Beauty, Wisdom, Truth


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Beauty is wise & truthful.

Wisdom is beautiful & true.

Truth is wise & beautiful.

It has been said that a haphazard approach to Bible study, however long and arduously it is done, produces a mind like a man who has a bag of good bones, all 206 that make up a human skeleton, but has no idea how to assemble them. A systematic approach to doctrine, on the other hand, produces a mind like a man who has studied enough human anatomy to be able to take that bag of bones and put it all together correctly.

Hurray. Now you've got a skeleton. Good for biology class. Good for Halloween, too. A correctly assembled skeleton is much better than a haphazard bag of bones, no question about it. But it's still far short of a living, breathing body. For that, we need something more. Something divine.

The Necessity of Beauty and Wisdom to Truthful Teaching

When it comes to getting the facts straight and making clear, sound arguments, I've long been known as a real stickler. Thorough analysis accompanied by sequential logic is my default mode. Thus, when it comes to Bible teaching, I naturally steer towards systematic theologies, thick commentaries, and tightly closed arguments formed of concise, factual statements. But lately I have had a growing awareness that, by itself, that approach falls dangerously short of what Christ, the prophets, and the apostles taught and modeled for us. What is missing from it? Beauty and wisdom, I submit. And without them, the facts don't necessarily constitute truth.

Whoa, now, how is beauty necessary to truth? For starters, think of...

  • all the beauty God went to the trouble of setting forth in Creation
  • God's fabulous blueprints for the original tabernacle and the temple of Ezekiel
  • the blinding, golden beauty of the Law, of God's holiness, as Jonathan Edwards noted
  • the 150 Psalms--those are poems, you know
  • the thousands of proverbs
  • the dozens of Holy Spirit-inspired prayers given in poetic form throughout the Old Testament
  • several records of God-given dreams, full of symbolic imagery
  • the unutterably, achingly beautiful story of redemption itself, of which the best human stories are but a dim reflection!

How sad it would be, if we simply affirmed the correctness of the facts surrounding those things without reflecting on the beauty in them!

Now, systematic order is unquestionably a good thing. God himself tells us that he is a God of order. Beauty and wisdom though, tend not to have the sort of order that is readily apparent. They are more imaginative, more intuitive than what we think of, in Aristotelian terms, as logical.

What should we say, then, to the fact that scripture is filled end to end with the imaginative language of story, imagery, symbolism, proverb, and poetic device? Would it have been better for God to have made the Old Testament just a lengthy confessional statement for us to memorize and refer heretics to? Should Christ be taken to task for spending his three years of ministry mostly telling stories and healing peoples' bodies when he could have been hammering out the Church's definitive systematic theology? Should we criticize the apostles for failing to set forth a formal, complete creed for us, right from the start? If God is only concerned that we have our facts straight, why did he bother with the rest of it? Dare we call it unnecessary? Should we seek to excise imaginative language from scripture, or at least to extract doctrine from its beautiful setting? Are beauty and wisdom extraneous to the truth, or part and parcel of it?

Last question, I promise: Say you've got two Bible teachers, one who relies heavily on creeds and confessions, and follows a systematic theology outline; and another who tells stories and recites poetry. Which teacher's form is most similar to that of scripture? To that of Christ? (Sorry, two-part question :-) Of course, whatever our form, the content must be true to scripture. But form and content are not fully independent. We would do well to ponder whether with our modern, enlightened forms we have not inadvertently hindered the proclamation of the Old Time Religion.

This is not to deny the value of creeds, confessions, and systematic theology. They are helpful tools for memorization, study, and reference. I don't deny that the Church would poorer without them. The problem comes when we think that, by reducing scriptural doctrine to mere factual statements, laid out fair and square with no contradictions, we have finally gotten a good handle on truth.

We must not be guilty of setting beauty against truth. This is not an either-or thing, but a both-and thing. Actually more than both-and, since there are three things in view: truth, wisdom, and beauty. All three are expressions of God's character, and, due to His Simplicity (the doctrine of His indivisibility), there can be none without the others. Whenever any of the three is ignored or undervalued in human thought, the others are impoverished proportionately. A thing may be perfectly factual, and yet foolish or ugly; such a thing is not altogether true. Correspondingly, foolishness or falseness may mar the beauty of an otherwise beautiful thing.

The doctrines of scripture are true, wise and beautiful. That's why they are often best presented (assuming God knows best) in the context of poetry, story, or at least a historical and cultural setting. Correct doctrinal facts unadorned by their native wisdom and beauty are no longer completely true to scripture. They are no longer the fully-orbed sound doctrine they were intended to be.

Beauty and the Problem of Subjectivity

It might seem prudent to raise the protest that beauty is subjective. Of course, so is wisdom, in as much as it is arrived at more inductively than deductively, and to the degree that that its language tends to be imaginative in a broad sense. But if our doctrine lies even partly in a fuzzy, gray area, unbounded by an objective standard of truth, how can we ever be certain that it is sound? Doesn't this open the gate wide to relativism? Isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder? Or is there an objective standard of beauty? These last two questions, particularly, perennially pester artists and philosophers, and occasionally discomfit a theologian or two, as well.

It may seem strange at first--it certainly bucks the trend--but I would unhesitatingly affirm that the idea of a transcendent, unchanging standard of beauty is a scriptural one. That standard might be thought of as the beatific vision; or, you might say, the character of God. Or it might be nearer to truth to say that humans intuitively view the world of ideas through what remains in us of the imago dei, the image of God in which Man was originally made, though now marred by sin. Either way, the standard lies in a plane that we can't reach with a tape measure or a dictionary, any more than we can jump from earth to heaven bodily.

So, is beauty objective or not? Note that I was careful to say, "transcendent, unchanging standard," not "objective." To speak of an objective standard of beauty quickly gets hopelessly confusing.

When we speak of an objective standard, we usually mean one that is reliable because we can measure something else against it. Can we measure the beauty of something against God's character? The answer is both yes and no. Partly but not completely. In some ways but not in others. In fact, when we speak of "measuring" beauty, we are speaking metaphorically, which is to say "subjectively."

We can't take in God's whole character at once, because it's infinite, and we are finite. To measure something against a standard requires that the standard provide a basis of measurement. But the beatific vision displays no tick marks, so to speak. That necessarily gives a subjective element to the human judgment and appreciation of the beautiful. But that subjectivity makes the standard itself no less real and eternal.

While we can't quantify beauty, we can speak in terms of how well its quality reflects the nature and works of God, or of some lesser standard. For instance, a recent interviewee on the Mars Hill Audio Journal contrasted the quality of infinite possibilities in Bach's work, with the deterministic quality of Wagner's. Bach's intricate counterpoint is constructed in such ingenious ways that it has a virtually unlimited potential for different resolutions at any given moment. He was able to make a piece as long or as short as he wished, take the listener on a journey of many-splendored wonder that is fresh every moment, every time you hear it, and still pull it all together to a satisfying conclusion. (Rather unlike me and my run-on sentences :-) Wagner's counterpoint, on the other hand, proceeds deterministically from its mechanistic outset to its inevitable conclusion at the point where the motif (and often the listener) is exhausted.

Bach's work reflects a view of a good God who made a good Creation, and recognizes the subtle interworkings of divine sovereignty in creaturely choices. Wagner's work reflects a Darwinist, fatalistic worldview. The fact that this comparison is an oversimplification should not obscure the point that, while we can't quantify the relative beauty of the two composers' bodies of work, we can compare them with the standard of beauty, and speak meaningfully about it.

The judgment we have made here about the musical works of Bach and Wagner is a subjective one. But that makes it no less meaningful than if we could somehow quantify them against an objective standard. In fact, it's more profoundly meaningful than a number in a spreadsheet is, for instance. It's a less pragmatic kind of judgment, but it has more to do with the kind of wisdom and understanding that God urges us to seek. (Prov 1)

Considered that way, we may consistently say both that beauty is subjective and that it does not reside ultimately in the eye of the beholder. How so? Subjectivity has to do how we receive, perceive, and conceive of ideas, and how we process them. This is so irrespective of the epistemology of the one doing the perceiving and conceiving. The claim that all beauty is in the eye of the beholder, on the other hand, brings epistemology to the fore: it assumes and affirms the ultimate authority of the individual in deciding how he will conceive of what he perceives.

For the modernist, the naturalist, there can be no ultimate standard of beauty, because there is nothing transcendent for human cultural endeavors to correspond to, no Creator for human sub-creators to imitate. Any standard of beauty extrinsic to himself can only lie in the realm of the external, material world. It is unthinkable for him to insist that everyone arbitrarily choose the same standard as he does. With a Christian view of the transcendent, though, we may affirm a standard of beauty extrinsic to ourselves without falling prey to an externalism that insists that the standard must be fundamentally objective in nature.

Beautiful Words, Wonderful Words of Life

Once we recognize that the standard of beauty is God's infinite character, we can humbly stop striving in the flesh to wrap our minds completely around it at one time, or to pin it down once and for all with a finite set of statements. Such attempts imply a desire to dominate more than to appreciate God's Word and works. We do not subdue scripture; scripture subdues us.

The Word of God is alive and powerful. It cannot be dissected because it cannot be killed. As with any living thing, it will confound our attempts to analyze it exhaustively. When we hear Paul, through the lens of the King James translators, tell us that we are to rightly divide the Word of Truth, we ought not picture a scientist studying an object, but a swordsman skillfully handling a sword.

The beauty of truth is infinitely varied in its facets. It looks different depending on how you look at it. That's partly what makes it so beautiful. Yet it never presents a self-contradiction. All the more beautiful, then. We can only look at it from one angle at a time, yet each angle reveals something more. This is what artists (include God) do: they help us see the unified infinitude of truth from different angles so that we may more fully understand it, appreciate it, and be transformed by it.

Am I saying we should listen to artists instead of Bible teachers? No, I'm saying that a Bible teacher who follows the pattern set by Christ and the apostles is a kind of artist, and will use much the same sort of imaginative language that they did. And I'm saying that artists of the kind we ordinarily think of can supplement our understanding by reflecting the light of truth in unexpected ways.

The Eye of the Beholder

Paradoxically, it may be true that sensual or material beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. People may legitimately have very different ideas about what constitutes beauty to the five senses. But that kind of beauty pales by comparison to the true beauty of the sublime sort, to which the best forms of art (especially God's) seek to awaken us, and in which we who love Christ shall someday revel unhindered by the effects of the curse. We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Hallelujah!

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Orig 11 May 2004
Update 07 July 2005
David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL