Most Americans know Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), if they know him at all, as the preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Many conclude that he is not only intimidating but repulsive because of the wrathful God he depicts in painful detail.
This perception of Edwards is not new. Harriet Beecher Stowe complained that Edwards’s sermons on sin and suffering were “refined poetry of torture.”
After staying up one night reading Edwards’ treatise on the will, Mark Twain reported that “Edwards’ God shines red and hideous in the glow from the fires of hell, their only right and proper adornment. By God, I was ashamed to be in such company.”
Few Americans have known that Edwards was actually obsessed not by God’s wrath but by God’s beauty.
In fact, the historian of theological aesthetics Patrick Sherry has shown that Edwards made beauty more central to theology than anyone else in the history of Christian thought, including Augustine and (the 20th-century Swiss Catholic) Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Most Americans would also be surprised to learn that Edwards was America’s greatest philosopher before the twentieth century. One measure of his stature is Yale University Press’s critical edition of his works, which contains 73 volumes, most between 400 and 800 pages. Another token of Edward’s importance is the 3-volume Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, which contains more references to Edwards than to any other single figure.
These are some of the reasons that Edwards is widely recognized as America’s greatest theologian. More than 25 years ago Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson published a monograph with Oxford University Press entitled America’s Theologian. The nearest competitor to Edwards for that moniker, H. Richard Niebuhr, confessed he was greatly indebted to Edwards and saw himself as extending the Edwardsean vision.
Edwards on beauty
Edwards taught that the essence of true religious experience is to be overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God, to be drawn to the glory of his perfections and to sense his irresistible love. He argued that the Scriptures often describe the knowing of the regenerate as a kind of seeing.
He quoted the statement in 1 John, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has seen him or knows him,” and “the one who does evil has not seen God” (1 John 3.6; 3 John 11). He reminded his readers that Jesus said, “I have come into this world so that those who do not see may see” (John 9.39).
But what is it that the saints see? The answer, according to Edwards, is the glory or beauty of divine things, which the Bible calls “the beauty of holiness” (Ps 29.2; 96.9). This is the beauty, he insisted, that makes the person of Jesus so ravishingly beautiful, that has drawn the hearts of billions to Himself for thousands of years.
The devil and the damned, he added, see the holiness of God, but they do not see the beauty of that holiness.
We might wonder how this could be so. Let me try to illustrate. When I was in high school in New York City a teacher took me to an art museum. While my teacher gazed with love and delight at one painting after another, I looked at my watch. I saw the same paintings my teacher saw, but I did not see their beauty. I could not see because my heart and mind did not have the capacity to see and enjoy the beauty of this art. I had eyes to see but could not see.
Helen Keller was struck deaf and blind at the age of two, yet she could see and hear beauty all around her.
She said, “I, who cannot see, find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch. I feel the delicate symmetry of a leaf. I pass my hands lovingly about the smooth skin of a silver birch or the rough shaggy bark of a pine. I feel the delightful, velvety texture of a flower and discover its remarkable convolutions and something of the miracle of nature is revealed to me. Occasionally, if I am very fortunate, I can place my hand gently on a small tree and feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song.
“At times, my heart cries out, longing to see these things. But if I can get so much pleasure in mere touch, how much more beauty must be revealed by sight?
“Yet those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of color and action which fill the world are taken for granted. It is a great pity that in the world of light the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience, rather than as a means of adding fullness.”
Edwards would say that seeing the beauty of Jesus Christ and the glory of redemption is analogous to the capacity to see that Helen Keller possessed. People without the Spirit don’t see the glory of God and Christ because they are not able to. Their eyes have not been opened to divine beauty, so they cannot see it or enjoy it. Just as many cannot see the beauty that is all around them.
Edwards described our side of this experience as like being given a sixth sense: a sense of the beauty, glory and love of God.
This is what has made Edwards so attractive in the last sixty years of what has been called an “Edwards renaissance.” It is part of the reason why historian Joseph Conforti calls Edwards the “white whale” of American religious history—the dazzling mystery that has attracted even atheists such as Harvard historian Perry Miller and the Berkeley historian Henry May.
Notre Dame historian George Marsden says that what draws so many to Edwards is the beauty of Edwards’ religious vision: for Edwards “all created reality is like a quintessential explosion of light from the sun of God’s intertrinitarian love.”
I would add that for Edwards the world is full of beauty because beauty and light constitute the essence of its Creator. Listen to Edwards’s lyrical words:
God is the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty, from whom all is perfectly derived, and on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom and through whom and to whom is all being and all perfection; and whose being and beauty is as it were the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence: much more than the sun is the fountain and summary comprehension of all the light and brightness of the day. (The Nature of True Virtue)
Edwards goes further to link the beauty of this world to the beauty of the Creator: “All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of the Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.”
For Edwards, then, all earthly beauty flows from God, and more specifically, from the beauty of the Trinity, in which three Persons give themselves in love to one another, creating a glorious harmony among differences.
Whether or not Helen Keller knew the beauty of the Trinity, she saw its “type” in nature. This is what every human being sees when she sees the power of the ocean crashing on the beach during a storm, or the stunning stars and nebulae of distant galaxies on a clear night, or the marvelous intricacies of a cell under a microscope.
There was once a young man desperately seeking God. He sought out an old man who lived in a nearby beach house and posed the question, “Old man, how can I see God?” The old man who knew God at a depth few ever experience, paused for a long time. Finally, he told the young man quietly, “Young man, I don’t think I can help you. For you see, I have a very different problem. I cannot not see him.”
Beauty as consent to Being-in-general
Let’s look a bit more closely at what beauty meant for Edwards: consent to Being-in-general (his term for all of reality, which both lies in God and is separate from that same God). Think of this consent as each part of the creation saying “Yes” to the whole of reality. Even the inanimate creation does this. A falling rock “obeys” the law of gravity, saying “Yes.”
A deer running with elegance across a field is saying “Yes” to its Creator, doing what the Creator created it to do.
Edwards uses another image to depict beauty. He said that it manifests the “proportion” that is a “harmony” among things that are different. This harmony is a pattern that is usually pleasing to those who perceive it. By harmony he suggests not only the symmetrical harmony we would see in a French garden at the Versailles but also the asymmetrical harmony we enjoy in a Japanese garden—or even the disproportion that is part of a higher proportion or harmony, like a jazz chord that sounds dissonant when played alone but fits well within a progression of chords.
The most beautiful pattern of all and therefore the pattern of all consent and harmony is God’s love among the three Persons. By this Edwards meant each Person’s loving consent to the glory and will of the other two Persons, and then to the Trinity’s design for the creation. This design required infinite suffering by a human being to redeem lost humans.
Yet only a God could suffer infinitely, as Anselm once argued and Edwards echoed. And the suffering had to be by a human being because it was punishment for human sins. This is why the Mediator had to be a God-man, and why this second Person of the Trinity consented to the design.
The consent, noted Edwards, involved astounding paradoxes. It combined divine infinity with care for finite humanity. It was a joining of infinite greatness with infinite care. Infinite justice somehow became infinite mercy. Infinite majesty displayed itself as stunning meekness. Think of it, Edwards suggested: The infinite God of the cosmos, the King of kings and Lord of lords, permitted Himself to be born in a barn and to be spat on, mocked, and nailed to a cross between two thieves.
Not fear but attraction
When I first saw Edwards’s depiction of God’s beauty, it changed my view of God.
I realized afresh that He does not drive us by duty, but draws us by beauty, not by fear but by irresistible attraction.
It is like the way the most beautiful music and works of art draw us closer and closer.
Once we hear and see their beauty, we want more and more. When it is great art or music, and we have eyes and ears to see and hear, we feel overtaken and absorbed by the beauty—so much so that sometimes we forget ourselves and are drawn to that beauty outside of ourselves.
That is how Edwards described true religious experience. It is what compels us to abandon love for self as the central principle of our lives and turn to the beauty of God. We feel compelled, and yet we are not coerced. We are drawn ineluctably.
This vision of God’s beauty has implications for every dimension of the Christian life. It means that conversion, for example, is not simply doing our duty of submitting to the Creator but seeing the beauty of his infinite love in Jesus Christ.
It means that grace is not just supernatural help to do the right thing but seeing more and more of that beauty of truth and goodness in God. And it is not a one-time seeing, but a growing vision of the beauty of the depths of God--like going deeper and deeper into a cell with an increasingly powerful microscope, seeing more and more of its astoundingly ordered complexities.
Seeing God’s beauty also means that community takes on new perspective. If the source of all beauty is the Trinity, then God’s beauty is relationship. In fact, God is relationship. To experience God is to participate in the inner life of the Trinity. And if God displays His beauty most vividly in His own community of Persons, then we can experience and display God’s beauty only in the community of the Church, which itself is participation in the Trinitarian community because it is the Body of Christ.
This gives special meaning to the arts. All cultural gifts—music and literature and drama and the fine arts—can be seen as reflections of the beams of the divine beauty. So, for example, we can say that despite his moral failures and theological myopia, Mozart gave us something of a taste of the music of heaven. Beautiful music conveys something of God’s beauty, even if the composers do not know the full beauty of the Triune God.
Edwards’ vision also sheds light on the way we think of justice. We can think of it as not simply fidelity to a set of abstract principles, but as appropriating a vision of the beauty of the divine Trinitarian community. In a community reflecting the divine community, each person gives herself wholly for the good of the others, and therefore reflects, knowingly or unknowingly, the purposes of Being-in-general.
So the pursuit of justice in our fallen and broken world is, among other things, allowing the beams of the beautiful divine light to be displayed in human communities. As we seek justice for others and our own communities, we open space for reflections of the Trinitarian beauty to be seen and enjoyed.
I will close with two statements. The first is by Edwards. It illustrates why his vision of beauty was so central to his theology. In answer to the question of what it is about God that most makes God God, he wrote,
God is God, and distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above [th]em, chiefly by his divine beauty, which is infinitely diverse from all other beauty. . . .This is the beauty of the Godhead, and the divinity of the Divinity (if I may so speak), the good of the infinite Fountain of Good; without which God himself (if that were possible to be) would be an infinite evil.
The second statement is by the Princeton theologian Sang Lee, in which he tried to put into one sentence Edwards’s understanding of what it means to live in God. “To know and love God, therefore, is to know and love the beauty of God, and to know the ultimate nature of the world is to know and love the world as an image of God’s beauty.”
This article originally appeared in the 2016 edition of the Beeson Magazine. Read this article and others
Dr. Gerald McDermott, the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, is the author or editor of six books on Jonathan Edwards. His newest book is Everyday Glory: The Revelation of God in All of Reality (Baker Academic).