In 2018, Jonathan King published the groundbreaking work, The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics (Lexham Press). What made this work so significant is that King boldly sought retrieve a whole Bible biblical-theological and systematic-theological consideration of beauty from a distinctly Reformed, Protestant perspective. It does not take long to discover that most systematic works from this perspective have little to nothing to say about divine beauty, and King considers this fact an unfortunate neglect. Relevant to our current issue of Credo Magazine, King situates his doctrine of divine beauty squarely within the a se and simple life of the Trinity. In this interview, King fields questions about his interest in beauty, the doctrine of the divine simplicity, and academic work in the international context.
You’ve written a thing or two about theological aesthetics. As you mention in your book, The Beauty of the Lord, this is not too common of an interest for Protestant systematic-theologians. How did this topic become an interest for you?
Well, I assure you, it is not because I’ve been graced with much of any talent, natural or striven, in terms of what people generally associate with the ordinary categories of the cultured arts. No one who knows me would ever color me as an aesthete. My professional background before pursuing seminary and then my doctorate was in RF design engineering for digital communications. Following that I did product marketing of the same. That might seem incidental to my interest in the topic of beauty but I was surprised at how important aesthetic considerations are to Hi-Tech product design. These products were generally designed as much for their elegance in aesthetic appeal or fittingness as they were for their cutting-edge functionality.
This all served to hone my sensibilities and appreciation for how much aesthetic considerations come into play for quite complex systems design. Subsequently, when I transitioned to attend seminary at Westminster Seminary California in 2004, I found myself loving all the systematic theology I was learning, but it struck me as very odd that the subject of beauty or more generally the aesthetic dimension as it might apply to the subject matter of the theology courses I was taking was completely absent. My systematic theology professors were great, but even they admitted that in the history of doctrinal development stemming out of the Reformation, the subject and pertinence of beauty theologically considered was highly muted, if not altogether ignored, due to the suspect nature of beauty (i.e., its deceptive power) along with seeing beauty as incidental to the biblical story and to soteriology in general. To me, this was a very unfortunate sin of omission, but it all served to propel me into an abundantly enriching project for my doctoral research.
You argue in your book that beauty is a divine attribute. What do you mean by that, and why is that important for our conception of theology proper?
I can’t imagine Christians at any time actually denying the reality of beauty in the world or at least denying the reality of the perception of it in human experience. Sure, beauty has accrued a bad rap due to the other reality of beauty perverted or beauty as a quality that can seduce us toward sin. But the counterfeit examples of beauty or the perversions of beauty only serve to attest to the true reality of beauty that we intuitively know is of a more pure and excellent nature. For various reasons beauty has not been well addressed or pursued in any substantial way within a broadly evangelical perspective in my own discipline of systematic theology. The counterfeit examples of beauty or the perversions of beauty only serve to attest to the true reality of beauty that we intuitively know is of a more pure and excellent nature. Click To Tweet
If the beauty of anything is objectively real, what is its ultimate source, its ontological ground, if you will? I argue that beauty is a divine attribute, that is, a perfection intrinsic to God’s essential nature, belonging to the divine essence itself. To better appreciate this God who has revealed himself to the world, then, involves recognizing and discerning that everything God does in his outward works — whether creation, redemption, or consummation — is always beautiful, always fitting, always entails an aesthetic dimension to it. This not only serves to enrich our conception of theology proper, but also stirs the heart in anticipation of beholding the King in His beauty in the age to come. As to the unified plan of God, theological aesthetics helps us to perceive the aesthetic entailment of how the whole of God’s plan is incomparably greater than the sum of its parts.
The theme of this magazine issue is Undivided Trinity. This means that two doctrines we are particularly interested in are the Trinity, and the doctrine of divine simplicity. How do you think these two doctrines impact the divine attribute of beauty?
No question, the Trinity and the doctrine of divine simplicity go hand in hand as we consider any attributes of God. For according to divine simplicity, the Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit is his attributes, which I argue is synonymous with the immanent fullness of God’s glory. In other words, the concept of divine simplicity informs us that the divine essence is whatever the three persons are together, whose essential qualities are represented in the Unity-in-Trinity that is God. So divine simplicity is simply the singular divine essence, and the singular divine essence is itself the mutual life of the Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit and their perichoresis which overflows in their creating, reconciling, and perfecting action in the world. How this understanding of divine simplicity impacts the divine attribute of beauty, then, is in providing a systematic theological way to disambiguate how beauty relates to the other attributes.
What I argue, in short, is that the ontological basis of God’s beauty is identical with the ontological basis for predicating all of the perfections of God — God simply is all his perfections in pure act. The bottom line is that it would be inconsistent theologically to consider beauty to be a “special case” relative to all of God’s other perfections. Beauty is not itself the ultimate integrative harmony, another way of talking about divine simplicity. Rather, the concept of divine simplicity leads us to say that God ontologically is all his perfections, one of which we have biblical witness and support to say is beauty. Implied here as well is that the divine perfection of beauty cannot be located or otherwise uniquely appropriated to any one person of the Godhead since that would contravene the intra-essential unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no need to posit subordination or relations of authority and submission of any kind between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the life of God in himself Click To Tweet
It’s hard to talk about the doctrine of the Trinity without reference to EFS (Eternal Functional Subordinationism)/ERAS (Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission). How might theological aesthetics guard us from subordinating the Son within the immanent life of God?
This is such an important topic because if we don’t get the doctrine of the Trinity essentially right it can cause all manner of distortion, not only for our conception of theology proper but for our understanding of other core Christian doctrines. In the theological aesthetic model of the doctrine of God that I put forward in my book, the fittingness of the “economical” activities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, respectively, is basic to what characterizes the aesthetic dimension (i.e., beauty) of the Trinity operating economically. To unpack that a bit, the economical activities of the persons in the economies of creation, redemption, and consummation reflect with perfect fittingness the paternity of the Father (the working of all things is from the Father), the filiation of the Son (the working of all things is through the Son), and the spiration of the Holy Spirit (the working of all things is in the Spirit). As to the outworking of God’s eternal plan, the respective economical activities of the persons reflect a perfect fittingness as revealed through their extratrinitarian works. It is in the full compass of the divine economy that God’s fullness of glory is brought to a consummative expression that is all-dimensional in scope, cosmic in scale.
And once we recognize how the economic Trinity “displays” in time the eternal beauty/fittingness of the immanent Trinity, the idea of subordinating the Son within the immanent life of God, whether in a functional sense or in relations of authority and submission within the Godhead, makes no sense. Both Anselm and Aquinas are instructive here — each wrestled with the question of subordination within the immanent life of God. For each of them, the question they sought to answer is whether the Father or the Holy Spirit could have assumed the role of incarnate Redeemer instead of the Son. The answer given from both is closely correlated with the intrinsic beauty of God, seen in terms of the perfect fittingness of the paternity of the Father, filiation of the Son, and spiration of the Holy Spirit. From this perspective, then, regarding how the economic Trinity reveals in time the eternal beauty/fittingness of the immanent Trinity, there is no need to posit subordination or relations of authority and submission of any kind between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the life of God in himself, only perfect unity in perfect freedom and unsubstitutable personal distinction.
Not only are evangelicals debating the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of divine simplicity seems to be a hot-button issue right now as well. In your book, you seem to indicate that the doctrine of divine simplicity is not only important for the attribute of divine beauty, but also the revelation of that attribute in creation, redemption, and consummation. Care to explain? What does the doctrine of divine simplicity have to do with the revelation of divine beauty?
Great question you raise, one that is often given short shrift in scholarly treatments on divine simplicity. To begin with, I argue that all of God’s attributes, or at least as the traditional terminology puts it, his communicable attributes, imbue all his outward works. Building on this, a biblical understanding of the glory of God ad intra, which is to say the immanent glory of God, comprehends all God’s attributes — the attribute of beauty included. A fair way to say this is that the perfect fullness of attributes of God in himself, that is, the fullness of God’s glorious perfection, just means God’s fullness of glory. The way I put it in my book is that the beauty of God manifested economically is expressed and perceivable as a quality of the glory of God inherent in his work of creation, redemption, and consummation. And thus, the countless forms of the glory of God ad extra, down to their most infinitesimal features, are inherently imbued with the full compass of his communicable attributes, one of which is beauty with the untold array of aesthetic characteristics it entails.
Since the doctrine of divine simplicity is consonant with saying that God is all his perfections in pure act (i.e., there is no unrealized metaphysical potentiality in God), then no attributes are suspended or withheld in God’s self-revelation in the divine economy. This equates to the full exercise of God’s glory in his outward works, which he does in such a way as to showcase all his communicable attributes. It’s a direct implication, then, to say that the display of God’s glory in the divine economy is always beautiful, always fitting, always entails an aesthetic dimension to it.
To tie all this back to the doctrine of the Trinity, it’s important here to see that the intra-essential unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in pure act means that the working of the Trinity in the economies of creation, redemption, and consummation has a taxis or order of relations that goes something like this: The Father creates, redeems, and consummates, but always through the Son in the Spirit; the Son creates, redeems, and consummates, but always from the Father in the Spirit; and the Spirit creates, redeems, and consummates, but always from the Father through the Son, so that the Father together with the Son and the Spirit pursue and accomplish the creational work, the redemptive work, and the consummative work that belongs to God alone. That’s a mouthful I know, so it’d be best to chew on this slowly.
Readers may also be surprised to find out that Martin Luther also has a contribution to make in theological aesthetics. You’ve recently written on Luther’s aesthetics. Why do you think his contribution is worthy of consideration?
Thanks for mentioning. In my article earlier this year on Martin Luther’s theology of beauty, I characterize, critique and then offer my own counterargument in regard to the theological aesthetics of Luther’s theology of the cross. As for Luther’s theological aesthetics, the critical point is how his medieval views of beauty are reworked in that doctrine. What Luther was grappling with here involves the question of how we are moved from the law of God to the love of God, which must needs go through the cross. While Luther’s theology of beauty is really just an offshoot of his primary work in Christian doctrine, his contribution as it relates to the theology of the cross is soteriologically profound. The question Luther works out for himself and which gets right at the heart of the theological aesthetics of the theology of the cross can be framed this way: “What will be our theology of beauty if we start not with beauty as a concept but with the cross? What will be our theology of beauty if we let the cross stand for what it is without trying to see through it, behind it, or past it?”
I invite any interested readers to check out the article for my complete analysis, but here’s the gist of Luther’s theological aesthetic, a theological aesthetic re-conceived, if you will, in light of his theology of the cross. For Luther, Christ’s atoning death, which is all wrapped up in Christ’s identifying himself with sinners in his passion and death on the cross, operates at the spiritual level upon sinners and involves God in his hiddenness doing an alien work upon the sinner. The beauty of God’s hiddenness is found in his alien work of bringing sinners to despair of themselves and come to the acute realization that on their own, they truly have nothing to offer God. God’s justification of the sinner, the dynamic of which is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, amounts to being adorned in the imputed beauty of God, the ground and source of which is Christ himself.
My article provides a more thoroughgoing treatment of all this, so I’ll leave off here with how Luther concludes, almost lyrically, his exposition of the theology of the cross in thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputation: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. … Therefore sinners are ‘attractive’ because they are loved; they are not loved because they are ‘attractive.’” Indeed, coming to see our sufficiency in Christ is something amazingly new—like the beauty of “finding love.”
You make a pitch for the pedagogical appreciation of beauty in systematic theology. You essentially say that when we teach systematic theology, we should include discussions on divine beauty. What might it look like for theological aesthetics to be incorporated into our pedagogy?
How delightful a prospect that would be — for theological aesthetics to be incorporated in the pedagogy of systematic theology. From your lips to God’s ears, as the saying goes. In my book I put forward a theological aesthetic that addresses what I refer to as God’s “beautiful self-showing” according to the redemptive-eschatological fulfillment of his original creational purposes. More specifically, my focus was to shine the spotlight on the self-showing of what God has done and is doing in Christ. So you could say that my project is more of a systematic whole Bible approach to theological aesthetics. But clearly that is not the only way to pursue and develop this area of systematic theology.
The theological aesthetics of the unified history of redemption offers a treasure trove of things to consider, countless more in fact than I explored with my own christological focus. Its value extends to the correlation between the aesthetic domain and the ethical domain, even enriching and informing Christian praxis and spiritual formation. As I put it in my book, to speak, act, and live in ways that bear witness to the truth, goodness, and beauty of Christ Jesus.
There are any number of pedagogical approaches one could take in this regard. As one possibility, you could examine the aesthetically intentioned literary forms of different genres of individual books of the Bible; or investigate various aspects of the biblical narrative, or even more broadly, in the overall plan of God for discernible aesthetic features or patterns of one kind or another that have not been considered in such light. For instance, one suggestion might be to study the aesthetic dimension of typology in Scripture. But theological aesthetics isn’t something you just pedagogically jump into on the fly. Quite obviously, theological approaches to the subject of aesthetics necessitate the interdisciplinary engagement of systematic theology and the domain of aesthetics.
My focus in our conversation here has been on the theology part, but I haven’t even scratched the surface of things that one could explore and apply from the domain of beauty and aesthetics. Untapped potential from that domain just might open up new avenues of consideration and illumination that could be applied in the spadework and pedagogy of theology. Especially rewarding is when you see implications for doctrine and practice. I found that to be the case in my own work in The Beauty of the Lord. Lastly, becoming well acquainted with the history of the development of theological aesthetics is indispensable as well.
You are currently teaching at the Universitas Pelita Harapan, in Jakarta, Indonesia. Tell us about your transition from the U.S. academic scene to an international one. How does life in Indonesia compare with life in the States?
The international academic scene was not even on my radar. But a chance encounter with a friend of mine from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where I was teaching at the time, led to me learning all about his teaching position at the Universitas Pelita Harapan (UPH), which identifies boldly as a Christian University in a country that is something like 87% Muslim. He told me of a position opening up there that involved teaching the Bible and theology and asked if I might be interested. The timing and personal circumstances were all clear for me to pursue this opportunity to go international, and I felt confidence in the Lord that he was leading me this way.
As far as how life in Indonesia compares with life in the States, I would say that adapting to its cultural mores has involved quite the adjustment for this born and raised Philadelphia boy. I mean, there’s no Philly cheesesteak, Tastykakes, Italian water ice, or subpar professional sports teams. But I digress. Joking aside, living in Indonesia took some getting used to. One interesting point of comparison is the national identity set about by the official Constitution of Indonesia. The Constitution was founded on a set of philosophical principles called the Pancasila, and one of these codified principles recognizes and affirms that there is a Supreme or Ultimate Divine Being. One could well be polytheistic but recognized here is the idea that there is nonetheless a Supreme One.
The intention is to preserve and promote a citizenry that coexists in a religiously pluralistic society. So even though Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, its citizens can alternatively identify themselves as Catholic, Christian (i.e., Protestant), Hindu, Confucianist, or Buddhist. As you would guess, it’s not a very secular society at all. Religious sensibilities just permeate the entire way of life. So unlike how certain irreligious trends in the U.S. seem to be going, things like the New Atheism movement evidence no serious sway here. Overwhelmingly, the supernatural realm is simply taken for granted — “Of course there’s a supernatural realm, it’s just part of life!” That includes a realist respect for the dark side. The classes I taught all had to do with the essentials of the Christian faith, with the vast majority of my students self-identifying as Christian. But in the course of our class discussions, many of them shared stories about the practice of dark magic, witchcraft, or shamans that they’ve heard about, whether first hand or from the tribal community they come from.
The typical manner in which Indonesians communicate in both formal and informal contexts is another interesting social dynamic that took some adjusting to, specifically its high value on “saving face” either for oneself or saving face for the sake of the other(s). I once gave a talk on Matt 5:33-37 at our weekly departmental chapel service. With the focal point of the passage being “let your yes be yes and your no be no,” I challenged all of us to earnestly take that to heart in all our communication with each other. In the Q&A that followed one of my colleagues asked, “Can we obey Jesus’ command to let our no be no by a response of silence?” Behind this of course was the idea of saving face for the sake of the other. Such things as these force you to reconsider how the truths, the imperatives and the principles of Scripture may be faithfully applied in quite diverse cultural contexts.
Not many PhD students have the international job market on their radars. Should they?
My basic impulse is to go bold and say yes, by all means PhD students should consider an international job if an interesting and worthwhile opportunity presents itself, at least for a season of time. And maybe the idea of season of time is a good way to consider it. Even if we’re talking about serving as a teacher, you are in truth serving as a missionary or in a missionary capacity. Now on one hand I know expatriates who have stayed teaching in Indonesia for many years, but that level of commitment is not for everyone and nor does it need to be the normal expectation. In my view and true in my own experience, stepping outside of my America-centric point of view has been great. For one thing, you gain a first-hand appreciation for how the Spirit of God is at work in other parts of the world, with all the amazingly diverse ways that God is building his church and advancing his kingdom purposes. And secondly, the challenges you’ll experience in being and serving outside of your comfort zone can be a wonderful opportunity to personally and spiritually grow in ways you otherwise would not. I’ve talk to a number of former Muslims here who converted to Christ and their testimonies both jolt and inspire you in terms of what it means to count the cost to follow Christ. Teaching abroad gives you a first-hand appreciation for how the Spirit of God is at work in other parts of the world, with all the amazingly diverse ways that God is building his church and advancing his kingdom purposes. Click To Tweet
Similarly, teaching abroad has given me the privilege of mentoring students from China and other countries. In many cases, their hunger and thirst for Christ and their sincerity of devotion to Christ has been so spiritually refreshing for me and my wife. One of the students from China who we were mentoring told us about the severe persecution his underground church back in China had recently experienced, literally having the place where they met for worship be completely destroyed. His pastor spoke to the congregation saying “God had assessed their church to be a great success.” And then he said why that was so — God had counted them worthy of being persecuted because they would not compromise the message of the gospel nor their devotion to Christ. That’s just beautiful to hear.
I’m back in the U.S. now, but the four years I’ve spent teaching in Indonesia have been invaluable. There are sacrifices one has to accept, though, and in some situations real hardships one has to endure, but if the season of life you’re in presents no major obstacles to pursuing an international job and you’re willing to make such a commitment, the rewards in serving the Lord this way can be precious and many.
Are you working on any new projects that you’d like to tell us about?
As a matter of fact I do have a new book project, so I appreciate you asking. It’s through Lexham Press and is still very much a work in progress. So the best I can do now is simply give a bit of a teaser that maybe can serve to whet the appetite. Just like the framework I used for The Beauty of the Lord, this new project is also more of a systematic whole Bible approach, which includes my own christological focus. The title I’ve given it is Remythologizing Angels and Demons: Their Purpose in the Cosmic Kingdom of God. The overarching aim of the book is to show that the fundamental purpose of angels — holy and fallen — is to magnify and express the kingly majesty of God through Christ, the Redeemer-King, in the redemption of human beings.
Here’s a brief setup and summary description of the book. What has been sorely neglected in scholarship on angelology and demonology is a more robust biblical- theological treatment that addresses the metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Approaching angelology and demonology in this manner can make a big difference, for it provides the theological framework to integrally address how it all pertains to the plan of God to redeem human beings.
In this project, then, I develop what I believe is the larger and more glorious point to all of it. Namely, that all instances of angelic activities, ministrations and service are theodramatic ways the holy angels, as part of God’s royal retinue, adorn and magnify the kingly majesty of God as they carry out his will on earth just as it is in heaven. The cosmic kingdom of God becomes the theater of war in which a theodrama plays out between two warring kingdoms: the kingdom of darkness under the liege lordship of Satan at war with the kingdom of light under the Lordship of God through Christ. Undeniably, God is the universal and unassailable ruler over both these kingdoms. His ordained purposes for angels and demons involve his eternal plan to glorify himself through Christ in the redemption of human beings. In the big picture the kingdom of darkness comprises Satan and the other fallen angels who are united in seeking to enslave and ultimately destroy human beings, who alone bear the divine image, but especially God’s covenant people. In the consummation of the theodrama, the Bible declares that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15). Highlighting Christ as both the victorious Lamb of God (Agnus Victor) and the conquering Lion of Judah (Leo Victor) climaxes in the glorious reality that God through Christ is indeed the unchallengeable Conqueror over the kingdom of darkness but the Redeemer-King and Defender of those who belong to the kingdom of light— the citizens of the kingdom of God. At this point I’m not yet half-way finished this project, but steeping myself in my research and writing has already been unbelievably rewarding. And by God’s grace I’ll see this labor of love all the way through to its wonderful end!