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Are Protestants Afraid of Beauty?

hans-urs-von-balthasarLeading 20th century Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar contended that Protestantism had no place for beauty in its theology. “Contemporary Protestant theology nowhere deals with the beautiful as a theological category,” he wrote. “For the time being, the only question posed by Protestants is that concerning the relationship between revelation and this-worldly beauty—certainly a justified question, but not a sufficient one.”1

Dutch Reformed theological heavyweight Herman Bavinck seems to provide evidence of von Balthasar’s charge. Bavinck wrote, “It is not advisable to speak—with the church fathers, scholastics, and Catholic theologians—of God’s beauty.”2 Bavinck beautifully summarizes Augustine’s view that God is the epitome of beauty, and that all created things have beauty by participation in him. But he dismisses this view as a bit of Neo-platonic corruption. “In this view of Augustine we encounter the undeniable influence of Neoplatonism….Protestant theologians, by contrast, preferred to speak of God’s majesty and glory.”

The only counter-example that comes immediately to mind is Jonathan Edwards. Of course, Edwards is a pretty substantial counter example, and perhaps he is why von Balthasar said “contemporary” Protestant theology. Yet there still seems to be some teeth to von Balthasar’s charge. The recent evangelical systematic theologies that I am aware of do not denigrate beauty, but it does appear that beauty is completely irrelevant to their task.

And so I ask, Do evangelical Protestants have a blind spot when it comes to beauty? Do we, in fact, treat beauty as interjecting a dangerous and foreign element into our theologizing? If so, does this inherited mindset shed light on why we simply don’t have the categories to cogently evaluate music?

Jason Parker

About Jason Parker

Jason Parker is the pastor of High Country Baptist Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He blogs at

  1. The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics: Volume 1: Seeing the Form, 56-7 []
  2. Reformed Dogmatics 2:254 []

16 Responses to Are Protestants Afraid of Beauty?

  1. I cannot find a clear definition of beauty here. Apparently Mr. Parker could be including all creations of God and also all those of man. I do not know how Hans Urs von Balthasar is using the word nor how he defines it, nor whether he would include in his description all creations of God in addition to all those of man.

  2. Perhaps the reason beauty is not addressed in recent evangelical systematic theologies is the perceived subjective nature of beauty, which seems to me to be a false understanding. This perceived subjectivity is the very reason we must question how each man is defining beauty to assess the truthfulness and accuracy of their statements. By not specifically addressing beauty, I would argue theologians are acknowledging a subjective position on beauty. Without agreed upon objective standards it is impossible to have a meaningful assessment because different parties start with different definitions for beauty preventing meaningful consensus. If this line of argument is true and valid, then it would indicate why we lack categories to cogently evaluate music. It is impossible to make a compelling argument when a starting place cannot be agreed on.

  3. Francis Schaeffer, in his pamphlet “Art and the Bible, stated that the arts and sciences have a central place in the life of the Christian. We have the responsibility to “use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts” or Sunday School pictures but “as things of beauty to the praise of God.” He believed that many Evangelical Christians have reduced art to a vehicle for the message which would make the art work utilitarian and “an intellectual statement.”
    He gives four criterion to judge art work–technical excellence, validity, intellectual content (the world view that comes through) and the integration of content and vehicle. Although he is interested in technical excellence–he never really defines beauty.
    Perhaps Schaeffer would agree that Protestants really don’t want to deal with the issue of beauty and prefer words like “majesty” and “glory.”
    Perhaps the idea of beauty just seems too human and not powerful enough for God?

  4. According to my observation, there are two primary reasons that evangelical Protestants do not diligently deal with the concept of beauty: a different focus and a lack of heritage.

    Evangelical Protestants seem to have had their focus more on how to accomplish a great success in worship, evangelism and education. This focus tends to force evangelical churches to give importance to the areas which seem measurable in numbers, such as church growth and church planting. Compared to the evangelical churches, the Catholic Church has focused more on applying their theological and philosophical ideas in the real world, one of which is ‘God’s beauty.’ Such a different concern appears to make those two circles each pursue their own priority.

    The Catholic Church has strong religious traditions in aesthetics, and they become a driving force to sustain and develop their conceptions on beauty. On the other hand, the evangelical churches do not own a solid foundation on aesthetics inherited from previous generations. I do not think that evangelical Protestants have no concept on aesthetics. They, simply, have not had enough opportunities to value the concept of beauty in a serious way.

  5. Robert, I would agree with your statement that it has to do with a subjective view of beauty.
    Nammi, I would strongly agree with your first statement on evangelicals’ focus and would say that your statement and Robert’s are closely related. Movements such as “Seeker-friendly” and “Purpose Driven” use music in a pragmatic way. The question asked in these contexts is what style of music will attract the most people? Whatever the answer to that question, determines the style and in essence determines the beauty of it. Whatever demographic likes that style will view it as beautiful, hence beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder.

    Whether these movements are a result of the Evangelical Protestant’s views on beauty and music or are a primary influence of is less clear. Although, I believe the philosophical foundation for it was laid much earlier, but there is no denying that these movements have affected church leaders’ views today.

  6. Nammi,
    How are you defining evangelical? By setting it in opposition to the Catholic church are you calling all Protestants evangelical or are you limiting the term to a subset of Protestants?

  7. “Neglecting beauty” and “afraid of beauty” can be viewed as two different issues even though they may be connected to each other in some cases. Some churches may think the reason they don’t pay much attention to art are simply just lack of comprehension of beauty. But it is possible that the cause of this “lack of comprehension” is actually fear of beauty. At least this is what I have experienced in Taiwan.

    Generally, one distinction that Protestants churches in Taiwan differ from other religions, Catholic included, is they are free from idolatry. Calling themselves iconoclast or not, surrounding by a heavy idol worship tradition and culture, churches try to avoid any artworks may be treated as idols. Most of Protestants churches in Taiwan decorate their sanctuaries only with crosses on the walls and some simple engravings, such as Bible, grapes, praying hands, and cross, on their pulpits and communion tables.

    Moreover, churches in Taiwan also avoid performing art forms that may bring reminiscence of idol-worship rituals. One of my students, for instance, was accused practicing Catholicism for arranging candle lighting ceremony for Advent program at a local Free Methodist Church. The pastor said they can “tolerant” an advent wreath as decoration, but not as ritual action whatsoever, because it is too symbolic. “Today’s symbol, tomorrow’s idol, you know?” The pastor said to me when I tried to help my student to clear thing up.

  8. When we go out to nature, it is very easy for us to recognize and appreciate God’s glory, majesty, and beauty shown in His creation. When we worship God in a church building, we can somehow still perceive God’s glory, majesty and beauty through His creation from memories and Scripture. However, we also create things to help us to appreciate God’s attributes and to remember His commands. When we think of terms like “glory” and “majesty”, we do not think of taking pleasure from them. But when we think of beauty, it is inevasible to think about pleasure. If we consider the art forms we create for worship are means to reflect beauty of God, consequently, a few questions will be aroused: “Will congregation enjoy this piece of art more then worshipping the Lord?” “Will congregation be manipulated with this artwork and showing false emotion toward God?” “Can congregation perceive the same level of beauty and comprehend the function of this artwork as the creator?” “How does God perceive it? Will He enjoy it?”…etc. I guess it could be scary sometimes for a worship leader to think all these questions.

  9. Here I used the term ‘evangelicals’ as a subset of Protestants. In addition, my distinction between evangelical Protestants and the Catholic Church does not imply that they are contrary to each other. Its usage is intended to consider the writer’s position presented in this article.

  10. I wonder if the purpose of the church plays into the beauty question. If a church believes that the main purpose of the church is to further the great commission, evangelism is the main goal which may lead to neglecting beauty or never thinking of it at all. However, if the church’s first purpose is to worship God then what God values in art forms becomes a question to consider. In general, I would think the Roman Catholic tradition and liturgical Protestant churches would think of worship first. This would make them more comfortable with the idea of beauty in worship.

  11. Lori, yes, I think that the focus of a particular church must influence it’s views on worship and beauty. I know that churches who emphasize evangelism over all tend to neglect teaching on worship in general: the why’s, how’s and when’s of Biblical worship. A slogan from a recent denominational emphasis on international missions reads: “Whatever it takes.” The context is doing whatever it takes to reach people with the Gospel message. The emphasis here is on evangelism as opposed to worship, and I can’t help but wonder what would an emphasis on Biblical worship look like? What would be the essence of a campaign to bring about Biblical worship be?

  12. “Beauty” can be a dangerous and foreign element if it is used for human’s pleasure.Why is it so significant for us to grasp a theoretical assertion about the nature of God such as “beauty”, “glory,” “majesty”, etc? What is it all about? Is “beauty” pleasing God or pleasing our eyes, hearts, and minds? Or both?

    I am with Robert and Wen-Chuan regarding questions of defining beauty. I believe that fear of beauty (Wen-Chuan’s term) comes from misunderstanding the definition of beauty (“lack of comprehension”- Wen-Chuan’s term) in Church and from confusion between an objective view of beauty and a subjective view of beauty.

    The reason Protestant theologians preferred to speak of God’s majesty and glory is because they seem to fear the effects and result from using “beauty” (subjective concept of beauty)- as if “beauty” becomes idols in Church. Protestant theologians seem to fear that “beauty” in arts, which pleases human’s eyes and minds, would take God’s beauty away from human’s heart.

    I appreciate Wen-Chuan’s statement (“When we think of terms like “glory” and “majesty”, we do not think of taking pleasure from them. But when we think of beauty, it is inevasible to think about pleasure.”). However, I would like to bring up a question. How would you define “pleasure”? Can “pleasure” be subjectively and objectively viewed and perceived? We can still receive pleasure in thinking of not only “beauty” of God but also “glory” and “majesty” as long as we know what it is all about. It is all about GOD’s pleasure and His glory. God’s true nature and character embrace all combination of “beauty”, “glory,” and “majesty”, etc. Human beings have been drawn to the beauty of nature since nature reflects not only beauty of God but also His majesty and glory.

    –Da Jeong Choi

  13. On the relationship between Evangelism and Worship I submit the following:

    John 4:23-24; Jn. 5:19; Lk. 19:10; and then this famous passage (from someone who apparently HAS ‘connected the dots”):
    “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not Man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.

    Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of missions. It’s the goal of missions because in missions we simply aim to bring the nations into the white hot enjoyment of God’s glory. The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God. “The Lord reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (Ps 97:1). “Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!” (Ps 67:3-4).

    But worship is also the fuel of missions. Passion for God in worship precedes the offer of God in preaching. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish. Missionaries will never call out, “Let the nations be glad!” who cannot say from the heart, “I rejoice in the Lord…I will be glad and exult in thee, I will sing praise to thy name, O Most High” (Ps 104:34, 9:2). Missions begins and ends in worship.”
    –John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993/2003), 17.

    Rev. 14:6-7
    Jim Lowery

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