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How Love Enlarges the Self: Jonathan Edwards on Loving God and Neighbor

Kyle Strobel


An exploration of Jonathan Edwards' understanding of the command to "love your neighbor as yourself."

Assistant Professor of Spiritual Theology and Formation, Talbot School of Theology
January 4, 2016

When I held my first child in my arms, I was struck by how unusual my love for her was. I had not experienced love like this before. I was overflowing with love for a stranger, someone I just met, and yet I knew that part of my heart resided within her, and hers within me. She had already set up a foreign embassy in my soul, and this embassy has ambition to grow and take more property for herself.

You’ll Be in My Heart

This experience opens up a curious feature of the biblical portrayal of love. In 2 Cor. 7:2-3 Paul asks the Corinthians to “make room” for them in their hearts, and explains that they reside within his heart already. Similarly, in Ephesians 5:28-30 Paul argues that a husband loves his wife as he loves himself, since she is a part of his own body, and then goes on to ground this in how God loves us—we who are members of himself. Notice the curious feature of these verses is that our love of others is not necessarily outside of our self-love, but internal to it. Self-love, in this sense, isn’t selfish, because it has somehow enlarged to pull another into it; the call is to love as if that person were a part of oneself.

“[T]he person who loves enlarges her self to pull others into an internalized relation of love within the person’s own self-loving.”

Jonathan Edwards on Neighbor Love and Self-Love

This scriptural impulse is picked up and developed by Jonathan Edwards in his understanding of theological anthropology.1 On his account, the human creature so mirrors God’s life that the creature can receive God in his self-giving (what Edwards calls “emanation”) and rebound God’s life of glory, beauty, and love back to God (in an event Edwards calls “remanation”).2 Here, I want to focus our attention on a particular aspect of Edwards’s understanding of the human person who loves truly. In short, the person who loves enlarges her self to pull others into an internalized relation of love within the person’s own self-loving. In this sense, the call to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) is given a literal depiction through the enlargement of one’s self-love to include the neighbor.

Two Kinds of Self-Love

In Edwards’s understanding of the human person, there are two kinds of self-love. First, what we might call neutral self-love, is simply a person willing what she wills. In Edwards’s words, “Self-love, I think, is generally defined: a man’s love of his own happiness” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 8:575). This is nothing other than willing. When we will something, we are simply loving what we love—we are inclining toward what we find beautiful. This is just a form of self-love, and is necessary in order to will something.

Second, when self-love becomes negative, it is because of an inordinate self-love—what we normally think of as selfishness. Interestingly, on this account, self-love itself is not sinful or negative, but is recognized as an essential aspect of being human. Edwards states,

“It is not a thing contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself; or what is the same thing, that he should love his own happiness. Christianity does not tend to destroy a man’s love to his own happiness; it would therein tend to destroy the humanity. Christianity is not destructive of humanity.” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 8:254)

While self-love itself is not necessarily inordinate, it is certainly possible that the person has too high a degree of self-love in comparison (i.e., “inordinate” in relation) to other goods. Maybe praising God is something we love, but then we come to realize what we truly love is the feeling of excitement we get in praise and not necessarily God himself. Maybe, like Peter, we do not hesitate to proclaim that Christ is king, but when he talks of his suffering we quickly lose interest (Mark 8:27-33).

“Edwards takes Christ’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself” literally, in that you are to love your neighbor within your own self-loving.”

Importantly, to love God and others, on this view, will entail that self-love remains intact. To place one’s happiness in God or others is to have a self-love that is not confined to oneself, but is enlarged to hold others within it. Edwards claims explicitly,

“But yet this is not selfishness, because it is not a confined self-love, because his self-love flows out in such a channel as to take in others with himself. The self which he loves is … enlarged and multiplied, so that in those same acts wherein he loves himself he loves others.” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 8:258)

This is how Edwards understands Paul’s point that we need to “make room” for each other in our hearts. To love someone is to internalize them such that you love them as you love yourself.

Edwards takes Christ’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself” literally, in that you are to love your neighbor within your own self-loving. Truly loving someone makes them internal to your own life, and therefore, necessarily for Edwards, internal to your own self-love. This movement to create an internal relation within one’s self-love runs contrary to selfishness. Edwards avers,

“Selfishness is a principle which does … confine a man’s heart to himself. Love enlarges it and extends it to others. A man’s self is … extended and enlarged by love. Others so far as beloved do … become parts of himself.” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 8:263)

Shrunken Souls: The Effects of Sin on the Human Capacity to Love

In the Fall and our condition in the flesh, we have a tendency to collapse inwardly upon ourselves and turn toward sinful autonomy. While the problem in the Fall is not that human persons have self-love, self-love is still the culprit. In the Fall, human persons lost their “nobler and more extensive principles, and fell wholly under the government of self-love.” Persons became “little and ignoble,” and their soul “shrunk from its primitive greatness and extensiveness into an exceeding diminution and confinedness.” This was not how humans were supposed to live. The “noble principle of divine love” which man had within, by the Holy Spirit, was to enlarge the soul “to a kind of comprehension of all his fellow creatures; and not only so, but was not confined within such strait limits as the bounds of the creation but was extended to the Creator, and dispersed itself abroad in that infinite ocean of good and was … swallowed up by it, and become one with it.” After the Fall,

“those nobler principles were immediately lost and all this excellent enlargedness of his soul was gone and he thenceforward shrunk into a little point, circumscribed and closely shut up within itself to the exclusion of others. God was forsaken and fellow creatures forsaken, and man retired within himself and became wholly governed by narrow, selfish principles. Self-love became absolute master of his soul, the more noble and spiritual principles having taken warning and fled.” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 8:253-254)

Love Makes Room: Enlarging the Self by Internalizing Others

This notion of enlargement, or what we can call “internalization,” is an important facet of Edwards’s understanding of anthropology. To enlarge the self in love is to internalize another—the act of enlargement assumes that we are “making room” in our self for the other. Edwards claims,

“I have observed from time to time that in pure love to others (i.e. love not arising from self-love) there’s a union of the heart with others; a kind of enlargement of the mind, whereby it so extends itself as to take others into a man’s self: and therefore it implies a disposition to feel, to desire, and to act as though others were one with ourselves.” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 8:589)

In Edwards’s anthropology, relations are internalized, and to become united to someone in love necessitates pulling them into oneself. There is a structure of relationality constructed in the human person that is formed according to what a person hides in their heart.

“God’s uniting act of love creates the space for the self to be united within and to unite to others; love of God creates the possibility for love of neighbor…”

What we see, therefore, with how the self engages reality in Edwards’s thought is that persons are called to an internal union that allows for true love of others. There is a certain internal stability of self that allows for this internalization, as the “existential I” gazes upon and rests in love with his perceived idea.3 Just as the Father gazes upon his Son (i.e., the divine Idea) in the love of the Spirit, and loves his creatures by pulling them within this love, so too does the human creature overflow in grace and love to others by internalizing them within their own relation between self (existential “I”) and perceived idea. A divided self will struggle to love others, since loving others requires an internalization of them, or, captivated with self-interest, they will simply use the other to buttress their self. In either case, a divided, chaotic soul is too tied up in self-interest to enlarge in love, and does not have the capacity to pull the other within in a relation of love. Just as love “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14), so love binds together two persons internally, receiving each other as a part of oneself. We might call this a relational union—a union of hearts to become “members of each other” (Eph. 4:25).

Importantly, there is a correlation to this activity in natural (i.e., non-regenerate) relations; unbelievers can love each other and can enlarge their own self-loving to internalize others. But to truly enlarge in love in the broadest sense is to have the Holy Spirit of God—the very love of God—internal to one’s self. As love “unites all things” (Col. 3:14), this love of God unites the creature to God’s own life. This is an internalization of the creature—“Your life is hidden with Christ in God,” (Col. 3:3)—such that the person can be said to be a “partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). God’s uniting act of love creates the space for the self to be united within and to unite to others; love of God creates the possibility for love of neighbor, “as I [Jesus] have loved you,” the basis of Jesus’ new commandment (John 13:34). God is the ultimate example of this, whose fullness provides the context for creatures to be embraced and internalized in love.

“Heaven Is a World of Love”

This account of love is an anticipation of the eternal life of heaven, which is, in Edwards’s words, “a world of love.” But heaven is only a world of love because the God of love reigns there, “for God is the fountain of love, as the sun is the fountain of light” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 13:369). In heaven, Edwards tells us, dwells the “Father of love,” and “[d]ivine love is in him not as a subject which receives from another, but as its original seat, where it is of itself” (WJE 8:373). This is the ultimate end of God’s own life—the intrinsic telos of God’s dynamic being. This love

“flows out in innumerable streams toward all the created inhabitants of heaven…. And the saints and angels are secondarily the subjects of holy love, not as in whom love is as in an original seat, as light is in the sun which shines by its own light, but as it is in the planets which shine by reflecting the light of the sun.” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 8:373-374)

This love is rebounded and returned to God, and God subsumes that love within his life. But what God has received is his own love, caught up in and through the creature, and rebounded back to the Father in Christ by the Spirit.

God in his utter necessity stands free against the finitude and contingency of the creature, but it is here that the creature comes to drink of a love that does not seek to remove freedom, but give it fully.

“There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world … with a deluge of love.” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 13:370)

This love upholds the Christian from within, allowing her to open to God and others and receive them into her own internal movement of love. To quote the lovely phrase from Hans Urs von Balthasar, as Christians, we “find ourselves afloat like a ship above the immense depths of an entirely different element,”4 which is nothing less than the unfathomable love of the Father in the Son and the Spirit.

Don’t Lose Your Heart

On this account, we can possibly feel the weightiness of the biblical claim to “guard your heart” (Prov. 4:23) a bit more. The texture and plasticity of one’s heart, tempered in love (or in its lack), governs one’s ability to enlarge and receive the other. This is something, perhaps, that is most readily accepted by children.

Ravi Zacharias tells a helpful story of his daughter and three-year-old grandson, where his daughter was running around searching for her lost keys. “I’m losing my mind,” she proclaimed, to no one in particular, as her son watched her frantic investigation. “Just make sure you don’t lose your heart,” her son announced, “because I’m in there.” In the attachment, and subsequent individuation of the child to his mother, we may catch a glimpse of the heart’s enlargement to receive another. He really is in there, upheld in a land foreign to himself, and as he comes to realize this and accept how this buoys his self, he is better prepared to understand that his life is hidden with Christ in God.

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