Who Decides What is Beautiful?

(Original posting 10/26/2017)

A) Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
or
B) Beauty has absolute standards.

 Which, if either, of these statements is true? The first is subjective, dependent on the values of the observer. The second is objective, having a source of authority. Is appreciation of beauty up to the individual or can one point to some standard? Does the Bible provide an answer?

Let’s begin with the standard the Bible uses to define beauty. Among other references to God’s beauty, Psalm 96:9 says, “Worship the LORD in the beauty (or splendor) of holiness.” This is referring to the beautiful garments the high priest was required to wear when entering the Holy of Holies once per year. It conveys the sense that God regards holiness as beautiful. We know that one of the prime attributes of God is his holiness, as in the familiar phrase from Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts.” He is three times holy! In biblical terms, triple repetition represents completion and perfection. So, if God considers holiness beautiful, and the Bible claims him to be complete and perfect in holiness, then the Bible also portrays God to be the perfection of beauty.

Additionally, the creation account encompasses the concept of beauty with the word “good.” Gen 1:31 says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” The world as God made it was good, meaning complete, perfect, purposeful, and yes, beautiful.  Also, in verse 26, Genesis tells us that God made man in his image.  Thus by argument from the greater to the lesser, pre-fall mankind was also beautiful in the image of God.

So, there is an objective, universal, standard of beauty. It is all the attributes of the invisible God: his splendor, majesty, glory, holiness, perfection, harmony, order, balance, righteousness, loveliness, etc. It is also the nature of visible creation prior to the curse of sin, for “his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation, in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). It is also the attributes of the incarnate, sinless son of man, Jesus Christ, who is the “radiance of the glory of God” (Heb 1:3) whom we have seen (John 1:14). It can also be perceived in our own bodies; “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Ps 139:14). Obviously, then, statement B above is correct. But, if this is true then statement A must be false. If beauty is not up to the beholder how may one recognize it?

First, we must recognize that  our sinful nature warps our judgment so that we are unable to reliably discern beauty from ugliness on our own; “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick, who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9); and, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isa 5:20). To correct our warped judgment God’s word must be applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit; “But solid food is for the mature, for those whose power of discernment is trained by constant practice to discern evil from good” (Heb 5:14); and 2 Tim 3:16, “All scripture is breathed out by God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).

And what in God’s word teaches us to discern beauty from ugliness? A good place to begin is Phil 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatsoever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  This list may be arranged into three categories: truth, goodness, and beauty, which could all be summed up into beauty itself. But truth, goodness, and beauty are good categories to learn to identify. Furthermore, this is not just a list, but it is a command. Paul says, “think about these things!” For the Christian, appreciating beauty is not the optional domain of just the artist. Every believer in Jesus Christ is obligated to learn to appreciate beauty. Consider Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Beauty being one of God’s attributes, it is something we must delight in. And here in Philippians is where one begins to train his powers of discernment to distinguish beauty from ugliness. This is also the beginning of how the church can resolve its divisions over music and art, but that is another topic!

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