Beauty’s Definition: Addenda
Jonathan Edwards combined insights from each of the theories of beauty, while being primarily theological. His theory was different from his Christian forbearers, though. Instead of resting on the medieval idea that God’s beauty was equivalent to his being, Edwards insisted that the beauty of God is God’s interaction with his being. Beauty is not a static property: it is God’s dynamic, give-and-take of pleasure and excellence in himself and all that reflects him.
Of course, for Edwards, God’s “consent”, or loving union, is not grounded on consent, for that would lead to infinite regress. He does not “love His love”. God’s love rests not on His love, but on His being itself. God’s being “simply considered”, as Edwards put it, is what God knows, loves and thus communicates. God delights in his own being in its undivided, infinite essence. Necessarily, God’s undivided essence includes God’s love. But God’s beauty is God’s “godness” in dynamic self-appraisal. Love and delight are the glory that illuminates them, as white light gives colour to objects. God’s beauty is then “the Most Lovely loving the Most Lovely”. When God delights in his being, and celebrates and radiates pleasure, this is his beauty. God’s essence irradiated in delighted self-communication is God’s beauty and God’s love.
In one sense, God’s being simply considered is precisely what finite, immanent beings can never know. Only God can know God in this way. But the result of God’s self-knowledge of the truth of His being and the goodness of His being is the love that communicates and shares. This is glory, or beauty: the radiance of all God is, but lovingly shared and communicated, first with himself, and then with creation.
This loving, harmonious sharing of himself is the pattern for all forms of created beauty. The symmetry and harmony of beauty is an analogue of God’s delighted harmony in himself. The pleasurable variety or surprising diversity in a scene, or a musical composition, or a mathematical theory simply echoes the infinite God beholding himself, communicating this in the Son, and reciprocal delight proceeding in the Spirit. The life of the Godhead is ultimate truth, goodness and beauty.
This leads us to a few unusual observations about beauty.
First, beauty is personal: it describes something persons recognise with pleasure or something in persons that is pleasurable. With Edwards, one can agree that beauty is not a static property, but a composite experience requiring both subject and object. God acting as both subject and object is possible only in the Christian expression of the Triune God. God’s delight in God is not a static property of God, but in the incomprehensibly myriad splendours of his being expressed and given to one another in the Godhead. The refulgence of his given character, and the reciprocal delight in this refulgence, constitute God’s beauty. Beauty then cannot exist outside of persons, for observers and delight are essential to its existence. God’s beauty cannot be abstracted from his person, or his personal approbation of beauty.
Second, God’s beauty is an axiomatic first principle. That which is beautiful in God is beautiful because it is in God. It cannot be referred to a standard outside and above God to which he conforms. God is beautiful because God is the object of God’s love and because God is the subject of God’s love. He is beautiful for those qualities in himself that merit his love, and he is beautiful because he loves those qualities.
Third, beauty is dynamic: a reciprocal experience of beholding, partaking, and delighting. Beauty cannot exist apart from objects that signify and subjects that parse meaning. Static, unrecognised, unknown beauty does not exist in a universe created by an omnipresent, omniscient, and triune God.
Fourth, one can say further that beautiful minds (those that recognise beauty) are simultaneously truthful and good. Simply put, who or what God is brings delighted pleasure to those pursuing goodness and truth. Beauty is inescapably moral in nature. God’s beauty, then, describes a personal, dynamic, and moral delight of God in his own excellence. God’s beauty is his radiant delight in his uncompounded being. Created or secondary beauty is all that reflects this excellence of God’s being, which beautiful beings will love.
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.