Divine Beauty and Corporate Worship, Part I
I once found myself on a flight next to an old woman who was in transit to her beach house in Mexico. Two things became clear from our conversation over time: first, she was in love with the beautiful ocean-side sunsets that painted her every evening with shades of orange and purple and pink. Second, she was not a Christian, and therefore didn’t know the God whose signature brushstroke so often tantalized her. I’ve thought of her often, and if I could go back in time and ask her one question, I think it would be, “Who do you thank for all that beauty?” Not knowing the God of the Bible, all she has to thank are Day and Night themselves. But if they could speak (or rather, if they could speak English, for they do speak, declaring the glory of God with the deep, ancient dialect their Creator taught them when he spoke them into existence [Ps 19:1-5]), they would tell her, “Why are you thanking us? This is gross! Stop groveling at this sunset; we don’t want your love. Our beauty is supposed to compel you to do what we are doing. Worship God, for his beauty enlivens ours!”
The Beautiful God and His Beautiful Works
“The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaim his handiwork,” says the psalmist (Ps. 19:1). Creation’s beauty is bragging on God. Day and Night shout out, “Hey! See how beautiful we are? God made us; isn’t he amazing?” On this Psalm, the fourth-century church father, Gregory of Nyssa, wrote:
The heavens, showing the Maker’s wisdom, practically shout with a voice, though silent, they declare the Creator’s craftsmanship. We can hear the heavens teach us: “O mortals, in looking on us and seeing our beauty and vastness, our incessant orbit with its orderly, harmonious movement, acting in one methodical direction, turn your thoughts to our Ruler! Through the beauty you see, envisage the beauty of the unseen Source!”
All of this simply means that beauty par excellence is none other than God himself—the Triune God—Father, Son, and Creation’s beauty is bragging on God Click To TweetSpirit, distinct in persons, one in essence and glory. From God’s harmony, all earthly harmony participates. His beauty is the fountain, created beauty is the stream. His beauty is the substance, created beauty is its shadow. God is his attributes, one of which is beauty, which means God is necessarily beautiful simply and purely. There is no standard of beauty that stands above God to which he conforms: he is the standard. God and creation don’t happen to both be beautiful. Creation is beautiful because it was made by an essentially beautiful God, whose glory shines through his creative workmanship.
If ancient philosophers were adamant about anything, it is that the good life is found in discovering what is objectively Good—the True, the Good, the Beautiful—and being ever conformed into that good. As Christians, we know that God is ultimate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. He is the first priority to whom we must devote ourselves—he is absolute Truth, absolute Goodness, absolute Beauty. And he has made himself known and accessible preeminently in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ is the access point, so to speak, to the ineffable glory of the Trinity, wherefrom all truth, goodness, and beauty flow. As we worship him with our whole lives—with our thoughts and actions and affections all being part of the living sacrifice of praise we offer up to him—we will continually be rearranged and reshaped and rightly ordered. This is none other than the telos—the end, the purpose—of our souls.
Implications for Corporate Worship
All of this implies that aesthetic considerations of corporate worship are not irrelevant. Now, we have to be careful here, because this can be taken in the wrong direction. There is a way to prize the beauty of language, music, liturgy, and art that is idolatrous and wicked. Paul warns about this when he reminds the Corinthians, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). The Corinthians were easily dazzled by a witty turn of phrase and rhetorical showboating, and Paul had no desire to pamper that vain desire. And yet, all throughout his letters—indeed in this very same letter to the Corinthians—we see him using rhetoric: he employs striking analogies, plays on words, and beautiful sentences. The Scriptures are full of beautiful expressions. The Lord Jesus Christ is the access point, so to speak, to the ineffable glory of the Trinity, wherefrom all truth, goodness, and beauty flow. Click To TweetThe Bible is a literary masterpiece. So, whatever Paul is warning against, it can’t be the pursuit of beautiful expressions per se. Rather, it is the pursuit of beautiful expressions that are employed in service to sin or vanity or idolatry. Is it wrong to make and appreciate beautiful paintings? Certainly not. Is it wrong to worship beautiful paintings in the form of icon veneration? Certainly.
So valuing beauty in our corporate worship is not, in itself, wrong. In fact, there is a reason why the Scriptures are so full of poetry. There is a reason why throughout the history of the Church, Christians have not been content to merely think about the glory of God—they’ve been compelled to sing about it with beautiful music and lyrics. Preachers have not been content to simply talk about the glories of Christ, they’ve been compelled to proclaim his glories with beautiful words. The principle at work here is fittingness. When we see beauty, we are compelled to express it.
In my room, there is a book on the shelf full of poems. They are poems I have written for my wife, and they are for her eyes alone. It is the most natural thing in the world for a lover to see the beauty of his beloved, and to subsequently sit down and write something about her—to agonize over sentences and phrases, and labor to present it in a way that is “just right.” When he talks about the beauty he sees, he is compelled to talk about her beauty beautifully, and his beautiful expressions have a reciprocal effect on his heart. His expressions adorn his beloved’s beauty and compel him to appreciate that beauty even more. The meditation itself is an expression of praise. And we know that a true appreciation for beauty will not allow for crass, lazy expressions of appreciation. It feels unseemly for me to say, “Yeah bro, my wife is hot.” No, that is unacceptable. The compliment is so incongruent with the nature of her beauty that it almost feels like an insult. She’s not a piece of meat. If I’m appreciating my wife’s beauty, I have to put some more effort into appreciating her beauty in a fitting way. I need to employ similes and metaphors and feelings. “She’s like a Lily among thorns.” “Her eyes are like the depths of the ocean.” “Her loveliness makes me afraid and brave all at once,” etc.
The same is true for our worship. If we are worshiping the eternally beautiful God, we should endeavor to make our praise fittingly correspond to his greatness. Now, it will never correspond enough because his worth is infinite, and we are finite. But we should ever-endeavor for our worship to increasingly fit the worth of the object of our worship, who is the Triune God. This means we should start where we are and move higher—further up and further in—forever.
So, what are the aesthetic concerns to which we should devote ourselves in corporate worship service?
Find out tomorrow in Part II of this essay.
 Gregory, Answers to Enomius’ Second Book, 272–73.
 I owe this insight to John Piper’s book, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C.S. Lewis.