God’s Free Necessity: One Way Jonathan Edwards is Like Sergei Bulgakov

I recently submitted an invited chapter for a book called, The Ecumenical Edwards. The following (slightly edited) excerpt observes how Jonathan Edwards’s thoughts about the will comport with Bulgakov’s view that freedom and necessity are united in God, particularly when it comes to the “decision” to create.  

Sergei Bulgakov, via Wikimedia Commons
Sergei Bulgakov, via Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will anticipates some of Bulgakov’s own arguments about the way God wills.[1] The error of Arminianism, Edwards says, is that it thinks willing is about options. Actually, willing is all about loving. Freedom of the will does not equal the freedom to do anything but the freedom to do what we desire. The Arminian definition of the will reduces freedom to a game of chance. It is as if they (Arminians) think the will is only free if, were a person to go to the kitchen for a frozen treat, she might come back to the living room gnawing on a sirloin steak. Edwards points out that just because an option exists does not mean that it is a live option. Arguably, one might say that such a view of the will errs by making it all about power. Edwards points out that the absence of power can restrain the will, but the reverse is not true.[2] The will acts upon what it desires, and therefore the will is not constrained when it is constrained by desire. In one sense, this means that I never have free will. My will has been formed by events that are beyond my control. On the other hand, my will is free insofar as I am free from being constrained by another. A choice can be inevitable, without being limiting, insofar as the choice arises from my own nature.

This is also what Edwards says about God. God can do anything, but this does not mean that God might do anything. For God, “the holiness of his nature, [is] the cause and reason of his holy determinations.”[3] God does not “decide” to create because God does not really decide anything. A god who decides is a god who deliberates, who does not always already know the Good. God’s will is not limited if it conforms to God’s essence. Thus to those who see God’s need to create as a kind of weakness, Edwards points out, “Now if God himself be his last end, then in his dependence on his end he depends on nothing but himself.”[4] Either creation has a purpose vis-à-vis God’s being, or it is a random event – the heavenly equivalent of an infinite number of monkeys, slamming their digits into typewriter keys, and churning out the Encyclopedia Britannica.

To show further the conformity of God’s will to God’s nature, Edwards conducts a thought experiment in which he asks his reader to pretend that the divine wisdom were another being, abstracted from the Trinity, and tasked with judging whether it would be better for God to create other creatures or to remain forever in eternal isolation.

[S]uch a judge in adjusting the proper measures and kinds of regard that every part of existence is to have, would weigh things in an even balance; taking care that greater, or more existence should have a greater share than less, that a greater part of the whole should be more looked at and respected than the lesser in proportion (other things being equal) to the measure of existence, that the more excellent should be more regarded than the less excellent: so that the degree of regard should always be in a proportion compounded of the proportion of existence and proportion of excellence, or according to the degree of greatness and goodness considered conjunctly.


It is worth pausing to note the criteria wisdom establishes for her ruling. Edwards says that it is good for something good to be recognized as good, and the better something is, the more its goodness should be acknowledged. So what do we do with a “being” that is infinitely good? Edwards continues:

To determine, then, what proportion of regard is to be allotted to the Creator, and all his creatures taken together, both must be as it were put in the balance; the Supreme Being, with all in him that is great, considerable, and excellent, is to be estimated and compared with all that is to be found in the whole creation: and according as the former is found to outweigh, in such proportion is he to have a greater share of regard. And in this case, as the whole system of created beings in comparison of the Creator would be found as the light dust of the balance (which is taken no notice of by him that weighs) and as nothing and vanity; so the arbiter must determine accordingly with respect to the degree in which God should be regarded by all intelligent existence, and the degree in which he should be regarded in all that is done through the whole universal system; in all actions and proceedings, determinations and effects whatever, whether creating, preserving, using, disposing, changing, or destroying.

Wisdom bases her ruling upon the value of God with respect to the creation. God has greater value than the creation, and so the goodness of God should be acknowledged by the creation. This is the point at which Edwards shows how God’s sovereignty and freedom coincide.

And as the Creator is infinite, and has all possible existence, perfection and excellence, so he must have all possible regard. As he is every way the first and supreme, and as his excellency is in all respects the supreme beauty and glory, the original good, and fountain of all good; so he must have in all respects the supreme regard. And as he is God over all, to whom all are properly subordinate, and on whom all depend, worthy to reign as supreme head with absolute and universal dominion; so it is fit that he should be so regarded by all and in all proceedings and effects through the whole system: that this universality of things in their whole compass and series should look to him and respect him in such a manner as that respect to him should reign over all respect to other things, and that regard to creatures should universally be subordinate and subject.[5]

Jonathan Edwards, via Wikimedia Commons
Jonathan Edwards, via Wikimedia Commons

Edwards thus reaches what seems like an obvious conclusion: God is better than anything there is, and so God must be valued by everything there is. But this conclusion is more radical when we remember the context of this thought experiment. Edwards is asking why God should create anything in the first place. His purpose is to show the necessity of creation without suggesting that God is “needy.” Edwards does this by reasoning that it is not enough for the Good itself – that “than which nothing greater can be conceived” – to be known only by itself, for we can conceive of a still greater being which is known to itself and makes itself known to others.[6] Without a creation, God’s greatness could not be acknowledged, which is unthinkable! Thus it is inherent in the very idea of God for God’s existence and excellence to be acknowledged both within and beyond the divine being. Edwards writes, “It seems a thing in itself fit, proper and desirable that the glorious attributes of God…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] Creation is necessary. God had no choice but to create, but this absence of choice is not a restriction placed upon God from the outside because it flows from God’s own goodness. When we humans need something, it is because we lack something. But when God needs something, it is because God has so much of it. As Amy Plantinga Pauw says, “The perfect fullness in God distinguishes God from everything creaturely, but it is this very fullness that enables God to overflow in gifts to us.”[8] It seems that Edwards had anticipated the insight that Solovyov would make over a hundred years later: transcendence is the ground of immanence; the infinite must contain its opposite. God’s greatness is what compels God to go out into the not-God. The divine nature is the eternal transgression of God’s own borders. This is the antinomy of the infinite (to use Bulgakov’s language), that it cannot be contained, not even by itself.


[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Freedom of the Will,” in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, ed. Paul Ramsey, vol. 1 (Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, 2008), esp. 345ff.

[2] Ibid., 163–64.

[3] Ibid., 376.

[4]Edwards, “End of Creation,” 450.

[5] Ibid., 423–24. Emphasis original.

[6] Anselm, “Proslogium,” in Proslogiusm; Monologium; An Appendix in Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon; and Cur Deus Homo (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1954), II.

[7] Edwards, “End of Creation,” 429.

[8] Amy Plantinga Pauw, “The Supreme Harmony of All”: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), 85.


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