The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards: An Investigation of Charges against Its Orthodoxy

Article excerpt


The study of the Trinitarian theology of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) remains significant at the outset of the twenty-first century, for it is in his Trinitarianism that one clearly observes Edwards's affinity for philosophical speculation merging with traditional Reformed orthodoxy that he never abandoned. As Amy Plantinga-Pauw has observed, it is in Edwards's Trinitarian thought that "his penchant for creative speculation and synthesis and the deep practical piety of his Puritan tradition come together."1 Additionally, while the Trinity was not the primary focus of any of Edwards's major polemical treatises, Trinitarianism was nonetheless evident throughout both his theological and philosophical works.

The challenge facing the student at this juncture, however, is the fact that no single work of Edwards sets forth his complete doctrine of the Trinity. To be sure, there is substantial discussion of the Trinity in his "Essay on the Trinity" and in the "Treatise on Grace." Likewise, significant material is to be found throughout his "Miscellanies" and various sermons. However, any one of these documents taken in isolation of the entire corpus of Edwards's writings will afford a view of his Trinitarianism that is fragmentary at best.

Historically, interpreters have focused on an all-too limited selection of Edwards's work. This selective process of interpretation has served as the basis for both accusations and defenses of Edwards's Trinitarian orthodoxy. The lack of a single major work presenting his complete doctrine of the Trinity has led many would-be interpreters (from both sides of the theological fray) to choose those documents for analysis that best support their positions. Reading Edwards selectively, one may find Edwards to be anything from a typical, unimaginative Puritan to a closet Unitarian who concealed his heterodoxy, confining his questionable views to his private notebooks. Thus a succinct, manageable systematization of Edwards's Trinitarianism that considers the breadth of his voluminous output is long overdue.

It is the contention of this paper that the Trinitarian theology of Jonathan Edwards is certainly a departure from the typical Puritan and Reformed way of speaking of the divine mystery, but that it is at the same time entirely orthodox. In making this claim, I shall be following the basic position assumed by John H. Gerstner in his brief summary of Edwards's theology.2 The deficiency in Gerstner's work, however, is the fact that he fails to offer a clear analysis of Edwards's Trinitarianism. The claim to Edwards's orthodoxy that Gerstner sets forth is based largely on his assumption that there is nothing aberrant in Edwards's position on the Trinity from that which is common throughout the history of the doctrine. However, Gerstner's conclusion is overly hasty in that, while the substance of Edwards's Trinitarianism is consistent with typical Reformed doctrine, his presentation is clearly not that of the standard Reformed approach. Thus, even as one may agree with Gerstner's conclusion, one must also agree with Amy Plantinga-Pauw that, despite maintaining an orthodox Trinitarianism consistent with his Reformed heritage, Jonathan Edwards was strikingly original in his presentation of it.3

This paper shall offer the brief, systematic presentation of Edwards's formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity that Gerstner failed to provide. It shall present a summary of Edwards's position on the Trinity in support of the thesis that, while it is not the typical Reformed formulation of the doctrine, Edwards's Trinitarian position is thoroughly consistent with Reformed orthodoxy. The work shall begin with a brief history of the interpretation of Edwardsean Trinitarianism. Then, it shall consider Edwards's perception of the deficiencies of Covenant Theology in regard to the doctrine of the Trinity and the need for the reformulation of the doctrine so as to do justice to the entirety of the Biblical witness on the matter. …