“The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics” by Jonathan King
As a teaching and performing musician seeking to carry out a secular vocation in a Christ-honoring manner, I have read multiple books whose authors have sought to expound and apply the teachings of Scripture in the areas of music, the arts more broadly, and aesthetics. To write such a volume is surely a difficult task, given the paucity of scriptural data in these areas, at least to a surface-level reading. Certainly, there are passages such as Exodus 28:2 where the furnishings of the tabernacle and temple and the garments of those who served therein were made “for glory and for beauty.” There are occasional descriptions of beauty and splendor elsewhere in the Scriptures, but aesthetic concerns are not a primary focus of the biblical text. Authors exploring the intersections of Christianity, the arts, and aesthetics often end up focusing on the use of art and music in corporate worship, with the resulting works consisting of defenses of or attacks upon certain “worship styles” in which engagement with Scripture itself is sometimes shallow. Even those seeking applications beyond corporate worship tend to read the Scriptures through the lens of their own aesthetic and philosophical biases, thus failing to present a view of aesthetics that takes God’s word as its source, rather than as an appendage to opinions largely formed elsewhere. The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics excels because its author avoids such pitfalls—instead effectively asking throughout his treatise, “What does the Bible have to say about aesthetics?”
Jonathan King, currently a lecturer at the Universitas Pelita Harapan in Indonesia, received his doctorate from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where his dissertation “With Unveiled Beauty: Christological Contours of a Theological Aesthetic Approach to Theology” was the original presentation of the material in this book. While books born out of doctoral research are sometimes criticized for being difficult to read, both King and the editorial team at Lexham Press are to be commended for producing a book that does not conform to this stereotype. The large number of footnotes reflects King’s painstaking research, yet he presents his arguments in compelling prose that is scholarly in character without sacrificing readability.
In the acknowledgements preceding the main body of his text, King credits his professors at Westminster Seminary California (where he received his MA) with encouraging his initial exploration of “how beauty pertains theologically to the core doctrines of the Christian faith” (viii). This began with his studying the works of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–88), who figures prominently in the present volume, along with Irenaeus of Lyons (130–202), Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), Jonathan Edwards (1703–58), Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), and Karl Barth (1886–1968). King thus draws from a wide spectrum of theological thought from various traditions and throughout the history of the church. The level of agreement among such disparate authors is remarkable, especially given that this topic receives such limited mention in the Scriptures. By drawing from such a varied collection of authors, King avoids the trap of allowing his thinking on aesthetics to be defined by the concerns and controversies peculiar to his own time and place. He instead finds the wonderful objectivity that C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) wisely admonished us to seek in “old books.”
While King’s synthesis of these and other theologians’ works is helpful and commendable, his primary focus is determining what the Bible teaches in the realm of aesthetics. Early in his book, he criticizes much of the prior work in this area, complaining that “the core weakness of theological aesthetics throughout the history of its various developments has been the primary neglect of a specifically biblical- and systematic-theological treatment” (7). When summarizing his thoughts at the end of the book, he further states that “theological approaches to the subject of aesthetics are varied and most of the theological scholarship on aesthetics is being done in the way of religious aesthetics or theology of the arts” (332). While there is nothing wrong per se with such studies, the questions that interest King are more fundamental. He is not asking how the church should view or even use the arts, or how aesthetic principles can be applied to worship or to Christian life more broadly. King wants to know what beauty is. We speak of the relationship between “the true, the good, and the beautiful” (as the teaching of Philippians 4:8 is so often summarized); but the last of these three is often neglected in theological studies, and when it is mentioned it is subjectivized. While not denying the importance of the subjective perception and appreciation of beauty, King insists that “the quality of beauty inherent in any given thing exists independent of any creaturely percipient, that is, whether or not it is perceived.” He further quotes Augustine:
“If I were to ask first whether things are beautiful because they give pleasure, or give pleasure because they are beautiful, I have no doubt that I will be given the answer that they give pleasure because they are beautiful.” (354–430)
He then concludes that “beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, though it is not reduced to that” (13–14). King is certain that the Bible has something to say about beauty and aesthetics, that there are objective categories that should inform our thinking in this area, and that this teaching has been largely (but not totally) neglected in the development of Reformed and evangelical theology. In seeking to remedy this lack, King rightly focuses on the person and work of Jesus.
Throughout the book, readers encounter phrases such as “the christological contours of beauty,” which is King’s term for “a biblical- and systematic-theological characterization of God’s beauty—notably in and through the Son as incarnate redeemer and with respect to humans as divine image-bearers—in relation to the principal phases of the theodrama: creation, redemption, and consummation” (23–24). A key concept is that of “fittingness”: that the beauty of the Lord Jesus and his work on our behalf is expressed largely in his unique and exclusive suitability to create and redeem a people for himself, and then to bring this work of creation and redemption to a glorious consummation at the end of the age. King even goes so far as to suggest that Christ’s beauty was not veiled at his incarnation, but rather that his becoming man in a humble condition in order to fulfill his redemptive purpose is itself most fitting and thus beautiful. Such proportion and balance, such rightness, such fittingness are seen throughout the “theodramatic comedy,” as King puts it, as God’s purposes are worked out with perfect “creational-recreational symmetry” (92–93). Even the damnation of the reprobate is consistent with these ideas of fittingness and symmetry according to King, though the author treads lightly when speaking on this topic and is reticent to speculate too much.
While Bavinck, Barth, and others have identified God’s beauty as an expression of his glory or as a characteristic of one or more other attributes, King goes further and identifies beauty as one of God’s attributes in its own right. He explores this idea in a largely Christocentric fashion, but the Father and Spirit are by no means neglected. Indeed, the beauty inherent in the economic relations within the Trinity is explored at length. Whether discussing the beauty of the Triune God or exploring God’s works around, in, and for us in creation, incarnation, the cross, and re-creation, King fully demonstrates that all of God’s works are characterized by “the three essential qualities of beauty, namely, proportion, integrity, and clarity” (83–84; emphasis original).
With The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics, Jonathan King has done the church a great service. Those looking for just another book on “art and the Bible” or “music in worship” will not find that here. Instead, they will find a view of aesthetics—theological aesthetics—in which the teaching of Scripture is primary, which always directs readers to the Lord Jesus Christ, our beautiful, fitting, glorious Savior, and his works of creation, redemption, and consummation. Do these teachings have implications for how we view art, music, architecture, and other aesthetic concerns? Of course they do, and Christians should continue to think, speak, and write about such things. King’s book will, one hopes, enable future discussion in this realm to proceed with stronger biblical moorings.
Micah Everett is associate professor of music at the University of Mississippi. He and his family are members of Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oxford, Mississippi.