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Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty

A Reappraisal

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Many contemporary theologians seek to retrieve the concept of beauty as a way for people to encounter God. In this volume, one of today's leading Lutheran theologians argues that while Martin Luther's view of beauty has often been ignored or underappreciated, it has much to contribute to that quest.

This groundbreaking book is the first extensive study on Luther's theological aesthetics. Contrary to the common misconception that Luther rejected beauty as a theological essential, Mark Mattes shows that the concept of beauty is actually a crucial theme for Luther's paradoxical understanding of justification by grace alone through faith alone. Christ "without form or comeliness" is God's gift of mercy to troubled sinners, so Christ is beautiful in God's estimation. Likewise, Christ is desirable for sinners seeking relief and liberation from the law's unrelenting accusations and from the enslavement of sin, death, and the devil. The new birth alters the human senses, opening them to discern and appreciate beauty as God has implanted it in the world. Mattes shows that Luther affirms music and visual imagery as human expressions of beauty and discusses the implications of Luther's aesthetics for music, art, and the contemplative life. The author explains that for Luther, the cross is the lens through which the beauty of God is refracted into the world. Mattes also puts Luther's view of beauty in opposition to some key contemporary theologians.


1. Introduction
Foundation in Scripture
Overview of the Book
2. Luther's Use of Philosophy
The Scope of Philosophy in the Late Medieval University
Nominalism and Realism
Luther's Divergences from Nominalism
Aristotle's Inadequacies and Adequacies
Early Appropriation of Plato
The Question of Double Truth
Priority of Grammar over Logic
The Semantics of the New Tongue
3. Luther on Goodness
Brief Overview of Medieval Views of Goodness
Justification and Goodness
Omnipotence and Divine Goodness
Goodness as the Heart of God
Comparison with Medieval Perspectives
4. The Early Luther on Beauty
Proportionality, Light, and Desire
Beauty as a Transcendental
Beauty in the Theology of Humility
Beauty and the Question of Form
5. The Mature Luther on Beauty
Beauty Sub Contrario in Selected Psalms (1530s)
Beauty in the Lectures on Galatians (1535)
Lectures on Genesis (1535 and Following)
6. Luther on the Theology and Beauty of Music
Music as a Creation and Gift of God
Luther's Response to the Ancient Church's Mixed Reception
of Music
Luther's Response to Reformed Reservations about Music
The Affectivity of Music as Embodied Word
Criteria for Beauty in Music
Poetic Summary of Luther's View of Music
7. Luther on Visual Imaging
The Role of Images in the Early Church
Critique of Medieval Veneration of Icons
Critique of Iconoclasm
Word as Portrayal
A Covered God
8. Luther and Nouvelle Théologie
The Ambiguity of the Infinite
An Enchanted World
The Strange Beauty of the Cross
The Goals of the Nouvelle Theologie
The Question of Participation
The Question of Hierarchy
The Question of Pure Nature
9. Luther for a Contemporary Theology of Beauty
Summary of Results
Beauty of Christ Revisited
Creaturely Beauty Revisited
God as Beautiful Revisited
Luther in Contrast to Modern Views of Beauty
The Sublime
Revisiting Form
Beauty and Preaching


"Mark Mattes has given us an intriguing and richly textured study of beauty in Luther's theology, an undervalued topic that Mattes treats with skill and perception. In the crucified Christ, salvation is given to those who believe; thus, Christ is beautiful, and believers can celebrate this 'gospel beauty' through the ways God grants mercy in worship: preaching and the sacraments. Christ has absorbed the ugliness of sin, enabling believers to feel at home in the world and to celebrate creation's beauty. This splendid study will deepen understandings of Luther and open new appreciations for the fullness of Jesus Christ as 'the fulcrum through which life, and most specifically truth, goodness, and beauty, are to be understood.'"

Donald K. McKim, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther and author of Moments with Martin Luther: 95 Daily Devotions

"Beauty has historically been a neglected topic in much of traditional Protestant theology, a lacuna of increasing significance in an age that is more and more preoccupied with aesthetics. In this book Mark Mattes retrieves Martin Luther as a source for aesthetic reflection and, in so doing, brings both Luther's thought and the Protestantism that stems from him into important dialogue with both earlier theologians and contemporary thinkers such as Charles Taylor and John Milbank. Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty is rich in historical theological insight and modern philosophical potential."

Carl R. Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary, Pennsylvania

"Claiming that Luther's work has not only 'existential' depth but also 'cosmic' and 'eschatological' breadth, Mark Mattes brings to the fore the centrality of beauty in Luther's theology. Providing a careful and clear reading of Luther's work that situates it within its historical context and in relation to contemporary discussions, Mattes argues that, for Luther, God's proper work--mercy--is beautiful indeed. Timely and incisive, this book charts a distinctive path that opens up fresh appropriations of Luther's work in our time."

Lois Malcolm, professor of systematic theology, Luther Seminary

"Most students of theology would never guess that Martin Luther, famous for his denunciation of theologies of glory, had a richly developed aesthetic. This is the thesis made plausible by Mark Mattes, a distinguished Lutheran theologian. Clear and learned, this book draws connections that will surprise many."

Gerald McDermott, Beeson Divinity School; coauthor of The Theology of Jonathan Edwards

"With a careful mining of the resources at hand in Martin Luther's explorations of the significance of visual imagery, God's ordering of his creation, and related concepts, and with insightful assessment of Luther's actual use of the graphic arts and music, Mattes's groundbreaking work addresses with depth and skill aesthetic theories that grow out of the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and others with challenges that will enrich and expand our perceptions and analyses of the nature of the beautiful according to God's creation and in the light of Christ's cross."

Robert Kolb, professor emeritus of systematic theology, Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis

"While scholars have paid attention to Luther's views of music, visual images, and rhetorical style, no one has claimed that these views amount to an overall theory of beauty or aesthetics. But Mark Mattes boldly shows how music and images are related to Luther's ideas of human senses, goodness, and personal renewal. His solid historical results enable Mattes to enter into critical dialogue with John Milbank, Charles Taylor, and other contemporary thinkers. Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty will persuade both historians and theologians to revise their opinions regarding the Lutheran Reformation."

Risto Saarinen, University of Helsinki

"Mark Mattes's rigorous study of Martin Luther's theology of beauty liberates the Reformer from his own tradition, which has often limited, marginalized, or otherwise ignored its own robust aesthetic resources. Mattes's Luther thus emerges as an important resource for revealing the unique contributions that Lutheran thought can make to aesthetics as well as the study of art and culture."

Daniel A. Siedell, Presidential Scholar of Art History and Criticism, The King's College, New York City

"What a great surprise, that one of the most important Lutheran theologians writing today would take up the subject of Luther and beauty. Aesthetics seems at first glance to be a foreign and contradictory undertaking for the great teacher of the cross. But Luther himself demanded it in the middle of his most important contribution to the doctrine of God: we must leave God alone in his own majesty! Luther is all about beauty, if we'll only stoop low enough to see correctly. And the timing of this book could not be better, since theologically we are no longer in the age of the ethically good, or even the rationally true, but the aesthetically beautiful. Luther's is a voice that must be heard, or we all will go down the same rabbit holes again. Mattes is a master in clarifying what Luther brings to this very current affair, and he keeps us grounded in the beauty of the deeply incarnate Word that produces all the things that the world is sure are ugly but that God uses for his glory in a most surprising turn of events."

Steven Paulson, professor of systematic theology, Luther Seminary

The Author

  1. Mark C. Mattes

    Mark C. Mattes

    Mark C. Mattes (PhD, University of Chicago) is professor of philosophy and religion at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. He previously served parishes in Illinois and Wisconsin. Mattes has authored, edited, or translated a number of books and is an...

    Continue reading about Mark C. Mattes


"Mattes is right to stress the importance of exploring Luther's view on beauty. . . . Mattes firmly roots beauty within Luther's theological horizon, exegeting its contours out of his views on forensic and effective justification, his law and gospel distinction, as well as his distinction between the hidden and revealed nature of God. Doing so offers energy to a stagnant debate about the importance of beauty in the Protestant tradition. This deep and rich engagement of the thought of Martin Luther showcases the value of Mattes's work, since unlike themes such as justification and social ethics, Luther and the tradition he originated has a relatively limited engagement with an account of beauty. . . . Mattes offers a needed corrective to a simplistic view that Luther offers nothing significant to add to a conversation about beauty."

Peder Jothen,

Reading Religion

"This book is a refreshing 'reappraisal' (as the subtitle puts it) of Luther's theology that may be welcome also to those not particularly fond of Luther. The aesthetic reading of Luther makes his theology more accessible (and acceptable) for a twenty-first century public. One can therefore hope that even laypersons and non-theologians might read Mattes's book. That is also possible because, although written with a profound expertise, Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty does not fatigue the reader with foreign scholarly terminology. . . . The word 'groundbreaking' is not an overstatement. One hardly expects that there are new things to learn from Luther any more, but Mattes's book opens new avenues for Luther studies. Luther's theology of beauty is an important aspect in an era when the rapprochement of theology and aesthetics is underway."

Miikka E. Anttila,

Lutheran Forum

"In arguing against the anachronistic narrative that Luther was an existentialist, Mark Mattes has rendered the academy--and more importantly, the Church--a magnificent service in bringing out an oft neglected, but important, aspect of the reformer's theology. It is a well-written book that leads the reader through Luther's theological understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty followed by important implications for the musical and visual arts and contemporary engagement with the concept of beauty. . . . This book is much needed. This work does not simply defend the Reformer against misconceptions, but charts a path forward into engagement with what his theology has to offer to the Church today."

Matthew Rosebrock,

Concordia Journal

"Theologians and philosophers interested in exploring Luther's thought from new angles will enjoy this book about Martin Luther's concepts of beauty, goodness, art, and aesthetics. . . . Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty makes important contributions to the field by opening new conversations about what is good and beautiful, and why."

Martin Lohrmann,