Edwards on Self-Love


I read a dynamite JETS article a few weeks ago; it was written by Bruce Davidson and entitled “The Four Faces of Self-love in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards” JETS (2008). 

Here’s a brief summary in the form of quotations and paraphrase: 

Divine Self-Love

Edwards writes,

All God’s love may be resolved into his love to himself and delight in himself, as asserted in my Discourse on the Trinity. His love to the creature is only his inclination to glorify himself and communicate him[self], and his delight in himself glorified and in himself communicated.

And then Davidson resolves some instant questions in my mind,

For one thing, this self-love is not isolated and narcissistic but communal and social. Within the persons of the Trinity this love is expressed, and they are a kind of divine community, as it were. In addition, this triune God is continually in communication with his creation in the most intimate sense, so his self-love is continually expressed in relationship to those beings. When God shows benevolent concern for them, it is part and parcel of his self-love, since they all exist through him, and his own goodness appears in them.

And then again resolving questions in my mind,

It would be a mistake to view divine self-solve as coextensive with love for his creation and its human world.

He concludes,

Even more important in Edward’s ethical analysis, the overwhelming primacy of the love of God implies that any system of moral values that does not revolve around love for God is fatally deficient and finally barren of any real virtue.

Modes of Human Self-Love

1. Natural “simple” self-love: “fundamental orientation toward personal enjoyment and well-being, which exists by a psychological necessity in all people and is the basis for their choices in life”

2. Social self-love: “natural self-love expanding out beyond its own restricted sphere to include other beings connected somehow with the self.”

Edwards,

A natural man may love others, but ’tis someway or other as appendages and appurtenances to himself.

Edwards believed this type of love to be “social glue.”

3. Sinful self-love: social glue meets depraved nature.

Edwards,

Mere self-love, if it be the sole governing principle in the heart and without restraint, will dispose one to delight in another’s misery, because self-love seeks its own comparative happiness…Self-love will delight in cruelty and putting others to pain, because it appears to it as an exercise of power…If there be only self-love that bears rule, it will be contented with nothing short of the throne of God.

4. Sanctified self-love: godly self-respect.

Davidson,

He is setting the stage for describing a kind of ‘godly self-respect’ based on the regenerate person’s standing in the eyes of God through salvation in Christ.

Citing Piper,

Edwards did not kill self-love; he supernaturally and profoundly transformed it into a spiritual hunger for the glory of God.

Davidson,

However, Edwards could even rhapsodize about the newfound sense of worth of the redeemed saint. He once preached from the pulpit: ‘What a sweet calmness, what a calm ecstasy, doth it bring to the soul! How doth it make the soul [to] love itself.’ That dignity comes completely from a new relationship to God through redemption. As Edwards exclaimed in another sermon, ‘How hath he honored us, in that he hath made us to glorify him to all eternity! How are we dignified by our Maker, who has made us for so high and excellent an end!’ It is good to set these expressions alongside Edwards’s well-known and equally poetic descriptions of human wickedness. For Edwards, human fallenness is not the end of the story about human worth.

Conclusion

Davidson,

Furthermore, he demonstrates that human psychology can accommodate both self-abasement and a sense of dignity at the same time through the operation of God’s grace, which seems impossible to the modern mind … Edwards found no place for a concept of self-esteem based on inherent human worth … In fact, Edwards pointed away from this kind of natural self-esteem and instead advocated humbling oneself before God as a sinner, which he believed was a precondition for the experience of godly self-respect.

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  1. #1 by Bruce Davidson on March 11, 2009 - 8:37 pm

    Thank you very much for your encouraging comments on my paper about Edwards and self-love. You evidently understood it very well. I haven’t gotten that much feedback about it, except for the editor of Association of Biblical Counselors journal, who asked permission to republish it. It was in the November, 2008 issue of their online journal. Anyway, thanks for spreading the word on this paper. I think Edwards has a lot of insight on this topic that modern Christians need, based on Scripture, and provides an alternative to the psychotherapeutic nonsense that passes for theology in many circles nowadays.

  2. #2 by clearly on March 12, 2009 - 8:19 am

    Bruce, thanks for stopping by! The article was a huge help to me. And, I had fun reading it.

  3. #3 by Bruce on March 12, 2009 - 12:04 pm

    Thanks for getting back. I’m glad it was helpful and enjoyable for you to read. I enjoyed researching and putting it together (although it was also a lot of work, since Edwards has written reams of stuff about this, and tons of scholars have commented about it too). You might also like to read my paper “A Contrite Heart is Better than an Esteemed Self: How Self-Esteem Ideology Contradicts Reason and the Bible,” which looks at the issue more broadly and biblically, with a little mention of Edwards too. It’s directed more to the everyday Christian. You can find it in a couple of places on the Internet. One is at Psychoheresy Awareness Ministries, which is a good source for articles and books critical of psychologized religion. Just google the title.

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