Monthly Archives: February 2019

Fifteen

Fifteen

Fifteen years can seem too short
To find a love hard-won and fought,
To know the ease of silent thought
And rest in love that can’t be bought.

Fifteen years can seem too long
To finally have a love so strong
That weathers pain and suffering
And still retains a joy that’s young.

Fifteen years can seem so swift
To know her as God’s gracious gift.
While seasons come and manners shift
And still her name my spirits lift.

Fifteen years can seem so slow
To patiently the other know.
While shallow roots flowers quickly show
The deepest things do slowly grow.

Fifteen years can seem so quick
To build a life one brick on brick.
Not till the candle’s burnt its wick
Does love’s cement begin to stick.

Shlomo in his song of songs
Spoke of that lily in thorns among.
For such a wife it would be wrong
To love her short and not love her long.

So I thank God for time so long,
And I thank God for years still young.
For her I thank God when I pray
That’s made fifteen seem like yesterday.

6. The Value of Beauty

What possible value can the study of beauty deliver? Isn’t this fiddling while Rome burns, counting daffodil petals while barbarians lay siege to the city? In times of apostasy, false teaching, deception and darkness, shouldn’t aesthetics go to the bottom of the priority-pile?

When caricatured as effete aestheticism, then yes, beauty will seem to be of little value. But when understood as a deep property of being, something like God’s glory, beauty has nearly unsurpassed value as a study. We can easily suggest four questions that beauty answers.

First, beauty deals directly with the nature of reality. Is the universe essentially material, an impersonal collection of atoms that accidentally produced minds, or is the universe essentially personal: a meaningful and therefore beautiful communication from the eternal Mind to ours? Beauty cannot be consistently upheld in an atheistic worldview. Atheists may agree that beauty exists, as they might agree that goodness exists. But they have no real basis in reality for such things: a sterile universe doesn’t have rules, and a dead cosmos doesn’t try to please and delight. Beauty, if it exists, is essentially supernatural: a pattern of pleasure and harmony from Designer to His creation, where both the message and the ability to read it are placed there by the Creator.

Second, and consequent upon the first point, beauty deals with morality, ethics, and evil. Beauty and morality are not separate domains, but deeply intertwined. Good souls love beautiful things; depraved ones love what is despicable. Think of the horror of people loving torture, rape or child pornography. Yet people do: they even film it, laugh at it and share it. Such people are finding pleasure in what is wicked and ugly. Sin’s deforming power leads souls to love what is ugly, and to even despise what is beautiful. For them, ugly has become beautiful, beautiful has become ugly: they love darkness, for their deeds are evil (Jo. 3:19).

True beauty humanises the soul, and to the degree that one is growing in Christlikeness is the degree to which he loves the beautiful (Phil. 1:9-11). The kind of judgement one uses for ethical judgements is very similar to the kind used for aesthetic judgements. Indeed, the problem of evil (where evil came from, why it exists, why God allows it) is best explained in light of beauty: the most beautiful angel (Ezek 28:12) seeking glory that belongs to the Beautiful God. The creature with greatest original beauty becomes the most deformed one of all, his love becoming more and more corrupt and corrupting. His temptation and deception of the race made in God’s beautiful image is his way of turning an effigy of God into an ugly parody of God’s beauty.

Third, beauty explains the problem of knowing. For the last 500 years, the West has struggled with how subjects can know objects outside of themselves. How do we know what we know, and how can we verify anything we know? Should we use reason, experience, tradition, faith, imagination or authority to know certainties? Can we know anything objectively, or is all knowledge purely subjective? Beauty actually provides a compelling answer. On the one hand, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. On the other, that can be the fault of the beholder: beauty exists and some fail to perceive it. This shows that reality is both independent of observers and yet rightly or wrongly perceived by those observers. When the heart possesses the fear of the Lord, it is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. Beautiful souls will perceive the beauty that is there.

Finally, beauty appears to be at the heart of motive. Human action has beauty at its core: people are moved and inclined towards what they think is beautiful. That is not to say that all agree on what beauty is. Indeed, this comes back to ethics: bad people are motivated by evil things (Ro. 1:32). However, if beauty is that which provides most pleasure, that which best harmonises and unites sense experience, and that which seems most real (true) and good (best), then one can easily see how beauty is at the heart of all action. People pursue what they think will bring them pleasure. People are moved by what they think is best. People are motivated by what they think is the most comprehensive explanation of reality. Once again, the nature of the heart will then determine what is pleasurable, real, good, and symmetrical. In other words, the love will correspond to the idea of beauty. However grotesque, however bizarre, however irrational, the behaviour of a human can be explained by some inner idea of something as beautiful.

Each of these four is worth considering in a little more detail. We’ll deal with these in turn.

5. Beauty and Christianity’s Primary Endeavours

Once we understand that beauty is close to glory in meaning, we will without any difficulty find beauty at the heart of many Christian endeavours. The most obvious is worship. Worship is the act of returning to God affections corresponding to His beauty. Psalm 29:1-2 captures this: “Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones, Give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name; Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.” Worship is then an act of rightly perceiving the revealed glory of God and rightly responding to that glory.

The gospel itself is a proclamation of God’s beauty to a sinful world. Paul calls it “the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). The glorious God created men for His glory (Is 43:1), but all have sinned and fall short of that glory (Ro. 3:23). God will be glorified either through the destruction of His enemies or through His mercy on believers (2 Thes. 1:8-10). Justifying sinners without being unjust is the grand glory of the gospel message (Ro. 3:20-28). Salvation being by grace alone through faith alone gives no glory to man, and all the glory to God (Eph 2:8-9, 1 Cor 1:27-31). The grand purpose of saving men is not simply their justification or eternal life, but their obtaining of glory (2 Thes. 2:14; Ro. 5:1-2; 8:29-30; 1 Pe. 5:10).

Therefore, evangelism and missions is a proclamation of God’s beauty to the world: what is most valuable, how we have prized lesser beauties over God, how the most beautiful and ugliest acts met at the Cross. Through the beauty of grace through faith, we may come back to the beauty lost in the fall. First Peter 2:12 says that believers are to live before unbelievers in an honourable way, “that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good (kalos) works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Pet. 2:12). The word for good in 1 Peter 2:12 was Plato’s favourite word for the beautiful. It is by the beauty of our lives that we commend, or adorn the gospel (Tis 2:10). In fact, it is my contention that what persuades in apologetics is not the force of logic, or the appeal to facts, but the overall beauty of the combined harmony and elegance of the evidences, reasons and appeals to self-evident truth. The beauty of the comprehensive explanatory power of Christianity, and the beauty of changed lives, changed cultures and changed art is what persuades the heart. And as Pascal said, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

Once in the faith, sanctification and discipleship is a process of being conformed to the beautiful image of Christ, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18). Paul describes Christ’s work of sanctification as essentially a process of beautification. Christ beautifies His Bride, so as to present her to Himself in perfect beauty (Eph. 5:25-27). Discipleship is a process of being renewed according to the beautiful image of Christ (Col 3:10). Paul stated it was his desire to present every person perfect in Christ (Col 2:28). One of the clearest marks of this maturity is the ability to distinguish between what is beautiful and ugly, good and evil, true and false (Heb. 5:14), being able to approve the things that are excellent (Phil 1:10).

The church is the primary means by which God’s beauty will be seen by both the world (Eph 3:21) and by angels (Eph 3:10). All ministry which edifies the saints and grows them into the image of Christ is part of this beautification (Eph. 4:11-16).

One’s vocation can be traced back to Genesis 1:28, when God blessed Adam and Eve and encouraged them to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it”. Man’s calling was to spread the glory of God over the earth, as the waters cover the sea. Through reproduction, mankind would be numerous enough to shape, tame and transform all of creation. God remedied the formlessness that existed on day one by beautifying the creation for a further six days. Man was essentially given a similar sub-creative task: to transform the wildness of the world outside the Garden. In essence, the Garden was meant to expand to encompass the world with its beauty. Although fallen, man’s vocations are still meant to do this: to bring God’s order, beauty and goodness to the world. That’s why all that we do can be done in Christ’s name (Col 3:17) or heartily as to the Lord (Col 3:23). Whatever we do is to be done for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).

In light of this, a Christian understanding of leisure is also grounded in beauty.  Recreation is truly re-creation. We do those acts of restoration, of creativity, that bring beauty into the world, or at the very least, do not defile us or bring more disorder or ugliness.

All of life can be an act of contemplating God’s glory, or consecrating acts for God’s glory. Either way, we unite with beauty in perception or action. For this reason, George Herbert called this attitude “The Elixir”, in the poem by that name. In Herbert’s time, the fascination with alchemy led some to believe that an elixir, or philosopher’s stone, was a substance that would turn base metals into gold. Herbert believed that either consecration or contemplation could turn all of life into the gold of God’s beauty.

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.

All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

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.