Volume 39 - Issue 2

Jonathan Edwards and God’s Inner Life: A Response to Kyle Strobel

By Gerald R. McDermott


This article surveys the state of Edwards studies today, focusing particularly on its philosophical theologians who have zeroed in on Edwards’s doctrine of God. It addresses current debates over dispositionalism, reviews a new book by Kyle Strobel, and criticizes recent uses of analytical philosophy in analyzing Edwards’s doctrine of God.

The greatest living Lutheran theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, once remarked that the only two Christian groups of enduring significance in the twenty-first century would be Roman Catholics and Protestant evangelicals. His prophecy seems to be coming true. The Protestant mainline loses numbers by the minute as it steadily drifts further and further from orthodoxy, and the great Eastern orthodox churches have fallen victim to Europe’s birth dearth and Islamist persecution in the Middle East. The Christian world grows only because Roman Catholics and evangelicals (when Pentecostals are included) continue to have babies and evangelize.

Christian Theology: Catholic and Evangelical

Where is this Christian world going theologically? To answer this question we must look to the theologies of Catholics and evangelicals. After a brief flirtation in the middle of the last century with Karl Rahner, orthodox Catholics are realizing he was too indebted to the Enlightenment.1 Instead they are turning to the theological riches of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Benedict XVI. Evangelicals have a much shorter history and a shallower field of theological reflection. They have been given more to action than to theory. They can point to far more evangelists than to theologians. Carl Henry is beginning to get the respect he deserved fifty years ago but rarely received, and there is now a handful of evangelical theologians (N. T. Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, Alister McGrath, William Abraham, Miroslav Volf) read by professional theologians and thinking Christians outside the evangelical world. John Wesley’s theological work was almost as important as his organization of a massive network of churches, but his capacious but diffuse thinking has not had much impact on systematic theology since his era.

Edwards: Arguably Evangelicalism’s Greatest Thinker

The same cannot be said for Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). Arguably, his was the greatest theological mind the nearly-three-centuries-old evangelical tradition has produced. The 26-volume Yale edition of his Works (73 volumes total, counting the 47 digital volumes) is one measure of his greatness. That he received more mention than any other figure in the 3-volume Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience is another. In North America his intellectual vision has influenced thinkers in a wide range of fields beyond those of his most immediate interest—not only philosophy and theology but also ethics, history, aesthetics, literature, cultural criticism, and psychology. In the last decade, thinkers in Europe have begun to engage Edwards and to be influenced by him.

We are now in the midst of an explosion of studies on Edwards. By 2010 more than four thousand secondary books, dissertations, and articles on Edwards had appeared, and most of these have been written during what has been called “the Edwards renaissance” that began with Perry Miller’s biography of Edwards in 1949.2 Conferences on America’s theologian abound; in 2003 alone there were nine. Edwards Centers have sprung up in South Africa, Australia, Hungary, Poland, Benelux, Germany, Japan, and Brazil.

The Debate over Dispositional Ontology

As publications abound, so do specialties. While many books in the first few decades of the Edwards Renaissance felt the need to cover the wide variety of Edwards’s interests even while focusing on one, more books in the last two decades have enjoyed the luxury of devoting themselves nearly exclusively to one. This has been the case for recent Edwardsean philosophical theologians who have been trained principally under the penumbra of analytical philosophy in Britain in close or indirect relation to evangelical philosopher of religion Paul Helm. He and Oliver Crisp edited Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian in 2003, containing a landmark essay by Stephen Holmes (St. Andrews, Scotland) claiming that Princeton’s Sang Hyun Lee’s ascription of “dispositional ontology” to Edwards was flat-out wrong.3 This was the idea that for Edwards both God and humans are dynamic inclinations to relate to others and thus increase their being. Holmes asserted that this implied that God had unfulfilled potential, which would violate the traditional notion that God is simple and thus only one eternal act. It is not clear that Holmes accurately represented Lee’s portrayal, for Lee insisted that God as disposition does not add to his actuality and that his increase in being was eternal and not in time, therefore without the gradual self-realization of process theology. Since that original salvo, there has been a spate of books and articles from others in this British school—mostly from Crisp himself but also from John Bombaro and now Kyle Strobel—arguing about what Edwards did with divine simplicity, dispositionalism, and the Trinity, but all allied in their conclusion that Lee’s depiction of Edwards’s philosophical theology was mistaken.4

Strobel’s Argument

Now Strobel is arguing not only that Lee’s project (far more influential among Edwards scholars in the United States) was wrongheaded because it presented Edwards as more of a philosopher than theologian, but also because it suggested that Edwards’s God is dispositional in his very being. Instead, says Strobel, “Edwards’s use of ‘disposition’ . . . is being predicated not of his essence but of his will.”5 More on that in a moment.

Strobel’s basic thesis is that “Jonathan Edwards’s theology has an internal coherence, forged in the context of his Trinitarian theology and exposition of God’s nature as persons in beatific-delight.”6 This thesis has four components. First, Edwards spoke of God “in terms of Trinitarian personhood rather than an abstracted divine essence.”7 According to Strobel, the early Edwards (seen in Miscellany 308) spoke of the divine persons participating in the divine essence, but then shifted during the writing of the Discourse on the Trinity (1729–30) to the position that the persons constitute the essence: “In the Discourse, Edwards has developed an allergy to talking about the divine essence as ‘having’ understanding and will, now describing the Father generating and spirating subsistences of understanding and willing.”8 Edwards from that point on, he says, treated the divine essence as the “spiritual substance” of God and “the divine persons as instances of that spiritual substance, existing as persons in perichoresis—subsisting, it should be noted, as the personal predicates of understanding and will.”9 Generally, then, after 1730 Edwards was “not interested in talking about the divine essence as such.”10

Second, the three divine persons for Edwards are not persons in their own right but only through communion with the other two. “This is the ‘twist in the plot’, as it were . . . the Father is not a person without the Son or the Spirit.”11 The three are persons only by perichoretic coinherence in the other two.

Third, Strobel says that Edwards analyzed the processions within the Trinity in terms of the beatific vision, which he terms “personal beatific-delight . . . . The Father gazes upon the Son and the Son upon the Father, not in a detached fashion, but with delight (the Spirit’s spiration).”12 Strobel argues that Edwards’s use of the beatific vision marked a new turn in the Reformed tradition. Turretin, he argues, had ignored Christ’s role, and Owen the Holy Spirit’s, in this “happifying” (Edwards’s word) vision. Edwards pushed even further, past Aquinas, by insisting that the beatific vision can begin now, before death.

Fourth, Strobel argues that this depiction of the Trinity is Edwards’s archetype for creaturely knowledge of God. Humans participate in God’s own understanding (the Son’s particular domain) and love (the Spirit’s), which is another way of saying that the redeemed also dwell perichoretically in the three persons, just as the three are persons only by their perichoretic dwelling in one another. According to Strobel, personal-beatific-delight grounds God’s external emanation of that life: “To redeem the elect, God provides his own self-knowledge and self-love, that they may partake of his personal beatific-delight.”13

Strobel claims this four-fold thesis is Edwards’s “inner logic,” the “engine of his theology,” the “metanarrative” and “ground and grammar” of his theology.14 In proposing it, he says he is “rejecting all other contemporary categorizations of Edwards’s trinitarian thought,” which tend to grasp only “one or two facets” of it and thereby offer a “truncated image” of it or “undermine [its] conceptual structure and unity.”15

Strobel rejects Lee’s portrayal of divine dispositionalism in God’s being, claiming that “Edwards’s use of ‘disposition’, in reference to a property of God’s nature, is being predicated not of his essence but of his will.”16 Strobel quotes a letter in which Edwards says “the word ‘nature’ is not used only to signify the essence of a thing, but . . . . That property which is natural to anyone and is eminently his character.”17 Hence, Strobel reasons, Edwards distinguishes nature, which would include will, from essence or being. Furthermore, Strobel reasons, the idea that God is dispositional in his being would contradict the Reformed tradition’s conception of “immutability, simplicity and actus purus.”18

Does Edwards Really Distinguish between God’s Being and Will?

Let me address first Strobel’s distinction between the divine being and will, and then his denial of disposition in the being of Edwards’s God. First, the context of Edwards’s letter was his denial that the Holy Spirit communicates the essence of God to us in a manner that would make us little deities, just as our receiving the heat and light of the sun does not mean we become “sunned with the sun, or [become] the same being with the sun, or [become] equal to that immense fountain of light and heat.”19 Edwards was denying that in union with Christ we become one in essence or being with God; he was not distinguishing between one part of God (his will) and another part (his being). Besides, such a distinction would violate the very simplicity that Strobel invokes. Furthermore, Edwards uses “nature” (which Strobel thinks refers to will as opposed to essence) and “essence” interchangeably in the very Discourse that is Strobel’s principal source: When “God . . . views his own essence . . . [t]his representation of the divine nature and essence is the divine nature and essence again.”20 In the first part of the statement God’s being is called his “essence,” and in the last part it is called “divine nature and essence.” The two terms are treated as synonyms.

Was Edwards’s God Dispositional?

What of Strobel’s denial that Edwards’s God is dispositional in his being or essence? Are he and others in this “British” school right,21 especially when they insist that Edwards never suggested self-enlargement of God’s being, which was another one of Lee’s claims? One need only look to one of Edwards’s last masterpieces, his End for Which God Created the World, which fulfills the British school’s oft-repeated criterion, from Holmes on, that we should privilege published works over passages from writings not intended for publication. The End is full of statements that favor Lee rather than Strobel on these points. Edwards wrote of “a disposition to [pouring forth light] in divine being,” of God’s works showing his “excellencies” that consist in “the disposition of his heart,” and that there is “a diffusive disposition in the nature of God.”22 There is no clear difference in Edwards’s usage here or elsewhere between God’s being or essence on the one hand and his “heart” or “nature” on the other. Hence the text of the End seems to show a clear Edwardsean conception of God as dispositional in his being and not merely his will.

The End also speaks of God’s self-enlargement. Edwards writes there that “in some sense, [there is] a multiplication” of “the infinite fullness of all possible good in God.” This “external stream” flowing from God is “an increase of good.” God “as it were enlarges himself in a more excellent and divine manner” than can be imagined. God is like a fountain, whose emanation is “as it were an increase, repetition or multiplication of” that fountain of good.23

Divine Simplicity

Strobel is convinced that God could not be dispositional in his being because that would violate divine simplicity, which Edwards also affirms. As Strobel and others in the analytic tradition see it, simplicity means that God is pure actuality without unrealized possibilities. Since a disposition by nature implies the potential to be or do something tomorrow that the disposition is not or is not doing today, Edwards must not have thought of God as dispositional in his being. Edwards scholars, however, are left with a question: Why then did Edwards speak so clearly in the End about God’s power remaining “dormant” before the creation, and other divine perfections being “eternally dormant”?24

Scholars Changing Their Minds

This and similar statements by Edwards are starting to change minds of some scholars who had been wary of Lee’s dispositionalism. For example, in his new book Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation, Crisp concedes that for Edwards in the End God is indeed a disposition who enlarges himself. Crisp adds that this is not a violation of divine simplicity because all of these increases took place in eternity before they were played out in time, and so do not involve any absolutely new acts. They are new only virtually. God self-enlarges in time, but—in Edwards’s words—only “as it were.”25 All this notwithstanding, Strobel’s analysis of the Trinity and its processions as persons as the archetype for the work of redemption, is actually helpful. He reminds us of Edwards’s dissatisfaction with the static metaphysics of substance that ill befits the dynamic God of the Bible. Strobel weaves together the four strands of his thesis with an intensity and particularity that bring their interrelationships into new focus. But are the four strands really new?


Decades ago Wallace Anderson had already pointed to Edwards’s preference for persons over static substance: “God’s goodness [for Edwards] is not grounded in the absolute unity and simplicity of his being, but belongs to him only as he constitutes a plurality involving relations.”26 Lee himself wrote, “The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in everything that each of them is (knowing, loving, and the self-repetitions thereof) and is disposed to, appears to be what Edwards means by the divine essence.”27 Lee had also suggested that this preference was rooted in “the perichoresis, or the inter-dwelling, of the three persons of the Trinity.”28 And a host of scholars have discussed the inner life of the Trinity as the archetype of creaturely experience of God. Robert Jenson, for example: “In Edwards . . . the roles of Jesus and his Father and their Spirit in our history, and the roles of those three ‘persons’ in God’s own reality, intersect with each other to make but one divine history. Of a metaphysical break between God’s triune history with us and God’s ‘own’ immanent being, Edwards knows nothing.”29 William Danaher’s recent volume on Edwards’s ethics resounded with the themes that ethics is participation in the inner divine life and that the Trinity conditions everything Edwards said about God and humanity.30

A Shift from Essence to Persons?

Strobel does give more detailed attention to some of these things than some of the scholars just mentioned. But what of the accuracy of the first element of his four-fold thesis—that Edwards “push[ed] away from discussions of the divine essence to focus on the divine persons”?31 Strobel argues that after 1730 Edwards conceived of the divine essence as persons, and preferred not to speak of God’s essence or being apart from the persons. Is this really true?

Not quite. The shift from essence to persons or essence as persons in Edwards’s writings was not as clean as Strobel suggests. In an essay on the equality of the persons of the Trinity written after 1740 (hence rather late in Edwards’s theological development), Edwards distinguished the divine essence from the persons’ relations, as if all of these somehow co-exist: “The Son derived [sic] the divine essence from the Father, and the Holy Spirit derives the divine essence from the Father and the Son.”32 In his many proofs for God’s existence, even as late as Freedom of the Will (1754), Edwards speaks of God’s “being”—which he usually treats as another synonym for “essence”—without a word about divine persons.33 In the Nature of True Virtue, also late (1755–56), Edwards’s three monikers for the deity are “God,” “Being of beings,” and “Being in general,” without any mention of divine persons. So while Strobel may be right that Edwards also speaks of persons without essence after his early period, this move from essence to persons was never a final break with essence.

Personal Beatific-delight

So Strobel brings focus to what are familiar themes in Edwards studies and provides helpful specificity to most if not all. His analysis of Edwards’s treatment of the beatific vision is more systematic than that of past studies, and the particular way in which he connects that vision to redemption is insightful. This alone can be considered a contribution to Edwards studies. Yet a word must be added about the new term he has coined for this: “personal beatific-delight.” It is confusing. “Beatific” means “making blessed; imparting supreme happiness or blessedness.”34 In some places Strobel uses “beatific” in ways that imply it means “related to vision,”35 which would fit his larger meaning—vision by persons that brings delight. But the actual meaning of “beatific” makes the new term redundant (personal imparting happiness-delight) and omits the key element of vision.

Perhaps this imprecision in terminology is related to another problem—that this book is a bit too close to its original form as a dissertation. Like fledgling PhDs who sometimes try too hard to distinguish their theses from similar works, Strobel denounces the work of most other Edwards scholars, claiming no less than eighteen times that this or that scholar has “failed.” Studebaker, Helm, Crisp, Pauw, Stout, Schweitzer, Ramsey, McClenahan, and McClymond have all “failed” to see this or that, and so have misrepresented Edwards. Lee and Marsden were “misguided.”36 Studebaker is said to have “failed” three times in one sentence.37 McClymond “[reads] more like a rant,” provides “incredibly outdated information,” and is “completely ignorant of patristic scholarship.”38 But this book, we are told, “provides the coherence and elegance other interpretative models have lacked.”39

Crisp on Divine Simplicity

A recurring theme in the debates between the British and American schools of Edwards studies (though, truth be told, there are exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic) turns on the philosophical concept of divine simplicity. We have seen above that Strobel thinks simplicity rules out dispositionalism in God’s being for Edwards—as his mentor Holmes had argued in his famous 2003 essay that launched this last decade’s debate. We have also seen that Crisp now sees dispositionalism in Edwards’s notion of God’s being. He thinks Edwards resolved the apparent incoherence by his notion of God’s acts in eternity. But Crisp is now using simplicity to challenge Edwards himself—in his doctrine of God. He charges that Edwards violated that aspect of simplicity that posits that God has no parts. Crisp says that when Edwards distinguishes different attributes for each divine Person (the Son as the image and knowledge of God, the Spirit as the love and joy of God, et al), he violates simplicity and renders his doctrine of God “incoherent.”40

Different Kinds of Coherence and Simplicity

It seems to me that there is a problem with this new use of analytic tools on Edwards. The tools themselves—various understandings of coherence—are useful in efforts to bring clarity to theology. But as Colin Gunton, who was trained in this tradition, noted, “What we mean by reason is by no means straightforward or agreed.”41 The same could be said for coherence and simplicity.

Paul Hinlicky distinguishes between philosophical and theological simplicity. Philosophical simplicity originated in ancient Greek thought and was developed by Plotinus in his Enneads. It has to do with potentiality and actuality, parts and wholes, and therefore is about God’s inner being. Theological simplicity, on the other hand, speaks of God’s relationship to his creation and is not about God’s nature in itself. According to Hinlicky, theological simplicity is a rule of speech, not an ontological insight. It directs us to the unique and incomparable creator God, not to doctrinal formulations, and reminds us that God is independent of and sovereign over all because he is the creator of all. It is guided by the logic of biblical narrative, not the logic of a particular philosophical understanding of simplicity. It uses the same rules of inference, but applies them to a particular narrative, not to a concept developed in abstraction from that narrative. It begins with the divine plan of a Trinity of Persons to actualize a history of redemption. This shows us that theological simplicity is an iconic complexity from which we are to derive a theological logic.42

Therefore theological coherence will be different from philosophical coherence. That does not mean it need be any less clear. But it does mean that it will not confine the inner mysteries of God’s being to the constraints of a narrow conception of simplicity that is alien to the shape of biblical narrative. Eleonore Stump, trained like others in analytic philosophy, criticizes traditional analytic philosophy’s “left-brain” narrowness and recommends the “right-brain” skill that comes from taking stories, especially biblical stories, seriously. For example, she says, analytic discussions of evil need to bring the story of Job into their philosophical reflections.43

So is Edwards’s doctrine of God incoherent? Well, it does not cohere with the philosophical simplicity described above. But it coheres well with theological simplicity because it depicts with clarity a sovereign God who in one eternal act created a world and history of redemption. That this God is irreducibly plural with Persons of different attributes does not conflict with his pure actuality and oneness. For in the biblical story the three Persons are also the one God of complex unity.

A Problem in Edwards’s Doctrine of God

This does not mean there are no problems with Edwards’s doctrine of God. His intermittent use of the concept of essence threatened to suggest a quaternity rather than Trinity. And, as Strobel rightly suggests, Edwards’s more dominant pattern of starting with the Persons rather than the essence, was more elegant and—yes—more coherent.

Edwards’s Recognition of the Right Kind of Coherence

Analytic philosophy of religion is rightly concerned with clarity, logic’s search for valid inferences, and coherence. But just as Aristotle said that there is a different “degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of the subject at hand admits,” so too there are different kinds of coherence.44 Should a theology of the Trinity be coherent with a concept of simplicity that is imported from an alien philosophical system, or with a narrative of God’s saving action in creation? Edwards lived before the days of G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, but he seemed to understand the need for philosophers of religion and philosophical theologians to strive for what Stump calls “breadth of focus.”45 He warned that over-confidence in certain conceptions of divinity can limit vision, especially when metaphorical language is avoided, as is the wont of some analytic philosophers.46 Therefore limiting our conception of God to a kind of coherence that does not cohere with the biblical story can have the result of domesticating God. This is not to retreat from logic to mystery whenever logical inferences rule out a theological claim. It is a call to derive logical inferences from the biblical story of redemption rather than from ancient Greek presumptions of what God can and cannot do.

This is why Edwards himself points to biblical narrative: “Hence revelation is the surest guide in these matters.” It may also be why he urged “a variety of expressions” be used to depict the glory of God.47 As Stump advises, philosophical theologians should use a variety of methods. Perhaps they should also recognize that a logic that starts with the biblical narrative will give new meaning to coherence, and do a better job of unveiling Edwards’s vision of the beautiful Trinitarian God.

[1] R.R. Reno, “Rahner the Restorationist,” First Things 233 (May 2013): 45–51.

[2] Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (New York: Sloane, 1949).

[3] Stephen R. Holmes, “Does Jonathan Edwards Use a Dispositional Ontology? A Response to Sang Hyun Lee,” in Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian (ed. Paul Helm and Oliver D. Crisp; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 99–114.

[4] Kyle C. Strobel, Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013).

[5] Ibid., 89.

[6] Ibid., 225.

[7] Ibid., 161, emphasis in original.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 48.

[10] Ibid., 241n34.

[11] Ibid., 28.

[12] Ibid., 4.

[13] Ibid., 203.

[14] Ibid., 2, 6, 12, 76.

[15] Ibid., 29–30.

[16] Ibid., 88, emphasis in original.

[17] Ibid., 90, emphasis in original.

[18] Ibid., 88.

[19] WJE 8:640. WJE stands for the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards.

[20] WJE 21:116.

[21] Of course, there are exceptions. Some scholars in the Americas have questioned whether Lee has overemphasized dispositionalism and ignored the places in the corpus where Edwards kept using the concept of “substance,” though in a modified manner, throughout his career. But the most pointed challenges to dispositionalism have come from scholars who were trained in Britain—Holmes, Crisp, Bombaro, Strobel.

[22] WJE 8:433, 422, 434, my emphases.

[23] WJE 8:432, 433, 461, 433.

[24] WJE 8:429, 527.

[25] Oliver D. Crisp, Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 37–56.

[26] WJE 6:84, my emphasis.

[27] Lee, Editor’s Introduction, WJE 21:21.

[28] Ibid., WJE 21:26.

[29] Robert Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 93.

[30] William J. Danaher Jr., The Trinitarian Ethics of Jonathan Edwards (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004).

[31] Strobel, Jonathan Edwards’s Theology, 196.

[32] WJE 21:147.

[33] See, e.g., WJE 1:181.

[34] Oxford English Dictionary, 1971.

[35] Strobel, Jonathan Edwards’s Theology, 145, 150.

[36] Ibid., 18, 76.

[37] Ibid., 67.

[38] Ibid., 230–31.

[39] Ibid., 232.

[40] Crisp, Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation, 191; see also ibid., 11, 113–16.

[41] Cited by Crisp, “On Analytic Theology,” in Analytical Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology (ed. Oliver D. Crisp and Michael C Rea; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 43.

[42] Paul R. Hinlicky, Divine Complexity: The Rise of Creedal Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 173–79.

[43] Eleonore Stump, “The Problem of Evil: Analytic Philosophy and Narrative,” in Analytical Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology (ed. Oliver D. Crisp and Michael C Rea; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 251–64.

[44] Aristotle, Nicomachaean Ethics (trans. Martin Ostwald; Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1962), I.3,1094b.

[45] Stump, “The Problem of Evil,” 252.

[46] Michael Rea says the “analytical style . . . avoid[s] substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor and other tropes whose semantic content outstrips their propositional content.” Rea, Introduction to Crisp and Rea, Analytical Theology, 5.

[47] WJE 8:462, 527.

Gerald R. McDermott

Gerald McDermott is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and Research Associate at Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa, University of the Free State, South Africa. He coauthored The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2012), which won Christianity Today’s top prize for Theology and Ethics in 2013.

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