Theology

Wisdom from Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer shares a nugget of wisdom in his Papers and Letters from Prison. The proper way to view other human beings is through a particular lens colored by humility, self-awareness and compassion. See what he has to see about the matter.

The man who despises another will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. Why have we hitherto thought so intemperately about man and his frailty and temptability? We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others — and especially to our weaker brethren — is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for men’s sake.

Devotional Warmth & Academic Rigor

In the book The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor, D.A. Carson provides this helpful advice on combining devotional warmth and academic rigor when approaching the Bible. He shows that the common disjunction made between these two ways of approaching Scripture is a misnomer.

Fight with every fiber of your being the common disjunction between “objective study” of Scripture and “devotional reading” of Scripture, between “critical reading” of the Bible and “devotional reading” of the Bible. The place where this tension first becomes a problem is usually at seminary. Students enter with the habit of reading the Bible “devotionally” (as they see it). They enjoy reading the Bible, they feel warm and reverent as they do so, they encounter God through its pages, some have memorized many verses and some chapters, and so forth.

Seminary soon teaches them the rudiments of Greek and Hebrew, principles of exegesis, hermeneutical reflection, something about textual variants, distinctions grounded in different literary genres, and more. In consequence, students learn to read the Bible “critically” or “objectively” for their assignments but still want to read the Bible “devotionally” in their quiet times.

Every year a handful of students end up at the door of assorted lecturers and professors asking how to handle this tension. They find themselves trying to have their devotions, only to be harassed by intruding thoughts about textual variants. How should one keep such polarized forms of reading the Bible apart? This polarization, this disjunction, kept unchecked, may then characterize or even harass the biblical scholar for the rest of his or her life. That scholar may try to write a commentary on, say, Galatians, where at least part of the aim is to master the text, while preserving time for daily devotional reading.

My response, forcefully put, is to resist this disjunction, to eschew it, to do everything in your power to destroy it. Scripture remains Scripture, it is still the Word of God before which (as Isaiah reminds us) we are to tremble—the very words we are to revere, treasure, digest, meditate on, and hide in our hearts (minds?), whether we are reading the Bible at 5:30 am at the start of a day, or preparing an assignment for an exegesis class at 10:00 pm.

If we try to keep apart these alleged two ways of reading, then we will be irritated and troubled when our “devotions” are interrupted by a sudden stray reflection about a textual variant or the precise force of a Greek genitive; alternatively, we may be taken off guard when we are supposed to be preparing a paper or a sermon and suddenly find ourselves distracted by a glimpse of God’s greatness that is supposed to be reserved for our “devotions.” So when you read “devotionally,” keep your mind engaged; when you read “critically” (i.e., with more diligent and focused study, deploying a panoply of “tools”), never, ever, forget whose Word this is. The aim is never to become a master of the Word, but to be mastered by it.

All Good Men Were Once Bad

Augustine, the early church father (354-430 A.D.), was on of the most significant theologians in all of church history. In this post I have selected a number of quotes from a few different works.

“Hence it is not the case that every bad man will become good, but no one will be good who was not bad originally.”

“He that becomes protector of sin shall surely become its prisoner.”

“It is this Good which we are commanded to love with our whole heart, with our whole mind, and with all our strength. It is toward this Good that we should be led by those who love us, and toward this Good we should lead those whom we love. In this way, we fulfill the commandments on which depend the whole Law and the Prophets: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind’; and ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ For, in order that a man might learn how to love himself, a standard was set to regulate all his actions on which his happiness depends. For, to love one’s own self is nothing but to wish to be happy, and the standard is union with God. When, therefore, a person who knows how to love himself is bidden to love his neighbor as himself, is he not, in effect, commanded to persuade others, as far as he can, to love God?”

“Now the Apostle, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says, “Knowledge inflates: but love edifies.” The only correct interpretation of this saying is that knowledge is valuable when charity informs it. Without charity, knowledge inflates; that is, it exalts man to an arrogance which is nothing but a kind of windy emptiness.”

Theology of Beauty in Action: Jesus

Beauty or Jesus

The rich young ruler loved his money more than anything in the world including the God who created him. We are all idolaters. Jesus comes to each one of us, points to our idol, and gives us an ultimatum. Give up your idol worship and follow me or perish in your idolatry. For the rich young ruler the call was to give up his money and possessions. We all know how the story ends. How about you? How does your story end?

Calvin once asserted that our hearts are “idol factories.” If this is the case then the idol of beauty is being produced in mass throughout our culture. For you it may be your golden calf; your replacement god that you worship with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. If you were in the rich young ruler’s shoes and Jesus was confronting the idol of your heart how would you respond? Would you leave all to follow him? Maybe you already have done this.

If you are a disciple of Christ it is good at times to be challenged in your loyalty and devotion. Is your answer to Jesus the same as it has been in the past? How does the story end for you? The reality is that we cannot serve God and mammon. And we cannot serve God and the idol of beauty.

If your conscience is heavy because the idolatry of beauty is something you grapple with, do not despair. Look to Christ. He is your substitute. His heart was a factory of goodness and perfection. And his perfect life has been accounted to you. He absorbed in himself the punishment for your idolatry. The result is that there is no condemnation hanging over your head as you struggle to be undivided in your loyalty to Christ.

He knows your heart and he knows the wrestling in your soul. He is a sympathetic, compassionate, and patient Savior. Fix your eyes on him whether your stride is strong or you are face down on the ground. Whether you are weak or strong, trusting or doubting, hopeful or despairing—-look to him.

The paradox in leaving behind the pursuit of beauty to follow Jesus is that you end up falling into beauty when you do. The principle of losing your life to gain it applies to beauty. By giving up an idolatrous pursuit of a certain physical appearance that is equated with beauty we come in contact with true beauty.

Our loss is always our gain. We meet beauty incarnate. By faith his beauty becomes ours. And by the Spirit he transforms us to reflect his beauty more and more. The rich man would have become truly wealthy if he would have given everything away to follow Christ. The person in pursuit of beauty does not lose it but truly finds it in Christ.

The Beauty of Jesus 

I have painted with broad strokes in attempt to capture some of the major biblical ideas that help us think well about the issue of beauty. I do not believe we have missed the forest for the trees. But I do believe a certain tree in the forest demands more of our attention. It is a tree in the forest of beauty that dwarves the rest. It is a redwood among pines, a sequoia among maples.

I have asserted that beauty is a Trinitarian reality made manifest in the person of Christ in the context of the gospel. The unveiling of Trinitarian beauty and gospel splendor intersect in God our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. If we would know beauty we must know Christ.

Of all the application we derive from a theology of beauty, this is the most important. Strive to permeate your heart and mind with the beauty of Christ. The longing of David to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Ps 27:4) is a desire that can only be realized as we focus on the gospel. As we look to Christ, our deepest creaturely needs and yearnings find satisfaction.

It is in his presence and before his face that we recognize the reason for which we were created. As we gaze upon him we know liberation from our sin and our selves. As we look to him we are transformed into his likeness. As we are overwhelmed by his glory and beauty we are driven to glad obedience. Beholding the beauty of Christ would be sufficiently fulfilling in itself. But the beauty of Christ is also functional. Things happen to us as we behold him. For the Christian, beholding beauty leads to becoming beautiful.[1]

My encouragement to you is to continue building your biblical framework for beauty by focusing your study on the person and work of Christ. Let his beauty be a topic of conversation with others. Where do you see his beauty? What is his beauty like? What language is used of Jesus that is similar to beauty? In what way does he challenge the cultural perspective on beauty?

Search, explore, ask questions, make observations, think fresh thoughts—just focus your heart and mind on him. Look at his incarnation, his ministry, his cross, his resurrection, his ascension, his return, his intercession, his second coming, and his eternal rule—all with an eye to beauty.[2] The voice of God cuts through the chatter of our culture and beckons us to come, and “behold the king in his beauty” (Is 33:17). If we follow the sound of his voice, we will never be the same.

For a link to this entire series in an article/paper format: Gospel & Beauty: A Cruciform Majesty.


[1] Ibid, 46. Mahaney asserts something similar when she says: “If I keep my eyes on the One who is loveliness incarnate, I will grow more beautiful by reflecting Him.”

[2] If you want to read outside of Scripture on this theme check out John Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume 1: The Glory of Christ (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965). Jonathan Edwards, “The Excellency of Jesus Christ” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards Volume 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Incorporated, 2004), 680-690. This sermon can also be found online in article form. Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005). Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008). Fred Sanders & Klaus Issler, Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007). This document was authored in August, 2011.

Theology of Beauty in Action: Age and Sovereignty

Beauty and Age    

If motherhood is the death knell of beauty in our culture than aging is the funeral. Our culture is obsessed with appearing young. Since beauty is equated with a young appearance women are encouraged to do everything necessary to look that way. From a biblical perspective age has very little do to do with beauty.

Young or old, a woman who is beautiful in the eyes of the world yet lacks discretion is likened to a pig with a nose ring (Prov 11:22). External beauty is always hollow if the inner person is ugly. Youthfulness is no guarantee of beauty. Lack of discretion, however, is guaranteed to make a woman a sow.

At the ripe age of 90 Sarah was considered beautiful. Her spirit was gentle and she was clothed in submission (1 Pet 3:3-6).[1] It seems that her beauty only increased as she aged. As her physical appearance dimmed her gentle and quiet spirit only shined brighter (Gen 12:10). For it appears her submission matured with age.[2]

Since Peter is referring to her in the elderly years of her life it makes me wonder if he would have made the same assessment of her when she was younger. We can’t know for sure but we do know that he saw beauty in this older woman precisely because he viewed her with the eyes of faith rather than the lens of culture.

Men are not immune to this pressure. The pull to look young is pervasive. The Bible is not silent on this pull as it connects old age with wisdom. In fact, Scripture equates glory with aging men. Gray hair is a “crown of glory” (Prov16:31, 20:29). It is time to put to death the idea that beauty and youthful appearance are virtually synonymous.

Beauty and Sovereignty

What does the sovereignty of God have to do with beauty? A lot. Discontentment plagues the souls of men and women in our culture and in our churches. The sovereignty of God is medicine that drives away this ailment and at the same time produces peace and contentment. Mahaney once again does a great job of showing how.

“A loving God has determined what we each look like. He decided our body shape, how tall we would be, the color of our eyes, and all the unique features that make up our body type and appearance— right down to our fingers! We can either spend our lives pining about the results of God’s determination or we can receive with gratefulness His design, knowing that He does all things for His glory. David said, ‘I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Ps. 139:14). When was the last time you worshiped God for the way He created your body? Anything less than a heart filled with gratitude and praise to God for our physical appearance is sinful and grieves the Lord.” [3]

 

Theology of Beauty in Action: Marriage and Motherhood

Marriage provides a unique context for beauty to be understood and seen. As we have learned, beauty is known in community. Marriage is the coming together of man and woman to form a new community. God intends for the married couple to be reflective of the Triune community and the relationship of Christ to the church.

As the couple reflects the divine nature and the loving relationship of Christ and the church they display beauty. The beauty of the wife from a biblical perspective is always connected to her relationship with her husband. Note carefully how beauty in this text is put in a relational context.

“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:3-6).

Beauty is clearly tied to submission in this text. The internal beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit is manifested in following the lead of the husband. The holy women of old adorned themselves “by” submission to their husbands. Submission is beautiful. Peter tells us that all physical adornment pales in comparison to this beauty. This is the beauty of character action. Submission is equated with beauty because it reflects the Triune community. Paul helps us see this connection in another place where he addresses the issue of submission. Look at this text.

“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3). 

The text gives us three examples of headship and submission. Paul is establishing the appropriate order in the corporate worship setting. He does so by helping the Corinthians understand authority and submission. He uses three examples that shed light on the dynamic of submission. Most striking is the submission of Christ to God. It is fitting for humans made in the image of God to submit to one another precisely because the God they were created to reflect does so.

Headship Christ Husband God
Submission Man Wife Christ

In the Triune community there is mutual submission. The Son and the Spirit both submit to the Father. The Spirit submits to the Son. The Son submits to the Spirit. God submits to God. Perfectly equal yet submitted to one another—this is the mystery and glory of the Triune dynamic.

Submission is therefore a beautiful quality that is fundamentally God-like.[1] A posture that husband and wife are called on to demonstrate toward one another (Eph 5:21). As wives follow the lead of their husbands they reflect the splendor of the obedient Son. As women gladly walk under the authority of their head they shine forth the radiance of the self-effacing Spirit. As the husband submits his entire life in the service of his spouse, he reflects both the Son and Spirit as well. This is a beauty missed by the world. It is the beauty of God.

The beauty of submission is also intended to reflect the posture of the church before it’s Savior (Eph 5:22-24). As wives follow their husbands the light of the gospel shines out of their homes. The picture of a husband daily sacrificing himself for his bride and submitting his life to her service will point onlookers to the gospel.

This means that the beauty reflected in marriage is both a Triune beauty and a gospel beauty. Wives are called to live in relationship to their husbands and children in such a way that the doctrine of the gospel is not maligned (Tit 2:3-5). As they do this they reflect the beauty of the gospel.

From a biblical perspective rejecting submission is equivalent to rejecting beauty. If beauty is rooted in the Trinity and submission is integral to that community it follows that beauty in human existence will also have that component. This is true for both the husband and wife.

This is another area where we must combat the prevailing worldview of our culture. Submission is a dirty word in most circles especially when used in the context of marriage. We need our thinking transformed in this area. The pursuit of true beauty for a married woman will focus on God, the gospel, and the family. It is her engagement with these three areas of her life that will ultimately determine her beauty.

Beauty and the Mother

If our culture has the last word then beauty is a lost cause for the mother. Our culture asserts that after children your body is ruined and beyond beauty. It tells us that the everyday existence of a mother makes beauty impossible to attain. Your mirror time is gone because the kids will not wait for breakfast. You look and feel tired all the time. You’re so busy trying to take care of your family and hold down a job that you’re getting behind on the latest fashions.

If you are at home, the tasks of the day crowd out time for physical appearance. Doing your hair seems pointless since it is only a matter of time before your child’s food ends up in it. Our culture quips that having kids is a critical moment in the process of moving away from the cultural standard of beauty. What goes through your head as a mother when it comes to beauty? My guess is that crummy lies like these often occupy your mind. How does the evil one utilize the world’s definition of beauty in the life of a mother? He takes up the pen and writes letters, often. They normally read something like this.

Dear Mother,

I just wanted to remind you today that you are ugly. I hope you feel like a worthless piece of trash because in reality you are. You will never be beautiful just look at yourself. You might have a chance if you would just neglect those worthless children that are only getting in your way and get to the real business of looking good. Even then it is probably a lost cause. Be discouraged. I will stay in touch.  

Sincerely,

Satan

The problem is that the return address is often ignored. Though the left hand corner of the envelope reads Hell in all caps the letter is received as gospel truth. These are wretched and damaging lies. The gospel teaches that superb beauty is found in the Christian mother.[2] At the heart of motherhood is sacrifice. We have seen that sacrifice is at the heart of beauty.

The gospel enables us to recognize the marks of sacrifice on the mother’s body as marks of beauty. It helps us discern in tired eyes the endless hours of service for the sake of another. It grants us perspective to see the beauty of household tasks and holding down a job. With gospel eyes we perceive that the essence of motherhood is self-forgetting service. This revelation causes us to step back in awe of beauty. So who really embodies beauty: the model or the mother? You decide.

The truth of the gospel and beauty is something that must be embraced over and over again as a mother. The letters from the pit will not be discontinued in this life. You must become proactive. Preach the gospel to yourself. Engage with other mothers around the gospel. And take up the pen yourself and write your own letter.

Satan,

I have burned your letters. One day your lies won’t be the only thing in flames. I will have you know that you are not the only one who writes me. The letters of God tell me the truth about beauty. Beauty is found in the one true God and is manifested concretely in his son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The beauty of Jesus is seen primarily in his sacrifice for me on the cross. He has died for my ugliness and has granted me his beauty. Thank you for the reminder of my need for the gospel. I do need beauty and I have none apart from Christ. In him I am beautiful. His beauty is now mine and my ugliness has been swallowed up in him. And as I follow him and live a life of self-sacrifice for my family and my neighbor I reflect the beauty of Christ. Your letters are lies that contradict the words of God. You are a liar of the worst sort and I refuse to listen to your voice. I reject you and your definition of beauty. I know you will have a speedy response to this letter. But just know it will be wasted ink.

 Looking expectantly to Christ’s final triumph and your eternal demise,

A mother trusting the gospel


[1] Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 85, 138. “It is the nature of God both to exert authority and to obey in submission. And since this is the eternal nature of God, we may know that it is beautiful and it is good…So, if we are to model our lives after the nature of God, we must learn joyfully to embrace both rightful authority and rightful submission.”

[2] Martin Luther, The Basic Theological Writings (2nd Edition), ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005). Luther wrote about the beauty of motherhood from another angle. “Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, ‘Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? O you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? Fie, fie upon such wretchedness and bitterness! It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful, carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise.’ What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, ‘O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.’”

 

Theology of Beauty in Action: Men

Though we often equate beauty with femininity this study has sought to demonstrate that this is too narrow. If God is the essence of beauty and all the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus then beauty must also be masculine. The most beautiful human who ever lived was a man. Even writing that last sentence feels weird to me. Using beauty as an adjective for man just seems wrong. But if we go with the definition that understands beauty to be synonymous with glory it makes sense.

Beauty is the sum total of God’s perfections. All of the attributes of God comprise his beauty and glory. Since Jesus is God in the form of a man he is also glorious and beautiful. By the work of the Spirit both men and women are conformed to the likeness of Christ. As we are transformed to reflect his character we are changed to reflect his beauty. This beauty will be appropriately refracted in men and women. There is a masculine manifestation of beauty and a feminine one but they share the same source and character.

Men need to think deeply about beauty. We are influenced and shaped by our culture when it comes to beauty. Just as there is a standard of attractiveness for women (which is the equivalent of beauty in our culture) so there is for men. As men we are encouraged to be conformed to this ideal. We are also influenced in the way we view females. The elevation of physical appearance in our culture is mirrored in our minds. We are encouraged to use the cultural yardstick to assess women.

Our thinking, our eyes, and our speech betray the fact that we have bought into godless thinking about beauty. This error in our thinking is a factor in sexual immorality, lust, pornography, conflict in relationships and marriage, adultery, and divorce. We need our minds to be conformed to the mind of Christ on this matter.

Men are influencers and culture shapers when it comes to beauty. As men, we have done untold damage to women. By establishing or affirming the cultural standard of beauty we have contributed to the current state of affairs. Just who is responsible for excessive exercise, extreme diets, tanning booths, endless hours in front of the mirror, anorexia, bulimia, plastic surgery, and insecurity? We are wrong if we think our hands are clean. We may never encourage someone to get plastic surgery but by affirming the cultural standard of beauty we are essentially communicating that we wish they were different.

By defining beauty as a certain color of eyes, type of hair, complexion of skin or shape of body we create a beauty complex for anyone who does not fit. When this happens on a large scale, the result is a caste system. Your status and value are determined by how close you conform to the standard.[1]

At one end of the spectrum is the outcast who fails in every way to conform to the standard. On the other end is the model, the embodiment of the standard. And then there is everyone in between. The goal of everyone below the standard is to move upward by any means possible. When we elevate physical appearance and equate it with beauty we do so to the detriment of women.

Men of God must be influencers and shapers of a culture based on biblically defined thoughts of beauty. The fact that we have contributed to the problem requires repentance. We must own the fact that our thoughts on beauty have not been captive to Christ. We must commit ourselves to changing our thinking on this issue so that our attitudes and actions might also be transformed.

We must strive to understand the biblical meaning of beauty. We must allow this perspective to permeate our homes, churches, and workplaces. We must make it our aim to help sisters in Christ understand their God and their position in him. We must also seek to do justice in the area of beauty. We must recognize that the issue of beauty in the world is tied to issues like prostitution, pornography, and human sex trafficking. The famous Edmund Burke quote applies here: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” A robust vision of beauty will compel us to justice. It will not do to remain silent and passive on these issues.

As men we have the privilege and responsibility of being fathers. As fathers we have the unique role of instilling in our children a God-centered perspective on beauty. This will not be easy. We will be rowing against the cultural current. It is imperative, however, that we model and instruct our sons and daughters how to think about the issue of beauty.

Our daughters need to know the freedom of true beauty. Our sons need to know how to properly view women made in the image of God. A robust theology of beauty in the home—centered in the Trinity and shaped by the gospel—will pay tremendous dividends for our children and their children. The prevalence of this issue in our culture should remind us of the urgency of this task in our homes. The voice of the father must rise above the voices of culture. And the children must discern in that voice the words of God.


[1] The letter of James identifies this sort of attitude as “evil.” The entire unit is worth a look. This is James 2:1-4. “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” James condemns partiality based upon outward appearance. Here the outward appearance is focused on clothing. By deeming one person more valuable than another on the basis of outward appearance these people have become “judges with evil thoughts.” These are strong words for those who would build a standard of judgment on outward appearance. Since God does not look on outward appearance “but on the heart” he calls us to do the same (1 Sam 6:17). According to James, it is wicked to do otherwise.