Paul Helm has identified two fundamental problems with Edwards’s use of philosophical idealism to argue for the Trinity. First, his underlying premise that, where a person has an idea of a non-material object, that object comes into existence, is highly doubtful. Helm writes, “A person does not have to be in a fright to have an idea of fear.”110
Second, Helm argues that Edwards’s theory is implicitly tri-theistic: “If a perfect idea of x entails that x exists then Edwards has proved too much—not the second person of a trinity of persons but a second theos.”111 It appears that Edwards anticipated just such an objection and sought to clarify his thought by insisting that the person begotten “is another infinite, eternal, almighty, and most holy and the same God, the very same divine nature.”112 As Pauw observes, it is almost as if Edwards had to “correct himself mid-sentence in order to avoid asserting more than one God.”113
Edwards sought to provide a fuller response to the claim that idealism necessarily results in an infinite number of divine persons in Msc. 308. He argued that God generated the Son by understanding his own essence, not by understanding the Son. Therefore the Son is himself the understanding of that essence. So when the Son understands himself, he understands the Father since he is himself the essence of the Father and of the Holy Ghost. Therefore, the Son’s idea is not outward, creating a new person, but circular within the Godhead since he is himself the understanding of the essence of the Father. Edwards writes, “After you have in your imagination multiplied understandings and love never so often, it will be the understanding and loving of the very same essence, and you can never make more than these three: God, and the idea of God, and the love of God.”114 The argument is very condensed at this point, and his reasoning does not follow. It is not clear why the Father’s perfect idea of himself generates a second person while the Son’s perfect idea of himself does not. Edwards’s argument that the Son is himself the essence of the Father and therefore his idea is of himself does not follow since exactly the same could be said about the Father’s perfect idea of himself—after all they are both of the same divine essence. Ultimately, Edwards’s response is unconvincing. This may be due to the brevity of his argument, but without further development Edwards’s case for the Trinity from the perspective of philosophical idealism is far from compelling.
3.4. Edwards’s Use of Perichoresis
In our discussion of Edwards’s use of perichoresis, we noted that it was not entirely clear whether Edwards diverged from Augustine on the matter of whether each person of the Trinity possesses all of the divine attributes in and of themselves. If Edwards did make the radical claim that has been suggested, then he is adopting a very unusual conception of perichoresis with far-reaching consequences.
East and West are united in the view that each person of the Godhead is fully God possessing all the attributes of God. As Robert Reymond observes, “the three Persons taken together are not to be regarded as a greater divine being than any one of the Persons viewed singly,” and “any one of the Persons viewed singly is not to be regarded as a lesser divine being than when the three are viewed together.”115 The doctrine of perichoresis was not intended to undermine this. Gregory of Nazianzus used it to explain the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ, and Hilary of Poitiers developed it to explain the distinct yet inseparable relationship of the three persons of the Trinity.116 In the eighth century John of Damascus wrote,
The subsistences dwell and are established firmly in one another. For they are inseparable and cannot part from one another, but keep to their separate courses within one another, without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to each other. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit: and the Spirit in the Father and the Son: and the Father in the Son and the Spirit, but there is no coalescence or commingling or confusion. And there is one and the same motion: for there is one impulse and one motion of the three subsistences, which is not to be observed in any created nature.117
Perichoresis is a means of explaining how the three persons of the Trinity eternally coexist and coinhere, each person being involved in what the other is doing. It is not a means of asserting the ontological inter-dependence of the Trinity for the purpose of making up what is lacking in each person’s possession of the divine attributes. This undermines the aseity of the persons and results in just the sort of commingling and confusion that John of Damascus warned about.118 If this was what Edwards intended to teach (which as we have observed is rather doubtful), it is highly regrettable.
Jonathan Edwards’s trinitarian thought was firmly rooted in his Augustinian heritage. His central model of God, his understanding, and his love developed Augustine’s own mutual love model, and contrary to Pauw and Danaher, there is little evidence of Edwards’s developing a separate social model alongside this. Nevertheless, Edwards did depart from Augustine in a number of areas.
First, in his use of philosophical idealism, he resolved some of the difficulties associated with Augustine’s psychological model, most notably the de-personalisation of the persons of the Trinity and the disconnect between the immanent and economic Trinity. Unfortunately, problems remained, notably concerning the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Edwards’s idealism gave rise to problems of its own associated with the possibility of infinite generation within the Godhead. Recent decades have seen a resurgence of interest in the work of Edwards, both in scholarly and popular spheres.119 Given that Edwards’s Trinitarian thought is the fountain of his entire theological programme, it is important to be aware of some of its difficulties.120
Second, Edwards did not exercise the same caution as Augustine did in his use of Trinitarian analogies. While Augustine used a multiplicity of illustrations and noted their inherent limitations, Edwards favoured the psychological triad giving little attention to its modalistic dangers. We need to be careful not to fall into the same trap today. In seeking to expound the Trinity and make it more tangible, it is tempting to rely upon human analogies, but this urge must be resisted. The nature of God as Trinity is so outside of our own creaturely experience that resort to any human analogy is bound to lead us into theological heterodoxy. It is much better simply to reiterate the confessional formulations of the Trinity which have been affirmed by the church down through the centuries.
Third, Edwards proposed a model of perichoresis in his Discourse which carried a danger of commingling the persons of the Trinity.121 It is a potent reminder of the need to avoid either separating or commingling the persons of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct yet inseparable persons; neither ontologically inter-dependent for their possession of the divine attributes nor separable in their operations.
Edwards’s teaching on the Trinity, as a restatement of orthodox Augustinian thought, served the church well during a time of great doctrinal heterodoxy, but as this article has sought to show, it was not without its own problems. This should caution us about the importance of vigilance as we seek to expound the Trinity,122 remembering with Augustine that “in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious or the discovery of truth more profitable.”123