Monday, April 23, 2007

Edwards on incarnation

The Person of Christ in Jonathan Edwards is an intriguing subject. Bush and others have explained how the incarnation of the Son of God, or the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the person of Jesus Christ, are themes which do not find technical or sustained treatment in the work of Edwards. His interest was in the work of Christ in redemption, and his polemical writings obviously did not require a technical treatise on the person of Christ. Robert Jenson has written that Edwards was at times on the brink of formal heresy in his understanding of the person of Christ. (Lee 81)

There are two aspects to describing Edwards and his views on the person of Christ. The first is to assume that the typical Reformed and Puritan doctrines of the person of Christ underlie the writings of Edwards. Although this is a necessary assumption it should not be taken to mean that Edwards developed ideas with consequences consistent with his own (orthodox) tradition. It is certainly true that Edwards intended to be orthodox. (Bush 7) But some of his writings display ideas that sit uneasily with this orthodoxy.

Sometimes Edwards states orthodox views about the division of attributes in the person of Christ. So, for example, it is always the human nature of Christ that suffers. Edwards wanted to retain the impassibility of God. For example, in his sermon, ‘The Excellency of Christ’, Edwards made distinctions between Christ’s human and divine characteristics. He claimed that only Christ’s person within the Trinity was the proper owner of humility as a predicate. That quality did not belong to the infinite glory of non- or un-incarnate deity. (Bush 187-189) However, Miscellany 487 includes such thoughts as Christ, the man, enjoying consciousness of ‘the glory and blessedness the Logos had, in the knowledge and enjoyment of the Father before the world was,’ and also awareness of relating to the Father as the only begotten Son. This can barely be defended within a Chalcedonian framework that defines the strict separation between divine and human natures in the one Jesus Christ.

Second, it is necessary to recognize these developments. Perhaps the most significant is the role of the Holy Spirit in Edwards’s account of the hypostatic union. This, and other innovations, suggest that the theology of Edwards has yet to be fully appropriated by contemporary theologians who claim to value his legacy. Or, perhaps, they simply illustrate that Christian theology can never fully incorporate all the ideas of one theologian in its historical development. According to Edwards the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But, of course, it is the Son who is incarnate.

In Miscellany 958 Edwards describes how the work of creation has been the special work of God the Son, that is, Christ. But, there is a peculiar discussion of the creation of Christ’s human nature: ‘And there is but one thing that is created that is more immediately the work of God the Father, and that is the human nature of Christ, and that both in its old and new creation.’ The Father works to bring about the creation of Christ’s body. Edwards refers to a list of New Testament passages that mention the Father’s influence on Christ, including his giving Christ the fullness of the Holy Spirit. The resurrection, or the continuation, of Christ’s nature in the newness of the new creation is also a work of the Father. Not only does the Father raise Christ’s body from the dead, but he exalts Christ to a place of honor in the heavenly kingdom. However Edwards states that even the creation of Christ’s human nature is a work of the Son:

Though the creation of the human nature of Christ ben't by Christ economically, or don't especially belong to him as a work appointed him in the order constituted among the persons of the Trinity, with respect to their operations and actions ad extra , yet 'tis true the creation of the human nature of Christ is not without the Son, as all the persons of the Trinity do concur in all acts ad extra -as the creation of the world and raising the bodies of saints, etc., are especially the work of the Son of God in his economical office, but yet they are not done without the Father, and are often ascribed to the Father. The Father and the Son produce the same works, John 5:17, 19-21.
For Edwards the Father has an intimate relation with Christ, so that strict theological definitions of the relationship between divine and human qualities become stretched. Christ is the source of all things but he himself originates from the Father: ‘All things are from him as God-man, but he him[self] as God-man is from the Father.’ Since the person of the God-man is from the Father, so everything about him comes from the Father.

Passages like Miscellany 958 have been used to query assumptions about the christology of Edwards. An assumption about the theology of Edwards might be the nature of the personal union of divine and human natures in the person of Jesus Christ. Bush highlights the role of the Holy Spirit in effecting and sustaining the union between the Son of God and the human nature of Christ. This role is attributed to the Holy Spirit by Edwards in a number of Miscellanies. Bush suggests that Edwards is unique in explaining the unity of the person of Christ in this way. (Bush 178)

Edwards argued from Scripture that Christ’s union with the Godhead is through the Holy Spirit, and his reasoning could be painfully logical. The sanctifying work of the Father is alluded to by Jesus in John 10:36. But, since the Holy Spirit was the sanctifier, and God did not sanctify apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, it must be the sanctifying work of the Spirit that made him God because this work made him a divine person. (Misc 624) This is further explained in Miscellany 709, which is a short exposition of John 5:36. Christ showed in the words of that verse how he, a man, could be the Son of God, and how his manhood could be united to the deity. Again, Edwards emphasizes the idea of sanctification, and the reference to being sent into the world is taken by Edwards to be an allusion to the incarnation.

In the words of Edwards, in his conception, Christ ‘received his first being in this world by the Spirit of holiness.’ The Spirit assumed Christ’s flesh into being and into the person of the divine Logos. In the same act the Father sent Christ into the world. The incarnation ‘was assuming flesh, or human nature, into the person of the Son, or giving communion of the divine personality to human nature, in giving that human nature being.’ The ‘divine personality’ was the eternal Son. It was not the making of the human nature of Christ that was sending Christ into the world. Christ was sent into the world through the communication of the eternal Son with Christ’s human nature. The Holy Spirit, the one who created the humanity of Christ, ‘acted as the principle of union’ between the divine and the human. Edwards suggests that ‘assuming is the making of the human nature’ but it is also the act that unites the ‘Christ’ with the person of the Son. The uniting act is also a creating act. Edwards also includes a sentence which opens a link to the thought of the Puritan thinker John Owen:
Whatever Christ assumes into union to himself must be by that person that acts as the principle of union; and therefore, when something was to be assumed out of nothing into union to himself, the Logos or Word sent forth this constituent, or principle of assumption or unition, to assume it out of nothing to himself.
(Misc 709)
Although the Holy Spirit assumed Christ’s human nature into the Son it was the Son who sent out the Spirit to form the union. The logic of Edwards at this point seems to be a defense against adoptionism. Because the Spirit created the humanity of Christ there could be no division between that creation and the hypostatic union without Christ’s humanity being impersonal for a time. The person of Christ depended on the personal union between the divine Son and the human nature. Edwards remains in the anhypostatic tradition articulated by John Owen and other Reformed theologians.

In his dissertation Bush notes that Owen and Edwards differed in their understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. (Bush: 175, 176) A comparison of the language used by the two writers appears to confirm this difference. However the thought of Edwards might be closer to Owen’s than Bush allows. Owen does stress that the incarnating act of the Son on Christ’s human nature was immediate, and that this act caused the personal union of the human and divine natures of Christ. (Owen 119) However this comment is in the context of Owen’s explanation of the work of the Holy Spirit on the human nature of Christ. The overall description is that the Holy Spirit is the agent of all the external operations of God upon Christ’s human nature. And the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Son. (Owen 120) So the only difference between Edwards and Owen is that Owen states the Son’s active contribution in the work of the incarnation, whereas in Edwards the Son or the Logos takes on a passive role in the work, sharing in it in so far as the external works of the trinity are indivisible. Both Edwards and Owen are agreed that the union is between Christ’s human nature and God’s Logos or Son.

If the Father and the Holy Spirit were involved in the incarnation it should be obvious that the Son was too. Although the Spirit christology of Edwards has been emphasised by recent studies, an overwhelming number of references demonstrate that Edwards was orthodox in the idea that the pre-existent Christ became incarnate.


Bush, M. D. 2003 'Jesus Christ in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards.' Ph.D. diss., Princeton Theological Seminary.

Lee, S.H. (ed) 2005 The Princeton Companion to Jonathan Edwards. Princeton: Princeton University Press



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