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What is the starting point of Christian faith? When you wake up and begin your morning study of the Bible, what are you seeking to find out? Or, to go back in time a bit, why did you begin to study the Bible in the first place?
The starting point of religion or spirituality for many today is the individual and his or her subjective feelings. What do I want? What do I need, in a spiritual sense? How can religion, and whatever superpower lies behind it, serve me and meet my desires? In short, what can I get from this deal? Sadly, even Christians are not immune to these questions.
Though biblical spirituality certainly addresses and responds to the heart-cries of lost sinners, its starting point is nothing other than the living God. From the awe-inspiring opening of Genesis 1:1-"In the beginning God"-to the cataclysmic ending of Revelation 21:22-"in the city ... is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb"-the Bible declares without interruption or apology that God is the starting and ending points of true religion. As portrayed in the Bible, God does not bow to man. Man, lost and helpless, bows to God.
The great New England pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards seized upon this central troth early in his life. When he was a young, budding scholar at Yale University, he suddenly discovered in his daily meditation on the Scripture "a sense of the glory of the divine being" that transformed his life (Works 16, 492). Reflecting later on this chrysalis moment, Edwards preached that with genuine faith "There is not only a speculatively judging that God is gracious, but a sense how amiable God is upon that account, or a sense of the beauty of this divine attribute" (Works 17, 413). When a sinner comes to understand the graciousness of God, and the majesty of His character, they see with piercing clarity that "There is a divine and superlative glory in these things; an excellency that is of a vastly higher kind, and more sublime nature than in other things; a glory greatly distinguishing them from all that is earthly and temporal" (Works 17, 413). In this chapter, we examine the center of Edwards's theology, the Lord God, who formed the first link in a cycle of beauty that begins with creation and runs its course to heaven.
The Starting Point of Theology
When the young Yale tutor pushed past the muddle of every, day life and became aware of God's ineffable character, it was as if scales fell from his eyes. The theater, the cosmic drama, of God's reign over the world came into view, and Jonathan stood transfixed. He saw heaven and hell, man and Satan, in clearer view than ever before. But above all, Jonathan saw the Lord. He knew then that God was no abstract deity, hut was a personal being whom all creation could not contain. In his sermon "God's Excellencies," preached in 1720, the same year of his spiritual breakthrough, Jonathan considered the qualities of God that robed Him in splendor. He prefaced his analysis with a warning of his unworthiness for the task:
WHAT POOR, MISERABLE CREATURES, then, are we, to talk of the infinite and transcendent gloriousness of the great, eternal, and almighty Jehovah; what miserable work do worms of the dust make, when they get upon such a theme as this, which the very angels do stammer at? But yet, although we are but worms and insects, less than insects, nothing a! all, yea, less than nothing, yet so has God dignified us, that he has made [us] for this very end: to think and be astonished tall his glorious perfections. And this is what we hope will be our business to all eternity; to think on, to delight [in], to speak of, and sing forth, the infinite excellencies of the Deity. He has made us capable of understanding so much of him here as is necessary in order to our acceptable worshipping and praising him, and he has instructed us, and taught us, as little ignorant babes and infants, and has helped our weak understanding by his instructions; he has told us what he is, has condescended to our poor capacities and described himself to us after the manner of men: as men, when they teach children, must teach them after their manner of thinking of things, and come down to their childish capacities, so has God taught us concerning himself. (Works 10, 417-18)
The one who spoke of God, in Edwards's mind, did so as a created, lowly being, a "worm of the dust." This is a striking beginning for the study of God. One did not discuss the Lord as an abstract concept. One begins the study of theology lying in the dust beside the prophet Ezekiel, heart pounding, eyes straining to shut out the piercing glory, of God (Ezekiel 1:28-2:10).
Beginning his study of God with the Word of God, Edwards, like Ezekiel, raised himself from the ground and began to speak of what he saw. God's beauty had numerous facets and required all man's senses to comprehend it. Edwards identified seven attributes that demonstrated God's excellency, or beauty. Edwards's descriptions of these are worth quoting at length. One should ponder them slowly and meditatively, for they provide rich food for one's spiritual nourishment.
Eternality and Self-Existence
The first of these was longevity and independence of existence. Edwards strove to wrap his mind around the reality that God had always existed. He wrote:
[I]T IS NECESSARY THAT that which hath a beginning must have some cause, some author that gave it a beginning, but God never had a beginning; there was none before him, and therefore none that gave him his being. He thanks no one for his being; doth not, nor ever did depend upon any for it, but receives his being from himself, and depends alone on himself. Neither doth he thank anyone for anything he enjoys: his power, his wisdom, his excellency, his glory, his honor, and [his] authority are his own, and received from none other; he possesses them and he will possess them: he is powerful and he will be powerful; he is glorious and he will be glorious; he is infinitely honorable, but he receives his honor from himself; he is infinitely happy and he will be infinitely happy; he reigns and rules over the whole universe, and he will rule and do what he pleases, in the armies of heaven and amongst the inhabitants of the earth. Poor nothing creatures can do nothing towards controlling of [Him]; they, with all their power conjoined, which is but weakness, can't deprive Jehovah of any of these things. He was just the same, in all respects, from all eternity as he is now; as he was, infinite ages before the foundations of the world were laid, so he is now and so he will be, with exactly the same glory and happiness uninterrupted, immovable and unchangeable, the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Works 10, 419)
As Edwards saw Him, God dwelt in a realm of glory untouched by time and age, dependent on nothing for His timeless existence. Theologians use the term aseity to describe the titter independence and power of God. God "thanks no one for his being," as Edwards put it. His existence is underived. He is altogether powerful, needing no one, never aging, never changing, never growing weary. From the beginning of time until the end of the universe, God exists.
One of the central ironies of the Christian life is that the more we come to learn about God, the more awesome He appears. No matter how high-powered one's mind may be, He is the "immovable and unchangeable" one, a timeless figure from a realm outside our own. Finite creatures simply cannot comprehend His duration of existence, hard as we try. The more we understand, the more we realize how little we truly know.
God's greatness, or exalted status, stands beside His length of existence as a second clement of His excellency. Over every living thing, Edwards preached, stands God:
GOD IS INFINITELY EXALTED above all created beings in greatness. This earth appears to us as a very great thing. When we think of the large countries and continents, the vast oceans, and the great distance between one country and another, the whole, together, appears very great and vast but especially doth the great universe surprise us with its greatness, to which, without doubt, this vast earth, as we call it, is less than any mote or dust, that ever we saw, is to the whole earth; but how shall we be surprised when we think that all this vast creation, making the most of it we can, is infinitely less, when compared with the greatness of God, than the least discernible atom is to the whole creation! (Works 10, 419)
Over all the heights of the universe stands the Lord God. There is no point of comparison between God and all else, wrote Edwards: He "is infinitely exalted above all." God has no end, and one cannot map out His coordinates. He is vast and mysterious, greater than the greatest things we can imagine. His scope speaks to His majestic beauty.
The third attribute that shows God's beauty is His loveliness or splendor. Edwards used picturesque images to describe God's bountiful loveliness:
THE BEAUTY OF TREES, plants, and flowers, with which God has bespangled the face of the earth, is delightful; the beautiful frame of the body of man, especially in its perfection, is astonishing; the beauty of the moon and stars is wonderful; the beauty of [the] highest heavens is transcendent; the excellency of angels and the saints in light is very glorious: but it is all deformity and darkness in comparison of the brighter glories and beauties of the Creator of all, for "behold even to the moon, and it shineth not" (Job 25:5); that is, think of the excellency of God and the moon will not seem to shine to you, God's excellency so much outshines [it]. And the stars are not pure in his sight, and so we know that at the great (lay when God appears, the sun shall be turned into darkness, shall hide his face as if he were ashamed to see himself so much outshined; and the very angels, they hide their faces before him; the highest heavens are not clean in his sight, and he charges his angels with folly. (Works 10, 421)
While a pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts (1726-1750), Edwards loved to take long walks or ride his horse through the stunning New England countryside. Though he relished the outdoors, he knew that the beauty of the earth was nothing but a passing shading compared to the beauty of God. The shining stars and the brisk Northampton nights, though grand, were still "not pure in his sight." Even the very realm of the Lord, "the highest heavens," pale in comparison to Him. God's beauty is perfect, and all appears unclean in comparison.
The fourth attribute that displayed the beauty of God was His power. Over the most powerful people of the earth, God reigned as King:
WHEN HE PLEASES, one king must (tie, and who he pleases must reign in his room; armies conquer or are conquered according as he will have it: "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, and he turns them as the rivers of water" [Proverbs 21:11. Thus he holds an absolute and uncontrollable government to the world; and thus he has done from the beginning, and thus he will do to the end of all things. Neither is his dominion confined to the children of men, but he roles the whole creation. He gives commands to the seas, and has appointed them bounds which they cannot pass; "which removeth the mountains, and they know it not who overturneth them in his anger; which shaketh the earth out of its place, and the pillars thereof tremble; who commandeth the sun and it riseth not; who sealeth up the stars, which maketh Arcturus and Orion, and the chambers of the south; who doth great things past finding out; yea, wonders without number" [Job 9:5-7, Job 9:9-10]. (Works 10, 422)
Edwards summarized this material by noting:
WHAT A VAST and uncontrollable dominion hath the almighty God. The kings of the earth are not worthy of the name, for they are not able to execute their authority in their narrow bounds, except by the power and assistance of their subjects, but God rules most absolutely the whole universe by himself; kings rule, perhaps sometimes for forty years, but God's kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and of his dominion there is no end. Well, therefore, may he be said to be the blessed an(l only potentate, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. (Works 10, 422)
Over against the self-importance of earthly rulers, Edwards asserted the sovereignty of the God of the Bible. Kings thought that they governed with unchallenged authority, but Edward's God "rules the whole creation," "gives commands to the seas," and oversees "most absolutely the whole universe by himself" while He advances His "everlasting kingdom." The Lord controls the hearts of men but is Himself "uncontrollable." The power of this God is itself a work of beauty, an aesthetic performance. In the hurricane's squall, the shuddering of the earth, the eruption of a volcano, we glimpse the force that formed this world and rules over it until the end of the age.
The fifth element of God's excellence and beauty is His wisdom. Edwards turned again to the best of human beings to compare them to God:
THE WISEST OF MEN, how little do they know, how frequently are they deceived and frustrated, and their wisdom turned to foolishness, their politic designs undermined; but when was the time that God's wisdom railed, that he did not obtain his end, although all the bleak army of hell are continually endeavoring to counterwork him? When was in that God altered his mind and purpose, or look a wrong step in the government of the world? (Works 10, 423)
Edwards revealed that God's purposes are not frustrated. What He plans according to His stores of wisdom, He does. The earth and all who live in it take their cues from Him. He is quite unlike even "the wisest of men," who cannot help but see "their wisdom turned to foolishness" and their "politic designs undermined." God may face resistance to His plans, but only for so long as He tolerates it. No man can stand before Him, and no one can resist His will (Romans 9:19).
Edwards believed strongly in the infallibility of God, His inability to make an error or mistake of any kind. God's infinite knowledge undergirded this trait:
SOLOMON WAS SENSIBLE that there was need of uncommon and extraordinary wisdom to rule such a kingdom as he had; but what wisdom, what vast knowledge and infinite penetration must he have, who has every being in the world to rule and govern; who rules every thought, and every purpose, every motion and action, not only of angels and men, but of every creature, great and small, even to every little atom in the whole creation, and that forever and ever? What infinite wisdom and knowledge is necessary and requisite in order to this! But this God doth; this he hath done and will do. All the changes and alterations that happen in all the world, heaven and earth, whether great or never so small, he knows it altogether, even to the least insect that crawls upon the earth, or dust that flies in the air, and it is all from his disposal, and according to his eternal determination. (Works 10, 423)
Edwards compared the Lord to Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. Solomon, Edwards noted, used his intelligence and discernment "to rule such a kingdom as he had," but God "rules every thought, and every purpose, every motion and action" of all that will ever live and breathe on the earth. To reign wisely, Solomon collected whatever knowledge he could; God, however, possesses all the knowledge of the world without sending so much as a solitary, angel from heaven to report back. In Edwards's simple phrase, "He knows it altogether." The knowledge of God extends over and into all things. The Lord is by definition not a limited, finite being like a human. He knows all and exercises complete control over all. If it were not so, Edwards's words indicate, He would not be God.
Excerpted from JONATHAN EDWARDS on BEAUTY by OWEN STRACHAN DOUGLAS SWEENEY Copyright © 2010 by Owen Strachan Douglas Sweeney. Excerpted by permission.
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Chapter 1. The Beauty of God
Chapter 2. The Beauty of Nature
Chapter 3. The Beauty of Christ
Chapter 4. The Beauty of the Church
Chapter 5. The Beauty of the Trinitarian Afterlife
Posted October 11, 2012
This is probably a good book based on the reviews at the front of the book but the sample runs out before you even get to the preface. Grrr...
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