Jonathan Edwards emphasizes an aspect of God’s nature that most systematic theologies barely mention: the beauty of God. But what exactly does it mean that God is beautiful? This is a question that Edwards explores in his work The Nature of True Virtue.
Edwards realized that there was a kind of beauty in virtue, yet a beauty of such a particular kind that he wanted to designate it true beauty. This kind of beauty, Edwards explains, is essentially harmony at the highest level of reality; in his words, it is “a general beauty” or beauty “in a comprehensive view, as it is in itself, and as related to everything with which it stands connected.” This highest-order harmony takes the particular shape of “benevolence to being in general”—that is a “union of heart” to the highest and most comprehensive scope of what exists. With this understanding of true beauty, Edwards believed that his quest for the nature of virtue was identical with the quest for what “renders any . . . exercise of the heart truly beautiful.”
Put concisely, true virtue and true beauty are the same thing: harmony (shown in benevolence) with the highest order of reality.
With this understanding of beauty and virtue, it becomes clear why God is beautiful. As the highest order—indeed, the very source—of all reality, God is at perfect harmony with himself, and this harmony is exhibited in boundless love and benevolence to himself: “Divine virtue,” Edwards explains, “Must consist primarily in love to himself, or in the mutual love and friendship which subsists eternally and necessarily between the several persons in the Godhead.” Edwards also draws the inference that “God’s goodness and love to created things, is derived from and subordinate to his love to himself.”
It can truly be said, then, that God’s love springs from his beauty, since “beauty” describes the boundless benevolence he exhibits within his Triune nature.
As moral agents, we humans can also possess this true beauty, but only insofar as we are at harmony with God. Unlike God’s beauty, ours is limited by our finite capacity as created beings, and it is merely derivative of God’s beauty. In other words, what makes us also truly beautiful is our sharing in this harmony with the highest order of reality—God himself. As Edwards puts it, “True virtue [and by extension, true beauty] must chiefly consist in love to God; the Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best.” Thus every truly beautiful person “seeks the glory of God, and makes that his supreme, governing, and ultimate end.”
Obviously, as fallen creatures, this beauty does not come automatically. Because of our sin, we have decentered our lives away from God, rendering us mangled in every respect. We need someone who actually lived a perfectly beautiful life–in perfect harmony with God–to stand in our place. This is where our craving for moral beauty meets the beauty of the gospel: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Quotations are from The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1, ed. Patrick H. Alexander (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Pub, 1998).