The Kingdom and the Arts

The interplay between art, artists, and the local church is a topic of ongoing relevance.[1] However, while an emphasis on art and an inviting posture towards artists can certainly serve as a bridge between culture and the church, a lingering and more primary question still remains: biblically, how ought Christians to think about art in general? By way of answer, I am here putting forward a brief theology of the arts, as informed by another theological concept: the kingdom of God.

Contours of the Kingdom

A common contemporary definition of the kingdom of God is as follows: God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.[2] This explanation highlights God’s particular rule over believers. In addition, Scripture indicates that there is a sense in which God’s rule is universal, extending to all that exists.

Employing these two categories (particular and universal) recognizes that while God’s rule is comprehensive, He does not rule in the same way at all times over all peoples. Some are willing subjects of His rule, and others are not. As such, there is a spiritual antithesis between believers and non-believers, although both are within the universal kingdom.

Another aspect of the kingdom is that it is both present and prospective. While Jesus inaugurated the kingdom during his first coming, it will not be consummated until he returns. In the meantime, God’s people live under God’s rule.

The consummated kingdom will involve a physical place, namely, the new heaven and new earth. However, when God’s people assemble as the local church now, “place” is more of a metaphysical than a physical reality. It is a proleptic in-breaking of life as it will be when believers one day gather in heaven. Instead of (as in a family reunion) cultivating a space that resembles where a group of people came from, when believers gather in the local church they cultivate a space that resembles where they are going.

Theological Aesthetics

One traditional theological framework that has been used by Christians to think about art is the triad of goodness, truth, and beauty. These three are often referred to as “transcendentals,” in that they are rooted in ultimate being, and transcend the bounds of culture.

Conceptually, seeds of this triad are found in Plato, and then given full expression in Ficino’s fifteenth century commentaries on Plato’s dialogues. While indeed Platonic in pedigree, this triad was adopted by Christians as a concise summary of the biblical teaching on aesthetics.

While goodness, truth, and beauty are all interrelated and complementary, beauty has a unique role. Positively, beauty can lead one to worship, but negatively, to idolatry. This is why the controls of truth and goodness are so important.

Beauty on its own terms could very well be whatever one conceives of it. But this is never the way that the Bible approaches beauty, because beauty is seen as originating in the divine perfections, which are simple (thus beauty could never be opposed to any of the other divine perfections).

The Intersection of the Kingdom and the Arts

Believers are citizens of both the universal and the particular kingdom. Because of this, Christians have cultural commonality with non-Christians, but not spiritual accord. This makes discerning the place of art all the more difficult. Is it merely a neutral cultural artifact that can be leveraged for good or evil? This is a question that theological aesthetics is well poised to answer.

A theological framework for aesthetics grounded in the divine life suggests that art is not neutral. As Christians, we must not divorce our contruction and evaluation of art from that which is beautiful, good, and true. To remove any one of these will lead to a distorted aesthetic. Still, this triad does not need to be slavishly employed. Christian art should highlight the truth of the tension between the present and prospective kingdom. In doing so, art will involve dischordant components, and will bring attention to the presence of both good and evil in the world.

Indeed, Christian aesthetics must be shaped by the now-and-not-yet nature of the kingdom. In Christ, the eschaton (marked by truth without the admixture of error, goodness without opposition from evil, and beauty without the ugliness that comes from distorted proportions and asymmetry) has broken into the present – though not fully. This kingdom reality helps to explain why we presently perceive art with tension as authentic, and art without tension as phony.

 

Christian art should highlight the truth of the tension between the present and prospective kingdom. In doing so, art will involve dischordant components, and will bring attention to the presence of both good and evil in the world.

Still, art, from a Christian perspective, should never devolve into a rehearsal of the world’s brokenness without also featuring the realities of redemption. A proper kingdom perspective will serve as a reminder that the telos of creation is not ultimately bound up with tension, but release. While there is truth in exposing the evil that is now present in this world, ultimately truth will endure while evil will not.

A kingdom outlook – in particular the notion of the coexistence of believers and unbelievers within the universal kingdom – can also serve as a reminder that the fall has not wholly disabused humanity of the ability to produce and recognize “good” art. For the regenerate, artistic excellence can and should lead to worship. For the unregenerate, artistic excellence serves as a present extension of common grace, but ultimately as a basis for condemnation.

Finally, it is worth considering the ultimate purpose of art through a kingdom lens. Whether or not one’s cultural products will endure into the consummated kingdom, there is no biblical basis for the abdication of excellence in the inaugurated one. Christians should seek to promote aesthetics that reflect the divine perfections, as well as their hope of the new heaven and new earth. This includes steering clear of sub-Christian artistic expression (e.g., the profane), as well as so-called “Christian” art that suggests an either over or under-realized kingdom theology (e.g., a lack of tension with the former, or a lack of quality with the latter).

 

 

[1] For example, see the following: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-to-discourage-artists-in-the-church

[2] See “The Gospel & Kingdom” in Graeme Goldsworthy, The Goldsworthy Trilogy, (London: Paternoster, 2007).

About Tim Harmon

Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.