Some Basic Views of Edwards:

A Primer on His Views of God, Nature, Ethics, The Human Person (Mind, Will, Affections), and Aesthetics

portrait of Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards has traditionally been characterized as the author of "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God." While human sinfulness is an important theme in Edwards’ work (cf. Original Sin), it is by no means the dominant one. The larger part of Edwards’ corpus is concerned with God’s beauty, the validity of religious experience, and the effectiveness of virtue. The following is an attempt to set out some of these major ideas of Edwards in a few central areas – GodNature, Ethics, the Human Person (Mind, Will, and Affections), and Aesthetics. These notes are fragmentary in nature, tending to overlap at a number of places since Edwards’ thought is fairly systematic. This is not an attempt to set out the full scope of Edwards’ thought.


According to Edwards, God is Trinity (three in one, one in three), and the Trinity is relational in his love. Because the Trinity derives from the divine community’s self-understanding in God, God communicates this love to the whole creation, offering it a chance to be a part of this divine life of love. Nature is created by God out of his divine fullness, and Nature acts as a sign of the divine reality. Nature's message has been distorted by the corruption of creation, and it needs revelation to clarify its message. Likewise, the ethical life is founded on agreement with God. Virtue is derived from selfless love: first from God, then for others. Sin is the refusal to consent to God's Being and purposes; it insists on a private vision of its own. As we consent more to God’s desires, we develop habits of character, discovering more of whom we really are and are intended to be. To understand how this happens, one needs to understand the relationship of the mind, will, and affections, which for Edwards are three ways of looking at an integrated whole.

Because God is relational, the mind and creation are also relational; they are designed to work together. Our delight comes in discerning this pattern of relationship. The will is not a free faculty. It always acts on the mind’s understanding. When the mind perceives something as its greatest good, the will chooses that good. God gives to the understanding redeemed affections. The affections are necessary to grasp anything. If you understand something only mentally, you have not really understood. As one loves relationally, one truly only understands God, truth, goodness, and beauty.

At the center, then, of Edwards’ thought is a profound cosmic aesthetic of relationship and selfless community. God’s beauty is an objective reality which we always experience subjectively. True beauty is achieved by consenting to God, who offers us perfect delight, experienced both as an excellent image in Christ (offered in the natural world and human beings) and as an indwelling principle in the Holy Spirit. God’s beauty governs and redeems the world. As we consent to God’s love, we experience relationship with him and his community of followers, who ultimately act upon that love in both this world and in the infinite, progressive capacity of heaven.


1. God is a triune unity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Son is the perfect idea, the self-knowledge of the Father. The Holy Spirit is the personal delight of the Father and the Son in their mutual love, a consent so perfect it results in a third personal essence.

2. God’s mutual self-love is equal, perfect, self-sufficient, and infinite. As such, it is a perfect model of consent.

3. God’s character is finally two parts, both persons of the Trinity: 1) a fullness of his understand or knowledge which he gives to all (the Son), and 2) a fullness of his will or his absolute virtue and perfect joy and happiness (the Holy Spirit). Alternatively, God’s perfections can be divided between his moral perfections (holiness) and his natural attributes – greatness, power, and knowledge.

4. God’s relational beauty is the perfect image of his holiness.

5. God’s nature is Primary Being from whom all Secondary Being (ala’ the creation) derives its existence.

6. God is distinct from the creation, yet everywhere within it. God’s full transcendence is not compromised by his full immanence.

7. God is "an infinite fountain of good" who emanates all subsidiary goods. God’s diffusive nature gives a plentitude of good to creation.

8. God "enlarges himself" in a fullness of self-giving, therefore opening up a space for our participation in the Trinity’s life and nature. To receive holiness, happiness, or knowledge is to receive of God himself. To know and to delight in God is to carry out a form of God’s own nature, for the Trinity delights in himself.

(Main Sources – Miscellanies, Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, The Nature of True Virtue)


1. While Nature is beautiful in and of itself, its source of beauty begins in its Creator’s beauty.

2. God is an artist/architect who creates the creation from out of his own delight. Concern with an audience is secondary, because God is a triune being, needing no outside audience to be fulfilled. Yet he does not begrudge his creatures’ joy in the relational structure of creation.

3. Nature is a pedagogical image of spiritual and divine reality; an image mirrors or reflects its likeness to its original, ala’ God; it becomes a shadow only when compared to the real original.

4. Nature is a visible sign of God’s glory, but due to the fall, nature is an unfocused message; it, therefore, is always subservient to holy revelation in scripture.

5. Only the redeemed through grace can have true insight into Nature’s full meaning.

(Main Sources – Beauty of the World, Images of Divine Things)


All virtue is summed up in the principle of love.

2. Love is not only a response to God’s love and beauty, but a cooperation with God’s being. We help express God’s beauty and love in the world.

3. True virtue begins with an absolute love for or consent to God and then moves outward to love all beings as an expression of that primary love.

4. Love of benevolence is a concern for another’s well-being. Love of complacence is love of beauty for its own self. Only in God are these one, for the Trinity’s love for himself is a love of Primary Being as well.

5. Virtue loves God primarily for himself and only secondarily for what his beauty and glory can do for the viewer.

6. If virtue’s object is not general being, particular affections tend to separate themselves from and become an enemy of general being. Sin is self-love cut off from any greater love for God or others.

7. But love for all particular beings is the expression of love for Being, even if that particular love is not always directly aware of its ground in the love of God.

8. While such a love is not disinterested, benevolence to created beings always has the end of God’s (re)union with Creation in mind.

9. Virtue itself is the beauty of a mind’s moral qualities and acts, which arise from a certain disposition of character.

10. We praise and blame someone for their habit of character not for arbitrary moral decisions.

11. The human person is more fully realized through the exercise of aesthetic-ethical habits; knowing and doing are tied to being.

12. You learn more of who you are as you consent to know and do the good, Our consent follows as a necessity of our true being, which should be love.

13. Heaven itself is progressive and infinite, moving forward in greater and greater deeds of love.

(Main Sources – Charity and Its Fruits, The Nature of True Virtue)

The Human Person – Mind

Mind and matter are non-dualistic, even if they are separate elements; both are relational in structure. Therefore, they are created to work together.

2. Sensation comes into the mind ready for relationships, because Being itself (being Trinitarian) is relational.

3. The mind arranges its ideas according to patterns or habits of 

1) harmony and proportion,
2) cause and effect, and
3) contiguity across time and space.

4. The mind refuses to experience reality in a chaotic fashion; instead, ideas are worked into a pattern. Strictly speaking, there is no Nothing, only counter-being, being that refuses to consent to God’s Primary Being.

5. Yet this pattern is already inherent in the realm and structure of being itself.

6. The mind does not abstract from particulars so much as experience the two in transition. While one does ascend meditatively in hierarchical fashion to focus on God, one does not leave the rest behind. One recognizes that the secondary aspects of mind and beauty are grounded in the Primary Being of God.

7. A person acts on the discernment of the patterns of reality because they are relational; the relational mind recognizes the possibilities of being integrated in every idea in the world.

8. Our delight arises from the perception and experience of this relational, harmonious nature. Beauty is part of the fabric of being, both primary beauty which is relationship with God and others, and secondary beauty which is formal in its principles of proportion and harmony.

9. Christ is thus our ultimate delight, being the infinite and full expression of the relationship between divine beauty and natural beauty.

10. The redeemed mind becomes a channel of this image, becomes an idea of beauty.

(Main Sources – The Mind, of Being, Miscellania)

The Human Person – The Will

1. The will is the mind’s ability to choose.

2. The will chooses what the soul prefers or inclines towards; with two or more equally preferred choices, no volition is exercised. The will has no freedom of its own. It always depends on the understanding.

3. The will is focused upon an object because the soul is motivated by that object as a perceived good.

4. A motive is "an apprehension of understanding," a perception of some effect or value in the object.

5. The object with the greatest perceived, direct good carries with it the stronger motive for the soul.

6. One can have a moral inability to do an action; likewise, one can be constrained to a action as a necessary result from a cause.

7. We will what we are, for moral causes are the grounds of our character; our "quality of mind," inherent habits and dispositions.

8. The elect, because of a new understanding and habit of mind brought about by the presence of grace in the indwelling Holy Spirit, will the good, thereby reflecting their new natures. (NOTE: The Personal Narrative is meant to represent a new ontological state.)

(Main Sources – The Freedom of the Will, Religious Affections)

The Human Person – Affections

1. Affections are the inclinations of the habits of the soul, particularly those with strong likes and dislikes.

2. Affections of the soul are not strictly the bodily passions; however, spiritual affections of the soul do influence bodily responses.

3. The affections are tied directly to clear understanding and the mind’s character; if no affections result, then no real understanding is present.

4. To do God’s will in the world, the soul needs to be affected strongly with love of God, for the affections are the cause of actions.

5. Yet religious affections in most believers are a mixed bag of natural and spiritual inclinations; therefore, the strength of a habitual inclination (our character) is what we are judged by, because any affection can be falsely imitated with an outward display of emotions for a short time.

6. As a result, the visible church’s acceptance of members on the basis of their confession of their conversion is no final guarantee of the validity of that confession. Such a confession is accepted on good faith (so to speak).

7. Likewise, excessive self-examination is no real, final guarantee of a believer’s true spiritual state, though self-examination is a recommended practice.

8. There are twelve signs to help distinguish true from false religious affections:

1) Spiritual affections arise from spiritual influence only. The believer has an entirely new and different kind of perception from a previous, unconverted awareness. (The new absorbs the old; it doesn’t entirely displace it.) This spiritual awareness is not the use of the natural imagination alone to apprehend Christ through mental pictures, because such pictures can be had by anyone (including Christ’s enemies); neither is it simply an imaginative reaction to the beauties of scriptural language and images which can happen with any text. These must be accompanied by a greater sense of commitment.
2) One has a transcendent love of God and the things of God apart from any self-love or interest. Such love results from knowing the divine beauty of God in Christ. One is grateful to God in Christ for his goodness, beauty and grace, especially concerning salvation. Such a response is inherently relational.
3) You have a love for divine beauty which is founded on the excellence of holiness. This beauty is apprehended by a new spiritual sense of God’s beauty in itself, rather than any profit it will being to the self.
4) Such a sense wells up from the mind’s new enlightenment towards divine things; this sense participates rather than simply observes. The new understanding is already pre-inclined with a nascent form of the apprehension of the beauty of God. An aesthetic-ethical taste for God’s beauty is developed from this new disposition. Affection must precede imagination.
5) A reasonable certainty of the divine comes through a complete holistic engagement of the self, rather than any simple, natural education. This is especially the case with God’s beauty, which is unique and directly affecting to the soul.
6) Accompanied by a humility, such a sense denies any self-benefit, and through self-denial, it opens up a space for glory and love. A simple legal awareness of one’s limited state is not enough; it must be a real, active involvement.
7) A conversion of the nature of the self follows, which is increasingly manifested overtime through one’s actions.
8) You express a Christ-like character of "love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy," which ironically strongly opposes evil.
9) The true affections have a "tenderness of spirit," which deepens the conscience’s conviction of faith.
10) A balanced life follows, one that has a formal beauty of symmetry and proportion, e.g. a balance of hope and fear or joy and mourning.
11) One continues to pursue the greater and deeper participation in God. You are never self-satisfied; no experience is an end in itself.
12) Most importantly, one has a public practice of Christian faith, which is     
a) directed by Christian rule,
b) one’s primary concern and pursuit, and
c) continued in until the end of life.


(The main theme of Edward’s philosophy)

1. Beauty has a primary, objective component and a secondary, subjective component. Beauty is an objective experience, yet that primary reality is always experienced by humans as a subjective mode.

2. Primary beauty is the consent of being to Being and is a spiritual sense. It is always relational between beings. Secondary Beauty is a formal experience of unity among diversity, a natural sense.

3. Beauty can also be divided along general and particular, true and false, universal and deformed lines.

4. True consent to Primary Being involves a passionate, engaged consent. One must enjoy God to truly know him.

5. Deformity (not ugliness) is the opposite of conformity/consent (i.e. beauty).

6. Because the Trinity’s being is ultimately relational (an integrated diversity), truth always occurs in a committed encounter of consent.

7. God’s beauty and excellence are often (near) identical terms, for excellence is the structure of beauty. Primary beauty has an intrinsic good in and of itself, while secondary beauty has only an instrumental goodness (something good for me.)

8. The objective immediacy of God’s beauty is always experienced in a lively subjective sense, so that the rational viewing of beauty is not enough.

9. Christ’s real, inherent beauty and goodness is experienced by humans as an apparent, instrumental good for them.

10. God’s beauty as the Holy Spirit indwells humans as a real, vital principle, one who changes and alters the inner person.

11. The revelation of God’s beauty, then, lays claim on humans, for this revelation is constantly being revealed as their highest good and most perfect delight.

12. God’s triune beauty is naturally revelatory. The nature of God communicates.

13. The beauty of the natural world, the human form, and especially the human soul are all manifestations of Christ’s beauty.

14. The Holy Spirit communicates beauty to the world, bringing order out of chaos. (cf. Misc #293)

15. God’s Beauty governs and redeems the world. The secondary principles of proportion and harmony are the law of the natural world, which is but a shadow of the spiritual and moral world’s real law. (cf. Image, Mind #62)

16. Primary Beauty’s perfect consent is the final end of redemption; likewise, it is God’s means of redeeming the world. The Fall is secondary beauty’s attempt to displace primary beauty as the central law of Creation. Yet when secondary beauty is used to serve Primary beauty it becomes an instrumental means of redemption.

17. Redemption comes in a creature’s (re)consent to God’s beauty. This comes about as humans receive God’s communication of his absolute divine beauty through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

18. Learning to delight in God’s holy beauty results in Christian love; the community of God should be based around God’s beauty both in this life and especially so in heaven, which is a world of infinite, expanding love. The visible church on Earth should model its heavenly reality.