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