My wife spent this last Saturday morning ministering to and mentoring young women in foster care. As part of a larger program, she spent focused one-on-one time with a number of six teenage girls, listening to their stories, talking to them, and giving them a gift that she has cultivated with care and grace over a number of years: proper skin care and a knowledge of how to apply makeup that works with their facial features.

The application of makeup, or the styling and cutting of hair, can be undertaken with vanity, it is true, but it can also be approached with a sense of play, and a desire to honor the God of creation.A number of these young women have grown up in difficult and abusive homes. Some don’t have mothers. Others had never had a stitch of makeup on in their lives and wouldn’t know where to start. And so, my wife, expert that she is, taught them how to wash their faces, massaged them, and then helped them understand how to use makeup in a way that amplifies and accentuates their natural features–eyes, cheeks, lashes, and lips–instead of drowning them out in a wash of paint.

I see this as a service and not simply a misguided encouragement to vanity, and to make my case, I’d like to call to the stand a witness: Genevan Reformer John Calvin’s theology of the body.

Calvin, Defender of the Body

Calvin might seem like an odd source to appeal to. He certainly wasn’t known for his expertise in mascara, nor the proper application of blush. (Though he did seem to have a fabulous beard that probably required some grooming.) What’s more, he makes no bones about the fact that he considers the soul, and indeed, the intellect, as the chief seat of God’s Image in humanity.

And yet, Calvin and the Reformed tradition that followed after him clearly rejected the Platonic error that totally divorced body from soul. Indeed, he says that the glory of the Image also suffuses the body (Institutes, 1.15.3). Elsewhere, though emphasizing its corruptibility apart from redemption, Calvin says “the human body shows itself to be a composition so ingenious that its Artificer is rightly judged a wonder worker” (1.5.2), and that in its wholeness, human nature as body and soul is “the most illustrious ornament and glory of the earth” (Comment on Ps. 24:1, quoted in Calvin on the Christian Life by Michael Horton, pg. 63).

In this, he simply follows the biblical narrative that pictures God as a workman, rolling up his sleeves in creative delight, forming humanity from the dust (Gen. 2:7). It is in this body that man is called to work and play, to go be fruitful and multiply, and take the earth in hand to shape it and tend it as a reflection of his dirt-shaping God. And this is the same body included in the redemption of the curse through Christ, who took on flesh, so that he might redeem us, soul and body as a whole, in his own resurrection (Rom. 8; 1 Cor. 6; 15).

In other words, God made your smile to glorify him as well as your soul.

Overcoming Gnostic Fears

I fear that many in the Church, especially in Evangelicalism of a somewhat fundamentalist pedigree, while publicly affirming the good of creation, have given into a subtle gnosticism when it comes to the cultivation of physical beauty. Though there are still some problems with them, I’ll be honest, I’m grateful for things like Dove ads noting the real danger that women face in a world that bombards them with advertisement after advertisement, teaching them to conform to a particular standard of beauty.

Still, given our tendency to quickly share every article Jesus-juking makeup, it appears that some of us seem to think the only reason a woman might care to put on makeup, or take the time to do her hair, or read up on the latest skin-care treatments is some deep-seated insecurity. With a quick appeal to 1 Peter 3:3-4 (” Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry…”), in this picture, the only thing worth cultivating with respect to human dignity is the soul, and more specifically, the intellect. There is no place for the body, or physical appearances, as an object of care. My wife embracing, taking care of these girls, and teaching them to take care of themselves was an act of love, especially for girls who’ve received little care in their lives. A friend said it reminded her of washing Jesus’ feet with perfume–an extravagance that was criticized but was a beautiful act of care and love.

As Calvin notes, Peter doesn’t actually “forbid neatness and elegance in clothing. If the material is said to be too sumptuous, the Lord has created it; and we know that skill in art has proceeded from him. Then Peter did not intend to condemn every sort of ornament, but the evil of vanity” (Comment on 1 Peter 3:3). Though speaking of clothing here, the point can be applied across to the application of makeup and, yes, surprisingly enough, probably even for Calvin, the braiding of hair. We often forget that warnings like these aren’t the only references in scripture to the cultivation of beauty. Song of Solomon praises the physical beauty of the lovers (Song 3-4), and the New Jerusalem’s beauty is praised as that of a Bride, adorned for her husband (Rev. 21:2). It’s hard to imagine either of those images without a little blush, or a hair-pin or two involved.

Yes, women are not to find their ultimate value in their looks (nor are men for that matter), nor ought they derive their deep spiritual assurance in the attention they get for their looks. These things, as Scripture says, are “perishable,” and certainly not enough to sustain the weight of the human soul–only Christ is strong enough for that. And yet that doesn’t forbid them from cultivating their appearance altogether.

The application of makeup, or the styling and cutting of hair, can be undertaken with vanity, it is true, but it can also be approached with a sense of play, and a desire to honor the God of creation. We can approach nature with an attitude of destructive, selfish control, or, with a humble intent cultivate a garden that artistically highlights the potentialities God placed within creation for us to develop. Much in the same way, the application of makeup, or the styling of hair can be performed along the grain of creation. There is a difference between art and mere artifice.

What’s more, anything can be turned into an object of false assurance, including our intellects. Scripture has far more injunctions against being puffed up through false wisdom (for instance, 1 Cor. 1-4), and yet most Christians see learning to read as a cultivation of the mind that reflects God’s glory. Wouldn’t it be sad, if in encouraging our young women to shun the idolatry of beauty, we ended up encouraging them to take up the idolatry of intellectualism or competitive achievement? No, just as there is a creative dignity in learning to read, there is a special dignity in learning to care for and develop the physical gifts God has given us.

Once more, God made smiles to glorify him too, and there’s nothing wrong with keeping them white, or learning to highlight them with a little lip gloss.


  1. Derek, I agree with your conclusion–that women can find creational joy (instead of mere vanity)–in using makeup and caring for their physical appearance in other ways. But I wish you’d given more attention to the subtle but persistent belief that women are *most* valuable in a patriarchalist (yes, I went there) society when they are found physically attractive by men. Since the majority of women use makeup and probably spend too much time concerned about their appearance, your argument simply reinforces ruling beliefs and practices, adding a bit of Reformed credence to them. Christian witness will always take place in a particular culture with particular ideologies, and in our current culture, the “beauty myth” is pervasive and often destructive. Thus, a truly Christian witness in the arena of women and appearance in our sex-saturated, hyper-visual culture would push women toward exploring and celebrating aspects of their selves beyond their looks. Which is why so many women writers are Jesus-juking makeup.

    1. Hey Katelyn,

      Thanks for the response. Ya, my knee-jerk response is to go into the critique of our dominant culture’s portrayal of beauty as well as warn against the danger of idolatry in this regard. I’ve seen its ravages first-hand. And yet, maybe where I’m coming from, I see most Christian articles veering into the disparaging of makeup, etc. as mere vanity, practiced only by the insecure, the self-absorbed, & so forth, Maybe it’s the last few years of living with my wife that’s helped me see it otherwise. In any case, while your point is valid, I think I was trying to give a little bit of a minority-report caveat on some of the, well-grounded, warnings that the Christian community ought to be preaching.


    2. From my perspective, albeit limited, it seems to me we live in a peculiar time where the beauty myth is in a battle of titans with the feminism myth. On one side the worth of a woman is in physical appearance and her ability to have men desire her and women envy her. On the other side is a disdaining of that ‘traditional’ view of women and a desire to be recognized for things besides beauty – strength, intelligence, success, equality with men, etc. To me the culture we live in has women in both camps and everywhere in between on a continuum. Actually I think some women are in complete agreement with both belief systems, wanting the ‘best of both worlds’.

      I don’t have any problem with makeup, it’s the motive that matters. I feel for women, especially single women b/c how do you plum the depths of the heart in discerning between a general desire to appear clean and attractive, and the potentially idolatrous and sinful desire to attract men who are not your husband? Men should deal with this question as well, but it’s not the same ‘in your face’ issue. Pardon the pun.

  2. Calvin was perilously close to Gnosticm. He hated images. That was historically interpreted by the Church to be tantamount to hating creation. Indeed, in the 7th Ecumenical Council, the use of images in worship was affirmed against the iconoclast. Calvin and his followers simply repeated an ancient heresy.

    The body and creation are problems for the Reformed, despite feeble attempts to argue otherwise. I was amused when watching Francis Schaeffer’s series, How then should we live, where he tried to argue that the Reformation was a watershed for European art! The truth is that it basically eliminated religious art whilst secularizing it and disenchanting creation. Of course the Reformation was the forerunner of the Enlightenment, which simply completed what the Reformation had started. Calvinism is probably one of the world’s most unfortunate movements.

    1. Calvin did not hate art nor did the Reformed church. They did forbid it in worship because of the Second Commandment. They did forbid images of God at. any time due to the Second, Third and Ninth Commandments. They also rejected Immodest art due to the Seventh Commandment. But they did not hate art if it followed the laws of God.

      As for the Seventh Ecumenical Council, I would read the Original one. The one the Pope riped up and had rewritten , the rewritten one is the one you site.. I accept the original which rejects images of Christ due to serious Christology issues and Second and Ninth Commandment violations..

  3. I am afraid you are incorrect. Calvin was not for Makeup. You said, “Though speaking of clothing here, the point can be applied across to the application of makeup”, Unfortunately this is not true in Calvin’s thinking..

    John Calvin had Makeup outlawed in Geneva and that alone disapproves your theory.

    “no rouge or powdering, … no immodest dress” were legally permitted in Geneva (Gene Edwards John Calvin Revisited). William Manchester points out that among the things prohibited in Geneva were “staging or attending theatrical plays, wearing rouge, … lace, ‘immodest’ dress, swearing, gambling, playing cards…”

    The fact of the matter is that the historic position in the Patristic, Reformed, Puritan and Covenanter writings is one of prohibition for makeup and tattoos for that matter.

    This has nothing to do with platonic views but clear prohibition in Divine law and clear examples of it being used for wickedness in scripture.

    1. Hey bud,

      Thanks for the comments. Finally getting around to this. I was pretty sure that Calvin himself might be surprised at, or disagree with the way I used his theology of the body. I conceded as much in one place–so please don’t take me to be making a strictly historical argument. This is more of an act of retrieval theology, using a thread in someone’s thought and developing it, hopefully in line with Scripture, beyond where they themselves might have even taken it.

      Still, great job holding down the fort for Calvin and the Reformed on images and so forth.


  4. Mikhail, Christ, being made man, is able to be represented in images. To deny this is, as the 7th Council argued, is to deny the incarnation. Funnily enough, Calvin makes no mention of the incarnation whilst discussing images in his Institutes. It’s as if the Incarnation never happened when he speaks on this subject. Of course, no one makes representations of God the Father. But we can make images of Christ because he is human.

    1. Simon,

      I deny your proposition as well as the legitimate claim of your seventh ecumenical council,

      The following is taken from the Original Seventh Ecumenical Council of 754 regarding the Christological error of making any image of the Messiah.

      “Wherefore we thought it right, to shew forth with all accuracy, in our present definition the error of such as make and venerate these, for it is the unanimous doctrine of all the holy Fathers and of the six Ecumenical Synods, that no one may imagine any kind of separation or mingling in opposition to the unsearchable, unspeakable, and incomprehensible union of the two natures in the one hypostasis or person. What avails, then, the folly of the painter, who from sinful love of gain depicts that which should not be depicted—that is, with his polluted hands he tries to fashion that which should only be believed in the heart and confessed with the mouth? He makes an image and calls it Christ. The name Christ signifies God and man. Consequently it is an image of God and man, and consequently he has in his foolish mind, in his representation of the created flesh, depicted the Godhead which cannot be represented, and thus mingled what should not be mingled. Thus he is guilty of a double blasphemy—the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and manhood. Those fall into the same blasphemy who venerate the image, and the same woe rests upon both, because they err with Arius, Dioscorus, and Eutyches, and with the heresy of the Acephali. When, however, they are blamed for undertaking to depict the divine nature of Christ, which should not be depicted, they take refuge in the excuse: We represent only the flesh of Christ which we have seen and handled. But that is a Nestorian error. For it should be considered that that flesh was also the flesh of God the Word, without any separation, perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine. How could it now be separated and represented apart? So is it with the human soul of Christ which mediates between the Godhead of the Son and the dulness of the flesh. As the human flesh is at the same time flesh of God the Word, so is the human soul also soul of God the Word, and both at the same time, the soul being deified as well as the body, and the Godhead remained undivided even in the separation of the soul from the body in his voluntary passion. For where the soul of Christ is, there is also his Godhead; and where the body of Christ is, there too is his Godhead. If then in his passion the divinity remained inseparable from these, how do the fools venture to separate the flesh from the Godhead, and represent it by itself as the image of a mere man? They fall into the abyss of impiety, since they separate the flesh from the Godhead, ascribe to it a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own, which they depict, and thus introduce a fourth person into the Trinity. Moreover, they represent as not being made divine, that which has been made divine by being assumed by the Godhead. Whoever, then, makes an image of Christ, either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians.

      Our holy synod therefore assembled, and we, its 338 members, follow the older synodal decrees, and accept and proclaim joyfully the dogmas handed down, principally those of the six holy Ecumenical Synods. In the first place the holy and ecumenical great synod assembled at Nice, etc.

      After we had carefully examined their decrees under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we found that the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation—namely, the Incarnation of Christ, and contradicted the six holy synods. These condemned Nestorius because he divided the one Son and Word of God into two sons, and on the other side, Arius, Dioscorus, Eutyches, and Severus, because they maintained a mingling of the two natures of the one Christ.”

    2. I’m not expert on Calvin, or even Calvinism for that matter, but you seem to be making so all-encompassing, sweeping statements here. Stating that because someone else said hating images = hating creation does not mean that Calvin hated creation as you insinuate, or rather directly state. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Calvin’s view is quite a bit more nuanced than you are giving him credit for. And it seems you are throwing the entirety of Reformed Christians under the bus as well with ‘the body and creation are problems for the Reformed’. I am reformed, though I may not agree on every point with every other Reformed person. Especially on secondary issues as it relates to Reformed thinking, meaning things not relating to the gospel of Christ. I’m going to say there are different views of the body and creation among Reformed believers, there is not a ‘sign up’ sheet that requires agreement with every Bible doctrine in order to affirm the core of Reformed belief. At least not that I’m aware of, maybe there’s a website…

    3. Mikhael, Conspiracy Conspiracy!! This is the cry of all Protestants. The “Real” 7th Council was expunged from history was it?? You simply sound like all heretics, dare I say, like one of those horrible liberal scholars! Thanks for rewriting history, but I think I’ll stick with the Orthodox version.

  5. John S, “there is not a ‘sign up’ sheet that requires agreement with every Bible doctrine in order to affirm the core of Reformed belief.”

    That would be the Confessions and Creeds of the Reformed Faith, such as the entire Westminster Standards… ;)

  6. Possibly worth considering:

    “Both women and men found faces with up to 40% less makeup than the models applied themselves the most attractive, showing a clear agreement on their opinions for cosmetics. Less was simply better. However, when they considered the preferences of others, the women and men in our study indicated that they thought other people found more cosmetics more attractive, and this was especially true when considering the preferences of other men.”

  7. What on earth have have I stumbled upon courtesy of RealClearReligion? Arguing about John Calvin and if he would approve of make-up?!?! WHO CARES??????? He was a flawed creature just like the rest of us, perhaps more so given some of his horrendous doctrines. The more I read on this resurgence of Calvinism in America the more frightened I get. Something sinister is at work here.

    1. Wow, horrendous doctrines!! I am not sure what they might be.. But I happen to agree with Calvin 98% and the last 2% where I disagree with him on, would be more radical then Calvin and comes from John Knox the Scottish Reformer…

    2. Just keep in mind though, you may disagree with the giants of the faith but it is a heavy weight to disagree with a universal practice of the historic church. If I disagreed with a universal belief I would have to be dead certain they were wrong and still disagree with trepidation.. These men knew far more then you or I on such matters and yet they came to differing views then the modern church and they came to the view that makeup was forbidden.. And not just a few men but most of church history..

      The modern church suffers from Chronological snobbery.. We tend to think we know more then the saints of the past and we don’t want to listen to those forefathers that came before us. We don’t even want to give them a vote. But this is theologically wrong. Not only are we to build on the foundations that has already been laid for us so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every generation, we are also not to remove the ancient landmarks but it also goes against the historic doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The historic Sola Scriptura does not discount Councils, Confessions, Creeds, Testimonies or the Testimonies of the Doctors of the church. The Historic doctrine of Sola Scriptura takes them into consideration and uses them as a guide in our interpretation of Scripture. Unlike Rome, we don’t elevate those things above Scripture but we do use them as guide. Whereas the Modern anemic church does not hold to Sola Scriptura but Solo Scriptura which is the anabaptist version of “No Creed” and private interpretation which is not biblical.

      If one or two Theologians have said something, I might be able to take it less serious… But when a majority holds to something, I better stop and listen and ponder and then ponder some more. Yes, they are fallible men and can err, but more likely we are wrong in our understanding. We have not had the learning, the studying, the ability to learn as Calvin, Knox and Luther or many others of the past. So I really have to give weight to what these giants of the faith have said and seriously ponder why if I disagree them.. Charlies Spurgeon called his day the downgrade, I would hate to see what he would have said about our age.

      “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about . ” -G. K. Chesterton

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  9. Good piece. Thanks to your wife for doing this for those girls. An example of how we can use all kinds of talents and interests to connect with others.

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