An Essay on the Trinity is one of Jonathan Edwards’s shorter writings and part of his massive corpus of deep thinking about God’s being. Written some time in the 1750’s (probably) this essay, according to Paul Helm, was most likely held back from publication until long after Edwards’s death, since it contains what would seem to be, in some quarters, controversial thinking.
After all, in this essay, Edwards proposes somewhat of a modified “psychological model” for reflecting upon the interrelationship between the Three Persons of the Trinity, and their oneness and harmony. Although this concept (see below) had been espoused by one as eminent as St. Augustine many years before Edwards, Reformed theology in general as a tradition has not had much fondness or affection for “models” or “analogies” of any kind with regard to the Trinity; be that analogy the three-leaf clover, or water in its various forms (ice, water, steam), or the sun itself (fire, light, heat) etc.
Thus, a model of any kind attempting to describe the Trinity is shaky ground for some.
First, a little bit about this work: It is available to us in several different forms today, despite its late publication date of 1903. First, it comes in a nice, hardback 1971 volume edited by the aforementioned Paul Helm (pictured above, top). This edition comes to the reader alongside Edwards’s Treatise on Grace, and Observations on the Trinity (not to be confused with the Essay on the Trinity currently being discussed. Observations is primarily about the covenant of redemption, rather than God’s ontological being). Though I believe this monograph to be out of print, there are still several used copies to be found online or through used book sales. Fortuitously, my copy was signed by the editor (Helm) and dedicated to another theologian, John Frame! The second manner in which An Essay can be found is in various ebook formats like this one. Thankfully today, most ebooks grant us huge knowledge at our fingertips for mere pennies to the dollar.
Although Edwards likely intended its publication during his own lifetime, his sudden death prevented it from coming into popular view. (Edwards died in 1758). The work itself is but only thirty pages long, and can be read in one or two settings by the careful reader. In what follows, I will attempt to describe Edwards’s views of the Trinity as espoused in this short work.
First Edwards begins with the premise that God is infinitely happy in His own being. His opening salvo is filled with joy-language:
Tis common when speaking of the divine happiness to say that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of Himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving, and rejoicing in, His own essence and perfections and accordingly it must be supposed that God 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, and from hence arises a most pure and perfect act or energy in the Godhead, which is the Divine love, complacence and joy (1971, 99).
Here Edwards tips his hat to his main thrust and direction in this Essay. He is going to argue that when God thinks about Himself, He has a perfect self-understanding. He always thinks rightly and perfectly about Himself. This self-reflection brings Him great joy. Two aspects of this self-reflection are going to be emphasized over and over again in this essay: (1) God’s perfect knowledge of Himself and (2) God’s joy in this self-knowledge.
Now to the part that is controversial: Edwards believes that when God contemplates His own glory, this in part explains how the Son of God (the Second Person of the Trinity) can be eternally generated, without beginning or end. Note: Edwards does not use the word “create.” That would be to assert that one or more persons of the Trinity are creatures. Thus, this kind of argumentation is called the “psychological model.”
If God beholds himself so as thence to have delight and joy in Himself He must become His own object. There must be a duplicity. There is God and the idea of God, if it be proper to call a conception of that that is purely spiritual an idea (1971, 100).
Thus the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Logos, is that perfect idea of Himself which God knows, perceives, and apprehends perfectly. As an infinite being, this results in a “duplicity” (his term), or another person being eternally generated in God’s self-understanding. Thus, this self-understanding is another “person” and is in some way distinct from the first. (Edwards is jealous NOT to lose the personality of the Three persons in his view on the Trinity!) He says in His own words,
Therefore as God with perfect clearness, fullness and strength, understands Himself, views His own essence…that idea which God hath of Himself is absolutely Himself…Hereby is another person begotten, there is another infinite eternal almighty and most holy and the same God, the very same divine nature (1971, 103, emphasis added).
He goes on to make the connection explicit between God’s self-knowledge and the Son of God,
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; and it seems to me to be abundantly confirmed by the Word of God (1971, 103).
Whether or not this explains how God can eternally exist as Three Persons, I will let the reader decide. Obviously, Edwards includes much more nuance and thought than a brief synopsis like this one can contain in a simple blog post. But another question arises almost immediately. What about the Third Person of the Trinity? What about the Holy Spirit? To this point, Edwards has been emphasizing God’s self-knowledge. But in regard to the Holy Spirit, Edwards will now turn the attention to God’s joy in Himself. Listen:
The Godhead being thus begotten by God’s loving an idea of Himself and shewing forth in a distinct subsistence or person in that idea, there proceeds a most pure act, and an infinitely holy and sacred energy arises between the Father and Son in mutually loving and delighting in each other, for their love and joy is mutual…I think it is plainly intimated to us that the Holy Spirit is that love (1971, 108, emphasis added).
To summarize, it would be helpful to quote Edwards at length just one more time. This paragraph from page 108 of Helm’s 1971 edition I think is very clear:
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 each of them are properly distinct persons.
Once again, whether this psychological model is convincing, I will let the reader decide. In layman’s terms what Edwards is saying here is simply this:
God is eternal. The Father is the “deity subsisting in the prime.” That is to say, the Father is who we think God is in standard theological definitions: eternal, omnipotent, holy, beautiful, and wise. In fact, God is so wise that when He thinks of Himself, His knowing and valuation is pure, holy, and precise. Unlike finite creatures, God’s self-knowledge lacks nothing. So glorious is His knowledge, that another “person” entirely is generated, the Son or the Logos. He is not created, but always was, is, and is to come. This must be, because God never began to think about Himself. Herein we have the Son. The Son is the Father’s pure, unmitigated, unfiltered self-knowledge.
But it does not end there.
Because God is a joyful God, truly rejoicing in His being (for His judgments and valuations are always morally perfect) He also takes great pleasure in the mutual recognition between Father and Son. This joy itself includes personality, and is the Holy Spirit, or we can say, God’s eternal joy and enjoyment between Father and Son. Thus, there is one God substantially, but because of the glorious infinity of God’s wisdom and joy, He eternally exists as Three Persons: God in the Prime (Father), God’s perfect self-knowledge (Son), and God’s joy in Himself (Holy Spirit).