The beauty industry is one of the largest money-spinners of all time, with its cosmetics, its make-overs, its plastic surgery, its spas and the like. But such shallow beauty is far from the beauty I want to look at. Is there a theology of beauty in the Bible? I believe there is. God is beautiful, therefore a theology of beauty begins by gazing upon God.
The Scriptures throb with the glory of God. We see this for instance in Exodus 15. The children of Israel had recently escaped Pharaoh’s tyranny by crossing the Red Sea and they returned to God a song of triumph and thanksgiving.
They were so overwhelmed that they sang a rhetorical question: ‘Who is like you [God] glorious in holiness?’ Again, Isaiah’s penitential prayer in 63:15 requests God to ‘look down from your habitation, holy and glorious’.
Job 40:10 expands on this theme, as God issues a challenge: ‘Can you thunder with a voice like [mine]? Then adorn yourself with majesty and splendour and array yourself with glory and beauty’. No man can meet this challenge, of course, but it reveals something of the surpassing loveliness of God.
The beauty of holiness
Do we capture something of God’s indescribable beauty, sublime holiness and transcendent glory in these verses? They contain a circular logic: his glory is his holiness, his holiness is his beauty, and his beauty is his glory.
In his song of thanksgiving after the Ark had been returned to its rightful place in the tabernacle, David exhorted the people to worship the Lord ‘in the beauty of holiness’ (1 Chronicles 16:29). Likewise, because of what God is, we also are exhorted to worship God in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29:2; 96:9). This is the starting point in any construction of a theology of beauty.
The immaculate splendour and radiance of God, constitutional in the Trinity, should delight and dazzle our spiritual eyes. After all, what can be more awe-inspiring and breathtaking for God’s people than to comprehend something of his overwhelming majesty and beauty?
So far, I have attempted to establish a foundation for a theology of beauty grounded in the being of God. The next stage is to try to work this out.
To see the glory of God may not always be a joy – it can have a crushing effect. Isaiah was traumatised by his vision in the temple because he saw his depravity in the light of God’s exalted glory (Isaiah 6).
When God chooses to reveal something of his holiness in times of revival, people are so overwhelmed by a conviction of sin that they agonise in soul. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-38) left his hearers ‘cut to the heart’ (v.37), the verb ‘cut’ meaning to strike violently or stun. Such was the effect on those people of Peter’s preaching that their concurrent and urgent question was ‘What shall we do?’
When Adam fell into sin, we all fell with him – the image of God was disfigured in every member of the human race. Paul says, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23).
Sin so marred God’s glorious image in us that we fall short of that glory. It doesn’t take long for a blanket of pure white snow lying freshly on the ground to become smutty through environmental pollution. God’s image remains in us and is still beautiful in many ways, but the glory has departed through the polluting effects of sin – and needs to be restored.
How is restoration effected? Through Jesus Christ! God’s command is: ‘Be holy for I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:16) and the divine imperative is the restoration of the beauty of Christ in us. Paul describes the message of salvation as the ‘gospel of the glory of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:4) and continues, ‘It is God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.
This is no mere theoretical knowledge but one that has a transforming outcome. What joy there is in realising that we are in Christ and that Christ is in us – and that through this unity Jesus has given us his glory.
His life manifested in us is our glory (John 17:21-23). However, because of the devastating effects of sin this glory needs to be continually refined. Paul explains this by telling us that we ‘are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). The work of salvation has the ultimate purpose of restoring the beauty and purity of Christ in his people.
Our Lord’s high priestly prayer recorded in John 17:7 is that we be ‘sanctified in the truth, your word is truth’. Paul develops this theme in Romans 12:2 by commanding us to be ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’.
Our minds are the noblest faculty that God has gifted us with. Now, our minds are either being transformed by God’s Word or deformed by the thinking of the world. The way to have our minds renewed, according to Colossians 3:2, is to ‘set your minds on things above and not on things on the earth’. That means having our minds shaped by the Word of God (positive) and not by the mindset of the world (negative).
Paul details this by exhorting: ‘whatever is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, whatever is of good report – if there is any virtue and anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things’ (Philippians 4:8-9).
We need to think through, grasp and apply these things, for then our senses will be exercised to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:14) – distinguishing true from false, beautiful from ugly. Whether we realise it or not, our minds are battlefields and they are either being beautified or impaired.
Holy minds are minds that give expression in beautiful lives. But is there some observable evidence of progress? I think Paul supplies us with the answer to that question in Galatians 5:22-25 where he describes the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit’s work to bring forth fruit in us, and when the fruit has fully ripened it will reveal a symmetry of character that is radiant with beauty – because the glorious image of Jesus will have been restored in us.
Paul leaves us in no doubt about this by assuring us that ‘God willed to make known [to his saints] what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27; see also Romans 5:2). Finally, at the resurrection, even our bodies will be glorified (1 Corinthians 15).
Our Lord longs for us to be with him to show us his glory (John 17:24). He wants us to see with our own eyes the glory, purity, holiness and loveliness of our blessed Lord. The beautifying process of Christ in his people will be complete when he presents to himself his bride, the Church, in all her radiant beauty (Ephesians 5:27).
An aesthetic sensitivity
God made everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and when we look around us in the universe we cannot fail to see the hand of the Divine master-artist at work. In his book Calvinism Abraham Kuyper states: ‘As an image-bearer of God, man possesses the possibility to both create something beautiful and to delight in it’.
This aesthetic consciousness, received by God’s people as image-bearers, is renewed in the new birth and thereafter refined to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:14) – giving us a heightened ability to delight in true beauty and feel revulsion for the ugly.
This equips believers to oppose and resist the world of postmodern culture, which is bent on destroying all that is true and beautiful, and promoting all that is false and ugly. Isaiah warns us: ‘Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for dark; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!’ (Isaiah 5:20).
May God give us all a clear understanding of these things – so that we may be enthralled and absorbed by the exquisite beauty of our God, and provided with a theology by which to challenge the lies and ugliness of modern culture.