The discussion of beauty among Christians is often stymied before it starts. Some of this is due to a long-standing suspicion towards philosophy felt by many Christians. From Tertullian’s “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” to Luther’s denunciation of the Scholastics to evangelicalism’s embrace of Common Sense Realism, there is some considerable water under the bridge when it comes to Christian skepticism of philosophy. For many Christians, if an idea seems more colored by the speculation of intellectuals and philosophers, it is looked upon with some suspicion.
Beauty is likely a casualty here, too. This is because the Bible’s treatment of beauty overlaps with philosophy’s treatment of it, but they are not identical. They differ in at least two ways.
First, even though the Bible uses the word beauty, and many synonyms for it, Scripture never discusses beauty in the abstract the way philosophers do. The Hebrews were largely a pre-speculative society, concerned with action, consequence, virtue, and honour. Solomon is as close as we get to Hebrew speculation, but even there, the accent is on “the whole duty of man”. The Bible has no chapter on aesthetics or on explaining the concept of beauty.
Second, the Bible has similar, but not identical, ideas to those of classical philosophy when speaking of beauty. Biblically, beauty means something like pleasure, desire, loveliness, attractiveness, splendour, honour. Glory carries the same idea, with the emphasis being on weighty splendour. Philosophically, beauty means something like harmony, or pleasure, or goodness. Philosophy is concerned with how abstract notions such as unity, plurality, equality, symmetry, or the one and the many combine to explain the phenomenon of beauty. A similar difference in definition exists with the subjective experience of beauty: love. Biblically, love means union, desire, delight, and trusting loyalty. Philosophically, love seems to mean something like unselfishness and benevolence.
So what to do? Is beauty a philosophical idea of little interest to believers? The answer is that philosophy and theology are friends that do not need reconciliation. They need only a proper hierarchy.
Philosophy exists for many reasons. Some have been hostile to biblical faith, but not all. Some of it exists because man, made in God’s image, has been concerned to get past his own perceptions, and to know reality as it is. The presence of the common grace of God in human culture means that truth can be found in both believer and unbeliever. It is entirely possible for unbelieving philosophy to recognise and even expostulate on truths found in God’s universe. We who believe in sola Scriptura do not hold to nuda Scriptura. We believe that Scripture holds the final authority to rule on all knowledge, but we do not believe it is the lone authority. Unbelievers can speak truly, and even discover truths hidden from believers. What unbelievers lack is the comprehensive explanation of Truth: God’s ultimate explanation of reality, revealed in Scripture.
Revelation is then always the key for understanding beauty as it relates to God. We must not begin with philosophy or even nature, and then reason our way to God and His beauty. We must begin with God and his revealed truth. God’s Word sets the overall interpretive grid to understand the idea of beauty.
With that in place, we can freely allow philosophy to speak for itself. We should not despise it, nor pretend that we are pure “biblicists” with no use for philosophy. In reality, Christians who speak that way merely smuggle in their philosophy and consider it biblical. We all use philosophy, whether we realise it or not. For example, as theologians point out, the Trinitarian categories of ousia or essentia and hypostases or personae were not biblical words, but categories borrowed from philosophy as helpful constructs to explain the biblical data. Philosophy not only affects Christian thought, it has proved itself indispensable to categorise and helpfully understand biblical revelation.
Yes, Christian discussions of beauty can fall prey to mere speculative reason. We can give Plato a place that should be reserved for Paul. But if we are committed to biblical authority, there is no reason not to hear what unbelievers from Heraclitus to Hume have said on beauty.