Recent interpreters of Jonathan Edwards’s theology have suggested that he denies or qualifies various aspects of classical theism, particularly the simplicity of God, the notion that whatever is in God is God. Kyle Strobel ( Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation (T&T Clark Studies In Systematic Theology) ) disputes this, but in the course of expounding on Edwards’s Trinitarian theism he shows that Edwards’s treatment of these subjects is quite innovative.

That Edwards affirmed simplicity is undeniable. As Strobel points out, he begins his Discourse on the Trinity with an explicit affirmation of the planks of classical theism. Yet along the way he poses this problem: “It is a maxim amongst divines that everything that is in God is God, which must be understood of real attributes and not of mere modalities. If a man should tell me that the immutability of God is God, or that the omnipresence of God and authority of God [is God], I should not be able to think of any rational meaning of what he said.”

The problem with these statements, Edwards thinks, is that “attributes” such as immutability and omnipresence are not real attributes but “modalities,” what Strobel speaks of as “relational” attributes. “Modalities” describe the way God is His attributes, not distinct attributes. God is immuntable in His real attributes. Simplicity doesn’t apply to modalities. When real attributes are in view, Edwards affirms simplicity without hesitation or qualification, and tries to give a Trinitarian account:

“if it be meant that the real attributes of god, viz. his understanding and love, are God, then what we have said may in some measure explain how it is so: for Deity subsists in them distinctly, so they are distinct divine persons.”

That last statement is the key to Edwards’s Trinitarian understanding of simplicity: Real attributes that are in God are God because the real attributes are the persons of the Trinity, who are fully divine. Understanding and will are the features that make for personhood. To be personal, the one God must have understanding and will. The one God is a person with understanding and will because the one God is Triune. (This is not unlike Athanasius’ claim, based on 1 Corinthians, that the Son is the wisdom of God. As Strobel notes in an appendix, Edwards takes a position that Augustine described as “absurd.”)

As Edwards says, “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.” All that can be described as real attributes of God - wisdom, power, goodness, and justice - are ways of describing the Son and Spirit.

According to Strobel, Edwards foregrounds the personhood of God, shifting the focus away from “the impersonal abstraction of ‘divine essence’ to God’s personal relational communion in delight of himself.” He maintains the focus on personhood by appeal to perichoresis: “Personhood drives Edwards’s exposition from two angles: god’s singular personhood establishes the contours of the divine essence, doing what the psychological analogy does best, namely, looking at personhood in terms of a mind that understands and loves, the two ‘faculties’ or ‘principles’ of the soul. Likewise, from the opposite angle, Edwards runs personhood through the machinery of perichoresis, establishing the reality that the personhood of the Father, assumed at the outset, is personhood only insofar as God is triune.” More briefly, “The personhood that exists in the Trinity, on his view, exists as each member interpenetrates the other and is truly of the other.”

Strobel argues that Edwards has an apologetic aim in proceeding in this fashion. He concluded that many orthodox theologians played into the hands of the shrill anti-trinitarians since they argue that the divine essence provides “everything the Godhead needed to be one God,” but then add that three persons are necessary too. Edwards insists that God is not the one God except as He is triune. Strobel puts it this way: “Edwards treats the divine essence as the ‘spiritual substance’ of god, and the divine persons as instances of that spiritual substance, existing as persons in perichoresis – subsisting, it should be noted, as the personal predicates of understanding and will. His answer to the question of personhood is not that each member subsists in the divine essence (that is how they are united as deity); his answer is that ‘there is such a wonderful union between them that they are after an ineffable and inconceivable manner one in another.’”

On this account, Father, Son, and Spirit are each dependent on the other. As Edwards says, “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.” Perichoresis enables Edwards to explain how the Son and Spirit can be persons in their own right. A person, recall, has understanding and will; the Son is understanding, and has will/love because of the Spirit’s indwelling. The Spirit is God’s power and love, but He has understanding by the indwelling of the Son. The Father is, it appears, the most dependent of all, since He has will and understanding through the Son and Spirit. Father, Son, and Spirit share one mind because the Word is that mind indwelling the Father and Spirit; Father, Son, and Spirit share one will because the Spirit is that will interpenetrating the Father and His Word.

And because the attributes of understanding and will are personalized as Son and Spirit, these attributes simply are the simple God.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart