What is God’s beauty? Can we see it? Can we feel it? If we go looking for his beauty in Scripture, what are we looking for? If we go looking for his beauty in creation, where do we find it?
Answers to questions like these comprise the essence of my favorite book of 2018: Jonathan King’s The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics, published by Lexham Press.
Jonathan King was a new author to me. I discovered that in seminary he studied under Michael Horton and completed his PhD work at TEDS under Kevin Vanhoozer. He now serves as lecturer in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the Universitas Pelita Harapan in Indonesia.
Today I’m breaking the mold. This will be a long conversation. I suspect it will go an hour or so. Jonathan joins us from his apartment in Jakarta. It’s 7 a.m. in Minneapolis; 8 p.m. in Jakarta. I’m still waking up.
Jonathan, hello and thank you for your book The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics. As you know, for many of us, beauty is a very subjective concept, and divine beauty is for us a really abstract concept. But here at Desiring God we love talking about beauty — God’s beauty, Christ’s beauty, the beauty of the cross even. And we should. Aesthetically, we are moved by beautiful music, beautiful paintings, and beautiful images we like on Instagram. We respond to beauty instinctually. In your excellent book, you argue that divine beauty is objective — it’s defined by a certain fittingness. Let’s dive right into it. Take as long as you need. Explain this connection between beauty and fittingness in Scripture.
The definition of beauty that I start with as my baseline is coming from the early classical patristic and medieval period. The concept then wasn’t a sideline matter or a subjective thing. The gist of the definition of beauty is something like this: beauty is an intrinsic quality of things which, when it’s perceived, pleases the mind by a certain kind of fittingness.
“‘Fittingness’ implies a judgment about the degree to which something or someone exhibits beauty.”
Now it’s contextual, but within a given context, when you’ve perceived something, you see it both as an objective and as a subjective response elicited to it. I applied the idea of fittingness as an overarching term, which captures the range of aesthetic properties that identify innumerable qualities of beauty. The same type of quality may or may not be fitting within a given context of beauty.
That’s why I think it’s a very good term, more of an umbrella type of term, but a term that can be applied. You wouldn’t just say the delicacy of something or the boldness of something is a fine quality. You would say that within a certain setting, a certain dimension, a certain context, that it is or is not fitting.
The judgment of fittingness implies a judgment about the degree to which something or someone exhibits beauty. That something or someone is not limited to an object or a thing as we normally think of in such terms; it includes actions and expressions as well.
Right at the very beginning of Scripture, when God created the heavens and the earth, of course, in the Greek that’s captured by the word cosmos. And cosmos itself implies an ordered arrangement of things. It’s a combination of both orderliness and adornment. It’s embedded within that meaning.
The Hebrew text, of course, doesn’t use the word universe when it talks about the heavens and the earth or the host of heaven, for instance. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, it used the word cosmos. As an example, Acts 17:24 says, “The God who made the world [cosmos] and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man.”
Now, I don’t want to try to wring too much out of this. I want to just set the stage that right from the beginning of the creation, there is implied a certain orderliness. Then from that, we see fittingness in different ways. But it is being spelled out in the right at the beginning of the Bible, when God makes his assessment of the days of creation being good. Then ultimately, at the end of day six, all of creation was very good.
“In the age to come, there will be no hearkening back. Our longing, our yearning, will be fulfilled ultimately and perfectly.”
The assessment there includes an assessment of God’s delight in his creation. The Hebrew word tov is not just something that’s proper and good in some functional sense, but it has ethical, aesthetic connotations as well.
Reflecting on the translation of that text into Greek, in the Septuagint, those translators translated tov to the Greek word kalos — rich with aesthetic connotation. In fact, it has this idea of being aesthetically beautiful, morally excellent, noble, organically sound, desirable, praiseworthy, and such things as that. We want to have a thick theological picture, right from the very project of creation itself. We don’t have to import anything in artificially — it’s there already in implied connotations.
Now, the fittingness we see right there is in the way God set up the realms and the habitants of those realms. We see how the forming of habitations characterizes the first three days while the filling of those habitations within the habitats characterizes days four to six.
In other words, the artistic patterning depicting the archetypal week of creation displays the aesthetic aspect in God’s expressed creational purposes. Now, that’s just one example at the beginning.
What we can tease out is that things in the beginning had a fittingness. If there ever should be a fitting this is consequential, it needs to be right at the very beginning. In other words, “in the beginning” shows that it was intended and designed and created by God just so.
Now in terms of more, going back to God as creator and the very nature of God, what I argue is that beauty corresponds in some way to the attributes of God. Now, when I get to the doctrine of God, chapter two of my book, I argue strongly and definitively that beauty actually is an attribute of God, not just somehow associated with the attributes.
We start off with just posing that question: Is it an attribute of God, as part of God’s nature? Is the work of God, the work of God outside of himself — creation, redemption, consummation, all the work of God — reflective of his nature? My argument is that there’s a consistent and fitting expression of the outworking of God’s beauty, of divine beauty.
“All that God does is certainly more than just beautiful, but it’s not less than that either.”
All that God does is certainly more than just beautiful, but it’s not less than that either. It’s all imbued inherently because — at least in what I’m putting forward — beauty is inherent to God, and it’s reflected in everything that he does, which is the outward expression of his glory.
Where this really comes to, its concreteness, is that it’s not just in talking about the nature of God and in his triune-ness and so forth — although as critical as that is and that needs to be established — its concreteness is seen mainly in the expression of God in the person of Christ.
I argued that the Son’s fittingness as incarnate redeemer is the critical lens for seeing God’s beauty. We celebrated Christmas, the incarnation of the baby, the child Jesus. We celebrate his life — from his birth all the way up until his death, and then post-death, his resurrection and ascension into heaven.
The form of Christ was not just static. It was not just the same. In this world, he didn’t display himself to the natural eye, but he didn’t display himself to the normal way that people were perceiving him in majestic glory, triumph, and power. He presented himself in a very humble means, and that was all intentional. That was by design.
Traditionally, of course, we refer to that as Christ being in the state of his humiliation prior to his exaltation. There’s a fittingness throughout the entire life of Christ, and that fittingness captures, or at least points to, the idea that it’s sourced from the beauty of God itself.
That is a critical lens indeed. So everything Christ did in redemption perfectly fit our need and perfectly displayed God — therefore everything Christ is and does and says is essentially beautiful.
Wonderful. I want to talk history for a moment and then return to something fascinating you say about the glory of Christ in human form. First, I found your book a great help in decoding how older Christians like Augustine and Anselm speak of divine beauty. You mentioned the Greek origins of concepts of beauty as an influence. How does that inform how we read the early church fathers on beauty?
Yeah, there is a lot of work going on today, in evangelical and reformed circles, on efforts of retrieval. We are going back to the early sources and seeing what the church fathers and schoolmen had to say and are trying to appropriate it anew.
Well, my work is not simply a work of retrieval, although it sort of is in that I look at some of the prominent theologians and schoolmen in both the Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity. I do appropriate some of the best of their insights. And not just like a magpie picking and choosing what I want — I tried to do it in a coherent, consistent way, showing that beauty was fundamental to understanding reality itself, the structure of reality.
Where this originally came from was the idea of what’s called the “transcendentals of being.” Being is the most general and comprehensive concept that we have. We have to describe everything that exists. The idea of to be is a property common to all — to all things that really exist.
In order to do more than simply talk about something as existing, they used the words like beauty. Throughout the early patristic era and up through the medieval era (the Middle Ages), beauty, in general or on the whole, was considered a transcendental quality of being — along with truth and goodness and oneness.
“Everything God does is beautiful in its God-glorifying nature.”
Now, this wasn’t a de novo, a brand-new conceptual framework. It’s actually from the early Greek period. This is what’s called the triad. The transcendentals would, in particularl, use the triad — truth, goodness, and beauty. It came out in the writings of Plato and others in the early Greek period.
What the church fathers did, along with other theologians, was recognize that they were on to something. The transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty corresponded to the good, the true, and the beautiful. These terms speak of reality being knowable, reality in its right form being desirable, and reality in its proper expression of being causing a sense of delight in those that behold that reality.
In these terms, it’s an ontological thing, not simply epistemological — like some method of knowing something, just a methodology. The transcendentals of being get at the very ontology of reality.
Their insight was that God created the heavens and the earth in such a way that it is in fact knowable, at least explorable and discoverable in a growing, developing way. Not that you can know everything just by perceiving it in time. There is a propriety to things, something that by its nature was meant to be good. There’s a goodness and inherent goodness.
When things are in their order and their propriety as they were meant to be, it causes delight. In this sense, beauty is not just a discrete thing, such as, “Oh, isn’t that sunset beautiful?” Or, “Isn’t that vista of the meadow something beautiful to behold?” But it was literally the metaphysics that they were working with. Their insight was the structure of reality. We can address and talk about it in these terms.
The theologians in the early church focused on beauty, the subjective nature of it. They did it in different ways. Anselm talked about the fittingness of God’s plan of redemption. The fittingness of, say, how the tree was involved in the devil’s temptation of Eve, but then how, in the plan of God, the devil is defeated by the Messiah being crucified on a tree, a wooden cross. Anselm is getting this, in large measure, from the legacy of Augustine himself. They paid attention to these symmetries, to these proportions, to the structure of the plan.
Now, sometimes their metaphysical assumptions drove them to overstate some things. For example, Anselm — following a lead of Augustine, I might add — said that the people God redeems are going to replace, one for one, the fallen angels because everything God does is perfectly symmetrical in such a way that there wouldn’t be anything where we would feel like there was too many of one being (in this case fallen angels).
They just assumed that was the way it was. They took some of their aesthetic assumptions and drove them a little too far. We can be forgiving, though, if something is over-presumed, or at least flag it. But we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
We see in the very beginning, going back to Genesis, that the ideas of the true and the beautiful are part of the created order. Now this is in the context of Genesis 3, in the event of the fall of Adam and Eve. But what I’m quoting here in Genesis 3:6 precedes the event of the fall itself: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food [there’s the good], and that it was a delight to the eyes [there’s the beautiful], and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise [there’s the true], she took of its fruit and ate.”
You can see these correspondences without forcing it. The early patristic and medieval theologians saw that. They said, “We can affirm some of these insights from some of the Greek sages and see where they’re consistent with the biblical story.”
Yes. The transcendentals, as categories, seem to be there from the start of Genesis. I feel like I have a better grasp now of these conversations in the early church. Thank you. Your fundamental argument in the book is profoundly simple: everything God does is beautiful in its God-glorifying nature. We’ve talked about the fittingness. Now expound on the God-centeredness of beauty.
The God-centeredness of beauty has everything to do with the objective beauty of the person of Christ; the beauty of the work of Christ, what’s traditionally called redemption accomplished; and the beauty of Christ’s work ongoing through the Holy Spirit, which is traditionally called redemption applied.
“The outward beauty of God is expressed and perceivable in his work of creation, redemption, and consummation.”
Those three things are the preeminent aspects of how everything God does is beautiful in its God-glorifying nature. I might add, all of this is in accord with the redemptive-eschatological fulfillment of his original creational purposes.
I start off with the doctrine of God. I discuss how the economical activities of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit reflect a proper fittingness. But it’s more than a proper fittingness. It’s a perfect fittingness in all of their outward works. And what makes it perfect?
Well, what makes it perfect is that the fullness of God’s glory is brought to consummative fulfillment. That’s why it’s a perfect fittingness. Then I use this phrase: “the Christological contours of beauty.” That refers to how the outworking of God’s eternal plan through the Son is what brings this consummative expression of the fullness of God.
The one other point I wish to make on this is how the beauty of our formation as Christian disciples involves Christians living out fittingly their identity in Christ, that participation of the imitatione Christi, imitating Christ, following him, of “having this same attitude in you, which was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) — all these ways that the New Testament calls us to maturity in Christ.
There’s a fittingness of being when we are conformed to his very nature, to his image. That’s part of this God-centeredness. Except that God-centeredness is more focused to Christ-centeredness — in this case, our spiritual transformation from the Father through the Son in the Spirit.
“Primary beauty is not simply in regard to objects or things or the sunset or whatever. It’s within the context of relationship.”
Yes. Speaking of the Trinity, explain this line to a lay audience. I love this: “The beauty of God ad extra [outwardly] as it is perceived and experienced by human beings is what most clearly evinces [or displays] that perfection of beatitude and sense of delight that belongs to the Trinity ad intra [inwardly]” (59). You’ve mentioned this earlier, but explain to us again. What are you getting at?
I really appreciate you selecting that particular quote. It was one that I came to little by little. It has to do with the theological, aesthetic relation between beauty and God’s beatitude. And we can follow the line of argument for this particular theological circulation by following four points.
The beatitude of God is the eternal condition in himself of absolute satisfaction and delight. That’s bound up with God’s fullness of glory as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Now that’s a traditional understanding of God’s beatitude. This is not something that I’m just coming up with myself. We may not hear a lot about the attribute of God’s beatitude, but it is a tradition throughout church history.
The outward beauty of God is expressed and perceivable as an aesthetic quality of his glory in his work of creation, redemption, and consummation. It’s important here to call attention to the distinctive characteristic of beauty. Beauty as beauty is not desired as a means to another end. Pleasure or delight associated with beholding the beautiful is its own end.
That characteristic to communicate the delight as its own end is correlative to that absolute self that characterizes God’s own eternal, internal life as Father, Son, and Spirit. The uniqueness of beauty, as opposed to goodness or truth (we just talked about the transcendentals there), is that beauty evokes a delight, but you don’t use that delight to then do something more. It is its own end.
We talk about God’s beatitude. It is its own end. It is itself delight. He’s self-satisfied. Where I draw this all together is with a postulation that the beauty of God in his outward works as it is perceived and experienced by human beings is what most clearly can be traced to that perfection of beatitude and sense of delight that belongs to God in himself as Father, Son, and Spirit.
Amen — beautiful! I love that. So are you comfortable with the language of God as the happiest being in the universe?
Good. Yes. Me too. And I think it’s huge. He wants to be seen and enjoyed and delighted in. You’re a student of Jonathan Edwards. What does he add here on understanding happiness and specifically how we enjoy God’s beauty?
The English word happiness is specifically what I would use in terms of human beings sharing in — ultimately, in our eternal state — God’s happiness. Now for Edwards, he affirms, of course, both the objective nature of God as well as the subject dynamic of beauty.
“The beauty of Christ is inherent and expressed through his human form.”
The objective aspect of God he refers to as primary beauty, for it’s a function in terms of this consent or conformity to God. For Edwards, primary beauty is not simply in regard to objects or things or the sunset or whatever. It’s within the context of relationship. It presumes persons with volition and the capacity to love. To the extent that our wills and our love and our affections are attuned and drawn into God, to that extent we’re participating in whatever Edwards calls primary beauty.
At the same time, he affirms the subjective dimension of primary beauty, in terms of the delight or aesthetic pleasure that it elicits when primary beauty is present or perceived. He says that it’s especially true in the context of God’s saving grace, salvifically.
He says that human beings, infused by the Holy Spirit, are granted these spiritual affections, these religious affections that accord with the beauty and the delight of God’s nature. If our affections, what he calls our religious affections, accord with the delight in God’s nature, we’re participating in that delight.
He says it this way. I’ll do a short Edwards quote: “The first effect of the power of God in the heart in regeneration, is to give the heart a Divine taste, or sense; to cause it to have a relish of the loveliness and sweetness of the supreme excellency of the Divine nature.”
So that would be what you said previously: “God is the happiest person in the existence.” And this is Edwards’s way of saying it. And that sense of the heart is how God draws us into that.
Beautiful. That relational connection is really important. I love the fittingness angle your book takes as the objective basis of aesthetics. At the start of our conversation you mentioned beauty as something above and beyond utility and function. I can imagine one pushback — one I’ve had myself. Because it seems to me, in this age of technology, there’s a functional fittingness. At my desk right now, I see a USB port in my computer and a USB wire plugged into it. The fittingness is obvious. It was designed that way. I don’t find traditional USB ports beautiful in any way. Should I see beauty in it? Or is there a fittingness that’s purely functional?
That’s a good question. There’s no reason upfront to oppose fittingness with functionality. In fact, going back to the medieval perspective of it, something that was properly functional by definition meant that there’s a fittingness of beauty to that. But something can be simply functional, utilitarian, get something done, but it lacks a certain aesthetic, or has a low aesthetic, or a low fittingness idea.
“Every single moment of Christ’s life was the revelation of God’s glory, but it manifested itself in different forms and expressions.”
Fittingness is a matter of degree. Things are not fitting in fullness — as much as they could possibly be, necessarily. Nor are they completely unfitting. Fittingness is like beauty. There are degrees of that, right?
For instance, I’m not trying give a major plug here for the Apple computer, but it’s well known how Steve Jobs, when he was at the helm of Apple, was insistent that their product development prioritize the aesthetics of the product.
Now, he didn’t have to do that, but their computer — or their iPod, or whatever the case may be — could have been just as functional but less aesthetically pleasing and rich. He made it a point to prioritize that.
To your little scenario about the different plugs and all this stuff, what we want to at least appreciate is that, many times in our boorish, not valuing of the aesthetic dynamics of the world or of our life lived in the world, we settle for very things that are very unfitting or ill-fitting. I’ll use that word: very ill-fitting.
They have low aesthetic expression. That doesn’t mean it needs to be that way, and if someone cared, could in fact shape things, express things, form things so that they’re fittingness, their aesthetic expression, becomes much more bold, much more apparent. It really is a reflection of what we settle for.
Yeah, that’s good. We talked about Edwards and the divine sense. One of the phenomenal points you make in your book is about the spectacular glory of Christ in his human form — a theme I also see in Pastor John’s book A Peculiar Glory, in chapter 11 particularly. As a Bible reader, I sometimes assume moments like Christ’s resurrection or his transfiguration are extra beautiful and extra glorious — a glance at Christ’s shining beauty breaking free from behind the cloak of his bland humanity. You correct this. You write, “God’s glory in Christ all during his earthly career is best appreciated not in an apophatic way — that is, as veiled by his humanity — but in a cataphatic way — that is, as revealed in and through his humanity” (167). So good. So we see the beauty of Christ not apophatically (in what Christ isn’t), but rather cataphatically (in what Christ is). Explain this and how daily Bible readers see the beauty of Christ in every verse of the Gospels.
This is one of those unanticipated insights that I got in the course of my research — in the course of my coming to understand beauty: the beauty of the person of Christ specifically.
“It really does take the eyes of faith to perceive the beauty of the Lord.”
I started off discussing how Christ is the image of God made visible in and expressed through the form of his humanity. As such, the beauty of Christ is inherent and expressed through his human form.
Now, a common view throughout church history, and certainly in more modern contemporary times, is that his divine glory was hidden or veiled beneath his humanity. Calvin is exhibit one; he is guilty of this. He’s talks about Christ’s state of humiliation and his human form hiding his glory.
The idea is that Christ’s flesh, his human flesh, acted like a reverse shield of sorts, to prevent his real glory from being openly seen. Now, the problem with this is that if Christ’s glory was actually concealed by his human form, then God the Son operated totally incognito as Jesus Christ and in the form of a slave, as Paul puts it in Philippians 2:7. His true identity as God the Son was, in this view, actually concealed by a veil of flesh.
A further problem — or part of the same problem, I should say — is that it suggests a competitive view between the relationship between the divinity of God and the humanity of God. They are in tension, an uneasy tension, with each other in this way.
Instead, what I argue is that the humanity that Christ took on in the form of a slave, as Philippians 2 talks about, affirms that God’s essential nature — his glory is how I equate his essential nature — is in fact revealed. It’s revealed in the most transparent, self-revelatory way.
From an aesthetic angle, the idea of the form of things is so prominently important. When you talk about the aesthetics of something, it’s form and content have to go together. In Christ, you have perfect form. The form of Christ, even in the state of humiliation — what Paul calls the “form of a slave” — was perfectly united to his inner content: the person of the Son of God.
One way to put this (I draw attention to this in my book) is to use the idea of Christ’s kenosis, his emptying of himself from the form of God into the form of a slave, as throughout the whole rich passage of Philippians 2:6–8. It’s not that he exchanged the form of God for the form of a slave, but that he manifested the form of God in the form of a slave. And that’s the critical difference here.
“Every single moment of Christ’s life was the revelation of God and Christ and the glory revealed.”
This important to Bible readers so we can appreciate in the most robust way the glory of God in Christ without feeling like we have to say, “There’s just moments that he lets that glory out.” Every single moment of Christ’s life was the revelation of God and Christ and the glory revealed, but it manifested itself in different forms and expressions.
What I say about Christ is that his humanity was the assumption of a form that was most fitting for him to take in accordance with his role as Messiah born under the law, to redeem those under the law (Galatians 4:4–5). In other words, it would not have been as fitting for Christ to have assumed another form in his earthly life, his earthly career, other than the one that he took. As the Messiah, that’s what it called for — namely, the form of a slave so that he could have solidarity with the least and the lowliest as he offered perfect obedience to God the Father.
I would just finish with saying that the other important truth is that it really does take the eyes of faith to perceive the beauty of the Lord. We see this glowing example (I talk about this in chapter 4) of the penitent thief on the cross, who was in his abject state of humiliation and dying on the cross right next to Christ, who was naked and dying with him. He perceived the kingly, the regal status of Christ and his kingship. He asked if he could be with him.
Paul says something that’s just unmistakably clear in the same way in 1 Corinthians 2:7–10. Paul hits on the same idea.
But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ — these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. (1 Corinthians 2:7–10)
We do need the eyes of faith so that we can perceive what we will not perceive in our condition of total depravity and blindness and ignorance. It’s not because that beauty is not there in its proper expression. It is there. When our eyes are attuned to it, like that penitent thief on the cross, we see Christ for who he truly is — Lord and Savior over all.
Amen — a majestic King, in triumph, hanging on the cross. I appreciated your interaction with Calvin on this on pages 165–172. It’s an essential theme in your book — we all must understand it. To see the glory of Christ, the Spirit must open our eyes to see in Scripture a beauty that defies natural beauty. I want to shift to material beauty for a moment. We talked about Apple design. An appreciation for the iPad, or for fine art, or for classical music, does not precondition anyone to more readily embrace the beauty of Christ. I hear this confused a lot. There’s a line of separation between seeing and loving fine art and seeing and loving divine glory. They require two very different ways of seeing. With that said, does a regenerate heart, with new eyes for the beauty of God, behold more material beauty in this world? Does it work the other way around?
I like the way you asked that. I think we can give it a resounding yes, but it’s not necessarily beauty as the world sees it or defines it. In a different way, a regenerated heart with, as you say, a new vision for the beauty of God, is able to take, in a sense, that reality is somehow making itself known to us. We are still not leaving behind this idea of the truth, goodness, and beauty of reality.
“The Christian has the spiritually enlightened truth and understanding to see the created world with new eyes.”
I like what Herman Bavinck says on this point: “Beauty always derives its content from the true and the good, and it is their revelation and appearance. . . . Beauty always is in relation to form, revelation, and appearance” (Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, 256). Bavinck, the Dutch reformed theologian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, got this. In fact, he was one of the more modern, contemporary theologians that ascribed beauty as an attribute of God in his work of dogmatics.
Looking at Scripture, as another example, in Romans 1:18–23, that’s where we find the attributes of God’s nature described as being “clearly perceived” in creation. What does Paul say that creation will reveal? The glory of the immortal God to humanity.
Now, we’re fallen, and we’re not perfect in our senses and our faculties; our soul is not perfected and glorified yet. In our regenerated state — I want to be careful not to overstate the point — I do believe the Christian has the spiritually enlightened truth and understanding to see the created world with new eyes, so to speak. And, yes, they can behold more and other dimensions of beauty in the world.
Of course, we don’t want to limit our understanding and sense of this to just the beauty of the natural world and such things as various works of art that gifted people create and produce. The beauty found in the world, with our spiritually enlightened truth and understanding, includes actions and activities, and beauty of a spiritual kind.
An example of this is Matthew’s account of Jesus in Matthew 26:6–13:
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
And of course, the New Testament is written in Greek. That word for beautiful that Jesus uses is the word kalos, which has that rich aesthetic definition or meaning. Beautiful is the right word to use here. The act that the woman did was just so fitting, in that context, and Jesus calls it beautiful.
We don’t want to trade one for the other. We don’t want to say it is just spiritual beauty. Nobody should say that we do need to trade one for the other. What you asked was, as a Christian, one who has been regenerated by the Spirit of God, is it valid to say that our senses — whether physical, or how our imagination takes in things, or our spiritual perception with all of these — have the capacity to be attuned to the beautiful in a more full-orbed way and in ways and in dimensions that the non-Christian is not attuned to? Yes. That’s how I would put it.
That’s good. Our time is up. This has been fruitful. Jonathan, what’s your hope for the book?
The first part of the title of the book is The Beauty of the Lord. That comes from, of course, the most well-known expression of explicit attribution of beauty to the Lord (Psalm 27:4). David, in that psalm, longs, he yearns, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to rest in ease and delight in God’s temple.
“If my book can be a corrective, it’s putting beauty back into the picture properly, where it’s part of both experience and within the reality of life.”
We’re not there yet. We’re in what we know in theological speak as the already-but-not-yet state, the time between the times. If I’m striking on something close to what’s true of theologically, biblically, that our sense of delight in the beauty of the Lord is somehow like a reflection, or correlated to God’s own self-delight within himself, then in the new heaven and new earth, we will be beholding that. I use the expression “unalloyed reflection” of God’s own beatitude expressed as doxological worship for delight.
That’s not static. That is as pregnant and as deep with theological and dynamic import as you could possibly get. The Scripture only says so much because our unglorified finitude now couldn’t even get to capturing not only the objective beauty that we’ll behold, but that sense of subjective delight that will experience.
The end of the new heaven and new earth, our eternal life, is not just about beauty, but as I said, it’s at the beginning in God’s intention and design of creation. Just because I wrote a book about the beauty of God in the works of creation, redemption, and consummation, I don’t want to the topic of beauty to dominate, or be more important, or take the place of, or somehow become the be-all and end-all. No.
If my book can be a corrective, it’s putting beauty back into the picture properly where it’s part of both experience and within the reality of life. Whatever beauty we experience in this world both in spiritual terms and in natural terms, we love it — we think about those things that are captured in our mind and our memories.
In the age to come, there will be no hearkening back. Our longing, our yearning, will be fulfilled ultimately and perfectly as we behold the beauty of God in Christ — in his glory and our glory with him. The whole realm, the universe as it will be, whatever that will be, will have an aesthetic that is beyond our imagination.
Amen! Jonathan, thanks for joining us today.
Tony, it has been my pleasure, really. Thank you very much.
That was Jonathan King from his home in Jakarta, author of the new book The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics.