How Is God Beautiful? An Answer from Jonathan Edwards

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).

The Pastor as Public Theologian

My first encounter with Kevin Vanhoozer came when I read his article “Theology and Apologetics” in the New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics. I found myself deeply stirred by his statement that “we need a biblically informed shape of community life fully to see, and to taste, the wisdom of God in a consistent and compelling manner.” He closes his article by calling Christians to committed discipleship as the most effective apologetic: “In the final analysis, the best apologetic is the whole people of God speaking and acting as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, arguing, living, and dying as wise witnesses to the way, the truth and the life.”

This positive memory of Dr. Vanhoozer’s article made me excited to see his new book, coauthored with Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.

In his introduction, Vanhoozer presents an overview of the book’s argument. I quote this overview below, interspersed with explanatory comments from his conclusion.

Our task in this book is to argue, first, that pastors must be theologians;

Pastors are theologians whose vocation is to seek, speak, and show understanding of what God is doing in Christ for the sake of the world, and to lead others to do the same.

second, that every theologian is in some sense a public theologian;

Pastors are public theologians because they work for, with, and on people—the gathered assembly of the faithful—and lead them to live to God, bearing witness as a public spire in the public square.

and third, that a public theologian is a very particular kind of generalist.

[A “generalist” is] one who specializes in viewing all of life from the perspective of what God was doing, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ, . . . one who understands all things in light of what is in Christ, keeps company with Christ, acts out the eschatological reality of being raised with Christ, and helps others to do the same.

God’s Omnibenevolence and the Problem of Evil

The doctrine of God’s omnibenevolence (God’s complete goodness) raises the problem of evil.

The classic formulation of this problem is the apparent incompatibility of the three propositions: 1) God is wholly God, 2) God is all-powerful, and 3) evil exists. If God is wholly good, he would want to prevent gratuitous evil; and if he were all-powerful, he would be able to prevent gratuitous evil (evil with no justifying cause). Yet evil still exists. Therefore, the Christian idea of an all-powerful, omnibenevolent God appears to be incoherent in a world in which evil exists.

On a philosophical level, this problem is fairly simple to explain. The objector has failed to make explicit a proposition that is unprovable, yet essential to the success of the argument: that is, that there is at least one instance of evil that is gratuitous. In other words, for any instance of evil that appears to be gratuitous, God might have a reason leading to a greater good of which we are currently unaware. Yet to have this knowledge, the objector must have omniscience.

The person who wishes to demonstrate the incoherence of the idea of God based on the existence of evil also faces the problem how where he or she got the idea of evil in the first place. Objectors to Christian theism would like to say that the existence of evil makes the concept of God incoherent. Upon further analysis, however, it becomes apparent that if God did not exist, the concept of evil itself would become incoherent. Therefore, by making his or her argument from evil, the atheist or skeptic has secretly imported some idea of absolute good.

Without God, you can’t have absolute good. And without absolute good, you have no right to speak of evil.

The New Perspective on Paul

While taking Tom Schreiner’s class “Theology of the New Testament” and reading his excellent book New Testament Theology, I have given some thought to the “New Perspective on Paul.” In trying to wrap my mind around the New Perspective, I’ve done my best to distill its main tenets here and give what I believe is a proper response to it.

The so-called “new perspective on Paul” is a label that covers a variety of attempts to better understand the writings of the Apostle Paul. Perhaps the theme that unifies these new perspectives is the notion that the Reformers fundamentally misunderstood Paul’s writings. The Reformers’ “old perspective” held that Paul was speaking against legalism–attempting to gain a right standing with God by adhering to the law. This new perspective (as represented by James Dunn) claims that Paul does not speak against works-based salvation, but against Jewish exclusivism that stressed the need for specific identifiers such as circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, and the purity laws. Paul was concerned that this ethnocentrism excluded non-Jews, who did not wear the badges of Jewish identity.

Much of the debate hinges on what is meant by “works of the law” in Galatians and Romans. The new perspective sees the “works of the law” to mean those external badges of Judaism. The traditional perspective sees the “works of the law” to mean “those actions or deeds required by the law” (Schreiner, 527).

Dr. Schreiner and other New Testament scholars find the new perspective unsatisfactory. Paul was not arguing that the Jews were excluding the Gentiles based on their failure to wear the external badges of Judaism. Rather, he is arguing that both Jews and non-Jews are guilty because they have failed to perfectly uphold God’s moral law. No one keeps everything the law requires; therefore all are guilty before God. It is difficult to maintain that Paul’s references to the law always meant those external badges of Jewish identity.

We can learn some things from the new perspective on Paul. For example, E. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism chastens the idea that Judaism was solely about legalism. But the danger of the new perspective appears to be that it weakens Paul’s polemic against works-based righteousness. The glory of the Gospel is that it offers us that which we cannot gain by working for it. In offering the “alien” righteousness of Christ, the Gospel both slays our pride and gives us the only righteousness God will accept.

Worship Moment: God’s Knowledge of Me vs. My Knowledge of God

I have been using this Bible memory plan to focus on key truths about God throughout each week. The first two passages, Psalm 139:1-4 and Romans 11:33-36, form a powerful pair. Together, they contrast God’s knowledge of me and my knowledge of God.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:1-4).

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).

I draw two contrasting truths from these passages–truths that compel me to bow in worship.

1. God’s knowledge of me exceeds my knowledge of myself. We humans are incredibly complex creatures. The science of the human body itself evokes fascination and wonder. Yet the biological complexity of a human is only part of the picture. The working of our minds presents a vast and often bewildering frontier for psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurosurgeons. It is ironic that we humans know so little about ourselves. We think we know our personalities, interests, likes and dislikes–only to be surprised as we continue to discover who we truly are. God’s knowledge of me is complete and thorough. He is not intimidated by my complexity. He has mastered me.

2. My knowledge of God will never be exhaustive. God is certainly knowable. It is his nature to reveal himself. But I can never know God fully. Paul’s rhetorical question expects a negative answer: No one has fully known the mind of the Lord. His ways and judgments will for all eternity remain a boundless frontier of exploration and delight.