Trinity

Triune Compassion

From one angle, the storyline of Scripture is a story of grief. We are born into grief, grief is not something we only enter into when a loved one dies, it is what we enter into at birth. Grief is always linked to loss—consider then the magnitude of humanity’s loss. We are born east of Eden, separated from God, alienated from others, enslaved to our sin, and heading to hell.

After the fall we know vertical and horizontal, internal and external fragmentation. We have lost so much. We may not be able to articulate the heaviness of living in a cursed world, but we feel it. WE ARE GRIEVING.

Pain is humanity’s common ground—it is the air we breathe. Sorrow is the norm, loss the expectation, suffering the status quo. All creation groans, it quakes, it grieves under the weight of sorrow and the pain of sin. The ache for redemption is almost audible.

The sorrow of this world runs deep. It is like the depths of the ocean…when you press down into it, it is a vast, rugged world all its own. A sorrow, that without Christ would know no end—an eternal grief, an everlasting loss, an existence without hope and without comfort for all eternity.

Into this heavy darkness enters the God of all compassion. When Paul considers the compassion of God he breaks forth into praise. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the compassionate father and God of all comfort!” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Blessed be the Triune God who does not leave us languishing in sorrow, but engages this world of pain with fierce compassion and mighty gentleness.

God engages us with compassion and comfort that reaches the very the depths of the sorrow this world knows—He gets up underneath it, shoulders it and provides the redeeming comfort humanity needs. The Triune God of the universe is compassionate: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Compassionate Heart of the Father

When the Father opens his mouth to speak of his heart, what comes out? “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7). Compassion is the first word that comes out of his mouth.

The Old Testament is filled with references to the compassionate and comforting presence of God to his hurting people. “Comfort, Comfort my people says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1)—this is the consistent and steady message of God “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted” (Isaiah 49:13).

The classic story of the Prodigal Son is a window into the heart of the Father. The story mentions says that when the son was far off the father saw him and “had compassion on him” (Luke 15:20). He rose to his feet, ran to him and embraced him. This was unheard of for a father in the first century context. Compassion compelled the Father to run to the hurting and lost.

 The Compassionate Wounds of the Son

Compassion comes walking in the incarnation. In Jesus, we see what compassion looks like, tastes like, smells like, and sounds like. B.B. Warfield wrote a book titled, The Emotional Life of our Lord. In it, he explores all the emotions we witness in the life of Jesus. He makes an important point, the emotion most often expressed by Jesus was compassion. The word used to describe “compassion” speaks literally of a sensation in the guts. To engage with compassion is to engage a suffering world from the gut.

Jesus was moved by compassion when he encountered these various situations.

  • A man with leprosy (Mk 1:41)
  • The death of a widow’s son (Lk 7:13)
  • Two blind men (Matt 20:34)
  • Hungry crowds (Matt 15:32, Mk 8:2)
  • A demon possessed boy (Mk 9:22)
  • Harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd (Mk 6:34)

This examples show that Jesus was moved by compassion when encountering bodily ailments, individuals who were outcasts, death and loss, individuals assaulted by satan and his cohorts, physical needs, and spiritual lostness.

In Jesus, we see compassion. It looks like a tear stained face that aches over death. It tastes like fire-seared fish in the mouth of men who had disowned him days earlier. It smells like broken bread and poured out wine. It sounds like a Roman hammer pounding nails into flesh and a rock rolling away from a rich man’s tomb.

Jesus shows us compassion. He shows us that compassion…

  • is a posture that refuses to back down from pain
  • does not hide from suffering
  • runs head long into the sorrow of others
  • does not deny, minimize, or numb pain—it shoulders it
  • is not a mere emotion, it is a posture, a way of being in the world
  • is love when it meets pain

Compassion is rebellion. It refuses to lay down to pain. It wades right into the heart of suffering and wages war. It seeks to absorb and shoulder the pain of another. It inserts kindness, love and patience into the darkest of places.

This truth about Jesus has been deeply life-giving…and to be honest has kept my faith intact on many occasions. This world desperately needs a compassionate God—a God with a tear stained face, a man of Sorrows, a God with dirty feet, and bloody hands. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had it right, “Only a Suffering God Can Help,” and He has!

The Compassionate Presence of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the Great Comforter—compassion is integral to his character and activity. He comes to bring the comfort of Christ. It is his role to communicate the compassion of God through Christ to us.

He is deeply compassionate as he enters into our sufferings with the comfort of God, shares our pain and journeys with us through every hardship we face. If we have trusted Christ, we have never walked through anything without him. Since he took up residence within us, he has known our every grief. The pain beyond words, that hurt outside the scope of speech, He knows, He understands, He groans over, and He communicates about it to the Father for you. Where would we be without Him!

The Triune God engages in our sorrow, he brings us comfort through his gospel. He does not take away our pain…he walks with us in it, serves us, loves us and enables us to persevere through it. This is the movement of the Triune God toward the world—a costly compassion that brings comfort to a ruptured world. Blessed be this great God!

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Kept by the Trinity

Assurance comes from turning our eyes away from our strength, our faithfulness and our obedience. Assurance happens to us as we focus our hearts on the activity and promises of the Triune God.

The certainty that “nothing” in the most exhaustive sense is capable of separating us from Christ’s love produces assurance (Rom 8:38-39). The promise that nothing and no one can snatch us from the hand of God creates assurance in us (John 10:28).

The book of Jude creates this assurance in us through the theme of keeping. Three times he uses the language of keeping. He bookends his entire letter with the promise that God will keep us. In the middle of the letter he calls on us to keep ourselves in God’s keeping love. Check out the three verses. 

  • “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1).
  • “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 20-21).
  • “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).

A few observations on these three passages.

  1. God’s choosing and loving is connected with his keeping. He keeps those who are called and those who are loved. We cannot separate these concepts. Those he loves, he keeps. Those he calls, he keeps.
  2. His keeping work entails the certainty that we will persevere to the end and stand before him on the final day without blame. Joy will mark the moment we stand before God at our death or at his return…great joy.
  3. We are called to keep ourselves in God’s love. This self-keeping is accomplished through the means of building ourselves up in the faith, praying in the Holy Spirit and waiting for the mercy of God at his return. Building, praying and waiting…this is how we keep ourselves in the keeping love of God.
  4. The keeping work of God is a Triune endeavor. Note that we are kept by God the Father in and through Christ. We are kept by God through praying in the Holy Spirit.  We are kept as we focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are kept as we wait for the return of Jesus. All three persons are at work keeping us until the final day.

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.’”

 

The Gospel and the Beauty of God

Having focused on the themes of God, God’s place, and God’s people in the Old Testament we have laid a foundation for the remainder of this exploration. We will now bring these three themes into dialogue with the gospel. By threading these themes through the gospel we will seek to shed more light on the topic of beauty.

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 Yahweh. In Jesus, we see God and man with utmost clarity. To see Jesus is to see God. Jesus is the embodiment of the very nature of God and therefore 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. He has led the Father out into the light for all to see. Jesus is the living exposition of God. In Jesus 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. It is 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 second coming 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.

Implications   

  • 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.
  • 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]
  • 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 miss the mark.
  • 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).[4] The cross, the greatest manifestation of this service, is superb beauty. In it we behold a cruciform majesty. 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. The pierced hands of Christ are beautiful because they are hands of healing and welcome. Christ crucified is magnificent because it is here we see God give his all for the least deserving. It is the cross that teaches us that beauty is a giving of the self away for the sake of another. It is a posture, an act, a movement—all rooted in love and service.[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 shines most brilliantly.[6] How can this be? It is here that God is demonstrating the glory of his character to us. It is here that we see his love, grace, holiness, justice, wrath, wisdom, power, and faithfulness. It is here that we see his beauty and glory. The sum total of God’s perfection is his beauty and it is at the cross that we see the fullness of these perfections. 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 instructs us that beauty is always found in the most unlikely places.
  • God’s definition of beauty is an attack against the world’s definition of beauty. One intention of the cross is 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 think the cross is an assault on man-made definitions and standards of beauty. The embodiment of beauty comes as an unattractive man from some backwoods town, who 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 its true definition.
  • 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, 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] Stephen M. Garrett, “The Dazzling Darkness of God’s Triune Love: Introducing Evangelicals to the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” Themelios 35:3 (2010), 421-22. Balthasar discerned a “dialectic between the deep and threatening darkness of the cloud and the blinding and consuming light of the fire.” This dialectic discernible in the Exodus event climaxes in the cross of Christ according to Balthasar. “The Christ-form integrates the darkness of the cross and descent into hell with the Trinitarian love of God such that ‘the form which gives expression to the meaning of a radically sinful existence which yet stands under the sign of the hope for redemption…takes the modalities of fallen existence upon itself so as to transvalue them by redemptive suffering.’” Balthasar rightly discerned that “Jesus Christ radiates the splendor of God’s glory because he is perfectly in tune with the Father’s will, obeying the Father even unto death and thereby fulfilling his mission to the world. This is the beauty of Christ’s holiness. There is, thus, a dazzling within the darkness of the glory of Christ, something that is alluring within the tragic, when the Father through the Spirit glorifies the Son in his death and decent into hell that reveals the triune love of God for us in Christ’s glorious resurrection.” Balthasar argues that the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ is the definitive revelation of an eternal glory—the uncreated glory of the Triune God. In other words, the service of Christ at the cross reveals that the eternal nature of God is that of a humble, self-sacrificial servant. From his perspective the cross was a public display of what has been going on for eternity within the Godhead. In the relationship of the divine community there has always been movements of service, love, and humility. The cross points to something that always existed within the very heart of God.

[5] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, 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, “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.

[6] Ibid, 53.

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.

 

Visual Theology and the Trinity

Tim Challies, blogger and author, is releasing a book later this month titled “Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth About God.” His premise is that our culture is progressively shifting toward a more visual approach to learning. In this vein he has been developing visual diagrams to capture theological themes and truths. Here is one helpful example of his concept of visual theology focused on Trinitarian theology.

Trinity_LowRes.jpg

Good Theology Changes Everything

Theology is the engine that drives action. There is a direct link between what we do and what we believe. A.W. Tozer was not wrong when he said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” We are all theologians—there are no exceptions. The only distinction is whether we are good or bad theologians, accurate or erroneous, healthy or unhelpful.

How we work our jobs, treat our families, interact with our neighbors, handle relationships are all deeply theological things. Theology informs the way we engage issues of war, peace, death, suicide, abuse, money, time and freedom. Every sphere of life is connected to theology—there are no exceptions.

When I was in college I recall a class discussion on the Trinity. In the middle of this mind blowing discussion of how God can be one and yet exist in three persons, the professor asked a profound question. “How do we apply the Trinity?” He was driving toward practical theology—he was helping theology find feet. What does the truth of one God existing in three persons have to do with me, my family and my co-workers? What a wonderful question!

The answer: everything! The Triune God is the blueprint of true community. In God we behold how relationships are intended to be. In him we see what love, service, humility and honor look like between persons. In him we behold what safety and acceptance mean. In this God we see how difference and distinction can exist perfectly alongside equality. When we press into the Trinity we see that true love is marked by sacrifice and other-centeredness. The Triune God is the one who defines community and relationship—he shows us what it means.

That’s not all—the Triune God is also the one who saves and rescues us. The fact that our relationships and communities do not look like the Trinity means we have sinned. It means we are broken and need to be restored. All three persons of the Trinity in perfect unison to bring about this restoration. The Father is the architect of the rescue mission and the sender of the Son and the Spirit. The Son comes willingly and humbly to pay the ultimate price for our sin and rebellion. The Spirit empowers the Son to accomplish his task and then comes to apply to us the benefits of his death.

The great work of redemption and restoration pulls us into community with the Triune God—through God’s grace we can know fellowship within this perfect community. The Trinity changes our understanding and experience regarding true community. The Trinity then begins a work within us to take this community blueprint and flesh it out in our homes, in our jobs, in our neighborhoods and in our churches. In short, there are innumerable ways to apply the Trinity. When you start to think about how the doctrine of the Trinity can find feet in your life…everything changes!

This is true of all theology—the same thing happens when you ask that question about the atonement, the person of Christ, the person of the Spirit, the nature of man, the nature of the church and many other doctrines. How do we apply the image of God? How does the atonement affect how I think about my enemy? How do I apply the doctrine of the Holy Spirit? What does it mean for me that Jesus was a 9 year old boy at one time? How do I apply the doctrine of the universal church?

Wrestling with theology is richly edifying and rewarding. How much more when you work out how mind blowing truths can directly affect the very core of your family or job or life challenges.