Monthly Archives: January 2019

2. Beauty in the Hebrew Bible

Few Christians would say that beauty is unbiblical. After all, they vaguely remember references to “the beauty of holiness” or the desire “to behold the beauty of the LORD”. But many might think of beauty as extra-biblical: mostly an aesthetic and philosophical concept, more at home in art galleries and philosophy lecture-halls than in churches and seminaries. And as that ancient biblicist Tertullian put it, what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?

This objection is the first of several stumblingblocks that modern Christians may have toward the concept of beauty. Are we forcing the square-peg of a Greek philosophical idea into the round hole of Scripture? Before I reveal all my cards on whether Plato and Paul could share a meal, I’d prefer to call for a cease-fire between biblicists and philosophers with a question for both: could there be a transcendental Reality that our English word beauty refers to, and which the Bible describes in several ways? In other words, could both Scripture and philosophy be pointing toward something transcendent that exists in God’s universe, even if the nomenclature differs between theologians and philosophers?

My answer is positive: the reality to which beauty refers is all over the Bible. Seeing it might require wiping some of the salt-spray of the Enlightenment from our hermeneutical lenses, but it is fairly plain to see, if you look.

Let us proceed inductively, working from the worm’s-eye view all the way up to the bird’s-eye view. We’ll begin with the vocabulary of Scripture that carries the ideas of beauty, proceed to the key verses about beauty, and ultimately scan the themes of Scripture that seem to support the idea of beauty that carry across the canon. We’ll also notice the actual form of Scripture: the beauty of its own literary structures.

Wait. Aren’t we begging the question with such an approach? Aren’t we assuming a certain definition of beauty to be proven, and then finding in the Bible what we were required to prove? Yes and no. It is nearly impossible to avoid some circularity when we try define transcendentals such as truth, goodness or beauty, because you keep needing the concept to validate if you’re finding the concept. But it is still possible to do an honest search, and find if the ideas broadly accepted as approximate to beauty  are found in Scripture. The vital thing is to keep allowing Scripture to hammer our idea into shape, and not try to tame Scripture with our philosophical whip.

Hebrew Words

A word-search on the English word beauty will not yield illuminating results, because the English equivalents of Hebrew words are variable, including such synonyms as glory, beauty, excellency, honour, loveliness, comeliness, pleasantness, and delightfulness. You could say that the Hebrews took the idea of beauty for granted, without seeing a need to define it abstractly or conceptually. Beauty is more of an adjective than a noun in Hebrew thought, more a descriptor than an idea considered in itself.

At least twelve Hebrew words carry the idea.

. In the Hebrew beauty-vocabulary, the ideas of splendour, majesty, honour, and glory mingle with the ideas of pleasure, desire, attractiveness and enjoyment. For the Hebrew mind, no division seemingly existed between what was lovely and loving it, between the desirable and its desire, between splendour and its admiration.

Hebrew writers are describing a phenomenon, not defining an idea. Obviously the phenomenon contains the idea: excellence or attractiveness, as well as pleasure and delight. At this stage of pre-speculative intellectual history, no separation existed between the experience and considering the experience in the abstract. The Hebrews knew both as a value and as an experience all that we now call beauty.

1. In Pursuit of a Doxology

In 1962, A. W. Tozer warned that the evangelical church was missing a jewel.

“Now, worship is the missing jewel in modern evangelicalism. We’re organized; we work; we have our agendas. We have almost everything, but there’s one thing that the churches, even the gospel churches, do not have: that is the ability to worship. We are not cultivating the art of worship. It’s the one shining gem that is lost to the modern church, and I believe that we ought to search for this until we find it.

“The purpose of God in sending His Son to die and rise and live and be at the right hand of God the Father was that He might restore to us the missing jewel, the jewel of worship; that we might come back and learn to do again that which we were created to do in the first place–worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, to spend our time in awesome wonder and adoration of God, feeling and expressing it, and letting it get into our labours and doing nothing except as an act of worship to Almighty God through His Son Jesus Christ.”

If worship was the missing jewel in 1962, we might say in our day that we have lost interest in jewellery altogether. We have not simply lost admiration for the beauty of holiness. We appear to have lost beauty itself.

I don’t mean we have lost prettiness. I don’t mean we have lost pleasure in what we find attractive. I don’t think we’ve lost the capacity to experience the transcendent. I mean Christians appear to have lost a firm grip on the Reality that the word beauty points to.

Some believe beauty is nothing more than another word for pleasure, a synonym for what a beholder finds personally pleasing. Some believe it is an abstract adjective, describing ornamental or decorative excellence. Whatever it is, most evangelicals don’t mind living with two out of Plato’s three: truth and goodness, but not beauty. Ask a Christian to define beauty, and his nonplussed expression will tell you all you need to know. This is an idea that has dropped out of regular Christian conversation for at least a generation.

Ironically, simultaneous to this loss is a revived interest in theology and the arts, an interest in “aesthetic theology”, and much talk of the postmodern return to beauty, imagination and tradition. Yet for all this, evangelical music, poetry, literature, film, architecture, remains prosaic, propaganda-like, and mostly imitations of popular culture. A lot of it is, in a word, ugly, or at the very least, boring.

We have invented substitutes for true beauty, but their flimsy and fabricated natures are plain to see. Bored and listless worshippers, the poor adhesive quality of modern Christian teaching to the lives of its followers, the implausibility of Christianity to the onlooking world, the absence of compelling Christian alternatives to secular beliefs and practices all speak of something essential to the Christian faith that is mostly absent. Evangelicalism is largely a secular religion clinging to a supernaturalistic creed. Beauty’s absence from worship, discipleship, preaching, apologetics, and vocation is apparent, and yet denied. Our insistence that no problem exists only compounds the problem.

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say,`We see.’ Therefore your sin remains. (Jn. 9:41)

I’m convinced that beauty refers to the central reality of existence, and hence the central theme of Scripture. I believe it explains the central priority of the Christian life, and lies at the heart of the gospel, sanctification, worship, discipleship, evangelism, eschatology. I’m persuaded it lies at the heart of motive and incentive to act. I’m further convinced it answers questions of epistemology, being, ethics, and even the problem of evil.

Those are large claims, and one should always be wary of claims to have found the “one lens” through which to view everything. I am confident, however, that they can stand up to the scrutiny of Scripture and human reason shaped by Scripture.

In this series, I hope to make good on those claims. I’ll begin by trying to show beauty’s priority, from a biblical point of view. Second, I’ll pursue the question of beauty’s value, particularly from the point of view of philosophy. The third section will be dealing with beauty’s difficulty: the question of philosophical and biblical incompatibility, the notion of subjective and objective knowledge, the problem of equivocation of meaning, the difficulty of beauty’s misidentification, as well as the matter of taste and judgement. Fourth, I’ll turn practical: seeking a definition, a description, and then a method for pursuing God’s beauty in the special revelation of Scripture, and the general revelation of nature.

In short, I hope to present something of a doxology – a study or theology of God’s glory.

On Prayer and Talking to Yourself

Master, they say that when I seem
To be in speech with you,
Since you make no replies, it’s all a dream
– One talker aping two.

They are half right, but not as they
Imagine; rather, I
Seek in myself the things I meant to say,
And lo! the wells are dry.

Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The Listener’s role, and through
My dead lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.

And thus you neither need reply
Nor can; thus, while we seem
Two talking, thou art One forever, and I
No dreamer, but thy dream.

Author unknown, quoted by C.S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm