The Role of Beauty

You shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them” (v. 1).

- Exodus 26

During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Magisterial Reformers not only were concerned with the doctrine of justification and the authority of Scripture, but they also focused on the reform of the church’s worship. John Calvin, in particular, focused much of his efforts on reforming the liturgy in terms of including in worship only what Scripture commands. Calvin was especially concerned to eliminate the idolatrous veneration of the images of Mary and the saints, and this made him something of an iconoclast. Visual imagery was removed from church buildings in an effort to shield people from the temptation to idolatry. Ever since, there has been a strong tendency within some—but not all—streams of the Reformed tradition to build sanctuaries that are very plain in their adornment. Unlike other theological traditions that would use media such as paintings and stained-glass windows to depict biblical themes and stories, Reformed Christians have been more reluctant to adorn their places of worship with images.

Certainly, we can sympathize with the concerns of those who eschew visual images in the worship setting because of the fear that people will be tempted to idolatry. However, it seems that full-on iconoclasm—such that we aim not to depict any people, themes, or events in our church buildings—is going too far. After all, the same Lord who prohibits making and bowing down to images in the second commandment (Ex. 20:4–6) also commanded the Israelites to adorn the tabernacle with beautiful colors and with images of cherubim and other things in creation (chap. 26). Since our God is a consistent being, this indicates that the prohibition of images in the second commandment cannot mean that all artwork and visual imagery is prohibited in the place where we gather to praise and worship our triune Creator. What is forbidden is the veneration of these images and other idolatrous treatments of the created order. There does not seem to be any blanket prohibition of visual imagery in the sanctuary.

God’s desire for beauty in the sanctuary reflects His nature as the beautiful Lord who is Himself the standard of beauty (Ps. 27:4). Beautiful church buildings help communicate this truth about our Maker. In any case, we must be aware that the appearance of our church buildings always communicates something. Even the plainest sanctuaries reveal something of their congregations’ views of the nature of the Lord and the worship He desires.

Coram Deo

The propriety of visual imagery in the church building continues to be debated within the Reformed tradition. What we can all agree on, however, is that God is supremely beautiful (Ps. 27:4). In our worship and teaching, we must draw attention to the fact that He is far more lovely than anything we can imagine and that eternity will be spent enjoying His beauty, which alone can satisfy our deepest needs and desires.

Passages for Further Study

1 Kings 6
Psalm 96:1–6
Song of Solomon 4:7
Matthew 26:6–13

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