Humans Have Needs that are not Material
A favorite pastime among gadflies on Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Twitter is to post an image of beautiful architecture, usually a church or cathedral, in order to mock Protestants for supposedly not having any comparable structures to claim as part of their own tradition. Putting aside the fact that this is demonstrably false—there are plenty of old, beautiful Protestant churches for any who care to find them—it is nevertheless the case that constructing new, comparably beautiful churches often does not appear to be important to contemporary Protestants. Even if we acknowledge the difficulty of bringing new, beautiful church architecture to fruition in the face of economic and bureaucratic obstacles, by itself this does not seem sufficient to account for the dearth of such architecture. The expression “where there’s a will, there’s a way” is a cliché for a reason—if beauty in our churches were a priority, Christians would make it happen somehow.
If, then, material considerations are not the primary issue, the question arises: why don’t Protestants care more about beauty, in their church buildings or in anything else? I will not pretend to give a comprehensive answer1, but there are two popular misconceptions about the nature of beauty that feed this indifference: first, that beauty is purely subjective, and second, that beauty only distracts from God.
The idea that beauty is a matter of private feeling and judgment rather than an objective reality—that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” as the expression goes—is so widely taken for granted that it might justly be said to have graduated from an aphorism to a truism. To question it is considered not merely unnecessary, but ridiculous. In light of this assumption, it is perhaps unsurprising that many Christians do not place much stock in beautiful church architecture or beauty in general—if it’s all just a matter of opinion, what’s the point?
The catholic tradition, however, repudiates this modern innovation. In doing so it borrows from the older Platonic tradition, as Herman Bavinck observes:
Plato provided the basic concepts for a doctrine of beauty from which later generations would benefit for centuries. Plato originated the metaphysical and normative aesthetics that was then supplemented by Aristotle at some points and conceived much more broadly by Plotinus. Later it had its strongest influence on the church fathers, such as Clement and Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas [Aquinas], and Bonaventura, as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant philosophers and theologians.2
A key component of this “more-or-less dogmatic aesthetics” is that beauty “has objective existence and belongs to the worlds of invisible things as an independent reality or in God’s consciousness or as an idea.”3 This objectivity is grounded in the fact that the beauty of all things originates in God, their Creator, who is “the highest beauty.”4 Thus when we read that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1), part of what this means is that the beauty of created things points to their Creator who made them beautiful:
The beauty of the material world expresses transcendental beauty, acting as a “sign” from eternity: the light of God’s Being…. To experience transcendental beauty is to perceive an intimation of God’s splendor. This is the majesty of the Creator, the absolute Being, from which all things derive their being. The light of creation testifies to the glory of its Creator.5
Put differently, beauty is a type of natural revelation, that general knowledge of God that is available to all. We find this truth expressed repeatedly within the classical Protestant tradition. John Calvin says of the knowledge of God in creation, “Wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world, however minute, that does not exhibit at least some sparks of beauty; while it is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric as it extends around, without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory.”6 Peter Martyr Vermigli writes, “By the very workmanship of this world, they [humans] knew God to be most mighty. Further, they knew by the beauty, show, and a distinction of all things, that so great a power was administered by a most high providence and wisdom.”7 Francis Turretin holds that “the beauty and order of the universe…show that God’s existence can be discerned from nature.”8 And from Johann Gerhard, “God, through the beauty of the works of His own hands, desires to call me to Himself and to incite me to love Him alone.”9
In short, beauty matters because it is nothing less than a revelation of God. This is true of human creations as well, for God made us to make in our turn. So says J. R. R. Tolkien:
We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.10
Humans are sub-creators, to use Tolkien’s term.11 Our derivative creations do not “[bring] into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before,” but rather “embody…some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”12 Church architecture, therefore, should be beautiful precisely because its splendor glorifies God and points back to Him.
Once we have established that beauty is objective by virtue of its origin in God, it becomes apparent that to say beauty can only distract from God is to be ignorant of its nature and source. Hence we err if we suppose that beauty should be pitted against honoring and serving God, as the disciples erred when they objected to a woman pouring “very precious” ointment on the head of Jesus shortly before his crucifixion (Matt. 26:6–13). “To what purpose is this waste,” they cried, “for this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.” But Christ responds, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me.” The Greek word translated as “good” by the KJV is καλὸν, but some translations render it as “beautiful”—in doing what she did, the woman wrought a work that was not only good but beautiful, as it honored God in preparing Christ’s body for burial. In his commentary on these verses, Bishop Charles Ellicott reflects on how treasuring beauty does not necessarily conflict with serving God, in a passage that is worth quoting at length:
The Greek adjective [καλὸν] implies something more than “good”—a noble, an honorable work.13 The Lord Jesus, in His sympathy with all human affections, recognizes the love that is lavish in its personal devotion as noble and excellent in itself. After His departure, as the teaching of Matthew 25:40 reminds us, the poor are His chosen representatives, and our offerings to Him are best made through them. How far the words sanction, as they are often urged as sanctioning, a lavish expenditure on the æsthetic element of worship, church architecture, ornamentation, and the like, is a question to which it may be well to find an answer. And the leading lines of thought are, (1) that if the motive be love, and not ostentation, He will recognize it, even if it is misdirected; (2) that so far as ostentation, or the wish to gratify our own taste and sense of beauty, enters into it, it is vitiated from the beginning; (3) that the wants of the poor have a prior claim before that gratification. On the other hand, we must remember (1) that the poor have spiritual wants as well as physical; (2) that all well-directed church-building and decoration minister to those wants, and, even in its accessories of form and color, give to the poor a joy which is in itself an element of culture and may minister to their religious life by making worship a delight. It is a work of charity thus to lighten up lives that are otherwise dull and dreary, and the true law to guide our conscience in such matters is to place our noblest churches in the districts where the people are the poorest.14
Here Ellicott notes that it is possible to value beauty in a way that honors ourselves rather than God. Yet the old dictum abusus non tollit usum—abuse does not cancel use—holds good here. As Ellicott also points out, humans have needs that are not material.
Thus, when rightly motivated, beautiful church architecture is a service to the poor and, indeed, all people. More broadly, beauty is to be treasured and cultivated because it is God’s gift to us, and as with all things, we honor Him when we give back even a portion of that with which He has blessed us. Let us not then spurn this gift in a false show of piety and dismiss beauty as a vain superfluity when the very stones of church buildings cry out to us of God’s glory.
Photo Credit: Unsplash
- For a fuller exposition of many of the ideas discussed in this article, see James Clark, “The Witness of Beauty,” The North American Anglican, 19 February ‒ 17 March 2021, https://northamanglican.com/the-witness-of-beauty-an-introduction-part-1-of-3/. ↩
- Herman Bavinck, “Of Beauty and Aesthetics,” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, ed. John Bolt, trans. Harry Boonstra and Gerrit Sheeres (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 246. ↩
- Bavinck, “Of Beauty and Aesthetics,” 246. See also Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 97; Joseph D. Wooddell, The Beauty of the Faith: Using Aesthetics for Christian Apologetics (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 46‒59; Jonathan King, The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018), 9; Junius Johnson, The Father of Lights: A Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 7; Benjamin P. Myers, A Poetics of Orthodoxy: Christian Truth as Aesthetic Foundation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 117; and J. Matthew Pinson, “Evangelicals and Beauty,” American Reformer, 23 January 2023, https://americanreformer.org/2023/01/evangelicals-and-beaut/. ↩
- Bavinck, “Of Beauty and Aesthetics,” 255. See also Oden, Classic Christianity, 98; Wooddell, Beauty of the Faith, 54, 87; and Myers, Poetics of Orthodoxy, 2, 4, 65, 67. ↩
- Lisa Coutras, Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 15. ↩
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.5.1, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 16. ↩
- Peter Martyr Vermigli, Common Places, trans. Anthonie Marten (1574), 10‒11, quoted in David Haines, “Natural Theology in Reformed Orthodoxy,” in Philosophy and the Christian: The Quest for Wisdom in the Light of Christ, ed. Joseph Minich (Davenant Press, 2018), 285. ↩
- Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) 161. See also Nathan Greeley, “Early Modern Protestant Philosophy,” in Philosophy and the Christian, 315. ↩
- Johann Gerhard, Sacred Meditations, trans. C. W. Heisler (Ithaca, NY: Just and Sinner Publications, 2020), 34. See also Jordan Cooper, A Contemporary Protestant Scholastic Theology, vol. 1, Prolegomena: A Defense of the Scholastic Method (Weidner Institute, 2020), 180, 233. ↩
- J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” in Tales from the Perilous Realm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 371. ↩
- Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” 351. ↩
- C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in C. S. Lewis Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 416. This essay can also be found in C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, repr. 2014), 1‒13. ↩
- The variant translations of “good” and “beautiful” for καλὸν are not in competition with one another, for in the catholic tradition beauty and goodness (as well as truth) are different facets of the same reality: “Beauty is related to the true and the good and is one with them in the absolute idea.… However, beauty can still be distinguished from the good and the true” (Bavinck, “Of Beauty and Aesthetics,” 247). ↩
- Charles Ellicott, A New Testament Commentary for English Readers (1878), Bible Hub, https://www.biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/26-10.htm. ↩