Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty

A Reappraisal

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Mark C. Mattes
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , August
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the contemporary context, critical reflections about the nature of beauty lie underdeveloped, especially 

within the Protestant theological tradition. And yet, within everyday life, material beauty saturates our common experiences, usually chained to consumptive practices, as in an enticement to awaken a desire to purchase some new gadget. What’s more, following the aesthetic thought of Kant, artistic beauty has no wider purpose, making a visit to an art museum merely an act of contemplation on the nature of art, rather than any sustained reflection about the efficaciousness of beauty to evoke the divine. This larger aesthetic structure thus resonates well with Weber’s claim about the “disenchantment” of the world in which reason shapes a discourse that negates any transcendent power for beauty.  

It is fair to say that these issues lie behind Mark Mattes’s argument in Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal. In many ways, the argument as a whole responds to the view that Luther is a primary cause of this disenchantment, seen for instance in Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (Harvard University Press, 2015). Mattes is right to stress the importance of exploring Luther’s view on beauty. Being shaped, in part, by a medieval world rooted in the neo-Platonic affirmation of the importance of beauty, he is deeply aware of the importance of beauty as a theological concept. That said, Mattes’s task is not an easy one, since Luther’s theologizing pivots around making sense of God’s gracious act of justification as the central task of theology, meaning beauty is embedded within this task, rather than existing as an independent concept. 

As a result, Mattes firmly roots beauty within Luther’s theological horizon, exegeting its contours out of his views on forensic and effective justification, his law and gospel distinction, as well as his distinction between the hidden and revealed nature of God. Doing so offers energy to a stagnant debate about the importance of beauty in the Protestant tradition. This deep and rich engagement of the thought of Martin Luther showcases the value of Mattes’s work, since unlike themes such as justification and social ethics, Luther and the tradition he originated has a relatively limited engagement with an account of beauty. 

Because Luther’s understanding of beauty arises out of his view of justification, Mattes’s argument requires a number of interpretive turns. For one, he details how Luther anchors his notion of beauty to his theology of the cross. As Luther insists on a strict divide between human-derived worldly knowledge and the knowledge of God, worldly beauty is thus not a rung on the ladder of a neo-Platonic influenced analogy of being. There is no way for worldly beauty to help one ascend to experience God as the source and end of all forms of beauty. Because of the hiddenness of God, any understanding of true or divine beauty is always ambiguous. 

Instead, beauty, according to Mattes, fits well then within Luther’s law/gospel distinction, and appears in the world as counter to human aesthetic expectations. Rather than a ladder for a human ascent to the divine, God in Christ lowered himself within the act of forensic justification, thereby becoming beauty’s opposite: the ugly. This unmooring of worldly beauty from desire and ascent opens the way for ugliness to point the way to God; understanding beauty must begin with the worldly ugliness of Christ on the cross. In the process, worldly beauty is exposed as a false means of relating to God, instead offering the means to truly understand the ugliness of human nature as sinful and unattractive when seen apart from God’s actions in Christ.

In the second turn, Mattes sees in Luther’s idea of the gospel a re-formation of creaturely beauty that allows a Christian to enjoy worldly beauty. Christ on the cross frees one from human attempts, via desire and works, to approach God. Through the mercy-filled promise of the gospel, effective justification opens up an ever grace-filled potential to both become beautiful (by identifying oneself with Christ) but also see and hear the goodness of God amidst creation. Here, the medieval ideas of beauty as proportion, integrity, and light, which Luther was familiar with, become evaluative tools to appreciate beauty, though now limited to the horizontal realm of the material world and not connected to any claim about God. Music, even without words, becomes an act of praise, while visual art can offer means to educate and address the reality that humans are imagistic creatures.

In making this argument, Mattes offers a close reading of texts from the early Luther (1510s through the 1520s) and the later Luther (1530s through the 1540s). He also places Luther amidst the various philosophical traditions within the medieval world, including scholasticism and nominalism. He ends with a venture into contemporary aesthetic conversations, including Nouvelle Théologieas well as post-modern debates about artistic beauty. These last few chapters are the weakest argumentatively, as they lack the close reading of Luther’s thought within its context that characterizes the rest or the book. Nonetheless, Mattes offers a needed corrective to a simplistic view that Luther offers nothing significant to add to a conversation about beauty.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peder Jothen is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at St. Olaf College.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark C. Mattes is professor of philosophy and religion at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. He previously served parishes in Illinois and Wisconsin. Mattes has authored, edited, or translated a number of books and is an associate editor of the Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions. He also serves as associate editor for Lutheran Quarterly and as a contributing editor for Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology.


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