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THE TRINITARIAN ETHICS OF JONATHAN EDWARDS

 

William J. Danaher Jr.

Columbia Series in Reformed Theology. 

Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press,

2004. xi + 324 pp.  $24.95, cloth.

ISBN: 0664227376       

 

Perspectivalist theologian, par excellence, Jonathan Edwards’s awareness of interconnectedness and desire for integration together account for much of his astonishing theological creativity, fecundity and depth. A mark of Edwards’s greatness as a thinker is the exceptional degree to which what he says about any one of his main theological interests is always best understood in relation to and in the light of what he says about each of his other main interests. And methodologically, his generation of fresh associations and juxtapositions (along with his relentless pursuit of precision and consistency) is, in large measure, the substance of his genius. His perspectivalism is, of course, the natural and proper result of his developed Trinitarianism and it is not surprising, therefore, that the attention paid to Edwards as a profound and creative theologian has turned increasingly to this aspect of his thought. It is more than thirty years since the publication of Paul Helm’s edition of Edwards’s Treatise on Grace, Observations concerning the Trinity, and An Essay on the Trinity and ten since Thomas Schafer’s wonderful first volume of The Miscellanies in the Yale Edition but now studies of Edwards’s Trinitarian thought are beginning to hit their stride. Robert Jenson’s suggestive eschatology in his Systematic Theology is indebted to Jenson’s use of Edwards’s Trinitarianism and the work of Amy Plantinga Pauw and Stephen Holmes, to give just two examples, makes its importance more explicit still. Expect a wave of PhD dissertations on the Trinitarian ecclesiology, the Trinitarian idealism, the Trinitarian soteriology, the Trinitarian historiography, and the Trinitarian this, that and the other of Jonathan Edwards.

 

If any or many of them have the thoroughness, accuracy, sophistication and clarity of William Danaher’s The Trinitarian Ethics of Jonathan Edwards then we will have cause for much gratitude. Danaher, Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at University of the South, Sewanee, and an ECUSA minister, aims to “examine the theological ethics of Jonathan Edwards from the perspective of his doctrine of the Trinity” (p.1). He does this in two stages. First, in chapters one and two, he outlines Edwards’s Trinitarian doctrine, devoting a chapter each to the psychological analogy and the social analogy. Edwards’s idealist formulation of the psychological analogy raises questions about individuality and personal identity, about conscience and about self-love. His striking use of the social analogy brings with it potential problems around the necessity of creation, the charge of tritheism, equality and hierarchy in the Godhead and in the world, and the full personhood of the Holy Spirit.

 

Second, in chapters three to five, Danaher provides a Trinitarian interpretation of Edwards’s major writings: chapter three covers Religious Affections; chapter four covers Freedom of the Will and Original Sin; chapter five covers Two Dissertations (The End for which God Created the World and The Nature of True Virtue) and Charity and Its Fruits. Broadly speaking, each chapter has three components, namely, a Trinitarian exposition of the Edwards work under consideration, a comparison of Edwards’s thought with that of other key Christian theologians on relevant issues within the field of ethics, and an exploration of the problems with and contributions of Edwards’s Trinitarian ethics in relation to current questions and interests in theology and ethics. Chapter three describes Edwards’s theological anthropology, emphasizing the basis of the moral life in the knowledge and love of God, exploring the ways in which this shapes virtue, duty and practice and comparing this with MacIntyre’s version of virtue ethics. Chapter four gives a Trinitarian explanation of Edwards’s views on freedom of the will, sin, and evil and examines these over against the views of Swinburne on autonomy and Hick on evil. Chapter five’s exposition of the Two Dissertations focusses upon what Edwards says about love (complacence, benevolence and mutuality) and sets this alongside contemporary writers on the same topic. In the same chapter, a study of Charity and Its Fruits is undertaken in dialogue with the thought of Hauerwas and Zizioulas with especial attention given to the church as the eschatological community of love.

 

An introductory chapter sets the scene, and provides a rationale for and a clear summary of the book. A concluding chapter again summarizes the book’s thesis and argument and discusses “otherness and tragedy” as “presuppositions from postmodernity” which have not been given attention elsewhere in the work.

 

Danaher has produced a rich, challenging, and stimulating piece of work which asks a lot of the reader and gives a great deal more in return. The book is characterized by solid scholarship, careful discussion of complex questions, impressive clarity, and a wealth of theological insights.  The major proposal, that “Edwards’s doctrine of the Trinity [is] the foundation upon which he builds his understanding of the moral life” (p.4) is established beyond doubt. Over and over again Danaher shows that Edwards’s Trinitarian reflection and his theological ethics are mutually dependent, informing and enriching.

 

In addition, the author has structured and sign-posted his work superbly. Previews, reviews, and connecting paragraphs all do their job well. And this is not merely a matter of form: it positively supports the development of his argument as well as indicating his mastery of difficult material across a huge territory.

 

Danaher is at his best in his positive expositions of Edwards’s thought. These are erudite, nuanced, confident and between them constitute a delightful presentation of some of the most important contours of Edwardsean theology.  However, his own theological contribution is significant in its own right. He has an eagle eye for the most fruitful “difficulties and points for further development” in Edwards’s writings and a sure touch in dealing with them. Along the way, he has genuinely fresh things to say about a range of issues including the problems which idealism creates for the concept of individual human personhood; the notion of “compounded self-love”; varieties of love as understood from within the psychological and the social analogy; the way in which goodness and beauty require plurality; impassibility (in this reader’s view he steps over the line in his passibilist inclination and then recovers with, “the proper correlate to the love of the divine nature in the person of Christ is a human nature in which love is expressed in self-sacrifice” (p.82); and what he calls “the perichoretic relation between intellect and will” (p.176). Examples could be multiplied.

 

A further strength of the book (which below will also be treated as a weakness) is the sheer breadth of coverage. Danaher’s ability to deal reliably with issues ranging from patristic Trinitarianism through to contemporary moral philosophy is astonishing and guarantees that, quite apart from the importance of its central thesis, a careful reading of his work amounts to a mini-education in several areas of Christian theology.  Additionally, the book under review passes this reviewer’s “favorite passage” test. Danaher refers the reader to the life-changing entry ff in  The Miscellanies. He wins my salute.

 

The Trinitarian Ethics of Jonathan Edwards is not, however, without its weaknesses. Four are worth mentioning, the first two of them flowing from the author’s attempt to do too many things at once. Firstly, by choosing to interract with so many other theologians (Augustine, Aquinas, Francis Turretin, Cotton Mather, George Berkeley, Nicholas Malebranche, John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, John Taylor, Samuel Clarke, Anders Nygren, Reinhold Niebuhr, Alisdair MacIntyre, Richard Swinburne, Willliam Wainwright, John Hick, Gene Outka, Timothy Jackson, Edward Vacek, Stanley Hauerwas, John Zizioulas, Jürgen Moltmann all receive greater or lesser attention),  Danaher at times comes across as an exponent of the “two-page summary” torture: a writer’s views are outlined, his distinctives are highlighted, a list of agreements and disagreements with Edwards is produced, and we are left wondering whether the exercise added very much to our understanding of Edwards’s thought. For example, in looking at Outka the argument seems to run: Outka’s thought about agape is not Trinitarian; Edwards’s Two Dissertations were not explicitly Trinitarian; so Edwards reminds us to be Trinitarian!  This is not to say that the summaries themselves are not impressive for their accuracy and reach and certainly the criticism does not apply across the board. 

 

Secondly, there is something a little suspicious about the repeated assertion – in chapters four and five particularly – that the primarily apologetic intent of the works under consideration accounts for the absence of explicit Trinitarianism within them. Danaher’s line of argument in these chapters gets perilously close to something like this: 1. this work is a piece of apologetic and so Edwards does not mention the Trinity much;  2. as it stands, Edwards’s argument does not succeed;  3. actually, the work is implicitly Trinitarian;  4. and if Edwards had pursued such and such a Trinitarian line then it would have done the job better;  5. but his implicit Trinitarianism has a “theological richness and explanatory power” (p. 200) in relation to these issues anyway. Stated positively, this works as follows:

 

“… in order to engage his contemporaries, Edwards underplays his Trinitarian commitments and develops arguments that operate from common philosophical assumptions. Nonetheless … [these] common assumptions … have not stood the test of time, and therefore retrieving the Trinitarianism that underlies these writings is essential for identifying what these works offer to current theology and ethics.” (p.219)

 

Stated less positively, this can appear to render the whole expository exercise somewhat redundant. If the purpose is to expound Edwards then the focus should be upon what he said and not what we wish he had said. If the purpose is to apply Edwards’s developed Trinitarianism to issues of current theology and ethics then directing most attention to his not-explicitly-Trinitarian writings is a very roundabout way of addressing the task.

 

A third disappointment is the predictability of the points at which Danaher dissents from Edwards. When Edwards’s thought is understood to “resonate” with Marilyn McCord Adams and Jürgen Moltmann (p.197) there is something unsurprising about Danaher’s objections to Edwards’s views on gender hierarchy, eternal damnation, and eighteenth century readiness to go to war. Danaher is closer to being an egalitarian than to being a universalist or pacifist but the pitch is recognisable:

 

“all agree that Edwards’s affirmation of hierarchy is problematic … Edwards’s acceptance of gender hierarchies as part of the created order indicates the vulnerability in his theological scheme to the unwitting perpetuation of systemic injustice.” (p.111)

 

Fourthly, Danaher is unhelpfully determined to speak of theosis wherever he can when referring to Edwards’s views. He is not the first to do this: Robert Jenson and Michael McClymond have done the same. Actually, Danaher is more careful than either of them and no exception can be taken to what he is asserting: “human nature reaches its fulfillment only when it is incorporated  into the inner life of God … the life of virtue is one of actual participation in the spiritual life of the triune God …” (pp.17, 41). Due qualifications are made with regard to human sin and finitude. Proper distinction is drawn to show that union is not with God in his essence but with the character or nature of God, that is to say with his self-communicating holy love, namely, the Holy Spirit who is the principle of human love for and knowledge of God. Accurate  reference is made to the important clarifications which Edwards himself gives on these matters in his “Letter to an  Unknown Correspondent” (YE 8:636-40). This makes it all the more odd that Danaher should be so enthusiastic in his use of theosis. There are four reasons for objecting to the way he uses the word. First, he does so in ways which imply that Edwards himself might have used such language, which is not the case (pp.6, 65, 118, 230, 244, 249).  Secondly, as far as this reviewer can tell, his use of the word adds nothing to the sentences in which he uses it. What does theotic add in speaking of “the soul’s theotic incorporation into the mutual love of the Trinity”?  And what does theosis add in speaking of “the moral life as a life of theosis and actual communication and participation in God”?   Thirdly, Danaher’s use of this term may lead him to downplay or exclude the covenantal dimension of union with God which is so important a feature of that very spousal imagery of Scripture which is most daring in its description of the mutual intimacy and incorporation of God and humankind in Christ. Fourthly, the words theosis and divinization are so far from bearing commonly accepted meanings amongst Reformed theologians, so misunderstood in the popular mind, and so loosely bandied about by theologians who appear to think that it boosts their ecumenical credentials, that a certain self-denial in its use may well be the best way to serve the ends of clarity and precision.

 

To introduce these qualifications and criticisms – and at some length - is not, however, to negate my overwhelmingly positive assessment of this book. It is a truly fine study achieving remarkable coverage and sustaining throughout its high score of insights per page. It could almost be regarded as three books in one: it is an exposition of Edwards’s thought, a survey of some key areas and thinkers in current theological ethics, and an essay on the richness and power of deliberate, explicit attention to the doctrine of the Trinity in ethical reflection.  As such, William Danaher’s work makes a highly significant contribution to Edwards studies, discusses several lines of enquiry which warrant careful attention by moral philosophers and theologians, and constitutes a reliable and suggestive, though demanding, next step for pastors and students wishing either to get inside the mind of Jonathan Edwards, or to think theologically about ethics, or both.