The Gospel and Beauty

I have recently been working on a project dealing with the theme of beauty and the gospel. How does the gospel change the way we should think about, define, assess, and critique the way we think about beauty? Here is a short excerpt.

The birth of Jesus signaled an entirely new and distinct phase of God’s self-revelation in history. All the fullness of God dwelt bodily in the human man Jesus Christ. Jesus the true man reveals to us the human being. Jesus the true God reveals to us Yawheh. In Jesus we see God and man with the utmost clarity. To see Jesus is to see God.  Jesus is the embodiment of the very nature of God and therefore he manifests to us the very beauty of God. A few texts of Scripture illustrate this point.
 
John’s gospel tells us about the Word that was in the beginning with God and yet distinct from God (Jn 1:1-3). This Word became flesh and made his dwelling with humanity “and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). He affirms that this revelation is unique and definitive. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18). Jesus has explained the Father. Jesus has led the Father out into the light for all to see. Jesus is the living exposition of God. In Jesus therefore we see the beauty of God.  Paul agrees with John that the glory of God is seen particularly in Jesus. He speaks of the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3). The glory and beauty of God is firmly located in the person of Jesus Christ. This beauty is made manifest in the person of Christ as he works our salvation. Paul can speak of the “gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4) and the “gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim 1:11). It is in the gospel that we see the beauty of God most vividly. This is a shocking fact, one that we will spend ample time unpacking.
 
 In the person and work of Jesus the beauty of God is not redefined but clarified, explained, and illustrated. All the perfections of God discussed earlier find their greatest expression in the person and work of Jesus. From the virgin birth to the ascension we see in this man the very beauty of God. The fact that Jesus is the revelation of God to us has massive ramifications for our thinking on beauty.
 
Here are some of the implications of this biblical truth for our discussion of beauty.
  1. Since Jesus is the fullest revelation of God it follows that our thinking on beauty must ultimately be tied to him. In Jesus the beauty of God finds its greatest expression. A biblical view on beauty will therefore be a Christ-centered perspective. If we would think aright about beauty we must think deeply about the Lord Jesus Christ.
     
  2. Since the gospel is the place where the beauty and glory of God are concentrated it follows that our thinking on beauty must also be tied to the cross and resurrection. As one man put it so well, “beauty happened once and for all in a garden outside Jerusalem’s walls.”[1]  A biblical view on beauty will therefore be cross-centered. If we would think aright about beauty we must not think merely of Christ but of Christ crucified.[2]
     
  3.  Since the incarnation and the gospel are central to all thinking on beauty it is impossible to have a full or accurate understanding of beauty without bringing all of our thinking into this orbit. Any discussion on the beauty of God that fails to make it to Christ is tremendously flawed. Any discussion about the definition and standard of beauty that does not ultimately have Christ and his work at its center will inevitably be erroneous.

  4. If Christ defines beauty then beauty must be understood primarily as self-sacrificial service and generosity for the sake of another.[3] The life of Jesus, which manifested the very nature of God, was one continual act of service to God and to sinful man (Mk 10:45, Rom 15:2-3, Phil 2:5-11). The cross, the greatest manifestation of this service, is superb beauty. The pierced feet of Christ are beautiful because they are the feet of a servant who would tread the globe to serve and save the world. Beauty is a giving of the self away for the sake of another. It is an act, a movement, a posture.[4]  

  5. The beauty of God is at heart a paradox. The gruesome cross is the canvas upon which God paints his greatest masterpiece. The place of ugliness is the place where beauty is truly found. The hideous cross is the context for the greatest splendor. The man beaten to a pulp, nailed to a tree, suffering, gasping, dying—this is where beauty is found. The bright darkness of the cross is where beauty is to be found.[5]  How can this be? It is here that God is demonstrating the glory of his character to us. It is here where we see his love, grace, holiness, justice, wrath, wisdom, power, and faithfulness. It is here where we see his beauty and glory. The sum total of God’s perfection is his beauty and it is at the cross where we see the fullness of these perfections manifest. If the cross stands at the center of the beauty of God it must also be at the center of our understanding of beauty. This paradox of God instructs us that beauty is always found in the most unlikely places.

  6. God’s definition of beauty is an attack against the world’s definition of beauty. One intention of the cross was to destroy the wisdom of the world (1 Cor 1:19-20). The cross has a way of obliterating the values, philosophies, standards, and definitions of human beings. This is one reason why it is so offensive. I would suggest that the cross is an assault on the man made definitions and standards of beauty. The embodiment of beauty comes as an unattractive man from some backwoods town, lives the life of homeless vagabond, dresses in common clothes, hangs out with the lowest of people, and is hung on a cursed tree. This is beauty. Beauty is the hand that blesses children, touches lepers, heals blind men, and washes undeserving feet. Beauty is a mouth that speaks forgiveness and grace to the prostitute, the tax collector, and the murderer. It is the mouth that eats with the sinner and sings praise to God in the face of death. Beauty is dusty and tired feet that refuse to stop until the good news is proclaimed to all. Beauty is a pierced side, nailed hands, impaled feet, bleeding brow, and gasping lungs. Jesus is beautiful. Look as he gives himself away—this is beauty! How different is this from the world’s thinking on beauty. The cross annihilates our skewed thinking on beauty and reestablishes a true definition of beauty.

  7. The beauty of God seen in Christ is focused primarily on character not physical appearance. There is one comment in all of Scripture pertaining to the physical appearance of Jesus. Isaiah tells us that he had “no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). It is my opinion that the choice of this physical appearance was not random but intentional. God clearly prepared the body that Christ would take to himself in the incarnation (Heb 10:5). He could have taken on a physical appearance that was “beautiful” in the eyes of the world but he did not. He could have come as the most attractive, well-dressed, well-groomed, and most physically fit guy on the planet. The fact is that he did not. What is he showing us through this? It appears he would show us where genuine glory and beauty are located. Not primarily in physical appearance but in the character and movement of self-giving.

[1] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, vii.
[2] John Navone, Toward a Theology of Beauty 20. Navone says, “His cross, no form of beauty for worldly eyes, reveals what God’s beauty and glory are really about…the crucified and risen Christ is the form and splendor of the Beautiful.”
[3] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, viii, 27-28. Forte says that beauty is the “self-emptying of the eternal Word.” He states that beauty in its “highest form” takes place at the “hour of the abandonment of the cross.” He later describes beauty as “crucified love.” Jeremy Begbie argues that we find God’s beauty in the economy of salvation.
[4] Ibid, 43. Dostoevsky in his book The Idiot posed the question through the young nihilist Ippolit, “Is it true prince, that you said once that ‘beauty’ would save the world?…What sort of beauty will save the world?” The beauty of the crucified God is the answer to this question. Beauty is not merely static but it moves, indeed it saves. John Navone states that “the self-giving power of beauty itself saves the world.” Toward a Theology of Beauty, 82. Jeremy Begbie touches on this idea of movement when he states that in the “story of Jesus…Trinitarian beauty has, so to speak, been performed for us.” The Beauty of God: Theology and Arts, 22.
[5] Ibid, 53.

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