Several New Testament Gospels record (Mark 14:3–9; Matt 26:6–13; John 12:1–8) that a woman once poured a whole jar of expensive perfume over Jesus’s head. The reaction of those around Jesus was indignation for evidently the perfume could have been sold for a lot of money and given to the poor. But Jesus responds to them, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful (καλὸν) thing to me” (Mark 14:6).
Though somewhat rare today, many Christians throughout history often identified virtue and holiness with the notion of beauty. For example, American theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) claimed that true virtue answers to whatever “renders any habit, disposition, or exercise of the heart truly beautiful” (539). Edwards thus understood truly virtuous actions, such as the woman pouring perfume on Jesus’s head, as also beautiful actions. Edwards addends the word “truly” before “beautiful” here because he knew that “there are some things which are truly virtuous, and others which only seem to be virtuous, through a partial and imperfect view of things” (539–540). Clearly, not all apparently virtuous actions come from pure motives. Seemingly good actions might be motivated by hypocrisy or superficiality. But Edwards nuance runs deeper here than simply those sorts of considerations. Edwards was also suggesting that some habits and dispositions or exercises of the heart, can be only partially beautiful, or only partially virtuous, while others are truly beautiful and truly virtuous “in a more extensive and comprehensive view” (540). To clarify this, Edwards distinguished between two sorts of beauty:
Particular beauty: “a thing appears beautiful when considered only with regard to its connection with, and tendency to, some particular things within a limited and, as it were, a private sphere.” (540)
General beauty: “a thing appears beautiful when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connections with everything to which it stands related to” (540).
In short, particular beauty is exhibited by focusing upon a limited range or perspective of something at hand (e.g., some part of a landscape, some part of an artistic work, etc.) while a general beauty is present by taking into account the full range of the thing at hand (e.g., the full landscape, the full artistic work, etc.).
With this distinction clarified, Edwards interestingly notes that a particular beauty “may be without and against” a general beauty. To explain this, he gives the example of a few notes in a tune, which may indeed be harmonious (i.e., a particular beauty) when taken by themselves; but when considered with respect to all the notes in an overall tune that it belongs to (i.e., a general beauty), it may turn out that the few notes are actually “discordant and disagreeable” (540) to the tune as a whole. Edwards makes this aesthetic distinction between beauties in order to clarify what he takes true virtue to be. It is that beauty “belonging to the heart of an intelligent being, that is beautiful by a general beauty, or beautiful in a comprehensive view as it is in itself, and as related to everything that it stands in connection with” (540). Thus, Edwards identifies true virtue with general beauty and merely apparent or partial virtue with particular beauty. This strongly emphasizes that his understanding of true virtue must take into account a very broad scope, or view, of the whole of something.
With this conception in hand, Edwards goes on to clarify that in order for any attitude or action to be truly virtuous, it must be an attitude or action that takes into account the most general beauty of all, namely God. His somewhat strange way of wording this:
“True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to Being in general. Or perhaps, to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to Being in general, which is immediately exercised in a general good will” (540).
There is quite a bit more nuance to Edwards’s understanding here. But, for our purposes here, Edwards clearly means to note that in order for any attitude or action to be truly virtuous, it must take into account the infinitely virtuous and holy God of Scripture.
The above may seem fairly abstract, but Jonathan Edwards’s conception of virtue being beautiful is an old idea. And it is my hope that Christians might try to recapture this type of ethical language again in reference to pursuing holiness. For a life that is lived for Christ, a life that seeks to honor and please our Lord (such as the woman in Mark 14), is indeed a truly beautiful life. And in a day and age where the relativistic mantra of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is taken to be a truism (which it is not!), having God’s people virtuously live for Christ, and affirming such lives with the attractive and dazzling language of aesthetic beauty, can be a tangible and attractive display of God’s goodness.
Seeking to do good should be recognized as clearly beautiful. Seeking to live for Christ should be recognized as being the most beautiful.
James McGlothlin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology
- Pray that we each would seek to do good and recognize seeking to live for Christ is beautiful.
- Pray for our students and their professors as mid-terms and Spring Break approach.
- Pray for the provision of the 109 remaining scholarships that will allow us to graduate students who are ready to launch into life and ministry without the financial burden of student debt.
- Pray that God would guide the steps of the students and their families who will join us for Spring Preview Day.
 All parenthetic page references are from Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue found in Jonathan Edwards, Ethical Writings, Vol. 8, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).