November 26, 2007

Image of Christ

(I apologize in advance both for this post being too long and not long enough. Most people won’t have the time to read it, but those who do will find that it barely scratches the surface.)

On Saturday Laura, Raghu, Adam, and I went to the Kimball to see their exhibition on early Christian Art. It was a fantastic exhibit showing great examples and leaving me pondering the status of art in the Christian world today. One issue that has been bugging me lately is the debate on images of Christ, which puts me directly opposite reformed thought. While I might not completely embrace the legacy of Calvin, I usually find my self at least respecting his underlying theology. So I dug a little trying to get to the central issues to find our differences(if anyone feels that I have misinterpreted the Reformed position please feel free to correct me).

The debate starts by asking the question: What is the purpose of the second commandment? Very specifically (in the English language) it seems to be prohibiting Idol making and worship. The argument goes something like this: God being a spiritual entity cannot be worshiped through a physical representation. Such a representation cannot properly convey His divine presence even in the slightest and so our worship would naturally fall upon the object instead. Christ is the pure image of the invisible God, so to make an image of THE image would be to try and make an image of the triune God.

On the surface the logic seems to flow (don’t make an image of God, Jesus is God, so don’t make an image of Jesus) but for better logic we must incorporate why we are not to make an image of God. The reason is tied up in the fact that He can not be contained within physical or mental limits. If we make an image we will start to view God as something with physical limits. But God did become something physical, the ultimate physical representation, with the Incarnation. We should be constantly reminded that the Creator of the universe walked in very specific dirt, actually touched very specific people, and was killed and resurrected at very specific locations. Christ, although God, has a physical presence and can and should be represented by physical images lest we separate ourselves from His Incarnation.

As a supporting argument: Christ’s story is told through narrative, where the mind naturally conjures images and is specifically described by John in Revelation. To try and repel any image of Christ from our minds and hands seems to contradict the very nature of the scriptures.

Why did Calvin (and many others) come to these conclusions? Though I think it was in a large part reactionary, I also think that there is a very real observation that creations of our hands can become idols and misrepresent the truth in their subjects. Take this quote from Lewis out of A Grief Observed:

"It doesn't matter that all photographs of (my wife) are bad. It doesn't matter -not much- if my memory of her is imperfect. Images, whether on paper or in the mind, are not important for themselves. Merely links. Take a parallel from an infinitely higher sphere. Tomorrow morning a priest will give me a little round, thin, cold, tasteless wafer. Is it not in some ways an advantage that it can't pretend the least resemblance to that with which it unites me?

I need Christ, not something that resembles Him. I want (my wife), not something that is like her. A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror, and as such an obstacle.

Images, I suppose, have their use or they would have not been so popular. To me however, their danger is more obvious. Images of the Holy easily become holy images-sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins."


Still, I don’t think that the banning of images is the answer. There should be a balance, like having an active teaching on the importance and meaning of images. Otherwise we are suppressing a natural imitation of the creative beauty of our Lord and (more importantly) suppressing the very nature of the Incarnation.

"Giotto and Fra Angelico would have at once admitted theologically that God was too good to be painted; but they would always try and paint Him. And they felt (very rightly) that representing Him as a rather quaint old man with a gold crown and a white beard, like a king of the elves, was less profane than resisting the sacred impulse to express him in some way. That is why the Christian world is full of gaudy pictures and twisted statues which seem, to many refined persons, more blasphemous than the secret volumes of an atheist. The trend of good is always toward Incarnation. But on the other hand, those refined thinkers who worship the devil, whether in the swamps of Jamaica or the salons of Paris, always insist upon shapelessness, the wordlessness, the unutterable character of the abomination"
G.K. Chesterton "The Mystagogue"


Futher reading:
A collection of anti-image quotes and verses.
An applicable modern situation for this discussion on The Passion of the Christ

7 comments:

Joshua said...

Good thoughts Jacob! I happened to be in agreement with the Reformed position, and since you extended the invitation, I'd like to correct a couple of flaws in your presentation of the argument.

1. You are mistaking the reason behind the prohibition of creating images of God. There is certainly truth in the statement that God cannot be fully represented by physical or mental images. But to assert this as the primary reason for the prohibition is to set up a straw man, which you easily refute in the person of Christ.

The truth that Christ is fully human answers positively that God can indeed be represented both physically and mentally without breaking the second commandment (this was and is something Jews reject about Jesus Christ). However, two important points must be made. One, that God is the one who created the body of Jesus and His Word commends us in how we are to consider Him--thus God is fully Sovereign over the appropriate physical and mental images we are to have of Himself. Second, Christ's physical body and the appropriate mental images one could have of him (e.g. an apostle's memory of what Christ looked like) do not fully represent God. Christ is both fully God and fully man, and because God is invisible, the deity of Christ cannot be represented by any image whatsoever. The purpose of Christ's body is for the fullness of His humanity, not as the representation of His divine nature, which is invisible.

The question and caveat to this first prohibition then is this: since we are to worship God in spirit and truth, is it possible to worship Christ fully through images of His physical body? The answer must be no, since the image cannot represent Christ's divine nature, which is essential to His person, work, and our command to worship God. The other question that follows is whether we can create images of Christ (mental and physical) that are not used for the purpose of worship. Although I will admit that others intentions can be meant for good, I must conclude that in their ignorance they neglect to recognize that every thought and action is an act of worship, whether recognized as such or not.

2. The other point of contention I have with you is more complex, since it involves matters of philosophical debate and the very difficult matters of epistemology. Your discussion assumes that mental images are common to all persons and are the natural and perhaps unavoidable result of mental thought. This assumption is not self-evident, nor is it philosophically demonstrable, and as for empirical support, well, it can only provide psychological support, because the proposition concerning mental images must be universally true if the scope of prohibition is to be considered valid or invalid.

As it is, some people do not have mental images, but their thoughts are as invisible as the axioms of geometry or the values of faith, hope, and love. Of course, from my perspective, this is a blessing since they are are less inclined to break the second commandment by attempting to have an image of Christ in their mind, but of course there are other ways to be idolatrous.

I realize that my position is not popular even among many so-called Reformed folks, but I consider that to be a result of assent to cultural norms of what is acceptable rather than careful consideration of Scripture on the matter.

You are right in respect to Calvin (and others) as reactionary. Roman Catholicism as well as Eastern Orthodoxy were turning images and physical representations into objects of worship. They turned plain objects into sacred ones, thereby denying the invisible God His desired order and direction of worship. In our culture the same reaction is called for, but on the opposing end of the spectrum. We have turned images of Christ into plain objects rather than sacred ones, but not without continuing to worship idols in the process. Pictures of Jesus on t-shirts and prayers to "baby Jesus" are clearly idolatrous.

To rephrase your presentation of Calvin in the form of a question:

Is the prohibition against making images of God because of a tendency to idolatry, or rather because any making of an image of God is an act of idolatry?

Motives alone do not answer the question, but we are rather to proceed according to every word that comes from the mouth of God, i.e. Scripture. There are few claims of doctrine clearer than the second commandment, and only through a thousand distinctions can we rationalize the creation of mental or physical images of God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit.

So why the prohibition? The matter is simple to me, though unsatisfactory to some. It is not how God desires to be worshipped. We are told nothing sinister about the fruit of the tree in the midst of the Garden of Eden other than that it was forbidden to eat. Surely it looked good pleasing, good to eat, and capable of making one wise--but for all its pleasing qualities (and for all rationalizations we could commit to support eating it) it remained forbidden by God's command. There may or may not be a deeper reason behind the prohibition to refrain from making images of God, but I am satisfied by the fact that God has forbidden it by a clear command and by the clear indication that it leads our sinful nature into idolatry both in act and motive.

Jacob Haynes said...

Thanks Josh, your explanation was what I was needing since I knew I didn’t have a complete grasp on the reformed point of view. I still disagree with you though on several points (once again correct me if I am not understanding you correctly):

The clarity of the command: It seems (and this is from reading the English mind you) that the second commandment is primarily focusing on worshiping images of idols not prohibiting images of God. But even if I am misreading it, there is still not a clear prohibition against making an image of Christ.

Also the nature of mental images: Consider the narratives of Moses, Jesus in the gospels, and of John’s description of Christ in Revelation. It is not only possible but rather easy to read Moses’s story without get a clear mental image of God, and it might even be possible to read the gospel’s without getting a specific image of Christ (though I get an image of someone, not just some blank white space on the cross), but John specifically describes Christ, in His full Glory and there is no way in which to read it without something coming into your head.

But maybe one can reach a mental control point in which they in no way construct any image of Christ but rather purely see the doctrines in ideas. My entire point is this is not healthy because we can have no understanding of the Incarnation that way. Jesus might as well have been a purely abstract concept that died on the cross.

That brings me to your point on a visual representation only covering half of Christ’s nature. Though I will say that art can represent much more than physical landscapes, I agree that no matter how much we visually try we cannot completely capture the Divine half. But that is why there is other ways then the visual to teach us. But even through words or ideas we will never express fully the Divine nature. Completely capturing it is not the point. If doctrines are the best way in which to understand Christ’s divine nature then visuals and narratives provide a better way in which to understand His physical side.

In the end, if I saw a direct command to not depict Christ then I would do everything in my power (or His) to curb my imagination and hands. But it still seems like an interpretation of Scripture right now. Still, I am glad that I am more informed so that I will be more careful both in my depictions of Christ and in trying not to accidentally subject images to anyone who considers it a stumbling block.

Joshua said...

Good thoughts again Jacob,

I spoke with my pastor about it some more this afternoon and he showed me Calvin's summary of the passage on the second commandment. Apparently my position is in line with the Westminster Confession of Faith, but stronger than Calvin himself, who limited the command to the realm of worship rather than all images whatsoever.

The clarity of the command read very literally would limit it to images of God in worship, excluding Christ and non-worship activities. However, you made the obvious inference that Christ is in fact God, subject to consideration regarding the Ten Commandments. I think that inferences is clearly warranted in the context of worship.

My further inference is that there is no act that constitutes a non-worship activity. I recognize a special emphasis upon corporate worship that is distinctive in many ways from the everyday (including differences in practices and God's laws for corporate worship), but I do not think that the Ten Commandments are to be limited to corporate worship specifically and it is harder to quarantine the 2nd commandment into that context.

As for mental images, that may be a conversation we have to continue in person. Suffice it to say that there is no mental image that corresponds to "glory." What material referent exists for this value concept? It is entirely subjective to the individual.

As for images being instructive, this point can lead to error as much as it leads to well-intended worship. What might the black boy from Africa learn from seeing a picture of Christ as a blond-haired, blue-eyed baby suckling from the breast of Mary wearing a halo?

The key issue is not what is possible, but what is warranted.

Lastly, I disagree that the absence of images depicting Christ leads to considering His person and work as purely abstract concepts. God the Father is invisible, yet we do not consider Him or His work to be a purely abstract concept. Nor so with the Holy Spirit.

The old adage is instructive: a picture paints a thousand words. Any meaning whatsoever can be made of images that are left to one's own interpretation. Even guided instruction does not eliminate certain omissions or attributions that are inaccurate or choosing to highlight one thing while omitting others.

I have to run to class now, but I'm enjoying your thoughts and comments greatly!

Jacob Haynes said...

”The clarity of the command read very literally would limit it to images of God in worship, excluding Christ and non-worship activities. However, you made the obvious inference that Christ is in fact God, subject to consideration regarding the Ten Commandments. I think that inferences is clearly warranted in the context of worship.”

I might agree with your final inference that images of Christ are prohibited in the context of worship if I didn’t see a great benefit in incorporating them with worship (which as I stated earlier is the heightened understanding of the Incarnation).

”My further inference is that there is no act that constitutes a non-worship activity. I recognize a special emphasis upon corporate worship that is distinctive in many ways from the everyday (including differences in practices and God's laws for corporate worship), but I do not think that the Ten Commandments are to be limited to corporate worship specifically and it is harder to quarantine the 2nd commandment into that context.”

I think you are onto something when we need to start looking at worship as a whole. If worship entails our entire lives (which is something I completely agree with) then everything seems to be a constant battle of idolatry. Images seem to me to be neutral and may be swayed both to worship (by seeing God through them or the creative act that made them) or to idolatry (by taking our focus from God).

”As for mental images, that may be a conversation we have to continue in person. Suffice it to say that there is no mental image that corresponds to "glory." What material referent exists for this value concept? It is entirely subjective to the individual.”

I agree that this will have to wait until we can have a face to face discussion because I have way to much to say on objective vs subjective art and images.

”Lastly, I disagree that the absence of images depicting Christ leads to considering His person and work as purely abstract concepts. God the Father is invisible, yet we do not consider Him or His work to be a purely abstract concept. Nor so with the Holy Spirit.”

I stated this wrong, I meant to say that the absence of images leads to considering His person and works as purely spiritual concepts like God the Father or the holy Spirit. But Christ had and has a physical presence and it is vitally important that we remember both the physical and the spiritual. Mental and physical images seem to be the most direct path to understanding the incarnation as something that physically happened.

“As for images being instructive, this point can lead to error as much as it leads to well-intended worship. What might the black boy from Africa learn from seeing a picture of Christ as a blond-haired, blue-eyed baby suckling from the breast of Mary wearing a halo?

The key issue is not what is possible, but what is warranted.”

I don’t vouch for images as an ultimate substitution for all instructive materials or the universality of any image. Discretion and wisdom should be applied as with anything. What is warranted is a whole separate issue (which I would also love to talk about) for we are primarily discussing what is possible.

“The old adage is instructive: a picture paints a thousand words. Any meaning whatsoever can be made of images that are left to one's own interpretation. Even guided instruction does not eliminate certain omissions or attributions that are inaccurate or choosing to highlight one thing while omitting others.”

While you are correct, this is not limited to images but is just as prevalent in Scriptural interpretation and teaching. Our only hope is the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit which can be applied to images as well.

Joshua said...

Thanks once more for your thoughtful comments Jacob.

I hope we can pick up this conversation sometime when we are in person again.

For now I can see that our differences will take some time to flesh out, since they involve the very nature of images and ideas, as well as hermeneutics of Scripture.

The point you make that I most heartily agree with is that we are in a constant battle against idolatry in the struggle to make all of our thoughts and actions conform to give God glory as He desires, and not in our own imaginations (whether images or ideas). Ultimately, therein lies the heart issue of the debate over uses of images or not, for where the heart is leading one away from glorifying God, the Law cannot save one even if they follow it to the letter. I think our actions matter as much as our motives, but clearly the substantive change comes in the heart of a person and not from outward conforming to the Law.

ninepoundhammer said...

I think we all agree on the topic as it relates to idolatry/ worship.

My reasons for agreeing with the Confessional view is that any representation we make of God (in any of His persons)--ANY representation--is by definition imperfect. At base, it is how we desire God to look, how we prefer He look. It can't be helped. Even with the best of intentions, it will be an imperfect representation--and therefore, it would be an insult to the Creator of the Universe.

Jacob Haynes said...

Josh-

I agree and I look forward to a good future conversation.

Matt-

If an artist can relay any truth into his image, then truth will be the anchor against subjectivity and will ultimately point to the One from which all Truth originates. But ultimately your right, we will never paint the right image of Christ, even a photograph taken by a time traveling scientist would not be exactly right. But if God demanded perfection in worship then we would all be up a creek. I cannot put myself in the perfect state of mind for understanding any of God’s doctrines, whether through imperfect logic, imperfect music, or imperfect images. No one can play the music of heaven, so why are images set apart from other mediums.

I hope that y’all understand that I am not trying to belabor the point or trying to win an argument. I really am trying to set down principles in which to live out my life and this is one that has a definite impact on my actions. Thanks for helping me in this endeavor.