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According to Thomas A. Schafer, Edwards began the manuscript of what he called the "Discourse on the Trinity" (otherwise known as "Essay on the Trinity") in early 1730, when he wrote eight folio pages in a short time. He was able to write at such a pace because he could draw upon numerous "Miscellanies" entries on the topic written up to that time. He later went back over these eight pages, making some changes, soon after their original composition, struggling to improve the language and clarify the thought. Edwards' intention for the composition is unclear; he put it aside for some time, apparently several years.
When in the mid- or late 1730s he took up the manuscript again, he added another folio signature (pp. 9-12), as well as an additional leaf or signature that is now missing. The additions are of two kinds and perhaps reflect Edwards' changing perception of the piece as a whole. At first he tried to improve the original portion of the essay by signaling additions, via cue marks, to particular passages. Probably in the early to mid-1740s, however, he simply started appending discrete entries without connectingthem to earlier passages. This latter phase suggests that Edwards came to view the manuscript as a source book rather than as an autonomous statement, a speculation borne out by his willingness to cannibalize it for other works such as A Divine and Supernatural Light, Treatise on Grace, and Religious Affections. All the same, there are no use marks.
The first part of the "Discourse" is taken up with describing the persons of the Trinity, particularly the Son and the Holy Spirit. God, Edwards begins, is infinitely happy in the enjoyment and contemplation of himself, which engenders a "perfect idea of himself." Thus the Deity is "repeated." God's idea of himself is "the express and perfect image of himself" and is a "spiritual idea," or the repetition of all of God's memories, exercises, and powers-that is, a replication of God, or God himself again. This is confirmed by scriptural descriptions of the Second Person, where the Son is the "image" and "face" of God, the "brightness, effulgence and shining forth of God's glory," the "wisdom," "logos," and "Amen" of God. Between the Father and Son exists a mutual love, joy, and delight, a "pure act," or the "Deity in act," which is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and Son for each other, the love that "quickens and enlivens" creation and created spirits, and comforts God's people. Again, Scripture confirms this definition by describing the Holy Spirit as a dove, a symbol of love; scriptural types and similitudes of the Holy Spirit are oil, water, fire, breath, and wind, all of which connote a "flowing out." So the saints' communion with God consists in partaking of the Holy Spirit, or God's love. This is why, in the New Testament, Paul's greetings always mention the love and grace of the Father and Son, and the communion of the Holy Ghost.
In the next section, Edwards moves on from a discussion of the persons in themselves to a consideration of their shared qualities. He reiterates that the Deity can be understood as God, understanding, and love-everything else is a "mode or relation of existence." All the persons are co-essential and co-eternal, yet each has his distinct office; all have equal honor, are equally concerned in the work of redemption, and garner equal glory from it; and all believers are equally dependent upon each person of the Trinity in redemption. At this point Edwards, seeking to correct what he sees as a prevailing tendency to neglect the Third Person, expands upon the role of the Holy Spirit in order to claim its equal importance and honor. Edwards ends this section of the "Discourse" (bringing us to page eight) by mentioning two images of the Trinity in the "visible creation": the human soul with its various faculties, and the sun, its constitution, rays, and "beautiful colors."
In the entries added after the mid-1730s, Edwards refines the language of the earlier discussion and attempts to reach further into the complexities of the relationships of the three persons. He repeats his realization that there are many objections that can be raised against his view, and reasserts the mysterious nature of the topic. Edwards then assembles Scripture texts on the Son and Holy Ghost, setting the tone for the remaining entries. The end of creation is for the gratification of the Son, including "providing a spouse for Christ," namely, the elect. A stray quarto fragment contains a collection of short entries alternating between the Son and Holy Spirit, the order of their proceeding, and their place in the economy of the Trinity.
The "Discourse on the Trinity" was the subject of some controversy in the late nineteenth century. In 1851 Horace Bushnell wrote that he had heard of a manuscript in which Edwards espoused an "a priori argument for the Trinity," and demanded that it be published because he had not been allowed to see it. Word spread that Edwards was a closet Arian, Sabellian, or Pelagian. In 1880 Oliver Wendell Holmes echoed Bushnell's earlier challenge to publish the document. That same year Egbert Smyth of Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts published "Miscellanies" no. 1062, Observations Concerning the Scripture Economy of the Trinity and Covenant of Redemption, under the mistaken idea that this was the document in question. The following year Edwards A. Park published a two-part article on Edwards and the Trinity and pointed to the existence of a separate writing on the Trinity, which he claimed to own but added, characteristically, that he had misplaced it. The manuscript was eventually discovered and published in 1903 by George P. Fisher under the title "Essay on the Trinity." The title given here, "Discourse on the Trinity," not only follows Edwards' own appellation but is also more reflective of the early eighteenth-century conception of an intellectual exercise as opposed to the more nineteenth-century "essay."
Fisher's edition contains the text of the twelve folio pages, but since then a quarto-sized signature (made from a folded letter cover) discovered elsewhere in the Yale collection has been restored to the "Discourse." The content of this errant fragment is published here for the first time. That this signature was once a part of the "Discourse" is confirmed not only by its similar subject matter but also by stitch holes on its fold corresponding exactly to those in the folio pages. However, the original place of the quarto signature cannot be precisely determined, so its text is presented at the end of the "Discourse."
When we speak of God's happiness, the account that we are wont to give of it is that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving, and rejoicing in, his own essence and perfections. And accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of himself, as it were an exact image and representation of himself ever before him and in actual view. And from hence arises a most pure and perfect energy in the God-head, which is the divine love, complacence and joy.
Though we cannot conceive of the manner of the divine understanding, yet if it be understanding or anything that can be anyway signified by that word of ours, it is by idea. Though the divine nature be vastly different from that of created spirits, yet our souls are made in the image of God: we have understanding and will, idea and love, as God hath, and the difference is only in the perfection of degree and manner. The perfection of the manner will indeed infer this, that there is no distinction to be made in God between power or habit and act; and with respect to God's understanding, that there are no such distinctions to be admitted as in ours between perception or idea, and reasoning and judgment-excepting what the will has to do in judgment-but that the whole of the divine understanding or wisdom consists in the mere perception or unvaried presence of his infinitely perfect idea. And with respect to the other faculty, as it is in God, there are no distinctions to be admitted of faculty, habit and act, between will, inclination and love: but that it is all one simple act. But the divine perfection will not infer that his understanding is not by idea, and that there is not indeed such a thing as inclination and love in God.
That in John, "God is love" [I John 4:8, 16], shows that there are more persons than one in the Deity: for it shows love to be essential and necessary to the Deity, so that his nature consists in it; and this supposes that there is an eternal and necessary object, because all love respects another, that is, the beloved. By love here the Apostle certainly means something beside that which is commonly called self-love, that is very improperly called love, and is a thing of an exceeding diverse nature from that affection or virtue of love the Apostle is speaking of.
The sum of the divine understanding and wisdom consists in his having a perfect idea of himself, he being indeed the all-comprehending Being, he that is and there is none else. So the sum of his inclination, love and joy is his love to and delight in himself. God's love to himself, and complacency and delight in himself, they are not to be distinguished, they are the very same thing in God; which will easily be allowed. Love in man being scarcely distinguishable from the complacence he has in any idea, if there be any difference it is merely modal, and circumstantial.
The knowledge or view which God has of himself must necessarily be conceived to be something distinct from his mere direct existence. There must be something that answers to our reflection. The reflection, as we reflect on our own minds, carries something of imperfection in it. However, if God beholds himself so as thence to have delight and joy in himself, he must become his own object: there must be a duplicity. There is God and the idea of God, if it be proper to call a conception of that that is purely spiritual an idea.
And I do suppose the Deity to be truly and properly repeated by God's thus having an idea of himself; and that this idea of God is a substantial idea and has the very essence of God, is truly God, to all intents and purposes, and that by this means the Godhead is really generated and repeated.
1. God's idea of himself is absolutely perfect, and therefore is an express and perfect image of him, exactly like him in every respect. There is nothing in the pattern but what is in the representation-substance, life, power, nor anything else-and that in a most absolute perfection of similitude; otherwise it is not a perfect idea. But that which is the express perfect image of God, and in every respect like him, is God to all intents and purposes, because there is nothing wanting; there is nothing in the Deity that renders it the Deity but what has something exactly answering of it in this image, which will therefore also render that the Deity.
2. But this will more clearly appear if we consider the nature of spiritual ideas, or ideas of things purely spiritual. Those that we call ideas of reflection-such as our ideas of thought, love, fear, etc.-if we diligently attend to them, we shall find they are repetitions of those very things either more fully or faintly; or else they are only ideas of some external circumstances that attend them, with a supposition of something like what we have in our own minds that is attended with like circumstances. Thus 'tis easy to perceive that if we have an idea of thought, 'tis only a repetition of the same thought, with the attention of the mind to that reflection. So if we think of love-either of our [own self]-love or of the love of others that we have not-we either so frame things in our imagination, that we have [for a moment] a love to that thing, or to something we make to represent it and stand for it; or we excite for a moment that love that we have to something else, and suppose something like it there; or we only have an idea of the name with some of the concomitants and effects, and suppose something unseen that used to be signified by that name.
And such kind of ideas very commonly serve us, though they are not indeed real ideas of the thing itself; but we have learned by experience, and it's become habitual to us, to govern our thoughts, judgment and actions about it as though we conceived of the thing itself. But if a person has truly and properly an idea of any act of love, of fear, or anger, or any other act or motion of the mind, things must be so ordered and framed in his mind that he must for that moment have something of a consciousness of the same motions, either to the same thing or to something else that is made to represent it in the mind; or towards something else that is pro re nota thither referred and as it were transposed: and this consciousness of the same motions, with a design to represent the other by them, is the idea itself we have of them. And if it be perfectly clear and full, it will be in all respects the very same act of mind of which it is the idea, with this only difference: that the being of the latter is to represent the former.
If a man could have an absolutely perfect idea of all that passed in his mind, all the series of ideas and exercises in every respect perfect as to order, degree, circumstances, etc. for any particular space of time past-suppose the last hour-he would really, to all intents and purposes, be over again what he was that last hour. And if it were possible for a man by reflection perfectly to contemplate all that is in his own mind in an hour, as it is and at the same time that it is there, in its first and direct existence; if a man had a perfect reflex or contemplative idea of every thought at the same moment or moments that that thought was, and of every exercise at and during the same time that that exercise was, and so through a whole hour: a man would really be two. He would be indeed double; he would be twice at once: the idea he has of himself would be himself again.
Note: by having are flex or contemplative idea of what passes in our own minds, I don't mean consciousness only. There is a great difference between a man's having a view of himself so as to delight in his own beauty or excellency, and a mere direct consciousness. Or if we mean by consciousness of what is in our own minds, anything besides the mere simple existence in our minds of what is there, it is nothing but a power by reflection to view or contemplate what passes.
But the foregoing position about a man's being two fold or twice at once is most evident, by what has been said of the nature of spiritual idea; as for everything that a man is in that hour, he is twice fully and perfectly: for all the ideas or thoughts that he has are twice perfectly, and every judgment made, and every exercise of inclination or affection, every act of the mind.
Therefore as God with perfect clearness, fullness and strength understands himself, views his own essence (in which there is no distinction of substance and act, but it is wholly substance and wholly act), that idea which God hath of himself is absolutely himself. This representation of the divine nature and essence is the divine nature and essence again. So that by God's thinking of the Deity, [the Deity] must certainly be generated. Hereby there is another person begotten; there is another infinite, eternal, almighty, and most holy and the same God, the very same divine nature.
And this person is the second person in the Trinity, the only begotten and dearly beloved Son of God. He is the eternal, necessary, perfect, substantial and personal idea which God hath of himself. And that it is so, seems to me to be abundantly confirmed by the Word of [God].
Excerpted from The Works of Jonathan Edwards by Jonathan Edwards Copyright © 1993 by Jonathan Edwards. Excerpted by permission.
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