The Beauty of God

The Beauty of God August 22, 2023

Jonathan Edwards is best known for his hair-raising fire and brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  (Fans of the horror genre who like to be scared, see if you can handle that.)  But that sermon, a factor in the First Great Awakening, is not as characteristic of Edwards’ usual preaching as the theme of God’s beauty.

So says the respected Christian historian George Marsden in his new book An Infinite Fountain of Light: Jonathan Edwards for the Twenty-First Century.

David Swartz, at the Patheos blog The Anxious Bench, has written a fascinating review of Marsden’s book with his post Infinite Fountain of Light: Reclaiming Jonathan Edwards from the Theobros.  (That last term is a reference, I think, to the “young, restless, and Reformed” folks who like to emphasize the harder points of Edwards’ Calvinism.)

Here are some quotations from Edwards that Swartz gives on the beauty of God:

“God is God, and to be chiefly distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above them, chiefly by his divine beauty. . . .God’s light and love flow forth, that the infinite fountain of good should send forth abundant streams, that this infinite fountain of light should, diffusing its excellent fullness, pour forth light all around.”

“When we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ; when we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see his love and purity. So the green trees and fields, and singing of birds, are the emanations of his infinite joy and benignity; the easiness and naturalness of trees and vines are shadows of his infinite beauty and loveliness; the crystal rivers and murmuring streams have the footsteps of his sweet grace and bounty.”

“When we see beautiful airs of look and gesture, we naturally think the mind that resides within is beautiful. We have all the same, and more, reason to conclude the spiritual beauty of Christ from the beauty of the world, for all the beauties of the universe do as immediately result from the efficiency of Christ, as a cast of an eye or a smile of the countenance depends on the efficiency of the human soul.”

Edwards, one of the founders of Princeton University, may have been a Puritan minister, but he was also a highly original philosopher, who integrated Enlightenment thought–especially that of John Locke and the scientific revolution–with orthodox Christianity.  And for all of his Calvinism, he was also an innovative theologian.

Calvinists tend to downplay the physical realm and its spiritual significance–to the point of considering any physical expression of spiritual reality, including the Lutheran view of the sacraments–as “idolatrous.”  (For us Lutherans, what makes an idol isn’t physicality, but falsehood, so that any deity constructed by human beings and not revealed by God’s Word, however conceptual, is an idol.  See Michael Lockwood’s The Unholy Trinity.)  So Edwards’ appreciation of the natural creation, both for its beauty and its reflections of the love of God, is a healthy corrective.

His writings in that vein anticipated both the New England Transcendentalists and the American Romantic poets, but, again, in terms of a Christian worldview.

He was also an influence on the Hudson River School of landscape painters, as I show in my book Painters of Faith:  The Spiritual Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America.




Illustration:  “Above the Clouds at Sunrise” by Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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