Monday, September 01, 2008

Edwards on the Trinity

'I don't intend to explain the Trinity'

- Jonathan Edwards, Discourse on the Trinity

Recent accounts of Jonathan Edwards' theological thought, such as those by Steve Holmes and Professor Amy Plantinga Pauw , have emphasised in convincing fashion the pervasive, expansive place that the doctrine of the Trinity plays in Edwards' thought. Accepting the importance of this doctrine for Edwards. this paper concentrates on the conceptual structure of his idea of the Trinity, and on one or two of its implications.

There has been a long tradition of psychological analogies of the Trinity, from at least Augustine onwards.Edwards may be said to be broadly an Augustinian in the appeal that he makes to the human mind to elucidate the mystery of the Trinity. However, my contention here is not simply that Edwards offers a psychological analogy or 'image' of the Trinity in A Discourse on the Trinity, (the work of his that we shall almost exclusively focus upon ) but rather that his blueprint for an understanding of the Trinity is the account of the human mind offered by John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edwards' use of Lockean ideas of reflection in the Discourse has been noted by others, (for example by Professor Sang Hyun Lee ), but I shall argue that Edwards' Lockeanism in that work is much more pervasive than has so far been appreciated.

For Edwards the godhead is not like a Lockean mind, it is a case of a Lockean mind, tweaked by the application of the principle of perfection, and modified by the recognition of the pure spirituality of God. Adapted in these ways, Locke's views provide the conceptual structure for Edwards' understanding of the Trinity. This, I believe, is the explanation of why Edwards largely underplays the classical expression of the Trinity in terms of substance, nature and person, in favour of one employing an understanding of the human mind possessing the two essential powers of understanding and will.

Though the divine nature be vastly different from that of created spirits, yet our souls are made in the image of God, we have understanding and will, idea and love, as God hath, and the difference is only in the perfection of degree and manner.

In the main body of this paper I shall consider the two themes of the relation between God and the Son, and God and the Holy Spirit. Finally I shall briefly consider the consequences of this for Edwards' relation to the idea of divine simplicity, arguing that he upholds it but that his version of it, articulated in Lockean rather than in scholastic terms, does not mean that he repudiated the scholastic tradition that was a part of the Reformed Orthodoxy which he inherited. His Lockeanism simply supplants that tradition as part of his endeavour not to explain the Trinity, but 'to say something further of it than has been wont to be said'. But first I shall briefly review what Locke says about ideas of sensation and reflection, and then what he has to say about the mind and in particular the relation of the understanding and the will.

John Locke on ideas and on the mind

Locke discusses each of these matters in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which of course Edwards read with great gusto when he was young. We shall discuss the themes in the order of treatment in Locke's Essay, which is also the order in which Edwards utilises them in his Discourse .

Locke's notion of an idea is central to his epistemology, but the ambiguity in his use of it as between sensation, psychological image, concept and sign has been the source of confusion, confusion which, I shall later argue, flows through to Edwards' use of this Lockean material in trinitarian reflection.

For Locke an idea is the only object of our thinking, none of our ideas are innate, and all are either ideas of sensation or of reflection. Ideas of sensation are derived from 'external sensible objects', ideas of reflection are 'about the internal operations of our minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves'. Among the ideas of reflection are 'thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing, and all the different acts of our own minds' obtained by the mind 'reflecting on its own operations within itself'. Because God is pure spirit, Edwards confines his application of Locke's views to the Trinity to ideas of reflection.

Turning to the mind, for Locke, given his cautious, rather sceptical mind-body dualism, the mind (like the body) is a substratum probably unknowable to us, though perhaps not to angels, and certainly not to God. What is unknown to us in the case of physical objects are their real essences, their inner corpuscular or molecular structure, the cause of the union of those ideas we have of them. Locke's jokes about substance are at the expense of what he calls, the 'notion of pure substance in general' , not the substances of the various natural kinds. What is unknowable in the case of the mind is its inner mental (or perhaps material) structure , the structure which gives rise to the knowable powers and dispositions of the mind, notably thinking and will . As Locke says, 'Powers make a great part of our complex ideas of substances' .

Locke's discussion of the relation between the understanding and the will forms part of his Chapter 'Of Power' . He argues vehemently against the understanding and the will being distinct 'faculties' because understood thus they convey to many 'the confused notion of so many distinct agents in us, which had their several provinces and authorities, and did command, obey, and perform several actions, as so many distinct beings'. Rather, the will is a power of the mind. The power of perception is the understanding, which perceives the ideas in our minds, the signification of signs, and the perception of the agreement or disagreement between our ideas. Early on in the Essay Locke explicitly forbears to trouble himself to examine what the essence of the mind consists in, but it is clear from his remarks on understanding and will that he favours a strongly unitary account of the mind.

Thus liberty is a power of the agent, not of the will considered as a distinct faculty of the agent. The will is the 'power of the mind to determine its thought, to the producing, continuing or stopping any action as far as it depends on us.' Powers (such as the will) do not have powers, (such as the power to act freely); rather agents have such powers.

For if it be reasonable to suppose and talk of faculties as distinct beings, that can act, (as we do, when we say the will orders, and the will is free,) it is fit that we should make a speaking faculty, and a waking faculty, and a dancing faculty, by which these motions are produced, which are but several modes of motion; as well as we make the will and understanding to be faculties, by which the actions of choosing and perceiving are produced, properly say that it is the singing faculty sings, and the dancing faculty dances, as that the will chooses, or that the understanding conceives; or as is usual, that the will directs the understanding, or the understanding obey or obeys not the will; it being altogether as proper and intelligible to say that the power of speaking directs the power of singing, or the power of singing obeys or disobeys the power of speaking'.

In all these it is not one power that operates on another; but it is the man that does the action, it is the agent that has the power, or is able to do. For powers are relations, not agents: and that which has the power or not the power to operate, is that alone which is or is not free, and not the power itself.

So the question for Locke is not whether the will is free but whether a man is free. It is this unitary conception of the agent, borrowed from Locke, which Edwards used in prominent places in his chief published writings, in Book I of The Freedom of the Will and in Part I of his Religious Affections. But he also relies heavily on it in his A Discourse on the Trinity, as we shall now see.

Locke's philosophy and Edwards' proof of the Second Person of the Trinity

A Discourse of the Trinity is a characteristically Edwardsean mix of philosophical reflection and scriptural summary and exegesis. The philosophy is to be found in two or three separate discussions. Firstly, in the opening pages of the Discourse in which Edwards introduces the topic, followed by his a priori proof of the existence of a second person in the godhead. Then he offers a proof of the existence of the Holy Spirit as the 'temper' of the divine mind. Finally, he integrates this into his vision of the Trinity (p.131 and considers an objection to his proposal.

According to Edwards the difference between God and ourselves .

is only in the perfection of degree and manner. The perfection of the manner will indeed infer this, that there is no distinction to be made in God between power and habit and act; and with respect to God's understanding that there are no such distinctions to be admitted as in ours between perception or idea, and reasoning and judgment - excepting what the will has to do in judgment - but that the whole of the Divine understanding or wisdom consists in the meer perception of unvaried presence of his infinitely perfect idea. And with respect to the other faculty as it is in God there are no distinctions to be admitted of faculty, habit, and act, between will, inclination and love: but that it is all one simple act.

So God is a mind with the essential powers of understanding and will, following Locke's account of human nature. It might be objected to this that Edwards must have found the same distinction, between understanding and will, in John Calvin. ('Let us, therefore, hold, as indeed is suitable to our present purpose - that the human soul consists of two faculties, understanding and will') . But Calvin , unlike Locke, speaks of faculties; for Calvin the distinction between understanding and will is a rough and ready one, not a polished piece of metaphysics; and Calvin, Augustinian though he was, is cautious about using analogies drawn from human nature to elucidate the Trinity.

So for Edwards while God is, like we are, a mind with the essential powers of understanding and will, and God's knowledge is by means of ideas, there is no place in God's mind for what Locke called 'mixed modes', collections of simple ideas, such as habits, reasoning, judgment. Being a spirit, God's ideas of himself are exclusively those of reflection, and being perfect, God's idea of himself cannot be obscure or defective in any way. The Lockean non-innateness thesis is also inapplicable to God. Nor ought we to imagine that the spirit that is God is an unknowable substratum, not at least unknowable to the 'all-comprehending' God. Rather, God knows himself; he has an idea of himself in a way which while it 'answers to our reflection', unlike our own ideas of reflection it carries no imperfection with it. Thus the knowledge that God has of himself is a perfect exemplar of a Lockean idea of reflection.

If we are inclined to think that in his idea of God, Edwards completely abandons 'substance metaphysics' in favour of a more dispositional view of divine reality on the grounds that he objects to Locke's idea of an unknowable substratum, then this last point should make us pause. For according to Edwards God knows his own essence and according to Locke he knows the essences of things which are unknown to us. Furthermore, these essences have powers, dispositions. For both Locke and Edwards dispositions are possessed by substances, just as in the earlier Aristotelian account of substance dispositions arose from formed matter.

So this part of Edwards' Discourse focuses attention upon God's central idea of reflection, his idea of himself. But what comes to be of even greater significance is that the Lockean account of the human mind in terms of understanding and will is clearly maintained in the case of divine mind as well. As we have seen, 'in God there are no distinctions to be admitted of faculty, habit and act, between will, inclination and love, but that it is all one simple act'. (p.113)

So Edwards argues that God has a perfect idea of himself, and this leads him to propound the following argument:

1. A perfect idea of x is an instance of x.

2. Therefore if God has a perfect idea of himself there is another instance of that idea, a 'duplicity'.

And this idea is the person of the Son. This argument is manifestly fallacious, at least if by 'idea' Edwards means 'representation', as he fairly often says he does. The fact that Edwards adds, 'Hereby there is another person begotten; there is another infinite, eternal, almighty, and most holy and the same God, the very same divine nature' does not help him. The idea that God has of himself ("God over all again", as Professor Sang Lee nicely expresses it) cannot result in numerically the same God, and if it is another instance of the same kind of God, the result is ditheism. And here the ambiguity in Locke's 'idea' rears its head; if an idea is a concept, then obviously to possess the concept of fear in a perfect fashion is not to be frightened. But if an idea is an event in the consciousness which faintly 'replicates' or 'repeats' what is thought, an 'image' (to use Edwards' other favoured word), then to have an idea of fear in this sense is to be faintly frightened; to have a perfect idea of fear is to be perfectly frightened.

In fact Edwards' usage mirrors Locke's own ambiguous usage of 'idea'. Ideas are images, representations , repetitions. conceptions, they are framings of things in the imagination, they stand for things, they are thoughts. That is, as with Locke's own ambiguities, Edwards veers between an understanding of 'idea' in intentionalist terms, as 'representation' (or conception) of something other than itself, and in non-intentionalist terms, as 'image' or 'repetition'. But however perfect, a representation of x remains a representation, while Edwards is on safer ground (as far as his argument for the second Person of the Trinity is concerned) in arguing that a perfect image of x, where the 'of' here is the 'of' of generation and not of intention, is an instance of x. Interpreted more charitably, Edwards' mistake in the argument is to prefer one interpretation of Locke's idea over another without telling the reader what he is doing, much less defending that interpretation.

Edwards anticipates and responds to objections to his proof in a number of places, most notably in Miscellany 308, where he considers the objection that his argument, if sound, would result in an infinity of persons in the godhead. In reply, he argues there that it is not the Father that generates the Son by understanding the Son, but that God generates the Son by understanding his own essence, and that the Son is the understanding of the essence. But nowhere, as far as I am aware, does he consider the prior objection that a perfect repetition of God must be another God. Edwards does not blink at the idea that God the Father begets another God. 'I do suppose the Deity to be truly and properly repeated by God's thus having an idea of himself; and that this idea of God is a substantial idea and has the very essence of God, is truly God.'

Another source of disquiet in Edwards' presentation of the argument is over what he thinks the argument proves. At some places he supposes what his argument surely requires, that 'I do suppose that it is the Deity to be truly and properly repeated by God's thus having an idea of himself; and that this idea of God is a substantial idea and has the very essence of God, is truly God.....'. (emphasis added) while in other places Edwards clearly has in mind the generation of the person of the Son. This confusion between the replication of the divine essence and the generation of the Son comes together in the following passage:
This representation of the divine nature and essence is the divine nature and essence again. So that by God's thinking of the Deity, [the Deity] must certainly be generated. Hereby there is another person begotten, there is another, infinite, eternal, almighty, and most holy and the same God, the very same divine nature. And this person is the second person in the Trinity, the only begotten and dearly beloved Son of God: he is the eternal, necessary, perfect, substantial and personal idea which God hath of himself.

Is it the godhead that is generated, (as the argument would seem to dictate) or the person of the Son, (as Edwards' trinitarianism would dictate), or both? It is not at all clear, and Edwards does not appear to mind

Edwards' proof of the third Person of the Trinity

The unity of the mind according to Locke, and its connection with Edwards' articulation of the Trinity, makes its second important appearance in connection with Edwards' argument for the existence of the Holy Spirit . Here it is the willing power of the mind that is in focus.

(1) God is necessarily love.

(2) Love is essentially other-regarding

(3) God necessarily loves another, the idea of himself, the Son,

(4) The Holy Spirit is that love

Note that while this and the earlier argument are offered as a priori trinitarian arguments, the titles and roles of the trinity of persons thus established are derived from revelation. Nonetheless, Edwards is clear that he thinks that these distinctions in the godhead, while revealed, can also be discerned by 'natural reason'.

God's understanding of himself is the idea which he has of Himself. His will is the same as his love; the sum of God's will is his loving himself. His power is the understanding and will as it concerns the production of effects. God's holiness is his love to himself, as are his justice, goodness, mercy and grace. The stress is on the unity of the person, the one who has these powers.

But then Edwards faces the objection that these powers are not personal.

If the three in the Godhead are persons they doubtless each of 'em have understanding: but this makes the understanding one distinct person, and love another. How therefore can this love be said to have understanding?

Or, indeed, how can the understanding be said to have love? His answer is to invoke a version of perichoresis.

there is such a wonderful union between them that they are, after an ineffable and inconceivable manner one in another; so that one hath another, and they have communion in one another, and are as it were predicable one of another.

Let us suppose that all this makes sense, and that it is consistent with what Edwards says about the relations of the persons in his two proofs. There are two related comments worth making. The first is that in order to develop a doctrine of the Trinity under Lockean auspices, Edwards needs his a priori proofs, at least his proof of the Son. It cannot simply be an optional extra, a luxury, a mere tour de force. For only via this proof is there any prospect of 'personalising' the Lockean powers of will and understanding which Edwards invokes. The perfect idea that God has is the idea of himself. But secondly, there is a paradox here; as we have noted, what initially attracted Edwards to Locke's metaphysics of the mind is his unitary conception of it. The paradox is that under the constraints of trinitarianism he has to modify this conception back to something like a faculty model of the self, the very thing which Locke had critiqued; the understanding of the God, the Son, has powers; and the willing of God, the Spirit, has powers too. Not precisely faculties in the sense that Locke critiqued them but nevertheless something rather like them. (Edwards uses this term to characterise the divine understanding and will: they are 'faculties' of the divine mind though not distinctions between faculty, habit and act. However, it has to be borne in mind that Locke himself did not outlaw the use of the term 'faculty' provided that it was understood in the correct (Lockean) fashion.)

Edwards, triunity and simplicity

So in the Discourse we have not merely Locke's language used in analogical fashion to throw light on the doctrine of the Trinity, but a Lockean doctrine of the Trinity in a stricter sense. Locke's defence of the unity of the mind against faculty psychology would seem to suggest that its application to the godhead should deliver a strongly unitary conception of the divine Trinity, despite the necessary modifications of this that we have just noted. This puts us in a position to discuss the relation between triunity and simplicity in Edwards' thought.

Professor Pauw's recent work in particular has raised interesting questions about the consistency of Edwards thought in these matters. She has a section in her book entitled 'Edwards' Ambivalence Towards the Simplicity Tradition', and argues that

the notion of divine simplicity was never truly incorporated into his theology. There are abundant indications of Edwards's departure from its strictures that are both more deliberate and more integral to his theology as a whole than his casual use of it. He freely rejected those parts of the simplicity theory he could make no sense of, and developed an alternative conception of divine oneness that revolved around the notions of excellency, harmony and consent.

The prima facie evidence that Professor Pauw gives for Edwards' outright rejection of any part of the simplicity tradition is not very persuasive. In the Discourse Edwards repeatedly appeals to the principle of perfection, which is an important presupposition of the doctrine of divine simplicity, and he invokes the idea of a divine essence in a number of places, though the significance of this is somewhat compromised by his proof of the second person of the Trinity. And while he refers to divine simplicity no more than a couple of times in the Discourse he does not on either occasion reject the idea, but treats it seriously. As we have already seen, in the opening paragraphs of the Discourse he says that 'in God there are no distinctions to be admitted of faculty, habit and act, between will, inclination, and love, but that it is all one simple act.' Later on Edwards takes what he has said to be consistent with the doctrine of divine simplicity, according to which everything that is in God is God, provided that this is understood of real attributes (expressing real distinctions; the distinguishable persons of the Trinity, in his understanding) and not of mere modalities, manners in which the distinct powers of each person (alone or in combination) as well as the attributes of the godhead are expressed.

Professor Pauw attempts to show that Edwards is at odds with his tradition by opposing Edwards's recognition that there is a duplicity in God is respect of the Father's begetting of the Son as his 'idea', to the Reformed Scholastic Francis Turretin's rejection of 'triplicity'. She quotes Turretin as saying that 'simplicity and triplicity are opposed to each other, and cannot subsist at the same time' But the full passage reads

Simplicity and triplicity are so mutually opposed that they cannot subsist at the same time (but not simplicity and Trinity because they are said in different respects): simplicity in respect to essence, but Trinity in respect to persons. In this sense, nothing hnders God (who is one in essence) from being three persons.

Edwards would not have dissented from this: no triplicity in the divine essence, but a triplicity of persons.

The position of the Reformed Orthodox can be neatly summarised by saying that for them the persons of the Trinity are (as Pauw expresses it) 'really distinct from each other by their personal properties but that each person of the Trinity is only modally distinct from the divine essence'. Reformed Orthodox theologians such as John Owen and Peter van Mastricht, with whom Edwards was of course very familiar and whose theological position he in general endorsed, make a distinction between real distinctions in the divine essence, which he (and they) denied, and real distinctions between the persons of the Trinity who possess the same simple divine essence, which he and one strand of the simplicity tradition affirmed. Thus Owen says

this God is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; which are not diverse names of the same person, nor distinct attributes or properties of the same nature or being, but one, another, a third, all equally that one God, yet really distinguished between themselves by such incommunicable properties as constitute the one to be that one, and the other to be that other, and the third to be that third. Thus the Trinity is not the union or unity of three, but it is a trinity in unity, or the ternary number of persons in the same essence.

So given Edwards's view of what he took God's understanding and will to be, namely the second and third persons of the Trinity respectively, it was quite in line with his tradition, though not the only option within it, to call the distinction between them a real distinction.

Spelling this out, as we have seen Edwards is clear on the unity and simplicity of the divine essence. He discusses the trinity of persons by distinguishing between real distinctions, modes and relations. The only real distinctions are those which distinguish the persons of the Trinity. 'These three - God, and the idea of God, and the inclination, affection and love of God - must be conceived of as really distinct.' For Edwards - and this is what is distinctive about his position - these are not attributes of God in the conventional sense, but really distinct because 'these three' constitute the Trinity. They do not therefore, pace Pauw, contradict his affirmation of divine unity and simplicity. Or if they do, then the tradition that Edwards was here affirming, albeit in his characteristic way, is also contradictory.

All the other divine attributes are nothing other than the understanding and will of God, either singly or together. Infinity, eternity and immortality, are modes of his existence, the Father. Understanding, wisdom and omniscience, are modes of his idea of himself, the Son. Love is a mode of his will, the Spirit. Power is a mode of understanding and will together. God's holiness is a mode of his love to himself and is not really distinct from his justice. Goodness, mercy and grace, are modes of God's infinite love. So simplicity - 'everything that is in God is God' - must be understood in a sense that is compatible with the trinitarian distinctions. Edwards makes a distinction that corresponds closely with between what later divines referred to as the incommunicable and communicable attributes of God. The latter, Edwards says, are modes of the divine being, properties shared by the divine persons with each other and, in a measure, communicable to men and women. The former are nothing other than distinct properties of each divine person.

Edwards' procedure is not at odds with Augustine either, despite what Pauw suggests. What Augustine is objecting to in the passage she cites is the Son being the Father's wisdom in the sense that the Son is wise for the Father. But Edwards is not claiming what Augustine is denying, only that the Son is the Father's wisdom, and perhaps also that there is a logical priority of the wisdom of the Son over that of the Father, though how this can be if the Son is himself a perfect idea of the Father is not clear.

How can the love which is the Holy Spirit be said to have understanding? Answer: by perichoresis. In an ineffable and inconceivable manner each person subsists in the other. Because of this each has what is characteristic of the other. The Father understands because the Son dwells in him, the Father loves because the Holy Spirit is in him, the Son loves because the Holy Spirit is in him, the Holy Spirit understands because the Son is in him, and so on. So all three are persons because all have understanding and will. Given such perichoresis, though the Son is the Father's wisdom, this does not imply that the Father otherwise lacks wisdom, but that wisdom is a relation between Father and Son.

So despite his liking for Locke's way of thinking Edwards retains the resources to keep his view of the Trinity within the simplicity tradition of his forefathers. What is novel in his approach is not that he is ambivalent towards the simplicity tradition but that he downplays the idea of Trinity as three co-equal persons. Stressing coequality suggests that 'divine person' refers to a species with three members, and this suggestion has to be immediately qualified by orthodox trinitarians in order to avoid tritheism. Edwards by contrast tends to think of 'person' as a place holder, and favours an account which stresses not specific similarity, but non-specific difference between the persons, not merely the separateness of the persons but also their intrinsically different character, drawn from their intrinsically different relations.

This brings us, finally, to the source of the real problem for the account which upholds the continuation of the simplicity tradition in Edwards' thought, if there is a problem. The issue is not the Edwardsean ideas of consent or of excellency, nor the partitioning of the essential divine properties among the persons, for each person has each essential divine property, as we have seen. It is Edwards' (and the tradition's) admission of real distinctions within the godhead. Each of the persons has will and understanding, but the source of these is different in each; will is sourced in the Spirit and understanding is sourced in the Father. It is these sourcings which seem to provide the real distinctions in the godhead. If by simplicity is meant the claim that the divine essence with 'without parts' which have logically prior identity, then such simplicity is not compromised by the tripersonality of God. The persons are not parts out of which the godhead is composed, but real relations in the godhead. If, notwithstanding this, there remains a problem for Edwards, it is likewise a problem for the entire tradition insofar as it holds that the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit are compatible both with the equality of the persons and the simplicity of the godhead.


It has often been said that while Locke became a source of latitudinarian ideas in England and indeed in Europe more generally, Edwards used those very same ideas to buttress Puritan orthodoxy. This paradox is clearly to be seen at work in the case of the Trinity. While the age became more and more impatient with the idea of the Trinity because it was a mysterious, unclear idea, drawing much of the motivation for this impatience from Lockean sources, for his part Edwards' attempted to buttress and to reinstate the idea by stratagems drawing on material taken from the very heart of Locke's philosophy. But, if what I have argued is along the right lines, in pursuit of his project Edwards was not altogether successful; but nor did he, in this pursuit, go as far as to overturn the lineaments of the doctrine which he inherited from his Puritan and Reformed Scholastic forbears. *

* The paper was given at the Edwards Tercentenary Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary in April 2003. It has been revised and improved (I hope) in the light of the remarks of Amy Plantinga Pauw, who commented on the paper at the Conference, and of others who took part in the discussion. In addition, thanks are due to Benno Van Den Toren and Oliver Crisp for helpful comments, and to Sang Lee for making material on Edwards' trinitarianism available to me .