The Theological Aesthetics of Jonathan Edwards
Louie, Kin Yip
This is a study of the theological aesthetics of Jonathan Edwards. Previous studies of Edwards’ aesthetics tend to pass over doctrinal issues and address Edwards mostly within a philosophical context. In this treatment, the aesthetics of Edwards is examined within an explicitly theological framework. The definitions of beauty offered by several Enlightenment philosophers known to Edwards (Shaftesbury, Addison, Hutcheson) are explored. Edwards creatively integrates from these writers the Neoplatonic tradition (the objective side) and empirical tradition (the subjective side) in his conception of beauty. Edwards uses the concepts of sensibility and beauty to construct his theocentric worldview. In Edwards’ conception, the material world exists for the purpose of serving as a giant metaphor for spiritual reality. Edwards adopts Lockean vocabulary to distinguish between a rational understanding and a sensible perception of spiritual reality. This sensible perception in the saints is the work of the Spirit according to his own nature. The Holy Spirit is God’s own perception of his beauty. Thus the perception of divine beauty by the saints is an extension of the inter-Trinitarian life of God. For Edwards, humility is the beauty of the human nature of Christ. This is a creaturely beauty not available to the pre-incarnate Son. Conversely, immensity is the unique and incommunicable glory of God. Both the Trinitarian beauty and awesome beauty of the immensity of God will reach their climax in the eschatological states of heaven and hell. Hell is especially a demonstration of the awesome glory of God’s immensity. Edwards’ aesthetics brings out the tension between the relatedness and the freedom of God. Both belong to the beauty of God, yet they cannot be harmonized in a closed system. Soon after Edwards’ death, the Reformed tradition in America quickly forgot this insight into the sensual perception of God in its quest of systemic consistency.