Jonathan Edwards is a Sophiologist (Part 2)

Jonathan Edwards (via Wikimedia Commons)
Jonathan Edwards (via Wikimedia Commons)

In my last post I briefly explained that I have been buried by an invited chapter for a book that takes an ecumenical approach to the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

This is Part 2 of what is at least a three-part series. I have been playing with my argument a bit. The information is all there. I could argue my point well over a beer. The struggle I have been having is putting it all on paper in a way that the reader can easily follow (especially if the reader does not know Edwards/Bulgakov well). I sometimes find that when I am trying to suss out an argument, putting it in blog form helps. So here you go. Snippets from my draft, abridged and somewhat edited Remember, draft! You will find silly typos. Be nice.

On the surface of things, Sergei Bulgakov and Jonathan Edwards look about as different as night and day, as oil and water, as an Orthodox priest and a Puritan pastor, but look a little bit deeper and it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that both of them are dealing with a similar set of questions and concerns in their doctrines of creation.

The first question – the fundamental question – is whether God created the world for God’s sake or for ours. The answer is not as simple as it may at first appear. We are presumably dealing with a perfect being here (those who have read Marion know that God is not a being, but I’m blogging, so cut me a bit of slack[1]). To say that God creates for God’s own sake implies that creation provides something God otherwise lacks without it.[2] To say that God creates for our sakes does the same thing. If God creates for us, then God needs us, and God exists for us.

Jonathan Edwards manifests a proto-sophiology in the way he addresses this problem. He argues that God’s outward movement toward creation cannot be distinguished from an inward movement toward Godself, and he founds this original union in the nature of the Infinite itself. The seeming paradox of God’s act of creation is that it does arise from a place of need, but this is not the same as absence. God needs to create not because God is incomplete without creation. It is rather that God’s infinite love for Godself pierces the borders of divinity.

Edwards first precludes any possibility that God lacks anything or that God is somehow subordinate to the creature. So he posits a relatively uncontroversial thesis, “Whatsoever is good and valuable in itself is worthy that God should value for itself, and on its own account; or which is the same thing, value it with an ultimate value or respect.”[3] Then he asks the reader to consider whether God or the creation is good or valuable in itself. Imagine, he says, if the wisdom of God were an impartial arbiter between God and creation.[4] What would that judge decide if she were to have God on one side of the balance and creation on the other? Divine infinity tips the scale in God’s favor every time. “And as the Creator is infinite, and has all possible existence, perfection and excellence, so he must have all possible regard.”[5] The statement that God is worth more than the creature is not just about which is greater but which God, as the Good itself, should value more. The answer is that if God is good, and God is infinite, than God should infinitely value what is infinitely good, namely Godself. God always acts for God’s own sake, but it is this very love for Godself that causes God to move out of Godself in love toward the creature.


St. Anselm (via Wikimedia Commons)
St. Anselm (via Wikimedia Commons)

We might better be able to understand the point Edwards is making if we think about St. Anselm for a second. He defined God as “that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.”[6] So if you have “Thought A” about God, but realize that “Thought B” is greater than “Thought A,” then “Thought A” cannot in fact be God. With this in mind, we can ask ourselves the following question: Is it better for God to be known only to Godself or to be known to others, too? For Edwards, the answer is clearly that it is greater for others to know of God and to love God than it is for God only to know and love Godself. “It seems a thing in itself fit, proper and desirable that the glorious attributes of God, which consist in a sufficiency to certain acts and effects, should be exerted in the production of such effects as might manifest the infinite power, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, etc., which are in God. If the world had not been created, these attributes never would have had any exercise.”[7] Thus the original motivation to create arises from a kind of necessity, but this is the need love has to expand itself – a need that comes not from absence but excessive fullness.

Compare this to what Bulgakov says about God’s motivation to create in The Lamb of God.

God needs the world, and it could not have remained uncreated. But God needs the world not for Himself but for the world itself. God is love, and it is proper for love to love and to expand in love. And for divine love it is proper not only to be realized within the confines of Divinity but also to expand beyond these confines. Otherwise, absoluteness itself becomes a limit for the Absolute, a limit of self-love or self-affirmation, and that would attest to the limitedness of the Absolute’s omnipotence – to its impotence, as it were, beyond the limits of itself. It is proper for the ocean of Divine love to overflow its limits, and it is proper for the fullness of the life of Divinity to spread beyond its bounds.[8]

Like Edwards, Bulgakov rejects both the idea that God could not have created and the idea that the world adds anything to God. God’s need for creation does not come from a place of absence but of excess. It is inherent in the very idea of God to transcend the borders of divinity and move outward toward love in an other. If God is infinite, then God must create, because infinite love cannot be contained, not even by itself.

I could say more, but this is already over 1200 words. So that will have to do it for now. Next time: Edwards and Bulgakov on Free Necessity…probably.

[1] Marion, Jean-Luc. 1995. God Without Being: Hors-Texte. Translated by Thomas A. Carlson. University of Chicago Press
[2] See Schultz, Walter J. 2012. “Jonathan Edwards’ End of Creation and Spinoza’s Conundrum.” Jonathan Edwards Studies 2 (2): 28–55.
[3] Edwards, Jonathan. 2008. “DISSERTATION I: Concerning the End for Which God Created the World.” In Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, edited by Paul Ramsey. Vol. 8. Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University., 421.
[4] This might seem overtly sophiological, but Edwards is just engaging in a thought experiment.
[5] Ibid., 424.
[6] Anselm. 1954. “Proslogium.” In Proslogiusm; Monologium; An Appendix in Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon; and Cur Deus Homo. La Salle, IL: Open Court.
[7] Ibid., 428-29.
[8] Bulgakov, Sergius. 2008. The Lamb of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 120.

(Dear Academics. No, I am not following a standard citation method above. I am simply copying from Zotero because that is easier, and this is a blog. The end)

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