Robbie Crouse

Prof. Westblade

REL 319

May 4, 2006

Jonathan Edwards and a Commentary on True Virtue

            Lest we should abstract this great theologian from history, we must remember that Edwards wrote and preached in a particular context with certain issues in mind.  He worked within a certain tradition, Reformed Puritanism, but many of the topics he considered already had their own tradition.  One of these subjects is virtue, which has a long history in the Western tradition.  The classical philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, formulated many of the categories of virtue.  Cicero, Seneca, and the Stoics expanded and continued the legacy of virtue.  In the Christian heritage, Thomas Aquinas did more to synthesize a classical, pagan, and Aristotelian notion of virtue with Christian piety.  His monumental works, Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles, became the definition of virtue even past the Protestant Reformation. In his own colonial time, Edwards confronted this long-standing interpretation and also the more recent traditions of the Deist formulation of “benevolence” and the Arminian concept of “free-will virtue.”  This paper aims to demonstrate how Edwards furthers the tradition of virtue and modifies it with his own thought; it seeks to show Edwards’ theological uniqueness through the window of his work on the familiar topic of virtue.  His intellectual unity is clearly evinced as he redefined virtue from its Western formula to his own view on the supremacy of God in all things.

            Edwards intended to publish The End for Which God Created the World and The Nature of True Virtue together as one edition called Two Dissertations.  Like all his thoughts, Edwards’ understanding of virtue returned to the final purpose of God.  One cannot separate his ethics from ontology and teleology.[1]  His own thinking begins with the final end of man in order to make sense of life in light of that end.  Edwards starts not with the end of man but with the end of God.  He then demonstrates that these two ends cannot be separated and are not even at odds.  God’s end is to display “the manifestation of his own glory in the highest happiness of his creatures.”[2]  Following his Reformed inheritance in the Westminster Confession, Edwards argues that God’s chief end is the exact same as man’s: “to glorify Himself and enjoy Himself forever.”  God is most glorified by the happiness of his creatures. That God’s glory is the final end of creation was not a new thesis; theologians throughout church history argued this, yet most did not argue that God is most glorified by the satisfying enjoyment of his creatures.  That is, other writers knew that man’s end is happiness and the glory of God, but they did not suspect that man’s end is happiness in the glory of God.  The question that writers seemed to answer differently, even if it is only in emphasis, was how man’s happiness and God’s glory relate and how virtue is involved in that.  Edwards, Aquinas, and many of the Deists answered in agreement that man’s happiness is his end.  Their common source was Aristotle’s basic supposition that all men seek happiness as that end which justifies all action, “as that end for which all else is done.”[3]  They differed, though, on what man’s happiness is in.[4]  Again, they agreed also that God’s glory is man’s other end, but only Edwards connected the two in such a way that man’s happiness is glorifying to God, and man’s happiness is the enjoyment of God.  This is extremely important for understanding the first break that Edwards makes from the tradition that defined virtue as man’s end in happiness.

                  For Aquinas and several of the Deists, God is glorified when his image is reflected in the perfection of his creatures, when man is “made like him.”  The Deists argued that man’s happiness is in perfection itself, which is attained through virtue, benevolence to mankind, and the subjection of the passions to reason.  Aquinas saw happiness as man’s perfected knowledge of God’s essence that is realized in the beatific vision.  He especially used the Aristotelian language that happiness is the actualization of all man’s potential, “human flourishing and freedom.”  Edwards does not deny that mankind’s perfection in Christ glorifies God, but he points out that this is not its “chief consistence.”  God does not want perfected men that are not interested in him.  Even justification, sometimes held by the Arminians as man’s utltimate end, does not constitute the final end for Edwards.  These are proximate ends inextricably tied to the final end of enjoying God.[5]  Man’s final end and happiness does not consist partly in respect to God, but for Edwards, it consists chiefly in it.[6]  The impact of this is huge in Edwards’ understanding of virtue, which only can have reference to God.

             Because Edwards refuses to have a final end of man apart from God, he also refuses to have virtue apart from God, especially delight in Him.  He does not use the word in its classical root “virtus,” which originally meant power or manliness.  Instead, he describes virtue in terms of beauty and love.[7]  The Nature of True Virtue begins by asserting that “virtue is by definition something beautiful.”[8]  For him, there are several different types of beauty, primary and secondary beauty, and general and particular beauty.  In the first distinction, primary beauty pertains to “beings that have perception and will” and to “those qualities and acts of the mind that are of a moral nature.”  To perhaps counter an understanding of virtue like Aquinas, Edwards wrote that virtuous beauty “does not belong merely to speculation; but to the disposition and will, or to the heart.”  Secondary, or inferior, beauty belongs to inanimate things or concepts which consist in “mutual consent and agreement in from, manner, quantity, of regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, and harmony.”[9]  An example of this beauty would be balanced shapes, the human body, or society justice.  True virtue, then, for Edwards, consists only in primary beauty: the will itself is not beautiful apart from its active principle of beautiful habits and the beauty it is directed toward.  

For the second distinction, he divides general beauty from particular beauty because particular beauty appears beautiful only in a “limited, private sphere” and general beauty appears beautiful “when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively, and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connexions with every thing to which it stands related.”[10]  True virtue cannot be of particular beauty in the same way that musical notes on their own can be beautiful but when sounded together are discordant.  This introduces one into Edwards’s ontological philosophy.  As an occassionalist, Edwards believed that God upholds creation at every moment by his being so that there is no existence apart from God; all being is fully dependent on God.[11]  Gerry McDermott writes that in Edwards’ philosophy “every entity is related to every other;” thus his social ethic appeals to the structure of being.[12]  True virtue, for Edwards, must include the entirety of being as its reference point. 

This definition of general beauty and theme of the total being continues in Edwards’ work as he defines virtue as “love to being in general in the beauty of consent and harmony.”[13]  “Being in general” may seem an odd phrase but Edwards is trying to make another distinction between the particular and the totality.  He gives the example that a man who loves only those who love him, or only a select few, is not often called a virtuous person.[14]  A virtuous person is someone who takes into account the comprehensiveness of existence in the same way that a good composer is one who arranges individual notes that are harmonious together as a whole.  Edwards’ ontology is such that one is simply making a mistake of moral prudence in separating being from its interconnectedness.  The text does not go much further before Edwards does reveal to his suspenseful readers that “being in general” is in fact God, for “true virtue consists in love to God.”[15]  McDermott expresses Edwards’ ontology well when he writes that “to fail to love God would be to violate the structural principle of Edwards’s philosophical ethics: one ought to acknowledge gratefully that one is related to all of being, and therefore preeminently related to and dependent on the sum and comprehension of all being (God).”[16]  Here, Edwards show his peculiarity again by not separating God from virtue.  This section is a direct assault on the Deists who claim that God has set up the world in such a way that he does not need to be involved in it.  Edwards shows the supremacy of God over all things, including the entirety of all existence.

            The definition virtue solely as “a supreme love for God” demonstrates a strong break from the Western tradition of virtue.  Even Aquinas, a Christian theologian, wrote that virtue had to do with perfection of man's being and not necessarily with a relation to God.[17]  The habits of natural virtue in the Thomist sense, namely those which one does on natural ability without God’s aiding grace, have no place in Edwards’ God-centered system.  The Thomist virtues have a quality that is inward turning because the virtues are for the perfection of oneself, but for Edwards, virtue is outward looking, or “dispositional.”  One foundational disagreement resides in metaphysics, since Edwards does not abstract God from the any being or existence in the universe, but another point of contention that this question of “virtue without God” hinges upon is the end of man.  Though Aquinas and the Deists include some part of man’s end in relation to God, the majority of it has to do with human perfection in virtue.  Edwards’ portrayal of virtue is “dispositional;” it points to the object and source of beauty, not the doer. It is directed virtue, both to its ultimate source and connection, God, and to its benefited recipient, all creation.  This also allows to Edwards to not let virtue become a good or an end in itself, since for him, God does not want a “virtuous” (in the Thomist sense) but disinterested man, but “a truly virtuous soul” which “seeks the glory of God above all things” and “makes that his supreme joy and delight.”[18] 

            Edwards claims that any “virtue” apart from a disposition to God arises from “self-love.”  He defines self-love in two different ways, though.  Self-love in the first sense is merely “a man’s love of his own happiness.”[19]  This self-love is neither moral nor immoral but is the drive for all men to pursue happiness in something.  Edwards says that this is the will, or disposition.  The second sense of self-love, which is quoted above, is selfishness, which pursues happiness in one’s own private interests.  A pursuit of virtue for the telos of one’s duty or perfection is ultimately self-love, says Edwards.[20]  In Charity and its Fruits, Edwards comes back to the essence of love found in I Corinthians 13:5, “Love does not seek its own.”[21]  He is not denying that man should seek his own happiness but that happiness should not be sought for in oneself.  John Piper describes Edwards’ view of self-love as “infinitely parochial,”[22] and McDermott calls public affection, “embracing and expansive” and private affection, which is self-love, “grasping and self-reducing.”[23]  Self-love is confined, narrow, and selfish—and not virtuous—until it embraces or delights in the good of the whole universe of being, or more simply, until it embraces God.  Until self-love rises to embrace God, it embraces “an infinitely small part of universal existence.”[24]  Even virtue done as one’s duty or telos succumbs to self-love because it disposition points back to one’s self.           

            Edwards’ treatment of self-love and virtue apart from God, like everything else he wrote, attempts to demonstrate the fullness of God in all things.  Yet Edwards does conclude that “natural virtues,” virtues of the natural conscience, “belong to general nature of virtue.  What they are essentially defective in is that they are private in their nature; they do not arise from any temper of benevolence to being in general.”[25]  This may be one of the most interesting sections of The Nature of True Virtue, “Of natural conscience and the moral sense.”  After defining man’s end as enjoyment in God and virtue as “a supreme love to God,” Edwards does hold out that there is a “secondary operation” of “natural virtue.”[26]  This kind of virtue arises from self-love and the principle of the natural conscience, yet Edwards considers it a part of “secondary beauty” since it does have harmony, agreement, and proportion.  Examples of these natural virtues are the natural affection of a parent for a child, pity, gratitude, natural instinct (courage), distributive justice, temperance, worldly wisdom, and private benevolence.  Edwards writes that “they are beautiful within their own sphere” but “the reason why men are so ready to take these private affections for true virtue is the narrowness of their views, … leav[ing] the Divine Being out of their view.”[27]  The reason that Edwards calls this “secondary beauty” is that the virtues intimate God’s beauty and harmony, but they “take no delight in him.”  The principle of natural conscience primarily points to justice and is akin to the Golden Rule, “being consistent with ourselves.”[28]  Natural conscience “may see the justice in supreme love for God” and “if well-informed, will approve of true virtue . . . yet without seeing the beauty of it.”[29]  In short, Edwards has just described the traditional cardinal virtues, habits that do not have a disposition to God, and has labeled them as “belong[ing] to the general nature of virtue,” even though he has defined true virtue as only that disposition which has “a supreme regard for God.

            In this section Edwards must contend with the very facts that pushed Aquinas to make virtue able to be apart from God.  The fact is that non-believers and unregenerate men seem to do “good” things that benefit society.  They are just, temperate, courageous, and perhaps even wise.  Edwards concludes that these types of men are guided by natural conscience.  Unlike Aquinas, though, Edwards does not conclude that natural conscience has a different end than the law of God; it teaches the same actions but does not deal directly with the heart.[30]  Edwards’ repeated phrases, “if it [natural conscience] is well-informed,” “properly cultivated,” or “properly enlightened,” demonstrate his belief that the conscience can be seared so it does not teach true justice.[31]  But a well-informed conscience does “restrain vice and sin in general,” says Edwards.  With these statements, it may seem that Edwards has returned to the tradition of the Western classical heritage by affirming that there is a place for natural virtue apart from God.  He even seems very close to the Catholic tradition when he writes that “these natural principles, for the most part, tend to the good of mankind . . . for self-love is exceeding useful and necessary.”[32]  This statement, coupled with the following quotation, may be one of the most unsettling and interesting of the entire work: “self-love often restrains from acts of true wickedness; and not only so but puts men upon seeking true virtue; yet is not itself true virtue, but is the source of all the wickedness that is in the world.”[33]

            In the first quotation, Edwards portrays self-love as necessary to society and in the second he portrays self-love as causing men to seek true virtue.  Explicating this text is difficult because Edwards will oftentimes use both definitions of self-love in a single passage.  The surrounding context would seem to indicate that the “self-love” he is talking about it is the second kind, which seeks virtue for the perfection of oneself.  But why would he say that this inward-directed virtue is exceedingly useful and necessary and that is puts men on the path to virtue?  If it is self-love in the neutral sense, neither moral nor immoral, then it would be an abrupt transition in the middle of Edwards’ train of thought and would seem to have nothing to do with his present argument.  He was writing on how natural principles, which arise from self-love, which he also calls “self-love virtue,” can be beautiful in the secondary sense.  Aquinas writes that the natural virtues are the “seedbed” and “foundation” for the theological virtues, and the entire Western tradition emphasized the usefulness and profitability of the natural virtues, especially to bring one to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.  Would Edwards make this claim also?  It would seem somewhat inconsistent with his earlier descriptions of virtue.  This statement about the usefulness of “self-love virtue”could perhaps denote a means to true virtue, but Edwards would leave out spiritual regeneration in this language of means.  Edwards maintains his Calvinism by strongly repeating that the cause of true virtue is regeneration by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit gives the “spiritual sense” or “virtuous taste” that triggers one to virtue. 

Miscellany 73, “Infused Habits,” deals with this very subject quite explicitly and may shed light on the peculiarities of the earlier passage.  Here, Edwards wrestles with the question of how a man becomes virtuous—where does he get his motivation?  His answer is very clear: “To say that a man who has no true virtue and no true grace can acquire it by frequent exercises of [it], is as much a contradiction as to say a man acts grace when he has no grace, or that he has it [when] he has it not.”[34]  One cannot acquire true virtue by a practicing of it, for “before he begins to exercise it, he must have some of it.”  As far as the natural virtues go, Edwards addresses this when he rhetorically asks if “a man by degrees got the habit of acting virtue by acting something that was a good practice.”[35]  The phrase “by degrees” may refer to secondary virtue, which is represented as leading to true virtue by good “practice.”[36]  This, though, is still a contradiction he says.  “The man begins to reform today who did not begin yesterday—how comes he by more virtue at that time that he first begins to reform?”  Edwards refuses to suggest that men “have some sparks of virtue remaining in them,” and even if that is the case, Edwards argues that an outside principle or motivation must still motivate the heart to flame the spark of virtue.[37]  This Miscellany proves that Edwards does not suggest in The Nature of True Virtue that one can attain true virtue through “degrees” of virtue if the Spirit is not involved.

This does distinguish him from the Arminian tradition, but if he still believes that natural virtue can be the means of true virtue, with the Spirit being the cause, then it remains a startling statement.  The question remains—can natural virtue with the Spirit bring one to true virtue?  Elsewhere, such as in The Divine and Supernatural Light, Edwards does see the preached Word of God as the ordinary means by which the Spirit works.  This section of The Nature of True Virtue, though, “self-love puts men upon seeking true virtue,” may reveal Edwards’ belief that natural virtue can also be a means for the Spirit to quicken a man’s heart to God in true virtue.  He may be alluding subtly to this when he writes that “natural conscience, if well-informed, will approve of true virtue . . . yet without seeing the beauty of it.”[38]  In this, the Spirit seems to add to natural conscience to lead to the sight of true, virtuous beauty.   This does sound very similar to a Catholic and Arminian conception, yet Edwards only touches on the subject; it is not an emphasis, and he breaks more sharply from the tradition later.[39]

Though natural virtue may be of some profit, and though it perhaps may be a means for true virtue, Edwards thoroughly demonstrates the superiority of true virtue over natural virtue even in its own sphere of human society.  He returns again to the definition that true virtue is “public” and “general” and natural virtue is “private” and “particular.”  Anticipating the possible objection that the natural virtues are needed to keep society together, he argues that true virtue orders society better than the virtue that looks only at ordering society.  Paradoxically, true virtue that has broad vision to all being is able to benefit the particular while narrow vision does not ultimately give benefit to particulars.  For Edwards, his metaphysics of the interconnectedness of reality in God establishes this fact.  True prudence, which is not a natural virtue, recognizes that benefit from one creature to another ultimately comes from God.  “One that loves being in general, will necessarily value good will to being in general, wherever he sees it,” Edwards writes.[40]  This love to being in general also manifests itself in love to particulars: “from such a disposition [to being in general] may arise exercises of love to particular being.  No wonder that he who is of a generally benevolent disposition should be more disposed than another to have his heart moved with benevolent affection to particular persons.”[41]  A real benefit to another person is derived “only from love to God; that is sufficient to render love to any created being.[42]  All other attempts at benevolence that do not arise from a general mindset are “fundamentally and essentially defective.”[43]  The relationship of God and man is the foundation of man’s relation with other creatures. 

The practical implication of this is that Edwards will only preach true virtue.  He admits earlier that natural virtue may have some benefits to the communities in a very limited and narrow sense, but true virtue, which considers the whole, will have real benefit to the community.  Edwards does not view any created thing as independent or separate from its ultimate being in God.  To speak casually, one cannot be too “heavenly minded” in Edwards theology.  One must be heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good. He asserts that all benevolence must come from a love of God in order for it to be profitable.  In other places in his works, he does speak of a “civic virtue” that is in relation to man only, but he does not advocate it directly.[44]  He mentions it only to say that it exists.  Since it delights in the whole, true virtue “directs natural instincts and their proper manner and channel” and it delights in the particulars which beatify the whole.

Edwards in this work again exalts God as supreme in all things.  To quote Gerry McDermott, Edwards places morality back into the heart of God’s sovereignty, for “morality without God is blasphemous because it flouts the one who founded and sustains true morality.”[45]  He must also deal with the apparent problem of when virtue appears to be good though it does not relate to God.  This is the issue that the middle of this paper tried to wrestle with to try to find Edwards position on the purpose of natural virtue.  Edwards advocates some profit in natural virtue and even entertains the possibility of natural virtue as leading to true virtue, but in the end, he returns to preach that true virtue perfects the “infinitely parochial” vision of self-love virtue.  The dissertation also does not attempt to make virtue man’s end; it has “dispositional” character that points to the perfection and happiness in God, not potentiality in man.  For Edwards, virtue is neither a means nor an end, but a “fitness” which has beauty only because of the One it connects to, who is the fountain of all beauty and connects all things in Himself.



Edwards, Jonathan.  Justification by Faith Alone.  Ed. Don Kistler.  Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria,


—. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. ed. Paul Ramsey.  New Haven: Yale UP,


Hunsinger, George.  “Dispositional Soteriology: Jonathan Edwards on Justification by Faith

Alone.” Westminster Theological Journal 66 (2004): 117.

Lee, Sang Hyun.  The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards.  Princeton: Princeton UP,


McDermott, Gerald.  Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment

Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

---.  One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards.

University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992.

Mrimoto, Anri.  Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Vision of Salvation.  Penn State, 1995.


[1] Sang Hyun Lee, The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988), 4. 

[2] Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World, quoted in John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), 31.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I. 7.

[4] I apologize for ending a sentence with a preposition but Edwards’ language is always that happiness is in something.  There is no abstract “happiness” that does not find its rest in some object.  Happiness, therefore, is not an object but the tie or bond that connects man to the object that brings pleasure and happiness.   

[5] For Edwards, this is enjoying God himself, not merely his gifts of perfection, knowledge, or justification.

[6] Jonathan Edwards, A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol.1, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale UP, 1957), 125.

[7] Edwards ties beauty and delight very closely.  True beauty can only cause delight, and true delight in the proper object is a beautiful thing.  As Edwards defines man’s end as delight in God, it is appropriate that he describe the connection of that end as beauty itself.

[8] Ibid., 122.

[9] Ibid., 127.

[10] Ibid., 122.

[11] Sang Hyun Lee, The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 8-9.  As an occassionalist, there is a sense for Edwards that the universe is created every second by God so that he can logically say that God is the only true, continually existent being. 

[12] Gerald McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992), 101.

[13] Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 122.

[14] Ibid., 123.

[15] Ibid., 125.

[16] Gerald McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society, 102.

[17] For Aquinas, God gives grace to achieve the end of perfection but there is no direct reference to Himself in virtue.

[18] Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 127.

[19] Ibid., 130.

[20] Edwards criticizes the heathen moral philosophy in Miscellany 1357 that is arises from self-love and pride in one’s own abilities and potential.

[21] Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8 (Yale UP, 1989), 257-58.

[22] John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory, 108.

[23] Gerald McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society, 103.

[24] Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 131.

[25] Ibid., 137.

[26] Ibid., 138.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 133.

[29] Ibid., 134.

[30] Ibid. “Thus natural conscience, if the understanding be properly enlightened, and stupifying prejudices are removed, concurs with the law of God, is of equal extent with it, and joins its voice with it in every article.”

[31] This is parallel to verses such as Ephesians 4:17-24 and Romans 1:21,28,32  that seem to teach that the conscience, which tells right and wrong, can be seared and become malfunctioned.

[32] Ibid., 139.  Emphasis added.

[33] Ibid.  Emphasis added.

[34] Jonathan Edwards, Miscellany 73.

[35] Ibid.  Emphasis added.

[36] “Practice” may connote that it is not quite true virtue but is a shadow of “the real thing,” true virtue. 

[37] Ibid.

[38] Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, 134.  It is also uncharacteristic that Edwards uses the phrase “seeking virtue.”  In other passages he seems to say that virtue seeks God.  Here, he may be using virtue more like the Deist and Catholic notion of virtue as human perfection.  

[39] Much of this discussion may be avoided if one interprets “self-love” in the earlier passage as the neutral kind.  But this interpretation does not entirely dismiss the above arguments, and it does not entirely answer the question of how Edwards thinks that the natural virtues and true virtue are connected.  I do agree with John Piper thought that Edwards sometimes moves back and forth between the two different kinds of self-love without warning, and this in turn may be the best explanation for the earlier passage.  This, however, introduces the reader of this paper to a deep question than cannot be answered in this time and space.  It commends more research for a further delve into Edwards’ view of the “virtuous pagan.”  Cf. Gerald McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths (Oxford, 2000).

[40] Ibid., 124.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 127.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Cf. Gerald McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP), 1992.

[45] Gerald McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods, 89.