Monthly Archives: February 2019

4. Beauty as Scripture’s Theme

The idea of beauty is present in the first chapters of the Bible, as God creates and then makes the evaluative judgement that it was “good”. God was not judging the morality of the world, but praising the the beauty of creation. The Bible opens with God creating a cosmos which was aesthetically pleasing to himself, including man in his own image.

Almost immediately, God commits the stewardship of the world to his image-bearers, essentially charging them to bring more order and beauty to the world, and so glorify him (Gen. 1:28). The Creator charges man with sub-creation, bringing the same order and beauty to the world, that God brought out of the formless void of Genesis 1:2.

Man’s sin introduces ugliness. Man’s rebellion demonstrates that, left to itself, the race will not image forth the beauty of God. Genesis 1–11 shows a race descending into ugliness, although even in its fallen state, humankind still constructs things of beauty out of creation.

God selects Abraham to create a nation of kings and priests (Ex. 19:6), who will mediate God’s kingdom and beautiful glory on Earth. Israel’s history through the periods of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Conquest, the Judges, the United and Divided Monarchies, the Exile and the Post-Exile shows that Israel could not keep its covenant obligations. A new and better way was to come in Israel’s greatest son—the divine Messiah.

In Jesus Christ comes the glory of God made manifest (John 1:14–18; Heb. 1:3). He is not merely made in God’s image as man, but he is God’s image, being fully God. He calls men to repentance and belief in him, so that the image of God in them may be restored, beyond even the glory of the first unfallen Adam. His death and resurrection is then explained in the Epistles as the means to union with God, and entrance into the kingdom.

By union with Christ, a process of beautification has begun in the believer (2 Cor. 3:18), which will consummate at the end of all things. Christ is committed to beautifying his Bride, the Church (Eph. 5:25–27). The church is now an embassy of this glory, displaying the beauty of God to the world (1 Pet. 2:9), witnessing to God’s glory through the beauty of their good works (1 Pet. 2:12). As the church acts as ambassadors of the glorious God, and ministers of reconciliation, they spread the glory of God.

The book of Revelation predicts the final judgement that will bring the ugliness of evil, with its curse, to an end (Rev. 21:4), and bring in the perfection of a faultlessly beautiful New Heavens and New Earth, enjoyed by those who have been beautified by God’s grace.

What is this beauty that the Bible speaks of? We have yet to study a definition in detail, but it can be closely mapped to the idea of God’s glory. God’s glory carries the idea of the refulgence and expression of His being. God’s glory is His being in delighted self-expression and manifestation.

Theologians such as James Hamilton have argued persuasively that God’s glory is the central theme of Scripture. While covenant is an essential idea, while kingdom is certainly central, both covenant and kingdom are still means to the highest end: the display of God’s glory. Jonathan Edwards argued this in his “A Dissertation Concerning The End For Which God Created The World“, the title of which does not leave you in suspense as to the contents of the book. And Piper has similarly gathered samples of texts which demonstrates that God’s glory (or name, or praise, or own sake) is the central desire of God in Scripture.

Without any theological contortions, we can fairly easily relate the central themes and practices of the Christian life to the theme of God’s glory. We turn to this next.

3. Beauty in Scripture’s Words and Forms

C. S. Lewis once wrote that the modern dilemma is

either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste—or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it. As thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think.

This is part of the problem we have with beauty. When we are in the act of abstracting beauty into a definition and thinking about it, we are not experiencing it. When we are simply experiencing it, we are not analysing that experience for the sake of defining beauty. The one act excludes the other. This is a problem for those of us who have inherited the philosophy of the Western tradition. To think about beauty is to lose its experience, and to experience it is to cease thinking about it.

The Hebrew writers of the Old Testament display no consciousness of such a dilemma. They never seem to abstract the experience of beauty into a philosophical, speculative concept. Consequently, to attempt to find a philosophical definition of beauty in the Old Testament will likely be an elusive exercise. Instead, the Old Testament writers are pointing to a shared value, even an ultimate value, found in creation.

By the time of the writing of the New Testament, the Jewish authors of the New Testament have felt the influence of Greek speculative thinking, but still display continuity with their Old Testament counterparts in combining concept and experience. The New Testament has a similar array of words. At least nine Greek words occur over 300 times, which carry the ideas of appropriate, well-bred, handsome, fine appearance or beauty, beautiful, good, useful, free from defects, or fine, pleasing, agreeable, lovely, amiable, magnificent, sublime, majestic, adorn, decorate, brightness, splendour, radiance, glory, honour, and fame.

The Literary Form of Scripture

Scripture not only speaks of beauty, but displays it itself. Form cannot be separated from content, and the Scriptures that describes beauty also employs it. The Bible is given in aesthetic form. Biblical writers chose to use sophisticated literary forms: narrative, poetry, wisdom and other forms that display a high degree of craftsmanship.

Literary structures such as parallelism, chiasms,  and sophisticated narrative structure abound in Scripture. Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) examines in detail the forms in which Hebrew parallelism take, the narrativity within biblical poetry, the structures of intensification, indeed, even the powerful use of irony, wit, and humour. These literary structures demonstrate implicitly the importance of beauty to the Hebrews. Arranging the actual form of the narrative, poems, prophecies, and wisdom literature into recognisable literary structures displays the writers’ desires to communicate not only accurately, but also beautifully.

Aesthetic literary structures are equally abundant in the New Testament. Chiasm is evident in Matthew, Mark, John, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, 2 Timothy, Philemon, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. The Gospels each display a sophisticated use of selected events, summaries, discourses, travel episodes, interludes, and speeches to paint a portrait with a particular emphasis. In summary, New Testament writers remain in harmony with their Old Testament counterparts, seeking to convey content in an aesthetically pleasing form.

But word studies and literary form studies by themselves are not persuasive that beauty is central to Scripture. One could easily dismiss these lists as showing nothing more than Scripture’s gesturing towards the quality of excellence, or its adoption of commonly used literary structures. What is needed is proof that the Bible actually presents beauty as a theme, and not merely as a subordinate theme, but as its primary theme. To that we now turn.