The Nature of True Virtue – Love to God (Pt. 1)



True Virtue Supremely Consists in Love to God

All of Edwards’ premises culminate into this profound claim: “From what has been said, it is evident that true virtue must chiefly consist in love to God; the Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best.”[1] Since the primary object of virtuous benevolence must be ‘being in general,’ (see pg. 6) then the greatest being must be the chief object of virtuous benevolence; and since God by definition is the greatest and best of being, all true virtue must essentially consist in love to God. The same conclusion is drawn in regards to the second object of virtuous benevolence, benevolent being. Since God is also the most benevolent of beings, He is worthy of all love directed to the secondary object of virtuous benevolence.

It is easy to identify that this is not the way modern culture views true virtue (love to God), yet it is unavoidable given the logical deduction from Edwards’ premises. It resolves back to the essential claim of the primary object of virtuous benevolence. Since the essence of virtue cannot primarily consist in love to those who are virtuous, because this would conclude virtue to be both the cause and effect of itself (circular reasoning), then ‘being in general’ is left to be the primary object of true virtue – i.e. to act virtuously, one must love the being as being, and not simply love the being for its acting virtuously. Therefore, since ‘being’ is the primary object of love, love to the greatest of beings must be the chief exercise of virtue, and without it, there can be no true virtue.

“He that has true virtue, consisting in benevolence to being in general, and in benevolence to virtuous being, must necessarily have a supreme love to God…all true virtue must radically and essentially, and as it were summarily consist in this.”[2]

One can see how Edwards has truly paved the way for his conclusion. If one rejects this claim of ‘true virtue chiefly consisting in love to God,’ he must debunk Edwards at his foundation (whereby I still see no avenue to refutation).

God is not only the greatest and most benevolent being, but also He is the source, fountain, head, and foundation of all being and beauty. Every good and perfect thing is from God, from the very emanation of His own goodness and perfection. God is the one “on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom, and through whom, and to whom is all being and all perfection.”[3] If one be inclined to love a being for its being, how can it be truly virtuous not to love God, the source and fountain of all being? If one subsequently is inclined to love those who share their love of being, thus being beautiful themselves, how can it be truly virtuous not to love God, the source and fountain of all that is beautiful.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue (Ann Arbor Paperbacks) (University of Michigan Press, 1960), 14.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 15.


29 thoughts on “The Nature of True Virtue – Love to God (Pt. 1)

  1. My favorite quote from this chapter:

    “If the Deity is to be looked upon as within that system of beings which properly terminates our benevolence, or belonging to that whole, certainly he is to be regarded as the head of the system, and the chief part of it: if it be proper to call him a part, who is infinitely more than all the rest, and in comparison of whom, and without whom, all the rest are nothing, either as to beauty or existence.”

  2. So, if I am understanding correctly, to act virtuous one must ‘love being for being,’ and since God is the source of all being, and the greatest being, to love being for being, you must love God. Which would cause us to conclude that you cannot be virtuous without loving God.
    Is that right?


  3. Hi Taylor, thanks for stopping by my blog!

    Christians often profess the love of God is most evident within the sacrifice of Jesus, where the Blameless bore humanity’s sin so that all who may believe in Him are sanctified. This, theologically, is the pinnacle of God’s love – that even when we were sinners, God still decided to save us.

    What I’m thinking about a lot at the moment is how Deism and Christianity are often conflated. If we imagine that there is a God (not strictly your God, just a God) then we tend to think of that God as the source of all perfection and love. However, when we contrast the ideal of God (Deism) with the Christian God (theism), the Love looks very different. To put it mildly, God’s wrath and character seem at odds with the Deistic standard; His Love appears in an altogether redemptive form rather than an overt compassionate form.

    So I guess my question is this: how do you personally reconcile God’s less than desirable characteristics (predestination, ordination of sin, ordination of evil) with statements like: “God is not only the greatest and most benevolent being, but also He is the source, fountain, head, and foundation of all being and beauty. Every good and perfect thing is from God, from the very emanation of His own goodness and perfection.”

    Thanks in advance 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment D. Handler! I appreciate your time, so I’ll try to keep this short.

      I personally reconcile this by not merely desiring God’s characteristics, but God Himself. I do not simply desire a God who is good to me; I desire a good God. To simply desire His blessings is self-centric and prideful, which I desperately need to flee from – as my biggest problem is ‘me’.

      Thus, I want to know God for who He is, and the way to do this is by His gracious revelation. God is not a caricature that I have constructed according to my wants and desires. God is not simply the being I placed in the gap between my knowledge and my wishes. Neither is He the “trumpcard” I have designed to blissfully assert my ignorance. God has revealed Himself to me, and I believe this to be the God of the Bible, and I have proposed this revelation as God.

      Those “undesirable characteristics,” therefore, are not undesirable to me in the slightest. They are revealed aspects of the God who saved me. You may be disgusted by this God whose ways are ‘mysterious,’ but I cannot but buckle at the knees with humility.

      • I guess it only makes sense that a Christian would answer according to the Christian understanding, yeah? Haha. I really appreciate your prompting. I look forward to reading more of your blogs!

      • Wow, huge subject! I like your answer because it is foundational. God is who He is, and who He is is perfectly good, in everything that He is, whether I like it or not. When this subject comes up, you have to start there, “buckled at the knees with humility.” Romans 9:20 “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?”

        One thing to watch out for is stoic fatalism. “Well, I guess I have to believe it because it’s in the Bible, but it makes me really uncomfortable and really I don’t like it at all.” People do this with hell primarily, and predestination because it relates eventually to hell.

        What’s needed is for the affections to also be engaged fully in the believing – to not only assent to the truth of the doctrine because you “have” to, but to love and delight yourself in the God who is this way, because He is this way!

        To that end, I find Edwards so helpful (the original post was about Edwards after all ;-):

        Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained that Evil Be?

        especially 2.2 – Why Does God Ordain that there Be Evil?

        here’s Edwards’ conclusion:

        “So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.”

      • Hi Braeden,

        For predestination, the bible causes me to believe: Romans 9, Ephesians 1, John 6:37, 1 Corinthians 2:14, Romans 3:11, Romans 3:23, Acts 13:48, Romans 8:29-30. The list goes on, but these and a smattering of other verses each indicate predestination and total depravity.

        As for ‘ordination’ (pardon me, I should have used ‘authorship of’, not the right word), this is harder to pin down but comes mainly from reformed theology. Reformed theologians argue that everything exists for the glory of God, even sin, even evil. God uses these things for His glory and, as God authored the universal law and code, so too would he have authored the possibility of evil and sin. Note that this last position isn’t strictly water-tight, due to the ‘mystery’ aspect of God not revealing where evil came from, but is rather my conclusion. If God created everything, then he created evil. If he didn’t create evil, or the possibility for evil, then something exists that He did not Will or create, therefore God isn’t omnipotent.

        Just my thoughts, though. I understand that there are many Christians who don’t subscribe to reformed theology – there are Arminianists, Open Theists, Methodists, etc. Maybe you are of this persuasion, in which case you may be able to happily marry Free Will and our choice and God ‘choosing us as we choose Him’. But from my reading of the bible, I can’t say I’m happy to believe this. I want to, I used to, but the nagging truth of Calvinism is right there…

    • First of all, thank you for your kind and descriptive answer. It is nice to be able to ask an honest question without being snapped at.

      1 Timothy 2:3-4 says, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
      If God wants us all to be saved, how could He predestine us to eternal damnation? This is what I do not understand about predestination.

      I think you are right in saying everything exists for the glory of God. I don’t think anything in creation is bad. When God made the universe, He said it was good. How could God say creation was good if He had already planned for men to be evil? I am not taking away from God’s sovereignty or His knowledge. God still is supreme, and it is only by His choice that we may have free will. God is omniscient. He already knew that man would sin, but knowing man would sin and allowing it to happen is not the same as making man sin.

      I’m doing my best to understand.


      P.S. Here is a quote about free will by C.S. Lewis:

      “God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.
      Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (…) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will -that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings- then we may take it it is worth paying.”
      — C.S. Lewis

      I found an article about freewill and Calvinism.
      It is quite long, but I encourage you to read and consider what it says.

      • No worries Braeden, thanks for your considered response too. I always think it’s worth being civil and kind in these sorts of discussions; everybody benefits that way 🙂

        The 1 Timothy verse forms part of series of verses that all say the same thing: ‘God wants everybody to be saved; God’s salvation is for all’. Trouble is, contrasted against all the verses that support predestination, we kind of get two different answers. I feel that people tend to see what they want to see, either in predestination being supreme or in our choice being valid. I’m doing my best to understand too; this is a deeply, deeply complex issue within theology with conflicting verses.

        Thanks for the article link, I’ll give it a read. About the Lewis quote: I used to agree with the principle of free will making our decisions and salvation much more important. I don’t anymore. If I could sacrifice my free will for a world without evil, I would do so in a heartbeat. People have this kneejerk reaction to the idea of automation – ‘we’re not robots, we have free will!’. Honestly, why is being limited a bad thing? Why couldn’t God create a world in which we were limited to only Good and make it just as meaningful? He’s surely capable of this. Perhaps our choice makes the love sweeter, using Lewis-speak, but again, predestination muddles this up. If salvation is a matter of God’s choice to begin with, are we truly any different to automatons? What value do our choices have if we cannot even choose God, yet are still blamed when we ‘choose’ evil? I’m not sure…

    • Hi DH,

      I can tell you’re an extremely thoughtful guy. What an intricate subject to delve into!

      I think the answer to your question is found in your asking. The god of Deism is a god that was invented by men: “If we imagine…then we tend to think…” and then we conflate whatever we just came up with with “the ideal of God.” It sounds like you would know the history of Deism: really smart, rational, moral (for the most part), enlightenment thinkers, but men nonetheless, took the best qualities they could find in man, magnified them and called it “god”. Is compassion a good thing in man? magnify it and attribute it to God. Is self-centeredness a bad thing in man? we wouldn’t want to attribute that to God, and so forth. Of course God’s wrath seems at odds with the Deistic standard: it’s like the clay saying “here’s the best things there are about clay x 10,000. How are you measuring up there, Mr. Potter?” The answer is to understand that things that are utterly inappropriate for a created being are conversely perfectly appropriate in the Creator. Not just appropriate, but as Edwards shows in The End For Which God Created the World, actually wrong if He were not that way.

      Taylor can speak for himself, but I actually don’t “reconcile” anything at all. The fact that He predestines is a beautiful thing to me. The fact that He has ordained sin and evil (without being the author of it, etc…) is a beautiful and a perfectly good thing, not in itself essentially, but because of how it sets the stage for beautiful and glorious aspects of Who He Is to be displayed, like mercy, which wouldn’t have been displayed otherwise.

      It hasn’t come easy for me. I used to hate predestination and these related “less than desirable characteristics.” The decisive factor was when I cried out to Him: “help me to love you!”

      • Thanks for the reply dtkleven,

        The Deism/Theism conflation is certainly something that interests me (I’ve got another article on it). It’s interesting that the Deists, as you said, tended to take their best qualities and amplify them and thus ascribe those qualities to a standard God. I personally think theism suffers from this too – each writer of the holy text shows a different characteristic of God, whether showing God’s wrath in Jericho, Soddom/G, God’s redemption in Jonah, God’s love in Jesus, God’s oddly Paul-like teachings in Paul’s letters. I don’t so much see this as God revealing himself, but rather as man writing their own characteristics onto God, much in the same way the Deists do. When the chosen people were angry with Babylon – surprise, God was too. When Yahwist sect members dismayed that Judaism was straying back into its polytheistic roots – surprise, God (Yahwah) was dismayed too.

        I also think there’s a problem here that I need to flesh out. Bare with me. Theists will often say that people have an idea of God that sits within their hearts, even if those people have never heard the gospel truth. This is called general revelation, the idea that God reveals himself in some intangible aspect whether by nature or some other way. Everybody has an idea that a God or natural force might exist. At best, this is evidence for a Deistic God. However, the special characteristics of your God (His nature) are unable to be discerned from nature (the natural world). This is special revelation: what is found in the bible. So we run into a little problem. Theists like to claim that everybody knows ‘God’ by default. But we come to a problem; Christians can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim that Deism is a false standard of God while also claiming that God is evident in nature, because the only God evident in nature is Deistic. Thus, if the standard God people think exists (from general revelation) appears so much at odds with your God (special revelation) then can you blame them for thinking that your God is morally sub-standard compared to their Deistic impression? This might seem like a bit of a tangent, but this feeds into your point when you paraphrase Romans 9, the clay stuff.

        I like your answer about why evil and sin exist; many Christians often just eschew the notion and do the ”mystery, mystery” dance. It’s good to see someone actually engaging with their scripture.

        As for your solution, I’m glad you found happy equilibrium. I wasn’t able to. I couldn’t fall before God and do the whole ‘calling out for grace’ thing, in full knowledge that predestination was probably ‘truth’. It corroded my faith.

        Thanks for the prompt, I’m having lots of fun 🙂

      • Hi DH,

        you’ve obviously thought some things through, to a considerable depth I might add. I’m also enjoying your challenging questions, though I should say that God is more than “something fun” for me to think about – He is my joy and my life.

        I think your characterization of the biblical description of God is a bit oversimplified. God’s great mercy is on display in the story of Sodom and Gomorrha as well as his wrath and judgment. Likewise, his wrath and judgment are on display in the story of Jonah and Ninevah, and it is the fact that the one is displayed against the backdrop of the other that makes each quality stand out more clearly than it otherwise would. I think the biblical accounts give a much more richand unified account of the character of God than you’re giving it credit for.

        Rather than the bible seeming like a series of shifting anthropomorphisms writ large, it seems like the revelation of God to me. I look at how Paul quotes the old testament prophets, and rather than it seeming merely “Paul-like,” I see all the pieces of the puzzle falling perfectly into place, into a pattern so remarkable and beautiful that it could only be Divine. I read your characterization, and honestly, I think “too shallow of a reading.” no offense!

        Christians can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim that Deism is a false standard of God while also claiming that God is evident in nature, because the only God evident in nature is Deistic.

        I don’t think that’s quite right. You’re referencing Romans 1, which doesn’t at all teach that “everyone knows God by default.” It simply says that they know enough about Him to be “without excuse.” In fact, this passage anticipates and rebuts your scenario, in that they “glorify Him not as God” and “changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator.” The whole point of Romans 1, which you’ve referenced selectively, is that you can blame them for creating a God in their own image, comparing it to the God of the Bible and pronouncing Him “substandard.”

  4. There are some delicate metaphysical categories being addressed in this post, and I appreciate your treatment of these categories. However, and please keep in mind that I do not have any background knowledge of this ‘Edwards’ that you are writing about, the metaphysical foundation attributed to the virtues you write about are founded upon the first principle of being qua God. Yet, this is not a logically deducible principle from some other first principle; instead, it is itself the first principle held only by belief in God in contrast to disbelief. While I myself am a believer and would defend your argument, I struggle to find a cogent response to a categorization of virtue from another theistic perspective, e.g. Buddhist virtue, Aristotelian virtue, and etc. What do you make of this?

    • Thank you for your reflections! Yes, when dealing with his system, Edwards gives two options in regards to true virtue: 1) one can be an atheist, or 2) one can primarily and essentially love God. It is impossible to believe in God, understanding virtue’s primary object to be ‘being in general,’ and not love Him supremely. The first option is completely incompatible with Edwards view of virtue, and thus would have to be addressed first. The second option is often where the issue lies. Edwards addressed it in chapter 2 (my summation is found in “Love to God, Pt. 3”).

      Many other moral writers do not wholly exclude ‘love to God,’ but wrongfully prioritize that love as subsequent to one’s love of creation and God’s creatures. This is a simple inconsistence because it does not follow its foundational principle – i.e. love to being, whereby the essence of virtue is left to only a complacent love, where the essence consists in circular reasoning – to its full expression in love to the Being of beings. Edwards reveals this inconsistence with a series of ‘if…then’ statements, all of which intimate this essential principle: “If true virtue consists partly in respect to God, then doubtless it consists chiefly in it.”[35] The very idea of God signifies a being that infinitely surpasses all other beings, and therefore anyone who is inclined to love being ought to be inclined to chiefly love God.

      Your point is nonetheless valid. If one does not view God as the ‘Being of Beings’ (which, does any theistic view deny this? [pardon my ignorance]) then they are not inclined to see the inconsistency noted by Edwards. He is working from that presupposition, but he realizes this (hence the two options: either you are an atheist, or you must primarily love God in regards to true virtue).

      • Thank you for the speedy response.

        I think I see the point you’re making, i.e., genuine virtue stems from love of God and extends to love of creation. In other words, we love creation by and through loving God first, insofar as they receive their beings from His being. This is explicitly Christian for the Christian and I do not disagree with it. However, what if I’m not a believer but I live in a way the exemplify the virtues? For instance, a man may not believe in God but he lives what Christians consider to be a very virtuous life by being faithful to his spouse and his children and fulfilling the demands that are appropriate to his relationships. In this instance, it can hardly be said that he is virtuous because he loves being qua being and he loves all others through and by that first act of love.

        Further, consider a pagan like Aristotle, to whom we owe our metaphysical language and categories, such as the ones we are dealing with in this conversation. For Aristotle, virtue is not an appropriation of love of being qua being to others whose beings are received. Rather, virtue is the means between two extremes where the good is recognized by the virtuous man for what it is in itself. Each virtue is different, but they are all built upon the cardinal virtues (from the Latin carde, meaning hinge). Yet, despite their differences, the virtues are quite similar to our own Christian virtues and does not consider that very first Act as its object. Aristotle was no atheist, but one can hardly say that his understanding of virtue is similar to Edwards’.

      • However, what if I’m not a believer but I live in a way the exemplify the virtues?

        Great question! This is one the most starling points of Edwards’ treatise on true virtue. “So wait, we are supposed to believe that no one does good apart from God, not even one?” As these posts are summations of Edwards’ thought, I would first reply with his words. Edwards makes a distinction between particular vs. general beauty (virtue). An action may seem virtuous, but when it is then viewed in light of in a universality of things – i.e. in a full view of all its connections – one may see that the action was not of the nature of true virtue. There is some value to the beauty, nonetheless, but it is does not essentially flow from the proper fountainhead. That is Edwards’ distinciton.

        Now I personally answer this question from Romans 14:23, where Paul states that everything that does not come from faith is sin. That is startling. Every virtuous act that does not come from faith is sin. The obvious deduction is that faith is necessary to virtuous action. We could really pile up verses to show that this is a common thread throughout Scripture – i.e. no man does goos (Romans 3:12), all man’s righteousness apart from Christ’s righteousness is filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), etc. – but I think the point is explicitly clear. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Why faith? It is because faith is the means by which we are united to Christ, whereby we have Christ’s perfect rightouesness imputed onto us. Without this fiath, we are simply well dressed corpses – ‘easy-to-be-around’ dead men.

        We must be careful not to strip Christianity down to another (or better) ethical code. Christianity is essentially a gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ’s incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and authority. Therefore, I see no harm in showing that there is virtue ‘higher’ than love to others. It is not that love to others is bad – not at all – it is simply that it is incomplete from the Christian perspective. So practically, I would not degrade an unbeliever for their love to others, rather I would motion them towards the gospel, towards faith in that gospel; because it is in the gospel that we are made alive, and thus act virtuously in regards to the universality of things.

        In regards to your example of Aristotle, I simply do not have any experience with his ethical system. I have not study his view enough to really engage with you there; and for that, I apologize.

        There are some other clarifications that Edwards notes that may better exlpain the particulars of his thought (‘how should we love others?’ being one of them) but you can find it all under the featured post. Maybe that would help? Anyway, thanks again for your prompt; I really appreciate the refining process.

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