biblical principles of aesthetics header

The next few articles in this series compose the fourth chapter of my forthcoming book, According to His Excellent Greatness: The Practice of Aesthetics for Christians Today.

Biblical Principles of Aesthetics

In Philippians 4:8, Paul tells Christians directly what to pursue in art and otherwise. One will notice that, unlike non-Christian schemata of aesthetics and discernment, the Bible does not erect an impenetrable dividing wall between morality and material excellence:

The Bible does not erect an impenetrable dividing wall between morality and material excellence.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

The biblical assessment of goodness always presupposes the union of objective excellence and moral uprightness, where moral uprightness is the necessary first condition. The canyon Western culture has excavated between craft and virtue has debased the arts, and a recovery of true beauty will require a joining together again of what man in his folly has put asunder. Toward this end, let us consider each of the facets of Paul’s command as it applies to the area of aesthetics.

Whatever Is True

This is the first principle of biblical aesthetics, and it is the first tier of determining whether we should reject a given work of art. We should not endorse any artwork that presents or represents reality in such a way as to advance a lie. This would obviously apply to literature or lyrics that tell lies outright, but it also applies to the more subtle prevarications that God-hating artists insinuate indirectly into the frameworks and assumptions of their presentations. One does not need to say a word to tell a lie. But what is a lie?

Many people invoke the word “truth,” but few can provide a substantial working definition of it. If we are to meditate on what is true, we must have renewed minds that understand truth the way God would have us understand it. As with any other area, we must rely on the Word of God as our guide.

We can start with a discussion of what the Bible says concerning “bearing false witness.” Have you ever wondered why David, “a man after God’s own heart,” deceived the King of Gath by representing himself in an “untruthful” way as a mad man (1 Sam. 21:10f )? Why is Rahab in the Hall of Faith for “lying” (Heb. 11:31; James 2:25)? Why did the Hebrew midwives receive favor and honor from God for deceiving the Pharaoh (Exod. 1:19)? We must refrain from saying that Rahab, David, and the Hebrew midwives did wrong, since God implies, or outright declares, that they did right.

What is it to be truthful, then? Is it merely to be in accord with the facts? Is fiction less true than non-fiction? It is less factual, of course, but does that mean it is any less true? If an author writes a book he intends to be a compendium of facts, it is obviously dishonest for him to make up or embellish the facts he includes in his book. But fiction writers, composers, and visual artists are no less exempt from some standard of truth. Fiction may not be constrained by fact, but it must be constrained by truth.

Truth comprises all facts, but facts do not compose the entirety of truth.

It should be clear that truth is larger than factuality. The elements of the Scripture that are figurative do not have to be factual to be true. Even if we never see a giant, multi-headed beast crawl out of the sea and persecute Christians, we can still learn something true from Revelation about how the enemies of God become enemies of Christians. Many Christians today misunderstand the use of the figurative and literal in the Scriptures because they conflate truth and fact. Truth comprises all facts, but facts do not compose the entirety of truth. [1. The widespread adoption of a positivist epistemology has created a huge exegetical problem for the church. For example, many Christians interpret Genesis figuratively because “the facts” of “science” contradict the traditional reading, while others interpret Revelation literally because they believe this the most faithful rendering of the text.]

This also means that much fiction proves false not because it is imagined, but because it “bears false witness” concerning the truth to the detriment of the hearer. We must begin to understand that truth is covenantal. It is not relative, but it is relational. God keeps words of truth in the same sense that He keeps His promises (Ps. 146:6; Prov. 22:12). He also keeps truth by preserving His faithful remnant as a “pillar of truth” (Mal. 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:15). One does not necessarily lie by withholding facts or even by altering facts to preserve the truth and to preserve the lives of covenant-keepers.

Sometimes, telling a tall tale is bearing a true witness. And at other times, telling the facts is bearing false witness against your neighbor.

God makes little distinction between the speaker of truth and the truth itself. Proverbs 22:12 can be correctly translated, “The eyes of the Lord keep knowledge [keep watch over knowledge], but He overthrows the words of the treacherous.” But another correct translation reads, “The eyes of the Lord preserve him that has knowledge…” Notice also that Jesus is called The Word. To cherish the truth is equated with cherishing Jesus. God keeps the truth by preserving Jesus even to the point of raising Him from the dead.

This also sheds some light on why the ninth commandment does not say, “You shall not lie.” Rather, it says “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” God forbids using words to attack a covenant keeper. Jesus said the same thing differently: “Be shrewd as serpents, but harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). We are not to set ourselves against the truth or against those within the promise of truth. Sometimes, telling a tall tale is bearing a true witness. [2. Consider Nathan’s parable of the rich man, the poor man, and the unblemished ewe which he told David to convict him of his sin with Bathsheba (in 2 Samuel 12). When Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” he was making an incorrect statement as far as the “facts” were concerned: David was not factually the rich man in the story, and he had not stolen a ewe from a poor man. But Nathan, though he did not tell the facts, bore true witness in fiction, as evidenced by David’s repentance.] And at other times, telling the facts is bearing false witness against your neighbor. [3. In 1 Samuel 22, Doeg the Edomite tells Saul the absolute facts concerning David’s help from Ahimelech the priest. Though he related the flat facts, Doeg bore false witness against Ahimelech, who had not truly intended to thwart Saul by helping David. Doeg proved his witness was against his neighbor when he willingly slaughtered Ahimelech and the other priests of the Lord.]

Two Kinds of Knowledge: Transcendence and Immanence

Two approaches to knowledge are conceivable. You can know by being transcendent above all things. This would result in objective knowledge. God has this kind of knowledge; He is in the heavens without any limitations or finiteness, therefore He can know that something is true or factual absolutely.

The other route to true knowledge is through immanence, or indwelling. This would result in a knowledge constrained by the boundaries of the system within which you are immanent, but it renders knowledge nonetheless. Transcendent knowledge promises exhaustiveness; immanent knowledge—specificity.

To illustrate this point, I am typing on a computer right now, and I (ideally) have objective knowledge of the workings of my word processor. I press the keys with a near absolute assurance of how my actions will manipulate the black electronic markings on my screen. I even possess some knowledge of the way the program itself works. Some have knowledge of the program’s code. They might be able to recognize what passages from the code I put into effect with each keystroke.

But how many people understand the functioning of the word processor at the level of machine language? What about at the level of binary code? I doubt there is a single human on earth—no matter how computer savvy—who could follow the binary code this word processing program accesses and generates with the same effortlessness with which I am using the program to type these words.

Effortless knowledge at the basement floor of understanding is truly subjective knowledge—true knowledge through immanence and intimacy. Though we don’t often think of it, God has this kind of knowledge too! It is possible that there is a spectrum of knowledge analogous to the spectrum of light:

We see knowledge in frequencies from red to violet, but God can see microwaves below, gamma rays above, and beyond. Transcendent knowledge lies invisibly above our understanding, while immanent knowledge hides below it. How can we get it?

Transcendent knowledge lies invisibly above our understanding, while immanent knowledge hides below it. How can we get it?

Through the Incarnate Christ, we have access to “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” which includes both immanent and transcendent treasures. God, the immanent and transcendent, has revealed knowledge to us in Christ, His Word, in a way that we can understand. But we must be careful.

As fallen humans, finite even in perfection, we will never be absolutely transcendent over or absolutely immanent in reality. This means that we must rely on God’s revelation of Himself to us. The major problem with most science is that it attempts to achieve absolute transcendence through methodological objectivism. This doesn’t work. The problem with most art is that it attempts an absolute immanence through methodological subjectivism. This also fails. [4. One could argue that much art generalizes or abstracts experience in order to come to transcendent truth, whereas much science deals with the particularization of knowledge at the foundations of reality. A case could be made that art and science both have their own brands of transcendence and immanence, but it is my contention that they have epistemological tendencies in discernible directions. Art trends toward methodological subjectivism within a coherence theory of reality, whereas science trends toward methodological objectivism within a correspondence theory of reality.]

Intimacy with God is the only path to true knowledge. Because we live in a scientistic (though not scientific) culture, we tend to consider subjectivity as a detriment to true knowledge, but the Bible does not see it this way. The seat of reason in the Scriptures is not the head, but the heart. In many English translations of Proverbs, certain verses tell us that the fool “lacks sense” or “is stupid” when the Hebrew literally says that “the fool lacks heart.” [5. Prov. 6:32; 7:7; 11:12; 12:11; 15:21; 17:16, 18; 24:30; Eccles. 10:3.]

Notice also that “Adam knew his wife, and she conceived” (Gen. 4:1). When Jesus says, “I never knew you” to the unbeliever, He means, “I have never had intimate communion with you” (Matt. 7:23). In the Scriptures, knowledge is directly related to intimacy. Because we cannot achieve transcendence over reality (since we cannot become God), we must achieve an assurance of knowledge by becoming intimate with Christ. Therefore, any path to knowledge that does not start with the complete reverence and intimate adoration of God—the “fear of the Lord”—leads only to destruction (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7).

The seat of reason in the Scriptures is not the head, but the heart.

Whereas our transcendence merely pictures God’s, our immanence is real. Immanence as a road to knowledge more aptly suits finite creatures; for this reason, the Bible gives preeminence to intimacy over objectivity as the foundation of human epistemology.

What does this all mean for the arts? When correctly preconditioned by a fear of God, art functions as a search engine for immanent knowledge and truths. We should not allow our minds to long meditate on art that does not bear a true witness of immanent truth as we have received it through the intimate dealings of the Spirit in the Word. Christians must reclaim the arts. They belong to us by right, though they have been hijacked by liars.

Only Christians can rightly understand knowledge through intimacy because we alone have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). We should have practical experience in immanent endeavors because of our daily walk with the Word. The shallowness of the majority of contemporary Christian art belies a difficult fact: we, as a church, have drifted far away from Christ; we know about God, but few of us truly know Him.