Last year I wrote a piece titled “5 Reasons Christians Neglect Beauty in Theology.” I would like to propose an initial step forward regarding the distinctly Christian study of beauty.
Most of the reflection and writing on the subject of beauty remains cornered by trained specialists in theology and philosophy, in the specialized field of aesthetics. Even among those philosophers, it is often suggested that beauty is a category we ought to discard altogether.
Yet beauty demands to be noticed.
As followers of Christ, we are called to offer a distinctly Christian vision of what’s beautiful. Though an often neglected subject, both the world and also the Word hold forth beauty as a gift from God for our delight.
God Revealed Through Beauty
For Christians, the study of beauty must begin with the doctrine of revelation. After all, Christianity holds that revelation depends on God, who delineates and determines what can be known. As Carl F. H. Henry notes, “God determines not only the if and why of divine disclosure, but also the when, where, what, how, and who.”
The doctrine of revelation assumes the existence of a God who actively reveals himself—including his beauty. That God created the heavens and the earth, and established humanity over it, provides two implications for the study of beauty.
First, God is the source of beauty. Second, humanity’s preoccupation with beauty and aesthetic experience is God-ordained. God offers humanity privileged communion and experience over all other created beings. One will not find a Golden Retriever reflecting on the majesty of a coastal sunset or intentionally enjoying the masterful compositions of Mozart. The capacity to enjoy and experience beauty is a privilege God has offered human beings alone.
One will not find a Golden Retriever reflecting on the majesty of a coastal sunset or intentionally enjoying the masterful compositions of Mozart. The capacity to enjoy and experience beauty is a privilege God has offered human beings alone.
Beauty and General Revelation
Historically, Christians have held that God reveals aesthetic truth and beauty through general revelation, including nature, culture, human reason, and good deeds. Most Christian theologians would hold that knowledge of God through general revelation is possible yet limited in scope, coherence, and depth. The effects of sin always subvert general revelation.
While general revelation is not the ultimate authority, it does have its proper place within theology.
The creation account of Genesis affirms God’s pleasure in his creation by declaring seven times that “it is very good,” denoting that what has been created is delightful and pleasant. In the context of original creation, this declaration hints at the aesthetic nature of God’s evaluative judgment on the things he has made. Likewise, biblical writers often describe elements of creation—lands, trees, stones, and so on—as beautiful and pleasant.
What does the beauty of the natural world actually communicate to humanity?
Beauty and Special Revelation
The intent of general revelation and the reality of sinful suppression exposes the need for special revelation: God’s revealed Word. The Bible is necessary to define and explain general revelation in light of its limitations and its distortion by fallen humanity.
The Bible is necessary to define and explain general revelation in light of its limitations and distortion by fallen humanity.
Providing clarity to the manner in which God has made himself known, the psalmist writes in Psalm 19:1–4:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
In a similar way, Paul’s speech to the Gentiles at Lystra (Acts 14:15–17) and in Athens (Acts 17:22–32) indicate that God has made himself known through creation’s order. Moreover, Paul writes elsewhere:
Since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. (Rom. 1:19–20)
The world and everything in it is God’s work of art. Just as a poem contains the manifest design and intention of the author, God has made himself evident through the powerful poem of the universe. From the sky of Psalm 19, to the lilies of the field in Matthew 6, God’s glory is reflected in the manifold beauty of his creation.
Just as a poem contains the manifest design and intention of the author, God has made himself evident to all mankind with the powerful poem of the universe.
Beauty and the Bible
The book that reveals the beautiful God to humanity is itself a significant literary work of great beauty. Scripture affirms the importance of aesthetics not only through its semantic formulations, but also in its literary form.
Beautiful literary conventions are present in the Bible from start to finish, even in its woodenly factual historiography. Literary structures, such as parallelism, meticulously crafted expression in narrative, and artistically sophisticated poetry all attest to the significant role of beauty in God’s revelation. As Leland Ryken notes, if beauty and aesthetics were of no consequence in the biblical text, “there would have seen no good reason for biblical poets to put their utterances into intricately patterned verse form, for biblical storytellers to compose masterfully compact and careful designed stories.”
Beauty Calls Forth
In a world without beauty, Balthasar declares, “What remains is . . . a mere lump of existence.” God did not have to create so many things in our world to be beautiful, but he did.
If beauty demands to be noticed, let us take note. If there’s something intrinsic in humanity that’s drawn to beauty, let it draw us in. Both the world and the Word call us to behold the sovereign Creator God.
As we see in the Word, all the beauty of this world points beyond itself to the breathtaking beauty of God himself. Beauty is a powerful signpost that calls out to all: “Look and see. The one true God is good.”