Review: Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal, by Mark C. Mattes

[1] The “reappraisal” promised in the subtitle of this book is most obviously a reappraisal of Luther’s views concerning beauty.  Mark Mattes intends to establish that Luther is neither a “great foe of beauty” (1) nor the architect of the “disenchantment” of material reality (13).  The author’s larger objective, however, is to deploy Luther’s theology of beauty in a broader reassessment that offers “a new perspective on Luther, one that gives cosmic, historical, and social breadth as a counterweight or balance to the ‘existential’ depth that earlier generations of scholars have so ably described” (4).

[2] Beauty is a notoriously contested construct.  Accordingly, Mattes’ first task is to identify what notion of beauty will anchor his effort to piece together Luther’s “theology of beauty” in the absence of any systematic development of the topic in Luther’s own writings.

[3] The first chapter grants that Luther’s distinctively theological aesthetics centers on “strange beauty” (14, italics original; also 163, 181, 204)—hidden beauty, “concealed to human eyes and grasped only by faith” (71).  It is most clearly typified by the paradoxical beauty in the ugliness of the cross.  “Christ alone is beauty” (85).  Beauty just is Christ, in his death and resurrection, as the love and mercy of God—or again beauty is the faithfulness, the “beauty-in-giving,” of God (7; cf. 204: “God’s righteousness is God’s beauty”).  Thus, rather than presenting Luther as a figure who develops a distinctive theology from a shared sense of sensory or created beauty, Mattes argues, inversely, that Luther derives from his biblical theology an aesthetics that owes nothing to the senses —nor does it borrow from the understanding of beauty (and its place in Christian life and faith) prominent in scholastic theology.

[4] Indeed, Mattes argues that Luther actively and deliberately “undermines” the theology of beauty and desire that dominates his era (and ours), breaking the hold of Greek philosophy on theological aesthetics.  Medieval philosophers had adopted “the ‘analogy of being’ as the best description of the relation between beings and Being or between good works and the Good” (10)—and, by extension, between inferior degrees of beauty in created things and perfect beauty in God.  Within this medieval framework, human desire and the appeal of the beautiful had come to be seen as the means by which the human heart is drawn from lower forms of beauty to higher ones, and from inferior to superior goods.  Luther’s predecessors considered beauty to have a metaphysical basis; beauty (like Being, oneness, truth, and goodness) had been regarded as a “transcendental,” that is, a feature of “the structure of being as such” (10).  Luther rejects metaphysics because “the project of metaphysics” pretends—and fails—to achieve certain knowledge of “God’s being independently of God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ” (104).  A metaphysics of divine goodness and beauty wrongly assumes a continuum between God’s beauty and created beauty, thus domesticating transcendence and masking the self-will by which humans seek to establish parity with the deity (80).  For Luther, “insofar as beauty is tied to goodness, it too will only be established through the gospel and not through metaphysics” (67).  According to Mattes, the apprehension of “gospel beauty” is additionally complicated because it can only be disclosed via the unattractive and shattering experience of the hidden God’s alien work of destruction.  Giving particular attention to the contrast between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross prominent in Luther’s early works, especially the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, Mattes binds Luther’s theology of beauty to his theology of the cross and, by this means, to forensic justification: “The article of justification by grace alone through faith alone is not something other than or different from beauty, but instead articulates the core of what beauty most truly is, and even more importantly frees and so beautifies sinners and reveals this good earth as beautiful” (204).

[5] Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty thus offers a rich and complicated (if also in places repetitious) argument that reaches across the disciplines of history, aesthetics, philosophy, and theology—and engages a tangle of medieval and modern adversaries.  After the initial chapter framing the argument, there follow four sets of paired chapters.  Chapters 2 and 3 set Luther’s work in its historical context, the first examining Luther in relation to Aristotle and Plato, nominalism, and humanism, and the second placing Luther’s teaching on goodness in relation to medieval views in order to argue that the Reformation can validly be approached as “a debate over the nature of goodness” (48).  Chapters 4 and 5 (rightly described by Mattes as “the heart of this book” [11]) lay out Luther’s early and mature (1530s) considerations of beauty, emphasizing consistency throughout but tracing what Mattes interprets as Luther’s increasing reluctance to affirm the view that some degree of beauty inheres in all things.  Chapters 6 and 7, consolidating other recent work, consider Luther’s treatments of (respectively) music and the visual arts.  Chapters 8 and 9 represent Mattes’ assessment of the “implications of Luther’s view of beauty for contemporary theology” (13).  In chapter 8 the author contrasts Luther’s theological aesthetics with those of Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart (both assimilated to the Medieval paradigm), arguing that Luther offers “a path more faithful to the gospel” (157).  In chapter 9, he criticizes Rudolf Bultmann’s “misreading” of beauty as something that “lies beyond this life” (quoted on 184), before proceeding to concluding remarks that provide both a reprise and a map for future contributions.  Mattes has also assembled an extremely helpful bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, with the latter identifying abundant resources for readers interested in theological aesthetics, Luther’s engagement with music and the visual arts, or recent studies of Luther’s theology.[i]

[6] The path of argument is made challenging by the fondness of both Luther and Mattes for the logic of paradox.  Three pivotal paradoxes offer opportunities for pursuing what Mattes has demonstrated is a long overdue conversation.

[7] The aesthetic paradox: Things that are beautiful are ugly, and things that are ugly are beautiful.  Often Mattes’ observations in this vein are less paradoxes than provocative ways of capturing shifting points of view.  What qualifies as beauty is different from the point of view of God, the unjustified sinner, or the justified faithful believer.  While not involving paradox, such perceptual discrepancies do leave the author with the problem of differentiating and ranking various individuals’ apprehensions of the beautiful.  The author sometimes suggests that there are two different kinds of genuine beauty, gospel beauty and creation beauty (e.g., 111)–only the first of which is theologically interesting to Luther.  At other points, he adopts a distinction between false and true beauty (e.g., 95)—that is, between untrustworthy, merely apparent “beauty” by which the worldly are deceived and beauty in or before God, which is actual, though hidden, beauty.  Mattes’ management of these shifting aesthetic assessments does pass into genuine paradox in two ways: (1) That humans and God assess beauty differently is not always a simple matter of warped or partial human points of view.  In his discussions of God’s “alien” work, Mattes relies on Luther’s notion that the blessings of God are concealed in or under events (like the execution of Jesus or dehumanizing personal suffering) that, from all points of view, are ugly in their pain and destruction.  Yet paradoxically, these very events are also at the same time beautiful in that the alien and the proper work of God are folded inextricably together in them.  (2) Relying on thesis 28 of The Heidelberg Disputation, Mattes argues that God creates beauty out of nothing (11) and imputes it (94, 111) to the ugly (but repentant) sinner, with the result that the (repentant) sinner is apparently simultaneously both beautiful and still ugly in the eyes of God, just as the (repentant) sinner can be both clothed in alien righteousness and still sinful (80–83).

[8] In this context, however, what do the words “beauty” and “beautiful” actually add?  Or what does “aesthetics” add when, in his final chapter, Mattes contrasts a “theological aesthetics of perfectibility” (identified by Mattes with the theology of glory) against Luther’s own “theological aesthetics of freedom” (187).   Once the construct of beauty is completely broken apart from the sensory, the affective, or the intuitively attractive—when it is severed from materiality—it threatens to lose its distinctive meaning, operating by metaphorical extension and becoming simply a term of validation for moral goodness, divine activity, any instantiation of a high-level value—or whatever an author wishes to bless with highest approbation.  All of these things—virtues, values, right relationship with God, the promise at the heart of a theology, the gift of life, justification itself (94)—can be spoken about, perhaps more clearly, without invoking “beauty” or “aesthetics.”  What, then, is gained, for either Luther or Mattes, by calling them beautiful?  Is it to insist on affective response rather than cognitive belief?  Is it to shift the fundamental vector of the life of faith from sacrifice to delight?  Is it to rehabilitate human desire (rather than extinguishing it) by establishing desire’s proper subject and by affirming the human capacity responsively to recognize right relationship with God as profoundly attractive?  This issue lies at the heart of the book, for Mattes writes, “not only can one not understand Luther’s view of beauty apart from his doctrine of justification as God’s imputed righteousness to believers . . . one also cannot fully understand God’s justification apart from beauty” (110).

[9] The theological paradox: “God kills precisely in order to make alive.  God’s ‘alien work’ of wrath exists for his ‘proper work’ of mercy” (60).  While the theology of the cross provides a binary alternative to what Mattes characterizes as the scholastic theology of glory, the theology of the cross itself incorporates the paradoxical simultaneity of law and gospel, sin and salvation, the alien and proper work of God, wrath and consolation.   By the both–and logic of paradox, Luther holds together in dialectical interplay these elements that, broken apart, would create a false dichotomy or misleading hierarchy.

[10] There is room to wonder whether Mattes treats these dialectical partners as more of a temporal sequence than paradox entirely authorizes.  It sometimes sounds as if God’s alien work has to be completed, over and done with, before the sinner is made new.  Out of his strong condemnation of theologies of glory, Mattes emphasizes the law which “hounds” and “crushes,” the killing wrath of the left hand of God, accusation, disempowerment, the alien work of affliction and “bitter experience”—all arrayed to batter self-confidence, subvert natural love and reason, defeat self-sufficiency, overthrow self-esteem, subjugate pride, humiliate the ego, “expose human emptiness,” and bring the sinner through utter despair to worthlessness and finally to nothingness.   All of this, Mattes assures the reader, is “so that” God can “reestablish” sinners “as new creations through faith” (70).  This violent breakage is affirmed as the sine qua non of human receptiveness to the Gospel promise of new life and the merciful love of God whereby God cloaks the sinner in alien beauty.  Yet the effect (mitigated somewhat by chapter 3, “Luther on Goodness”) can be dispiriting, even repellant.  In a seminary class, one might pair the book with an essay like Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s “’Evil, Love and the Left Hand of God,’” which provides a valuable exploration of Luther’s implicit theodicy.[ii]  Reading the two together does two things: (1) Both authors, employing different vocabularies within the Lutheran framework, struggle to get from a darkly negative treatment of humanity and religious violence to beauty and hope.  (2) The conjunction of the two different approaches creates a space in which to question whether the left hand of God is actually the best starting point for addressing, in our times, those grace starved people of conflicted Christian faith or no identifiably religious faith at all.  In aligning the theology of the cross with an implicit theodicy, Kärkkäinen suggests rather that it is the appropriate study for those of firm and established faith who, in some version of the soul’s dark nights, are struggling to reconcile the world’s felt or observed evil with their faith in and trust of the love of God—a faith and trust that the ruin of the good threatens to destabilize.

[11] The paradox in the structure of the argument: The beauty of creation that Mattes completely discredits as a self-disclosure of God is restored to the justified as a gift of God and possibly even as God’s self-disclosure.  Mattes aligns Christian attention to the material beauty of creation (in which medieval theology and the exemplars of the nouvelle théologie treated in chapter 8—and, we might add, John Calvin—find a revelation of God that is attractive and alluring) with what Luther identifies in those early works as the theology of glory.  Having collapsed them into one, Mattes argues that Luther, in condemning the theology of glory, thereby denies that material beauty discloses anything about God.  Nonetheless, Mattes does, in a turn of argument, restore created, sensory, material beauty to the justified for whom “God opens our senses to delight in the wonder that he has built into the fabric of creation” (193).  After the alien work of God has been accomplished and the humiliated sinner, brought to Christ at last, receives God’s abundant love and mercy, the (repentant) sinner, clothed in the beauty of righteousness, will in that freedom discover the beauty of creation and appraise it rightly.  This comes to pass through  “renovation of the heart” that “leads to a ‘renewal of the senses’” (131).  This restoration is critical to Mattes’ treatment of Luther’s embrace of music and the visual arts, and it anchors his defense of Luther against detractors who blame the reformer for “disenchanting” the world.  Yet there are obscurities here.

[12] When Christians whose theologies differ from Luther’s speak of created beauty, can they always properly be assumed to be in thrall to some program of self-perfection?  Does rejecting material beauty as a means of self-perfection necessarily require rejecting out of hand the view that “to one degree or another, all creatures are beautiful since they are either vestiges (nonhuman creatures) or images (human creatures) of God, who is beauty itself” (70).  Mattes himself grants, in his criticism of Bultmann, that “beauty is of God’s making” (184) and further that “God speaks not only in the Scriptures . . . but also in all creation” (60).

[13] Must the faithful Lutheran consider all apprehensions of material beauty by those outside our circle of faith to be false or distorted?  If, as Mattes argues, it is only through justification that a person receives created beauty as a gift of God, how is that person’s apprehension of created or material beauty different from the apprehension of material beauty among the unjustified?   The author seems, at different points, to consider three possibilities:

  • The unjustified and those who are “new beings in Christ” apprehend the same sensory beauties with the same aesthetic delight, but such perceptions are uniquely enriched and enchanting for the faithful, for whom they also awaken joy in the glory of God and profound gratitude.  Contemplating created beauty, the faithful thus experience registers of emotion that are not shared by the unjustified.   This is consistent with the theme of two kinds of beauty, but, darkly, Mattes notes, “No doubt such beauty finally condemns those who fail to give God glory for it” (184).
  • The difference is a matter of adequacy and accuracy (14).  The unjustified apprehend created beauty but are not able to “appreciate beauty fully” (188) because their senses are compromised by egoism and their vision is blinkered by the defensive strategies of distrust (184).  Moreover, the unjustified too often regard as beautiful what simply happens to be to their advantage, wrongly assessing what the justified (rightly) regard as indifferent or ugly.
  • So pervasive is the perversion of sin that the unjustified have no access to actual beauty; godly beauty is hidden from them, and they are not “open” to creation (59).   Although they speak of beauty and fancy that some features of experience are beautiful, their perception is entirely corrupted.  Only the “new being in Christ” receives beauty, as she receives grace, and thus becomes capable of “appreciate[ing] the beauty that is in fact crafted in [creation] throughout” (12; also 60, 188).

Although the argument seems to waver among these accounts, it may be possible to harmonize them by making careful distinctions among natural beauty, human beauty, expressive artistic works, and the entire realm of technē (artifacts such as fur coats, Eames chairs, BMWs, the Golden Gate Bridge, iphones, lawn flamingos, and so on).

[14] Clearly Mattes has given us much to consider by exploring this neglected dimension of Luther’s theology.  His contribution is notable in combining heritage studies with a vital concern for the outreach of faith in our own place and time.  His exposition of Luther’s distinctive treatment of beauty, positioning it as he does in relation to both medieval theology and prominent contemporary figures, is forceful, detailed, and engaging.  The volume is thus a valuable, challenging, and durable addition to the rapidly developing field of theological aesthetics.






[i] To the list of secondary sources, I cannot resist adding especially Paul S. Chung, Martin Luther and Buddhism: Aesthetics of Suffering (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2008); but also: Kathryn B. Alexander, Saving Beauty: A Theological Aesthetics of Nature (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014); Edward Farley, Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001); Alejandro Garcia-Rivera, The Community of the Beautiful: A Theological Aesthetics (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999); Margaret R. Miles, Desire and Delight: A New Reading of Augustine’s Confessions (New York: Crossroad, 1991); Mayra Rivera, Poetics of the Flesh (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Gesa E. Thiessen, “Luther and the Role of Images,” in Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic Theology, ed. Declan Marmion et al. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017), 167–91; and Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ed., Theological Aesthetics: A Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans. 2004).

[ii] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “‘Evil, Love and the Left Hand of God’: The Contribution of Luther’s Theology of the Cross to an Evangelical Theology of Evil,” The Evangelical Quarterly 74:3 (2002): 215–34.

Diane (D.M.) Yeager

After retiring from teaching ethics and philosophical theology in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Diane Yeager is now delighting in a totally new phase of learning as a docent at the Smithsonian's  National Museum of Asian Art.