A Reformed Perspective on Natural Beauty

The universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God. ~ Belgic Confession of Faith

Swiss Alps

The Protestant Reformers spoke often of the beauty of creation. Indeed, natural beauty[1] plays an important role in some of the early chapters in Calvin’s Institutes. He writes,

Since the perfection of blessedness consists in the knowledge of God, he has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity…to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him. His essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse….[W]herever 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….[T]he elegant structure of the world serv[es] us as a kind of mirror, in which we may behold God, though otherwise invisible (I.v.1)

Creation’s beauty universally reveals the immense glory of the Creator leaving no man with an excuse for his infidelity. Knowledge of God is communicated in creation, and man in an unfallen state would be perfectly receptive and responsive to it. Creation’s beauty is God’s beauty revealed, and this beauty’s “immense weight of glory” should overwhelm us. Despite what many think, beauty matters to Reformed theology.

In this post, I present a Reformed perspective on natural beauty. It is not necessarily the Reformed perspective on natural beauty. I attempt to apply certain Reformed principles to the subject, and other Reformed Christians might disagree, even among those who care about beauty’s place in Reformed theology. I limit myself here to natural beauty. Much of what I say can be applied to art, including and perhaps most importantly to public aesthetics (e.g., architecture). I begin with a short discussion on the medieval perspective and then I discuss my Reformed perspective.

I. Beauty in Medieval Thought

The medieval perspective on natural beauty (and perhaps beauty in general) is best expressed by the contemporary theologian John Milbank: “to see the beautiful is to see the invisible in the visible…the hidden divine source irradiating the finite surface” (from Milbank’s “Beauty and the Soul”). To experience the beautiful is to witness the divine ‘behind’ the visible. The divine, though invisible, is present in the visible object, as something added to or part of it. We encounter the infinite and invisible divine in the finite and visible creation.

Such an experience is transcendental. It moves us ontologically toward the divine up the “chain of being.” We transcend nature toward a higher state of being—toward Being itself. Natural beauty, then, is not found in nature by itself, but in nature made complete by the addition of a divine substance. “Grace perfects nature,” as Aquinas wrote, by the joining of nature with the divine.

The experience of beauty in medievalism is also eschatological. One encounters the future glory to be realized upon the completion of one’s ontological ascent to the divine through the Church’s sacramental system and purification in purgatory. The Church, as the sole mediator of grace, is indispensable to encountering divine beauty clearly.

II. Beauty and the Reformation

The Protestant Reformers rejected the Thomistic view that grace, as an additional substance, perfects nature, pseudo-Dionysus’s Great Chain of Being, and the medieval understanding of ecclesiastical mediation. On this rejection, Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck writes,

The grace kept and distributed by the [Roman] Church far transcends nature. It is true this grace is, among other things, gratia medicinalis, but this is an accidental and adventitious quality. Before all else it is gratia elevans, something added to and elevating above nature. As such it entered into the image of God given to Adam before the Fall, and as such it again appears in the restoration to that original state…..The Reformation rejected the entire system, and substituted for it a totally different conception of veritas, gratia, and bona opera….Calvin widened the conception to that of fides salvificans,—a faith which renews the entire man in his being and consciousness, in soul and body, in all his relations and activities, and hence a faith which exercises its sanctifying influence in the entire range of life, upon Church and school, upon society and state, upon science and art.[2]

The Reformers claimed that grace renews nature. Grace is not a substance, but a divine action. It does not add anything to nature. Thus there is no ontological elevation above nature, but a renewing toward nature. I discuss this and related issues here and here.

This carries over to natural beauty. No longer is creation’s beauty an encounter with the divine substance “irradiating” from the visible. Beauty is not seeing the ontologically higher substance behind or with the object. Creation’s beauty is creation itself. As Jeremy Begbie puts it, “Creation’s beauty is not…something that lives in a land beyond the sensual or behind the material particular or beneath the surface, or wherever—to which we must travel. Creation’s beauty is just that, the beauty of creation.”[3]

Despite this “flattening,” as many would unfairly call it, this down-to-earth understanding of creation’s beauty does not lead Reformed theologians to reject creation as a revelation of God’s attributes.  As quoted above, the Belgic Confession states, “the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.”[4] Calvin wrote, “As soon as we acknowledge God to be the supreme architect, who has erected the beauteous fabric of the universe, our minds must necessarily be ravished with wonder at his infinite goodness, wisdom, and power.”[5] He also said:

We see, indeed, the world with our eyes, we tread this earth with our feet, we touch innumerable kinds of God’s works with our hands, we inhale a sweet and pleasant fragrance from herbs and flowers, we enjoy boundless benefits, but in those very things of which we attain some knowledge, there dwells such an immensity of divine power, goodness, and wisdom, as absorbs all our senses.[6]

So it is true , according to Reformed theology, that we encounter God in creation. But this is not an elevating encounter. It is not sacramental in the medieval sense (though, as I argue below, I do think that it is sacramental in the Reformed sense). We encounter in creation an analogy of God attributes. Jonathan Edwards says that natural beauty is analogous to “spiritual excellencies”:

There is really an analogy, or consent, between the beauty of the skies, trees, fields, flowers, etc. and spiritual excellencies…When we behold the light and brightness of the sun, the golden edges of an evening cloud, or the beauteous bow, we behold the adumbration of [God’s] glory and goodness….There are also many things wherein we may behold his awful majesty:….in comets, in thunder, in the towering thunder clouds, in ragged rocks and the brows of mountains.[7]

The appeal to analogy is not new. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas’ use of it is crucial to his philosophy. But we need not appeal to Thomas’s analogia entis (analogy of being). This would undermine the Reformed project. For the chain of being theology and the analogia entis are mutually supporting. Reformed theologian Scott Oliphint has argued persuasively for a Reformed understanding of analogical predication (analogia revelationis). I quote from his book Reasons for Faith at length.

With a duality of being (that of Creator and creature) rather than a scale of being, as in Aquinas, theological predication could be developed in a different direction, though analogical predication could be maintained….Knowledge of God comes, first of all and immediately, by way of creation. That is, as Paul says (Rom 1:19), that which is known about God is evident to us because God made it evident in us and to us, through creation. Those things which we see and observe, therefore, including ourselves, are all God’s modi significandi. They are God’s way of signifying what he knows…Creation, therefore, has as its basis God’s modus cognoscendi, and it is essentially God’s modus significandi. (115)

Based on the discussion above, goodness is a concept gleaned first by way of revelation. That is, we know of God’s goodness because he has revealed himself as such. And that knowledge comes by way of the revelation of God in creation. (116)

In other words, since all that we know of God is his modus significandi, goodness as applied to him is true; it comes from his modus essendi. But it is also, as known to us, limited, and analogical, since it is predicated of and by the One who is simple. His modus essendi is not and cannot be known as such (that is, we cannot fully comprehend the concept of simplicity), but can be known as revealed….The term itself when predicated of God and of creatures is analogous because it is revealed by him, thus based on his essential nature. It is revealed by him but on a creaturely level. (117)

It is revelation that assures continuity between the term as applied to the creatures and the same term as applied to God…We can, however, say that, because the term comes from the revealing activity of God, it is true and tells us something meaningful about him (though always on our level) about his character. The foundational point of Thomas’s concern, therefore, has shifted from being as a primary guide, to God’s revelation as that guide. (118)

What Oliphant is getting at is the following. Instead of a scale or chain of being there is a duality: the Creator/creature distinction; and creation itself, without any additional supernatural substance, sufficiently reveals God, albeit on a creaturely level. There is no scale or chain of being between the two. Creation itself is God’s signification of his attributes to creatures, and creation does not and cannot reveal God’s essence (that would be pantheism). In other words, God signifies his power in creation, for example, by displays of power in creation, and this display of power is limited yet sufficient for a creaturely knowledge of God.

This is a long and rather complicated way of saying that God reveals himself in his works. The point is that in Reformed theology creation itself is God’s revelation to his creatures. Or, to put it differently, creation is God’s self-disclosure of his self-knowledge to those who cannot comprehend such knowledge apart from a condescension of God to a creaturely level. Creation, in itself, is God’s gracious condescension to creatures and is complete and sufficient for a complete creaturely knowledge of God. This is what led Calvin to claim that “nature is God” (Institutes I.i.5): nature fully and sufficiently signifies God to us. (See here for more on Calvin’s view of general revelation).

The experience of natural beauty, then, reveals the beauty of God to us. While there is no divine substance “irradiating” from the surface, the beauty of the object or landscape is a revelation of the beauty of God. And the experience of creation’s beauty should cause us to know and praise God for his beauty. Commenting on Calvin view of general revelation, Benjamin Warfield writes,

The knowledge of God with which we are natively endowed is therefore more than a bare conviction that God is: it involves, more or less explicated, some understanding of what God is. Such a knowledge of God can never be otiose and inert; but must produce an effect in human souls, in the way of thinking, feeling, willing. (citation)

The works of God in creation should cause an effect in our thinking, feeling and willing. Why? Because we are creatures meant for creation. Creation itself, prior to the Fall, was sufficient for the knowledge of God; and this knowledge of God was sufficient to produce pious worship. Only after the Fall was special revelation (Scripture) necessary. The prelapsarian state was one of conformity and harmony with creation. Humans ‘sang’ along with creation. In my post on Reformed public aesthetics I quoted a poem by the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet (see here for more on Puritan poetry):

I heard the merry grasshopper then sing.
The black-clad cricket bear a second part;
They kept one tune and played on the same string,
Seeming to glory in their little art.
Shall creatures abject thus their voices raise
And in their kind resound their Maker’s praise,
Whilst I, as mute, can warble forth no higher lays?

The proper response to the beauty and majesty of creation is joining and leading the choir of creation. This is why aesthetic education is so important. Only one who cherishes uncultivated beauty can cultivate beauty. J. S. Bach could not have written such beautiful cantatas without first being ravished by the beauty of creation. Reformed Christians must value the aesthetic. We must return to creation, which is God’s beauty revealed.

III. Eschatological Beauty

However, according to Reformed theology we must also wean ourselves from the beauty of creation. This might, at first, seem like a contradiction. How are we to return to creation and wean from it at the same time? In my post on Puritan faith (here), I argued that Calvinist theology does not hold to a gnostic-like rejection of creation. Weaning from the world simply means that one holds onto the promises of God for something better over the present world. In other words, to love the beauty of creation too much at present can tempt one to think that creation at present is the epitome of beauty, that the promise is already visually realized. But Christians have been promised in Christ much more. So “weaning from the world” is simply cherishing the promises of God for a better eschatological future. It is a rejection of this present creation only in light of the promised eschatological creation. Creation at present is not bad, evil, or even less than good. It is glorious. It just isn’t comparable to what it will become. So one ought to reject the world only in light of the promised eschatological world. We should love the present world, but we should set our ultimate affections on the world to come.

There is duality here: the present good world and future perfected world. What I want to suggest is that Reformed Christians can perceive or experience the beauty in both worlds. We’ll the call the former “present creation” and the latter “eschatological creation.” I already discussed beauty in the present creation above. This is God analogically revealed in a necessarily limited yet sufficient way for creatures. God’s beauty is seen in his works. But I want to suggest that Christians have something I call “eschatological perception.” To see what I mean by this, I’ll start with a quote from Barbara Pitkins on Calvin’s view of faith:

In his interpretation of this pass [1 Cor. 13:9] Calvin contrasts faith as knowledge of God through the word with the full vision of God on the last day. Yet he also portrays faith as a kind of perception, since it is faith that now beholds God’s image in the word. There is thus both a disjunction and continuity between the present world and the realm to come. On the one hand, he suggests that faith as knowledge in the present world will give way to completely different mode of apprehension (i.e., sight) in the world to come: knowledge in the present, seeing in the future. On the other hand, faith already has a kind of obscure ‘vision’ in the present that will be completed by the full vision of God.[8]

According to Pitkins, Calvin views faith as more than just knowledge or even a trusting of that knowledge. It is a form of perception or sight. Bunyan “saw” his righteousness in heaven when he “saw” Christ’s righteousness in heaven. Faith is a form of perception of the things to come. Read Calvin’s comments on 2 Corinthians 5:16-18:

“[the Apostle Paul] sets before us two men, so you must place before your view two kinds of life—the earthly and the heavenly. The outward man is the maintenance of the earthly, life, which consists not merely…in good health, but also in riches, honours, friendships, and other resources….Observe the expression, looking at the things which are unseen, for the eye of faith penetrates beyond all our natural senses, and faith is also on that account represented as a looking at things that are invisible.”

The “eye of faith” permits us to see beyond present creation to the see the “heavenly” man. That is, we can ‘see’ our eschatological life by faith.

This eschatological perception includes, I suggest, a perception of the eschatological creation. We must keep in mind that we exercise faith in the promises of God. This includes both a resurrected body (the direct subject of Calvin’s quote above) and a renewed creation (Rev. 21:2). When we exercise faith in these promises, we can ‘see’ the future. Thus when we see the beauty of God in creation’s beauty, we can exercise faith and ‘see’ the future beauty to come.

Thus there is a transcendence in the experience of beauty: we soar by faith to the future. It is not an ontological escape, but a time-travel of sorts. The vision is obscure, yet it is a foretaste of the future glory. John Bunyan, in Pilgrim’s Progress (Part I, Stage 8), allegorizes this perception with the following.

Let us [the Shepherds] here show the pilgrims the gates of the Celestial City, if they have skill to look through our perspective glass. The pilgrims lovingly accepted the motion: so they had them to the top of a high hill, called Clear, and gave them the glass to look. Then they tried to look; but the remembrance of that last thing that the shepherds had shown them made their hands shake, by means of which impediment they could not look steadily through the glass; yet they thought they saw something like the gate, and also some of the glory of the place.

celestial city
Pilgrims in Sight of the Celestial City by Henry Dawson (1854)

In the Reformed sense of the term “sacramental,” creation is indeed sacramental. When experienced by faith, it takes us beyond the present state of things. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper does something similar. It is the rehearsal dinner for the future marriage feast with Jesus Christ, the Lord of creation, and his bride, the Church. In participating in the Supper, we are taken beyond this present world to the future one. The future breaks into the present. We are in a state of living in both worlds at once. Our experience with the beauty of creation ought to be the same. We see the present creation with our senses while also seeing by faith the consummated creation to come.

The faithful Christian’s experience of nature’s beauty is both an immanent and transcendent encounter. It is immanent because creation itself is God’s self-disclosure, his sufficient revelation to us. This alone should cause us to rejoice and praise him. But it is also transcendent for the reasons given above: by faith we see the future glory. As transcendental, beauty is sacramental: present natural beauty is a sign of things to come and when viewed by faith it can take one beyond to catch glimpses of the ultimate beauty to come.

This is a uniquely Reformed perspective because it relies on the knowledge of promises. To exercise faith one must know the object of faith: the content of the promises of God. We trust that Christ has accomplished already all that God has promises to us in him. To do this, we must know the content of the promises. Hence the preaching and teaching of the Word is indispensable to eschatological perception. Just as the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper has no effect without being connected to the preaching of the Word, the experience of beauty lacks sacramentality without the Word. Eschatological perception can only occur when one has knowledge of the promised eschaton. Otherwise, one experiences nothing but either a fancy or only the beauty of the present state of creation.

We should notice too that non-believers can experience the immanent beauty of creation. Of course, they fail to recognize the significance and source of the beauty. But they can still identify it. Eschatological beauty, however, can be experienced only by those exercising faith in the promises of God. Only believers in the Gospel can perceive by faith the world to come.

I’ve limited this discussion to beauty nature, but the same could be applied to developed places. I argued here that developed places must be “cultivated” in such a way that that they continue to show forth the glory of God. Cultivated places should be foretastes of the furnishing of heaven. In other words, even human cultivation should be objects for eschatological perception to see the future New Jerusalem.

IV. Eschatological Perception

A difficult question to answer is, what is it like to have this eschatological perception? Does it defy description? This is, I admit, difficult to answer with clarity. It is clear, however, that it is not sense-perception; it is faith-perception. I will attempt to explain this.

One could say that this perception is like hearing a melody in a tune. We hear the melody in a sequence of sounds. But on close inspection of each sound there is no melody present in the acoustics. We ‘hear’ the movement of melody in sequences of sound, yet the melody is not reducible to the sequence. It takes a perceiver of melodies to hear them in sequences of sounds. When you stop and think about it, hearing melodies in music is quite remarkable. It is hard to image tune deafness: you hear all the sounds, but cannot hear the music. In some way, we perceive the melody in hearing the sequence of pitched sounds. Similarly, by faith we perceive the world to come by seeing this present world. The perception of the invisible future ‘arises’ from the visible present.

Another example that sheds light on this form of perception is found in the phenomenology of encountering faces. I know this sounds odd, but bear with me. Philosopher Roger Scruton, writing on the human face as that which directs us to address oneself as “I” (first-person) and another as “you” (second-person) instead of “he” or “she” (third-person), says the following:

Seeing a face as a face means going beyond the physical features in some way, to a whole that emerges from them as a melody emerges from a sequence of pitched sounds….My face is also the part of me to which others direct their attention, whenever they address me as ‘you’. I lie behind my face, and yet I am present in it, speaking and looking through it at a world of others who are in turn both revealed and concealed like me….This means that the human face has a kind of inherent ambiguity. It can be seen in two ways—as the vehicle for the subjectivity that shines in it, and as a part of the human anatomy.[9]

When we encounter another human, we direct our attention to the face, and it is in that phenomenological experience with that face that we perceive the selfhood and subjectivity of this object before us. As another phenomenologist, Emmanuel Levinas, puts it, the face of the other “beckons” us to transcend appearance. This language might sound rather odd, but we do this every day. We see another with the senses and we also perceive that this object has personhood or selfhood as we do. We do not literally see another’s personhood. To put it in Christian language, we perceive the image of God in the people we encounter. In Kantian and modern language, we recognize their dignity as fellow members of the “kingdom of ends.”

Our perception of the world to come is similar to these uniquely human perceptions. Our perception of the beauty of the eschatological creation is not simply image-flashes in the mind. It is more like obscure visions of the ineffable. It is not a form of mysticism or like pseudo-Dionysius’s vision of the Celestial Hierarchy. It is like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress seeing the brightness of Celestial City on the horizon but not yet seeing the city’s gates. This is not much different than the medieval view of encountering the divine “source” behind the physical. We see past the appearances to a world beyond, only this world beyond is the eschatological creation of the future, not Being itself.

I admit that my attempt to describe the perception of eschatological beauty lacks clarity. But I’m in good company, because I find no place in Calvin where he made the attempt. He says, counterintuitively, that “faith is…looking at things that are invisible” (emphasis mine). How can one look at the invisible? “Looking,” of course, is used metaphorically for a form of perception. But that illustrates the problem: all descriptors are metaphors. It is difficult to get to the literal. I do not have a satisfactory answer to this problem. I will simply say, with Calvin, that the future glory can be perceived by faith.

This post is groundwork for what I hope becomes a discussion among Reformed Christians on the subject of beauty, especially on the perception of eschatological beauty. I welcome the reader’s thoughts.

[1] I do not care for the term “natural beauty.” It makes it seem that man is outside of nature, that nature is something ‘out there’. As creatures, man is part of creation and thus part of nature. See part two here for a discussion on this. Still, I will continue to use the term nature as the undeveloped space. I use “creation” and “nature” synonymously.

[2] Calvin and Common Grace. trans by Geerhardus Vos. The Princeton Theological Review Vol. 7 No. 3 (1909), pp 437-465. Found at http://richardsibbes.com/_hermanbavinck/BAVINCK-Calvin.pdf .

[3] “Created Beauty: The Witness of J.S. Bach, in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, 25. His emphasis.

[4] The Belgic Confession can be found at http://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/belgic-confession.

[5] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms (1-94), Vol. IV (Edinburgh: Baker Books), 308. Calvin commenting on Psalm 19:1.

[6] Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Vol. I (Edinburgh: Baker Books), 57.

[7] “Miscellanies” 108, Works, 13:278-279.

[8] Barbara Pitkins What Pure Eyes Could See (Oxford: Oxford Press, 1999), 60.

[9] Roger Scruton The Face of God, 77-78, 80.

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