In The Beauty of the Lord, Jonathan King restores aesthetics as not merely a valid lens for theological reflection, but an essential one. Jesus, our incarnate Redeemer, displays the Triune God’s beauty in his actions and person, from creation to final consummation. How can and should theology better reflect this unveiled beauty? In this excerpt, King discusses four distinct approaches to theological aesthetics, laying the groundwork for the rest of his study.
“Theological aesthetics” does not imply there is homogeneity in the kind of theological scholarship on aesthetics. On the contrary, the diversity of distinct theological approaches to the subject of aesthetics can only rightly be described as heterogeneous. Effectively there are four basic categories in terms of respective concerns and the ways theology applies and is integrated: (1) natural theology of beauty, (2) theology of the arts, (3) religious aesthetics, and (4) theological aesthetics. As employed here, these categories apply as pedagogical distinctions, if not formal ones, for distinguishing and describing the basic (even if in certain respects overlapping) differences. For our purposes I wish only to provide a clear, though brief, description here of these four distinct categories so the reader will not mistakenly assume that all theological scholarship on aesthetics pursues the same common concern or applies and integrates theology using a common approach. What I am putting forward is a properly dogmatic (i.e., Trinitarian) account of aesthetics.
Our first category, natural theology of beauty, seeks to give an account from the perceivable beauty of the natural world in attestation of the God that Christianity upholds and proclaims. The aim here is to provide evidential value in the cause of understanding-seeking-faith and/or apologetic value in the cause of faith-seeking-understanding. The affective power of beauty to elicit such visceral responses as “awe,” “fear,” and “wonder” is generally seen as substantiating the universal search for meaning and spiritual insight within human aesthetic experience. Natural theology of beauty often concerns the aesthetic dimension in relation to the natural and mathematical sciences as well. A common thrust concerning the perceivable order of nature is to emphasize a clear resonance with the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty, along with the teleological character of creation.
The second category, theology of the arts, seeks to understand the place of the arts in the life of faith and in the religious community. It is distinguished typically in terms of exploring the relationship between art and theology from the perspective of artistic technique, that is, the manner in which artwork or artistry is executed. It aims to arrive at conclusions about the capacity of genuine works of art; specifically, how all genuine art can function in its own way as a source of theology and spirituality. A Christian perspective informs one’s artistic expression and endeavors in ways both creative and redemptive. According to theology of the arts, by the creative act the artist participates in the highest excellence of God, and this involvement is a basic fact of aesthetic expression for every instance of art. The spiritual dimension in all art is thus presumed to be salutary to one’s spiritual formation as part of God’s creative and redemptive purposes.
Our next category, religious aesthetics, attempts to understand the nature of aesthetic phenomena in art and the natural world, but especially in relation to one’s participation in religious traditions and expression. Such understanding is predicated chiefly on aesthetic perception and experience. Here, insight from Scripture may indeed inspire a greater sense of spirituality or worship, but aesthetically rich works of culture also serve as essential sources for enhancing and attuning our spiritual sensibilities. Thus, our growth in spiritual maturity is understood to be conditioned in some measure through appreciating such sources of culture. Religious aesthetics, then, seeks to understand and apply a subjective evaluation of the aesthetic dimension to enhance one’s overall religious perspective, practice, and experience, as well as one’s aesthetic appreciation of art and nature. There is a vital connection seen between our spiritual growth and reflection on the aesthetic best that culture has to offer. Indeed, in a post-Kantian context, religious aesthetics serves to repudiate a purely intellectualist approach to the world, interpenetrating as it were the spiritual dimension of the natural world, works of culture and art, and cultivating spirituality via aesthetic perception and experience.
And lastly, our fourth category, theological aesthetics, is premised on the canon of Scripture being the norm that norms other norms (norma normans) over all matters pertaining to Christian doctrine and practice. Scripture’s authority as such holds preeminence in how we interpret theologically everything considered general/natural revelation as well as expressions of culture. By extension, biblical authority presides over the domain of aesthetics in its understanding of the whole of creation—the theatrum gloriae Dei, as John Calvin (1509–1564) puts it. The basic position of theological aesthetics, argued by reasonable inference from Scripture, is that beauty corresponds in some way to the attributes of God, and as such is a communicated property or phenomenon of the opera Dei ad extra. Inferred from the previous point is that the objective reality of beauty comes from its correspondence to the attributes of God; it is this correspondence that grounds a metaphysically realist view of beauty. In general terms, theological aesthetics derives from biblical- and systematic-theological work concerning or pertaining to the aesthetic dimension as integral to and as apprehended throughout the canon of Scripture. The fruit of theological aesthetics for theology more broadly is its consequent interpretation and implications for doctrine and practice. In this work, theological aesthetics is directed primarily on the objective beauty of the person of Christ, the beauty of the work of Christ (redemption accomplished), and the beauty of Christ’s work ongoing through the Holy Spirit (redemption applied). The constructive development of this project involves a biblical-theological characterization of God’s beauty—notably in and through God the Son—as reflected economically in the phases of creation, redemption, and consummation.