Suppose you were to have a classroom of junior high school students sit down in front of a waterfall, the kind that roars and sprays mist in your face even from a hundred meters away. You have the entire classroom of students remain silent in its presence for five whole minutes, maybe longer. After arriving home from the field trip, you give each student in the class an exam worth 100% of their grade in which you ask only one question: “Which adjective is more apt to describe the waterfall, pretty or sublime?”
Now suppose that out of the twenty or so students to whom you give this final exam, most students answer that the waterfall was “sublime” while a few answered in all seriousness that they thought the waterfall was “pretty.” How would you respond to that latter group of students? Would you say they were objectively wrong in that assessment, and fail them, or would you say that they were no more wrong or right than those who answered “sublime” since, after all, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”?
Too many, the writer fears, would let the students who answered “pretty” pass the class rather than having the conviction and courage to fail those students. It is the writer’s belief that beauty is something describable, something inherent in that which is beheld, exactly the opposite of the modern dogma that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
What biblical or theological categories are there that might help us think about beauty, and its objective importance in the Christian life? This article will address that question in three stages. Section I this article will establish the foundation of general revelation and its implications for beauty as given by John Calvin and Cornelius Van Til. Section II it will establish the existence of theological underpinnings in the music of J.S. Bach, generally considered the greatest composer of all time, and Section III it will propose a convergence of Bach and Jonathan Edwards on the integral place of the moral beauty of Jesus Christ in the Christian’s life and worship of God.
I. Rejecting the Immanent Frame
To begin, we need to ground our thinking on the Biblical teaching that God reveals his glory through nature and that He does so in a continual, pervasive, and multi-faceted fashion. This reality runs counter to the modern, secular worldview which sees ultimate reality as a closed and perfectly predictable system that needs no explanations other than the ones to be found within the system. This aura is captured helpfully by philosopher Charles Taylor, who refers to this as “the immanent frame.” For those within the immanent frame, reality is at root a “self-sufficient immanent order.” The immanent frame is that which seeks to refashion theology departments into religious studies departments, favoring source criticism over exegesis and anthropology over dogmatics.
But the Biblical picture of ultimate reality is far different from that of the immanent frame. In the biblical world view, the Heavens and the skies are not silent but rather “proclaim...declare and pour out” speech about God (Ps. 19:1). According to the Bible, it is not as though lilies seem beautiful; rather, God has purposefully arrayed them beautifully (Matt 6:28). According to the Bible, sparrows don’t simply die, but God ordains that they fall to the ground when he pleases (Matt. 10:29). According to the Bible, it is not simply that infants are fed and oxytocin is released during nursing. Rather, it is in the process of nursing that future Kings learn to trust in God (Ps 22:9).
One could go on, of course. The point is that God’s glory is pervasive, multi-faceted, and continual. God’s glory is both in everything and emanates from everything. Everything in creation, therefore, is saturated with meaning. “Upon his individual works” writes Calvin, “he [God] has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory.” Cornelius Van Til buttresses this point by adding that “the whole universe is revelational of God.” Given that reality is exhaustively revelational of God, it follows that all of man’s actions, thoughts and inclinations in both body and soul are in reaction to God’s revelation. Everything a human being does is in response to something God has first revealed. This includes a person’s artistic endeavors, his attempts at capturing beauty.
Because of sin, however, human beings react to God’s revelation in rebellion instead of obedience. Sinners do this because they believe that they will find pleasure (Heb. 11:25), wisdom (Gen. 3:4–7) power (Isa. 14:13–14), and freedom (John 8:33) in thinking their own thoughts rather than “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” The tragedy, of course, is that the life lived in obedience and covenant communion to God is actually the path to the greatest ultimate pleasure (Ps. 16:11), the greatest ultimate wisdom (Col. 2:3), the greatest ultimate power (1 Cor. 6:2) and the greatest ultimate freedom (John 8:36).
This raises perhaps a more interesting question: what if there was a man whose brilliance as an artist was matched by his sincerity of faith? In such an instance, the artist would not think that he was actually creating anything. Instead, the Christian artist would consider his work as the exegesis of general revelation, an effort to think God’s thoughts after him through mediums like sight (visual art) or taste (food). For our purposes here, we will consider the idea of the Christian artist’s attempt to exegete God’s general revelation with regard to sound, also known as music. If ever such a Christian musician existed, that man was Johann Sebastian Bach.
II. The Theological Underpinnings of Bach’s Music
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was born in Eisenach, Germany and is most known for his years as cantor (music director) at the famous St. Thomas Lutheran Cathedral in Leipzig, a post which he held from 1723 until his death.
Bach’s corpus is massive and his legacy was paradigm shifting. He composed hundreds of cantatas and chorales for use in Lutheran and Catholic churches, forty-eight fugues, and many solo cello suites and concertos for numerous instruments. His Mass in B minor, and two oratorios based on Matthew and John’s Passion are performed regularly to this day to the amazement of international audiences. Bach perfected the harmonic conventions and expectations still in use today and he set the benchmark of harmonic depth towards which all others would only pale in comparison. Aside from his music being performed regularly to this day, his music has influenced countless modern artists such as Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and The Beach Boys’ Al Jardin and Ron Altbach.
But what made Bach tick? Was there something other than raw talent and a musical lineage that can explain how Bach’s influence continues to this day? A look into Bach’s personal library may provide a clue. What scholars have found in his personal study was not so much a vast array of musical scores but instead something akin to a theological sanctuary. One finds, for instance, that Bach owned and read multi-volume Biblical commentaries by Lutheran theologians Abraham Calovius and Johan Olearius in which he often wrote his own annotations. Amongst other theological works, Bach also had the largest collection of the works of Martin Luther available to him at the time, a seven-volume collection compiled in 1661–1664 in Altenburg which Bach seems to have read voraciously. Evidently, Bach was particularly struck by Luther’s work on the Psalms, given that he purchased several copies of them over the years either to give to friends or to replace because of wear.
Bach allowed theology to leaven the whole loaf of his thinking, especially in his thoughts about music. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff summarizes, “for Bach, theological and musical scholarship were two sides of the same coin: the search for divine revelation, or the quest for God.”
III. Bach and Edwards on the Beauty of Christ
In what ways, specifically, does Bach incorporate his theological reflections into his music? This is worth far more consideration and scholarly reflection in the future but for our purposes here, let us consider the beauty of Christ, and specifically his moral beauty, as a theological category that scholars have noticed in Bach. For more on the articulation of the moral beauty of Christ, we now consider the theology of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) in trying to see Bach’s theological bent in action. Although Edwards and Bach never met and likely never heard of each other, they were contemporaries and they each sought to combat both radicalism and formalism which were encroaching in Northampton and Leipzig respectively. For Edwards, the challenge was to combat both the extreme charismatic enthusiasts on the one hand, and the likes of influential ministers like Charles Chauncy and Robert Breck on the other who dismissed the Great Awakenings of the 1730s and 1740s as fraudulent all-together. The challenge was similar for Bach, who at times in Germany had to contend with a brand of Lutheran pietism which dismissed his French suits and cantatas as worldly. Bach scholar Matthew Raley concurs when he writes that “Edwards and Bach both occupied a difficult middle ground between formalism and pietism in their respective traditions.”
How, then, did Bach and Edwards occupy this difficult middle ground in which they produced theology and music that was rational the one hand yet experiential and able to “cut to heart”(Acts 2:37) on the other? The answer most likely lies in their shared conviction of the importance of the beauty of Christ, specifically his moral beauty, in true Christian piety.
Beauty, for Edwards, at its most basic level is simply the phenomenon of “sweet mutual consents.” There is beauty, for instance, in “the colors of the woods and flowers, and the smell, and the singing of birds...the gentle motion of the trees, of lilies...in the fields covered with plants and flowers.” In instances like these, Edwards would contend that therein lies a sweet mutual consent between the green grass and the blue sky, an interplay between the gentle winds and the leaves which the winds strum like a harp string. Time and time again in Edwards’ thought, one runs into this idea of “suitableness” which roughly corresponds to the complementary fitness of things that make up something beautiful. There is for Edwards, a suitableness in God’s plan of salvation, a suitableness in Christian love towards men, a suitableness in the Scriptures for man’s rational capacity and a suitableness in the promises of God to the Christian’s spiritual longings and needs.
But most of all, there is a perfect moral suitableness and beauty in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the key to understanding the aesthetic link between Bach and Edwards. Indeed, as Raley says “Beauty for Bach and Edwards, was a central quality of Jesus Christ.” Edwards writes in The Excellency of Christ that “There is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ.” In Jesus Christ there is on the one hand the majesty of a King, the untamed power of a lion, the glory of a consuming fire and the infinite highness of an incomprehensible God. But at the very same time, there is in Jesus Christ the humility of a servant, the gentleness of a lamb, the disgrace of the cross and the condescension of a human being. All of these seemingly contradictory qualities are one in the person of Jesus Christ. This is beauty. Just as truth is not abstract but a personal (John 14:6), so too beauty is not abstract but personal because of the diverse moral excellencies inherent in the person of Jesus Christ.
We see, therefore how Edwards helps define objective beauty and how Bach’s helps to illustrate it in music. To the degree that anything is truly beautiful, it will reflect something true about the moral perfection of Jesus Christ. For Bach and Edwards, beauty is true to the degree that it drives a person to worship. And worship for Bach and Edwards is true only when one perceives and rejoices in the beauty of Jesus Christ. This is the nexus point into true worship and the chief end of beauty. This is what Bach aimed at in his music and Edwards in his theology, namely “a deep response of the affections to the glory of God in Christ.”