Thursday, September 3, 2015

What of Crucifixes and Other Images?

This past Sunday, Tim Challies posted a piece entitled Why You Should Not Wear a Crucifix.  Because of my social network connections, I saw several responses both pro and con on the issue.  The lines were typically drawn along lines with Protestants opposing images in worship or worship area (Challies’ use of Knowing God by J. I. Packer is standard reasoning) and Lutherans supporting (see here for an example).

Being one who enjoys rooting out the Early Church position on such things, I took to the Ante-Nicene Fathers for some explicit instruction on or interaction with Exodus 20:3-6 and Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 5:8-10, since most of the discussion revolved around these texts.

Irenaeus – Explaining Paul distinction between the true God and false gods in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6:
For he has made a distinction, and separated those which are indeed called gods, but which are none, from the one God the Father, from whom are all things, and, he has confessed in the most decided manner in his own person, one Lord Jesus Christ.  But in this, “whether in heaven or in earth,” he does not speak of the formers of the world, as these [teachers] expound it; but his meaning is similar to that of Moses, when it is said, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image for God, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  And he does thus explain what are meant by the things in heaven: “Lest when,” he says, “looking towards heaven, and observing the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and all the ornament of heaven, falling into error, you should adore and serve them.”

Clement of Alexandria – In a section explaining the absurdity of using images of created things for pagan worship:
But images, being motionless, inert, and senseless, are bound, nailed, glued,—are melted, filed, sawed, polished, carved. The senseless earth is dishonored by the makers of images, who change it by their art from its proper nature, and induce men to worship it; and the makers of gods worship not gods and demons, but in my view earth and art, which go to make up images.  For, in sooth, the image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman’s hand.  But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone,—God, who alone is truly God.… For we are expressly prohibited from exercising a deceptive art: “For you shall not make,” says the prophet, “the likeness of anything which is in heaven above or in the earth beneath.”

Tertullian – Combating the argument of those who try to separate the use of idols from their manufacture:
Yet idolatry used to be practiced, not under that name, but in that function; for even at this day it can be practiced outside a temple, and without an idol.  But when the devil introduced into the world artificers of statues and of images, and of every kind of likenesses, that former rude business of human disaster attained from idols both a name and a development.  Thenceforward every art which in any way produces an idol instantly became a fount of idolatry.… God prohibits an idol as much to be made as to be worshiped.  In so far as the making what may be worshiped is the prior act, so far is the prohibition to make (if the worship is unlawful) the prior prohibition.  For this cause—the eradicating, namely, of the material of idolatry—the divine law proclaims, “You shall make no idol;” and by conjoining, “Nor a likeness of the things which are in the heaven, and which are in the earth, and which are in the sea,” has interdicted the servants of God from acts of that kind all the universe over.

Origen – In an effort to correct Celsus’ understanding Jewish responsibility to the righteous Law of God:
[I]f one will examine their polity from its first beginning, and the arrangement of their laws, he will find that they were men who represented upon earth the shadow of a heavenly life, and that among them God is recognized as nothing else, save He who is over all things, and that among them no maker of images was permitted to enjoy the rights of citizenship.  For neither painter nor image-maker existed in their state, the law expelling all such from it; that there might be no pretext for the construction of images,—an art which attracts the attention of foolish men, and which drags down the eyes of the soul from God to earth.  There was, accordingly, among them a law to the following effect: “Do not transgress the law, and make to yourselves a graven image, any likeness of male or female; either a likeness of any one of the creatures that are upon the earth, or a likeness of any winged fowl that flies under the heaven, or a likeness of any creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, or a likeness of any of the fishes which are in the waters under the earth.”   The law, indeed, wished them to have regard to the truth of each individual thing, and not to form representations of things contrary to reality, feigning the appearance merely of what was really male or really female, or the nature of animals, or of birds, or of creeping things, or of fishes.  Venerable, too, and grand was this prohibition of theirs: “Do not lift up your eyes unto heaven, lest, when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and all the host of heaven, you should be led astray to worship them, and serve them.”

From the above and other references not used, we can see that images were not forbidden, but the main concern was the use of images for worship as a representation of God, who had no form, as well as the fear of men worshiping the object itself or assigning divinity to a created being or object through the use of the image.  In summary, they saw the same danger mentioned by Moses (Deut 4:15-19) before Israel crossed the Jordan to possess the land.  Mankind is sinful and will misuse every good thing (compare Nu 21:8-9 with 2Ki 18:4; see also Rom 1:22-25).

Man’s propensity to use something to his own end does not preclude its proper use.  After all, Israel had multiple images before them as they worshiped through their annual cycle.  God had given explicit instructions as to what images were to be in the construction, but left the final impressions to the artisans in charge.

The period after Jesus’ ascension is more problematic with no explicit instructions concerning the use of images, though the book of Revelation is replete with imagery.  Whether one takes the book literally or figuratively, there is no mistaking the visual and aural effect on John, those under the throne, and the host of heaven, especially concerning the New Jerusalem and River of Life.  Couple this with Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple (Ezek 40 infra.)—again, whether it has a literal or figurative fulfillment—and we have a powerful display of worship imagery in the Final Kingdom.

Here some will counter that the aforementioned images were given by God Himself and are therefore permitted.  I agree that they were, but if we take that to its logical conclusion, no church building can have any ornamentation in its worship space: crosses, nativity sets, anything that can represent the Trinity or an individual Person, must be stripped from the room.

Or is the real reason that we do not like seeing the suffering, dying Savior in the act.  The crucifixion was a terrible thing for Him to endure, and modern representations actually sanitize the scene.  He was beaten mercilessly and was nailed to the tree naked for public derision.  So, yes, crucifixes misrepresent by making the scene socially acceptable.  I will grant you that one.

Another opposing argument is that the cross is now empty: Jesus came down and rose from the grave.  That reasoning has some merit, but He is also not in the manger, on the road to Emmaus, praying in Gethsemane, speaking with Mary outside the tomb, or in multiple other scenes typically found in worship spaces.  The work of redemption is complete, once for all time and all people.  I get that.  In order to offset this objection, maybe a small Ascension or Christus Rex cross should be placed in front of a crucifix to get the full effect of the redemptive victory.  There is at least one church building that has this arrangement.  Some juxtaposition of the two scenes could work powerfully.

I am neither an iconodule nor an iconoclast.  If images are used, they need to be used with utmost care.  I have always enjoyed a good mosaic or stain-glassed window depicting a biblical scene or text, but the wholesale veneration of icons agreed upon at the Second Council of Nicaea bothers me.  Do they aid worship?  Yes, they can.  Do they detract from worship?  Again, yes, they can.  I take a similar stance as Martin Luther, who initially was not certain that images were useful but finally concluded that they are adiaphora, so handle with care.

1 comment:

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I wrote an article about icons, and this comment is from that article;

What response do we have from Scripture? Firstly, Scripture says we are not to make any image to worship or bow down to it because that would be idolatry. (Exod. 20:4-5a)

Secondly, how does anyone know what Jesus looked like? Would not any image of Christ therefore be from someone’s imagination and not really what Christ looked like, and therefore would not the veneration be of another god - one of the artist’s making? Let’s make an analogy here. If I carry a photo of a model in my wallet and tell everyone this photo represents my wife, would I be properly representing my wife? Would it be respectful of my wife or would it cause her to be jealous? God tells us that He is a jealous God, which is why He commands no images for worship.

Images of saints, although not being of God, are nevertheless not to be worshiped (including “veneration”). And, as with images of Christ, these images would be false representations since we do not know what the people looked like.

The issue of praying to the saints would be the same as with praying to Mary. These people are dead and we do not communicate with the dead. Although the Catholic church claims that Mary and the saints are in heaven and are therefore not bound by space and time, the reality is that they would have to be omniscient to hear prayers from people all over the world. The plain fact is that we are told in Scripture that prayers are directed only at God, never to people.

The veneration of the saints and icons is part of the daily practice for Roman Catholics, and yet this is plainly unbiblical and idolatry.