Stephen John Wright’s Dogmatic Aesthetics offers a dogmatic treatment of beauty using the work of Robert Jenson. Though Jenson hasn’t written a theological aesthetics, Wright is correct that Jenson’s work is shot through with aesthetic concerns: “Jenson’s theology is irreducibly aesthetic.”
One of Jenson’s fundamental claims is that the relation of Creator and creation is an aesthetic one. In Wright’s summary, “God is the artist, and creatures are the art. God creates by giving voice to creation, yet created beauties are susceptible to decline and decay. Rather than treating this mutability as a flaw, Jenson celebrates the gratuity of transitory beauty. By drawing on Japanese aesthetics, I will expand upon Jenson’s insights to argue that the proper mode of creaturely beauty—as distinct from divine beauty—is temporality.”
Wright argues that Jenson’s work forces the question of how to reconcile the aesthetic notion of “proportion,” which Jenson links with Triune harmony, with the affirmation of divine simplicity. Some would say that Jenson resolves the problem by denying simplicity, but Wright correctly recognizes that this is unfair to Jenson. In a substantial chapter, he examines Jenson’s fraught relationship with the axiom of simplicity.
On the one hand, Jenson can “unproblematically” appeal to Aquinas’s claim that God’s essence is His existence, and he affirms aseity without question. What he objects to is not simplicity per se, but some of the ways it has been formulated. He worries that simplicity can lead to a retreat from redemptive history into a negative theology, “so that the Trinity in its turn disappears into the old distant timelessness, carrying its internal reflection of evangelical history right with it” (Jenson). He’s concerned with the way simplicity smudges the differences between the persons, between the ways the persons are “related” to the one substance. In some cases, “the three persons are not only equally related to the one substance, but identically related, so that the . . . relations are irrelevant to their being God” (Jenson again). In both of these ways, simplicity can be formulated in a way that “occludes the perception of divine form” and “funds only an apophatic theology of the sublime” rather than a theology of the beautiful (this is Wright summary).
Jenson thinks that Thomas’s aesthetic instincts are overwhelmed by simplicity: “If God is utterly simple, as Aquinas supposes, then there is no proportion or brightness internal to divine being; God is ineligible to be beautiful, so being beauty itself is impossible” (Wright). At beast, in this framework, God is beautiful to us, but not in Himself. But that is just another way of saying that God is shapeless, unknowable sublimity rather than beauty.
Though “Jenson does not accept any doctrine of simplicity that obscures the differentiation of the divine persons,” he affirms simplicity itself. For him, the essence of God is what the persons are together. Turning Thomas around, eh argues that if God’s essence is existence, then existence – the concrete divine communion of Father, Son, and Spirit – must be God’s essence. As Wright explains, “If the divine essence is whatever the three are together, then a doctrine of simplicity is not incompatible with a theology that prefers to make constant reference to the mutual activity of the Father, Son, and Spirit—which is simply the revealed name for the singular divine essence. The grammar of simplicity is a subset of a Trinitarian grammar.” Thus means that simplicity is Triunely differentiated: “Whatever we want to assert in the form ‘God is . . . ’ -that he is good, or great, or whatever – we must say three times for it to be true of the gospel’s God” (Jenson, of course!). Or, more specifically, on the goodness of God: “God is good as a promised Gift is good; God is good as a Giver is good; God is good as the Giving is good.” That is, God is His own goodness, but the God who is His own goodness is the Triune God who is Triunely good.
Triune simplicity is shaped, formed simplicity; it has proportion and harmony. It is beauty, and only such a Triunely simple God can be infinite beauty.