What is beauty?
This is an important question and one that Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) addresses in his classic book Religious Affections. There in his third point on the nature of holy affections he argues that personal delight in God’s holiness is the evidence of God’s active grace. This point, and how it connects to beauty, is one that needs to be unpacked.
To set up this point Edwards contrasts God’s natural attributes and his moral attributes. God’s (so called) natural attributes are his grandeur, strength, and power. It is entirely possible, Edwards writes, to stand amazed by these natural attributes and yet remain unconverted. “’Tis possible that those who are wholly without grace, should have a clear sight, and a very great and affecting sense of God’s greatness, his mighty power, and awful majesty; for this is what the devils have … [yet] they are perfectly destitute of any sense of relish of that kind of [his] beauty.”
A sight of the awful greatness of God, may overpower men’s strength, and be more than they can endure; but if the moral beauty of God be hid, the enmity of the heart will remain in its full strength, no love will be enkindled, all will not be effectual to gain the will … whereas the first glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of God shining into the heart, produces all these effects, as it were with omnipotent power, which nothing can withstand (2:264–265).
For Edwards, genuine conversion is marked by something deeper than reverence for God’s natural attributes. A believer will actually find what no non-believer will find—delight in God’s moral attributes, namely his perfect holiness.
God’s holy beauty is where all genuine and saving Theology begins.
Edwards further develops his argument by revealing how holiness and beauty are inseparable. For example:
- The Savior is altogether lovely because he is altogether holy (Rev. 3:7). “All the spiritual beauty of his human nature, consisting in his meekness, lowliness, patience, heavenliness, love to God, love to men, condescension to the mean and vile, and compassion to the miserable, etc. all is summed up in his holiness.”
- Heaven is sweet because it is the holy Jerusalem where the holiness of Christ is celebrated (Isa. 63:15, Rev. 4:8, 21:2, 10–11).
- God’s word is sweet because the doctrines are holy doctrines. This explains the Psalmist’s delight (Pss. 19:7-10; 119:140).
- The gospel is a sweet because it is a holy gospel.
These themes merge even closer in three Old Testament passages that highlight the beauty, splendor, and attractiveness of God’s holiness (1 Chr. 16:29, Pss 29:2, 96:9):
Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness
These passages seem to rest at the core of Edwards’ argument. Divine holiness is the very definition of supreme beauty. And once the heart is given a sweet taste of God’s moral perfections, the redeemed heart cannot but be attracted to the beauty of God’s holiness.
As Gerald R. McDermott writes [Reformation and Revival, vol. 6:1, 109-10]:
This is what sets the saint apart from all others. Others may also see divine things, but they don’t see their beauty or glory. … The unregenerate may see or know divine things (some don’t ever see divine things at all) but they never see their beauty—which is the beauty of holiness. According to Edwards, this is the glory that the Bible says is the central thing that makes God and His ways attractive—that lures humans in love to Him. This is the light that makes the person of Jesus so ravishingly beautiful, that has drawn the hearts of millions to Himself for the last two millennia. This is the brightness that all saints see in comparison to which their own hearts appear filthy.
In our visually-driven world, where beauty is measured by a worldly fad or by some subjective visual response, these theological ideas carry enormous consequences.
For example, we learn that standards of aesthetic beauty in art and literature cannot ever be divorced from God’s moral holiness: holiness is beautiful. Sin cannot be anything other than ugliness. Or consider personal renewal. What we so often mistake as drudgery when we think about battling sin is actually our personal participation in God’s own striking holiness (1 Pet. 1:16). Which is why it’s not surprising that feminine beauty is shaped and defined by God’s holiness (1 Pet. 3:1–6). The implications to this beauty-holiness connection are nearly endless.
At its root, the point Jonathan Edwards makes in Religious Affections is an important one: the splendor of God’s holiness is the pinnacle of all beauty. And it is a beauty that should tug at the strings of our affections.