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Theological Aesthetics: A Reader

Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ed. (Eerdmans: Jan 1, 2005), 420 pages.

While interest in the relationship between theology and the arts is on the rise, there are very few resources for students and teachers, let alone a comprehensive text on the subject. This book fills that lacuna by providing an anthology of readings on theological aesthetics drawn from the first century to the present. A superb sourcebook, “Theological Aesthetics” brings together original texts that are relevant and timely to scholars today. Editor Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen has taken a careful, inclusive approach to the book, including articles and extracts that are diverse and ecumenical as well as representative of gender and ethnicity. The book is organized chronologically, and each historical period begins with commentary by Thiessen that sets the selections in context. These engaging readings range broadly over themes at the intersection of religion and the arts, including beauty and revelation, the vision of God, artistic and divine creation, God as artist, images of God, the interplay of the senses and the intellect, human imagination, mystical writings, meanings of signs and symbols, worship, liturgy, doxology, the relationship of word and image, icons and iconoclasm, the role of the arts in twentieth-century theology, and much more.

Chapter One

Divine Beauty, Purification and the Vision of God

1.1 Justin Martyr, from Dialogue with Trypho

Justin Martyr (c.100-165) was a Christian apologist and the first Christian thinker who sought to reconcile the claims of faith and of reason. Here he emphasizes the glory of God, which at times appears in visions. He makes an analogy between the image of the light of Christ, indivisible from the Father, and the light of the sun of the skies, indivisible from the light of the sun on the earth.

I have taken great care to prove at length that Christ is the Lord and God the Son, that in times gone He appeared by His power as man and angel, and in the glory of fire as in the bush, and that He was present to execute the judgment against Sodom. Then I repeated all that I had already quoted from the Book of Exodus concerning the vision in the bush, and the imposition of the name Jesus [Josue], and continued, ‘Gentlemen, please do not accuse me of being verbose or repetitious in my explanations. My remarks are rather lengthy because I know that some of you are about to anticipate them, and to declare that the power which was sent from the Universal Father and appeared to Moses, Abraham, or Jacob, was called Angel because He came to men (since bythat power the Father’s messages are communicated to men); is called Glory, because He sometimes appears in visions that cannot be contained; is called a man and human being, because He appears arrayed in such forms as please the Father; and they call Him the Word, because He reveals to men the discourses of the Father. But some teach that this power is indivisible and inseparable from the Father, just as the light of the sun on earth is indivisible and inseparable from the sun in the skies; for, when the sun sets, its light disappears from the earth. So, they claim, the Father by His will can cause His power to go forth and, whenever He wishes, to return again.’ (Ch. 128, pp. 346-7)

1.2 Irenaeus, from Against Heresies

Irenaeus (c.130-c.200), Bishop of Lyons, was the first great Christian theologian. In particular, he wrote against Gnosticism. In this extract he rejects the Gnostics’ claim of possessing and displaying a portrait of Christ along with images of Greek philosophers. He points out the visible and audible dimension of God, being all eye, all light, and he commends the Gnostics to learn the arts. He insists that humans, by their vision of God, will become immortal and that God, in becoming the incarnate, visible Son, reassimilated humans to the invisible God.

Some of them brand their disciples on the back part of the right ear lobe. One of them named Marcellina came to Rome under Anicetus and caused the destruction of many. They call themselves Gnostics. They have images, some painted, others made of various materials, for, they say, a portrait of Christ was made by Pilate in the time when Jesus was with men. They put crowns on these and show them forth with images of the worldly philosophers, that is, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and others, and pay them the same honours as among pagans. (Book 1, Ch. 25, para. 6, p. 94)

If they had known the scriptures and had been taught by the truth, they would know that God is not like men (Num 23.19) and that God’s thoughts are not like men’s thoughts (Is 55.8-9). For the Father of all is at a great remove from human emotions and passions; He is unified, not composite, without diversity of members, completely similar and equal to himself, since he is all Mind, all Spirit, all Mentality, all Thought, all Word, all Hearing, all Eye, all Light, and entirely the source of every good thing – as religious and pious men rightly say of God.

But he is still above this and therefore ineffable. For he is rightly called all-embracing Mind, but unlike the human mind; and most justly called Light, but Light in no way resembling the light we know. Thus also in regard to all the other appellations the Father of all in no way resembles the weakness of humanity, and while he is given these names because of his love he is considered above them because of his greatness.

Just as it is right to say that he is all Seeing and all Hearing – for as he sees he hears, and as he hears he sees – so it is also right to say that he is all Mind and all Logos, and in that he is Mind he is Logos, and his Mind is this Logos. (Book 2, Ch. 13, para. 3, 4, 8, p. 109)

Further, when they call themselves bound to accomplish all deeds and all actions so as to achieve them all in one life, if possible, and thus reach perfection, they are never found even trying to do what relates to virtue and involves labour and glorious deeds and efforts in the arts, approved as good by all. For if they ought to experience every work and activity, first they ought to learn all the arts, whether theoretical or practical or learned through labour and meditation and perseverance – for example, every form of music and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, and all the other theoretical disciplines. They should also study the whole of medicine and the science of pharmacy and all the disciplines developed for human health, and painting and sculpture and working in bronze and marble and other arts like these, as well as every form of agriculture and the care of horses and of flocks and herds, and the mechanical arts, which are said to involve all the others; and navigation, gymnastics, hunting, military science, kingship – without counting all the others. If they worked their entire lives they could not learn a ten-thousandth part of them. (Book 2, Ch. 32, para. 2, p. 121)

Therefore men will see God in order to live, becoming immortal by the vision and attaining to God. That is what, as I have said, was figuratively shown through the prophets, that God will be seen by the men who bear his Spirit and always await his coming, as Moses said in Deuteronomy (5.24), ‘In that day we shall see, because God will speak to a man and he will live.’ Some of them saw the prophetic Spirit and its work in all kinds of gifts poured forth; others saw the coming of the Lord and his ministry from the beginning, by which he achieved the will of the Father as in heaven, so on earth (Matt 6.10); still others saw the Father’s glories adapted in various times to men who saw and then heard, and to those who would hear subsequently. Thus, then, God was manifested; for through all these things God the Father is shown forth, as the Spirit works and the Son administers and the Father approves, and man is made perfect for his salvation. (Book 4, Ch. 20, para. 6, p. 152)

And thus was the hand of God plainly shown forth, by which Adam was fashioned, and we too have been formed; and since there is one and the same Father, whose voice from the beginning even to the end is present with His handiwork, and the substance from which we were formed is plainly declared through the Gospel, we should therefore not seek after another Father besides Him, nor [look for] another substance from which we have been formed, besides what was mentioned beforehand, and shown forth by the Lord; nor another hand of God besides that which, from the beginning even to the end, forms us and prepares us for life, and is present with His handiwork, and perfects it after the image and likeness of God.

And then, again, this Word was manifested when the Word of God was made man, assimilating Himself to man, and man to Himself, so that by means of his resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father. For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created. Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both these: for He both showed forth the image truly, since He became Himself what was His image; and He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word. (*Book 5, Ch. 16, para. 1 and 2, p. 544)

1.3 Origen, from De Principiis

Origen (c.185-254), who lived in Alexandria and Caesarea, was a major patristic theologian. He engaged especially in biblical criticism. In this passage he explores central metaphors and analogies used in our speaking of Christ, such as light, glory and the express image of God.

For we must of necessity hold that there is something exceptional and worthy of God which does not admit of any comparison at all, not merely in things, but which cannot even be conceived by thought or discovered by perception, so that a human mind should be able to apprehend how the unbegotten God is made the Father of the only-begotten Son. Because His generation is as eternal and everlasting as the brilliancy which is produced from the sun. For it is not by receiving the breath of life that He is made a Son, by any outward act, but by His own nature.

Let us now ascertain how those statements which we have advanced are supported by the authority of holy Scripture. The Apostle Paul says, that the only-begotten Son is the ‘image of the invisible God’, and ‘the first-born of every creature’. And when writing to the Hebrews, he says of Him that He is ‘the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person’. Now, we find in the treatise called the Wisdom of Solomon the following description of the wisdom of God: ‘For she is the breath of the power of God, and the purest efflux of the glory of the Almighty.’ Nothing that is polluted can therefore come upon her. For she is the splendour of the eternal light, and the stainless mirror of God’s working, and the image of His goodness. Now we say, as before, that Wisdom has her existence nowhere else save in Him who is the beginning of all things: from whom also is derived everything that is wise, because He Himself is the only one who is by nature a Son, and is therefore termed the Only-begotten. (Book 1, Ch. 2, para. 4-5, p. 22)

Rather, therefore, as an act of the will proceeds from the understanding, and neither cuts off any part nor is separated or divided from it, so after some such fashion is the Father to be supposed as having begotten the Son, His own image; namely, so that, as He is Himself invisible by nature, He also begat an image that was invisible. For the Son is the Word, and therefore we are not to understand that anything in Him is cognisable by the senses. He is wisdom, and in wisdom there can be no suspicion of anything corporeal. He is the true light, which enlightens every man that cometh into this world; but He has nothing in common with the light of this sun. Our Saviour, therefore, is the image of the invisible God, inasmuch as compared with the Father Himself He is the truth: and as compared with us, to whom He reveals the Father, He is the image by which we come to the knowledge of the Father, whom no one knows save the Son, and he to whom the Son is pleased to reveal Him. And the method of revealing Him is through the understanding. For He by whom the Son Himself is understood, understands, as a consequence, the Father also, according to His own words: ‘He that hath seen me, hath seen the Father also.’

But since we quoted the language of Paul regarding Christ, where he says of Him that He is ‘the brightness of the glory of God, and the express figure of his person’, let us see what idea we are to form of this. According to John, ‘God is light’. The only-begotten Son, therefore, is the glory of this light, proceeding inseparably from [God] Himself, as brightness does from light, and illuminating the whole of creation. For, agreeably to what we have already explained as to the manner in which He is the Way, and conducts to the Father; and in which He is the Word, interpreting the secrets of wisdom, and the mysteries of knowledge, making them known to the rational creation; and is also the Truth, and the Life, and the Resurrection, – in the same way ought we to understand also the meaning of His being the brightness: for it is by its splendour that we understand and feel what light itself is. And this splendour, presenting itself gently and softly to the frail and weak eyes of mortals, and gradually training, as it were, and accustoming them to bear the brightness of the light, when it has put away from them every hindrance and obstruction to vision, according to the Lord’s own precept, ‘Cast forth the beam out of thine eye’, renders them capable of enduring the splendour of the light, being made in this respect also a sort of mediator between men and the light.

In order, however, to arrive at a fuller understanding of the manner in which the Saviour is the figure of the person or subsistence of God, let us take an instance, which, although it does not describe the subject of which we are treating either fully or appropriately, may nevertheless be seen to be employed for this purpose only, to show that the Son of God, who was in the form of God, divesting Himself [of His glory], makes it His object, by this very divesting of Himself, to demonstrate to us the fulness of His deity. For instance, suppose that there were a statue of so enormous a size as to fill the whole world, and which on that account could be seen by no one; and that another statue were formed altogether resembling it in the shape of the limbs, and in the features of the countenance, and in form and material, but without the same immensity of size, so that those who were unable to behold the one of enormous proportions, should, on seeing the latter, acknowledge that they had seen the former, because it preserved all the features of its limbs and countenance, and even the very form and material, so closely, as to be altogether undistinguishable from it; by some such similitude, the Son of God, divesting Himself of His equality with the Father, and showing to us the way to the knowledge of Him, is made the express image of His person: so that we, who were unable to look upon the glory of that marvellous light when placed in the greatness of His Godhead, may, by His being made to us brightness, obtain the means of beholding the divine light by looking upon the brightness. This comparison, of course, of statues, as belonging to material things, is employed for no other purpose than to show that the Son of God, though placed in the very insignificant form of a human body, in consequence of the resemblance of His works and power to the Father, showed that there was in Him an immense and invisible greatness, inasmuch as He said to His disciples, ‘He who sees me, sees the Father also’; and, ‘I and the Father are one.’ And to these belong also the similar expression, ‘The Father is in me, and I in the Father.’ (Book 1, Ch. 2, para. 6-8, pp. 24-6)