Gospel & Beauty: A Cruciform Majesty

“He has transferred unto himself the filth of my sins, and communicated unto me his purity, and made me a partaker of his beauty.”

Gregory of Nyssa

The cross turns the world upside down. Power is weakness, wisdom is foolishness, greatness is service, humility is glory—this is the logic of Calvary. You cannot speak of love, justice or peace apart from Good Friday. The cross defines reality. Luther was right, “the cross alone is our theology.”

Our task is to bring everything in life into gospel orbit, to create a robust dialogue between all things and the cross. As we do so our thoughts are formed and chastened. Certain ways of thinking and being are put to death while new ones are brought to life. The gospel is a gracious yet painful dialogue partner.

God will use his gospel to challenge, convict, and reshape our vision of reality. Every arena of life must be submitted to the gospel of God. The aim of the Christian is none other than to live “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27). God intends that the gospel shape, challenge, and rule our lives in every way.

Beauty is a captivating reality that has always been a driving and shaping force in every culture at every period in history. Our culture and time frame are no different. Whether the magazine rack, a commercial, or the latest movie we are consistently confronted with the question of beauty. It is never far from our mind or desires.

We are called to pull the theme of beauty into the gospel orbit. Even the notion of thinking biblically and theologically about beauty drives us to some very basic questions. What is your starting point for thinking about beauty? How do you define beauty? Who defines beauty? Why do we think of beauty the way we do? In what ways is your perspective on beauty driven by your culture? Do you have a theology of beauty? Where would you start? How does your view and thinking about beauty affect your every day life? How important is the issue of beauty to you?

We are all profoundly influenced by our culture. Beauty in our world is tied to a certain physical appearance. This cultural view of beauty is a standard of judgment we use to assess others and ourselves. It shapes our thoughts, actions and goals in subtle yet profound ways. Beauty is a force.

We need a biblical and theological framework for rightly thinking about such a powerful reality. I suggest three anchor points for building a cross-centered view of beauty: the beauty of God, the beauty of God’s place, and the beauty of God’s people.[1]

We will work through these themes from an Old Testament perspective and then comb back through them again in light of the gospel. As we work the themes we will explore important implications from each section. The next few blog posts will be dedicated to exploring this theme.


[1] A similar three-fold division is used by Graeme Goldsworthy in his book The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2001). He understands God’s kingdom as God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. These are three significant themes of biblical theology and so happen to be important to a theology of beauty.

 

The News We Must Laugh and Be Glad Over

You have likely gathered by now that I love Martin Luther. I can’t stay away from his work because he can’t stay away from the gospel. His pastoral approach orbits around the cross and resurrection of Christ. Here is a great quote on what “good news” means and how it must make us laugh with joy.

“For ‘gospel’ [Euangelium] is a Greek word and means in Greek a good message, good tidings, good news, a good report, which one sings and tells with gladness. For example, when David overcame the great Goliath, there came among the Jewish people the good report and encouraging news that their terrible enemy had been struck down and that they had been rescued and given joy and peace; and they sang and danced and were glad for it [I Sam. 18:6]. Thus this gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report, sounded forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil. Without any merit of their own he made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God. For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and are glad forever, if only they believe firmly and remain steadfast in faith. This report and encouraging tidings, or evangelical and divine news, is also called a New Testament. For it is a testament when a dying man bequeaths his property, after his death, to his legally defined heirs. And Christ, before his death, commanded and ordained that his gospel be preached after his death in all the world [Luke 24:44-47]. Thereby he gave to all who believe, as their possession, everything that he had. This included: his life, in which he swallowed up death; his righteousness, by which he blotted out sin; and his salvation, with which he overcame everlasting damnation. A poor man, dead in sin and consigned to hell, can hear nothing more comforting than this precious and tender message about Christ; from the bottom of his heart he must laugh and be glad over it, if he believes it true.” (Martin Luther, Prefaces to the New Testament, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960], pp. 358-59)

What Makes a Theologian

Oswald Bayer wrote a fine book titled Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. In this book he summarizes Luther’s thinking on what makes a theologian and what rules should govern the theologian. Luther argued that a theologian is made through six things.

  1. The grace that is worked through the Holy Spirit
  2. The agonizing struggle
  3. Experience
  4. Opportunity
  5. Constant, concentrated textual study
  6. Knowledge and practice of the academic disciplines

Luther goes on to say that three rules should govern the life and task of the theologian.

  1. Prayer
  2. Meditation
  3. Agonizing Struggle

I love the intersection of experience, suffering and study in Luther’s thought on the development of a theologian. It takes more than books and a degree to make a solid theologian. As the quote goes, “a smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.”

One must know the roaring of a condemning conscience and the silencing power of the gospel to bring the good news home to others. One must know the power of the old man, the agony of daily repentance and the sweetness of forgiveness to instruct others in the fray.

The theologian has to know both sides of a theological concept: the objective and subjective. It is not enough to know about the love of God in Christ. By the Spirit he must know what it is to be loved by God in Christ. The theologian must be desperate, humble and dependent. Prayer, meditation and trust in the Holy Spirit are critical elements of theological development and maturity.

The theologian understands the tension that Luther touches here. God alone makes a good theologian and yet the theologian is responsible to study, pray, meditate and agonize. He must hoist the sails and position the mast, all the while trusting that the wind of God will blow on him.

Theologians are limping men and women—men and women who have grappled with God, have been destroyed and been made new. They are people who know the sweetness of the gospel because they know the depths of sin and judgment. They are people who know the landscape of God’s word intellectually and experientially. They are people that know God and you know it when you engage them. God, make me one of these.

Luther on Scripture

Martin Luther developed his theology around the conviction that the Word of God is true and strong. He believed, as do I, that Scripture is the speech of God. It is no different than the speech that brought earth into existence out of nothing. It contains that same power and purpose.

Here are three great quotes that capture some of his thinking on Scripture. We can see hints of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and ad fontes (back to the sources) in the first quote. In the second and third quotes we see Luther’s pastoral approach to Scripture. It is a safeguard against despair and temptation. It is a wellspring of hope and confidence.

“He who has made himself master of the principles and text of the word runs little risk of committing errors. A theologian should be thoroughly in possession of the basis and source of faith—that is to say, the Holy Scriptures. Armed with this knowledge it was that I confounded and silenced all my adversaries; for they seek not to fathom and understand the Scriptures; they run them over negligently and drowsily; they speak, they write, they teach, according to the suggestion of their heedless imaginations. My counsel is, that we draw water from the true source and fountain, that is, that we diligently search the Scriptures. He who wholly possesses the text of the Bible, is a consummate divine. One single verse, one sentence of the text, is of far more instruction than a whole host of glosses and commentaries, which are neither strongly penetrating nor armor of proof. As, when I have that text before me of St Paul: “All the creatures of God are good, if they be received with thanksgiving,” this text shows, that what God has made is good. Now eating, drinking, marrying, etc., are of God’s making, therefore they are good. Yet the glosses of the primitive fathers are against this text: for Bernard, Basil, Jerome, and others, have written to far other purpose. But I prefer the text to them all.”

“Oh! how great and glorious a thing it is to have before one the Word of God! With that we may at all times feel joyous and secure; we need never be in want of consolation, for we see before us, in all its brightness, the pure and right way. He who loses sight of the Word of God, falls into despair; the voice of heaven no longer sustains him; he follows only the disorderly tendency of his heart, and of world vanity, which lead him on to his destruction.”

“A fiery shield is God’s Word; of more substance and purer than gold, which, tried in the fire, loses naught of its substance, but resists and overcomes all the fury of the fiery heat; even so, he that believes God’s Word overcomes all, and remains secure everlastingly, against all misfortunes; for this shield fears nothing, neither hell nor the devil.”

Luther’s Pastoral Approach to Predestination

Martin Luther was aware of the challenges of certain doctrinal issues. Predestination has always been an area that can produce philosophical anxiety and deep-seated fear. Luther’s pastoral touch is evident in this section from his Table Talk. Notice how he pushes us away from what we can’t know about God to what we can and do know about him.

Concerning predestination, it is best to begin below, at Christ, as then we both hear and find the Father; for all those that have begun at the top have broken their necks. I have been thoroughly plagued and tormented with such cogitations of predestination; I would needs know how God intended to deal with me, etc. But at last, God be praised! I clean left them; I took hold again on God’s revealed Word; higher I was not able to bring it, for a human creature can never search out the celestial will of God; this God hides, for the sake of the devil, to the end the crafty spirit may be deceived and put to confusion. The revealed will of God the devil has learned from us, but God reserves his secret will to himself. It is sufficient for us to learn and know Christ in his humanity, in which the Father has revealed himself.

An Unexpected Lesson on Humility

Tabletalk is a book that captures conversations between Martin Luther and his students. Many of these conversations were said to take place around Luther’s dinner table. In a section from Tabletalk below, Luther teaches a profound and unexpected lesson on humility. He argues that the angels are a living lesson in humility, one that should be emulated.

The acknowledgment of angels is needful in the church. Therefore godly preachers should teach them logically. First, they should show what angels are, namely, spiritual creatures without bodies. Secondly, what manner of spirits they are, namely, good spirits and not evil; and here evil spirits must also be spoken of, not created evil by God, but made so by their rebellion against God, and their consequent fall; this hatred began in Paradise, and will continue and remain against Christ and his church to the world’s end. Thirdly, they must speak touching their function, which, as the epistle to the Hebrews (chap. i. v. 14–“Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”) shows, is to present a mirror of humility to godly Christians, in that such pure and perfect creatures as the angels do minister unto us, poor and wretched people, in household and temporal policy, and in religion. They are our true and trusty servants, performing offices and works that one poor miserable mendicant would be ashamed to do for another. In this sort ought we to teach with care, method, and attention, touching the sweet and loving angels. Whoso speaks of them not in the order prescribed by logic, may speak of many irrelevant things, but little or nothing to edification.

Luther on Being a Theologian: Oratio, Meditatio and Tentatio

In John Doberstein’s The Minister’s Prayerbook, he discusses Martin Luther’s understanding of the development of a theologian. Luther believed that the “right way to study theology” is anchored in the three rules set forth in Psalm 119: Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio. For Luther “Everything centers around the practice of meditation, for prayer prepares for it and its results are confirmed in the experience of conflict. For Luther, meditation is the key to the study of theology. No one can become a true theologian unless he learns theology through it” (Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”, 142). The discussion that follows is taken directly from Doberstein and explores each of the three dimensions.

  • Oratio (prayer) is grounded in the Word of the Lord. Prayer is the voice of faith. That is to say, that prayer grows out of the Word of the Lord. “The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart” (Bonhoeffer, Psalms, 15). Prayer is “responding speech” (Peterson, 5). “Prayer escapes the danger of disorder and confusion only when it is enkindled by the words of Scripture. From the Word proceeds its inner justification, as well as its life-giving power and the clearness of its petitions. A prayer that does not stick to Scripture will soon become poor in ideas, poor in faith, poor in love and will finally die” (Koeberele, 176-177).
  • Meditatio (meditation) is the continual study of the Scriptures. In 1518, Luther wrote “You should not only meditate inwardly in your heart but also outwardly by repeating the words out aloud and rubbing at the written word (like a sweet-smelling herb), by reading and rereading it, carefully, attentively and reflectively, to gather what the Holy Spirit means by them” (quoted in Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”). Meditatio is grounded in the externum verbum. Luther: “Let him who wants to contemplate in the right way reflect on his Baptism; let him read his Bible, hear sermons, honor father and mother, and come to the aid of a brother in distress. But let him not shut himself up in a nook…and their entertain himself with his devotions and thus suppose that he is sitting in God’s bosom and has fellowship with God without Christ, without the Word, without the sacraments” (AE 3:275). Luther likened meditation to a cow chewing its cud. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 14:1of 1525, he writes: “To chew the cud, however, is to take up the Word with delight and meditate with supreme diligence, so that (according to the proverb) one does not permit it to go into one ear and out the other, but holds it firmly in the heart, swallows it, and absorbs it into the intestines” (AE 9:136).
  • Tentatio (affliction)- God uses tentatio (spiritual trial and temptation) to drive a way from self and to His promises alone. Tentatio happens within the context of a person’s vocation. “Tentatio is testing, temptation, and trial which occurs when God and his word intersect with us and our world” (Pfeiffer, 113). Suffering happens precisely because a person is faithful to his calling. See Luther’s comments on “cross bearing” (see AE 51:195-208). “Peace with God brings conflict and adversity with the world, the flesh, and the devil” (Hein, 33). Pastors are not exempt from tentatio. In fact God uses it to draw us away from our own abilities to the gifts He gives in the Gospel and the Sacraments. Luther is thankful for his enemies: “For I myself…must be very thankful to my papists for pummeling, pressing, and terrifying me; that is, for making me a fairly good theologian, for otherwise I would not have become one…” (Doberstein, 288). “As soon as a person meditates and is occupied with God’s Word; as soon as God’s Word begins to take root in and grow in him, the devil harries him with much conflict, bitter contradiction, and blatant opposition. But these assaults (Anfechtungen) prove to be spiritually counterproductive, for by driving him to the end of his tether, they teach him ‘to seek and love God’s Word’ as the source of all his strength and being. In such a situation of temptation, he experiences for himself the power and truth of God’s Word. Temptation turns the student of God’s Word into a real theologian, because it exercises and reinforces his faith in Christ. He experiences the power of God’s Word in his own weakness. Paradoxically, he sees the presence of God and his grace most fully displayed under its apparent negation in adversity and trouble. Because he bears the word of Christ in himself, he must also bear the cross for it. But, as he bears his own cross, he gets to know himself and Christ whose glory was revealed by his death on the cross. Meditation, then, ultimately elucidates temptation and is itself elucidated by it” (Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”, 147).

“Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: A Right Way to Study Theology” (287-289) in The Minister’s Prayerbook edited by John Doberstein is taken (in an abridged form) from the “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings, 1539” (AE 34:279-288).