Jonathan Edwards has some fairly well-developed theories of art and aesthetics that can inform discussions of Christian aesthetics today. In particular, Edwards discussed the importance of the imagination, which he saw as a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit since it helps believers perceive spiritual reality. Here is a relevant passage from Experiencing God:
As God as given us such a faculty as the imagination, and so made us that we cannot think of things spiritual and invisible without some exercise of this faculty; so it appears to me that such is our state and nature that this faculty is really subservient and helpful to the other faculties of the mind, when a proper use is made of it; though often, when the Imagination is too strong, and the other faculties weak, it overbears, and disturbs them in their exercise. It seems clear to me, in many instances with which I have been acquainted, that God has really made use of this faculty to truly divine purposes; especially in some that are more ignorant. God seems to condescend to their circumstances, and deal with them as babes; as of old he instructed his church, whilst in a state of ignorance and minority, by types and outward representations. I can see nothing unreasonable in such a position.
In other words, for Edwards, the imagination is what allows us to perceive true spiritual reality beyond mere external, sense experience. In fact, this seems to be what Edwards views as the purpose of art–it reveals to us, through the imagination, something more profound. That is implied by his discussion of types in the passage above, and it relates to his understanding of the nature of beauty and glory in Scripture. A passage from my book, Worship in Song, explores this connection:
Edwards essentially argues that the glory of something is what “signifies excellency, dignity, or worthiness of regard.” He cites multiple Scripture passages to illustrate that “the word glory is very commonly used to signify the excellency of a person or thing, as consisting either in greatness, or in beauty, or in both conjunctly.”1 For Edwards, “glory” is the express manifestation of this inner beauty. He notes that Scripture often speaks of glory in terms of “shining brightness, by an emanation of beams of light.” He compares this “brightness” to that of the sun or moon, their glory being the brilliant emanation of their inner beauty.2 In other words, according to Edwards, God’s glory is essentially His beauty.
So glory is the external, visible manifestation of the spiritual reality of God’s beauty. It would follow, then, that for Edwards, imagination is what allows a believer to perceive a “view or knowledge of God’s excellency”3 through the “outward representation” (to use a phrase from Experiencing God above) of glory.
The question is whether Edwards extended this to his views about the arts as well. Two art forms in particular–music and the sacraments–make their way into Edwards’ The Religious Affections:
The duty of singing praises to God seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned why we should express ourselves to God in verse rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only that such is our nature and frame that these things have a tendency to move our affections.
The same thing appears in the nature and design of the sacraments which God hath appointed. God, considering our frame, hath not only appointed that we should be told of the great things of the gospel and of the redemption of Christ, and instructed in them by his Word; but also that they should be, as it were, exhibited to our view, in sensible representations, in the sacraments, the more to affect us with them.
Here he does not use language of imagination or connect the art to God’s beauty. Rather, he operates in the realm of the affections.
So are these categories related? Does Edwards understand “tendency to move our affections” as connected to the imagination and its ability to perceive the excellency of the beauty of God?
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written several books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.