This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.”
We affirm that beauty exists in reality and is to be the pursuit of every believer (Phil. 1:9–11). We also affirm that the recognition of beauty is fundamental to worship and devotion, and a right approach to God entails both a recognition of and a proper response to God’s beauty (Ps. 29:2).
We deny that beauty is imposed upon an object by the beholder and that it is nothing more than the beholder’s pleasure. We also deny that people of twisted judgments and perceptions can rightly know and love God.
Although most conservative evangelicals affirm the reality of transcendent, absolute truth and goodness, some deny that beauty really exists apart from the enjoyment of the one who perceives it. Instead, they maintain that beauty is only “in the eye of the beholder” and is purely relative.
On the contrary, we strongly affirm that that beauty is transcendent and real for at least four reasons:
First, the self-existence of God demands the reality of genuine beauty outside of and above the created order (John 17:5, 24; Rev. 4:11). Like truth and morality, beauty finds its source in the nature and character of God. Consequently, objects may be rightly called beautiful, not simply because a human delights in them, but because they reflect Supreme Beauty.
Second, Scripture speaks of God’s own beauty (2 Chron 20:21; Job 40:9–10; Ps. 9:8, 27:4, 45:2–4, 104:1, 145:10–12, Isa. 42:14, Zech. 9:17). God’s glory is his beauty. This observation further indicates that God is the ultimate standard by which beauty must be judged.
Third, God has declared particular things to be beautiful. He called his new creation beautiful (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25). He prescribed specific artistic instructions for liturgical adornments so that they would manifest “glory and beauty” (Ex. 28:2). Such affirmations strongly imply the reality of a transcendent standard by which beauty must be judged.
Fourth, God requires his people to delight in things that are genuinely beautiful. For example, Philippians 4:8 commands believers to “think on” things that are “lovely” (literally “towards affection”), “commendable” (admirable), and “worthy of praise.” These terms are each closely connected to a right understanding of beauty, and they imply that some objects are worthy and others unworthy of delight.
Beauty is real. Christians should delight themselves only in those things that are worthy of enjoyment. Scripture explicitly declares some things to be worthy of such pleasure, and what determines their worthiness is conformity to the beauty of God himself.
Because many people believe beauty to consist in personal delight, they infer that it is merely relative. They further infer that discussions of beauty are incidental and unimportant. To the contrary, we affirm that beauty is real, that it is rooted in God himself, and that we are responsible to discern diligently what is worthy of delight. We affirm these propositions for three reasons.
First, nothing is worthy of delight except whatever reflects God’s own enjoyment. Delighting in that which offends God is sin. Enjoyment of the ugly (as God distinguishes ugliness) is to fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).
Second, in rightly ordered worship we ascribe beauty to God and worship him in “holy beauty” (Ps. 29:2). The essence of praise is delight in the absolute beauty of God. The heart of true worship, including corporate worship, is to magnify the beautiful glory of God.
Third, when people delight in ugliness, their judgments and perceptions become twisted. They can no longer truly apprehend and appreciate the absolute beauty of God (Rom. 1:23–25). Without a transcendent reference point, they even become capable of fastening their affections upon activities that violate the natural order.
The right appreciation of beauty requires humility. All who wish to delight in the genuinely beautiful must submit to a standard that exists outside of and above themselves. For fallen human beings, this necessary submission poses three problems.
First, we often fail to perceive real beauty because sin casts a shroud of ugliness over it. Sin so scars the visage of creation that we often fail to detect the traces of the beauty that God has fashioned. Because God intends to redeem fallen creation, he will bring great glory out of much that is now grotesque. He will reshape and restore what sin has damaged. We do not yet see things as they will be, and with our sight so dimmed we must distinguish the damage that sin has caused (which truly is ugly) from the created thing that has been damaged. If we fail to mark this distinction, we shall mistake beauty for ugliness.
Second, and conversely, we may mistake ugliness for beauty. In the absence of a transcendent reference point we tend to define beauty in terms of utility. In particular, we mistake the gratification of our appetites for beauty. Thus confused, we become capable of misappropriating genuinely beautiful objects for uses that are hideous. We subject the beautiful to our appetites in ways that reflect our rebellion against God. Such uses of beauty are desecrations. They can be avoided only by disciplining ourselves away from the unreflective gratification of our appetites and humbly seeking out the reality of true beauty.
Third, while we acknowledge a transcendent and perfect standard of beauty, we recognize that no fallen human has ever fully understood or appropriated this standard. We know in part and we see in part. Consequently, each person and each culture perceives only a part of what is truly beautiful. Furthermore, while their knowledge of the beautiful will certainly overlap, each person and each culture perceives a somewhat different part. For this reason, no one individual and no one culture should be ceded the absolute right to say what is beautiful and what is not. One of the most useful tasks that Christians can perform is criticism (in the proper sense of the term) that aims for understanding, opening themselves to the possibility of seeing the genuine beauty that someone else perceives.
In summary, we should take aesthetic pleasure only in those things that are truly beautiful—truly worthy of delight—as compared to the absolute standard of God’s beauty and glory. To do otherwise is sin, and to regularly pursue pleasure in what is ugly hinders ordinate worship and praise to God.