Posted in

Beauty and Christian Theology

The famed Swiss theologian Karl Barth once spoke of theology as “the most beautiful of all the sciences”[1] because God, its subject, is beautiful.  Theological aesthetics, by which is meant reflection on the nature and experience of beauty using the categories of the Christian[2] revelation, is a subject that only in the past few years has begun to receive serious attention.  It is, however, one in which theological exposition sheds a unique light on individual doctrine and lends itself naturally to worship and the quest for holiness.

A theological aesthetic must be based on four fundamental affirmations.

  1. God is beautiful in and of himself.
  2. God’s beauty is revealed in his triune love.
  3. God’s beauty is revealed in his creative love.
  4. God’s beauty is revealed in his redemptive love.

Before these affirmations can be profitably discussed, a methodological issue needs to be addressed.


It is commonly recognized in theological studies that there is tension between the approaches that focus on who God is in himself and those that focus on the history of redemption.  Theologians for centuries have made a distinction between God in himself (deus in se) and God for us (deus pro nobis).  Nevertheless, that distinction is often understood as a divide that cannot be successfully crossed.

On the one hand, those who contend that we should strictly limit our discourse about God to what has been revealed in his acts in history witnessed to in the Bible have two concerns with those who seek to speak of God as he is in himself.  First, they caution against human minds seeking to delve into the mystery of God’s incomprehensible nature and person and advise that we limit ourselves to what can be known about him, which is what he has chosen to be revealed.  Second, they argue that the attempt to understand God as he is in himself is guided by human reason, which is inadequate to the task, and results in a God created by flawed human ideas.

On the other hand, those who stress the God-in-himself approach claim that the laws of logic always apply, and that reason is a divine gift meant to be used to understand God’s person and nature.  The scriptural revelation is true but is not philosophically exact and ordered.  It is necessary to use human reason to understand what its implications are for the person of God.  In fact, it is often contended that those who wish to exclude philosophy from theological discourse are by that very wish taking a philosophical stance.

While realizing the importance of these methodological issues, it still seems feasible to assume that God’s revelation of himself for us in the scriptural account of the history of redemption does in fact tell us something about God as he is in himself and that reflection on his revelation does not necessarily base itself merely on human reason. Therefore, as we discuss theological aesthetics, it will be assumed that there is no contradiction between deus in se and deus pro nobis and that considering both together not only clarifies both but results in some very fruitful insights.

God Is Beautiful in and of Himself

The affirmation that God is beautiful in and of himself is an aesthetic consequence of the classical theological teaching of God’s aseity. Aseity is characteristic of a being that exists in and of itself.  As applied to God, aseity means negatively that God is not caused.  Understood positively, aseity asserts that God is self-sufficient.  While the philosophical developments of the concepts of aseity have led to assertions of God being passionless, this does not detract from the fact that the teaching has a biblical basis.  John 1:3 claims, “all things were made through him,” and Psalm 33:6 confesses, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.”[3]  Since all things were created by him, it is only reasonable that we understand that the beauty of everything owes its beauty to the one who made it.  Given the strong biblical support for the personal nature of God, there can be no doubt that he himself is beauty and also that any experience of beauty ultimately is an experience of God’s beauty or at least provides a starting point or is a sign which one can follow until the source of all beauty is found.

The close relation between God’s aseity and his role as creator begins to answer the question of how God’s beauty can be experienced by finite creatures.  Such an experience can be seen as being mediated through the creation.  This will become evident when the third fundamental affirmation is treated.

God’s Beauty Is Revealed in His Triune Love

The second fundamental affirmation of theological aesthetics involves three crucial elements.  The first element is the doctrine of the Trinity.  The second is to view God’s beauty as intimately related to his love.  The third is the assertion of a connection between love, beauty, and glory.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the uniquely Christian understanding of God.  It confesses that God is one essence eternally existing in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The Christian faith is monotheistic.  It affirms that God is one, but that within the unity of the Godhead there is a community of persons, all equally God and existing in harmony with one another.

The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that the highest order of being is personal and relational.  Indeed, the implication is that truly being a person means to be in relationships.  Scripture describes the character of that relationship as love.  Thus, it is no surprise that the Apostle John defines God, the perfect being, as love (1 John 4:8, 16).

Since God is love and he is beautiful in and of himself, God’s beauty is closely associated, perhaps even to be identified, with his love.  In his prayer on behalf of his disciples, Jesus Christ, God the Word incarnate (John 1:14), said to God the Father, “you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).  Most likely, therefore, when Jesus prays for the unity of his disciples in Christ, the love mentioned in his request from the Father “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23) should not be limited to his time on earth.  Rather the love shown by the Father for the incarnate Son reflects his eternal love for the Son.

Before discussing the meaning of love within the Trinity, it is necessary that we look at another word connected with the mutual love between the Father and the Son.  That word is glory. To cite John 17:24 fully, Jesus prays, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”  From one perspective this glory is God’s gift to Jesus, the incarnate Son, which he shares with his disciples that they might be one (John 17:22).  Nevertheless, the glory of the incarnate Son reflects the glory that he shared with the Father from eternity, the glory that he had with the Father before the world existed (John 17:5) or, as John puts in the prologue to his Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

The simplest definition of God’s glory is that it is the radiance of his person.  The glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds at the angels’ announcement of the birth of Christ (Luke 2:9).  It appears in the dedication both of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35) and the temple (1 Kings 8:10-11), the tabernacle and temple both being the earthly dwelling place of God.  Both John 1:14 and 17:24 speak of seeing God’s glory.

Radiance, of course, carries with it the idea of light.  John writes that in the heavenly city, whose “temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb,” that “the glory of the Lord is its light” (Revelation 21:22-23).  Just a little later he tells us that “the Lord God will be their light” (Revelation 22:5), thus identifying the glory of God with God himself.

An important point for theological aesthetics, is that these two passages in Revelation refer to Isaiah 60:19.  In that passage “glory” translates the Hebrew word tiphereth. Tiphereth is often translated as “glory,” but it is also often translated by the word “beauty,” in particular in descriptions of the tabernacle and temple.  For example, God’s sanctuary, the earthly locus of his presence, is described as a place of “beauty” (Psalm 96:6).  When words such as glory, light, and beauty are associated with God’s person, the image is of a being from whom a radiance issues that is both overwhelming and attractive.

The presence of God in the temple reflects his being which inhabits the heavens.  Isaiah asks the Lord to “look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful (tiphereth) habitation” (63:15). God is seen as holy, glorious and beautiful in himself.   The beauty of God’s person seen in the light of the eternal Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, leads to the connection between divine beauty and love.

One of the unfortunate obstacles to discussing the relationship between beauty and love are the erroneous explanations of two Greek words for love: eros and agape.  There are two common errors made in defining eros.  First, eros, from which the English word “erotic,” is derived, is limited exclusively to sexual or romantic love.  Second, it is understood as a need love, even a selfish love.  Equally, there are two common errors in the exposition of agape.  First, it is seen as a purely altruistic sacrificial love.  Second, it is often interpreted as a “love in spite of,” which consequently makes the object of agape love unlovely.

Basically, both interpretations of agape and eros err because they fail to see the essential goodness of mutual giving and receiving, and they begin their reflections based upon the sinful conditions of fallen reality.  That one enjoys or receives benefits in a loving relationship does not make that person’s love inferior or invalid. In addition, it is always an error to make fallen reality more fundamental than created reality.

These criticisms of the common misconceptions of agape and eros will become clearer as we place the two loves in the context of divine love and the history of redemption, but first the two loves need to be better defined.  Eros should be understood as a love which is attracted to the beauty of the object of its love.  Agape is the free and joyful giving of the self to the beloved other.  Understood in this way, the two loves are not two separate and contradictory kinds of love.  In reality, they are two sides of the same coin.  The lover is attracted to the beloved (eros), and freely gives of himself to her (agape).

We are now in a position to understand the eternal divine love of the Trinity.  In God’s love agape and eros are one.  The beauty of each person attracts the other (eros) and leads each to give of self to the others freely and joyfully (agape).[4]  Thus the beauty of the persons of the Godhead simultaneously and eternally fosters a community of love, which, as was previously mentioned, leads John to write, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).

God’s Beauty Is Revealed in His Creative Love

God’s creation is an act of love that reveals his beauty, the third fundamental assertion of a theological aesthetic.  The Christian doctrine of creation reinforces the connections between God’s love, beauty, and glory and additionally demonstrates God’s way of inviting man to participate in this community of love.  However, before man’s loving response to God’s beauty is discussed, we need to explain briefly the doctrine of creation and, in particular, God’s evaluation of his creation as good.

The Christian doctrine is that God created every out of nothing.  Thus, there were no external limitations on his creation, nor was there any external compulsion.  Creating was God’s completely free act, and the resultant creation fully conformed to the divine intentions or, in biblical terms, it was good.

Five times in Genesis 1 God looks upon his creation and declares it to be “good” (vv. 4, 12, 18, 21, 25).  God then creates man in his image (vv. 26, 27) and pronounces all to be “very good” (v. 31).  Instead of conveying any moral or ethical quality in this context, the Hebrew word for “good” (tōv) signifies God’s pleasure or delight in his creation.  As an artist, God, as it were, steps backs, see his work, and admires its beauty.  In fact, it mirrors or reflects the beauty of his own person. In his creation, God has given himself in love (agape) and is attracted to it (eros).  The creation is not God.  It is truly other than him.  Thus, the experience of beauty is truly of an “other,” but that “other” does reflect the beauty of the divine artist.

God’s creation is not merely for God’s pleasure.  It is also meant to serve as a sign.  It reveals God’s glory (Psalms 19:1; 97:6).  Man is drawn by God’s beauty in creation (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and gives himself in love to God (Psalm 71:8), a response which combines eros and agape.

God’s Beauty Is Revealed in His Redemptive Love”

Tragically, man in his sin rejects God and does not seek him because he is no longer attracted to God (Romans 3:11).  Indeed, he hates God (Romans 1:30).  However, such is the nature of man that he must worship, but in his fallenness he commits idolatry.  Isaiah points out not only the folly of worshipping manmade idols (44:19) but also the perversion of man’s love of beauty.  The carpenter shapes his wood “into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house” (44:13).  So deep is man’s sin that he can do nothing to overcome it.  “A heart deluded has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” (44:20).

Although man’s sin has been rightly understood as an offense against a holy God that needs to be punished, it is also an aesthetic sin, a sin against beauty, ultimately a failure to love the lovely.  Man cannot obey the great commandment to love the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5, Mark 12:30).  In response to man’s desperate plight, only God can deliver him.  Understood from an aesthetic perspective, God’s redemptive work will have to be a restoration of man’s innate desire for beauty.  Such a redemptive work will reveal the beauty of God’s love in an unexpected way.  Agape will be transformed and eros will be rekindled.

As defined earlier, agape is the free and joyful giving of the self to the beloved other.  Now that self-giving has been transformed into a sacrificial act on behalf of one who is at enmity with God—one that involves death.  The beauty of God’s redemptive agape love is on display in the tabernacle and the temple.  The two structures were built with wisdom, knowledge, and understanding (Exodus 31:3; 1 Kings 7:14), reflecting the skilled craftsmanship of a human architect constructing a house (Proverbs 24:3-4), and ultimately of the divine architect’s beautiful creation (Proverbs 3:19-20).[5] That beauty is also displayed in the glory and beauty of the priestly garments (Exodus 28:2, 40).

Nevertheless, can one see love and beauty in the gore of animal sacrifices? Perhaps even more relevant to the Christian story of redemption is the mysterious suffering servant of Isaiah.  Isaiah tells us that the servant “had no form or majesty that we should look at him; and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53;2).  He was thus “despised and rejected by men” and “one from whom men hide their faces” and “not esteemed” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus identified himself with the suffering servant (Matthew 8:17; John 12:38) whom men despised.  Using a verb related to the tabernacle, the incarnate Son of God dwelt among us and revealed God’s glory (John 1:14).  Men rejected him and he endured cruel mockery while suffering a brutal death on the cross for men.  How then can men perceive the beauty of a crucified Christ and be attracted to him?  How can eros be restored?

The answer is that it is by faith, which itself is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).  Our perspective is changed by our faith in God.  We no longer see Christ from a human perspective (2 Corinthians 5:16).  God’s sacrificial agape, fully revealed in Christ, is seen as beautiful through the eyes of faith (Psalm 27:4).  Upon seeing God’s true nature, like Job, the Christian also abhors his old sinful self (Job 42:6).

In turning from his sinful self, the Christian is restored to his true self.  He sees the beauty of God in the glory of the crucified love of Christ, and “beholding the glory of the Lord” is “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” by the work of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).  Beholding God in faith, the redeemed person is once again attracted to God’s agape love and then in response gladly and freely gives of himself in worship and loving service to God.  Finally, with the restoration of man’s love for God, whose image he is, the way is paved for the restoration of creation to its original beauty, majestically described in the beauty of Revelation 21 and 22, the final chapters not only of the Bible but of the history of redemption.


By means of its four fundamentals—God is beauty in and of himself, and the revelation of his beauty in Trinitarian, creative, and redemptive love–theological aesthetics opens up wide vistas for revisioning our conceptions about the relationship between love and beauty and the work of redemption.  Furthermore, God’s beauty, the subject of theological aesthetics, reaches to the depths of the human desire for the worship and love of the beautiful and transforms us into his likeness.

[1] Church Dogmatics, II.1, The Doctrine of God, p. 656

[2] This essay will be drawing only upon the resources of the Christian faith and the biblical revelation to which it adheres.

[3] That both of these verses mention God or the Lord’s word as the source of all that is will have important implications for the doctrine of the Trinity.

[4] The Greek word perichoresis is used in theology to express the mutuality of this love shared between the persons of the Trinity.

[5] It is no coincidence that the same three verbs are used to describe the work designing and building a house, God’s creation of the universe, and the work that went into the construction of both the tabernacle and the temple.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *