December 1, 2003
Aesthetics in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards
By Christopher Walker
The subject of beauty may, at first glance, seem a rather insignificant topic given the weight and magnitude of Edwards’ works in many other significant areas of theology. An understanding of Edwards’ view of beauty, however, is essential to interpreting and understanding much of his doctrine, from the transcendence of God to the moral actions of men. For Edwards, God Himself is the author and source of all beauty, man is united to the beauty of God through Christ, and all of creation is an image of God’s beauty. Thus, a study of beauty in the work of Jonathan Edwards actually highlights several of the most important areas of his theology.
I would like to begin by considering Edwards’ conception of beauty before going on to examine its place in his theology. Beauty for Edwards is not something that is merely in the eye of the beholder, nor is it something on which different people can come to legitimately different conclusions. Beauty is found in the object itself, and must necessarily be objective. He states, “But when a form or quality appears lovely, pleasing, and delightful in itself, then it is called beautiful”. In Miscellany 739 he adds, “'Tis from the nature of the object loved, rather [than] from the degree of the principle in the lover” which determines the loveliness and excellence of an object. The reason for this is that God is the author and source of beauty. Edwards argues, “Benevolence or goodness in the Divine Being [is] the ground both of [an object’s] existence and [its] beauty.” And even more definitively, “God is…the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty…of whom, and through whom, and to whom is all being and all perfection; and whose being and beauty are, as it were, the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence.” Nothing of which God is the author can be subject to human opinion or understanding. At the same time, Edwards does recognize the potential objection that not everyone recognizes the same things as beautiful and the same things as ugly.
Because man is fallen, his perception of beauty is fallen as well. Edwards specifically defines virtue, which is based upon beauty, as an affection or disposition of the heart. Therefore, if a man’s understanding is imperfect then he cannot know perfectly what is beautiful and what is not. That does not, however, take away from the objective beauty that exists in an object. Thus Edwards’ claim is that beauty exists objectively in the thing itself, but men subjectively perceive beauty because their understanding is limited and has been corrupted by their sinful nature. For something to be objective, there must be certain principles by which it can be judged, and Edwards does write about the specific characteristics of beauty.
Edwards argues that there are two types of beauty, one spiritual and one physical, each of which has specific characteristics. Primary beauty consists in, “That consent, agreement, or union of being to being.” This primary beauty is rooted in spiritual realities. God and His communion with man and the relationship between the souls of men are both a part of this primary beauty. Edwards defines this further as benevolence toward Being in general, and toward each being in particular. More in the tradition of Plato and other western philosophers, Edwards uses the ideas of proportion, harmony, and order to guide his understanding of physical beauty. He writes in The Nature of True Virtue, “Yet there is another…secondary beauty…called by various names of regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, or harmony.” For Edwards, this physical beauty is always a reflection of the primary, spiritual beauty. Thus, spiritual beauty is found in agreement of beliefs, actions, and nature between beings, while physical beauty is found in harmony and proportion with other beings and objects. Because God is, by nature, the most perfect, holy, and good being, He is both the source of beauty and the proper object of benevolence. Given this, the first thing for us to consider is the nature of beauty in God.
For Edwards, the beauty of God begins with the Trinity. In the Trinity, the most perfect union, consent, and agreement is displayed. Between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is a perfect union both of wills and of being itself. Also, beauty is found in the perfect benevolence of the Divine Being, and nowhere other than the Trinity is so perfect a benevolence displayed. Edwards writes that, “God has appeared glorious to me, on account of the Trinity”, and again that there exists “among the persons of the Trinity, the supreme Harmony of all.” In addition to the Trinity itself, Edwards argues that Christ is beautiful in His perfect consent to the will of the Father and in sacrificing Himself for our sins, specifically writing in Miscellany 742 that Christ’s beauty and glory consist in His enjoyment of and obedience to the Father. Edwards continues his assessment of beauty in God by looking at the beauty of God’s attributes.
Edwards argues that God’s moral excellence, or His holiness, is the primary display of His beauty. When we talk about God’s holiness, we usually mean His absolute perfection. The place for holiness in beauty again stems from the idea of unity, agreement, harmony, and order. God is in perfect agreement and harmony with all His moral law, both as Author of it and as perfect judge of men according to it. Thus Edwards can argue in The End for Which God Created the World, “Another emanation of divine fullness…is the communication of God’s holiness; so that hereby the creature partakes of God’s own moral excellency; which is properly the beauty of the divine nature.” In his Miscellanies, Edwards argues that the angels are able to more perfectly see God’s “beauty in His holiness”. Scripturally, Psalms 96:9 justifies Edwards claim of the relationship between beauty and holiness when David writes, “Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!” Given God’s perfection in holiness and His benevolence and union in the Trinity, Edwards comes to the conclusion that God is the most beautiful of beings.
The final argument that Edwards makes regarding beauty in God Himself is that the proper portion of glory should be given to the most beautiful, benevolent being. In fact, Edwards argues that giving God all the glory is beautiful itself because His perfection and benevolence requires a proportional praise and glory. Edwards sums this up by writing, “For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so He is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful….and he that has true virtue…must necessarily have a supreme love to God.” This last statement requires us to look at what is perhaps Edwards most important claim about beauty, namely, its relationship to virtue.
For Edwards, moral excellence, or virtue, is a manifestation of true, spiritual beauty. There are several reasons for this. First, beauty is an affection which influences our will. In other words, our actions are motivated at some level by the beauty of the thing to be gained by an action. Further, a moral action itself may be beautiful or ugly. When a man exercises his will, he either acts in a benevolent manner, which is beautiful, or out of self-love, which Edwards argues is the opposite of benevolence. While not every beautiful thing is related to virtue, and not every single decision is related to beauty, Edwards asserts that “virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind, that are of a moral nature, such as are attended with desert or worthiness of praise or blame.” Thus, beauty can be both a motivation for and a judge of our actions. A secondary connection between virtue and beauty is that man is to reflect the beauty of God. As we saw earlier, “God must necessarily delight in the creature’s holiness, which is a conformity to and participation of [His beauty].” If beauty is defined by proportion or harmony, then we are most beautiful when we are in the greatest harmony with the commandments of God; and obedience to the commands of God is nothing other than true virtue. Further, Edwards defines true virtue as benevolence to beings in general, and just as God is the perfect example of benevolence, so we show forth beauty when we are benevolent to beings around us. But again, this benevolence is nothing more than true virtue. Edwards summarizes this by saying,
And so far as a virtuous mind exercises true virtue in benevolence to created beings…consisting in its knowledge or view of God’s glory and beauty, its union with God…and that disposition of the heart, that consent, union, or propensity of mind to being in general…is virtue, truly so called.
If moral perfection is a type or manifestation of beauty, then it is logical for Edwards to draw the converse conclusion as well. Edwards writes that disobedience, hypocrisy, and self-love are all ugly, being the opposite of the beauty shown in true virtue. Of course, true virtue can only come from that union with God, which for us consists first and foremost in salvation through Jesus Christ.
Salvation, including our union with Christ and the act of conversion itself is centered on Edwards’ idea of beauty. To begin, conversion is a response to Christ’s beauty. Speaking of the conversions and religious experiences of those in Northampton, Edwards writes, “The soul has been as it were perfectly overwhelmed [by the excellencies of Christ], and swallowed up with light and love…and a rest and joy of solace altogether unspeakable.” The conversion experience is primarily a response to the excellencies of Christ Himself, whose obedience to and union with the Father is perfectly beautiful. David Weddle furthers the argument by writing, “Edwards interpreted faith as a response to the beauty of God…consistently argu[ing] that faith is a moral virtue which reflects the beauty of God’s comprehensive and proportional love for His creatures.” In fact, this union with Christ is itself beautiful both in the harmony of the relationship and in the excellency of Christ that is imputed to us. And so we begin to see that Edwards’ concept of primary, or spiritual, beauty encompasses our being, our actions, and our relationship with God Himself. Edwards argued that an image of this spiritual beauty also exists in secondary, or physical, beauty.
God created the world in which we live, and all of creation is a reflection of the beauty of God Himself. Edwards was constantly overwhelmed by the beauty in nature which pointed him back to the Creator. In the brilliance of the sun, in the soft blue sky, in the splendor of a field of wild flowers, Edwards saw a dim reflection of the ultimate source of beauty. Edwards described the world not only as being created by God, but also as a reflection of the beauty of God. He writes, “The beauty of the world consists wholly of sweet mutual consents, either within itself, or with the Supreme Being.” Edwards’ life demonstrated his belief in the beauty of God in nature, for he was often filled with amazement by the glory and majesty of God when he contemplated the world around him. Jensen concludes, “Beauty is not an abstract concept for Edwards, it is his word for what he immediately loves in reality….it is while walking the river and watching the clouds that he is given a sense of the beauty of God.” As this view suggests, Edwards viewed nature as a picture for specific spiritual realities.
Edwards wrote that natural beauty or ugliness corresponds to spiritual realities. In other words, objects and events in the world around him were concrete examples of spiritual realities that could not be seen. He wrote that, “The sweetest and most charming beauty of [the world] is its resemblance of spiritual beauties.” And for this reason Edwards could say, “How do even…the sun, the fields and trees love a humble holiness….It makes the soul like…a garden planted by God…where the sun is Jesus Christ, the blessed beams and calm breeze, the Holy Spirit.” In the same way, the fire of the sun and the stars could serve a warning to sinners of the fire of wrath that is being stored up for them on the day of judgment. While undeniably speculative, Edwards would argue that everything in creation and every event that comes to pass serves not just its own purpose, but also to reflect or to remind us of something primary or spiritual. While physical beauty serves as a reflection of spiritual beauty, Edwards also saw beauty in art, which is a reflection of physical beauty.
Art is a reflection of physical beauty and can also display the harmony, proportion, and order that constitute beauty. For Edwards, music is the highest form of art, and the most reflective of true beauty. The harmony of different lines of music is not only beautiful itself, but could also lift one’s soul up to God and His beauty. Edwards writes,
God has so constituted nature…especially those kinds of it which have the greatest resemblance of the primary beauty, as the harmony of sounds…have a tendency to assist those whose hearts are under the influence of a truly virtuous temper, to dispose them to the exercises of divine love, and enliven in them a sense of spiritual beauty.
Jensen quotes Edwards as going so far as to say that in heaven, “the exquisite spiritual proportion will be that of a very complex tune, where respect is to be had to the proportion of a great many notes together.”
If we take a quick step back at this point, we will see a very comprehensive view of beauty presented by Jonathan Edwards. When we consider art as a reflection of physical beauty, physical beauty as a reflection of spiritual beauty, and spiritual beauty as the highest form of beauty rooted in God Himself, there is very little that falls outside of Edwards’ aesthetic. When we consider again that beauty is first and foremost an objective relationship, but then also take into account the affections of the soul and the decisions made by each individual, we begin to see just how broad and important beauty is in Edwards’ theology. For Edwards, beauty is fundamental to the concept of a Triune God, to the glory He deserves, to the world around us, and to the moral decisions we make. However, it is essential that we do not misunderstand Edwards’ idea of beauty. He is not arguing for a God who is defined by an even higher concept of beauty, nor is he arguing for a God that deserves praise or love because He is beautiful. As William Spohn summarized, “Edwards’ ethics bases its aesthetics on love of God, not its love of God on aesthetics.” For Edwards, God is both the source and the definition of beauty, and He is beautiful because of who He is.
As in all of his theology, Jonathan Edwards’ philosophy of beauty calls us to continually focus upon God. Every object around us is a reflection of a spiritual reality, either beautiful or ugly, and all spiritual beauty points us to the Author and Source of beauty, God Himself. The will is determined by beauty and our actions are judged by beauty in light of their harmony with the will of God; the most important act of the will, faith in Jesus Christ, is an act of uniting oneself to the most beautiful of all beings. For Edwards, a comprehensive study of beauty should be nothing more than a comprehensive study of our God and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
 Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, p. 140. Hendrickson Publishers.
 Edwards, Miscellanies, 739. Online Reference.
 Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, p. 123. Hendrickson Publishers.
 Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, p. 125. Hendrickson Publishers.
 Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, p. 127. Hendrickson Publishers.
 Edwards, Memoirs, as quoted in Jenson, America’s Theologian, p. 19.
 Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World. Online Reference.
 Edwards, Miscellanies, 515. Online Reference.
 Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, p. 125. Hendrickson Publishers.
 Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, p. 122. Hendrickson Publishers.
 Edwards, The End of Which God Created the World. Online Reference.
 Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, p. 127. Hendrickson Publishers.
 Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival. Online Reference.
 Weddle, David. Beauty of Faith in Jonathan Edwards. Ohio Journal of Religious Studies, 1976. Abstract.
 Edwards, as quoted in Jenson, America’s Theologian, p. 16.
 Jenson, Robert. America’s Theologian, p. 16.
 Edwards, Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Online website without a source reference.
 Edwards, Miscellanies, as quoted in Jenson, America’s Theologian, p. 16.
 Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue, p. 128. Hendrickson Publishers.
 Edwards, Miscellanies, as quoted in Jenson, America’s Theologian, p. 20.
 Spohn, William. Wovereign Beauty: Jonathan Edwards and The Nature of True Virtue. pp. 394-421 Online Journal for Theological Studies.