The yonder of its vision

Tom Chevis 05 Mar 21

In the eyes of many, Herman Bavinck, a Dutch professor who lived 1854–1921, is one of the most distinguished figures in theology. Here is what he has to say, briefly, on art, in the opening chapter of his book 'The Wonderful Works of God', originally published as 'Magnalia Deo' in 1909. On page 5, he writes two paragraphs, the first on the glory of art, the second on its limitations.

On the glory of art

Art, too, is a gift of God. Just as the Lord Himself is not truth and holiness alone but also glory, and one who spreads the beauty of His name abroad over all His works, so it is He, too, who by His Spirit equips the artists with wisdom and understanding and knowledge in all manner of workmanship (Ex. 31:3 and 35:31). Art is therefore in the first place an evidence of man's ability to do and to make. This ability is spiritual in character and it gives expression to his deep longings, his high ideals, and his insatiable craving for harmony. Besides, art in all its works and ways conjures up an ideal world before us, in which the discords of our existence on earth are purged in a gratifying harmony. Thus a beauty is disclosed which in this fallen world had been obscured by the wise but is discovered to the simple eye of the artist. And because art thus paints for us a picture of an other and higher reality, it is a comfort in our life, it lifts the soul up out of consternation, and fills our hearts with joy.

Depending on your artistic sensibilities (or your intellectual beliefs as well as, or perhaps even in spite of, your artistic tastes), you might question Bavinck's take on the purpose of art, and his presuppositions concerning harmony and beauty. Nevertheless, these words certainly tally with the experience of many, and the generous spirit will remember that Bavinck wrote this at the beginning of the last century, before much of that century's questioning of everything had come to pass.

I think the real gold is to be found in his second paragraph:

On the limitations of art

But, though it is much that art can accomplish, it is only in the imagination that we can enjoy the beauty which art discloses. Art cannot close the gulf between the ideal and the real. It cannot make the yonder of its vision the here of our present world. It shows us the glory of Canaan from a distance, but it does not usher us into the better country nor make us citizens of it. Art is much, but it is not everything. It is not, as a man of distinction in its domain once called it, the holiest and noblest thing, the one and only religion and the one and only salvation of man. Art cannot reconcile for sin. It cannot cleanse us of our pollution. And it is not able even to dry our tears in the grief of life.

This of course speaks of art's great capacity, indeed the capacity of all creation in its right orientation, which is to point beyond itself to the great Creator, our good God - Father, Son, and Spirit. But I thought this worth sharing because of the loveliness and artistry with which Bavinck articulates it.

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