Is the Bible Blind to Womanly Beauty?

Don’t know if you’ve followed this, but Tim Challies kicked up a bit of an Internet storm recently when he helpfully suggested that it was a good thing for Christian wives to give attention to their appearances for the betterment of their husbands.  He was responding to a post a few months ago by blogger Rachel Held Evans, who registered disagreement with Challies’s post.  In response to Evans, Southern Seminary professor Mary Kassian suggested something of a middle way in which womanly attractiveness matters but only as a reflection of God’s far more lustrous beauty.

I found the discussion interesting and worthwhile not because this is a matter of outsized theological importance but because it relates closely to issues surrounding men, marriage, and beauty, all topics that interest me.  Kassian’s theocentric rendering of womanly beauty jibes with material I published with Douglas Sweeney in the book Jonathan Edwards on Beauty (Moody, 2010), part of the five-volume Essential Edwards Collection.  Edwards was an aesthetician if there ever was one.  Wherever he saw earthly beauty he saw a reflection of God, who was not only beautiful but was beauty himself.

Here’s a snatch from the book which quotes Edwards’s notebook on “types” (page 49-50 of JEOB):

There are some types of divine things, both in Scripture and also in the works of nature and constitution of the world, that are much more lively than others. Everything seems to aim that way; and in some things the image is very lively, in others less lively, in others the image but faint and the resemblance in but few particulars with many things wherein there is a dissimilitude. God has ordered things in this respect much as he has in the natural world. He hath made man the head and end of this lower creation; and there are innumerable creatures that have some image of what is in men, but in an infinite variety of degrees. Animals have much more of a resemblance of what is in men than plants, plants much more than things inanimate. (Works 11, 114)

One day, the pastor took a walk that unfolded the way natural beauty reflects spiritual beauty (pp. 41-42 of JEOB):

God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the daytime, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the meantime, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce anything, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning. Formerly, nothing had been so terrible to me. I used to be a person uncommonly terrified with thunder: and it used to strike me with terror, when I saw a thunderstorm rising. But now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God at the first appearance of a thunderstorm. And used to take the opportunity at such times, to fix myself to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder: which often times was exceeding entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. And while I viewed, used to spend my time, as it always seemed natural to me, to sing or chant forth my meditations; to speak my thoughts in soliloquies, and speak with a singing voice. (Works 16, 794)

This material reveals that Edwards felt free to find resonances of a much greater beauty in the eye-catching things of this world.  In fact, the pastor-theologian made the case for finding “types” in this world.  If we buy Edwards’s argument–and I think we should–then surely we can find images of a greater luster in a flower, a sunset, and the face of a loved one.

I love Edwards’s aesthetics.  He has a major place for beauty in his theological-philosophical system, so much so that some view him as the theologian par excellence of beauty.  By the way, this is part of why he is so relevant for today.  We live in an image-obsessed culture (part of the problem Evans rightly decries), and we can use Edwards to point people to a better way, a far more fulsome and healthy vision of attractiveness than one can find in the ambient culture.

The Bible, by the way, has much to say about physical beauty, contrary to what many think.  Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was beautiful (Gen. 12:11); Rachel was beautiful “in form and appearance” (Genesis 29:17); David “had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (1 Samuel 16:12); Esther had “a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at” (Esther 2:7!); Job’s daughters were the most beautiful of their day (Job 42:15); the man speaking in the Song of Solomon finds his wife “beautiful” to say nothing but the very least; Moses was beautiful as a child (Hebrews 11:23).  Beyond all these realities, the Lord, as Edwards knew, is pictured in Scripture as very beauty himself.  David wished only to “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD,” Psalm 27:4.  We could go on.

What does this mean?  Well, for starters, the biblical authors and figures are not blind to physical beauty.  Far from it.  They don’t suggest that it is of great importance in itself.  That’s clear.  Neither, however, do they ignore it, just as we do not ignore it, try or not.  We’re all quite conscious of physical beauty.  One could say this is because of our genetic wiring, or our consciousness, or perhaps most satisfyingly, our natural understanding of the way earthly attractiveness prefigures God’s magnificence.  All of these reasons have credence.

In the context of marriage, this means that it is no bad thing to celebrate one’s attraction to one’s husband or wife.  It is in fact a good thing.  We should not make the cultural mistake of grounding our spousal love in physical beauty.  Anyone who has ever heard a pop song knows how common this is, and how laughable.  Those who think that a relationship can stand firm by physical attraction alone clearly have precious little practical experience in actual relationships.  Those who are married know that attraction is an important part of marriage–perhaps very important–but that like any covenantal relationship, marriage requires a continual exercise of the will for its flourishing.  It is the Christocentric and Christotelic dimensions of marriage that are most significant.  Husbands loving wives as Christ sacrificially loved the church, and wives submitting to their husbands as the church submits to Christ in love are the transcendent, indeed transforming, realities of marriage.

But in landing this plane let’s bring our altitude down a bit.  Physical attraction matters in a marriage.  The Song of Solomon makes this abundantly clear, as any red-faced teen knows in hearing it read in church.  No one is suggesting that Christian women should hold themselves up to the (relentlessly airbrushed and digitally edited) cover-girl.  It is, however, a good thing for both husband and wife to take the physical dimension of marriage seriously.  Men shouldn’t nurse a gut, and women shouldn’t let themselves go.  Both should care for the other by devoting a reasonable–and the world’s standards are often unreasonable!–amount of attention to their bodies.

We are not Platonists.  We live in bodies.  The body is good.  God designed the body, manly and womanly, for his glory.  He gave sex and attraction and passion to couples for their good and his renown.  Marriage in its fullness is to provide the world with a picture of a far greater reality, the devoted loving union of Jesus Christ and his blood-bought church.  We do not obsess over our appearances; we do not worry about physical changes over time; we do not obsess over our frames and forms.  But we do love one another by caring well for the bodies God has given us.  Whatever we do, we seek God’s glory–whether praying in church, church-planting in an unreached land, fixing a leaky faucet, comforting a crying infant, teaching philosophy in a secular college, or running another mile to keep the pounds off (1 Cor. 10:31).

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Cross-posted from Owen’s personal blog.