Review: The Nature of True Virtue

The Nature of True Virtue by Jonathan Edwards

This is the second part of two dissertations, the first being The End for Which God Created the World). The first deals with the glory of God; this deals with what constitutes true virtue. It was written to expose the fallacies of other views of virtue which sought to define it without reference to God, but only to the goodness of man.

He starts with a basic definition: “virtue is the beauty of the qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them…[or] what that is, which renders any habit, disposition, or exercise of the heart truly beautiful.” His answer to what “virtue most essentially consists in,” sounds strange at first: “true virtue most essentially consists in BENEVOLENCE TO BEING IN GENERAL.” He then develops this to show how since God is the source of all being and has infinitely more being than anything else, virtue must consist mostly in love (benevolence) to Him, and love to fellow creatures.

He explains two types of love. Love of benevolence is “that affection or propensity of the heart to any being, which causes it to incline to its well-being, or disposes it to desire and take pleasure in its happiness.” Love of complacence is “delight in beauty, or complacence in the person or being beloved for his beauty.”

As usual, there is so much to stretch the mind into areas never considered before. Have you ever been happy for God because He is so happy? “A benevolent propensity of heart is exercised, not only in seeking to promote the happiness of the being towards whom it is exercised, but also in rejoicing in his happiness.”

His chapter on “natural conscience” was very thought provoking. Edwards explains how it is that man by nature “approves or disapproves the moral treatment which passes between us and others.” A sobering thought was that “The natural conscience, if well-informed, will approve of true virtue, and will disapprove and condemn the want of it, and opposition to it; and yet without seeing the true beauty in it.” Similar to his reasoning in A Divine and Supernatural Light. His description of the final judgment at the close of this chapter is so helpful in describing the sinfulness of man and the total justice of that final judgment, so that “their consciences will approve the dreadful sentence of the judge against them.”

This is one of the most philosophical of Edwards’s writings. It takes intense thought to follow his reasoning, but I found some of the most delightful meditations on love for God to be the result.

Highly recommended.

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