Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in Christianity

In philosophy, there are three qualities that are often referred to as “the trandscendentals.” These three qualities are truth, goodness, and beauty, and “transcendental” is a proper designation for them. “Transcendental” is a fancy word that describes an aspect of reality that is not dependent on our personal feelings or opinions.

All three of these – truth, goodness, and beauty – are not dependent on our personal opinions. They are realities that are discovered, rather than invented or randomly chosen.

Consider truth. You and I do not get to make up our own truth, we can only discover what the truth is and choose whether or not we will accept it. Feeling like 2 + 2 = 5 does not make it so. It is a transcendent reality because it does not depend upon our personal feelings for its validity.

In the Biblical worldview, moral goodness is the same way. We do not get to pick and choose which attitudes or actions we consider morally good or bad based on our own personal feelings. Just because I “feel” like murder or stealing is okay does not make it so. Even if the majority felt this way, they would still be wrong.

Even beauty has a certain transcendent quality. Rather than choosing arbitrarily what music or art we find beautiful, we observe and recognize beauty in music or art and identify it as such. Saying “this object is beautiful” does not actually make it so. The object in question is either beautiful or not, regardless of what we say about it.

But as you may have noticed, not everyone in our society respects the transcendence of truth, goodness, and beauty. These days many academics assert that “truth is relative” and individuals may respond to your beliefs by saying “that is true for you, but it is not true for me.” In terms of moral goodness, the ultimate standard in our culture is no longer an objective standard, but rather a question of how we “feel” about it. Much of modern art and music reflects the fact that we have given up on objective standards of beauty and are resorting instead to shock value, vulgarity, and “art for art’s sake” with no message to convey.

The general movement of society away from objective standards of truth, goodness, and beauty probably reflects our disdain for constraints on our freedom more than anything else. As long as truth is comprised of objective facts, it can get in my way and prevent me from believing whatever I want. As long as moral goodness is an unchanging standard that I must submit to, it can prevent me from living out my dreams. Even beauty, to the extent that it supersedes personal feelings, reminds me that the reality of life is not always mine to control.

But there is a special beauty and power in the recognition of transcendent realities. When the psalmist said “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path,” he was recognizing that the truth of the Bible could lead him farther than he could get by his own understanding alone. When Jesus said “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth,” the truth that He referred to was a truth that can transform us precisely because it does not come from within us, but rather from the God who created us.

The Philippians were told “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” This is a description of a life in which we discover and enjoy that which is true, that which is good, and that which is beautiful in the realest of senses.

Will you “dwell on these things” and commit your life to acquiring them?

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Let the Bible Speak

Psalm 119:105 states, “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.” In this simple metaphor the psalmist communicates a very important idea: God’s word is an outside source of knowledge and guidance, over and above our own feelings and opinions.

Isaiah 55:10-11 says “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

If indeed God has sent His word out to accomplish His purposes, we ought to let it speak for itself rather than twisting it around to say what we want it to. We must resist the temptation to simply assume that Bible affirms what we want it to affirm. We must be willing to listen with open hearts.

Acts 17:11 says of the Bereans, “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”

The test that the Bereans used to determine the truthfulness of an idea was not how it made them feel, or how popular it was in the current political or religious climate, or what their families had always believed, but rather what the Scriptures said.

Consider one final passage, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, written from the experienced apostle Paul to the young preacher Timothy.

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

Notice a few key points from these verses:

  1. Paul considers this instruction so important that he charges Timothy in the presence of God and Jesus, who will judge us all one day.
  2. Paul tells Timothy to reprove, rebuke, and exhort. In other words, be deeply concerned with the truth of scripture, even if that truth is not popular.
  3. There is a real temptation for us to only listen to people who tell us what we want to hear. This is a destructive tendency.

Whether you consider yourself “doctrinally conservative” or “doctrinally liberal,” or don’t necessarily really know or care how you would be categorized, the scriptural plea to all of us is this: let the Bible speak.