Summary and Keywords
Theological aesthetics is the theory or view of beauty in relation to God, including how the senses bear on or contribute to matters of faith. It has a long and important tradition in all forms of Christian faith, since this faith affirms that God is beautiful and therefore desirable. In both the Eastern and Western churches, views of beauty have appropriated criteria not only from the Bible but also from pre-Christian antiquity, borrowing from Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and others. These views tend to see beauty in metaphysical terms, that is, that the core of reality is to be understood on the basis of not only being, truth, goodness, and unity (the “transcendentals,” defining the reality of all things) but also (with some exceptions) beauty.
Interpreting the scriptures, Christian thinkers in late antiquity, such as Augustine, singled out proportion as a criterion for beauty, and the Pseudo-Dionysius singled out light. Thomas Aquinas adopted these two perspectives, rooted in the wider Greek philosophical tradition, and added integrity or perfection as a third criterion. Late medieval nominalists and mystics did not focus on theological aesthetics but the piety and spirituality of “bridal mysticism,” mediated through Bernard of Clairvaux, present in Luther’s training in the friary, facilitated these views for Luther.
Luther appreciated aspects of this metaphysical tradition, such as the role of mathematics as indicating humanity’s eternal destiny or the cosmic role of proportion in musical intonation and rhythm. However, he was more powerfully influenced by other developments in the late Middle Ages, seen for instance in Jean Gerson, which heightened the affects over the intellect, intellectualizing beauty less and acknowledging how beauty moves and transforms people. He rejected that aspect of the tradition which was apt to view beauty as an end goal of an itinerary of spiritual transformation into more godlike traits, a “theology of glory.”
For Luther, God is the primary actor in the story of human salvation, not the human. God’s work of humbling humans “turned in upon themselves” is anything but beautiful: it is painful, indeed deadly, for “old beings.” But God’s proper work of regenerating and renovating humanity, including awakening human senses to “innocent delight,” is most beautiful indeed. The justification of sinners before God is due to their being “adorned” in Christ’s beauty, his righteousness, empowering them to cooperate with God in God’s ongoing “poetic” creativity.
As bearing human sin, Christ subverts the standard medieval criteria of proportion, brightness, and integrity. But because Christ assumes the consequences of sin and sin itself and takes it away, sinners through the “happy exchange” receive the beauty proper to Christ. Through the renewal effectuated by the word, humans receive creation as gift and are genuinely awakened to its beauty, similar to the beauty that God made it originally. As new creatures, believers’ desire is reoriented to desire what God desires.
While it is not a central concept (he devotes no treatises or disputations to it), it colors how we understand his view of justification and his view of human receptivity and gratitude. It has important ramifications for worship, the arts, and life.
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