Review: God’s Beauty-in-Act

Stephen M. Garrett. God’s Beauty-in-Act: Participating in God’s Suffering Glory. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013, xviii + 243 pp., $29.00 paperback.

imgresIn this book based on his doctoral dissertation, Stephen M. Garrett, Lecturer of Public Theology and Philosophy of Religion at Lithuania University of Educational Sciences, addresses the omission of beauty in much of Protestant theological discourse. Protestant theology’s general reticence on beauty and the role of the theological imagination serves to “perpetuate the gap in our understanding of God, dehumanize humanity, and hinder Christian worship, witness, and wisdom” [196]. To correct this misguided course, Garrett makes the case that reintegrating beauty into the conversation will help the church and Christian theology face the double crisis identified by Moltmann: the crisis of relevance and identity [ix].

The text has a diptych structure. Panel One is comprised of two chapters. Chapter 1 unpacks the dismissal of beauty and the imagination in post-Enlightenment thought, briefly tracing the impact of some of the major players like Descartes, Kant, Locke, Nietzsche, and Derrida. In Chapter 2, the impact of Hans Urs von Balthasar on Garrett’s project becomes clear. Balthasar is Garrett’s primary conversation partner and, despite a few gentle (albeit important) critiques, he generally appropriates Balthasar’s proposal of the efficacy of God’s glory in drawing the perceiver into the redemptive drama of God.

The focus of Chapter 3, the hinge of the diptych, is the development of “a relevant biblical motif through the thematic partnering of the Suffering Servant in Jeremiah” and a more thorough exposition of Col 1-2:5 [128].

Panel Two also includes two chapters. In the chapter 4, Garrett unpacks his Trinitarian conception of Beauty by engaging with several key issues in theological aesthetics including the tension of how the Impassible suffers as well as the objectivity and subjectivity of God’s beauty. Chapter 5 is where Garrett develops his argument for the God’s Beauty-in-act, that is, Jesus’ redemptive-creative suffering and subsequent resurrection as the nexus for theology and ethics. The beauty of God draws properly “perceiving subjects [e.g. those with the eyes of faith] out of themselves and into God’s drama of redemption…” [168].

There are a few critiques worth mentioning. First, he bites off more than he could chew in 200 pages. This hinders the strength of his argument in that several assertions were left underdeveloped. One example is his discussion of God’s emotive life. Garrett rightly rejects Balthasar’s divine eternal kenosis theory, and yet his attempt to solve the tension of how an impassible God suffers by differentiating between passiones and affectiones is not compelling [157-160]. It is not clear how this would satisfy the relational theists to whom he is responding throughout the text. Among their chief critiques is that Greek philosophy has been smuggled into Christian theology. I suspect his relational theist “opponents” would be suspicious of his approach as simply being a product of Augustine’s neo-Platonism – simply more smuggling of philosophical concepts into Christian theology. In his attempt to “bring a measure of perspicuity to divine impassibility,” he glosses over in a few short pages what requires more attention to substantiate satisfactorily.

A second critique pertains to Garrett’s conflation of glory and beauty, most clearly evidenced in his interpretation of 2 Cor. 3.18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  While it’s true that beauty is closely linked to God’s glory, I’m not sure the “glory” and “beauty” are quite so interchangeable as he understand them to be. For instance, referring to this verse he writes, “as we behold God’s beauty, we are transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christ’s likeness with an ever-increasing beauty (2 Cor 3:18)” [187]. If beauty is equated with or interchangeable with glory, is the same true of the other transcendentals? Of holiness? It seems sufficient to say simply that God’s beauty is communicative of his glory without going so far as to equate or conflate the two.

Despite these weaknesses, there is much to laud. The first is his Trinitarian approach to God’s beauty, which fortifies the notion that theology and ethics are distinct but inseparable. Garrett defines beauty as “the attunement or fittingness of the incarnate Son’s actions in the Spirit to the Father’s will that radiates the splendor of God’s triune love” [132]. Beauty is the concordance of Jesus’ existence and mission. From here he argues that “the incarnate Son, as the expression of God’s beauty, makes God’s beauty perceptible, for he is the form or image of the invisible God. The Holy Spirit, as the impression of God’s beauty, communicates and affects the splendor of God’s beauty in the cosmos and the church…” and it is the Spirit which transforms the perceiver and draws her onto the stage as an actor in God’s redemptive activity [144].

Garrett’s treatment of the integral role of the imagination is also commendable. “The imagination is transformed by our participation in the beauty of God’s life expressed in incarnate Beauty and impressed by the Beautifier” [164]. As one practices the call-response pattern inherent to participating in God’s beauty, she trains her imagination to respond wisely to new situations. Garrett offers jazz as a fitting analogy. As with improvisation in jazz, the Christian responds to the call of beauty having been formed by cultivating the practices fundamental to the Christian life. Thus, Garrett contends that in response to new situations in our daily lives, “we seek beautiful improvisations on the Word in the Spirit that are faithful to the dramatic movements of God’s triune life…” [193].

The value of this text is not the new content generated but the connections he makes, especially for readers of Protestant theology, in terms of the interrelatedness of the doctrine of God, theological aesthetics, and theological ethics. Though Garrett may overstate (or under-develop) his case at times, readers interested in “the dissolution of the partition between scholar and saint” will find this book helpful [79].


Review by Kevin M. Antlitz





  • Kevin Antlitz received his M.Div. and his Th.M. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, MA, while also completing coursework at Harvard Divinity School and Boston College. He is currently working on his PhD in Systematic Theology at Durham University. His research explores how modern Anglican theologies of the Eucharist might developed by attention to theodrama. He currently serves as a pastor at an Anglican church in Washington, D.C. Prior to this post, Kevin was a chaplain at Princeton University for five years and taught at Gordon College as an adjunct professor.

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  1. says: Stephen Garrett

    Thanks for taking the time to review the book and interact with the argument. I appreciate your feedback and insights. I hope fruitful conversations will emerge as the conversation between theology and the arts continues to press forward!

    If I may, I would like to offer a few comments in light of your remarks. Indeed, it seems you have captured the main thrust of the book: God’s beauty-in-act connects theology and ethics through beauty’s shaping of the human imagination for fitting participation in God’s drama of redemption. Thanks too for highlighting the diptych structure of the argument because I think that points to the crisscrossing lines between the two panels helping me make my case.

    As for your first critique, perhaps I have attempted, in retrospect, to accomplish too much. I think the section on emotions and affections deserves a more thorough treatment, particularly in how I see it addressing the concerns of relational theists. This would have brought clarity to my point. Perhaps relational theists would be suspicious of my appeals to Augustine but I would challenge that assertion on two points: 1. Current patristic scholarship is challenging the assumption and the extent to which Greek philosophy is being introduced through Augustine (see footnote 19 on p. 6-7 for sources).

    2. It’s precisely at this point where Augustine makes the distinction between passions and affections that is contrary to Greek philosophy. The paragraph on Lactantius where he was arguing that God possesses anger (p. 157) makes the point. The purpose of this subtle distinction was designed to clarify between involuntary (emotions) and voluntary (affections) in that God has the latter such that “divine compassion is the affective attitude that God eternally chooses to take toward his creatures, voluntarily taking on the form of a Suffering Servant even to the point of death while not being overcome by his suffering like we are when we experience passiones” (p.160-1). God’s beauty-in-act helps us see these connections when we see Christ’s actions as fitting not only to the Father’s will but also in line with who he is as love.

    With respect to your second critique, I would wholeheartedly affirm two things you said: 1. It is vitally important to recognize the distinction between glory and beauty and 2. the very last sentence of that paragraph: “God’s beauty is communicative of his glory without going so far as to equate or conflate the two”.

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear in various places in the book, but I have a section entitled “Discerning the Relationship between God’s Glory and his Beauty” (p. 121-4) that makes these same points. I think the matter hinges on how one parses the God-world relationship and I argue for a communicative relationship in that section. I conclude the section with this point: “God’s beauty, then, is the form of his sublime glory that attracts us, persuades us, convinces us, and draws us unto himself, demanding a response. Jesus Christ, as incarnate Beauty, is the distinct speaking and doing form of God’s glory….” (p. 123).

    I hope my comments bring some clarity to your concerns. Perhaps I misunderstood you. Thanks again for the feedback.


  2. says: Kevin Antlitz

    Dear Stephen,

    Thanks so much for your response to my review. As a reviewer, it is always a bit harrowing when the author reads (let alone responds to!) your review. When writing reviews, I do my best to be critical while also being charitable, fair, and helpful for readers. I was very engaged with your book (and your area of expertise) and did give it a careful reading. I hope this was evident – it’s impossible to do justice to any book with an 800-1000 word review. Also, I really do appreciate our interaction and appreciate your graciousness. I thought I’d respond to your response to keep the conversation going.

    With regard to my first critique, I grant that you do, indeed, address the concerns of the relational theists. That patristic scholarship is currently challenging the assumption of relational theists is true. However, because developing this point seems like such an important piece of your argument against relational theists. A good deal of your case against relational theism rides on this point and it seems to be more stated than substantiated. My contention is simply that your argumentation seems underdeveloped. In other words, I agree with you but I think you could have made a stronger case by developing such a subtle and important distinction, especially in light of views/assumptions of your opponents (relational theists).

    With regard to my second, that of conflating glory and beauty, again, I grant that you did dedicate a small subsection to delineating the distinction between glory and beauty (121-124).

    Additionally, apart from this section, you also clearly delineate between beauty and glory at other points (e.g., beauty as the form of God’s glory (p. 47, 123), beauty as communicative of glory (p. 97).

    However, while it is true that you state this distinction, it seems to me that the distinction was not applied consistently through the text. This is particularly true as it relates to your treatment of 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding (katoptrizo) the glory of the Lord, are being transformed (metamorfow) into the same image (eikwn) from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (ESV).

    Here’s the clearest example where the distinction between glory and beauty is blurred. On page 174, you cite 2 Cor 3:18 referencing how the human imagination is the faculty whereby saints are transformed from into the image of the Lord from glory to glory. This seems to be a more straightforward reference to Paul’s point in 2Cor 3.

    You write: we are “…able to behold (katoptrizo) the beauty of Christ in faith whereby we are transformed (metamorfow) by the shaping power of the Spirit into the same image (eikwn) from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18)” (p. 174).

    However, a few pages later you seem to conflate or exchange “glory” for “beauty” with reference to this same verse. You write: “…when we behold (katoptrizo) his beauty we are transformed (metamorfow) by the Holy Spirit into Christ’s likeness with an ever-increasing beauty (2 Cor 3:18) (p. 183).

    This seems like an example of equating or conflating beauty where “glory” is replaced by “beauty.”

    Part of the problem may be that you do not provide a fuller exegesis of 2Corinthians 3:18. Given that this particular verse is so often appealed to throughout, it would have been helpful to see you articulate how you understand Paul here.

    Apart from Colossians 1-2:5 (for which you provide a more detailed exegetical interpretation), 2 Cor 3:18 seems to be the verse you appeal to most often (based on the number of occurrences in the “Scripture Index”). Is Paul’s argument in this section of 2 Corinthians about being transformed from with ever increasing beauty such that it’s fair to exchange “glory” with “beauty” as you do? Perhaps by extension you could make the case that beauty fits into the interpretation of Paul here but that case isn’t made.

    2 Corinthians 3:18 is clearly an integral Scriptural referent for making your case about the connection of aesthetics with ethics and glory with beauty. Sometimes the distinction between the latter pair is clear, other times (like the one mentioned) the distinction is blurred.

    1. says: Stephen Garrett

      Thank you for the continued engagement. Not to worry about the limitation of a review. Written plenty of them. I understand, which is why I appreciate online forums that allow for further conversation to deepen our understanding (I’m a firm believer in the “dialogue principle” in that our understanding of what is true, good, and beautiful arises through a variety of medium from the dialogical encounter with the other, both our neighbors and God).

      From the outset, I have understood your review to be charitable and fair. I’ve taken note of your criticisms and have tried to offer further explanation as to my intentions. With that said, I agree that the distinction between emotions and affections deserves more development, particularly as to how it addresses the concerns of relational theists. If this is the focus of your first critique, fair enough. Duly noted.

      If however you’re suggesting further development regarding the challenge made by current patristic scholarship to the conventional interpretations of Augustine, etc., I think such a development would take me too far afoot from my main argument, which is why I appeal to the secondary literature at length in the notes. This is a judgment call not easily made.

      With regard to your further clarifications on point two, I would still want to affirm the distinction between God’s glory and beauty as I outlined in the aforementioned section. I have reviewed the places where I sight 2 Cor 3:18 and see the point your making. I should have been more clear in holding to that distinction. Perhaps I should have inserted a brief exegesis in chapter 5 as a synthesis for connecting theology and ethics via aesthetics, especially since that chapter deals directly with the imagination and our dramatic participation. Thanks for drawing it to my attention.

      Out of curiosity, what point do you think Paul’s making in 2 Cor 3:18? How might you parse the relationship between God’s beauty and his glory in light of this passage?

      Again, appreciate the feedback.


  3. says: Cole Matson

    Just wanted to say, Kevin & Stephen, that this is one of the most constructive exchanges of comments I’ve ever seen about a review, and exactly what we’re aiming for on Transpositions. Thank you.

      1. says: Stephen Garrett

        Thanks Cole. Delighted to oblige. Look forward to continuing the conversation. Perhaps we can try to press into some of the issues raised in Kevin’s review or perhaps there are others raised by the book. I think these matters are an important part of the theology-arts conversation. Let’s keep it going! Hope you enjoy the book.

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