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Philosophy E-123 October 31, 2006

Classics of American Thought Florine Cleary

First Required Writing Assignment

2. In section two of part three of A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Jonathan

Edwards argues against those who “say that all love arises from self-love; and that it is
impossible in the nature of things, for any man to have any love to God, or any other
being, but that love to himself must be the foundation of it” (Hollinger and Capper
anthology, p. 89). Set out Edwards’ argument or arguments against this view and assess it
or them.

Jonathan Edwards wishes to defend the existence of a pure spiritual love of God

from those who would try to discount even love for God as being derived from self-

interest. He acknowledges that love is indeed most often found to depend on

considerations of reciprocity and mutual benefit but this love he calls merely natural, “the

love of wicked men”, “as much in the hearts of devils as angels”. I understand why

Edwards wants to make the kind of love which God deserves less self-serving than that

which typically exists between men. However in asking that men be inspired to love God

in a way which ignores any impact He has on the lives of men I find him illogical. What

then are we to love Him for?

Edwards holds that natural love is unfitting as the root of love for the supernatural

or divine; in being concerned with worldly matters it cannot comprehend the spiritual and

so falls short as a proper love by which to exalt God. Edwards goes so far as to call this

natural love “worthless in the sight of God” taking as examples the testing of Job and

preachings of Christ1. The proper love of God is a spiritual love, by which Edwards

means that at its foundation it is without considerations of the self; it arises from

Personally I find these examples only support that your love for God should be able to withstand and
understand that he is good and worthy of love even if he is not manifesting his goodness for your
immediate benefit.
contemplation of God’s excellence in itself. That which is beyond the natural inspires it.

Edwards argues that this spiritual, saintly love would cause one to unite one’s interests

with those of God and so the fault his opponents find with those who worship and glorify

God and find their own happiness therein is a poor criticism, for this happiness is merely

the resulting fruit of the original underlying spiritual love.

For Edwards, the quality of love may be found in its origin, the gradations range

from the self-less to the selfish, but a love of God that is not rooted in self-love is

possible and it makes no sense to argue that the enjoyment of God’s manifestations and

grace, even the glorification of Him renders the core selfish. Edwards moves on to

further clarify the disparity between perfect spiritual love and mere natural love in our

affections. He does not so much offer proof that the saints and elect do have spiritual love

for God as examine why a spiritual love is of greater worth than natural love. Perhaps he

believes that its potentiality lies in its perfection. But assuming spiritual love exists in the

hearts of men because we consider some men holy and spiritual love is the most holy

species of love does not inspire confidence in its actuality. One ends up feeling that if it

exists it is because God is both deserving and desirous of such a supernatural love from

men2. Putting aside that Edwards does not seem overly concerned with proving the

actuality of this spiritual love in the hearts of men, and occupies himself primarily with

why it is the highest species of love, I find myself questioning whether he dismissed too

soon his opponent’s argument that all love is rooted in consideration of the self and, I

think, perhaps even rightly so.

Can God (as we conceive him) however be deserving of love just for his power and can he be desirous of
anything from us in which we have no self-interest?
How does love arise without any relation to the self? What does it mean to love

something solely for its innate Excellency? Edwards would have man fall in love with

God on purely objective grounds and from this purely objective love find the good that

God performs (for us) of secondary importance in our valuation. That man may find

himself full of awe before the powers of God is understandable, but to be full of awe

before God does not seem to me to be the same as to love Him. Wherein do we find the

cause for this “amiableness” to the great power? We find the power “transcendently

excellent” because it is in some way relevant to us, to love one must be affected and in

such a way that it seems fitting to harbor positive feelings.

What if the only manifestations of God’s power were harmful to us or what if they

just never resulted in anything meaningful to our lives? If there were an unjust God or

even a God whose only actions and reasons were absurd, would we be logical to love him

or esteem those who do? If there were a God who did not make us in his image and

concerned himself only with squirrels3 (who are made in his image), if the Sermon on the

Mount were conducted by a squirrel and for the benefit of squirrels, if exodus were

entirely about squirrels and a squirrel Christ had died to redeem the souls of all squirrels

to a squirrel heaven, and humans had no mention or place in scripture would we not think

it odd for someone to love and praise the squirrel God who has really never

acknowledged our existence from the moment we came to be and apparently our creation

was only to keep the squirrels company and show squirrel God’s magnificent diversity of

creation. Yes it would be self-less of the man to love the squirrel God but would that ever

happen (if it did might not we consider this love somewhat absurd). Our conception of

Acorns being manna from heaven.
God (especially the Judeo-Christian conception) is very much dependent on our beliefs

that we are in some way special.

Of course Edwards is not talking about the squirrel God – I talk of it only to show

how difficult it is to filter out anything of relevance to us and yet still find God excellent

and worthy of love. It makes little sense to me to talk about entirely objective grounds for

loving God, for it is in his infinite relevance that he may be called excellent. How is one

to think of God in His capacity as the creator, the judge, and the lord of all and hold

oneself and the ramifications of this entirely separate? The awe is from contemplation of

the great power, but the love is inextricably linked to the belief that God is good. It is in

His goodness that He is “transcendently excellent” and deserving of love and praise. The

powers that awe must affect us in some way, and they must affect us in a positive way for

them to be termed good and excellent. I think that what Edwards really wishes to do is to

stress the importance of not being “mercenary” about loving God, to remove oneself as

far as possible and appreciate God for being eternally good, and not depend on that

benevolence manifesting in too personal a way to be deserving of love. I believe that

what Edwards wants to emphasize is that you should be humble and delightfully

surprised at the good that comes to you, and not consider it your due or trade your love

for benefits.

It seems odd to require that to love God truly you must ignore at least at the root

of your love his goodness. Loving God just for his omnipotence seems unworthy of

praise. in love between men it is laudable to stress the importance of extending your

affections to those who do not feel such for you. The point of Luke 6:32 is that it is more
beneficial to man in general to extend your love to include those who do not as yet love

you, that God desires you to be selfless in this way for the good of all.

I wish to say again that I do not really think Edwards would want us to have the

sort of groundless (or only stemming from awe of power) love for God that I have made

his spiritual love to be. Edwards concept of God is that He is innately good, that His

powers are innately good, that His purpose and goals are good. For Edwards God’s

powers are symbolic of His superiority and that superiority is dependant on that, beyond

the considerations of men, God is identical with what is good. We are to love God for His

goodness without expecting that goodness to always trickle down to us for what we

consider to be our benefit.