Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) has been called one of America’s greatest artists, an innovator who painted with ideas.
“There are many reasons to regard Edwards as an original and venturesome thinker,” claims Michael McClymond in his landmark book The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. “Yet his placement of beauty at the heart of his theology may have been the boldest stroke of all.”
The mind of Edwards, and the writings of Edwards, are unintelligible without the concept of beauty — because the theology of Edwards is built around God’s splendor. God alone possesses an exquisite beauty that distinguishes him and makes him worthy of all adoration. Dane Ortlund picks up this point in his forthcoming book Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God:
Beauty is what makes God God. [Writes Edwards,] “God is God, and distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above them, chiefly by his divine beauty.” Not sovereignty, not wrath, not grace, not omniscience, not eternity, but beauty is what more than anything else defines God’s very divinity. Edwards clearly believed in these other truths about God and saw all of them as upholding and displaying and connected to God’s beauty. Yet none of them expresses who God is in the way that beauty does. (24–25)
An encounter with the breathtaking collision of God’s character — this beauty — opened the eyes of Edwards to glory. God’s beauty changed his life, filled his heart, and propelled his ministry, molding him into the prolific pastor and theologian he became.
And the result was prolific indeed. “You don’t write 73 volumes of 500-pages each unless you are driven by beauty — no, drawn by beauty,” explained McClymond in an interview with Desiring God.
Driven or drawn — or driven and drawn — Edwards labored to explain the multifaceted character of God to others, and it required a multiplicity of explanations. “Sometimes Calvinists get a bad rap as people who are cowering in worship before a God of power,” McClymond said. “But Edwards has both a sense of the power of God and also the gentleness of God. You get them both reflected in Edwards’s writings.” His power and his gentleness are all part of God’s compiled character, manifesting his majestic beauty — and it makes Edwards’s theology “sing.”
We put Edwards scholar Michael McClymond on the line to explain beauty, to describe how God’s beauty compelled Edwards, and to explain how a God-centered man like Edwards would have appreciated the lesser, imitative beauties of the world like jazz music, novels, and paintings. We talked about whether aesthetically inclined individuals are more likely to perceive God’s beauty, and along the way, we talked about beauty’s opposite — ugliness — and how to define it.
McClymond is the co-author of The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, an 800-page volume he wrote with Gerald McDermott, published by Oxford in 2011.