Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend. If there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it.
This observation from British philosopher Roger Scruton points to the undeniable yet elusive nature of beauty. Whenever we try to pin down exactly the objective criteria for what is beautiful, we struggle. The perennial question is, “What is beauty?” or “What makes something truly beautiful?” The difficulty in answering leads many to repeat the old trope, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Yet, have you ever thought about how this notion effectively relegates beauty to subjective experience? A purely subjective view of beauty is just as problematic and dangerous as a purely subjective view of truth and goodness. For Christians, furthermore, beauty is often suspect because of its potential to deceive us or seduce us to sin. Indeed, Christians know that evil can produce counterfeit beauty: “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).
In this essay, I want to explore how beauty, while mysterious, is not ultimately subjective or evil. Rather, created beauty is objective and good because uncreated beauty is one of the communicable perfections of God’s essential character. This means that true beauty is as essential to the “already” sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in God’s redeemed children as it is to our experience—here and now, at the visceral level—of tasting and seeing the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 34:8).
A Realist View of Beauty
Along with all the other “omni” perfections of God (omnipresent, omnipotent, etc.), we must affirm that God is also “omni-beautiful”: that is, God is all beautiful. The objective reality of beauty comes from its correspondence to God, and it is solely this correspondence that grounds a realist view of beauty. Realism is a classical philosophical account of reality affirming that the universe and all it comprises exists independently of how and whether we perceive, experience, or think about it. A longstanding commitment to the objectivity of beauty comes out of this classical tradition. Here’s the classicist definition I used in my book, The Beauty of the Lord:
Beauty is an intrinsic quality of things which, when perceived, pleases the mind by displaying a certain kind of fittingness. That is to say, beauty is discerned via objective properties such as proportion, unity, variety, symmetry, harmony, intricacy, delicacy, simplicity, or suggestiveness.
These objective properties have been associated with beauty since ancient times, but this list is obviously not exhaustive. Here’s the mysterious thing about creaturely beauty: objective aesthetic criteria can only be discerned and then described in an a posteriori way, never in an a priori way. In other words, we’re struck by beauty in the act of perceiving it; we more consciously recognize something as beautiful after the fact; we cannot say beforehand what must strike us as beautiful. The beauty of something, after all, is wondrously greater than the sum of its parts. So while we may describe a feature of the natural world or something someone personally created or performed as beautiful, our unbidden affective response of delight evoked in the act of perceiving it defies deducibility. Etienne Gilson says it well: “The pleasure experienced in knowing the beautiful does not constitute beauty itself, but it betrays its presence.”
When we’re considering objective criteria for beauty, it is important to recognize that beauty can have both a narrow sense and a broad sense. Many things evoke our deepest feelings of awe, wonder, longing, gratitude, and reverence. This is beauty in the narrow sense. We’ve all had the experience of watching a stunning sunset or pausing to take in a marvelous mountaintop view. Seeing a murmuration of starlings or a peacock fanning his feathers—or any other experience that instantly captivates our attention and leaves us emotionally moved—evokes some pleasure and wonder in us as we encounter them. Of course, we can be just as captivated and moved by things that people do or perform: a virtuoso musical performance or a masterpiece of visual art or dance performance; perhaps a magnificent work of architecture. Any work created or performed by human beings that captivates our attention and leaves us emotionally moved with delight is also an encounter with beauty in the narrow sense. Indeed, the spectrum of beauty we see in other people, both their outer and inner beauty, is the beauty we’re usually surrounded by most.
Beauty taken in a broad sense, however, is a subtler form and in certain cases, even imperceptible. The propriety of something or the overall sense of order or harmony in a given context are examples of beauty in a less conspicuous but no less real sense. At the most macro level, for instance, the order of the universe that God maintains according to natural laws is simply one aspect of what King David celebrates in Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. . . .
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. (vv. 1, 4–5)
Scientists talk about orbital planetary motion and how the observable universe is something like ninety-two billion light years across, all of which is impossible for us to really grasp. At the other end of the size spectrum—the cellular and even the atomic and subatomic levels—there exists a micro-universe of dynamically operating order, balance, symmetry, proportion, and unity whose reality we accept even though we can’t directly perceive it. Who can deny the amazing intricacy, resiliency, and delicate balance maintained through biological cycles of predation and symbiotic dependencies of plants and animals within their terrestrial and aquatic ecological complexes? Even particular acts or actions done by individuals or groups may strike us as beautiful because of how wonderfully befitting we perceive them to be: an expertly performed feat of athleticism, a mundane yet expertly executed household task, a well-choreographed medical team, a wonderfully suitable answer, a delicate touch conveying much-needed comfort or understanding, the interpersonal harmony uniting the lives of diverse people, the city planning optimizing the metropolitan life bristling in all directions, and so on. Aesthetic qualities in such things are often perceived in an indirect way, which I refer to as beautiful in a broad sense.
I use the term “fittingness” as an overarching description expressing the full range of beauty’s objective characteristics, whether in the narrow or broad sense: the more fitting a person or thing or action, the more beautiful. All these characterizations of beauty, narrow and broad, also point us to the necessary subjective perception of it: the effect of delight experienced in recognizing something—consciously or unconsciously—as beautiful, as fitting. The subjective is necessary but not ultimate; it depends on the objective. Saint Augustine remarked on this interplay: “If I were to ask first whether things are beautiful because they give pleasure, or give pleasure because they are beautiful, I have no doubt that I will be given the answer that they give pleasure because they are beautiful.” Thus beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, though it is not reduced to our experience; it does not merely mean beautiful to me.
The Beauty of the Trinity
The beauty of something is directly proportional to its fittingness. We learn this from the character and action of God himself. We know God as he has revealed himself in his works of revelation and redemption. The divine works of creation, redemption, and consummation entail a consistent, suitable, and worthy expression or outworking of God’s wisdom and glory, displaying in time the eternal beauty of the immanent Trinity. Recognizing this fittingness of the revealing and redeeming activities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is basic to celebrating the beauty of the Trinity. Nicholas Healy captures this idea in regard to the actions of God as follows:
The theologian should attempt to explain why these means to salvation are the best by displaying the appropriateness of God’s actions as they are described in Scripture. The argument for fittingness is therefore something like an aesthetic argument because it searches for structure and proportion. The French Dominican, Gilbert Narcisse, gives this definition: “Theological fittingness displays the significance of the chosen means among alternative possibilities, and the reasons according to which God, in his wisdom, has effectively realized and revealed, gratuitously and through his love, the mystery of the salvation and glorification of humanity.”
Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas offer a similar theological rationale for the question of whether the Father or the Holy Spirit could have assumed the role of incarnate redeemer instead of the Son. I won’t rehearse the entirety of their arguments here, but the gist is that it is most fitting for the Son to become the incarnate redeemer rather than the Father or the Holy Spirit. This fittingness is based neither on our assumptions about what is appropriate for God nor on any anthropomorphic projection of our image upon God, but on the order of personal relations within the unity of the Godhead. The divine persons’ outward activities reflect with perfect harmony the inner paternity of the Father (since all things are from him), the filiation of the Son (all things are through him), and the spiration of the Holy Spirit (all things are in him). And this perfect fittingness, remember, is at one and the same time perfect beauty.
This objective beauty of the Trinity as expressed in the divine works of creation, redemption, and consummation is an inherent quality of God’s glory. God’s glory is the fullness of his perfections, the expression and manifestation of which is the reality of all that God is. We find in Scripture that the word glory frequently serves as a proxy for specific divine attributes: goodness in its aspects of mercy and grace (Exod. 33:18–19; Eph. 1:6, 12, 14), truthfulness (1 Sam. 15:29), holiness (Isa. 6:3), majesty (Isa. 35:2), righteousness (Rom. 3:23), and power (John 11:40; Rom. 6:4; 2 Thess. 1:8–9). “Such biblical data suggests that God’s intrinsic glory is broader than a single attribute,” writes Christopher Morgan. “It corresponds with his very being and sometimes functions as a sort of summation of his attributes.”
The relation between white light and the color spectrum serves as a good illustration of the relation between God’s glory and his perfections. Isaac Newton demonstrated in the late seventeenth century that an optical prism can be used to separate white light into its constituent spectral colors. A second prism can then be used to recompose the spectrum back into white light. The prism does not create colors but simply reveals that all the colors already exist in the light. As a quality in the light of God’s intrinsic glory, beauty is always an aspect of its multicolored external display. God’s works are altogether fitting and should always evoke our subjective recognition of his beauty in and through them.
The Beauty of the Incarnate Son
The beauty of a person depends not only on that person’s outward form but on the inner content of their character. True beauty, in other words, means that form and content inextricably cohere in perfect unity. God’s creational intention for human beings is that ultimately the beauty of our outer self (our body) coheres in perfect unity with the beauty of our inner self (our soul), for God intended our bodies to be, as John Barclay puts it, “the necessary expressive medium of the Christ-sourced life.” In this present age, beauty in the outward sense is compromised and fading. Although the image of those redeemed in Christ includes the resurrection and glorification of their physical body (Phil. 3:21), for now we experience its wearing away (2 Cor. 4:16). On the “already” side of our eschatological glory, then, what counts as the true beauty of a person is a character reflective of the character of Christ. True beauty of character in that sense—our beauty in and through Christ—entails what Kevin Vanhoozer describes as “right thinking, desiring, and doing alike, involving all the disciple’s faculties: cognitive, affective, and dispositional.” Sometimes we fail to recognize a person’s beauty, whether inner or outer. Our subjective failure to recognize beauty, however, does not negate its objective reality, since God is ultimately who determines what is beautiful. There is no better example of this than the unlikely loveliness of the incarnate Son.
In Isaiah’s Servant Song, the prophet describes Christ as having “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). This is certainly how he seemed during his humiliation “in the form of a slave” for our sakes (Phil. 2:6–8). Nonetheless, that form of a slave was most fitting for God the Son for his role as the Messiah. In and through the form of a slave, the incarnate Son magnifies the beauty of the glory of God’s self-giving love and at the same time begins to glorify—to beautify—us who not just apparently but really lacked that beauty. As New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham says, the character of God “is revealed as much in self-abasement and service as it is in exaltation and rule. The God who is high can also be low, because God is God not in seeking his own advantage but in self-giving.”
Especially in his humiliating death on the cross, Christ reveals in the most climactic way how God’s judicial wrath that must condemn the sinner unites in perfect expression with the mercy that would pardon. George Hunsinger wonderfully encapsulates this mystery:
The wrath of God is removed (propitiation) when the sin that provokes it is abolished (expiation). Moreover, the love of God that takes the form of wrath when provoked by sin is the very same love that provides the efficacious means of expiation (vicarious sacrifice) and therefore of propitiation.
Behold the perfect equipoise of God’s beauty: his righteous, holy love manifest in the execution of his wrath poured out on the Beloved on behalf of the unlovely!
The event of the cross reveals the divine love that expresses itself in unreserved self-giving for the sake of others. Yet this surprising beauty displayed in Christ’s humiliation must hold together with that displayed in his exaltation. There is an unbreakable biblical connection between the beauty of the Lord and his manifest glory, especially his majesty, kingship, and splendor. In other words, not only are terms in Scripture expressive of “beauty” used in a parallel with “glory” (e.g., Exod. 28:2), but God’s objective beauty is also strongly correlated with his kingship. This is a common refrain in the Psalms:
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Ps. 96:5–6)
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. (Ps. 145:5)
God similarly describes himself to Job:
“Have you an arm like God,
and can you thunder with a voice like his?
“Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity;
clothe yourself with glory and splendor.” (Job 40:9–10)
Of particular note for the beauty of the incarnate Son, Isaiah 33:17—“Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty”—is widely interpreted as a vision of the Messiah referring to a future time when God’s people would see the anointed king in all his royal splendor (cf. Isa. 33:22; Ps. 45). Bernard Ramm aptly summarizes the Bible’s royal motif, a precursor in the Old Testament to the majestic messianic character of Christ’s glory:
If there is a bridge which connects the visible glory of the Lord with his essential being, it is that of the kingship. . . . The royal kingship becomes one of the richest sources of analogies in the OT for the doctrine of God. The kābôd of the earthly king becomes the analogue for the kābôd of the Lord (cf. Pss. 22:28; 24:7–10).
The display of the incarnate Son’s divine beauty is revealed perfectly in his messianic fulfillment as the greater Davidic Seed—the King of kings and Lord of lords! Jesus, and Jesus alone, is that ladder bridging heaven and earth (cf. John 1:51), personally embodying both the inner glory of God and its outward display in self-giving love and kingly rule.
The Beauty of Our Identity and Formation in Christ
If we want to be deeply encouraged in our identity in Christ and personal spiritual formation, we must discern the beauty inherent in the plan of God as well as the beauty of God’s work in and through us. The common idea that “as we think, we do” leads us to assume that real change needs to take place first in our thinking, which will then move us to act in accordance with what we think is true. Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, however, has argued that perceiving the beautiful is the real starting point of change in our actions and even in conceptualizing truth accurately. I don’t believe we need to make definitive pronouncements about the exact chain of causation between our thinking, perceiving, experiencing, and doing; the mind in its connection with the bodily senses is as deeply mysterious as it is wondrously complex. Yet there is a thoroughly biblical logic in Balthasar’s reasoning: “The more obediently [the Christian] thinks, the more accurately he will see.” This reminds me of Jesus’ claim, “If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will know about my teaching, whether it is from God or whether I speak from my own authority” (John 7:17; cf. 1 John 4:11–12). The more we come to be affected by the beauty of the Lord, the more we will be delighted to follow him. It’s interesting that when Jesus refers to himself as the “good shepherd” (John 10:14–16), the Greek word here translated “good” often refers to the aesthetically beautiful, the excellent, noble, desirable, and praiseworthy. Beholding Jesus as not only morally upright but also wholly beautiful draws us both to know him better (“my own know me”) and to obey him more faithfully (“they will listen to my voice”).
I mentioned earlier in relation to the character of Jesus that personal beauty depends not only (or even primarily) on one’s outward form but on the inner content of one’s character, and especially the fit between the two. This is also true of the character of Jesus’ disciples. Our spiritual formation as believers—our conformity to the image of Christ—may be described as the practice of Christian fittingness. Christian fittingness means God’s people living in conformity to their identity in Christ and growing in Christlike character. The apostle Paul expresses his deeply felt burden that Christ be fully “formed” in us (Gal. 4:19) in accordance with the design of the divine plan (Rom. 8:29–30). Christ’s beauty—the fittingness of his person and work—is always the standard and pattern for our formation in beauty. In the account of the woman who anointed Jesus’ head with an alabaster flask of expensive perfume (Mark 14:3–9), some of those present were harshly critical of Jesus, seeing this woman’s act as an utter waste of money and a squandered opportunity to help the poor. But Jesus responded by saying, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Again, the Greek word translated “beautiful” here is the same as in John’s reference to Jesus as the “good” shepherd. Jesus knew he’d soon be taken away and killed; the self-surrendering act of this woman is a beautiful thing because of how perfectly fitting—how supremely good—were her actions in displaying his beauty through anointing his body before his death and burial for our sake.
Contrast this beautiful obedience with Christ’s denunciation of the ugliness of the scribes and the Pharisees:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 23:27–28)
We can understand the nature of such ugliness not as the absence of beauty but a defilement, distortion, or perversion of it. The hypocrisy displayed by the scribes and Pharisees is the ugliness of self-righteousness masquerading as true love for God and true righteousness in front of others for their applause and esteem (cf. Mark 7:1–23; Luke 11:37–41). To be conformed to the image of Christ must include becoming truly beautiful like him in the inner self, a beauty expressed through our bodily actions and experienced in the increasing delight we take in the Lord (Ps. 37:3–4). All this beautifying work occurs by the Holy Spirit, who graciously and powerfully motivates the heartfelt pursuit of true godliness. Those who belong to a beautiful Savior long to live lives befitting their identity in Christ as God’s beloved children (Eph. 4:1, 32; 5:1–2).
To be sure, because God calls his children to embrace by faith our identity as a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), he empowers us by his Spirit to pursue a life of true discipleship. The person re-created in Christ has been brought out of a condition of spiritual malformity into an already-but-not-yet perfected conformity to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29–30). Even in this present age, God has begun that re-creational work of forming each person in Christ in spiritual beauty by making us more and more like him.
The dynamic of growing more beautiful in Christlike character is thus an active participation. “Call it eschatological participation,” writes Vanhoozer, “a this-age taking part in the reality of the age to come.” Paul, quoting Isaiah 64:4, directs our hearts and minds to the limitlessness of God’s beautifying work of redemption: “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). The ever-surpassing, ever-surprising nature of God in his works is most fully revealed in the radiance of our image-bearing beauty, as his beauty is reflected in us, from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18).
As we await this beautiful future, let us not only seek to grow in the truth of God’s revealed plan, but let us also increasingly delight in God for who he is and for making us partakers of his eternal Triune life through the person and work of Christ. This is what it means to behold the beauty of the Lord through eyes of faith (Ps. 27:4). And this is what will motivate and encourage us as we grow in the goodness of God by pursuing a faithful fittingness between our lives and his beautiful character.
Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), xi.Back
Jonathan King, The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018). The full discussion that follows draws from this work. On the particular point made here, see my discussion in the introduction under the subsection “Theologies of Aesthetics,” 2–7.Back
Etienne Gilson, Elements of Christian Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960), 162.Back
Augustine, De Vera Religione, cited in Umberto Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, trans. Hugh Bredin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 49.Back
Nicholas M. Healy, Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 38.Back
See King, The Beauty of the Lord, 70–73.Back
Christopher W. Morgan, “Toward a Theology of the Glory of God,” in The Glory of God, ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 165.Back
See King, The Beauty of the Lord, 44–49.Back
John M. G. Barclay, “Under Grace: The Christ-Gift and the Construction of a Christian Habitus,” in Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5–8, ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013), 69.Back
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 147.Back
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 45.Back
George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 173–74.Back
Bernard Ramm, Them He Glorified: A Systematic Study of the Doctrine of Glorification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 19.Back
Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1., Seeing the Form, ed. Joseph Fessio, S.J., and John Riches, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 165.Back
See King, The Beauty of the Lord, 260–65.Back
See King, The Beauty of the Lord, 284–86Back
Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 126.Back