When Jonathan Edwards spoke of true spiritual understanding, the idea of beauty was never lacking. In fact, Edwards believed that spiritual understanding “consists primarily in a sense of the heart…of the supreme beauty and sweetness of the holiness or moral perfection of divine things.” (Religious Affections) Edwards possessed this “sense of the heart” to such an extent that Michael McClymond has described the pastor-theologian as “God-intoxicated.” So strong is Edwards’ sense of beauty that it’s almost identical with his view of holiness. According to the Northampton sage, “the beauty of the divine nature does primarily consist in God’s holiness.” (Religious Affections) Edwards later explains, “The holiness of an intelligent creature, is the beauty of all his natural perfections. And so it is in God.” Until Edwards, no theologian of the Reformed tradition emphasized the theme of beauty to any considerable degree. That is, until Karl Barth. Both men shared an acute interest in God’s beauty, and both theologians believed strongly that God’s glory could not be explained properly without recourse to the concept of beauty.
Barth was clear in his belief that many theologians steered away from the theme of beauty due to its aesthetic and seemingly subjective quality. However, neither Barth nor Edwards saw beauty as subjective. In fact, for Edwards in particular, beauty was the objective means by which we apprehend and enjoy being. 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.” (The Nature of True Virtue) Barth himself believed that beauty was not only an important theological motif; it was also essential to our view of God’s glory:
“With the help of [God’s beauty] we are able to dissipate even the suggestion that God’s glory is a mere fact, or a fact which is effective merely through God’s power, a formless and shapeless fact. It is not this. It is effective because and as it is beautiful. This explanation as such is mot merely legitimate. It is essential.” Barth also explains, “We have seen that when we speak of God’s glory we do emphatically mean God’s ‘power.’ Yet the idea of ‘glory’ contains something which is not covered by that of ‘power’…The concept which lies ready to our hand here, and which may serve legitimately to describe the element in the idea of glory that we still lack, is that of beauty.” (Church Dogmatics, II/I)
In his book Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards (1968), Roland A. Delattre sees the theme of beauty as also informing Edwards’ conception of glory. However, Delattre goes a step further in asserting that Edwards subordinated power to beauty in the idea of divine glory: “For Edwards too the idea of beauty as a divine perfection involves consideration of the relationship between beauty and power. But for him beauty takes priority over power in the divine glory.” (122) Due to the ubiquity of the concept of beauty in Edwards’ thought, Delattre certainly has a good case for upholding beauty as the dominant idea within God’s glory. After all, Edwards does assert that divine beauty is “wherein the truest idea of divinity does consist.” (Religious Affections) God Himself is distinguished most from His creation by virtue of His beauty: “God is God, and distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above them, chiefly by his divine beauty.”
Delattre sees Edwards as the progenitor of the Reformed theology of beauty, and explains, “In his development of beauty as a divine perfection Edwards, unlike Barth, did not feel himself to be involved with an especially dangerous concept. As a latter-day Puritan he was nurtured in a tradition rich in resources for just such a development.” He even concludes, “Beauty is for Edwards the touchstone of objectivity in our relations with things as good or evil – the measure of objectivity or disinterestedness in the apprehension of anything as good.” (84, 120) We cannot morally discern or enjoy anything without a sense of beauty. Unlike so many theologians in church history, Edwards wasn’t afraid to base ethics in aesthetics.
In a brief excerpt from the Religious Affections, Edwards seems to speak to his generation as well as our own regarding the nature of God’s glory: “Tis beyond doubt that too much weight has been laid, by many persons of late, on discoveries of God’s greatness, awful majesty, and natural perfection…without any real view of the holy, lovely majesty of God.” Wherever he truly positioned power and beauty in the divine glory, Jonathan Edwards calls the church back to the idea that beauty is inextricable from the very idea of God’s glory.
“For Edwards the relation between beauty and glory in God is one of virtual identity…To speak of the divine glory is another way of speaking of the divine beauty; the terms are largely synonymous.” -Roland A. Delattre (Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards, 1968)