Beauty Defined (With Some Help From Edwards)
How do we decide between these competing definitions of beauty? As Christians, we would firstly say that we cannot be satisfied with a definition of beauty abstracted from God. Beauty must be defined in relation to God. For that reason, special revelation (Scripture) must define beauty in general revelation (nature and art), not the other way around.
With this qualification in mind, we can evaluate the four definitions of beauty. Is beauty the harmony or proportion so loved by Platonic aestheticians? It certainly explains much, particularly in visual perception, in the beauty of intellectually elegant ideas (in mathematics, for example). For all that, beauty-as-harmony fails to deal adequately with the phenomenon of unitary beauty, such as light, or colour. The pleasure obtained by beauty cannot be finally reduced to admiration of symmetry, for some beauty is the beauty of the simple, or the sublime, or even the tragic—in which the disharmonious nevertheless attains a beauty in our eyes.
Is beauty equivalent to truth and goodness? Certainly beauty as some kind of ultimate value must place it into relationship with other ultimate values such as goodness or truth. Again, this definition, by itself, falls short. Beauty, as the Hebrew writers showed us, is more than a philosophical construct or abstract notion. Beauty is a reality to be known and experienced. It might do to say that apprehending God’s beauty is apprehending the truth of God’s being and the goodness of God’s being, but this only pushes the question one level back. One is still forced to ask, what is the nature of that goodness? What is the experience of apprehending the true reality of God’s being? This definition has the drawback of the dictionary’s circularity where we try to define words with words, and land up where we started.
Is beauty simply one’s pleasure in a subject? Beauty may represent a phenomenon in a perceiving subject, but that phenomenon corresponds to something outside the subject. It may be true that no beauty exists without beholders; it is equally true that beholders do not create beauty out of themselves. One must examine the subjective experience of beauty, but Christians must insist that a real phenomenon exists outside the subject, in recognisable properties in the object.
Perhaps these definitions find partial vindication in some theological definition of God’s beauty: His attributes, His glory, His being, or His trinitarian relationships.
Is beauty another name for God’s uncompounded, infinite being? To say that “Godness” equals beauty does not explain everything. Defining beauty as equivalent to God’s being creates its own problems. If beauty is God’s being simply considered, and God’s being is the ground of all being, how does one then explain ugliness in the order of things? Medieval Christianity foundered on this point.
Is God’s beauty one of his attributes, or the sum total of his will and ways? Is God’s beauty the name for when God’s glory is displayed and experienced? A tentative answer may agree that this is a generally safe assumption, since Scripture does link God’s beauty with his glory (1 Chr. 16:29; Job 40:10; Ps. 29:2). Yet to say that God’s beauty is God’s glory is merely to substitute a biblical word for a philosophical one, and merely drives one to define both more explicitly.
What of the idea that the Trinity’s life is the essence of God’s beauty? Is God’s beauty particularly related to the Trinity: the symmetry of relations, the harmony of three who are one, or the relationships of love with one another? If God’s beauty represents not merely his essence or being, but the refulgence and pleasurable splendour of this essence, then God’s delight in God would be one of the strongest contenders for a definition of God’s beauty.
This was Jonathan Edwards’ solution, when he defined beauty as “being’s cordial consent to being in general”. This consent is benevolence, union, or love: the benevolence of God toward being in general and specifically toward other benevolent beings. Here Edwards defines beauty as God’s response to his own being, agreeing with medievalists that God himself is the ground of beauty, not a concept that could be abstracted from God. Yet God’s beauty is not merely his being in some static, abstract sense. The beauty is how God dynamically responds to His own being. God’s dynamic benevolence, as inclined and expressed to himself and his works, is beauty. Trinitarian love is at the heart of what God’s beauty is. Edwards has perhaps the best theological definition of beauty, combining essence with dynamic response. Remarkably, Edwards has also assimilated the other three definitions into a theological definition.
By using the word “consent”, Edwards is nodding to the idea of harmony and symmetry. Edwards also assimilates the transcendental definition by combining truth, goodness and beauty by defining beauty as “true virtue”, i.e., true goodness. Finally, Edwards makes room for the subjective definition, for he defines true virtue—subjective love of God’s beauty, or holy affections—as the beauty of God, the saints, and the angels. When a moral being finds pleasure in God’s beauty, that pleasure and desire constitutes his or her spiritual beauty. God is ultimately beautiful because of what he loves and because of what he is. He is the Most Lovely Perfectly Loving the Most Lovely.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.