A God of Beauty, by Chad Thornhill
One of the great challenges of the task of theology is seeing a unity to the diversity we find in the biblical texts. Many have attempted this through developing a “unifying theme” to the Bible, such as sovereignty, salvation, etc. The problem with this approach is there is much in the Bible that often does not fit within the paradigm, and so we have square pegs and round holes. One more recent approach (though all have their challenges) is to see the Bible as a story which has an overarching metanarrative. In his The Magnificent Story, James Bryan Smith adds to the conversation not by developing such a framework, but rather by testing this story by the rubric of beauty, goodness, and truth. These three transcendentals act as a sort of hermeneutic for Smith in that if the interpretation of Scripture lacks in beauty, goodness, or truth, it is probably inadequate.
Smith starts with the doctrine of God, asking “Does beauty have anything to do with God—or the Christian life?” (57) I know in my own personal journey, I resonate with Smith’s suspicion that most Christians treat beauty as a vice rather than a virtue. Beauty strikes us emotionally, and emotional connections with beauty may lead to allure and lust. But the neglect of beauty means neglecting something good, as beauty is that which pleases. The Bible ascribes beauty to God, his creatures, and his world, so why should we not embrace it?
This raises a question though. What does it mean to speak of God as beautiful and of the Christian life as one pursuing beauty?
Beauty invites us into exploring our senses and ultimately to move to worship of God. Just as all truth is God’s truth, all beauty is God’s beauty, flowing from his beautiful nature to his beautiful creation.
Smith illustrates the universal human desire for beauty with the art museum, a secular cathedral for finding beauty. He notes, “Today art… is the religion of the educated classes. It is a religion that asks nothing of the adherent… It requires no surrender, submission, or service” (59).
So what might we draw from reflecting on beauty? Smith first notes that if beauty is grounded in God, then our encounters with the beautiful are encounters with divine revelation. Too often evangelicals relegate revelation to the realm of “truth,” but revelation is making God known to man, and this means making known his beauty, goodness, and truth. Quoting Kendrick, Smith affirms:“If God wanted to remain silent about His existence, He wouldn’t have bothered creating the stars; He wouldn’t have made the Milky Way, or Betelgeuse. In fact, He wouldn’t have made the majestic Rocky Mountains, the rippling oceans, or the magnificent hummingbird. If His goal was to remain quiet or anonymous, He wouldn’t have created anything at all… God didn’t remain anonymous because He didn’t want to. Rather, He wanted to display His glory throughout the universe as His gift to man” (62-63).
Beauty likewise moves us beyond survival to something transcendent. Beauty enhances the human experience. From a naturalistic perspective, it seems superfluous. From a theistic perspective, it reveals a beautiful God who is not distant and removed, but personal, passionate, and full of awe and wonder.
Smith also warns that failure to appreciate beauty in the Christian life can create a distance between us and God. Without beauty, God may seem far off, cold, or unconcerned. But embracing beauty enhances our ability to embrace love. Quoting Willard, Smith affirms,
“If your salvation does not include living with God in beauty, truth, and goodness, it’s going to be a very dry haul… A Christ without beauty, truth, and goodness is a testimony against the goodness of God, the grandeur of God” (69).
If we serve a beautiful God, our lives should be marked not by drudging obedience, but by beautiful, joyful faithfulness.
How does thinking of God as beautiful change our impressions of who God is?
What are practical disciplines that can be integrated into the Christian life, individually and collectively, to embrace, thank, and worship our beautiful God and his beautiful gifts?
Chad Thornhill, PhD
Chair of Theological Studies, Director of the MA in Christian Apologetics,
Associate Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies
School of Divinity, Liberty University