Observations on the Trinity is not to be confused with Jonathan Edwards’s other short piece on the godhead, entitled An Essay on the Trinity, although readers are likely to confuse them easily for two good reasons.
For one, they are both housed under the same roof – both short works come in the 1971 edition of Treatise on Grace & Other Posthumous Writings, edited by Paul Helm. For two, both essays are about the same size in length (the former is only 17 pages, the latter a little more at about 30). For this reason, when people mention “that little essay Edwards wrote about the Trinity,” even some of the most advanced Edwards scholars need to take a step back and say to themselves “Wait, which one is that again?”
I’ve already written on An Essay on the Trinity here. So I won’t recover that ground again, other than to simply say that this slightly longer work focuses on the persons of the Trinity in relation to one another. Edwards uses the so-called psychological model to describe how the persons can be one, and yet distinct. Edwards says that the Father is “God in the prime,” the Son is God’s perfect knowledge of Himself, and the Holy Spirit is God’s joy between the Father and Son. Each person is fully divine and yet retains distinct person-hood in relationship to the other.
In Observations, Edwards is more concerned with the economical (note: he spells it “oeconomical”) relationship between the Three Persons. Thus, it is fair to summarize both by saying that An Essay is about the doctrine of the ontological Trinity (God’s nature in being) and Observations is about the doctrine of the economical Trinity (the relationship between the Three Persons in terms of role and service to one another).
Observations begins with a fairly straightforward statement:
“There is a subordination of the persons of the Trinity, in their actions with respect to the creature; that one acts from another, and under another, and with a dependence on another in their actings, and particularly in what they act in the affairs of man’s redemption.” (p. 77).
This key statement sets the stage for all that follows. Like most Reformed theologians, Edwards will then argue for most of the rest of the essay that the Son is subject to the Father’s authority with respect to His role as the Redeemer of humanity. In a complementarian way, the Son is no less glorious or divine than the Father, but is subject to the Father with respect to His service as the God-Man by going on the mission to save humanity at His incarnation. Here, we must distinguish between the Three Persons’ worth (all are equal in divine splendor) and role (one submits to the other).
He says, “It is very manifest that the persons of the Trinity are not inferior one to another in glory and excellence of nature.” (p. 77). True enough. But this shared glory will be manifested in service one to the other in the saving of mankind. The Father appoints the Son (p. 81); the Son confers His Spirit upon the Church (p. 90).
With respect to the Father and Son, Edwards avers that they were already in an economical relationship of subordination before the Covenant of Redemption was made. He thinks this is quite important. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit too was economically subordinate to Father and Son before – and apart from – the Covenant of Redemption. Thus, Edwards seems reticent to consign subordination between persons merely to redemptive history. Rather, this is something “natural” to their eternal relationship with one another, and would have been so even without a plan to redeem the world.
To be clear, let’s define the term “Covenant of Redemption.” In some forms of covenant theology, God is understood to have undertaken a covenant – before the creation of the world and within the persons of the Trinity – to redeem humanity. This covenant is seen to undergird the Covenant of Grace (or: the New Covenant) mentioned in the Scriptures. In this way, Reformed thinkers (including Edwards) speak of the Father and Son making a covenant together to agree to redeem the elect. The Father sends the Son and assigns to Him the great task of being the God-Man and the atoning sacrifice; the Son willingly accepts the task and consents to it freely.
He says, “It is evident by the Scripture” (here we should presume he means John 17, although he does not say so explicitly), “that there is an eternal covenant between some of the persons of the Trinity, about the particular affairs of men’s redemption” (p. 80).
Edwards sees this as an agreement, however, only between two persons, the Father and the Son. Curiously, he does not believe that the Holy Spirit was a party of the covenant (p. 92) although Edwards believes the Holy Spirit “agrees” with, it and is “concerned” with it as it relates to the glory of the Holy Trinity (p. 93).
Edwards stresses that this economical subordination existed prior to the making of the covenant, as he is zealous to preserve this fact: only the subordination of the Son of God as it pertains to His humiliation is meritorious for purchasing human redemption. Thus, Christ’s subordination to the Father does not merit our salvation in regard to the pre-covenant, natural subordination of Son to Father. If this were so, Edwards argues, then the Spirit’s subordination to Father and Son would likewise be meritorious as well, which is clearly not the case. Thus the subordination that does merit our salvation is only that which is subsequent to the Covenant of Redemption; i.e. that humiliation in the incarnation that Christ willingly and freely undertook in the covenant.
So why does all this concern Edwards? Probably three reasons stand out as to why Edwards wrote Observations on the Trinity. First, Edwards is determined to understand the interrelationships between the Three Persons of the Trinity. He is not content to merely accept mystery for mystery’s sake. Edwards tends to attempt to push the envelope of human understanding as far as he can take it. We should respect him the more for this.
Second, Edwards is also concerned to defend both the equality of the Father, Son, and Spirit in terms of worth and honor, as well as to explain how it is possible for one to serve the other in humility. Scripture, he is convinced, teaches both. Again we should agree with this notion, even if we disagree with him on some of his particulars. Why the Holy Spirit cannot be a party of the covenant is not entirely clear to this writer. Nevertheless, we are right to emulate Edwards in preserving the shared divine worth of the Three Persons while seeing biblical subordination between them.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Edwards is always anxious to defend the great glories of the godhead in the marvelous actions of redemption to save the elect. In many ways, this is part and parcel of his entire theological project. Jonathan Edwards is transfixed on understanding, savoring,and glorying in God’s great works of redemption -even those that took place long before God created the world.
— Rev. Matthew Everhard is the general editor of Edwardsstudies.com and the pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida.