Mark Ransford

18th Century Theology

Fall 2003

Professor Westblade



Edwards on Loving God


            Jonathan Edwards was a man who loved God with an intense passion. He tried to follow the command to love God with all of one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength.[1] He often spent thirteen hours a day in his study, where he sharpened his mind reading and writing, and where he shaped his heart praying and meditating. Edwards was a father, husband, pastor, missionary, revivalist, writer, and a theologian. All of these diverse activities sprang forth from a love for God and man. Out of this love, Edwards often contemplated the beauty and excellency of Christ. As a result, he developed particular theological views concerning one’s love for God.

            His views on one’s love for God were expressed in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, published in 1746. “This careful exposition was immediately reprinted in England and remains the most widely read and admired of his theological works.”[2] Within this masterpiece Edwards defended his thesis that true religion consists in holy affections. He proceeded to enumerate twelve unreliable signs of conversion, and twelve reliable signs that one had passed from death to life. It is the second reliable sign that will be the focus of this essay. This is where Edwards elaborated specifically that love for God is primarily based on the loveliness of God and not on one’s self-interest. The following will be a summary and critique of this particular theological view.

            Edwards believed that one who is truly converted loves God because He is lovely. He wrote, “It is unreasonable to think otherwise, than that the first foundation of a true love to God, is that whereby he is in himself lovely, or worthy to be loved, or the supreme loveliness of his nature. This is certainly what makes him chiefly amiable.”[3] Edwards stated that the reason anything is lovely is because of its excellency. Therefore, God is lovely because He is “infinitely excellent.”[4] Edwards rightly observed that the characteristics of an object are what determine whether it is beautiful or ugly. He clearly repudiates the modern relativism, which claims that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. God, according to Edwards, is lovely whether anyone beholds His loveliness. He is lovely because He has objective loveliness, and it is this loveliness that makes Him “chiefly amiable” to men.

            Edwards clarified that this love men have for God is primarily because God is lovely and not due to one’s self-interest. He stated, “Now the divine excellency of God, and of Jesus Christ, the word of God, his works, ways, &c. is the primary reason, why a true saint loves these things; and not any supposed interest that he has in them, or any conceived benefit that he has received or shall receive from them.”[5] Foundational love for God, according to Edwards, is a disinterested love. He did not deny that self-interest is one of the reasons men love God, but that self-interest comes after one perceives God’s loveliness. He questioned why anyone would take delight in the glorification of God.             Additionally, he mused, why would one consider this as his own happiness? “Must not a man first love God, or have his heart united to him, before he will esteem God’s good his own, and before he will desire the glorifying and enjoying of God, as his happiness.”[6] Edwards believed that only when one has his heart united to God, would he consider the things that God loves as his own happiness. It is only after one loves God that it will be possible for him to consider God’s glory as his own self-interest. Thus, love for God is primary, and one’s self-interest is secondary. He wrote, “If after a man loves God, it will be a consequence and fruit of this, that even love to his own happiness will cause him to desire the glorifying and enjoying of God.”[7] Therefore, Edwards maintained that self-interest is “a consequence and fruit,” after a man loves God.

            But, how is one’s heart united to God, he asked? It is when one has apprehended the beauty of God. “This may be the thing that first draws his heart to him, and causes his heart to be united to him, prior to all considerations of his own interest or happiness, although after this, and as a fruit of it, he necessarily seeks his interest and happiness in God.”[8] Edwards went to great lengths to demonstrate how, why, and in what order one loved God. He answered that one loves God because God is lovely, and this love for God as one’s happiness is only possible when one is united to God. Consequently, one first perceives God’s loveliness, and then one considers it as his delight. One can only delight in God until one apprehends His excellency.

            Edwards’ theology of love is not entirely sound logically. He begged the question why one should love that which is lovely? It naturally follows that it is in one’s best self-interest to love that which is good, true, and lovely. If a person loves that which is evil, false, and ugly, he will sow destruction for himself. Such a harvest, certainly, is contrary to one’s best self-interest. Furthermore, Edwards created a false separation between God’s loveliness, and what He does to others that makes Him so lovely. The amiable character of God is manifested in the actions He performs. The reason one knows God is truly excellent is because He has shown himself to be glorious in His actions toward men. Moreover, it follows men love God, specifically because He has benefited them. Men love God because He first loved them.[9] Men have a heart full of gratitude and thankfulness because God has been so gracious to them. Edwards would agree that this is true, but he would not concur that men love God primarily out of self-interest. He said so himself, “Nor is our interest, or the benefits we have received, the only, or the chief objective ground of the present exercises of the affection, but rather God’s goodness, as part of the beauty of his nature.”[10]

            Edwards’ objection fails to have any force because he begged the question why one would love that which is lovely. Additionally, his theology began with a faulty premise. This premise was that God is lovely apart from what He does for one’s self-interest. As it was just mentioned this is inconceivable.

            In the Religious Affections Edwards expanded the differences between the saints and the hypocrites. He claimed that the affections flowed from a different source. The saints loved God because they see that He is lovely, while the hypocrites loved God because God loves them. He states it thus: “Whereas the exercises of true and holy love in the saints arise in another way. They do not first see that God loves them, and then see that he is lovely; but they first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious.”[11] Edwards seemed to think that it was possible to know that God is lovely before He actually did anything. Edwards agreed that the saints would later love God because He loves them, but he rejected the notion that this could be the primary source of the saint’s love for God. As mentioned above, this seems implausible. If God did not act, one would have no way of knowing if His character was good or bad. If it were possible to perceive God, and God never spoke or acted, His character would remain a mystery. The saint that Edwards described would only be able to gaze at the magnificent beauty and glory of God, but that could prove misleading. Edwards himself knew that external appearances are deceiving. Something can appear beautiful on the outside, but be hideous on the inside. Thus, the saint could see that God is lovely, but he would not know if that was hiding an evil disposition. Consequently, God’s character remains a mystery until He acts. The true primary source of benevolent affections for God flows forth from what God has done in history for man.

            Edwards’ position, at this point, appears somewhat similar to Immanuel Kant’s position. Kant believed that a moral act was done out of duty and not self-interest. Any act performed out of self-interest, according to Kant, was immoral. He wrote, “…then the action will possess legality but not morality…it is even dangerous to allow other motives (for instance, that of interest) even to cooperate along with the moral law…”[12] Edwards expressed a similar theory: “Selfish, proud man naturally calls that lovely which greatly contributes to his interest, and gratifies his ambition.”[13] Edwards continued: “On the contrary, the hypocrite lays himself at the bottom of all, as the first foundation, and lays on God as the superstructure; and even his acknowledgment of God’s glory itself, depends on his regard to his private interest.”[14] Edwards clearly articulated that self-interest, as the foundation of one’s love for God was a base, crude, and hypocritical source of one’s affections. Both Kant and Edwards convey a repulsiveness to self-interest.

            Furthermore, Kant and Edwards have similar views regarding the goodness of an object or action. Kant maintained, “A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition, that is, it is good in itself...”[15] Kant is referring to moral duty being “good in itself.” Morality, according to Kant, is duty done regardless of self-interest. Also, “…then, like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself.”[16] Edwards reflected this same theory when he wrote that “true love to God, is that whereby he is in himself lovely.”[17] Additionally, he believed that “false affections begin with self.”[18] This essay has made no effort to force a false similarity between Edwards and Kant. Rather, the approach has been to let each man speak for himself and then see if there is any similarity in what has been said. The similarities between Kant and Edwards concerning self-interest seem evident, but these two men were not in complete agreement.

            Edwards, contrary to Kant, believed that self-interest was acceptable. Despite Edwards’ negative views toward self-interest, he never denied that they were not present in the saints. He believed they were present and acceptable, but only if they were secondary. “The saints’ affections begin with God; and self-love has a hand in these affections consequentially and secondarily only.”[19] “Self-love here assists as an handmaid, being subservient to higher principles, to lead forth the mind to contemplation, and heighten joy and love.”[20] At this point, Edwards appears to soften his views toward self-interest (or self-love, he equivocates). In all honesty, Edwards’ position is difficult to ascertain with consistency. He rejected self-interest as a primary foundation of love for God but recognized that it is present secondarily.

            The difficultly in Edwards’ reasoning is best noted when he wrote: “The holy doctrines of the gospel, by which God is exalted and man abased, holiness honoured and promoted, sin greatly disgraced and discouraged, and free, sovereign love manifested, are glorious doctrines in his [the saints] eyes, and sweet to his taste, prior to any conception of his interest in these things.”[21] Edwards’ view is inconceivable. The very doctrines that he mentioned have everything to do with the saint and his self-interest. The discouragement of sin, God’s manifested love, and holiness; these are glorious because they address the saint specifically. It is impossible, as mentioned above, for one to have any conception of these doctrines, until they are revealed. As a result, the revealing will immediately appeal to one’s self-interest.

            In conclusion, this essay has summarized and critiqued Edwards’ theology of love, and found his theology failed to be entirely sound logically. He rightly asserted that God is lovely because He has lovely characteristics. Nevertheless, he begged the question why one should love that which is lovely. It was demonstrated that one loves that which is lovely because it is in one’s best self-interest. Additionally, he built his theology on a false premise that God is lovely apart from what He does for one’s self-interest. In response, it was stated that God’s character remains a mystery until He acts.

This essay proposes a different theology of love. The true primary source of benevolent affections for God flows forth from what God has done in history for man.


[1] “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5). “Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Mt. 22:37-38).

[2] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 285.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, “Religious Affections,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), vol. I, p. 275.

[4] Ibid., p.275.

[5] Ibid., p.275.

[6] Ibid., p.275.

[7] Ibid., p.275.

[8] Ibid., p.275.

[9] “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

[10] Ibid., p.277.

[11] Ibid., p.276.

[12] Gordon H. Clark, Kant’s “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals” in A Christian View of Men and Things: An Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1952), p. 184.

[13] Ibid., p.276.

[14] Ibid., p.276.

[15] Clark, p. 180.

[16] Clark, p. 180.

[17] Edwards, p. 275.

[18] Edwards, p. 276.

[19] Edwards, p. 276.

[20] Edwards, p. 277.

[21] Edwards, p. 277.