The Beauty of Christianity and its Cross

Mark Mattes and Martin Luther bring beauty back to our Reformation theology

It may surprise readers who have a general interest in Martin Luther or the Reformation to see a book about Luther’s theology of beauty. Beauty in the German reformer’s thought is not typically discussed, so what first drew you to this aspect of Luther’s thinking?

Even though I grew up with Bach and Pachebel, and enjoyed visual arts representing Christian themes, nothing in my education would have led me to think that Luther has a theology of beauty. I had been reading Luther for decades but, like most, was oblivious to any sense for his theological aesthetics. What initially caught my attention was translating the Tübingen theologian, Oswald Bayer. Bayer contrasts Luther with Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of Protestant Liberalism. Schleiermacher read the Christian faith through a Platonic lens which led him to talk about faith as a “sense and taste for the infinite.”

In contrast, Bayer says that due to his appreciation for the Word coming tangibly and temporally to needy sinners through the voice of a preacher, Luther’s view of faith is a “sense and taste for the finite.” The metaphor of “taste” caused me to look for a theological aesthetics in Luther. A Finnish friend urged me to read Miikka Anttila’s Luther’s Theology of Music: Spiritual Beauty and Pleasure. That work helped me see beauty in Luther’s theology in more ways than music. Once I started looking, theological aesthetics started to pop out all over in Luther’s writings, from early to late.

One of the most striking and memorable contributions of your book is the way you connect beauty to the gospel. You write, “the gospel as Luther understood it opens a horizon that gives sinners access to beauty and a message that is itself so beautiful that desperate, repentant sinners crave it.” What an eye-opening way to picture the gospel! What led Luther to see the gospel as beautiful, particularly when he was so pressed down by his own desperate state as a sinner?

Thanks for this compliment! For Luther, the gospel is so beautiful because it is so good. What makes it good is that it provides unfathomable and generous mercy to repentant sinners. If you sense your sin, due to the accusations of God’s law, and understand just how much of a hold that sin has over you, such that you can’t wiggle out of it and whitewash yourself through excuses, it is wondrous to receive God’s forgiving mercy. God’s beauty is the profound length he goes to reach the lost. Jesus puts it this way: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). To pick up on the metaphor of “taste,” we need to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). The gospel is beautiful in the same way as when God parted the waters of the Red Sea to provide safety for the Hebrews fleeing slavery: It opens a new horizon for people to live, move, and have their being, no longer defined by their attempt to prove their merit before God or others, but instead by their identity as a child of God. God finds his children beautiful even if they are sorely imperfect, and that is something that they can revel in.

You do not merely leave the concept of beauty within the realm of Christ’s work, but you transition to the Spirit’s application of Christ’s work within the sinner. Let’s begin with regeneration. Are those who are sinful and spiritually dead granted new life and a new identity? For Luther, is this the beginning of the ugly made beautiful?

Luther discovered that in no sense is salvation an accomplishment obtained at the end of one’s pilgrimage; instead it is the source of a new walk or life in Christ. Luther is well known for advocating that one is simultaneously a saint and a sinner (simul iustus et peccator). For those Christians who believe that salvation is achieved only by sinners who actually accomplish measurable moral progress in life, Luther’s contention is not paradoxical but instead an outright contradiction. But those Christians misunderstand God’s righteousness which, more than anything, is his faithfulness to his own creatures, in spite of their impurity and sin. Luther is true to Paul. For Jesus’ sake, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to those who repent and believe (which happens through the work of the Holy Spirit). To say that one is righteous is simply to say that through faith in Jesus Christ, and on the basis of his merit, one is a child of God. For Jesus’ sake, the verdict of the last day is spoken in the present to those who trust in Jesus: You are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Outside of this forgiveness, and certainly on our own, we are sinners. The old Adam or Eve must continually be put to death each day. However, precisely because the last judgment has been rendered in the present for Christians, we are offered a life of thanksgiving to God and service to our neighbors. In this we “grow daily” (Large Catechism, Kolb/Wengert, 447:52). Of course, even in this growth, God is the potter shaping us to be his beautiful instruments as he sees fit. It is not for us to calculate how much progress we make (that would just keep us “curved in” on ourselves). But God works specifically through crosses, trials, and sufferings to refine and purify us on a day-to-day basis. Through these trials we ever claim Romans 8:28 as our own. Through such trials, God works to make us lessen our defenses and so open us to treasure the goodness he puts in the world.

Justification, not just regeneration, is affected by this concept of beauty. According to Luther, what does beauty have to do with the way we receive a new status in Christ?

Building from what I just said, we would have to say that Christians are not only simultaneously saints and sinners but also simultaneously beautiful and ugly (simul pulcher et turpis). Luther does not use this phrase directly, but it is true to his thinking. Again, to be a child of God means that works no longer define our relationship with God, but instead we are defined by the advocacy of Jesus Christ whose blood covers our sin and clothes us in Christ’s righteousness and beauty. That God’s justification is forensic and grants us a new status also entails that it is effective; the law works to extinguish the old Adam and Eve while the gospel raises new people of faith who love God from the heart and want to serve their neighbors.

You demonstrate that Luther was at odds with “pancalism.” What is pancalism and how did Luther put forward a very different conception of the beautiful?

Pancalism undoubtedly is a new word for most. It is not a hard word to understand. It’s from the Greek pan meaning “everything,” and kalos meaning “good.” Pancalism is the idea that everything is somehow beautiful because it participates in beauty itself. Some medieval thinkers held to this view because they were so strongly influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy. For Luther, what is problematic with this way of thinking is that it grounds the theory of beauty in metaphysics. Luther certainly believed that God was metaphysically real, indeed that God is Goodness as such, but in his thinking, truths about God and the world are not established through metaphysics but instead through Scripture. For Luther, all metaphysical concepts need to be “bathed” before they can be accepted, that is, they must be tested against Scripture to see if they ring true to Scripture or not. Many medieval thinkers listed three criteria for beauty: proportion, light, and perfection. For Luther, Jesus Christ who as the eternal Son of God is beauty itself is, as in the flesh, “without form or comeliness,” and so this man who bears our sin, and who in fact is wasted by sinners, falls completely short of those metaphysical criteria. But ultimately it is Jesus who defines what beauty is. To put it pointedly, it is not standards of the law that in the last analysis define beauty, but instead the gospel as promise—Jesus Christ himself, his sacrificial love, as gospel beauty. In a word: God’s beauty is his love. For Luther, the criteria of proportion, light, and perfection need not be rejected entirely; they can apply to earthly matters—beauty in God’s creation and as God’s creation—but not to beauty as such, which is God’s unconditional love.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: images and icons. There is a long history of iconoclasm during the sixteenth-century and differing opinions as to whether or not images portrayed a necessary beauty or idolatry. You make the point that Luther does not “support the strict dichotomy between word and image of which Protestants are usually accused.” How so?

Obviously not all Christians see eye to eye on the appropriateness of images in worship and devotion. For many, any use of images violates the commandment that we are not to make “graven images.” That said, many Christians who are opposed to images have a picture of Jesus knocking on the heart’s door in their homes. Images can be great reminders and teachers of the gospel. In the Middle Ages, stained glass taught illiterate people the Scriptures. Now, Luther located idolatry within the heart and not outside the heart. Idols need not merely be artifacts of human craftsmanship but also ideals in the mind in which people fundamentally glorify and justify their own values. To truly honor God for Luther is to acknowledge that all we have is a gift from God. That said, the take-away from Luther is that language is inherently chock-full of images and cannot be expressed apart from images. Luther describes this in his Preface to the Psalter: “. . . . if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter. There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true gnothi seauton [know thyself], as well as God himself and all creatures” (Luther’s Works 35:256-257). Not only does Scripture picture God and his ways for us, but we too display God and his ways when we share the gospel with others. Good preachers know how to use images well.

At the core of Luther’s thought is his theology of the cross. You make the insightful observation, one that is not alien to the apostle Paul, that the cross offers a “strange beauty.” What does this strange beauty look like and how does it differ from secular views of beauty we encounter today?

One would think that Luther couldn’t have a theology of beauty because beauty is by definition a theology of glory. But read carefully thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputation, the most definitive work on a theology of the cross: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it” (Luther’s Works 31:41). The word “pleasing” plants us right into the realm of aesthetics and beauty. In a word, God is making us beautiful by bringing an end to the presumptuous and prideful old Adam, and fashioning us to be receptive and humble people of faith. We are pleasing to God when we believe God, when we take God at his word that he will be true to his covenant to be our God and that we are to be his people. But this is all quite strange or unprecedented or unpredictable. Naturally we would associate beauty with glory, achievement, perfection, and “good form.” But here is God running after prodigals, perplexing (even shaming) elder brothers, all in his effort to reach out to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” ultimately to the likes of you and me. It is truly a wonder to behold because to do it God will do nothing less than to bear in Christ’s body the sin of every sinner, and bury it in a tomb never to be found again. God’s beauty is his hesed—his faithful love—to his own even when they are lost, and his refashioning them as people of faith.

Mark Mattes serves as Chair of the Department of Theology at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Prior to this call, he served parishes in Gardner, Illinois, and Antigo, Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. from The University of Chicago, an M.Div. from Luther Seminary, and a BA from St. Olaf College, where he was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He has authored several books, including Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal, The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology, and Imaging the Journey. He has also co-edited Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions and Gerhard Forde’s theological essays A More Radical Gospel and The Preached God, and has co-translated works of Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way and A Contemporary in Dissent, and Klaus Schwarzwäller, Cross and Resurrection. Additionally, he is an associate editor for Lutheran Quarterly and serves on the Continuation Committee of the International Luther Congress.