The Father of Lights: A Theology of Beauty

Written by Junius Johnson Reviewed By Mark Brians II

When I first started reading theology in a serious way, I remember being disappointed at the apparent dearth of meaningful contributions from the reformed and evangelical world insofar as it concerned theological reflection on beauty. Sure, a handful of Protestant theologians worked in theological aesthetics (e.g., Wolterstorff or Begbie), but beyond that small number, it seemed the case that beauty suffered from being subsumed under the exigencies of truth and apologetic. Beauty, it seemed, was useful for the sake of truth. If I wanted, as a young Christian working through Derrida, Zizek, and the oeuvre of Marcel Duchamp in my university’s rhetoric program, a Trinitarian articulation of what beauty was, I had to read Roman Catholic thinkers. Disagree with them as I may about justification or Mariolatry, here at least I was home among those for whom beauty—and not merely its instances— demanded serious theological consideration.

The work that Junius Johnson does in his The Father of Lights is thus brilliant for two reasons. First, it sets the theological consideration of beauty in terms that, while heady at times, are not uniquely Roman Catholic. Second, it focuses on the theology of beauty proper, instead of approaching “the topic somewhat obliquely, turning to concrete instances of beauty (art) to get some purchase of the topic” a la theological aesthetics, however helpful those may be (p. 1).

In part 1, Johnson establishes a clear and detailed understanding of beauty and avoids getting bemired in dichotomies of objective/subjective with his emphasis on God being the properly beautiful and that all our encounters with the beautiful (e.g., creatures and experiences) ultimately remind us of God, who is Beauty himself. This is because “God is beautiful and the source of beauty; God is its source because God is the cause of God’s own beauty and because God is the cause of all beauty that is not divine” (p. 2).

What follows from that understanding is a cogent consideration of “the means of apprehension by which this experience is encountered” (p. 44). “In this life,” Johnson argues, “what we need are eyes that are primed for the eschatological conversion into the vision of glorified creatures” (p. 47). Fallen humanity finds flickers of beauty, even as we find flickers of the true and the just (cf. Acts 17:27–29; Rom 1:19–23), but it is in having “eyes of faith,” as Johnson names it, that our experience is fulfilled in the knowledge of God, who is the truly beautiful, “when the eternity in our hearts becomes the eternity in our eyes” (p. 47).

The phrase for this that Johnson develops here is “contuition” or, literally, “co-seeing” (p. 56). What Jesus assures Philip of in John 14:9 (“whoever has seen me has seen the Father”) presents a picture of the biblical logic at work in the beautiful. Johnson is not arguing for a kind of “double-vision” or a compound seeing. No, the two things being encountered “are not merely adjacent or juxtaposed; rather one is seen through the other” (p. 56, emphasis original).

Part 2 of the book approaches the meaning of beauty using the concept of contuition developed earlier. Johnson moves through five theological themes: the nature of language, the nature of metaphor, things as signs, the nature of sacraments, and icons and ecstasy. These discussions are lengthy, yet Johnson’s leisurely and careful approach avoids tedium. Notable among these reflections is his discussion of things and signs (pp. 131–42). Much of our cultural confusion regarding things as variegated as gender, race, worship music, clothing, and cinema (to name a few), results from the folly of modern and postmodern semiotics. What Johnson does in these pages arrives at a depth of understanding of the nature of signs and things, and the way in which meaning comes to be, anchored in the beauty of the Trinity and a biblical understanding of signification.

For all this positive good, however, I offer two critiques, both coming from the book’s latter portion. First, his invocation of Ockham’s theory of signs (pp. 101, 116) is both unnecessary and problematic. This hazardous gesture, while affording a helpful Latin phrase, was ultimately unnecessary in moving the theological project forward, especially once Johnson applied all the necessary attenuations to Ockham to keep his nominalism at bay. Secondly, chapter 8 fails to adequately address the concerns of those readers who would disagree with him about icons. His scant use of Scripture in the chapter and his lack of rigor when he does, leaves readers wanting.

For many pastors and scholars in the reformed and evangelical world, concepts such as “icon” can put one ill-at-ease. They “smell Romish.” The book moreover might seem of little importance in the reading-list hierarchy of the pastor or young scholar, dwarfed perhaps by more purportedly practical texts (on church-growth, evangelism, or counselling). Against these concerns, I commend it.

First, despite places where those of a more reformed or evangelical sensibility might find disagreement with Johnson’s work regarding sacraments and icons (and perhaps in other places), Johnson’s work remains valuable for the method by which he approaches the beautiful. In an age that suffers from a dysphoria towards and objectification of the beautiful on almost every level, it behooves the church to have pastors and scholars who can proclaim the gospel by clearly articulating an understanding of beauty that makes biblical sense.

Moreover, while Johnson is analytic in his philosophical processes, this book displays his ability to speak to and from the heart, at times being almost pastoral in tone as when he deals with the concept of ugliness (pp. 33–41). “It is dangerously naïve,” he reminds us, “if we forget that there is still to come a mighty working of the divine power with regard to the ugly,” in both its physical and moral forms (p. 40). For those who may be tempted to write-off philosophical explorations of beauty in favor of more “practical” texts, take note: beauty preaches.

Mark Brians II

Mark Brians II
All Saints Anglican Church
Honolulu, Hawaii, USA

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