Website of Dr. John K. LaShell
Perhaps because his most famous sermon was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards has often been misunderstood as a malicious, vindictive, pulpit-pounding, revival preacher. Phyllis McGinley’s description of Edwards’ God sums up this misunderstanding nicely:
Abraham’s God, the wrathful One,
Intolerant of error –
Not God the Father or the Son
But God the Holy Terror. [i]
A careful reading of Edwards’ works, however, reveals that the beauty of God was one of the fundamental ideas in his theology. Not only that, but his private “Personal Narrative” reveals that Edwards experienced a passionate delight in meditating on the beauty of God. I thank God for the course Dr. Sam Logan, Jr. taught on Jonathan Edwards at Westminster Seminary, for Edwards introduced me to the beauty of God.
“The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will for ever entertain the minds of the saints, and the love of God will be their everlasting feast.” [ii]
“For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent; and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fulness of brightness and glory.” [iii]
[Beauty is] a mutual consent and agreement of different things, in form, manner, quantity and visible end or design; called by the various names of regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, harmony, &c. . . . [iv]
“ONE alone, without any reference to any more, cannot be excellent; for in such case there can be no manner of relation no way, and therefore no such thing as Consent. Indeed what we call One, may be excellent because of a consent of parts, or some consent of those in that being, that are distinguished into a plurality in some way or other. But in a being that is absolutely without any plurality, there cannot be Excellency, for there can be no such thing as consent or agreement.” [v]
“The reason, or at least one reason, why God has made this kind of mutual agreement of things beautiful and grateful to those intelligent beings that perceive it, probably is, that there is in it some image of the true, spiritual, original beauty, which has been spoken of; consisting in being’s consent to being, or the union of spiritual beings in a mutual propensity and affection of heart. . . . And so [God] has constituted the external world in analogy to the spiritual world in numberless instances. . . . [He] makes an agreement of different things, in their form, manner, measure, &c. to appear beautiful, because here is some image of an higher kind of agreement and consent of spiritual beings.” [vi]
“When we spake of Excellence in Bodies, we were obliged to borrow the word Consent, from Spiritual things; but Excellence in and among Spirits is, in its prime and proper sense, Being’s consent to Being. There is no other proper consent but that of Minds, even of their Will; which, when it is of Minds towards Minds, it is Love, and when of Minds towards other things, it is Choice. Wherefore all the Primary and Original beauty or excellence, that is among Minds, is Love.” [vii]
“As to God’s Excellence, it is evident it consists in the Love of himself; for he was as excellent before he created the Universe, as he is now. But if the Excellence of Spirits consists in their disposition and action, God could be excellent no other way at that time; for all the exertions of himself were towards himself. But he exerts himself towards himself, no other way, than in infinitely loving and delighting in himself; in the mutual love of the Father and the Son. This makes the Third, the Personal Holy Spirit, or the Holiness of God, which is his infinite Beauty; and this is God’s Infinite Consent to Being in general. And his love to the creature is his excellence, or the communication of himself, his complacency in them, according as they partake of more or less of Excellence and beauty, that is, of holiness (which consists in love); that is, according as he communicates more or less of his Holy Spirit.” [viii]
Although Jonathan Edwards has been recognized as one of America’s most brilliant philosophers, he was not an emotionally barren intellectual. A narrative of his personal religious experience, which was intended only for his own use, was found among his papers after his death. The following extract comes from that document.
“The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, I Tim. i.17. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen. As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before. Never any words of scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever! I kept saying, and as it were singing, over these words of scripture to myself; and went to pray to God that I might enjoy him; and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do, with a new sort of affection. But it never came into my thought, that there was any thing spiritual, or of a saving nature in this.
“From about that time I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him. I found no books so delightful to me, as those that treated of these subjects. Those words Cant. ii.1, used to be abundantly with me, I am the Rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. The words seemed to me sweetly to represent the loveliness and beauty of Jesus Christ. The whole book of Canticles used to be pleasant to me, and I used to be much in reading it, about that time; and found, from time to time, an inward sweetness, that would carry me away, in my contemplations. This I know not how to express otherwise, than by a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of this world; and sometimes a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God. The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart, an ardor of soul, that I know not how to express.” [ix]
[i] Quoted in Conrad Cherry, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal (reprint edition Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1974), 1.
[ii] Jonathan Edwards, “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, with a memoir by Sereno E. Dwight, edited by Edward Hickman, 2 vols. (Reprint edition, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 1.5.
[iii] True Virtue, chapter 2, in Works 1.125.
[iv] True Virtue, chapter 3, in Works 1.127. Edwards’ definition of beauty is unremarkable. Many philosophers of an earlier time and most ordinary people of all times would probably agree with him. Philosophers infected with diseases such as linguistic analysis, existentialism, and post-modernism seem largely to have given up trying to find a universal definition of beauty.
[v] “The Mind,” entry 1, Works, 1.ccxxix.
[vi] True Virtue, chapter 3, in Works, 1.128.
[vii] “The Mind,” entry 45, Works, 1.ccxxxi.
[viii] “The Mind,” entry 45, Works, 1.ccxxxi.
[ix] Works, 1.xiii.