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Review of "Luther's Theology of Beauty" by Mark C. Mattes

Review of "Luther's Theology of Beauty" by Mark C. Mattes


Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal by Mark C. Mattes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 240 pp.

reviewed by Miikka E. Anttila

When I finished my doctoral thesis on Luther’s Theology of Music I hoped that some more capable theologian would investigate the themes I had accidentally come across: Luther’s theology as a theology of beauty and pleasure. In his Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty, Mark C. Mattes has fulfilled my wish. His title does not indicate a distinct issue within Luther’s thinking, such as the role of art in Christian worship or more remote issues such as Luther’s artistic likings or aesthetic principles that may be traceable in his writings.

Rather, Mattes’s study is an outline of Luther’s theology approached from the perspective of beauty. And beauty, perhaps unexpectedly, appears to be an all-encompassing feature in Luther. For sure, Luther’s ideas about music and art play a part there, but the theology of beauty points beyond that. As such, this book is a refreshing “reappraisal” (as the subtitle puts it) of Luther’s theology that may be welcome also to those not particularly fond of Luther. The aesthetic reading of Luther makes his theology more accessible (and acceptable) for a twenty-first century public. One can therefore hope that even laypersons and non-theologians might read Mattes’s book. That is also possible because, although written with a profound expertise, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty does not fatigue the reader with foreign scholarly terminology.

At the outset, Mattes notices that Luther does not have the reputation of being an aesthetic thinker. However, beauty is not an insignificant concept in Luther’s thinking—unless one regards the doctrine of justification itself as insignificant. That is precisely the greatest virtue of the book: Mattes goes straight to the core. Speaking of beauty is speaking of righteousness—and no one can deny that that is a central topic in Lutheran theology. Perhaps the most memorable formula of the doctrine of justification from the Heidelberg Disputation makes the point: “Sinners are beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.”

After the introductory chapter, Mattes begins his discussion with Luther’s use of philosophy. Even a superficial reading of Luther’s texts suffices to show that Luther used constantly the tools of philosophy, with precision, even as a preacher. After all, his career was that of a university professor. There has been dispute about whether Luther was a nominalist or a realist (to mention the two medieval philosophical schools). In Mattes’s view, Luther’s stance was somewhat eclectic: he borrowed ideas from both and rejected aspects of both. ”For nominalists, grace elevates nature by requiring humans to honor what God has enjoined them to do via covenant (pactum), while for realists, grace perfects humans as they more and more conform to eternal law. For Luther, both views fail to love God for his own sake because we seek our own self-fulfillment as we exercise our potential even in our quest for salvation” (25).

This is the main problem concerning the aesthetic approach in general. Again, the question has been raised whether Luther was promoting the idea of double truth, which would mean that a truth can be valid in theology but not in philosophy, and vice versa. It seems better to state that the matter of theology exceeds the scope of philosophical inquiry and requires therefore another grammar. Christian theology employs rigorous logic, though only as faithful to the grammar of theology. Philosophy does not set the agenda for theology. Since the concept of beauty is, for Luther, more theological than philosophical, this notion has a bearing for his aesthetics, too.

An important theme in the book is juxtaposing Luther’s thinking with that of medieval tradition concerning beauty and goodness. The medieval tradition was informed by Platonism. The deepest desire of the human soul (eros) drives humans toward beauty, and the highest beauty is eternal and spiritual. According to Pseudo-Dionysius, all beings, even the ugly ones, participate in beauty based on their mere existence. That stance is also called pancalism (from Greek words pan, “all,” and kalos, “beautiful”). The fact that beauty belongs together with being itself makes it one of the transcendentals (of which the others are oneness, being, and goodness). Transcendentals are proper to the structure of being and common to all creatures, whose existence is due to their participation in being. While the position of beauty among transcendentals was not undisputed, it is closely related to the good. “For beauty is a disposition of the good in so far as it pleases the apprehension,” taught Alexander of Hales. Thomas Aquinas found three criteria of beauty: integrity, proportion, and brightness.

Luther was steeped in this tradition of medieval aesthetics. He does not see the criteria of beauty otherwise than Aquinas, as quotes from both Luther’s early Psalm lectures and late Genesis commentary reveal. Yet he challenged this idea of beauty with theological grounds. Mattes labels the medieval idea and Luther’s idea respectively as the “aesthetics of perfectibility” and “the aesthetics of freedom.” The Platonist idea of beauty was that of human perfectibility. Human desire for beauty craves after higher beauty and, ultimately, God. Highly influential as this view was, Luther saw a possibility of self-righteousness therein. When desire is the defining feature of the self, then the self seeks itself in all things, wants the satisfaction of its own desire, and so is curved in on itself (incurvatus in se). The beauty of freedom looks and feels different from the beauty of perfection: it comes as a gift, not as an achievement. Mattes summarizes the difference between these two:

“The aesthetics of perfectibility looks to fulfilling the law as a way to achieve the desire of ultimate union with God in the beatific vision, while the aesthetics of freedom receives God’s favor to sinners, which unites them with Christ as a bride is united to her groom. It appreciates this world as a locus of God’s goodness and refuses to disparage it as secondary or inconsequential to the heavenly.” (188)

As this quote shows, there are numerous ways in which Luther’s view of beauty differs from the medieval tradition. One important aspect is the paradoxical beauty of Christ, which is a token of justification itself. “What makes Christ beautiful simply violates the standard medieval criteria of proportion, clarity and perfection. In aligning himself with sinners of all sorts, Christ associates with the disproportionate, the dark, and the imperfect, and he himself becomes all this ugliness. Hence, Christ’s beauty is one which is ‘hidden under the opposite appearance’” (96). In the cross of Christ there is supreme beauty concealed beneath the most abominable ugliness.

Thus, in Luther’s view, the beauty and goodness of God are not fully understood outside of Jesus Christ. The medieval criteria are overturned in the gospel: Christ who is beauty itself became ugly by identifying with sinners so that humans made ugly through sin might become beautiful in God’s eyes. This is the aesthetic version of the doctrine of justification.

Another issue taken up in this book is the appreciation of the physical and bodily existence of human beings. Platonism has a built-in hierarchy that favors the intellect over the body, form over matter, eternity over time, and the transcendent over the immanent. In contrast, Luther wanted to highlight the tangibility of God’s grace and its ability to saturate “ears, eyes, and heart.” This is precisely the greatest blessing of music as a medium of the Word: it comes through the ears and moves the human heart so that one leaps and dances.

Accordingly, Luther repeatedly uses terms related to sense perception for faith, such as “see,” “touch,” or “taste.” He urges those oppressed by sin and harassed by God’s accusing law to take hold of or apprehend Christ. One can do this because God makes himself to be a graspable God. What Luther has to say about the visual arts is also due to his conviction that God’s revelation comes only as mediated through physical things. In accordance with iconophile church fathers like John of Damascus, Luther can say that God addresses humans, inescapably physical beings, through outer means and images. Sacramental realism is more than an opinion concerning the baptism and the eucharist. It is a view of the theological relevance of the physical world.

As known, Luther disputes the analogia entis vision of the creation as an analogy of God’s being. That does not mean that God does not work through creation. Creation does not provide a ladder to God but is a free gift of grace. The problem is that analogy says too little to describe God’s works: that creatures are channels of his providential care is no mere analogical relation but a means of God’s love. A celebrated image from The Large Catechism explains that a mother nursing her child is not merely analogous to God’s parental care but instead the very means whereby God provides milk for the infant! Creation is not therefore a stairway to the eternal but instead an address of God to His people.

Human desire does not attain God’s beauty, neither as a reward nor as an achievement. Nevertheless, desire has a role to play in the aesthetics of freedom, where beauty is received as a gift. In faith we enjoy and rejoice in this world securely. Since human life is no longer about self-fulfillment, human desire is resituated, desiring what God desires and not what kind of reward one receives from God. Desire is not extinguished. Rather, sinners cannot get enough of God’s beauty; they revel in it and dance for joy in it.

Mattes builds his argument on the close scrutiny of Luther’s works. The early and the mature Luther are treated in separate chapters. The early sources are primarily the first Psalm Lecture, the Romans commentary, and The Freedom of a Christian. The most important texts of the mature Luther that discuss beauty (often implicitly) are the later Psalm commentaries, the Galatians commentary, and the Genesis lectures. Mattes takes advantage of the work of Oswald Bayer and authors of the Finnish Luther school, among others, in his analysis.

The book includes also a conversation with the nouvelle théologie, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and David Bentley Hart. These are the most important authors that have tackled the concept of beauty in the modern theology. In this section Mattes defends Luther against accusations that he was promoting the “secularization” or disenchantment of Western thought. Mattes claims in contrast that, for Luther, all creatures were masks of God (larvae Dei). The faith created by the gospel opens up an “enchanted view” of nature. Each creature is full of wonder and mystery. But Luther’s enchanted world is free from the attempt to self-justify through merit by climbing the itinerary of the spiritual ladder. For all the benefits of the nouvelle théologie, Mattes discerns there the upward movement of perfection that Luther forcefully renounces. However, I kept wondering if, with an ecumenical goodwill, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s stance could be seen as being closer to Luther?

Luther’s theological aesthetics points beyond morality. Without a sense of beauty, Christianity is in danger of becoming joyless moralism. The same holds of the postmodern perspective on art, which has increasingly become devoid of beauty and therefore moralistic. One has not only moral but also aesthetic obligations as a Christian. “But the gospel not only makes one to be Christ to the neighbor, it also opens one to the world as gift—as creation. It entails a conversion to the world, a turning toward the creature” (Oswald Bayer). In Luther’s words, “the more intimately one knows God, the more one understands the creatures and is attached to them” (186). However, this new aesthetic apprehension of the world is not something we must achieve on our own, “but instead the effect on the senses of a heart finding its safety and security in God’s word” (186).

A beautiful book indeed, which, in the words of Daniel A. Siedell, “liberates the Reformer from his own tradition” that has seen in Luther merely an existential thinker and has neglected the great aesthetic potential in his theology. Despite the continuous flow of books about Luther in the Reformation Jubilee 2017, the word “groundbreaking” is not an overstatement. One hardly expects that there are new things to learn from Luther any more, but Mattes’s book opens new avenues for Luther studies. Luther’s theology of beauty is an important aspect in an era when the rapprochement of theology and aesthetics is underway. Lutheran Christianity is a delightful and passionate way of life that perceives beauty even where it is hidden from the human eyes.

Miikka E. Anttila is a Lutheran scholar and pastor based in Janakkala, Finland.
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