Martin Luther the Theologian of Beauty: Contra Analogy of Being, David Bentley Hart, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Nouvelle Théologie, and even Karl Barth (?)

I can go with beauty as a way into knowing God, but I cannot go with beauty as an a priori transcendental as identified by the philosophers as a way to know God; I am with Luther in identifying God’s beauty through the prism of the incarnation and cross of God in Jesus Christ—a stuarologically shaped beauty. This is the way Mark Mattes has been developing Martin Luther’s theology of beauty (I would say in close alignment with Luther’s theologia crucis ‘theology of the cross’) in contrast to the mediaeval ways into metaphysical beauty, and now, as we will see in the following quote, in contrast to modern ressourcements of beauty through Nouvelle Théologie (cf. Henri de Lubac et al).

I have been very outspoken against analogy of being, particularly Thomas Aquinas’s version. Indeed, I’m still not on board with analogy of being, whether that be articulated through someone as contemporary as David Bentley Hart or as old as Thomas. Interestingly Mattes argues that Luther was contra analogy of being (which I knew), but that he’d also be against more Kantian critiques of analogy of being of the sort that we might (I’d suggest) find in Karl Barth’s or Thomas Torrance’s theologies. I am open to Mattes’ argument and development (haven’t read it yet), but I’m curious to see how he contrasts Luther’s cross-shaped approach to God with someone like Barth’s more ‘modern’, dare I say ‘Kantian’ styled ideas on knowledge of God and the cross. In an effort to introduce you all to how Mattes summarizes the going-ons with all this, and to see how he segues into his claim that Luther offers an alternative third way into a discussion about knowledge of God, I thought I’d share, in full, his prologue to his chapter 8 entitled: Luther and Nouvelle Théologie.

The last half century has seen a renewal of the topic of beauty in theology, led by those following the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) and David Bentley Hart, and who work is dependent on the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and others. These theologians have sought to recover beauty in response to modern and postmodern thinking that focuses not primarily on aesthetics but on epistemology, on whether the conditions for knowing anything can be met. For Kant, whose philosophy has dominated modern thinking, humans can know how they experience the world (the phenomenal), but they have no access to reality as such (the noumenal). In this view, beauty belongs not properly to reality but instead is a feature that the human mind brings to experience. In contrast, for von Balthasar and Hart, modern and postmodern skepticism about knowing is unwarranted and unproductive: skepticism presumes at least some knowledge as a basis from which to determine the knowable from the unknowable. Indeed, mathematics and the hard sciences, those disciplines less vulnerable to skepticism, imply the need for some ontology, drawing inferences about underlying structures of reality as such, regardless of how it should be articulated. For these thinkers, like many ancient Greek fathers (and presumably Augustine and Aquinas at their best), all beautiful things point to the transcendental reality of Beauty itself. The Christian faith witnesses to this beauty: the gospel is inherently attractive. God is the ultimate end or purpose for which humanity can find the fulfillment of its deepest hunger and desire. Grace helps creatures reach their perfection. Appreciating beautiful things directs us “upward” to seek God as the source and goal of beauty. In order to restore beauty as a proper theological topic, von Balthasar and Hart oppose Thomistic Scholasticism, which , beginning in the sixteenth century, separated the “natural” from the “supernatural” and so offered a trajectory of thought that, along with trends in modern philosophy, unintentionally bifurcated public and private spheres. In such bifurcation, the public realm is secular, independent of God as its final end, and religious experience is private affecting people’s inner lives without bearing on public life.

Influenced by the Roman Catholic nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and others, these theologians interpret beauty through the lens of the analogy of being (analogia entis), which as formulated by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) reads: “One cannot note any similarity between Creator and creature, however great, without being compelled to note an even greater dissimilarity between them.” The analogy of being, as developed for instance in the work of Erich Przywara (1889-1972), acknowledges an approach to God in which ontologically realistic propositions can be made about God while simultaneously honoring God’s apophatic mysteriousness. Attempts to reclaim beauty in contemporary theology have sought in various ways to appropriate the Neoplatonic heritage latent in patristic theology. Through this Christianized Neoplatonism, beauty is retrieved as a way to reclaim mystery for the world, a “sacramental ontology,” in the face of the modern tendency to disenchant the cosmos by mapping or carving up all reality through quantification, and in the process nihilistically flatlining it, rendering it a cadaver for dissection. The appropriation of a Christianized Neoplationism is said to provide depth and meaning in contrast to nihilism, since God is the mystery present in all reality. All particular things are in some way or another icons of God, directing us above to find our ultimate happiness in God. Hence, these theologians claim beauty as a transcendental, descriptive of and instantiated in all finite things, in opposition to modern tendencies that make beauty a private, subjective matter, latent not in reality as such but only in how the mind works. So David Bentley Hart employs the analogy being in order to show metaphysically that beauty is definitive of infinity, the basis from which to quell postmodern descriptions of competitive violence allegedly lying at the core of all relationships. All this raises questions for a contemporary appropriation of Luther: If Luther is not on the same page with these scholars on the analogy of being, then does he lead us to a disenchanted view of the cosmos? Is he a contributor to secularism? Apart from the analogy of being, is Luther able to offer a satisfying account of beauty in which beauty accords with reality and is nor a mere accidental epiphenomenon of human mental processes? The purpose of this chapter is to critique contemporary theologies of beauty in light of Luther’s approach. Contrasting Luther’s view with current thinking will bring out aspects of his theology that have been ignored by existentialist interpretations of Luther and will help position the Reformer as offering a path more faithful to the gospel than recent theologians of beauty. In contrast to contemporary theologies that tend to default to a Platonism, such as the nouvelle théologie, or to a Kantianism, such as mainline Protestantism, Luther offers a third path.[1]

Beside the fact that this is a really good sketch of the landscape currently present when it comes to big things like analogy of being and theology of beauty, Mattes offers a very provocative and then weighty challenge for himself in his presentation of Luther’s own theology of beauty. I’ll be interested to see how he comes against what he identifies as existentialist, or Kantian theologies of beauty (he already intimates in what I shared from him where he sees some of the deficiencies). His critique of Hart, von Balthasar, de Lubac and others will be less surprising to me since he has already been making a case against that approach throughout his book; nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how he pins them down vis-à-vis his treatment of Luther’s theology in juxtaposition.

I am genuinely open to his development of Luther’s theology here, and am definitely willing to use it to reify maybe even some of Barth’s and Torrance’s thinking on analogia entis. But I will be curious on this front since I think Barth himself, like in his Romerbrief for example, is quite correlate, with Luther’s theology of the cross (which is present in the way Mattes’ is developing Luther’s theology of beauty); even in Barth’s Dogmatics In Outline where he appears to be a little critical of Luther’s theology of the cross, it is only because Barth thinks there remains an imbalance to it (not that it is inherently deficient) that needs to be buoyed by a thicker doctrine of resurrection. Mattes has my attention; hopefully he has yours too, and you might tolle lege his wonderful book on Luther.

[1] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 155-58.



  1. Insightful post Bobby. This hits on a lot of issues that I am interacting with currently as I have further explored the Evangelical Calvinism that you and others are proposing (leaning heavily on Barth and Torrance) as well as my interactions with the Patristics and contemporary Orthodox theologians like David Bentley Hart and John Behr. I do understand Barth’s concerns regarding the analogy of being and natural theology, as well as the objections you are voicing against the same concepts. I am perfectly willing to concede that the Aristotelian categories appropriated by Aquinas and Reformed Orthodoxy are riddled with abstractions that are often overblown and end up creating dangerous systemic problems when the implications of these positions are fully contemplated. But, at the same time I am not so sure a wholesale repudiation of natural theology or analogy entis end up attaining a more balanced systematic framework either. I’m not a theologian, so my own reflections on this are necessarily intuitive, and I will never have the time, skill, or energy to resolve this myself. But, as I contemplate the implications of my own readings, I can’t help but get the sense that there isn’t a n open door for a cohesive synthesis between Evangelical Calvinism, Roman Catholic Nouvuelle Theologie, and Hart’s advances in Orthodox theology. I could be wrong on this, but I think it’s worth exploring.

    As always, interesting thoughts and I look forward to reading more of your reflections on this in the future.


  2. Jedidiah,

    I think it’s possible to reify a classical analogy of being from the being of Christ. So really that would reduce back to Barth’s analogy of faith/relation. 😉

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  3. really now. the author of this piece forgets that dictum: no matter how great the similarity is between God and the creature, the dissimilarity is always greater. in Balthasar’s oeuvre, there is no clean transition from beauty to glory; Balthasarian theologia crucis makes sure that that cannot happen.


  4. No, this author doesn’t forget this; in fact it is stated explicitly over and again in the book. This is a blog post, and not a book; if you want to know how Mattes engages all of this then you’ll have to read the book. Personally I reject analogy of being, to be clear.


  5. In fact the dictum is stated in the long quote from Mattes (did you read that?). If you’re referring to the author of the blog post, then why would you state your comment as if the author of this piece wasn’t present; as if I as the author wouldn’t be reading your comment; as if someone else wrote the piece other than the author of this blog? I actually didn’t forget anything. In fact this both is entirely descriptive with the hope of alerting others to Mattes’ work. Anyway, your comment seems kind of aloof. If you want to engage w/ me, then don’t write a comment in such a way as if I’m not present.