THE WHOLENESS OF HUMILITY IN JONATHAN EDWARDS’ THEOLOGY
REL 319: 18th Century Theology
1 May 2023
A common theme within Jonathan Edwards’ work is that of the denial of any worth or dignity in the human being. While man is loved by God, considerations concerning man both in Scripture and by reason suggests that he is lowly – especially when he is compared to God. This worldview that one may hold of himself Edwards calls humility, and from his view it is essential to the Christian gospel. With such a perspective on the condition of being human, the theology of Jonathan Edwards comes across bleak. Why would one pursue a faith that holds such strong contempt for the self, and especially how does a religion with this view of man lead to any sense of love or joy that is prevalent in the Christian faith? In this paper, I wish to analyze Edwards’ definition and understanding of humility and how we may understand the unity of the lowly view of the self as well as the exaltation of God. Indeed, humility consists of the actions of glorifying God and abhorring the self in the divine knowledge of God’s nature where, regardless of how broken we may result from humility, we will have the inclination through the Spirit to glorify God in our lowly state.
Humility is a term used frequently within Christian theology, and it is no different within Jonathan Edwards’ own writings. Not only does he find it significant in the Christian life, but he sees a spirit of humility as essential to the Christian gospel: “[Humility] is a great and most essential thing in true religion. The whole frame of the gospel, and everything appertaining to the new covenant, and all God's dispensations towards fallen man, are calculated to bring to pass this effect in the hearts of men.” What he says in The Religious Affections that if one is to truly hear and believe the gospel, it is inevitable that the hearer undergoes a realization of the unworthiness of man compared to the greatness of God. Since humility is vital to Christianity, it seems appropriate to understand what Jonathan Edwards means by such an essential virtue within the life of faith.
However, what makes Edwards’ conception of humility open to debate of the rather extreme take dependent on his Calvinist beliefs. Based on ideas such as the sovereignty of God, total depravity, and the power of grace, humility in Edwards’ perception focuses on a negative view of the self in respect to God. Rather than previous understandings of humility as simply not focusing on the self, Edwards takes a direct look at the human person and understanding their lowliness. For this reason, some have judged his use of humility as one that simply focuses on the filth of man, not seeing how there can be any result of happiness or joy. Reflecting on the consciousness of Edwards and the Puritans in that time, Bushman remarks: “they allowed nothing to human powers and attributed all to God. They tore away the shields of human self-confidence and laid a man bare, exposing his sinfulness, helplessness, and… compelled a man to abase and abhor himself totally.” From this, the strongest question he has concerning Edwards’ humility is how does denial of the self lead to such joy and love in God: Why did self-annihilation seem the most natural way from lethargy to love?” In response, I believe some clarification of Edwards' terminology and the different kinds of humility he observed would be sufficient to answer this objection towards his theology.
From his definition of humility, Edwards shows that humility is a union of knowledge and action – very much in line of his understanding of acts of the human will. In The Fruits of Charity, Edwards defines humility as the “habit of mind and heart corresponding to our comparative unworthiness and vileness before God/ with the disposition to a behavior answerable thereto.” From his definition, humility is not simply a view of the self but rather both the understanding of reality and the response to it. Based on his philosophy of the will, man will not be prone to act if there is nothing motivating the will. Therefore, the only way man will live out in humble acts is if he has the knowledge that motivates him to an attitude of humility. The knowledge of humility may differ in nature, and thus certain kinds of humble attitude may arise that does not suggest the transformation of the spirit. Edwards identifies two different kinds of humility that do not correspond with the spiritual humility he pursues.
He names natural humility and legal humility, and while there are subtle differences between the two, they both share the common aspect on not showing the work of the Holy Spirit. Natural humility is the recognition of man’s natural smallness in comparison to God – that is, man’s created and finite existence compared to Him who is Creator, Eternal, and Infinite. In this way, there is humility even in man’s most perfected being, as when in presence before God he recognizes himself as nothing. Similarly, he identifies in The Religious Affections a legal humility; that is, a recognition of the failure to keep the standard of the law. From this inability, the person can mourn their lowliness of their moral inability. When we consider humility in the present day (perhaps as Bushman does), we probably think of humility in either of these conceptions. While Edwards finds utility out of these attitudes since they both rely on truth of God’s greatness compared to man’s lowliness, this is not enough to turn one towards love of God. His counterexample to show this is from the book of James: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe – and shudder.” If the demons understand the great division between their existence and God’s being so greatly that they believe and shudder but still do not love Him, there must be further distinction of Christian humility.
Jonathan Edwards identifies spiritual humility as one having a knowledge of the loveliness of God compared to the self through the transformation of the Holy Spirit. It is this understanding of the goodness of God that draws man to love him through humility. In harmony with his philosophy of the will, Edwards believes that the revelatory knowledge given through the Spirit in conversion not only brings a new understanding of God but a freedom to worship Him rather than the self. He uses this as a distinction from legal humility: “this disposition [to abase themselves, and exalt God alone] is given only in evangelical humiliation, by overcoming the heart, and changing its inclination, by a discovery of God’s beauty.” In this way, man who receives humiliation admits his lowliness (both naturally and morally of God) but by the grace of the Holy Spirit he glorifies and exalts God, allowing him to reach out of his woe. So, in response to Bushman’s question, the best answer to why is self-abasement the most natural answer to compel to love is simply to say that it is not the self-denial that leads to love. Instead, it is the moving of the Holy Spirit that allows us to turn and see the beauty of God. The self-abasement is part of our response to the experience of God’s beauty, and to fulfill that reaction is to pursue him in “behaviors answerable thereto.”
One thing that may need to be clarified is whether Edwards’ harsh treatment of the human self goes too far, encouraging a spirit of self-hate. Bushman’s comments suggest that his Calvinistic views lead to an unfairly harsh view of the self that demands the sovereignty of God to be praised in view of their nothingness. Mark Miller suggests that what justifies the harshness of the self in humility comes from the divine and perfect knowledge of the Holy Spirit: that the ““gracious affections, caused by the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit, could produce severe harm yet be a blessing.” I believe that both views together affirm what Edwards aimed to do. His Calvinist beliefs of the sovereignty of God and total depravity of man demands that man see himself as nothing compared to the infinite glory of His Creator. These truths of doctrine will only be further affirmed by the Third Person of the Trinity, as the Spirit will not contradict what has been said. Even if the view of man seems harsh, it is consistent with Edwards’ theology of the greatness of God and the lowliness of man. Despite this harsh view of the self in humility, I see more to this theological attitude than simply the denial of the self. To further understand how Edwards’ view of humility is more than total abhorrence of the self, it must be noted how he understands the humble spirit as not simply a reaction but rather a lifestyle.
Since humility consists of the union of knowledge of reality and man’s response to that knowledge, Edwards seems treat it in his theological framework as a virtue of the Christian man. This is consistent with many scholars’ readings of Edwards, seeing this as a positive quality that a Christian should possess as well as being named among the religious affections. There is a sense of movement that Edwards has in the definition of humility, as Elizabeth Cochran explains that “he is concerned to present humility as an active self-renunciation rather than a more passive and indifferent submission to fate.” Humility does not rely simply on our sudden realization of the unworthiness of our being compared to God but rather the continual lifestyle that reflects this difference. With this in mind, I believe that Edwards’ theology shows possible hope and joy in the Christian lifestyle in light of the heavy emphasis of annihilation of the self. This will come from a comparison of the two main figures Edwards sees as exemplars of humility for the Christian.
The first model of Christian humility, coming from The Religious Affections, is Mary who washed Jesus’ feet while he was dining, as her actions reflect her understanding of the weight of her sin. As Scholar William Danaher Jr. says in regards to Edwards’ ideals in Christianity, “the woman who washed Jesus’ feet/ is the best exemplar of the virtue of humility. Following her “manner”, humility stems from recognizing one’s sinfulness when confronted with God’s ‘dispensation of grace’.” Edwards uses this imagery to show that any reaction that follows from the truly Christian heart will be from a state of brokenness: “A truly Christian love, either to God or men, is a humble broken hearted love… Their hope is a humble hope; and their joy, even when it is unspeakable, and full of glory, is a humble broken hearted joy, and leaves the Christian more poor in spirit; and more like a little child, and more disposed to a universal lowliness of behavior.” If this were to be our only ideal of humility, I would have many questions concerning how we are to understand joy and love in the Christian tradition.
Even now I still struggle with the concept of understanding how we are to continually rejoice in Christ and praise God’s loveliness if its root comes from brokenness. While a strong focus on our brokenness is necessary to fully love and accept God’s grace, I struggle to appease a continual focus on our insufficiency after He covers us. Perhaps it comes from previous studies, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, whose understanding of humility stems from focusing less on the self and focusing more wholly on God. Edwards seems to be aiming for the same conclusion, but his continual focus on the denial of the self makes it feel more nuanced than Bernard’s conception. From my further readings of Edwards, my understanding of humility as virtue, and his last exemplar of humility, I believe he leaves room for hope for the Christian rather than a life of continual mourning and abasement.
I believe that Edwards’ emphasis on how the Christian should continue to deny themselves comes from the reality that all people – saved or not – still fight their original desires. Before the Christian’s freedom to choose to exalt God, he has the desire to exalt himself – an inclination that does not necessarily go away simply because he has undergone conversion. Due to the fallen nature of man and his clouded will, his pursuit of happiness naturally leads back to himself with the desire to “be like God.” Within his conclusion in the sermon God Glorified in Man’s Dependence, Edwards says: “Man is naturally exceeding prone to exalt himself, and depend on his own power or goodness; as through from himself he must expect happiness. He is prone to have respect to enjoyments alien from God and his Spirit, as those in which happiness is found.” Especially with the context of the Great Awakening and the tendency to depend on one’s reactions or experiences of the Spirit, it makes sense that Edwards would be critical of any reliance other than God. While the constant reminder of the unworthiness of the self may seem harsh, he found it necessary as the pastor of his people not to allow destruction upon themselves in the danger of depending on their own experience for salvation rather than God. Even with this in mind, I believe in Charity and Its Fruits Edwards shows a more joyful and hopeful side to his theology when he presents our main exemplar of humility in Christ.
By having our main exemplar of humility being that of Christ, Jonathan Edwards leaves the hope of pursuing such a love for God through our lives as Christians. He states in Charity and Its Fruits: “The man Christ Jesus, who is the most excellent and glorious of all creatures, is yet meek and lowly of heart, and excels all other beings in humility.” That is to say, our living for Christ and continuing to learn more about His life will show us the exemplar of humility. It should be noted that there is a key difference between natural man’s humility and Christ the man’s humility. Since Christ does possess the divine nature, Edwards accounts for a significant difference between the humility of Christ who deserves all praise and natural man who does not. As Elizabeth explains the distinction: “only Christ practices humility in its most perfect form: the renunciation of honors that he truly deserves. This form of humility is most fully an image or type of divine condescension/ although the humility of the elect can be seen as less perfectly imaging this divine quality.” “Divine condescension” refers to Paul’s account of Christ humbling himself in Philippians in that he “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[ of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Elizabeth sees divine condescension as an act of divine mercy, and as human humility mirrors the perfection of Christ’s humility, perfect creaturely humility possesses that of mercy. She further defines mercy as “an expression of love that involves the active renunciation of self in favor of others.” If we understand abasing the self in this way, the focus strays from our unworthiness to the focus on the worthiness and goodness of God. In this way, I believe Edwards shows that the pursuing of the life after Christ’s life will result in a humble spirit that looks to glorify God and, as a result, pours love out to all others for the sake of God and His creation.
Perhaps this was not Edwards’ intention, and he remained fixated that the Christian life should be rooted at an understanding of the unworthiness of man. Even so, this brokenness of the self finds its rest in God and, similar to the message of the gospel, the goodness of God appeases what the self cannot do on its own, even if it does not deserve it. Edwards perhaps believes this brokenness will not be present in heaven, when we are face-to-face with the glory of God. Even so, at that point there will be no need to focus on ourselves when we have the joy of experiencing the glory of God forever – for which Edwards’ doctrine of humility aims to prepare the students of his teaching.
Bushman, Richard L. “Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan Consciousness.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 5 no. 3 (Autumn, 1966): 383-396.
Cochran, Elizabeth A. “Creaturely Virtues in Jonathan Edwards: The Significance of Christology for the Moral Life.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. Vol. 27 no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2007): 73-95.
Danaher, William Jr. “ Beauty, Benevolence, and Virtue in Jonathan Edwards’s The Nature of True Virtue.” The Journal of Religion 87 no. 3 (July 2007): 386-410.
Edwards, Jonathan. Charity and Its Fruits: Christian love as manifested in the heart and life. WS Bookwell: Finland. First published in 1852.
God Glorified in Man’s Dependence. Taken from anthology of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons. Originally preached in Boston on July 8, 1731.
Religious Affections. Found in Chrisitian Classics Ethereal Library. Originally Published in 1746. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/affections.vi.v.html
Miller, Mark J. “Jonathan Edwards, Affective Conversion, and the Problem of Masochism.” GLQ 18, no. 4 (2012): 565-594.
Edwards, Jonathan. The Religious Affections, III.VI.
 Richard L. Bushman, “Jonathan Edwards and Puritan Conscience,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 5, no. 3 (Autumn 1966): 390.
Jonathan Edwards, Charity and its Fruits Christian love as manifested in the heart and life. (WS Bookwell: Finland., originally published in 1852), 130.
James 2:19, NIV Translation
Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections, III.VI
Mark J. Miller, “Jonathan Edwards, Affective Conversion, and the Problem of Masochism,” GLQ 18, no. 4 (2012): 570
Cochran, Elizabeth, “Creaturely Virtues in Jonathan Edwards: The Significance of Christology for the Moral Life,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 27, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2007), 83
Danaher, William Jr. “ Beauty, Benevolence, and Virtue in Jonathan Edwards’s The Nature of True Virtue. The Journal of Religion 87 no. 3 (July 2007), 407.
Edwards, Jonathan. The Religious Affections, III.VI.
Genesis 3:5, NIV Translation
Edwards, Jonathan. God Glorified in Man’s Dependence, Application Section 4.
Edwards, Jonathan. Charity and its Fruits, 130.
Cochran, Elizabeth “Creaturely Virtues in Jonathan Edwards: The Significance of Christology for the Moral Life,” 88.
Philippians 2:6-7. NIV Translation
Cochran, Elizabeth. “Creaturely Virtues in Jonathan Edwards: The Significance of Christology for the Moral Life,” 89.