Situating the Beautiful

September 02, 2017

by Vern Poythress

What is aesthetics? Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary offers three meanings for the word aesthetic(s); the first offered is “a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.” But what is “beauty” and what is “art”? The discussion threatens to become circular if we say that beauty is what is aesthetically good, or that art is a product with aesthetic value. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the main article, “The Concept of the Aesthetic,” indicates that some philosophers wonder whether the concept is “inherently problematic.”

Philosophers do not agree about its meaning. What contribution can we make to this area from a Christian point of view firmly rooted in the Bible? I am not sure. I do not have a firm sense of what the subject matter is, or how to go about discussing it profitably. It is some comfort to know that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reveals similar difficulties among other people.

Multiple Perspectives from Participants in Art
May I nevertheless suggest that a multi-perspectival approach may help? People often have very personal responses to art. Two people may agree about the basic plot content of a movie, or the subject matter or style of a painting, or the genre of a piece of music. They may also agree about technical competence or incompetence in the execution of an artistic work. They may nevertheless pointedly disagree in their personal reaction to the work. If art draws out personal responses, and if aesthetics, whatever it is, is somehow closely related to art, the relation to art suggests that different people may have different personal viewpoints in such an area.

The beholder’s existential reaction, the stable work of art in the situation, and normative standards for beauty and technique function together.

Thus, the appearance of confusion about the nature of aesthetics may have a partial explanation in the existential perspective and in the multiplicity of people who bring the personal coloring of their own lives into interaction with aesthetics. The lack of agreement and the feeling of confusion may actually suggest something about the existential orientation that plays a key role in this area. God-given diversity among cultures and among people within any one culture may lead to healthy diversity in the treatment of aesthetics.

However, beauty does not reside merely “in the eye of the beholder.” The beholder beholds beauty that is “out there” (in the situation), and which conforms to norms. As usual, the existential, situational, and normative perspectives coherently harmonize. The beholder’s existential reaction, the stable work of art in the situation, and normative standards for beauty and technique function together.

Each person can, if he wishes, produce his own definition of aesthetics and then develop a personal perspective based on that definition. (But, as usual, each person must beware of including false assumptions or commitments within his starting point.) Multiple perspectives by multiple persons can enhance our knowledge and appreciation if we can once free ourselves from the baleful influence of sin.

Interlocking Aesthetics with Contexts: the Tabernacle
Furthermore, our conclusions about metaphysics suggest that, however we end up defining aesthetics, it offers one dimension out of many as we experience the world. Artistic and literary craftsmanship appear in the Bible in the construction of the tabernacle. The skill for construction is given by the Holy Spirit:

The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the
son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled
him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with
knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to
work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting,
and in carving wood, to work in every craft.” (Ex. 31:1–5)

The special holy garments that Bezalel made for Aaron and his sons for ministry in the tabernacle are specifically said to be “for glory and for beauty” (Ex. 28:2).

Beauty, artistry, and craftsmanship thus appear in the Bible as gifts from God. They appear not in isolation, but as part of a larger project—the description of the tabernacle and its construction. The “aesthetic,” whatever it may be, belongs to a larger whole that has many features. The same holds true for Solomon’s temple, described in 1 Kings 5–8, Ezekiel’s temple vision in Ezekiel 40–48, and the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21:1–22:5.

The climactic beauty and artistry of God appears in Christ.

The New Testament makes it plain that the Old Testament tabernacle pointed forward to the climax of redemption. God comes to dwell with his people supremely and climactically in Christ. Christ is named Immanuel, “which means, God with us” (Matt. 1:23). John 1:14 announces that “the Word [the second person of the Trinity] became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Greek word translated “dwelt” in this verse is unusual and alludes to the Old Testament tabernacle dwelling of God, so that John 1:14 might even be translated, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” John also indicates that Jesus’s body is the final temple: “he [Jesus] was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21).

Thus the climactic beauty and artistry of God appears in Christ. On this basis we may infer that God is indeed beautiful (as one can see also in Rev. 4:3). His beauty is the original, archetypal beauty. Beautiful things in this world possess beauty ectypally. Their beauty has been specified by Christ, who is the Word of God. Nowadays, art does not always involve a representation of beautiful things, but sometimes calls attention to ugly things. Our world today is not wholly beautiful, partly because it suffers under the effects of the fall into sin (Rom. 8:20–21). Artists may sometimes choose to represent in their art the tensions found in a world contaminated by sin.

This piece is adapted from Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 225—228. Used with permission from the publisher.

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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