Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal

Title of Work:

Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal

Author of Work:

Mark C. Mattes


Pastor Jeremiah Gumm

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What is beauty? 

One might respond with the old adage, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” In many ways, beauty is subjective. What I consider to be beautiful is likely going to differ from that of the person standing next to me, which is likely going to differ from the person on the other side of the room. In a culture dominated by relativism and the subjective, such a view of beauty makes sense. 

Yet is it actually possible to have an objective understanding of beauty, where one’s understanding of beauty is grounded in objective truth? Many would answer that question with a resounding “NO!” Where the reality of objective truth is denied, the common view goes something like this: “Your beauty is beautiful to you. Mine is beautiful to me, but ne’er the twain shall meet.” Nevertheless, could the reality of Christ and his glory hidden in the cross as revealed in the Word be the key to how an objective understanding of beauty could be a reality? Could the key to an objective understanding of beauty be found in our “Beautiful Savior”? 

Confessional Lutherans have often shied away from the subject of beauty. Beauty is difficult to pin down. Luther himself never developed an intentional, organized theology of beauty. As a result, “the topic of beauty in Luther has rarely been examined” (1). Yet in Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty, Mark Mattes breaks new ground in Luther scholarship as he examines Luther’s writings as they pertain to the subject of beauty. In doing so, Mattes provides us with a thought-provoking reappraisal of beauty in the Reformer’s theology. 

For a book that is only 226 pages, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty is not a light read. In the early chapters, Mattes delves deeply into the various schools of medieval philosophical thought—nominalism vs. realism, Aristotelianism vs. Neoplatonism, the grammar of theology vs. the logic of philosophy, and the influences of mysticism. He parses out their various views of beauty and being and the goodness of God, all of which influenced Luther in some way. Some of this ground is covered in Siegbert Becker’s The Foolishness of God, which Mattes cites positively in his examination of Luther’s use of philosophy (15). While this section is not an easy read, it is well worth the context that Mattes provides. 

The reader will quickly discover that even when Mattes delves deeply into the philosophical or theological weeds, he provides the reader with helpful “For Luther” cues that clarify how Luther viewed the subject at hand. Each “For Luther” statement proves to be the route to clarity when compared to either the Scholastics or the moderns. Why is that? Luther went back to the clear truths of Scripture, allowing its light to shine in the confusing darkness of medieval philosophy and scholastic theology.  

For example, Luther defines the goodness of God through the double matrix of the distinction of Law and Gospel and the two kinds of righteousness—our vertical righteousness before God through Christ and our horizontal righteousness towards our neighbor in our God-given vocations. Similarly, as Luther’s early theology of humility developed into his mature theology of the cross, so also did he mature into an objective understanding of beauty—beauty is found in the hidden glory of Christ crucified.  

Where Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty really shines is when Mattes demonstrates how and why Luther avoided falling into various ditches by walking what we would describe today as the “narrow Lutheran middle road.” Luther neither fell into the ditch of the iconophile, whose mystical contemplation and veneration eventually became the worship of images, nor the ditch of the iconoclast, whose Neoplatonic opposition to the physical opposed the use of any imagery in the church. Instead he held to the view that “the gospel images” and does so not only in a didactic way, but as regenerative, even transformative for God’s people (153-154). 

One would expect music and worship to be covered by any treatment of beauty. While much has been written in Luther scholarship about the Reformer’s views of music and worship, Mattes uniquely examines how Luther’s view of music as a gift from God helped the Reformer to understand that music conveys beauty (esp. 130-131). Mattes also provides an insightful section on the connection between Luther’s view of the beauty of music and the premise behind his The Freedom of the Christian (128). 

Mattes proposes a Lutheran response to modern views of beauty, especially in light of attempts to divide the sacred from the secular. For Luther, our world is not sacred versus secular. Rather, in our world we see God–his beauty and goodness, our brokenness and our need for him–everywhere, even in art that is intended to be secular. God keeps breaking through even when we try to eliminate him from the imagery. 

This point was brought home vividly in a recent visit to the Imagine Museum in St. Petersburg, FL, which specializes in contemporary glass art. One of the special exhibits was entitled Blue Madonna, highlighting various faces of the Virgin Mary as the epitome of femininity and the “spiritual aspect of womanhood” as expressed around the world. The exhibit focuses attention on a large blue image of Michelangelo’s Pieta. However, the artist didn’t just focus on Mary’s face, but rather the entire Pieta. The focus of that work? The body of Christ recently taken down from the cross. That imagery struck me because even in this art exhibit focused on womanhood, Christ was still there, breaking through. 

Mattes concludes that “Luther’s work falls short of a grand, unified theory of beauty. However…the topic of beauty appears at important junctures in his assessment of the impact of justification by grace alone through faith alone on doctrine and spirituality” (187). Ultimately, justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ is what defined and transformed Luther’s theology of beauty. The fact that Christ is “for us” transformed Luther’s view of every aspect of human life, even suffering. Life became a life lived beneath the cross, where even its most mournful moments still contain the hidden beauty of God’s grace in Christ. Through unattractive means, God still gives us precious treasures of grace and salvation, because he gives himself. The unattractive and ordinary become precious and extraordinary. The finite conveys the infinite. “Through Christ, God is seen for the beauty that God is. ‘The ugliness of the cross belongs to us, whereas the beauty is God’s.’” Through the lens of justification, our ugly world becomes beautiful because here we receive God’s goodness. “Though deformed through sin, this beauty can be seen and enjoyed by those granted new life through grace” (188-189). 

Going back to our original question, “What is beauty?,” Mattes demonstrates that we need not concede beauty as subjective. Rather we can have an objective understanding of beauty when life and our world is viewed through Christ and his cross. He writes,  

“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. Thus God offers a world focused not only on tasks but also on enjoyment—treasuring the gospel, but also treasuring innocent delights, such as song, opened up by the gospel and being thankful for them” (204). 

Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal is strongly recommended. The reader would be wise to remember that this book is often a heavy read, but well worth the effort to dig into this rarely studied aspect of Luther’s theology.