Irresistible Beauty: Beholding Triune Glory In the Face of Jesus Christ by Samuel G. Parkison. Reformed, Exegetical & Doctrinal Studies. Christian Focus Publications. 2022. 220pp. $19.99.
“What hath beauty to do with systematic theology?” Thus Samuel Parkison opens his book, Irresistible Beauty. As he seeks to answer it, he discusses the role of beauty in God’s plan for salvation, developing a “theological-aesthetic soteriology.” He includes helpful reader-friendly conclusions at the end of each chapter which are vital to keep track of his sometimes dizzyingly dense doctrinal discourse.
But first—definition of terms. Parkison helpfully differentiates between “theological aesthetics” and “aesthetic theology.” Hans Urs von Balthasar delineates that the former “harkens attention to God and resists the temptation to project ‘worldly, limited’ conceptions of beauty back up onto God” (18). Aesthetic theology, on the other hand, risks anthropomorphizing
God, and measuring His beauty by this world’s standards, while often failing to “adequately distinguish between the Creator and the creature” (18). Defending beauty as one of God’s divine attributes, Parkison writes that beauty is “central to the very fabric of reality” and that it is the “evocative brilliance of the True and Good, calling forth the affectionate response of its perceiver” (38).
He finds his historical justification for a systematically theological discussion of God’s beauty in several Church Fathers, such as Augustine, as well as in Aquinas, before citing Calvin and Edwards from the Protestant tradition, among others. In so doing, Parkison weaves a discussion of how the divine beauty of God has a role in Reformed soteriology. While engaging with the ideas of people such as Jonathan King and the names listed above, Parkison carefully explicates why his argument differs from theirs or how their arguments affected his own. What he does differently is specifically hone in on beauty’s role in the Reformed ordo salutis. Briefly stated, his aim is to “examine the relationships between regeneration and faith through the lens of divine beauty. Beauty…is ultimately an attribute of God the Trinity, revealed wherever Triune glory is made manifest, which is preeminently so in the person and work of Christ. When the Holy Spirit regenerates a sinner, He imparts the faculties necessary for such a person to behold the beauty of the Trinity mediated in Christ” (15, emphasis Parkison’s).
Parkison writes that “God calls effectually…with an irresistibly beautiful Christ” (186). Yet he has no desire to either “reduc[e] the Protestant Reformed conception of the ordo salutis merely to aesthetic categories” or to redefine effectual calling (187). Rather, he maintains that his project shows that “[w]hat the regenerate apprehend with the eyes of faith is a beautiful Christ, who is considered beautiful because of the divine glory He reveals in His justifying person and work” (187, emphasis mine). He is also very careful to explain why his project does not commit the same error as either Edwardsian or Roman Catholic soteriology. Parkison is not comfortable affirming the Roman Catholic doctrine regarding salvation, which conflates justification and sanctification. Due to this, even though he finds many Roman Catholic insights on “beauty in the role of sanctification [to be] quite helpful” (156), he clarifies since his argument focuses on beauty in regards to the moment of justification, he doesn’t claim that it is the participatory act of beholding Christ’s beauty that bestows salvation.
Parkison discusses both the incarnation and crucifixion as beautiful in the structure of his argument. Critically, he clarifies that it is not human beauty in the incarnate Christ that draws sinners. If that were the case, the adoration a newly regenerated believer experiences for Jesus would be idolatrously worshiping His humanity instead of His divine person. Instead, he sets up how, in triune perfection, it is specifically and irreducibly the Glory of God-In-Three that we apprehend in Christ. Furthermore, he mentions cruciform beauty and that “[t]he grotesque crucifixion of Christ is what divine beauty looks like when grace towards sinner is in view” (120).
While I wouldn’t describe Parkison’s approach in this book as mystical, it does provide the fodder for a contemplative attitude about the Trinity and the incarnation. And in fact, despite his otherwise quite thorough discussion and argumentation, Parkison leaves an odd gap in the fact that, presently, we don’t have immediate access to Christ’s beauty. Even though he doesn’t define beauty itself as anything inherently visual, he does use language such as “behold” and “perceive.” When he talks about beholding the beauty of Christ in the incarnation as the physical glory of the Trinity, for us Protestants in today’s world, that beholding is a necessarily imaginative and abstract process. While of course I agree that Christ is beautiful, Parkison seems to elide the contemplative and maybe even mystic aspect of some of the crux of his arguments—we cannot literally “behold” the face of Christ anymore, and even to meditate and pray about the crucifixion is an exercise of soul and mind. But be that as it may, that then means that at the very culmination of his argument, there is something missing, not well communicated, or not reader-friendly.
Parkison talks about Moses, Paul, and, of course, Jesus Himself extensively, but fails to clarify how today’s reformed Protestants, who do not always have the same liturgical structures such as Roman or Eastern traditions for engaging with God’s beauty, are supposed to practice or implement his ideas. At the same time, I understand that his goal was not to write a practical handbook or “how-to” manual to practice the type of contemplation of God’s beauty that his argument hopefully inspires. Nevertheless, Parkison does a good job at starting the conversation, and validating this kind of contemplation as a distinctly Protestant (and Reformed!) endeavor.
Avery Rist is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Indiana University.