The Gospel and the Beauty of God’s People

We have established that God in himself is uncreated and eternal beauty. Man made in his image is created beauty intended to reflect him. The image of God in man is essential to understanding the pinnacle of created beauty in the world. The whole of creation speaks to us about the glory and beauty of God. But none of this beauty is comparable to that of the human being.

This beauty, however, has been marred since the image of God within us has been fractured. As broken image bearers we stand in need of God’s mending work. The solution to our distorted image is found in Christ, the true image-bearer, who comes to restore us. There is a strand of New Testament thought that links together Christ, the image of God, and our salvation.

The apostle tells us explicitly that Jesus is “the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4, 1 Cor 15:49, Col 1:15, 2 Cor 3:18). Jesus was a perfect man who yielded to no temptation (Heb 4:15), never sinned (1 Pet 2:22) and lived a life of unbroken worship and obedience before the Father (Rom 5:18-20). This means that Jesus was and is the perfect image bearer. When we look at Jesus we see what a human being was intended to be.

His life of perfect image bearing was lived in our place as our representative. His perfect life and his sacrificial death are equally necessary for our salvation (Heb 2:5-18, Rom 5:17-21). His life and death are in fact a dual substitution. He lived as a blameless image bearer and died in the place of broken image bearers. In his death he received in himself the punishment due every fractured image bearer (Note the connection between Romans 1:18-32, Rom 3:23-25, and Rom 8:28-32).

The problem with a fractured image is that it no longer gives a true reflection of that which it was created to reveal. We tell horrendous lies about God with our lives though we were created to reveal the truth about him. Jesus, the true image bearer, lived a life that told nothing but the truth about God.

In his death, however, he died like the biggest liar in the world. God piled upon him all the sin of our broken imaging. Indeed, he became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21). He took this upon himself and the Father consumed him with wrath, punishing him in our stead. Then the Son rose from the grave with a glorified body (1 Cor 15: 42-48) to complete our justification (Rom 4:25).

The New Testament teaches that the Spirit of God regenerates men and creates faith in them in order to unite them to the Jesus (1 Jn 5:1, Eph 2:8-10). Once united to Christ all that is his becomes ours and all that is ours becomes his (Rom 6:1-12). His righteousness and perfection is now ours while our sin and filth is swallowed up in him (2 Cor 5:21). Through Christ we are considered perfect and blameless (Col 1:22). God sees us in Jesus as perfect image bearers once again.

The reality of our perfect standing before God progressively becomes a reality in our experience here and now. Paul tells us that this was God’s predetermined plan. “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his son” (Rom 8:29). Through the gospel and suffering the Spirit molds us into the image of Christ. As we behold the glory of the Lord in the gospel we are “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).

As we suffer hardship God works all these sufferings for our good that we might finally be molded in to Christ’s likeness (Rom 8:28-32). The Spirit labors within us aiding us in putting off the old man and putting on the new man, which is “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10, Eph 4:23-24). At the final resurrection we will put off forever our mortal bodies and be clothed with immortality. It is here that the image of God within us will be fully and finally renewed. For it is at the resurrection that we will “bear the image of the man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:49, see the larger context of 1 Cor 15:42-58).

Implications   

  • Jesus is the one in whom the beauty of God is deposited. Since Jesus is the perfect image bearer it follows that he is the fullest expression of God’s beauty. Once again we see that an accurate definition of beauty must be centered in Jesus.
  • Since Jesus is fully and perfectly human it follows that he shows us what human beauty genuinely looks like. What does this mean for beauty? It means it is not restricted to gender, it is not preoccupied with the physical (though it includes this), it is tied to character, it is not static but active, and at heart it is sacrificial service for another’s good.
  • The beauty of God in Jesus Christ saves the world. The place where beauty is most clearly displayed is the same place where God restores the beauty of this fallen world. Begbie puts it like this: “In Jesus Christ is the measure of divine beauty, so also of created beauty. In Jesus Christ, divine beauty has, so to speak, got to grips with the wounded and deformed beauty of the world; in the incarnate Son, crucified, risen, and now exalted, we witness God’s re-creation of the world’s beauty.”[1]
  • Jesus provides all that is necessary for broken image bearers to be restored. By faith in Christ we are reckoned righteous, clean, and whole before God. Jesus makes us beautiful by saving us. The beauty of humanity is once again a gift that comes from outside of us. The work of both creation and new creation are the work of God. God alone creates and recreates beauty.
  • Beauty is here connected to the saving work of God in our lives. The Spirit is laboring within us with the tools of gospel and suffering to make us more and more like Jesus. It is a beautiful thing to be regenerated, justified, sanctified, and ultimately glorified. We are God’s workmanship and we reflect the beauty of his handiwork. Beauty is not something we strive after it is something given us in Christ. In position, we are considered beautiful because we are united to Christ. In experience, we are progressively being conformed to the image of Christ. In other words, we reflect who we are in Christ more and more as we follow after God. The beauty of the Christian does not fluctuate. Gregory of Nyssa nailed it on this point. “He has transferred unto himself the filth of my sins, and communicated unto me his purity, and made me a partaker of his beauty.” We are participants in his beauty and this cannot be altered. As the Spirit sustains our faith in the gospel and produces the obedience of faith in us he works out the beauty that is already ours in Christ. We do not become more beautiful we simply manifest what we are in Jesus. Through Christ we hold the position of beautiful image bearers and it is this reality that works its way out in our practice.
  • Glorification is the final stage of restoring the image of God within us. This is significant for a few reasons. First, this confirms the fact that the image of God includes the whole person. It is not enough to be renewed within we must also be renewed from without. Apart from restored bodies the image of God would still be broken. Second, it follows that beauty is also external and physical. There is a unique beauty to the resurrected existence of Christ. Paul refers to his resurrected body as “glorious” (Phil 3:21). At his return our bodies will be conformed to the beauty and glory of his (Phil 3:21, 1 Jn 3:2). One day we will “shine like the sun” in the Kingdom of God (Matt 13:43). Just like the angels and Moses reflected the light of God’s beauty when coming from his presence so shall we. Our bodies will reflect the luminescence of Christ’s glorified body. Third, all of this points to the fact that even physical beauty is a reflective beauty that comes from God. There are three components to the physical beauty of glorification: conformity to the glorified body of Christ, the reflective radiance of seeing God and residing in his presence, and the restored cohesion of both internal and external elements of an individual.

This exploration into the theme of beauty has not been comprehensive. But it has provided us with the necessary anchor points for constructing a framework for a theology of beauty. We can identify these anchor points as the nature of the Triune God, the image of God, the person of Christ, the cross of Christ, union with Christ, the church and the doctrine of glorification.

We have viewed each of these doctrines under the umbrella of God’s nature, dwelling, and people. By taking this angle on the question of beauty we have learned some new and fresh things. It is my hope that your thinking on beauty has been challenged, shaped, and sharpened. Now we need to put this framework to action—hence the next posts on the theology of beauty in action.


[1] Jeremy Begbie in The Beauty of God: Theology and Arts, 27. Bruno Forte agrees. “Crucified beauty leads us back to Beauty at the end victorious.” The Portal of Beauty, 119.

 

The Gospel and the Beauty of God’s Place

In the Old Covenant the temple was the chosen dwelling of God where he manifested his beauty. With the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the New Covenant the temple continues to be the chosen dwelling where his beauty is made known. The difference is that the temple is no longer a stationary building. The temple in the New Covenant is the person of Jesus Christ, individual believers united to him, and the corporate people of God joined to him.

John says that Jesus “tabernacled” among us (Jn 1:14). He identified himself as the temple that would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days (Jn 2:18-21). He made it clear that true worship would no longer be tied to a physical locale but would take place as people came through him, the true temple, to his Father (Jn 4:20-25). In Jesus, the true temple, the fullness of God’s presence was manifest (Jn 1:14, 18, Col 1:19).

In Jesus, the Holy Spirit dwelt in unique fullness making him a fitting temple (Jn 3:34). In Jesus, the beauty of God was located (2 Cor 4:6, Heb 1:3). As people were united to Jesus by faith the Holy Spirit came to dwell within them thus making them temples of the living God (1 Cor 6:19). This is extended to the church corporately. The people of God are understood to be a temple where God’s Spirit resides and therefore where his beauty is now made manifest (1 Cor 3:16-17, Eph 2:21, 1 Pet 2:5). As we are united to Jesus the true temple we become the temple of God individually and corporately.

Implications   

  • Since Christ is the true temple of God he is also the place where God manifests his presence, beauty, and glory. This is yet another line of evidence that firmly locates the beauty of God in the person of Christ.
  • Since the presence of Christ is the presence of beauty then where he chooses to dwell is where beauty will be found.
  • The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ who comes to dwell within us to make us the temple of God. The beauty of God’s dwelling place is therefore closely linked to the presence of the Holy Spirit. The presence or absence of the Spirit is therefore the presence or absence of beauty.
  • The fact that believers are temples of the living God makes them repositories of the beauty of God. The beauty of God manifest in the incarnate Christ is now becoming discernible in regenerate men and women. Since sin still resides within us there is a conglomeration of beauty and deformity in our make up. This beauty is made a reality within us from a force outside of us. It is the presence of God within us manifested through us that makes us beautiful. Beauty is never located in the human being apart from God. It is God’s handiwork, image, or presence that makes a human valuable and beautiful. Our beauty is always and ever contingent upon God.
  • Beauty is a corporate reality within the Triune God and it is also a corporate reality among human beings. The fact that the church is the corporate temple of God points us to another place where beauty is to be known and seen. We are a people bound together by the Spirit and as our interaction is reflective of the Triune community we show forth God’s beauty. Beauty is impossible without others. Beauty exists in the context of relationship. Since the church is a congregation of broken people its reflection of God’s beauty will be fractured until Christ returns and purifies his bride completely.
  • Practically speaking, the presence of God is beautiful among us as he leads is into cruciform obedience and love. It is as we reflect the beauty of Christ in the gospel that we are beautiful. It as we reflect the unity and love of the Triune God that we are beautiful. God’s presence within us empowers us and shapes us in such a way that gospel beauty is progressively a reality in our existence. God’s beauty is his being in action. He works this in us as well. He transforms our being at the deepest level and out of that transformation produces action that is in line with his beauty.

 

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’s People

The Scriptures tell us that the created world is one of the most eloquent heralds of God’s beauty and glory (Ps 19:1, Rom 1:19-20). The reason creation is a testimony to the beauty of God is because it mirrors its Creator. This is especially true of humanity. If the heavens declare the glory of God then human beings shout it.

The creation account clearly climaxes in the formation of man and woman. They alone are fashioned in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28) and therefore invested with great value and purpose. If God is beautiful it follows that something created in his likeness would reflect that beauty. Human beings therefore mirror the beauty of God both individually and corporately.

There are a few texts that make this point explicit. God looks upon humanity and declares it “very good” (Gen 1:31). The Psalmist tells us that God created man “a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5, cf. Heb 2:6-8). Paul tells us that man is the “image and glory of God” (1 Cor 11:7). This text clearly ties the image of God in man to the reflection of God’s beauty and glory.

The image of God in man suffered severe damage from the fall into sin. Individually and relationally human beings no longer function the way intended and therefore do not properly reflect the beauty of God. It is the rupture of the garden disobedience that introduces ugliness to the planet. All distortion of beauty is rooted in Genesis 3. Our confusion and misunderstanding of beauty begins here.

Ironically, the heart of the first transgression was the rejection of God’s definition of what was good and desirable. Eve dismissed God’s word and established her own word as the final authority. God declared the tree “not good” or desirable. Eve determined the tree to be “good for food and a delight to the eyes” (Gen 3:6).[1]

In essence Eve said: “That definition you have about what is good and desirable is interesting, but I believe I am more capable of determining what is really desirable and good for me. Thanks for the recommendation. I will be just fine ruling the universe, determining right from wrong, and defining reality.”

The knowledge of good and evil was not intended for creatures. The vocation of the creature is to submit to and obey God’s knowledge and determination of what is good and evil. By partaking of this tree, humanity grasped for moral autonomy and self-legislation.[2] By reaching after forbidden fruit Adam and Eve were grasping for divinity.

They rejected their place as creatures and joined Satan in his heavenly coup. This one act of rebellion rippled through the whole of the human race. We have all been guilty of the vain pursuit of becoming deity. Since the fall we’ve been trying to determine for ourselves what’s right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Rather than reflecting our Creator, we attempt to annihilate him and usurp his throne.[3]

One cannot overstate the devastating consequences of our sin and rebellion. We are deeply fractured people. Though the residue of original beauty and glory is still with us the dark cloak of sin has greatly covered its luster. We stand in need of mending and restoration. Just as we were dependent upon God to create us in his image so we are dependent upon him to restore that image within us.

Implications   

  • The image of God is one of the most important doctrines and themes running through Scripture for thinking about the issue of beauty in mankind. It is like a roadmap on the journey toward beauty. It points us back to the Triune God as the source of beauty. It directs us to understand the original intention, design, and beauty of humanity. It shows us the true north of being human and thus reveals how far we’ve gone astray. It leads us forward to the Triune project for restoring the image in us and takes us all the way home to our final glorification. The image of God is a doctrinal workhorse for constructing a theology of beauty.
  • Beauty is extrinsic to human beings. That is, our beauty does not originate from within us, it is not intrinsic to us, but it comes to us from outside. Our beauty is located in the one true Beauty whom we reflect.[4] Our beauty is therefore secondary, it comes from and points back to the primary beauty, which belongs to God alone. To put it another way, our beauty is a borrowed beauty. It does not belong to us and we cannot take credit for it.
  • Beauty is a gift from God that cannot be earned or attained. God created humans and he created them in his image thus endowing them with beauty and glory. The ability, power, and determination to create something or someone beautiful belong to God alone. Determining and attaining beauty is beyond the capacity of a human being. We are simply recipients of God’s initiative in this regard.
  • The image of God in man is an all-encompassing human reality. Many theologians have attempted to locate the image of God in certain parts or actions of man.[5] I believe there is little warrant for trying to define the image of God by dividing up man into different parts or actions. The whole of man in his being, relationships, and activity is a reflection of God.[6] If this is the case, we must affirm that our body and physical makeup are included in the image of God.[7] Internal and external beauty are therefore linked to the image of God in man. The upshot of all this is that the image of God is not only concerned with the internal character and unseen beauty of an individual. It also has something to say to external appearance.
  • If the essence of beauty is found in the sum total of God’s perfections expressed in his eternal tri-unity and his action in the world, then ugliness finds its definition in that which is contrary to this beauty. Sin, which is a falling short of the glory and beauty of God, must therefore stand at the center of our thinking on ugliness. If God has the final word on beauty, he also has the final word on ugliness.
  • The narrative of the fall instructs us that rejecting God’s word and living our own way is characteristic of sin. Like Eve, we attempt to establish our own standard of right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly. Freedom in the area of beauty comes only through rejecting every standard of man for beauty and embracing God’s standard as the final word on the matter. This includes repentance for our failure to believe his word.

 


[1] Throughout the creation narrative it is very clear that God alone holds the prerogative to determine what is good and what is not. Seven times he declares the creation to be good (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). One time he declares what is not good: a solitary existence for man (Gen 2:18). God makes it clear that it is not a good thing to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because death will ensue (Gen 2:17). When you follow the narrative the audacity of Eve to state what is good is shocking. She is essentially assuming the authority of God to assess and determine reality. She is making an authoritative declaration that is outside of her capacity and role.

[2] William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker House Academic, 2002), 23.

[3] Luther argued that at the root of all sin is the “Annihilatio Dei,” the attempt to annihilate God. Mark Seifrid, “Justified by Faith and Judged by Works: A Biblical Paradox and Its Significance,” SBJT 5:4 (Winter, 2001), 91.

[4] F. Duane Lindsey, “Essays Toward a Theology of Beauty,” 125. Augustine was one of the first theologians to use “Beauty” as a proper name for God. A smattering of theologians has followed his example throughout church history.

[5] Bruce Ware, “Male and Female Complementarity and the Image of God,” JBMW 7:1 (Spring 2002), 15-16. Ware traces the history of interpretation and discusses the various ways the image of God has been understood. He summarizes the various interpretations under three views. 1) Structural views- proponents of this position argue that the image of God is found in some aspect of our human nature that distinguishes us from animals. The image of God from this perspective was often located in the will, mind, intellect, or soul. 2) Relational views- proponents of this view argue that the image of God is seen in relationships. Arguing from a Trinitarian base this position believes that community is the key to understanding the image. 3) Functional views- proponents of this view argue that the image of God is located in the various functions and responsibilities of man. Since the discussion of the image of God is in the context of Adam ruling and subduing those holding this view argue that this is the primary significance of the image.

[6] Ibid, 16-17. Ware calls this position “functional holism.” It integrates the structural, functional, and relational viewpoints and argues that the entirety of human existence contributes to our understanding of the image of God.

[7] John Frame, “Men and Women in the Image of God” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, eds. John Piper & Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), 227. Frame says, “Our fundamental principle, that everything human images God, requires us to hold that the human body, also images God.” He goes further to defend how the body is integral to human existence and therefore necessary for understanding the image of God.

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.

 

The Gospel and Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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