Not From Ourselves: Holy Love in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards

Bruce W. Davidson



Abstract: In modern discourse, few words have become as debased as the word “love.” Jonathan Edwards defined Christian love very differently from popular ideas about love. Before the prevalence of current Romantic and therapeutic concepts, “holy love” was in widespread use in Christendom to distinguish divine love from mundane loves, and Edwards also embraced the concept. To Edwards the word “holy” especially meant divine moral transcendence. As the sign of sincere faith, holy love stands in contrast to narcissistic religious love, the mark of hypocrisy. Holy love exalts God, pursues ethical purity, values truth, embraces rationality, produces deep humility, and fixes its attention on heavenly realities. For one thing, holy love produces an exile mentality in regard to this world. Edwards also associated holy love with “humble love,” showing that an attitude of rude familiarity toward God goes contrary to holy love. Significantly, holy love leads to moral purity and even induces a hatred of evil, so it is very far from the modern psychotherapeutic notion of “unconditional acceptance.” Furthermore, such love encompasses adherence to scriptural truth and reasonable faith, since “holy affections are not heat without light.” Finally, holy love challenges the credibility of spirituality marked by self-indulgent, emotional excess. This prominent idea in Edwards’s thought makes clear the danger of blending Christian and non-Christian concepts of love and merits a revival of usage in the contemporary Christian world.

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Bruce W. Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan, and a board member of the Jonathan Edwards Center, Japan.