Art, beauty, aesthetic pleasure in a world of Viet Nam, poverty, starvation, drug abuse, crime, the ecological crisis? Creation and enjoyment of beauty with a lost humanity on one hand and New Testament imperatives on the other? What do the arts mean for a believer in Jesus Christ faced with the Great Commission, the call to obedient discipleship, and the new life in Christ?

A Christian philosophy of the arts must be based upon the biblical view of God, man, and the world. Central to this view are the doctrines of creation, sin, and redemption. The Christian scholar who seeks a meaningful view of the whole range of human culture sooner or later wrestles with the crucial question of the relation of sin and redemption to God’s original purpose in creation.

The major premise of a Christian world-view, including a Christian aesthetics, is that God is the creator. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Viewing nature and man, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Here the infinite designer-artist takes pleasure in his creation. For the Christian the material order is neither intrinsically evil nor opposed to the spiritual order. It possesses the dignity and stamp of the Creator-God.

The New Testament word for the created order is kosmos, meaning arrangement, beauty, world. The verb form, kosmeo, means to set in order, to adorn, to beautify, to polish. These two Greek words convey two closely related concepts: beauty and order, both fundamental to a Christian aesthetics.

The cosmos reveals beauty and order not only in its original creation but also in its eternal purpose under a sovereign God. “For God so loved the world [the cosmos, the created order] that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). The key to the cosmos is Christ.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross [Col. 1:15–20].

Jesus Christ is the creator, sustainer, and goal of all created reality. He is the source, medium, and consummation of all things.

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For the Christian the world of created phenomena, the world apprehended through the senses, reveals the glory of God. The psalmist finds this thought too sublime for prose so he utters it in the beautiful parallelism of Hebrew poetry.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

their voice is not heard;

Yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and

their words to the end of the world [Ps. 19:1–4].

The Apostle Paul states the same thought in writing to the Romans:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made [Rom. 1:19, 20].

These passages teach that the visible world of nature reveals the invisible realm of supernature, God’s eternal power and deity. That which we know through the senses and that which is spiritual are closely linked in God’s creative purpose. Christianity, in contrast with all asceticism, whether religious or philosophical, places a high value on natural creation and rejects the world-denying dualism of matter and spirit, body and soul.

The crowning example of the dignity of matter and the intimate relation between flesh and spirit is the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God’s own invasion of human history.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father [John 1:1, 14].

The Apostle John saw grace and truth and glory as he looked upon Jesus in the flesh. A Christian artist sees in the incarnation God’s glorious “self-portrait.”

But what do these truths mean for the arts? In my view, the arts are a wonderful bridge between the two worlds into which God placed man by creation. The arts can lead to a mysterious synthesis of the material world of the senses and the spiritual realm. Firmly rooted in the here and now media of sights and sounds, they nevertheless convey not only the pleasure of the senses and emotions but also intellectual, moral, and spiritual insights. The Christian is free to enjoy beauty wholeheartedly on all these levels while at the same time he insists on the supremacy of moral and spiritual values.

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A Christian view of the arts rests on the biblical revelation of a sovereign, personal God who himself is ultimate truth, beauty, and goodness. This fact alone commits the Christian to seeking excellence in the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral realms. Moreover, a Christian in the arts finds it impossible to divorce beauty from truth or morality. His respect for God and ultimate truth means that he believes the arts must be subject to reasonable evaluation and criticism. This task, though difficult, is perhaps easiest in the verbal arts, harder in the visual and plastic arts, and hardest in the nonverbal, non-visual art of music.

Man is able to apprehend truth, beauty, and goodness because he is a rational being created in the moral and spiritual image of God. The Christian artist is convinced that a significant aspect of God’s image in man is his imagination, his mysterious and wonderful power to form new mental images. He believes that his urge to shape and create and his magnetic response to beauty derive directly from his creator. He creates in full and humble recognition that his abilities are not self-generated but rather given by God for his greater glory. The Scriptures affirm, “We love him because he first loved us.” To this we may add, “We create because he first created us in his image.”

In the presence of nature, a Christian is awe-struck by its profuse variety and extravagance, its infinite detail, its intricate design. In his love God had showered his gifts upon man without reserve. The Christian artist is compelled to share his creative gifts with others. He creates not merely for self-expression or psychological catharsis but out of a loving desire to communicate his view of beauty and reality to others.

Because man was uniquely created in God’s likeness, he was given a special commission as God’s agent over the natural order.

And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” [Gen. 1:28].

This command, sometimes called the cultural mandate, enjoins man to exercise his God-given power and dominion over the earth and nature. The psalmist expresses man’s noble task in these lines:

Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost

crown him with glory and honor.

Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy

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hands; thou has put all things under his feet.

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all

the earth! [Ps. 8:5, 6, 9].

Implicit in God’s command to subdue the earth is the responsibility to develop the entire range of human culture for man’s use under the sovereignty of God. Our English word culture derives from the Latin colere, to till or cultivate the ground. A comprehensive Christian definition of culture, in the words of Henry Van Til, is “the activity of man as image-bearer of his creator in forming nature to his purposes”; or “any and all human effort and labor expended upon the cosmos to unearth its treasures and riches and bring them into the service of man for the enrichment of human existence unto the glory of God.”

The arts are as universal as man. They exist in every human culture from the most primitive to the highly civilized. But how do they relate to the cultural mandate given man at his creation? It is easy to see how the sciences enable man to subdue and develop his environment, but what about the arts?

On one level the arts represent man’s celebration of his natural environment through his senses. On another, they embody his emotional responses to human experience. On still another level, the arts reflect man’s lifelong quest for meaning, for purpose, and his attempt through symbol and metaphor to bring unity to his fragmented existence. If the sciences represent man’s dominion over his physical environment, the arts on their highest level represent one phase of man’s cultural attempt to understand, control, and ennoble the psychological and spiritual areas of his life.

Thus far our consideration of the arts has centered in the biblical doctrine of God the creator and man the image-bearer and cultural agent of God under the creation mandate. We have omitted a crucial factor—sin, man’s rebellion against God, with the resulting defacement of God’s image in man, the subjection of nature to decay and death, and the perversion of human culture.

When man sinned, he did not lose his creaturehood, his humanity. Nor did God release man from the original creation mandate to multiply, to have power over nature, to use nature for his purposes. Man retains his cultural urge, his instinct to rule, his love of power, his ability to shape matter after his will. But culture now becomes an end in itself rather than a means to the glory of God.

Man’s culture becomes fragmented; the relation of the parts to the whole eludes him, and he worships and serves the creature (or creation) rather than the creator. Under the power of sin and Satan, man develops a self-centered culture that Augustine called the civitas terrena, kingdom of this world. By contrast, believers in Christ are motivated by the Holy Spirit to express their faith culturally in ways consistent with divine revelation and, therefore, glorifying to God. This concept of a faith-oriented culture Augustine called the civitas dei, kingdom of God. The resulting division of mankind into two opposing cultures is called by some “the antithesis.”

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One of the toughest questions for a thoughtful Christian arises at this point. What attitude should he take toward this deep-seated antithesis in human culture and what are his cultural responsibilities? He is called to be “in the world”; he remains a human being. Yet he is not to be “of the world” in the sense of sharing its sinful desires, practices, and goals.

The Christian, on the basis of divine revelation, is a convinced cultural optimist. He believes that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) and that God’s ultimate purpose for creation is redemption and restoration in Christ. The ruin of God’s image in man is already in process of restoration by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of twiceborn men.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit [2 Cor. 3:18].

More than this, the Christian is assured that this divine restoration will stop at nothing less than the complete transformation of his body into the likeness of Christ’s glorious body.

[He] will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself [Phil. 3:21].

And finally the believer is promised a fully restored environment, the redemption of all nature.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God [Rom. 8:19–21].

In the light of all this, the Christian’s cultural stance is characterized by faith and hope. He lives his present life in the light of the comprehensive and pervasive nature of God’s redemptive plan for creation. He rejects all ascetic withdrawal from the world, he scorns a convenient sacred-secular dualism, and he seeks to bring all of life under Christ’s lordship, realizing that for him all things are his and he is Christ’s.

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In the believer’s heart, that mysterious center of his being, God is transforming the defaced image of the first Adam into the image of Christ, the second Adam. As a member of the new humanity, Christ’s man begins to fulfill, though partially and imperfectly, the original cultural mandate given the first Adam.

But how should a Christian view the artistic products of a culture antithetical to Christianity? Is human culture so depraved that it reflects no truth, beauty, or goodness? The Scriptures teach that one aspect of God’s grace, sometimes called common grace, has to do with the restraint of sin, the maintenance of order, and the promotion of culture and civil righteousness in human life. Although the motivation and goal of human culture are sinful and selfish, unregenerate men are nevertheless enabled through common grace to produce works of relative truth, beauty, and goodness. God is the ultimate source of these qualities regardless of where they are found. For the Christian in the arts, the doctrine of common grace helps explain how unregenerate, even immoral men can produce artistic creations of enduring beauty and meaning. A Christian view of human culture must take seriously the antithesis between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world while at the same time recognizing the operation of common grace in worldly culture.

In this article I have tried to sketch the biblical and doctrinal bases for a Christian view of the arts. One of the greatest needs of contemporary evangelism is the development of a thoroughly biblical and Christian aesthetic and, in the case of the performing arts such as music, practical Christian criteria of performance.

We have only begun to bring the arts into captivity to Christ. For this profound and exciting endeavor Paul has given us a grand incentive:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things [Phil. 4:8].

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