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Philosophy Essay on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Part III: The Beauty of Holiness

Updated on September 11, 2012

Beauty has always been an area of controversy. Even though many people may agree that there is an absolute standard of truth and goodness, they will not automatically make the connection that there must, therefore, be an absolute standard for the Beautiful. Conservative and informed Christians recognize the danger of Postmodernism, and strongly declare that there is one True and one Good, and that is God. Encountering the Good and True in God does not require an emotional response, nor can the absolute Good or True be mistaken for a mere cultural fancy.
      But if there is an absolute “Beautiful,” just as there is an absolute Good and True, we assume it will automatically require an emotional response for it to be properly understood. At least, that is our understanding of Beauty. Christians who love intellectual exercises in the historical doctrines of God may cringe at the thought of the sappiness that seems inherent in the idea that God is Beauty. We instantly think of repetitive and emotional praise choruses that base themselves not on true doctrine but on a teary feeling of comfort.
      This section will attempt to show that all that is truly Beautiful is also Biblically True and Good, and is an essential aspect of the Christian worldview and our understanding of God.

The Postmodern view of beauty holds that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder.
The Postmodern view of beauty holds that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder.

The Postmodern View of Beauty

      It is an unavoidable fact that everyone does not and cannot have absolute agreement on everything that is beautiful and everything that is not. The saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has much truth to it, and this is part of the trouble in trying to define beauty. If every man had the same views on what a beautiful woman was, then no man, except one, would be content with his own wife. This seems to be the ruling logic of the postmodernist thinker: that there is no absolute standard of beauty. Something may create an emotional admiration (and emotion becomes the judge of beauty) in one person but not in another, and it is deemed only beautiful for one person and not another.

      The modernists of the Enlightenment decided that the arts and sciences were a tool that would shape and cultivate a person’s inner psyche by synchronizing it with the corresponding order of beauty:

…there was a powerful climate of opinion in Bach’s day that assigned to the arts a prominent function in the shaping of human thought and life. Not a little of modern aestheticism can be traced to the idea so prevalent in the Enlightenment that the Beautiful had power to transform men by its sheer beauty. According to this idea, there was an almost mathematical symmetry in the human psyche that needed to be related to some symmetry outside it. (Pelikan, Jaroslav, Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955])

      Though the Enlightenment modernists were correct in believing that there was something beneficial to men in good art and that Beauty is an absolute quality, they failed to see that there is an eternal greatness in Beauty which cannot be calculated by any principles of aesthetic harmony. Just as Adler tried to determine the absolute good by finding out what the real needs in man are, the Enlightenment thinkers used the same method to find the absolute beautiful. If something beautiful corresponds to a vital need in the human psyche and seems to adjust thought and life for the better, it must be Beautiful in the absolute sense.

Anyone who wants to reform culture must understand that an understanding of God's truth in relation to aesthetics and beauty is essential.
Anyone who wants to reform culture must understand that an understanding of God's truth in relation to aesthetics and beauty is essential.

      An outgrowth of this philosophy was Friedrich Nietzsche’s worship of that which he considered to be absolute Beauty, though his response to beauty was emotional and not intellectual. As problematic as Nietzsche’s philosophy became during the later part of his life, his original search was purely for the ultimate Beauty which held eternity inside itself. He was not pursuing eternal holiness. If he were, he might have found the real Beauty, which would ultimately have led to Goodness and Truth. Instead, he pursued every aesthetically pleasing thing as if it were God Himself. He rejected the intellect and all truths derived by it, for it could not explain great things as beautiful expression in the arts could. He rejected the moral standards and all moral goodness for it created a restricting chain and was distant from sensual emotion. His conclusion was that the beautiful was the only religion man needed. In experiencing the beautiful, man was complete. Eventually he died, a crazed and unsatisfied drug addict, who declared that “God is dead” because he could not worship God as Creator of the beauty, and worshipped the insufficient beauty instead.
       Once again, a tertium quid is needed to give a standard for what beauty really is, how it relates to God, and how God uses it to relate to man.

Holiness is the first place to look for beauty.
Holiness is the first place to look for beauty.

The Beauty of Holiness

It is difficult to describe beauty without describing what it looks like in relation to the medium it is carried in. Yet we know the medium may vary and the concept of “beauty” is still retainable in our minds apart from the medium. Whether the medium be a lady’s face, a painting, a song, a play, a rose, we can know what a “beautiful” one of each of these is like. The Bible indicates that beauty is always carried in the medium of holiness, and thus beauty is an absolute quality, just as holiness (synonym for the absolute moral Good mentioned earlier) is. In the verses below are references to “the beauty of holiness,” showing how the Bible relates one to the other:

1 Chronicles 16:29 Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come before him: worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.
2 Chronicles 20:21 And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the LORD, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the LORD; for his mercy endureth for ever.
Psalm 29:2 Give unto the LORD the glory due unto His name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.
Psalm 96:9 O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness: fear before Him, all the earth.
Psalm 110:3 Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.

      These verses indicate that the absolute quality of God’s holiness is a beautiful thing. It seems evident that if God uses a certain quality to describe one of His absolute and infallible attributes, that quality becomes absolute itself, and cannot be relative to what a person may think or feel about God’s holiness. By using a certain term, God sets the standard definition for what that term actually means.

I will worship Thee, O Lord, in the beauty of holiness; on an instrument of ten strings will I praise Thee.
I will worship Thee, O Lord, in the beauty of holiness; on an instrument of ten strings will I praise Thee.

     While we can say “God is Truth, God is Good,” it is more difficult to say that God is Beauty. However, Beauty is certainly an essential aspect of His nature, and frequently shows itself in the poetic and prophetic books:
Psalm 27:4  One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple.
Psalm 90:17  And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.
Psalm 96:6  Honour and majesty are before Him: strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.
Isaiah 28:5 In that day shall the LORD of hosts be for a crown of glory, and for a diadem of beauty, unto the residue of His people.
Isaiah 33:17 Thine eyes shall see the king in His beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off.
Ezekiel 16:14 And thy renown went forth among the heathen for thy beauty: for it was perfect through My comeliness, which I had put upon thee, saith the Lord GOD.

God has put beauty into His creation. This is Long's Peak's diamond face.
God has put beauty into His creation. This is Long's Peak's diamond face.

Not only is God beautiful Himself, but He is the source of all Beauty as the Creator of the universe. This fact is foundational to the Christian worldview, for the Bible holds that God is the initiator, founder, and sustainer of all things. Therefore, as the source of Beauty, He makes all things that are set apart for His glory both holy and beautiful, defining "beauty" in the process. According to these verses, beauty is "God's business."

Psalm 50:2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.
Isaiah 61:3 To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.
Psalm 48:2 Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.
Isaiah 4:2 In that day shall the branch of the LORD be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and comely for them that are escaped of Israel.
Isaiah 52:1,7Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city: for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean...How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!
Ezekiel 16:12-14 “And I put a jewel in your nose, earring in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth. You ate pastry of fine flour, honey, and oil. You were exceedingly beautiful, and succeeded to royalty. Your fame went out among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through My splendor which I had bestowed on you,” says the Lord.
Psalm 149:4 For the LORD taketh pleasure in his people: He will beautify the meek with salvation.
Isaiah 60:13 The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of My feet glorious.

The Hebrew words used for "beauty" in the verses above have also been translated in other similar texts into the words: glory, adornment, holy adornment (of public worship), honour, decoration, splendor, finery (of garments, jewels); glory of rank, renown, (or) of God; fair, beautiful, handsome; to be comely, beautiful, befitting. We may safely understand that the Hebrew words for “beauty” carry the same meanings we attribute to the English word “beauty.”
It is interesting to note that one of the common Greek terms used for “good” in the New Testament also “denotes that which is intrinsically good, and so, goodly, fair, beautiful.” The definition also includes intrinsic goodness in “that which is well adapted to its circumstances or ends”, and “that which is ethically good, right, noble, honorable.” Beauty is a genuinely “Good” thing, in the morally perfect sense.
We see that God desires to be worshipped in “the beauty of holiness,” He is beautiful Himself, and He makes that which belongs to His holy (purified and set apart) kingdom beautiful. In every way, God is the author of Beauty, for He is the author of all Good. As the highest authority on Beauty, He holds the standard of Beauty in His person. An old hymn phrases this well, when it says we are "clothed in beauty not our own." Truly all things that we consider beautiful are only reflecting the absolute and pure Beauty of God.

We must bring beauty back into the culture of the 21st century.
We must bring beauty back into the culture of the 21st century.

Beauty in the Culture of the 21st Century

This brings us to the final discussion of the cultural implications of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Though Beauty is perhaps the most misunderstood of the trio, we know from Romans 1:20 that the invisible attributes of God are clearly seen; and therefore all men do have an instinct for what is truly beautiful. Yes, there may be personal preferences, and God has created man with individual likes and dislikes. But the sort of beauty we are analyzing here is the eternal beauty that is beautiful outside of any person’s opinion deeming it so.
Today’s culture worships beauty, but it is beauty that has been contaminated and can no longer be associated with the “beauty of holiness.” Women stress over body fat, makeup, face shape and clothing. At the same time, culture’s fashion queens and “beauty divas” tattoo their skin and wear ragged, faded, and dirty clothing. Fashion models show pouting lips and hollow eyes that flaunt a rebellious and seductive fire. Culture has reveled in the power of beauty --and in man’s power over beauty-- by taking every element of the Holy out of the Beautiful, and leaving only a painted hollow sepulcher with nothing inside but rotting bones.
Culture has even borrowed from Nietzsche’s philosophy by praising the operas, the music, the art, and the splendor, for the sake of the expression of art itself-- not realizing that this sort of art’s beauty hardly goes any deeper than the medium used to convey it. Because the knowledge and pursuit of absolute Truth has been taken out of the culture’s agenda, and because goodness is only that which fills a need or happens to “work” for an individual at the time, the meaning has also gone out of art. And we are left with the wrapping of the gift, which was pretty and emotionally stirring before it was opened, but has nothing inside. The Holiness has disappeared.
The principle that God’s “true” Truth is the absolute standard for all of life is the foundational concept of the Christian worldview. Without realizing first that there is absolute Truth, and second, that absolute truth is not found by following the agreement of the majority, every other area of life and practice is left without guidance. We cannot figure out the best way to educate, govern a country, feed the hungry, run an organization, or live life, without understanding that the only “True Truth” we will ever find in these areas must come straight from God.
The principle that God holds the true truth about Goodness is also foundational to the Christian worldview. Without realizing first that there is such a thing as a standard for both moral good and beneficial good, and second, that the intrinsic “Good” cannot be found by man’s reason and intuition into his own needs, then we are left without standard for right and wrong, good and evil. Though some may not “need” to know the standard for ultimate good, and may even live life successfully, their ultimate need will be discovered when every secret thing is brought to light, whether it was good or whether it was evil. In that day no pleas of innocence will be answered, for the truth about God and His Goodness has been hidden in every man’s heart and every man knows it.
The foundation of God’s absolute Truth, with the building blocks of God’s principles of Good on top of the foundation, provides a sturdy platform to build the pillars of the Beauty of Holiness. While culture strips holiness from her beauty and mars her skin with un-truth and rebellion, God’s absolute standard of Beautiful Holiness remains secure as the message of the eternal splendor of God’s pure and mighty nature. Any Christian who desires to bring God’s law to bear on every area of culture must not neglect to add a study of Beauty and its effects to his repertoire.
May the King eternal triumph as His Truth, His Goodness, and the Beauty of His Holiness transform culture.

© 2009 Jane Grey


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    • Jane Grey profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Leavitt 

      10 years ago from Oregon

      You're welcome, frogyfish! Thanks for your encouragement.

    • frogyfish profile image


      10 years ago from Central United States of America

      Such beautiful in-depth words here. Thank you for this hub!

    • Jane Grey profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Leavitt 

      11 years ago from Oregon

      Mr. Martin,

      Again, thank you for your comments!

      I am glad you appreciate the beauty of God, but I think we differ in our opinion of its importance in the doctrine of the church. John Adams once said (I summarize) that he studied politics and war so that his sons could study philosophy, math, and science, and his sons would study philosophy, math, and science so that his grandsons could study art and music, architecture and sculpture. This seems to be relevant to our discussion in that it places a hierarchy on what is important for which stages of culture.

      At the time of the reformation, it was necessary to value the main issues at stake in the spiritual battle: doctrinal truth, the supremacy of the Scriptures, and the purity of the Gospel. At this time of spiritual "war" against anti-truth, it was appropriate for aesthetic beauty to stand on the sidelines. If you have read my other articles on absolute Truth, and absolute Goodness, you will see the progression of establishing Truth, to encouraging Godliness/ Goodness, and finally to reflecting God's Beauty back to Him through worship. If an absolute standard of truth has not been established, there is no use trying to convince someone that there is a standard of Goodness. If there is no Goodness, or, in Biblical terms, Holiness, there is no beauty --or the beauty that we see is only a facade covering moral depravity and absence of pure, biblical truth.

      This was the spiritual battle the reformers waged against the absence of truth in the catholic church. Perhaps their destruction of the cathedrals could be considered a knee-jerk reaction because they were so afraid of idolatry that they could not see any beauty without considering it idolatrous. If we must accuse them of this, then perhaps we should accuse the Biblical kings, who destroyed entire beautiful temples and "high places" because of a few heathen idols, of being too rash. When the truth and holiness of God's people is at stake, it is biblically correct to entirely purge out all the culture's semblances of religion, beauty, art, communication, customs, in order to start from scratch and re-establish the bedrock of Truth and Holiness before building scriptural, worshipful beauty on top of that.

      Once the spiritual battle for biblical Truth and Holiness was won, the Reformers did focus on gradually re-instituting a biblical form of beauty into their lives. Martin Luther wrote many beautiful, powerful hymns, and encouraged the fine arts in his family and students. Schools were established for the purpose of training young christians in the liberal arts and the truth of the Scriptures. Dutch reformers transformed blank canvases into beautiful works of art promoting the rich, simple, and hearty life of the family. They were very cautious when it came to building churches, however, as you pointed out. They knew the temptations of their culture, and in that culture, beauty in worship was dangerous. Many protestants, and perhaps you as well, Mr. Martin, have become catholic because they desire the reverential, "high church" beauty of the Catholic church over sound doctrine and proper worship of God. The reverence and ceremony of the worship service appeals to your sense of God's holiness and glory (as well it should) but in the embracing of beauty you have forgotten to search the scriptures about the Truth of how God wants to be worshipped (not through images or representations of Himself hanging on the cross, or giving undue reverence to the apostles and Mary as though they themselves were gods, or through meticulously counting prayers as though God is determining whether your righteousness is worthy of salvation instead of the substitutionary righteousness of His son).

      Regarding Modernity:

      In our culture, simplicity and plainness of churches is a result of a utilitarian view of Christianity. We feel that our churches must be functional, first of all, and that beauty has no role in preaching the Word of God, contrary to God's directions for Solomon's temple and the tabernacle in the wilderness, which were extravagantly beautiful (but contained no images of God or of saints). A good balance between rejecting the fact that God has any say in beauty in our culture, or going too far and worshiping beauty as if it is the only way to God, is needed. We need more Christians who are willing to build, create, compose, film, and write beautiful things in reflection of God's Truth and Holiness. I don't see the correlation between this utilitarian view of Christianity and the Reformation, but rather I see that the Reformation freed God's people from the bondage of false doctrine, allowing them to study the Scriptures for themselves (Truth) make personal application (Goodness) and incorporate the Beauty of God in every area of life.

      Regarding Postmodernity:

      The Reformation did not promote relativity, but rather, the absolute truth of the Scriptures. The Catholic religion at the time of the reformation seems to be closer to postmodernism, in that it declared that the Pope in Rome was favored with an absolute knowledge of absolute truth --a talent that only God has. Postmodernity rejects any absolute truth, absolute goodness, and absolute beauty, and instead declares that the only absolute is the absolute that there are no absolutes, and truth is truth if you decide it is truth! The Reformation merely questioned the "absolutes" of the Catholic church, and re-established the proper absolutes based upon Scriptural truth.

      In summary, the truth of the Scriptures was the "war" the reformers had to fight. Their sons, in turn had the opportunity to study the applications of that truth -- how to be morally good, and their grandsons then built upon their forefathers' shoulders with art, and music, and literature appropriate for the worship of God and the instruction of their families. It is a fine line between idolizing beauty and worshiping God with it. But after studying what is True, working on what is Good, let us endeavor to contemplate on how Beauty can be used for God's glory!

      Jane Grey

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      That's a very lovely piece you've written, but it's almost surprising that you had to defend the view you take. Wouldn't have been necessary in 1500--no one had any problem with the notion that, just as a Christian should surround herself with goodness and truth as a means to staying on the road to God, so too she should surround herself with beauty. It wasn't until after the Reformation (so-called) that certain groups of Christians came to see the celebration of beauty as too worldly, or even a form of idolatry. Then, instead of beautiful Cathedrals meant to inspire Christians with a love of beauty and a longing for God, we see Protestants building spare Quaker meeting houses. It is only the Catholic Church that never lost the sense of the importance of beauty.

      I suppose Pelikan may be correct that the Enlightenment was not helpful either, but I think you might find it interesting, and ultimately more enlightening, pardon the pun, to explore how the Protestant reaction against all things Catholic was the biggest and primary source of the loss of beauty in our culture. Just ask yourself how many great Protestant Cathedrals are truly beautiful. Ask whether the magnificent Sagrada Familia in Barcelona could ever be built by a Protestant congregation. Hard to imagine.

      I say all this as an ex-Protestant, who has come to have a very different understanding of the sources of modern and post-modern maladies in our culture. Seems to me that many of the seeds were sown in the Protestant reaction against the Catholic Church.

      Great blog. Thanks for allowing the comment.


    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      11 years ago from Chicago

      I broke into a big smile when I sw you quote Jaroslav Pelikan. I have and have read all his volumes of the "Christian Tradition." You are a brilliant thinker and writer. God Bless You!

    • Jane Grey profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Leavitt 

      11 years ago from Oregon

      Sounds like a good plan. I'll be interested to see what you come up with!

    • profile image

      Chris Ong 

      11 years ago

      The only reason I can see for keeping the Greek's methodologies would be because they mostly relied on mathamatics to come up with their rules for composition within their art forms. God is a God of order so logically using math would be a very good basis for finding good aesthetics but at the same time the Greeks were an exceptionally immoral people thus making their logic at the very least incredibly suspect. So I am thinking throw out the Greeks for the time being and then come back and compare notes after seeing what I find in the Bible that might be the same or different.

    • Jane Grey profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Leavitt 

      11 years ago from Oregon

      Thanks, Chris! Your thesis sounds like it would be really interesting; I want to do more research in that area too. Yes, it seems like the Greeks were close to the truth (CS Lewis came to the Lord through Greek mythology), but you're right that it would be best to veer far away from their perspective and stick with Biblical aesthetics. These waters are so muddy sometimes.

    • profile image

      Chris Ong 

      11 years ago

      I really liked this one Annie. I keep telling my parents if I go back to get my masters my main thesis is going to be on the absolutes of aesthetics. I also want to figure out guidelines without using the greeks and go purely from the Bible by studying the aesthetic qualities of the art in the temple, tabernacle, solomons house etc. I sure it would be an incredibly interesting study.


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