Toward a Lutheran Theology of Beauty

The depth of God’s love for us is seen in the work of the Suffering Servant, Christ. God sends the One who shall become disfigured and who shall be marred (Is. 52:14) in order to restore His people to glory and beauty.

Like her sisters Truth and Goodness, Beauty has also been mistreated and shunned by this materialistic, secular age. With few exceptions, artists openly defy her while architects no longer strive to please her. Others strive for fame and originality while openly embracing ugliness and nihilism. But even though society tries to turn away from Beauty as it plunges deeper and deeper into barbarism, ordinary people still thirst for her: the world’s great cathedrals are filled with tourists, massive crowds flock to art museums filled with religious paintings, and there is perpetual demand for the music of Bach and Beethoven. It seems that as our age becomes uglier, so that Beauty is more openly marginalized, she becomes more important, more necessary than ever.

Yet, why should Lutherans consider beauty in the first place, and how is it to be defined? Is it a subjective experience, with people free to define it differently? Or is it objective, rooted in laws, formulas, and ratios? In what follows, I will first give a classical answer to these questions, rooted in Greek philosophical presuppositions (which, for the most part, early Christians accepted, but also transformed). Next, I will compare this philosophical approach with a scriptural approach to beauty, noting that if God’s “glory” is His Divine beauty, then the Bible has much to say about it. From the interplay between the classical and scriptural approaches to beauty, we will then see how God graciously makes us beautiful through the work of Christ, and how the Holy Spirit leads us to do beautiful works. Therefore, as I will argue, the Father calls us through beauty, the Son makes us beautiful, and the Spirit enables our beautiful acts.

Plato deals with beauty frequently in both early and late dialogues.1 Towards the beginning of the philosopher’s career, he falls into a typically Greek definition of beauty as that which leads to virtue or is “fitting.” However, in later dialogues, as Plato begins to develop the theory of forms, beauty increasingly is seen as a pathway to “the Good,” and it is defined most typically as something like “the harmony of the parts in the whole,” or the “participation of the multiple in the One.”2 For the most part, Aristotle follows his teacher’s views on beauty while avoiding much of the speculation of the later dialogues. In a typical passage, the philosopher writes, “Again, to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order…”3 In all this we come upon ideas such as unity, proportion, order, and harmony. The later philosopher, Plotinus, as well as Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite, emphasize clarity above all else as characteristic of beauty.4 Clarity is the power by which something discloses reality, presenting to the senses what is good and true.

Considering the Greek philosophical ideas of beauty, we could say that the classical, Western approach to beauty is that it is a transcendent, objective property that involves harmony, clarity, and unity.

One will not find abstract ruminations on beauty in the Christian Scriptures, but one will find plenty of passages where God, creation, and people are described as “beautiful.” Various words in Hebrew can be translated as “beautiful,” including נָאוֶה (na’veh, “comely”) and יָפֶה (yapeh, “fair”). In the Septuagint and New Testament, the most typical Greek word for “beautiful” also means “good.” This is the adjective καλός (kalos). Another word appearing four times in the New Testament is ὡραῖος (horaios, “fair”). But when the Scriptures describe the splendor of God, the holiness of His people, and the wonders of creation, the word “glory” (כָּבוֹד, kavod, δόξα, doxa) rather than “beauty” is most often used. Typical examples are Psalm 27:4, Psalm 96:9, and 1 Corinthians 15:41. The theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar has argued persuasively that the scriptural notion of God’s “glory” is Divine beauty, meaning that in relation to God, beauty and glory are interchangeable.5 Following the Bible, Von Balthasar, and other Christian theologians, we might say that something is beautiful if it has fellowship with the splendor and majesty of God, and thus reveals Him (see Ps. 19:1 and Rom. 1:19). In a First Article sense, then, the creational beauty we see in everything from flowers to human faces is part of God’s address to us as His creatures.

Yet, the surprising aspect of beauty in the Scriptures is that while authors may not exhaustively philosophize about the property of beauty, there are numerous passages where God is shown to give beauty to His people. Creational beauty is God’s address to us, but God also addresses us through the Son, for as the Lover says to His beloved in Song of Songs, “Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” (Song 1:15). Such language in the Song of Songs should be taken seriously and connected to the redemptive love of Christ. Indeed, we find again and again in the Bible that God pursues His bride and gives to her His beauty (e.g., Eze. 16:12; Rev. 19:7). The Bridegroom glories in His Bride; Christ loves and beautifies His Church. In a wondrous way, it is Christ who says, “You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love,  lovely as Jerusalem” (Song 6:4).

The depth of God’s love for us is seen in the work of the Suffering Servant, Christ. God sends the One who shall become disfigured and who shall be marred (Is. 52:14) in order to restore His people to glory and beauty. The Son becomes horribly un-beautiful, because this is the price God pays to make us beautiful. In this we understand beauty not to be merely attractiveness, but the light of divine glory which fills the righteous ones. And for us the Cross is glory, though to the world it is foolishness and ugliness. No Greek philosopher would be able to account for this paradox of beauty in Christian theology. The classical ideal of beauty is helpful up to a point, but until one loves the crucified Son of God, all attempts at making definitions are fruitless; we must patiently wait until God reveals Himself to us as the Bridegroom.

In our Lutheran churches today, we have a unique opportunity to re-anchor beauty in God in a three-fold sense (which corresponds to our Creed). The first is that we must remember that beauty is objective in the sense that all truly beautiful things participate in God’s beauty. So things are only beautiful insofar as they reflect the splendor of God’s truth and goodness. This may be a radical belief in our world today, but we must continue to insist that the wonders of the universe are God’s words to us (Ps. 19:1-4). The second thing to remember is that beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder, but that we are in the eye of the Beholder: He who sees all things also makes them beautiful in their time (Eccl. 3:11). God looks upon us as His beautiful Bride, though we deserve nothing at all. Finally, and to connect all this to the Third Article, the Holy Spirit makes all our vocational works to be beautiful, though they are often ugly in the eyes of the world. In our churches and homes, all that we do and say can be beautiful, for the Bride’s behavior reflects the love that the Bridegroom has for her. The Bride has all that the Bridegroom has given her: righteousness, holiness, peace, and joy. As we contemplate the beauty of God’s creation and embrace the beauty that God gives to us, we also bear the beauty of the Lord in our work and duties. We are precious in His eyes (Is. 43:4), and He makes us into a crown of beauty, a royal diadem before all the nations (Is. 62:3).

1 In this brief explanation of Plato on beauty, I follow G. M. A. Grube, “Plato’s Theory of Beauty,” The Monist, April 1927, Vol. 37, No. 2 (April, 1927), 269-288.
2 See especially the Philebus.
3 Aristotle, Poetics §7, The Complete Works of Aristotle, Revised Oxford Translation Vol. II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University. 1995. 2322.
4 Sixto J. Castro, “On Surprising Beauty: Aquinas’s Gift to Aesthetics.” Religions. 2021, 12. 779.5 Hans Urs Von Balthasar. The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I: Seeing the Form. Ignatius and Crossroad: San Francisco and New York. 1982.

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Rev. Adam Carnehl

Rev. Adam Edward Carnehl is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Randolph, NJ, and is currently a PhD student in theology at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of The Artist as Divine Symbol: Chesterton’s Theological Aesthetic (Cascade, forthcoming).

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