Edwards on Triune Love

The 18th century American preacher and teacher Jonathan Edwards had a nose for nonsense: when he sniffed out misguided theology he was quick to challenge it. One example was his dismissal of the idea that self-love can ever be called “love” even when it’s applied to God (Works, 6.337).

Let me cite a discussion of his view on this from Amy Plantinga Pauw, “The Trinity”, in The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards.

“True consent and thus excellency within the Godhead requires reciprocal love and delight. Edwards frequently resolved this problem by following Augustine in portraying the Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son. In Charity and Its Fruits, for example, he portrayed the Holy Spirit as the mutual love of the Father and the Son for each other, so that ‘the Son of God is not only the infinite object of the Father’s love, but he also infinitely loves the Father'” (8.373, cited on p52).

Let me chase a point, separately from Pauw’s discussion, in Edwards’ insight. This reciprocity of love in the Godhead offers a crucial insight we find only in a Trinitarian faith. In a world defined by the fallen promise of the Serpent in Genesis 3—that “you can be like God”—the question of what sort of “God” this great enemy had in mind is crucial. Was it the God who revealed himself in relational terms in Genesis 1—“Let us make man in our image”—or the vision of a singular, self-concerned God that the insular Satan pursues for himself? If the latter version of God is in view we find a God defined not by his caring engagement of the creation but by self-absorption and the absorption of others—seeking those he might devour. This is a version of God who challenges all who threaten his pretenses: a paranoid God who hates all but himself.

When we answer that question, with Edwards, that the biblical God is Triune, we find a secure, caring, and devoted Lord who shares his heart with all who respond to him. He has a reciprocal, eternal love that characterizes his eternal being. In this love we then have a basis for enjoying him. That is to say that the disposition of God is characterized by the reciprocal delight of his eternal communion that then overflows to us. His actions are birthed out of his being; and “God is love” as he comes to us. We, in turn, love him because of his prior love for us.

So we find that the love of God for us is not some disaffected “act of will” on God’s part—the sort of “love” that only a self-loving version of God could conceive of—but an affective commitment to our welfare at the expense of the Son’s death on the cross. Then; with the subsequent reality of our union with his resurrection life, we join him as he is raised from the dead and ascends to be with the Father. God, then, is not one who exists as a monad, captured in a pathetic self-love, but a dynamic lover who exists in eternal communion and who offers us communion with him and with each other. How? By our own repentance from self-love as we respond to God’s love through Christ and by the Spirit in a delightful reciprocity. Edwards got it right!

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