Theology and Beauty: An Enquiry
The word beauty refers to attractiveness, to the pleasing aspect of what is seen or heard. Its range of uses in Christian theology is potentially very broad. “How beautiful upon the mountains / are the feet of him who brings good news, / who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness” (Isa. 52:7). The evangelists’ feet are not beautiful on their own, but for the sake of the message they bring. There is a quality to the gospel message that brings joy and freedom to those who hear it.
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! / My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; / my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps. 84:1–2). Solomon’s temple—and by extension, the city of Jerusalem as a whole—symbolizes the spiritual longing of God’s people, a longing with clear missional and eschatological dimensions. Mount Zion is “beautiful in elevation” and “the joy of all the earth” (Ps. 48:2). John will reinterpret this sacred geography in the book of Revelation. Like its earthly model, the New Jerusalem is a city of surpassing beauty: “the city was pure gold, clear as glass” (Rev. 21:18b). But such is the immediacy of God’s presence; no temple is needed. The city is illuminated from the inside out, and the glory of God provides the light.
To get a clearer sense of why beauty matters for theology, as a thought experiment, let’s subtract from the Bible all such aesthetically charged details. Let’s dispense with the skill of the craftsman, Bezalel, in the making of the tabernacle (Exod. 25–31). Costly fabrics, precious gems, extravagant details in strict accordance with the pattern shown to Moses on the mountain—let’s say that all of this is of no account. And let’s dismiss the bridegroom’s fulsome praise for his bride—“lovely as Jerusalem, awesome as an army with banners” (Song 6:4)—as excessive and unnecessary. Above all, let’s omit references to the beauty of a God who is mighty to save, such as this from Isaiah: “In that day the Lord of hosts will be a crown of glory, / and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people, / and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment, / and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate” (Isa. 28:5–6).
In the context of American culture, beauty tends to function at the level of decoration, of a prettiness that’s merely “skin deep.” The word itself conjures up images of fashion, cosmetics, and interior design, not—most emphatically not—the world of Christian belief: aesthetics has to do with the surface of things, as opposed to their substance. But this isn’t in keeping with the biblical witness. In the passage above Isaiah places beauty in a constellation with glory, justice, and strength. The “diadem of beauty” is a radiant, visible expression of God’s own self-gift. To leave this out would be to limit our knowledge of God.
It would be difficult to argue that beauty is a central concept in Scripture; it’s not on par with steadfast love, say, or redemption from sin. Still, the sheer number of relevant texts should keep us from dismissing beauty as a secular or Hellenistic distraction.
If anything, argues David Lyle Jeffrey, we have seriously underestimated beauty’s importance in the Bible, especially the Old Testament. He writes,
God is not simply a projection from the ephemeral nature of beauty. Beauty, and the desire it awakens in us for a wholeness we do not possess, offers nonetheless a primal intuition of the existence of a transcendent Source of all that is beautiful.
A theology that takes no account of beauty has clearly overlooked something essential to the Christian faith.
The prevalence of beauty in Scripture presents a challenge to Protestants, who have long been criticized for treating beauty with indifference, suspicion, and hostility. That critique goes something like this: in their zeal to curb the excesses of medieval Catholicism, the Reformers disparaged those areas of life in which beauty plays a vital role. Liturgy, art, nature, culture, the lives of the saints—all of it came to be viewed as idolatrous or “worldly” in the pejorative sense of the term. None of it was deemed necessary for salvation. Over time (so the story goes), the mindset of reverence that characterized the medieval church gave way to hidebound religiosity. In the sphere of doctrine, rational exposition replaced figurative reading. In ethics, duty took the place of delight. Worship shifted from ceremony and festival to a mixture of didactic hymns and lengthy sermons. And in all of this, Protestantism accented the mind over the body, the health of our souls over the use of our senses.
Like most stereotypes, this one contains an element of truth. Yet the full story is more surprising, complicated, and hopeful than one might suspect. The story is surprising, because those who think of beauty in terms of the conflict between Catholic and Protestant doctrine are drawing the line in the wrong place. The story is complicated because Protestants (the Reformed in particular) have made valuable contributions to a theological understanding of beauty. And the story is hopeful, finally, because theologians from diverse traditions are now broadly in agreement on the need for beauty to play a renewed role within Christian theology. We must ask why such a renewal is necessary, and how best to bring it about.
Where to Draw the Line
The Swiss Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has been credited with sparking the revival of interest in beauty as a theological category. Over the course of a seven-volume theological aesthetics, he ambitiously set out to make beauty the “first word” of Christian theology, rather than a postscript or an afterthought. Born in 1905, Balthasar would have had childhood memories of World War I; educated largely in France and Germany, he also had a front-row seat for the social and political unrest that led to World War II. His writing reflects a lifetime of brooding over the causes and consequences of Europe’s catastrophic twentieth century.
Balthasar’s idea of beauty is informed by a deep knowledge of European art and culture, but its basic shape derives from Christian Platonism. This tradition regards beauty as one of the transcendental qualities of being—on par with truth, goodness, and unity. Beauty differs from these, however, in that it is both a spiritual and a sensory phenomenon. Whereas truth is often difficult to determine and goodness difficult to practice, beauty shines out freely, gratuitously, with a ceaseless attractive power. When we see or hear something beautiful, we experience a charge of unexpected delight. We find ourselves wanting to love, share, and praise the person or thing in question. We may even be reminded, albeit indirectly, of the goodness of God’s creation and the extravagance of God’s care.
Encounters with beauty are, in a certain sense, timeless and universal; everyone can think of a sunrise that moved them to tears or a song that cast a spell of palpable joy. Anyone who has fallen in love knows how beauty makes the beloved uniquely desirable. Yet such encounters cut against the grain of the modern world, which typically appears to us as fragmented, disordered, and vulnerable to strife. Balthasar notes that, as compared to earlier eras in the church’s life, truth now no longer seems attractive or self-evident. Doing the right thing for its own sake can no longer be taken for granted. Nihilism has become strangely plausible, as faith recedes to the realm of private feelings, or becomes subordinate to some ideological agenda. For all intents and purposes, transcendental Beauty has been cut off from her “sisters,” Truth and Goodness. Although Balthasar’s work was published in 1961, much of his analysis retains a prescient quality.
From a Protestant vantage point, however, it’s not the details of Balthasar’s theology that matter but the tone and tenor of his theological approach. Three elements call for special notice. First, Balthasar invites theologians to change how they view their subject matter. What is needed is an aesthetic sensibility—a spiritual habit of fixing one’s attention patiently, expectantly, on God’s revelation in all of its mysterious splendor and complexity. As he puts it,
We must return to the primary contemplation of what is really said, really presented to us, really meant. Regardless of how distasteful this may be to some, we must stress that, in the Christian realm, such contemplation exactly corresponds to the aesthetic contemplation that steadily and patiently beholds those forms which either nature or art offers to its view.
Balthasar is not recommending nature or art as an alternative source of revelation. Rather, he’s highlighting the resemblance between a certain kind of aesthetic experience (“contemplation”) and the receptive posture a theologian ought to adopt. He is also implicitly criticizing those theologians (primarily, his fellow Roman Catholics) who were, at the time, more interested in shoring up the church’s defenses against modernity than in fathoming the riches of Scripture and tradition.
A second feature is devotion to the craft of theology. If one sees and becomes enraptured by the beauty of what God has said and done, then that experience ought to make a difference to our theological writing, teaching, and preaching. As Balthasar says, “A theology of beauty may be elaborated only in a beautiful manner. The particular nature of one’s subject-matter must be reflected first of all in the particular nature of one’s method.” We can read this as a plea for some kind of correspondence, however slight, between the artfulness of God’s economy and our commentary on it. Balthasar reminds us of the old idea that theology is the Queen of the Sciences, not for its own sake but on account of the majesty of theology’s subject matter.
And third, we should take note of Balthasar’s unusually open-ended practice of theological discourse. His theological aesthetics incorporates multiple views and voices, not just of the traditional heavyweights (Irenaeus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas), but of spiritual writers, mystics, poets, and novelists. He engages charitably with a wide range of Roman Catholics—but also with Eastern Orthodox and Protestant thinkers. Fittingly, Balthasar was the first Catholic scholar to reckon seriously with the theology of Karl Barth. In fact, he praises Barth’s account of the beauty of God as a “decisive breakthrough” and a model of the sort of revelation-centered theology he felt was missing from Catholic circles. Balthasar wanted to abandon the cut-and-dried textbook method that had dominated Catholic theological education for generations. He aimed to resurrect a style of theology reminiscent of the patristic and medieval periods: more rigorously exegetical, ecumenical, philosophical, and imaginative.
While there are aspects of Balthasar’s theology that are problematic when viewed from a Reformed standpoint, his reflections on the place of beauty in theology deserve careful consideration. In particular, Balthasar helps us see why any simple account of the relation between beauty and theology is likely to be wrong. Insights into the nature of beauty may come from anywhere, even the unlikely corners of Christendom. In what follows, I offer a survey of two such insights, drawing on significant voices in the Protestant tradition.
Promise and Peril
The year 1590 marked the first publication of The Faerie Queene, by the English poet Edmund Spenser. Best remembered as a source for the story of “St. George and the Dragon,” Spenser’s poem is a chivalric romance; it tells an exciting story of knights in armor, damsels in distress, and horrible monsters. Besides being a skilled poet, Spenser was a committed Protestant. He had to be: sharing the queen’s faith would have been a prerequisite for a career in the service of her government, which Spenser pursued in colonial Ireland. How does his Protestant faith inform his vision as a poet?
Perhaps the first thing to be said is that the poem itself is a work of astonishing beauty. No prior English poet had written in such a richly allegorical style on such an epic scale (some 35,000 lines). Using a densely rhymed stanza form of his own design, Spenser constantly modulates between moral, political, and theological layers of meaning—all without veering from the central plotline. If measure, shape, and order are the formal hallmarks of beauty (this was Augustine’s working definition), then beauty is integral to the poem’s design and construction. No one averse to the aesthetic power of language could have carried off such a feat.
Moving from form to content, we notice in Book I (“Of Holiness”) that Spenser plays on two distinct types of beauty. On the one hand, the poet presents us with images of lasting, eternal beauty: the titular Faerie Queene (who seldom appears) and the heavenly City (glimpsed briefly, from afar). These images are not incidental to the plot, for the Redcrosse knight must loyally serve his sovereign, en route to his future home. Yet encounters between the hero and these eternal forms occur only at rare intervals. On the other hand, the poet also gives us numerous scenes in which a false image of beauty suffices to fool an unwary character, who then suffers harm as a result. Instances of worldly beauty may promise happiness, but they prove perilous to those who lack the virtue of discernment.
A superb example of this theme occurs when the hero, Redcrosse, visits the gaudily painted house of Pride. It is, we read,
A stately Pallace built of squared bricke,
Which cunningly was without morter laid,
Whose wals were high, but nothing strong, nor thick
And golden foile all over them displaid,
That purest skye with brightnesse they dismaid:
High lifted up were many loftie towres,
And goodly galleries far over laid,
Full of faire windowes, and delightful bowres:
And on the top a Diall told the timely howres.
We recognize the house as the archetype of worldly beauty. Flimsily constructed and built on sand instead of rock, it nevertheless catches the eye.
The main thing that happens here is combat. Distracted by the beauty of Pride’s false queen, Lucifera, the chivalrous Redcrosse rushes impulsively into battle against an evil warrior named Sansfoy (“Faithless”). Badly injured in the fight, Redcrosse escapes only by fleeing for his life:
the Faery knight
Departed thence, albee his woundes wyde
Not throughly heald, unready were to ryde.
Redcrosse’s disastrous visit to the house of Pride shows how Spenser is willing to subvert the chivalric ideal for moral and theological reasons. If a woman’s beauty is the conventional motive for heroic action (e.g., Lancelot and Guinevere), then Pride has a way of debilitating even the most earnest and talented knight. Redcrosse’s besetting problem is that he cannot distinguish true beauty from false, and up until the very end of the poem, his efforts to act rightly are tragically misguided.
Spenser’s treatment of beauty in Book I of The Faerie Queene reflects a deeply held Protestant conviction—namely, that sin pervades every part of creaturely existence. Our powers of judgment have been damaged by the Fall. As Martin Luther explains in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518: “The works of man, though they always look splendid and have the appearance of being very good, are yet in all probability mortal sins.” Luther then goes on to cite the passage in Matthew where Jesus describes the religious leaders as white-washed sepulchers. They “outwardly appear beautiful,” Luther notes, “but in fact within are full of the bones of the dead and every uncleanness.” As in Spenser’s poem, beauty is not necessarily a reliable guide to what is true and good.
Now, Luther and Spenser are obviously writing in very different genres and in different historical contexts, and they wrestle with somewhat different questions. For Luther, the issue at Heidelberg was how we are to be saved if our good works aren’t what they appear and our faculty of perceiving the good has been hopelessly broken. For Spenser, the accent falls not on justification but on sanctification. How is it possible to become holy in a world with so many deceptions and corrupting influences? The poem is an attempt at an answer. What these writers share is a conviction that our aesthetic engagement with the world is fraught with peril. Both raise the question (albeit in different ways) of whether our perceptions can be trusted. As in fairy tales where the wicked queen is preternaturally lovely, much depends on our ability to see beyond the surface of things, separating reality from illusion.
Luther’s thinking on such matters is obviously rich and difficult to summarize, but in the Heidelberg Disputation he stresses our need to embrace the cross of Christ. This means consciously turning away from the evidence of our senses, on the assumption that the world’s glory and the glory of God are fundamentally at odds. “He is not worth calling a theologian who seeks to interpret the invisible things of God on the basis of the things that have been created.” A certain skepticism of creation is in order. Becoming a theologian is a process of learning to judge rightly, of calling things by their proper names.
Judging by the amount of trouble the Redcrosse knight gets himself into, Spenser is more sanguine about the plodding nature of the Christian life. Holiness, discernment, a properly ordered love of the beautiful—such virtues are not gained by retreating from the battle, but by pressing onward and learning, however painfully, from the mistakes we’re sure to make along the way. The narrative of Book I suggests that growth in holiness is not a personal achievement but a work of grace, aided by others in the wider community of faith. Redcrosse must repeatedly receive aid from unlikely sources, at regular intervals, in hostile enemy territory.
Beauty and Glory
Arguably, the most important, positive contribution Protestants have made to a theological understanding of beauty is in the constellation of created beauty with divine glory. The pairing of these concepts has deep roots in the Reformed tradition, as when John Calvin invites his readers to view the awe-inducing beauty of nature as a mirror in which they may behold something of the majesty and power of the invisible God. Wherever you cast your eyes, Calvin writes,
there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness.
Elsewhere, Calvin marvels that God should provide what humanity needs to survive in a way that seems lovingly calibrated to bring about humanity’s delight and joy.
Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor? What? Did he not so distinguish colors as to make some more lovely than others? What? Did he not endow gold and silver, ivory and marble, with a loveliness that renders them more precious than other metals or stones? Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?
One inference to be drawn from Calvin’s comments is that human beings are free to enjoy and celebrate the beauty they find in creation, for this beauty reflects the goodness of God. There is nothing inherently wrong with sensory pleasures. God has placed humanity in a world that is tailor-made to give delight.
Later Reformed theologians followed Calvin by learning to see the intricate order and harmony of creation as clear and compelling evidence for God’s majesty and benevolence. Jonathan Edwards speaks of a resemblance or “great suitableness” obtained between objects perceived by our senses and the character of the unseen God. Nature’s greatest beauties are often hidden in ways beyond human understanding; they yield pleasure without our necessarily knowing why. Most characteristically, Edwards traces the beauty of creation back to the beauty of God. “There is an infinite fullness of all possible good in God,” he writes, “a fullness of every perfection, of all excellency and beauty, and of infinite happiness.” Buoyed by an expansive and hopeful eschatology, Edwards revels in the idea that the “conscious celebration of God’s beauty is the end toward which the whole of creation is drawn.”
Just at this point, however, some thinkers in the Reformed tradition have determined to tack in the opposite direction. John Owen maintains that there is really no comparison between the forms of beauty we encounter in this life and the glory of our incarnate Savior. He notes how some of his fellow divines have risen “to a sedulous meditation on the works of creation and providence. Hence many excellent discourses on that subject.” Nevertheless, he is not persuaded.
But in all these things there is no glory in comparison to what is proposed to us in the mysterious constitution of the person of Christ. The sun has not glory, the moon and stars no beauty, the order and influence of the heavenly bodies have no excellency, in comparison to it.
Even more sharply drawn is Owen’s criticism of religious art, described as a “cursed invention” and a diversion from the “due contemplation” believers ought to cultivate. The portrait of Christ we are given in Scripture, seen in a glass darkly, is the only image of Jesus worth attending to. It’s more than sufficient, and those who look elsewhere are either carnally minded or sadly unacquainted with the joy of meditating on the glory of Christ.
Here would I live; here would I die; here would I dwell in my thoughts and affections, to the withering and consumption of all the painted beauties of this world, to the crucifying all things below until they become to me a dead and deformed thing, in no way meet for affectionate embraces.
As Owen sees things, eternal beauty is so far beyond our imagination and experience that any attempt to capture this beauty in religious art is not only doomed to failure but also dangerous because it always tends toward idolatry.
This brings us, finally, to the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, whose theological account of beauty had such a powerful effect on the young Hans Urs von Balthasar. Barth agrees with Calvin and Edwards that “glory” is the right biblical concept in play. Unlike them, Barth locates beauty in the doctrine of God, not in the doctrine of creation. He is much closer to Owen on this score. Owing perhaps to an earlier controversy with Emil Brunner, Barth is reluctant to acknowledge any continuity between created forms of beauty and the beauty of God.
Musing on the closing section of the Lord’s Prayer (“Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever”), Barth asks a deceptively simple question: “Is [glory] a knowledge or revelation which in the last resort is a mere object—without shape or form?” Obviously it can’t be, if we are to talk seriously about God becoming present to his own creation. When the glory of God appears in the Bible—at Sinai, for example, or on the Mount of Transfiguration—something happens that is powerfully visible and auditory. God’s presence becomes known in a distinctive and unforgettable way.
The threefold form of prayer’s doxology suggests that more is involved than mere power. Of course, glory includes power, but the language of “kingdom” and “glory” beckons toward a more expansive understanding. How ought we to speak of that added dimension? This is Barth’s question. Is it faithful to Scripture to speak about the glory of God only in terms of fear and trembling, and not also in more positive terms of love and adoration, joy and delight? So it is here, prompted by the Lord’s Prayer, that Barth opts to reintroduce beauty into the center of Protestant theology. “The concept which lies ready to our hand here, and which may serve legitimately to describe the element in the idea of glory that we still lack, is that of beauty.” For Barth, beauty answers the question of how the glory of God enlightens us, attracts us, and wins us to God’s cause.
[God] has [glory] as a fact and a power in such a way that He acts as the One who gives pleasure, creates desire and rewards with enjoyment. And He does it because . . . He is the One who is pleasant, desirable, full of enjoyment, because first and last He alone is that which is pleasant, desirable and full of enjoyment. God loves us as the One who is worthy of love as God. This is what we mean when we say that God is beautiful.
Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New
I began this essay by asking two questions. Why is a renewal of beauty in theology necessary? And how might it be brought about? It turns out the first question is easier to answer than the second. It should be clear to any serious student of the Bible that beauty is an important theme. Not absolutely central, perhaps, not a stand-alone topic of investigation, but nonetheless important. This fact suggests that theology ought in some way to take account of beauty. Too much of the biblical witness would otherwise be muted, distorted, or passed over in silence.
When we look to the Christian past for models, however, we discover something interesting. There has never been a consensus among theologians as to how we ought to speak about beauty. The common thread is a certain sensibility—think of it as a heightened attention to the aesthetics of revelation—not a confessional identity, and not a commitment to place beauty here or there among the classic doctrines of the faith. Such choices, of course, are hardly arbitrary; they reflect what a given writer takes to be most fitting or needful in their own time and place.
Some theologians, like Balthasar, speak of beauty out of what amounts to a missional concern. They look around and see a culture scarred by the acids of modernity. They hold out the promise of beauty as a healing balm. Others, like Spenser and Luther, are taken up with the problem of seeing beauty clearly in a fallen world. Yes, we “walk by faith, not by sight”— but this doesn’t excuse us from the duty of learning to see differently, more truthfully, calling things by their proper names. The signal contribution of Reformed theologians has been at the nexus of beauty and glory, celebrating the concurrence of God’s provident care with God’s presence in creation. At work here is an exuberant faith that defies every stereotype of Protestants as joyless, legalistic, and otherworldly. It is a strange feature of the Reformed tradition that even what strike us as dissenting voices (Owen, Barth) are in their own way pressing us to continue with a difficult but vital conversation. As they are faithful to their calling, future theologians will do likewise.
Bo Helmich (ThD, Duke University) is a writer and theologian from western Colorado. He lives on Hood Canal in Washington.
Footnotes:1. All Scripture references are drawn from the English Standard Version.
2. Mark Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 184.
3. David Lyle Jeffrey, In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 27.
4. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord I: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 18.
5. Balthasar, Glory, 18–19.
6. Balthasar, Glory, 32 (italics original).
7. Balthasar, Glory, 39.
8. Balthasar, Glory, 56. For a fuller discussion of the relationship between these two theologians, see D. Stephen Long, Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
9. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book One, ed. Carol V. Kaske (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006), I.4.4.
10. Spenser, The Faerie Queene, I.5.45.
11. Martin Luther, “The Heidelberg Disputation 1518,” Luther: Early Theological Works, ed. and trans. James Atkinson, vol. XVI, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 276–77.
12. Luther, “Heidelberg,” 282, cf. Matt. 23:27. Intriguingly, Spenser makes use of similar imagery in the house of Pride episode. Queen Lucifera drives off in a cart pulled by the seven deadly sins, personified. “And underneath their feet, all scattered lay / Dead sculls and bones of men, whose life had gone astray” (I.4.36).
13. Luther, “Heidelberg,” 290.
14. Luther, “Heidelberg,” 291.
15. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), I.5.1, 52. On the notion of creation as a theater of glory, see Inst. I.5.1 n4 and I.5.8 n27, as well as Susan E. Schreiner, The Theater of His Glory: Nature and the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).
16. Calvin, Institutes III.10.2.
17. Jonathan Edwards, “The Beauty of the World,” Images or Shadows of Divine Things; Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings, ed. Ola Elizabeth Winslow (New York: New American Library, 1966), 252.
18. Jonathan Edwards, Dissertation on the End for which God Created the World, chapter I, section II.4.
19. Belden Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 171.
20. John Owen, The Glory of Christ, ed. Wilbur M. Smith (Chicago: Moody Press, 1952), 81.
21. Owen, Glory, 169.
22. Owen, Glory, 51.
23. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1:650 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957).
24. Barth, CD II/1:650.
25. Barth, CD II/1:651.