To be human is to be captivated by someone or something, and this is no less true for Christians. In worship, we sing “Fairest Lord Jesus” because Jesus has captivated our hearts. We experience the gospel as beautiful, that God in his grace would reach out to sinners who have rebelled against him to forgive them, embrace them, and return them to his care. But seldom do we explore how this gospel is beautiful.
Luther wouldn’t seem to be a go-to thinker for a theology of beauty. He’s known for his ferocious and desperate wrestling with God and his conscience. In contrast, beauty conveys a sense of tranquility, delight, and pleasure. These words hardly seem compatible with the storms Luther faced both personally and professionally.
But there’s another side to Luther. He had a deep appreciation for music and the visual arts: he played the lute, sang tenor, composed hymns, and was good friends with the Wittenberg painter Lucas Cranach. This appreciation was undergirded by his conviction that the gospel is intrinsically beautiful.
The Beauty of the Cross
Luther’s theology of beauty grew out of his understanding of the gospel as God’s word of comfort and joy to repentant sinners. This gospel isn’t attractive to everyone. Luther distinguished this “theology of the cross” from the “theology of glory,” which can initially seem more enticing. In the theology of glory, sinners aren’t wholly in need of a new birth. They can exercise some virtue which can help them ascend to God’s own goodness, beauty, and purity. But in the theology of the cross, God’s law isn’t a path to greater purity, but instead a whip which accuses sinners and reduces them to despair.
In this desparate situation, mankind needs God to redeem their ugliness. Here Luther drew the distinction between the “love of man” which “comes into being through that which is pleasing to it” and the “love of God” which “does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” Human love needs an object of beauty to spark it. God’s love, in contrast, is inherently creative; it needs no such object. Out of the nothingness of human sin and death, God creates new men and women in Christ, who trust in God’s mercy alone. God deems sinners beautiful for Jesus’s sake.
Jesus has a special kind of beauty. Medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas came up with criteria for beauty based on light, color, proportion, and integrity or perfection. But for Luther, these standards simply don’t apply to Jesus Christ. Jesus was, as Isaiah tells us, “without form or comeliness” (Isa. 53:2). He was deformed by sinners: stripped, beaten, scourged, crucified, and hung out to die. But Jesus didn’t only die as a victim of human violence. He also actively bore all sin and God’s wrath against sin, all so that sinners might be forgiven. In Jesus’s atoning work, our sin is buried in a tomb never to be found again, even by God.
For Luther, Jesus’s atoning work is most beautiful. Jesus didn’t measure up to Aquinas’s standards, but he was beautiful according to those who saw beauty as paradoxical. One such thinker Luther read was Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard didn’t approach beauty in the classical terms of analogy, which assumes a scale of beautiful things ascending to God, who is Beauty as such. Instead, Bernard defined beauty paradoxically, seen for example in his exegesis of the Song of Solomon, where the bride (the soul wedded to Christ) describes herself as dark yet comely (1:5). Before God, as sinners we’re ugly, but, paradoxically, clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we’re loved by God for Jesus’s sake, and so are beautiful to God.
Sinners Made Beautiful
Sinners look not to their own alleged beauty or coveted divine traits (such as “free will”), but instead to the words of a gospel-preacher who for Jesus’s sake imparts God’s love and commitment to them. They see God as beautiful not on the basis of his metaphysical attributes, but instead experientially, knowing that their father generously forgives his prodigal son and in so doing is beautiful. Repentant sinners crave this beautiful word of forgiveness, and through it, grow in love for their heavenly Father. Their lives are transformed by the generosity awakened within them which is then directed in love toward their fellow humans and creation.
Faith itself is markedly aesthetic. When sinners live solely by trust in God’s promise, they find their senses awakened. They appreciate creation as a sheer gift from God and receive it joyfully. Faith kindles wonder and evokes gratitude. This is the abundant life Jesus promises (John 10:10), not a life where everything is perfect, since crosses are set before us, but one open to the gamut of experience, the ups and downs, voiced in praise and lament as described in the Psalter.
The God who redeemed us in beautiful fashion is also a God who created a beautiful world. Luther testified that nature is creation, a mask of God, and therefore enchanted, not merely a resource for human consumption or instrument for human control.
Secular thinkers can’t understand beauty in these terms; they can only conceive of beauty as a stimulus response to traits which had survival value for our ancestors. But the attempt to reduce beauty to “survival value” hardly squares with experience. The experience of beauty is far more akin to a disclosure about reality, one which makes us feel at home in the universe. It tells us that God is truly good and wants his children to delight in the goodness of creation.
When Christians engage secularists, they should unhesitatingly bring beauty to the fore, as much as they bring ethical absolutes to the fore. Secularists can’t explain beauty any more than they can explain the truth of ethics. Additionally, beauty guides our daily walk with Christ; we find unexpected delight in the details of our service to others, their service to us, and God’s presence in every inch of creation. Most importantly, in worship, we gather with angels, archangels, and all the hosts of heaven to enjoy Christ: we taste and see that Christ is good (Ps. 34:8).
Luther and beauty don’t seem like two words that go together. But Luther portrays beauty paradoxically in Jesus Christ, who bears our sinful ugliness and clothes us in his beautiful righteousness. That good news is worth celebrating in voice, in art, in life, and most of all in preaching.