Aesthetics In The Old Testament: Beauty In Context -- By: William A. Dyrness

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 28:4 (Dec 1985)
Article: Aesthetics In The Old Testament: Beauty In Context
Author: William A. Dyrness

Aesthetics In The Old Testament: Beauty In Context

William A. Dyrness*

When it comes to understanding the Biblical material, our modern conceptions of beauty offer a great handicap to understanding. So difficult to assess are Biblical statements that some students have simply concluded that there are no descriptions of beauty at all in our sense of the word. Walter Grundmann concludes for example that the whole problem of the beautiful is of no concern to the OT: “Beauty (kalon) does not occur at all as an aesthetic quantity; this is linked with the low estimation of art in Biblical religion.”1 Perhaps because it plays no role in Israel’s history of tradition Gerhard von Rad claims: “There is no particular significance in many of the statements which ancient Israel made about beauty; and the reason why there is nothing characteristic in them is that they move in the place of the experience of beauty common to all men.”2

It is tempting to believe that this incomprehension results from our western Greek philosophical tradition.3 We may be looking for a theory of beauty as ideal form that is derived from Greek thought. For Plato art achieved its highest end in shedding its chaotic particularity and reflecting eternal reality; in Biblical thought all of God’s ordered creation embodies its own special glory. Plato insists: “Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow its attribute in its fullness upon a creature was impossible.”4 So human experiences and physical images are only significant when they are “more than empirical, something transcendental, ideal, absolute.”5 Art speaks to image this ideal reality. “Where there is definiteness of character, simplicity or unity, there is evidence of ideality.”6

But one should not dismiss too quickly Plato’s theory as a search for idea] form that cannot appreciate particularity. As Lodge points out, Plato understood very well the contextual character of beauty. Life and art can be lovely

*William Dyrness is president and professor of theology at New College Berkeley in California.

because they reflect a cosmic order.7 Moreover, the idea of mimesis that lies at the heart of Plato’s art theory is not so much “reflection” as “enactment.” Image in Plato’s view always has behind it t...

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