The Trinitarian Ethics of Jonathan Edwards

William J. Danaher Jr. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville December 11, 2009
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Danaher, assistant professor of theology and Christian ethics at the University of the South, argues that “Edwards’s doctrine of the Trinity [is] the foundation upon which he builds his understanding of the moral life” (p. 4).

In chapter one, “ ‘Partakers of the Divine Nature’: Trinitarians and Moral Reflection in Edwards’s Psychological Analogy,” the author provides an excellent summary of the Augustinian roots of Edwards’s understanding of the psychological model, also noting areas where Edwards differs from Augustine. Danaher shows that Edwards bases Christian ethics for believers on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who “unites Himself to the soul of the creature [man], as a vital principle, dwelling there and exerting Himself by the faculties of the soul of man” (p. 42). Danaher develops Edwards’s notion that the unredeemed can undertake moral thought through common grace, but this differs from the means by which ethical considerations are known through the Spirit in believers.

In chapter two Danaher discusses Edwards’s view that while self-knowledge and self-love are essential to true happiness, love cannot stop there but must be expressed in communal relationships.

Having sketched Edwards’s Trinitarianism according to the psychological and social models, Danaher discusses the major writings of Edwards and how the Trinity informs his ethical and moral thought. In chapter three Danaher discusses three points from Edwards’s book Religious Affections. First, he traces Edwards’s human anthropology as both analogue to the Father and Christ and as the result of the operations of the Spirit. Second, Edwards divides the moral life into virtue, duty, and practice. Third, Danaher interacts with contemporary virtue theory through the lens of Edwards’s teaching on the affections, affirming that the love of the triune God represents the restoration of the “moral” image of God in the soul (p. 154).

Chapter four discusses Edwards’s Freedom of the Will and Original Sin and concludes with a section on Edwards’s treatment of evil. Danaher develops Edwards’s critique of the ideals of autonomy and self-determination, concluding that only in community and identification with God is human nature restored. “What is crucial to personal freedom is not the freedom of self-determination, but the freedom to live in relation and to love as God loves us” (p. 199).

Chapter five considers Edwards’s Two Dissertations and Charity and Its Fruits and concludes with a section on the ethics of love in Edwards’s thought. Danaher links the life of love in the church now with its eschatological fulfillment as a foundation for ecclesiology. He concludes, “In the end, Edwards’s ethics depends on a vision of human nature and society that can only be fully understood in light of the triune God in whom we live and move and have our being” (p. 249).

Danaher acknowledges his discomfort with Edwards’s use of the economic Trinity to justify hierarchy in gender relations, his belief that eternal condemnation of the wicked is a display of God’s beauty, and his seeming lack of concern for “the other.” But even with these concerns, Danaher concludes, “To those who struggle to proclaim the Trinitarian faith, hope, and love, he [Edwards] is an inspiration” (p. 258).

The author has carefully arranged his arguments, so that biblical and theological scholars looking for a careful treatment of Edwards’s ethics and morality through a Trinitarian lens will find the book satisfying. One need not be an academician to read this book to great profit, but it is not an introductory or simple text. Danaher’s dialogue partners span the history of thought, including Christian theologians and philosophers and influential non-Christians as well. Knowledge of these major voices and their thought enhances the understanding of the book. The book would be an excellent addition to any pastor or student’s library and is a good choice for those interested in Edwards’s thought on the ethical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity. 

—Marcus Smith with Glenn R. Kreider

April 1, 2007
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2007 vol. 164 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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