The Beauty of God

Theology by definition starts with God. Theology is the study (logia) of God (theos). We must begin here. God is the origin and embodiment of all perfection. Beauty begins with, is defined by, and is seen most clearly in God. In other words, God himself is the exposition of beauty.[1]

Biblically speaking, beauty can refer to physical appearance[2], physical apparel,[3] physical dwelling places,[4] creation,[5] valuable possessions,[6] positions of honor,[7] and spiritual character.[8] Of the various ways the language of beauty is used in Scripture, God is clearly the biblical and theological starting point for our thinking on this topic.

Scripture is replete with language that describes God as beautiful. The Psalmists long to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Ps 27:4, cf. Ps 63:2, 97:6). The peoples are promised to “behold the king in his beauty” (Is 33:17). “Splendor and majesty are before him” (1 Chron 16:27) and his “glory is great” (Ps 138:5). “How great is his goodness, and how great is his beauty?” (Zech 9:17). His holiness, purity, brightness, and excellence also point to his beauty (Ps 8:1, Is 6:1-8, 1 Tim 6:16).[9] The Triune God is a beautiful God. He has eternally existed as a beautiful God. Any discussion on beauty must therefore begin with the one who epitomizes the word itself.[10]

How exactly should we think about or define the beauty of God?[11] I would argue that beauty is a term like “glory” that captures the sum total of God’s attributes.[12] Beauty is not merely one divine attribute among others, on the contrary it is that which characterizes individual attributes as well as summarizes the whole of God’s character. God’s justice, love, mercy, freedom, sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, immutability, self-sufficiency, and all his other attributes dwell in perfect harmony within his Triune being and are manifest in his plans and actions with perfect precision. This is beauty.[13]

Beauty is a dynamic, living reality within the Triune God.[14] The beauty of God is the dance of the Trinity—-the eternal and timeless movement of mutual self-giving, love and honor among the three persons of the Godhead.[15] The Triune beauty is marked by unity and distinction.

We behold beauty in the oneness and relational dynamics of the Trinity. The one God who exists in three persons is beauty. There is also distinct beauty in the individual persons of the Trinity.[16] We see the beauty of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit; this is the beauty of God.

The beauty of God is shared exclusively among the three persons of the Trinity. In God’s generous work of creation and redemption God gives himself to us. This gift of Himself is the gift of revealed and shared beauty. That which is exclusive to him is now made known to the world.[17]

Implications         

  • The unseen internal character takes priority in defining beauty. God is not a physical being and yet he defines beauty. Beauty is therefore not exclusively tied to the physical and tangible.[18]
  • The physical component of beauty is the outward expression of the inward being of God. The glory of God, which is often a physical expression of brilliance, corresponds to his internal splendor. The principle of internal and external correspondence is an important one in any discussion of beauty.
  • Beauty is a corporate and relational reality. It is in the mutual self-giving, honor, love, and unity of the three persons that we behold beauty. This has significant ramifications for our individualistic Western mindset. Beauty happens in relationship.
  • Since God is the origin and definition of beauty he is also its standard. In other words, beauty must be gauged by conformity to the character of God. That which reflects God is beautiful. That which fails to reflect God cannot be described as beautiful.
  • Since God embodies and defines beauty he has the final word on what is and what is not beautiful. As creatures it is simply our task to conform our thoughts to his in order to live in reality. Any definition of beauty, which fails to conform to the divine definition, is quite simply an illusion.
  • Since beauty refers to the entire character of the person it is an error to equate beauty with just one aspect of a person. This is why it is possible for a person deemed “beautiful” by the world’s standards to be ugly and vice versa.[19] John Navone captures this idea. “There is a paradoxical depth-dimension to the Christian experience of beauty in superficially unattractive persons whose profound goodness outshines all else. There is also the correlative experience of human ugliness in superficially attractive persons.”[20]

 


[1] Louis J. Mitchell, “The Theological Aesthetics of Jonathan Edwards,” Theology Today 64 (2007), 38. Jonathan Edwards argues along these same lines. “God is not only infinitely greater and more excellent than all other being; but he is the head of the universal system of existence; the foundation of all being and beauty; from whom all is perfectly derived, and on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom and through whom, and to whom is all being and all perfection; and whose being and beauty is as it were the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence; much more than the sun is the fountain and summary comprehension of all the light and brightness of the day” (emphasis mine).

[2] Gen 12:11, 14, 29:17, Deut 21:11, Judges 15:2, 1 Sam 25:3, 2 Sam 11:2, 13:1, 14:27, 1 Kgs 1:3-4, Esther 1:11, 2:2, 3, 7, Job 42:15, Prov 6:25, 11:22, 31:30, Song of Songs 1:8, 15, 16, 2:10, 2:13, 4:1, 7, 10, 5:9, 6:1, 4, 10, 7:1, 6

[3] Ex 28:2, 40, Josh 7:21, Prov 4:9, Is 52:1, Jer 13:18

[4] Ps 48:2, 50:2, 96:6, Is 5:9, 60:7, 64:11

[5] Is 40:6, 1 Pet 3:4

[6] Ezek 7:20, 16:5, 17, 25, 39

[7] Ezek 16:25, 28:12, 17

[8] Ps 27:4, 96:6, Is 4:2

[9] For further texts that describe the beauty of God or utilize similar language see Job 37:22, Ps 19:1, 21:5, 24:7-9, 63:2, 102:16, 104:1, 108:5, 111:3, 113:4, 145:5, Is 2:21, 42:8, 48:11, Rev 19:7, 21:11.

[10] F. Duane Lindsey, “Essays Toward a Theology of Beauty: Part 1, God is Beautiful,” Bibliotecha Sacra (April 1974), 126. Gregory of Nazianzus spoke of God as “all beauty and far beyond all beauty,” he believed that “God alone is beauty…in the original and exclusive sense.”

[11] Ibid, 121. Lindsey maps out three basic theories regarding the nature of beauty. 1) The formal theory, which locates beauty in certain qualities inherent in realities. 2) The psychological or emotional theory, which locates beauty in the eye of the beholder. 3) The relational theory, which locates beauty in the relationship of the objectives qualities to the subjective response. My view is in line with the formal theory. Lindsey also has a helpful discussion regarding how beauty has been understood and defined historically. Philosophical and theological ideas have been wed together in these three inherent qualities that many have argued make up beauty. 1) Unity or integrity, that is, a well-knit, internal unity, or a completeness of the whole; 2) Proportion or harmony, that is, an orderly and harmonious relation and arrangement of the parts; 3) Splendor, a certain definite capacity for manifesting its pattern. Many theologians have rightly argued that God exemplifies in himself and in his actions perfect unity, proportion, and splendor.

[12] I think this train of thought is rooted in Scripture itself. In Exodus 33:18-34:8 Moses requests that God allow him to glimpse his glory (again I am taking glory as largely synonymous with beauty). God’s response to this is to hide Moses in the cleft of the rock while he passes by proclaiming his name to Moses. The proclamation of the name I take to be the revelation of his glory to Moses. It is interesting that he proclaims to Moses a litany of his perfections and attributes. Note the text carefully: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’” (Ex 34:6-7). This indeed is the beauty of God. These attributes existing in perfect harmony and used with perfect precision demonstrate his beauty. It is noteworthy that an unshielded vision of this glory would devastate any human being. The glory and beauty of God is something that can only be perceived by the naked eye of God himself. Just as God alone knows the mind of God (1 Cor 2:11, Rom 8:27, 11:33-34), God alone knows the splendor of God. See also Christopher W. Morgan & Robert A. Peterson, The Glory of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 29, 44. “Glory then becomes a sort of theological shorthand to encompass and communicate all that he is…God’s glory points to his transcendence, his extraordinary nature, his beauty, his excellence—all of which set him apart and far above all that he created” (emphasis mine).

[13] This is the view taken by Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Barth. Owen Strachan & Doug Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards on Beauty (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010), 23-45. Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 1-12. F. Duane Lindsey, “Essays Toward a Theology of Beauty: Part 1, God is Beautiful,” Bibliotecha Sacra (April 1974), 127-128.

[14] F. Duane Lindsey, “Essays Toward a Theology of Beauty,” 131. Karl Barth argues, “the Trinity of God is the secret of his beauty.”

[15] This view is well expressed by Jeremy Begbie in The Beauty of God: Theology and Arts, eds. Daniel J. Treir, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin (Downers Grove: IVP Press, 2007), 24. “If beauty is to be ascribed primordially to the Triune God, and the life of God is constituted by the dynamic of outgoing love, then primordial beauty is the beauty of this ecstatic love for the other. God’s beauty is not a static structure but the dynamism of love. The proportion and consonance of God, his brightness or radiance, his perfection and his affording pleasure upon contemplation are all to be understood in the light of the endless self-donation of the Father to the Son and Son to Father in the ecstatic momentum of the Spirit.”

[16] John Owen, Communion with God (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 16. Owen argues that in our salvation “there is a distinct communication of grace from the several persons of the deity” which then forms the basis for “distinct communion with them.” I am taking this thought one step further and arguing that the distinct communication of grace belonging to each person of the Trinity serves as a unique manifestation of a particular glory or beauty. This is a beauty that belongs to each person of the Trinity for they are equal in essence. However, it seems that God has chosen to manifest aspects of his glory uniquely in the distinct activity of each of the three persons within the Godhead. Christopher W. Morgan & Robert A. Peterson, The Glory of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 90, 97. “Jesus has come from God and, therefore has independent glory, yet the glory of God himself…Jesus is God’s radiance possessing shared but independent splendor.”

[17] Louis J. Mitchell, “The Theological Aesthetics of Jonathan Edwards,” 39. Mitchell explains that Edwards understands the language of glory (synonymous with beauty) to function on two levels. “God’s glory is God’s excellence, beauty, and fullness within the triune society of the Godhead. But glory also stands for the overflow of God’s excellency or beauty into creation.”

[18] I am not arguing here that beauty is not physical. I am arguing that it is not primarily physical. The beauty of the physical world, which includes the earth, the sky, the sun, the trees, the ocean, the animals, and human beings are reflective of the beauty of the Triune God who has no physical form (at the creation stage of redemptive history). The beauty of creation is fundamentally a secondary beauty in that it is reflective and extrinsic. It is a real beauty but a beauty that finds its ultimate source in the unseen God. See also Nancy Leigh Demoss, “Celebrating Biblical Womanhood: Philosophies of Beauty in Conflict,” JBMW 9:2 (Fall, 2004), 40-41.

[19] Prov 11:22, 31:30

[20] John Navone, Toward a Theology of Beauty (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 72.

 

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