Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century American pastor-theologian, was obsessed with resolving a little theological riddle having to do with God and his creation–namely, why would a perfect Supreme Being create inferior creatures with whom to have a personal relationship?
Edwards believed God was sufficiently happy in himself through the loving relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, God didn’t need anybody or anything to resolve any loneliness he may have had in the heavenly realms. The act of creation, in which a physical, material universe was ordered in such a way to support rational human beings, was a real curiosity to Edwards. From his perspective, there was simply no need for existence outside of God’s own.
And yes, Edwards was familiar with the Westminster Confession (he memorized and recited it regularly in college). He knew one of the very first principles in Reformation theology was that God created in order to put his glory on display, with the chief purpose of humanity to reflect that glory back to God. But Edwards, like most obsessives, felt the Westminster Confession didn’t go far enough. It made God seem intrinsically selfish or that he needed humanity to display his glory. Edwards needed something more.
He found his explanation by meditating on the doctrine of the Trinity, the nature of goodness, and the role of the church in manifesting God’s love.
For Edwards, God was perfect because he was a Trinity. The “glory” of God was the knowledge and love communicated between the persons of the Godhead such that “they” were unified in essence, indivisible, and one in nature. As he stated in another note:
God is glorified within himself these two ways: (1) by appearing or being manifested to himself in his own perfect idea, or, in his Son, who is the brightness of his glory; (2) by enjoying and delighting in himself, by flowing forth in infinite love and delight towards himself, or, in his Holy Spirit.
In Edwards’ mind, following the tradition before him, God’s glory actually consists in the shared love flowing between the Father and his Son through the Spirit. Edwards often described this glory as consisting in God’s perfect knowledge of his perfections (after all, God doesn’t see himself through a glass darkly) and the love of those perfections (since, you know, being perfect begets joy and delightfulness).
This model of the Trinity helped Edwards define “goodness.” Because God was good through the self-communication of his knowledge and love, then the nature of created goodness must possess an inclination to diffuse knowledge and love to others. As Edwards wrote in his notes:
To be perfectly good is to incline to and delight in making another happy in the same proportion as it is happy itself, that is, to delight as much in communicating happiness to another as in enjoying of it himself, and an inclination to communicate all his happiness; it appears that this is perfect goodness, because goodness is delight in communicating happiness.
For Edwards, real and authentic goodness delights in communicating goodness further. In other words, true goodness prefers to share. It is like a world-class chef who is able to cook a rare delicacy; rather than using his talents for his own taste buds, he rather desires to share his talents through the preparation of a fine meal for another.
When Edwards defined his understanding of true goodness, he realized why God created. God desired to graciously share his perfections with others–not because he had to, nor because he was lonely, but because it was in God’s glorious nature to share his perfections with created beings and to see them exercised over and over again. As he wrote in another note:
A disposition to communicate good will move a being to make the occasion for the communication…if God be in himself disposed to communicate himself, he is therein disposed to make the creatures to communicate himself to.
In the same way a chef is disposed to create a marvelous meal to satisfy his own tastes, so is he disposed to invite others to participate in the enjoyment of the meal. For Edwards, humanity participated in the enjoyment of God’s “meal” by exercising its God-given faculties of the understanding and the will–what we might call today knowledge and love. Rightly used, the human exercise of knowledge and love is an occasion when God’s perfections are made manifest outside of heaven (think of this next time you recite the part in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven“). As Edwards stated in another note, “They [humans] are made that God may in them have occasion to fulfill his good pleasure, in manifesting and communicating himself. In this God takes delight, and for the sake of this delight God creates the world.”
“For the sake of this delight God creates the world.” Here, finally, Edwards had resolved his little theological riddle. God created the universe in order to share the knowledge and love of his goodness, delighting in himself for every occasion in which his goodness is exercised by his creation.
But, of course, the occasions in which God’s glory is exercised occur all too rarely in this world in which humanity consistently rebels against God’s goodness. In the context of a broken world, Edwards believed people needed to be reminded of God’s goodness through the observation of his love in the “real world.”
The diffusive love of God, in Edwards’ mind, was revealed in and through a group of people who recognized and embraced God’s loving glory: namely, the church. For it is in the church that a group of people could learn how to love others more than they loved themselves–what Edwards often called ‘other-love’ in contrast to worldly ‘self-love.’ This, for Edwards, was the key to imitating the diffusive, loving nature of God and experiencing his goodness, and it was something that could only be learned in and through the church.
The church was, then, purposely created to serve as a training center to learn how to love as God loves. But it also served another purpose: to bring about a visible, tangible manifestation of God’s love in order to attract those outside the church. The tangible, observable manifestation of God’s love in the church “makes earth most like Heaven” according to Edwards. This little slice of heaven attracts people to the church, as Edwards would preach in a sermon Charity and its Fruits:
True discoveries [of love] excite love in the soul, and draw forth the heart in love. They dispose to love to God as the supreme good. They unite the heart in love to Christ…When persons have a true discovery of the sufficiency and excellency of Christ, this is the effect.
Thus, the church was the harbinger of God’s glory that made visible to a broken world the nature of true goodness. It was through the church that God’s creation was brought back to its original intention: as a playground for God’s goodness.
For the church today, Edwards obsession is our gain. Rather than always looking to our future life in heaven, we should remember that God intended us to live, love, laugh, and learn right here in the created world. While we can look forward to the day when Christ finally repairs our harshly imperfect world, in the meantime the church should practice the sort of ‘other-love’ that begets little slices of heaven here on earth, not only for our benefit, but for the whole world.
Editor’s note: If you want read more from John Pryor on Edwards and his theology, you can purchase his thesis from the Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN). Or, you can read a shorter version in an article entitled The Trinitarian Missiology of Jonathan Edwards (note: file is a PDF).