Theology and Beauty: Beauty and the Triune God

Beauty is not one of those attributes of God that systematicians frequently highlight. Karl Barth attempted some work on the beauty of God, but he began by saying that “the beautiful seems to be a particularly secular [concept], not at all adapted for introduction into the language of theology and indeed extremely dangerous.”[1] Its absence, then, from much theological discussion makes Jonathan Edwards’ thoughts on beauty exceedingly bold. For Edwards, beauty was deeply essential for understanding the Divine.

Beauty is “that…wherein the truest idea of divinity consists.” The interrelationship between ontology and aesthetics, then, is found in the person of God who is both Being and Beauty in His essence.[2] Beauty is grounded in the ontological Trinity. For Edwards this was particularly seen in the concept of “proportion.”

Proportion

The idea of “proportion” or what others might call “fittingness” is a regularly accepted aspect of beauty. Roger Scruton speaks of the “fittingness” of a street scene, noting how the obtrusive and gaudy architecture of one particular building can damage the overall beauty of a street. He writes, even more interestingly, about the fittingness of a door in a wall.

Suppose you are fitting a door in a wall and marking out the place for the frame. You will step back from time to time and ask yourself: does that look right? This is a real question, but it is not a question that can be answered in functional or utilitarian terms. The door-frame may be just what is needed for the traffic to pass through, it may comply with all requirements of health and safety, but it may simply not look right: too high, too low, too wide, wrong shape and so on…Those judgments do not refer us to any utilitarian goal, but they are rational for all that. They might be the first step in a dialogue, in which comparisons are made, examples urged, and alternatives discussed. And the subject of this dialogue has something to do with the way things fit together, and a hoped-for harmoniousness in the completion of an ordinary physical task.[3]

In architecture in particular, then, we see fittingness, “proportion,” is a major determiner of beauty. We might readily observe the same things of music. Does a song resolve in the right manner, do the notes harmonize well? Fittingness, then, is an agreed upon measure of beauty. Edwards refers to this as an “equality or likeness of ratios.”[4]

For Edwards, “proportion” or “fittingness” is seen most clearly in the spiritual realm, and particularly in the interrelationship of the Triune God. Writing on this point in Edwards’ theology, McClymond and McDermott state:

He linked beauty to his distinctive concept of “proportion,” and this meant that beauty involved internal complexity or diversity. As Edwards expressed it, “one alone, without reference to any more, cannot be excellent.” So it is also with God, for God’s “infinite beauty is his infinite mutual love of himself.” Edwards explained: God’s excellence consists in the love of 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.” While all beauty in creatures was by participation in God’s beauty, so all beauty in God derived from God’s inmost nature and not from any source outside of God.[5]

Beauty is inherent to the Godhead because of the interrelationship of the three persons of the Godhead. The “proportion” or “fittingness” of the ontological Trinity is the essence of beauty.

Biblical Support

We ought to test Edwards by the voice of the Scriptures.[6] Does beauty correspond to the essence of God? If we were to look for a simple proof text by which to assert the ontological beauty of God our efforts would produce no fruit. There is no single text that asserts “God is beauty,” in the same way that we find a text saying plainly “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). There are a few verses that speak of the “beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4; 90:17), and other verses point to the “beauty of holiness” (1 Chron. 16:29; 2 Chron. 20:21; Ps. 29:2), but none of these passages give us much in the way of a fully developed theological aesthetic. Yet, the Bible clearly reveals that God has aesthetic interests.

Take, for example, the detailed description of the construction and design of the temple. The description of the temple’s construction is not dominated merely by functional concerns; it was designed to be a beautiful place. In just one portion of the description of the temple’s construction in 1 Kings 6 we read:

14 So Solomon built the house and finished it. 15 He lined the walls of the house on the inside with boards of cedar. From the floor of the house to the walls of the ceiling, he covered them on the inside with wood, and he covered the floor of the house with boards of cypress. 16 He built twenty cubits of the rear of the house with boards of cedar from the floor to the walls, and he built this within as an inner sanctuary, as the Most Holy Place. 17 The house, that is, the nave in front of the inner sanctuary, was forty cubits long. 18 The cedar within the house was carved in the form of gourds and open flowers. All was cedar; no stone was seen. 19 The inner sanctuary he prepared in the innermost part of the house, to set there the ark of the covenant of the Lord. 20 The inner sanctuary[f] was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high, and he overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid[g] an altar of cedar.21 And Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, and he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold.22 And he overlaid the whole house with gold, until all the house was finished. Also the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold. (1 Kings 6:14-22)

The intricate artwork of the carved flowers (v. 18), and the overlaying of gold do not serve a utilitarian purpose, they are designed for beauty. They are meant to remind the worshiper of the Garden of Eden and of the Kingdom of God. They have no functional service, but are poetic in nature. And the beauty embedded into the temple was meant to be an image of the beauty of the heavenly temple, the very throne room of God. It connected heaven and earth (1 Kings 8:27-30).

Furthermore the creation of the world itself, and God’s concern with craftsmanship and human art (Ex. 31:1-11), reveals the aesthetic interests of the Creator. God is for beauty, and all our beauty and the beauty we make is analogous to God’s beauty. His is the norm for all of ours. When we say of something in the world, say the pink and orange glow of the setting sun, “that is beautiful,” we are making a judgment rooted in the beauty of God. If God is the creator of all things, and if beauty is real, then beauty must be rooted in the person of God.

Besides his aesthetic interests, however, we might look to the notion of the glory of God for more Biblical support on divine beauty. Many theologians rightly assert that what we mean by the term “glory” is in fact “beauty.” While Barth is reluctant to explore the glory of God from the precise element of beauty, he nonetheless acknowledges that it may serve as a legitimate description.[7] Likewise, Herman Bavinck, while asserting that “it is not advisable to speak…of God’s beauty,” nonetheless asserted that “for the beauty of God Scripture has a special word: glory.”[8] Several Hebrew and Greek words translate to communicate the connection between glory and beauty: splendor, delightful, and lovely. There is an imbedded idea of desirability in the beauty of God. The Scriptures expound more readily on this idea than on the simple term beauty.

A few passages may be cited to demonstrate the point:

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness (1 Chron. 16:29)

Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth! (Ps. 96:9)

The “splendor of holiness” is another way of saying the beauty or desirability of his holiness. Ascribing glory is to assert that God is love-worthy, He is beautiful (see also Psalm 29:2). In Ezekiel 16 the Lord asserts that the nations call his people beautiful because of the “splendor” (beauty) that he gave them. We read:

And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God. (Ezek. 16:14)

Beauty is part of the essence of God. We have it because He gives it to us.The Scriptures reinforce this through reference to God’s “splendor” and the delight His people take in Him. God’s beauty is that attribute of God’s glory which attracts us to Him and compels us to desire him.[9] In other words, God, in his very being, is beauty.

Conclusion

There’s significantly more that can be said regarding the attribute of beauty as found in the ontological trinity. The point at hand, however, is that aesthetics do have a relationship to ontology, not unlike the other two transcendentals. It is part of the very essence of being in the divine Godhead. Beauty, then, helps us understand reality because it is part of the God who created this reality and imbued it with the beautiful. We must turn, then, to consider how beauty helps us to understand the world in specific ways.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1: The Reality of God II. New York: T&T Clark, 2010. 651-52

[2]  Elaine Scarry notes, “One can see why beauty…has been perceived to be bound up with the immortal, for it prompts a search for a precedent, which in turn prompts a search for a still earlier precedent, and the mind keeps tripping backward until it at last reaches something that has no precedent, which may very well be the immortal.” On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. 30.

[3] Scruton, 69.

[4] Readers should not misinterpret this evaluative marker of beauty as simply a conformity to culturally agreed upon rules. Scruton points out that mere conformity to rules cultivates dullness. “Bach’s Forty-Eight illustrates all the rules of fugal composition: but they do so by obeying them creatively, by showing how they can be used as a platform from which to rise to a higher realm of freedom” (120).

[5] Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford UP, 2012.96.

[6] It should be pointed out that Edwards is not my authority on these things, merely one who echoes my own sentiments and the sentiments of the Scriptures and sound theology. Edwards was not Biblical on every point concerning his doctrine of the Trinity. In particular his view of the Holy Spirit as the result of the Father’s love for the Son makes the Spirit seem more like an impersonal force than a person of the Godhead, in my opinion. I think he is wrong on this point.

[7] Barth, 220.

[8] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004. 254.

[9] Other theologians have noted this as well. Jonathan Edwards certainly did when he asserted that “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in,” The End For Which God Created the World. Barth said, “If we can and must say that God is beautiful, to say this is to say how He enlightens and convinces and persuades us. It is to ascribe not merely the naked fact of His revelation and its power, but the shape and form in which it is a fact and power. It is to say that God has this superior force, this power of attraction, which speaks for itself, which wins and conquers, in the fact that He is beautiful, divinely beautiful, beautiful in His own way, in a way that is His alone, beautiful as the unattainable primal beauty, yet really beautiful,” Church Dogmatics II.I, 220. Even Wayne Grudem has remarked saying that “God’s beauty is that attribute of God whereby he is the sum of all desirable qualities” Systematic Theology, 219.

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