Beauty’s Definition: What About the Cross?
If beauty is ultimately God’s self-knowledge and communicative self-delight, we can explain easily enough why other theories of beauty have defined beauty as harmony and symmetry, or truth and goodness, or pleasure and delight. For Trinitarian love is the ultimate and absolute form of harmony and unity, being a symmetry not of objects but of the will and love of the three persons. Trinitarian love is also truth and goodness: for God’s being is the ground of all reality (truth), the excellence of his being is goodness, and his knowledge and delight in himself is beauty. And as the multiple Hebrew words for beauty showed us, beauty is pleasure and delight.
For all that, there remains a wrinkle. What of ugliness? What of the disharmonious and the painful? Indeed, why should the Cross be central to the biblical message? Where does the gospel fit into a discussion of God’s beauty?
It appears that the answer may lie in the nature of triune love. Love within the Godhead is gratuitous self-giving.
Several Scriptures speak of the Father’s gifts to the Son:
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matt. 11:27).
The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand (John 3:35).
For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man (John 5:26–27).
Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).
Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9).
Likewise, Scripture reveals the Son’s gifts to the Father:
And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them (John 17:10).
Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power (1 Cor. 15:24).
Creation itself is primarily a gift of glory from the persons of the Godhead to one another. Jonathan Wilson, in God’s Good World, describes it as follows:
“In the life of the Triune God, the Father freely gives himself to the Son, so that he is both fully and eternally the Father and the Son is fully, eternally the Son. Likewise, the Son gives himself freely as the Son to the Father, so that each is fully and eternally Son and Father. Their giving to each other is the life of the Holy Spirit, who in receiving from and giving to the Father and the Son, is fully and eternally the Spirit. Moreover, the Spirit is the very gift that the Spirit gives to the Father and the Son, desiring that the Father and the Son love each other. From this mutuality of giving and receiving, which simply is life, and which may also be named as love, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit give life to something other than God: creation.”
Further, the Fall, Redemption, and Consummation are part of a plan to return the gift increased in value and more reflective of the Godhead than even at its pristine creation.
It seems that this self-giving love is best understood with the backdrop of sin, suffering, and evil. Not only does the evil provide a contrast to the goodness of God, but it provides a stage for impossibly opposed things to be reconciled and brought back together into beautiful harmony. In Edwards’ sermon “The Excellency of Christ”, he shows how “there is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ”. That is, seemingly differing attributes such as justice and mercy, majesty and meekness, dominion and submission are found in Christ. The attributes of humility and submission seen in Jesus in particular illustrate the trinitarian love that existed in eternity past. This is part of the beauty of God: God’s self-giving glory, which the Incarnation gave spectacular shape to.
Through the grand message of redemptive and doxological history, God’s self-giving love is understood by men and angels in ways they could not otherwise know. I’ve suggested this poetically. Humility, self-denial, the cross, begets exaltation, joy and resurrection. To know the self-giving love of the Trinity, sinners must come and die with Jesus, and so rise with him and know His beauty. At the heart of beauty, both in its nature, and it its perception is the most repeated saying of Jesus: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Lk. 17:33). Self-giving life is the deepest reality of all.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.