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Edwards, the imagination, music, and the sacraments

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

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Jonathan Edwards, “The End For Which God Created the World,” in John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998), 231. []
  2. Ibid., 233. []
  3. Ibid., 237. []

10 Responses to Edwards, the imagination, music, and the sacraments

  1. The category of affections is unique to man as is the imagination, both of which are present because man is made in God’s image. I think it would then be fair to consider the two connected.

  2. I see the phrase “a tendency to move our affections” only in the quotation from The Religious Affections. It seems that, in that paragraph, Edward mentions ‘singing praises to God’ as a means of moving our affections. As for me, it is not easy to find the direct or indirect connection between ‘tendency to move our affections’ and ‘the imagination and the ability to perceive the excellency of the beauty of God’ in this article. Does anyone have an idea to help me to understand?

  3. I am thinking that Edward’s “moving of the affections” is related to use of imagination in that imagination allows us to see beyond ourselves into the “real” things of God. This seeing results in the “moving of the affections” into a closer relationship with God. Perhaps the imagination opens the emotion door which allows the truth to flow into our minds and connect the heart and the spirit.

  4. It might be said that music, which has a tendency to move human affection, would evoke people’s imagination so that they can perceive the excellency of the beauty of God. If this is what Edward intends to argue, I fully agree with his view on the tendency of music which affects people to appreciate the glory of God.

  5. “…for a free being, there is right feeling, right experience and right enjoyment just as much as right action. The judgement of beauty orders the emotions and desires of those who make it.” -Roger Scruton

    Delight, affection, and pleasure are the responses we have to Beauty. They belong to each other. As Scruton notes elsewhere, judgment of beauty is, at root, rational and Beauty can never be divorced from Truth and Goodness. Assent is what we do with truth. Right action is what we do with the morally Good. Delight and affection is what we do with Beauty.

    Maybe that helps, maybe not.

  6. I appreciate Edwards’ emphasis on the imagination. The imagination generally helps humans (not only non-believers but also believers) perceive things intangible beyond visible identities, measures, and objects. However, speaking of God’s spiritual reality, I do not agree with Edwards’ statement that we cannot think of things *spiritual and invisible without some exercise of this faculty (the imagination).

    First of all, the imagination itself is neither powerful nor sufficient enough to be able to see God’s beauty. Human being’s imagination is limited to their cultural, educational, and life experience, and cannot completely meet the aesthetic truth of God’s spiritual world unless the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to see things *spiritual or they have spiritual experience, which is beyond the imagination.

    “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or *imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” – Ephesians 3:20 (NIV)

    Second, as Robert articulates that imagination and affections are gifts from God to all men because humans are created in God’s image. However, if it is true that the imagination and affections ate great tools that help people recognize God’s beauty, why do not non-Christians, who can imagine and have affections, appreciate God’s aesthetics and beauty even in our nature out there? Adam’s sin breaks not only the relationship between God and men but also the human’s ability and sense (especially affections) to identify God’s beauty in life. Human (including Christians) cannot notice God’ spiritual reality and any aesthetic characters of God without God’s grace, the power of the Holy Spirit, faith, and knowledge of God through Jesus Christ.

    “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. …But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” -Ephesians 5:8-13 (NIV)


  7. Imagination and affection are both act ivies of mind. When one images something, quite often he may also generate a feeling, an affection, toward that something. Sometimes one can even images an affection toward some imaginary objects or events. These two categories are not only connected, but entangled with each other.

  8. Juliana,
    You asked this question:
    “However, if it is true that the imagination and affections ate [sic] great tools that help people recognize God’s beauty, why do not non-Christians, who can imagine and have affections, appreciate God’s aesthetics and beauty even in our nature out there?”

    According to Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (ESV)” Christians or not, people can all recognize God’s eternal power and divine nature, which is the true beauty. They may or may not appreciate such qualities of creation, but still, they can perceive God’s invisible attributes through imagination and generate affections accordingly.

  9. Perhaps imagination is the doorway that God uses to allow believers and unbelievers alike to see a glimpse of him through his creation in the world around us. Believers see deeper because of the Holy Spirit’s illumination but unbelievers are able to see enough to know there is a God–if they stop to notice.

  10. Certain non-believers might recognize the absolute beauty as much as some believers do. Simply, however, the non-believers either do not realize that the beauty is ‘derived from God’ or reject the truth because they do not believe in God.

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