There are three transcendentals: the good, the true, and the beautiful. This idea goes back to ancient Greece, and indeed goes all the way back to the beginning, and before the beginning, to God Himself. “Transcendental” means that we cannot alter it or destroy it. It is in itself, and whether we accept or reject it, it nonetheless retains its essence and remains what it is. It’s like we say in the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be Thy name…on earth as it is in heaven,” etc. What does this mean? “God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also.” So also what is good remains good, and we cannot change good into bad or bad into good. Whether we seek what’s good or what’s bad, whether we live good lives or bad lives, good remains the same. We simply strive to be partakers of it and live according to it. The same goes for what is true. “Good” and “true” are characteristics of God Himself, and that’s what makes them transcendentals. “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!” (Ps. 107:1). “Let God be true but every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). Because God doesn’t change, and because God is not dependent on anything—certainly not on man—what is good and what is true remains constant.
Beauty is likewise a transcendental. Beauty is the Lord’s. It is not an overstatement to say that beholding beauty is the goal of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit says as much through David in Psalm 27:4, “One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple.” The aim of life is to look at what is beautiful, specifically the Lord. Since this is our goal, the Apostle Paul says we should occupy ourselves with what is beautiful even now: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8).
The transcendentals are under attack, and they always have been in this fallen world because the devil hates God. Beauty was the first to fall in American society. The next to go was goodness. Finally truth is crumbling. Now of course, these cannot ultimately be destroyed, just as God cannot be overcome. But just as God’s name can be holy in itself, and yet profaned among men, so also the good, the true, and the beautiful can be profaned, and that’s what we’re seeing. How many people say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”? That is false. God is beautiful, He is beauty itself, and it is hubris to claim that a mere man’s perception determines the meaning of an attribute of God.
Christians must assert that beauty is objective. Scripture demands it. We confess that God is Triune because Scripture says so. We confess the two natures of Christ because Scripture says so. We confess that beauty is objective because Scripture says so.
Now if beauty is objective, what is the objective criterion for judging whether something is beautiful or not? The Lord Himself is that objective criterion. Since we cannot yet look at Him directly, we look at the beauty of Scripture and the beauty of creation. If we want to form beautiful words, we imitate the structures and devices that we find in Scripture. If we want to form beautiful works of art, we imitate the order, symmetry, and ratios of creation. The same ratios that make the creation beautiful to the eyes also make music beautiful to the ears.
Giorgio Vasari was an Italian artist of the Renaissance period who wrote biographies of the famous artists of his day (more about that on pages 6-7). In his preface to Lives of the Artists, he writes of art as man’s imitation of God:
“I am fully aware that all who have written on the subject firmly and unanimously assert that the arts of sculpture and painting were first derived from nature by the people of Egypt. I also realize that there are some who attribute the first rough pieces in marble and the first reliefs to the Chaldeans, just as they give the Greeks credit for discovering the brush and the use of colours. Design, however, is the foundation of both these arts, or rather the animating principle of all creative processes: and surely design existed in absolute perfection before the Creation [of man] when Almighty God, having made the vast expanse of the universe and adorned the heavens with His shining lights, directed His creative intellect further, to the clear air and the solid earth. And then, in the act of creating man, He fashioned the first forms of painting and sculpture in the sublime grace of created things. It is undeniable that from man, as from a perfect model, statues and pieces of sculpture and the challenges of pose and contour were first derived; and for the first paintings, whatever they may have been, the ideas of softness and of unity and the clashing harmony made by light and shadow were derived from the same source.
“Now the material in which God worked to fashion the first man was a lump of clay. And this was not without reason; for the Divine Architect of time and of nature, being wholly perfect, wanted to show how to create by a process of removing from and adding to material that was imperfect in the same way that good sculptors and painters do when, by adding and taking away, they bring their rough models and sketches to the final perfection for which they are striving. He gave His model vivid colouring; and later on the same colours, derived from quarries in the earth, were to be used to create all the things that are depicted in paintings.”
When it comes to the creation of beauty, man is an imitator, and those things are beautiful which best imitate the beauty that God has created. As Christians, we meditate on what is lovely, and we seek to look on the beauty of the Lord. Therefore, we occupy ourselves with objectively beautiful things. If beauty was the first transcendental that visibly fell in our society, and goodness and truth quickly followed, upholding beauty will uphold goodness and truth as well, for the transcendentals are intimately connected with each other, being attributes of the one God. And because beauty also means pleasantness and delightfulness (according to the Hebrew and Greek words, and the nature of beauty itself), upholding beauty is no chore. It is a delight.
May God grant that you who seek find and one day look on the face of the Lord and gaze on beauty Himself.