Theological aesthetics  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Theological aesthetics is the interdisciplinary study of theology and aesthetics, and has been defined as being "concerned with questions about God and issues in theology in the light of and perceived through sense knowledge (sensation, feeling, imagination), through beauty, and the arts". (Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, 2004) This field of study is broad and includes not only a theology of beauty, but also the dialogue between theology and the arts, such as dance, drama, film, literature, music, poetry, and the visual arts.

Notable theologians and philosophers that have dealt with this subject include Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, among others.

Theological aesthetics has recently seen rapid growth as a subject for discussions, publications, and advanced academic studies.


Aesthetics in Christian theology

The early church

Theological writings during the period of the early Christian church which deal with aesthetics span from circa 160 to c. 650 and include writings by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine of Hippo, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Maximus the Confessor, among others. The most prevalent themes during this period were "the vision of God or of God's glory, the image of God in Christ and in us, and the concern with idol worship". (Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, 2004)

The medieval church

medieval aesthetics

During the Middle Ages, theologians such as Anselm of Canterbury, John Scotus Eriugena, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa, and Bernard of Clairvaux touched upon themes such as "the idea of beauty, the vision of God, the image of Christ, the iconodule-iconoclast conflict, and the strong presence of personally grounded and poetic doxologies". (Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, 2004)

The Reformation

Concerning aesthetics, the theologians of the 16th century Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli) dealt primarily with "the theology of the image, in particular, idolatry and iconoclasm". (Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, 2004)

The 17th - 19th centuries

Theological aesthetics increased in diversity during this period, with activity such as "the composition of hymns in Protestant circles, Edwards' writing on beauty, the Romantic artists and intellectuals with their panentheist sensibilities, Schleiermacher's idea of religion as feeling and intuition, the decline of religious art, and the ground-breaking philosophical contributions of thinkers such as Burke, Baumgarten, Kant and Hegel". (Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, 2004)

The 20th century

Some major themes which emerged and developed in the 20th century included the question of "how art can function as a source of and in theology"<ref name="Thiessen204">Thiessen, p. 204.</ref> (Tillich, Rahner, Dillenberger), the question of "the art work as a shaper of meaning in today's culture" (Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, 2004) (Lynch, McIntyre, Green), and the beauty of God (van der Leeuw, Barth, von Balthasar). Rookmaaker helpfully sought to provide a reformed Christian critique of art and aesthetics in the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960's in his book 'Modern Art and the Death of a Culture'.

Present day

Academic programs

Graduate studies

Postgraduate studies

Further reading

  • Begbie, Jeremy. Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2000.
  • Begbie, Jeremy. Sounding the Depths: Theology through the Arts. London: SCM Press, 2002.
  • Begbie, Jeremy. Theology, Music, and Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Begbie, Jeremy. Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991.
  • de Borchgrave, Helen. A Journey Into Christian Art. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1999.
  • Burch Brown, Frank. Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Burch Brown, Frank. Religious Aesthetics: A Theological Study of Making and Meaning. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
  • Bustard, Ned. It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. Baltimore, MD: Square Halo Books, 2000.
  • Corby Finney, Paul, ed.. Seeing Beyond the Word: Visual Arts and the Calvinistic Tradition. Eerdmans, 1999.
  • Dagget Dillenberger, Jane. Style and Content in Christian Art. New York, Crossroad: 1965 (1986).
  • Deacy, Christopher. Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001.
  • Dillenberger, John. A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities: The Visual Arts and the Church. London: SCM Press, 1987.
  • Drury, John. Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and Their Meanings. Yale: Yale University Press, 1998.
  • Duquette, Natasha, Ed. Sublimer Aspects: Interfaces between Literature, Aesthetics, and Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.
  • Dyrness, William. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
  • Fiddes, Paul. Freedom and limit: a dialogue between literature and Christian doctrine (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991; Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1991)
  • Fiddes, Paul. The Novel, Spirituality, and Modern Culture. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000.
  • Fiddes, Paul. The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
  • Forde, Nigel. The Lantern and the Looking-Glass: Literature and Christian Belief. SPCK, 1997.
  • Gaebelein, Frank E. The Christian, the Arts, and Truth: Regaining a Vision of Greatness. Ed. Bruce Lockerbie. A Critical Concern Book. Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1985.
  • Garcia-Rivera, Alejandro. The Community of the Beautiful: A Theological Aesthetics. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999.
  • Garcia-Rivera, Alejandro. A Wounded Innocence: Sketches for a Theology of Art. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003.
  • Gorringe, Timothy. The Education of Desire: Towards a Theology of the Senses. London: SCM, 2001.
  • Gorringe, Timothy. Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture. London: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Harries, Richard. Art and the Beauty of God: A Christian Understanding. London: Mowbray, 1993.
  • Harries, Richard. The Passion in Art. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Hurley, Neil P. Theology Through Film. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
  • Jensen, Robin M. The Substance of Things Seen: Art Faith and the Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.
  • Jewett, Robert. Saint Paul at the Movies: The Apostle’s Dialogue with American Culture. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993.
  • Jewett, Robert. Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph over Shame. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
  • Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1977.
  • Kreitzer, Larry J. The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.
  • Kreitzer, Larry J. The Old Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994.
  • Marsh, Clive, and Gae Ortiz, eds. Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
  • May, John R. Nourishing Faith through Fiction: Reflections on the Apostles’ Creed in Literature and Film. Franklin, Wisconsin: Sheed and Ward, 2001.
  • Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1951.
  • Power Erikson, Kathleen. At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.
  • Rookmaaker, Hans R. Art Needs No Justification. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1978.
  • Rookmaaker, Hans R. The Creative Gift. Leicester: InterVarsity, 1981.
  • Rookmaaker, Hans R. Modern Art and the Death of A Culture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1970.
  • Ryken, Leland. The Christian Imagination: Essays on Literature and the Arts. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981.
  • Ryken, Leland. The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts. The Wheaton Literary Series. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1989.
  • Sayers, Dorothy L. The Mind of the Maker. Cleveland: World, 1956.
  • Schaeffer, Francis A. Art and the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973.
  • Schaeffer, Franky. Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1985.
  • Seerveld, Calvin. Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art. Carlisle, UK: Piquant Press, 2000.
  • Seerveld, Calvin. Rainbows for the Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task. Toronto, ON: Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980.
  • Soldini, Jean. Saggio sulla discesa della bellezza. Linee per un'estetica. Milan: Jaca Book, 1995.
  • Tillich, Paul. On Art and Architecture. Ed. John Dillenberger and Jane Dillenberger. New York: Crossroad, 1987.
  • Treier, Daniel J., Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin. The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.
  • Veith, Gene Edward. State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe. Turning Point Christian Worldview Series. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991.
  • Viladesau, Richard. Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Viladesau, Richard. Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art, and Rhetoric. New York, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000.
  • Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1, Seeing the Form. Trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. Ed. Joseph Fessio, SJ and John Riches. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1982.
  • Wolfe, Gregory. Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery. Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2003.
  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980.



See also

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