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Friday, December 02, 2005

Word, Sacrament, and Buddy Jesus

Is Buddy Jesus just alright with you?
Lately I've been following some of the back-and-forth between the Bayly Brothers (both PCA ministers) and a Missouri Synod Lutheran, Rev. Paul McCain. Some of the pointed disagreement is, predictably, over the Doctrines of Grace. Of interest to me, however, is the issue of the use of icons and images in worship.

Unlike many of my Reformed brethren, such as the Bayly's, I am not a pure iconclast. I only want to clast most icons. Seriously, I cannot see Scriptural warrant for prohibiting all use of images in worship or depictions of Jesus. I'm not going to take the time to argue my view, since Ra McLaughlin has done a better job of it than I could here. However, I also believe that the vast majority of modern uses of images are terrible for a variety of reasons.

McCain actually supplies us with a perfect example of one of these reasons, namely a painting of Christ meekly knocking on a door. If McCain wanted to convince us that the use of images of Christ is a good thing, he really shouldn't have used that picture in his blog post. The aforementioned Thomas Kinkadesque Meek Messiah is only slightly more honoring than the above-pictured "Buddy Jesus." These folks seem to want to extend Christ's state of humiliation to the present day, instead of acknowledging Him as He is: exalted at the right hand of the Father. Revelation 3:20 tells us that Jesus does indeed "knock" on the doors to our hearts, but as one who demands repentance (vs. 19), not as a beggar. Beggars don't have two-edged swords coming out of their mouths.

Let's set aside, for now, the clear misuse of images of Christ and consider the question of whether images and icons are inherently dishonoring to God, even if the images are more, um, reverential and theologically astute than the sentimental silliness we just saw. I will, in sincerity, take McCain at his word when he says that he opposes abuses and misuses of images.

I think of the use of icons in much the same way as Pascal's Wager thinks of belief in Christianity. Pascal's Wager says that if Christians are wrong about their faith in Christianity, we lose nothing (because we cease to exist after death); but if Christians are right, then unbelievers have everything to lose (because they are consigned to hell). Therefore, it is reasonable (or, at least, there is incentive) to believe in the Christian faith, all other things being equal. Similarly, Gadbois' Wager states that if iconclasts are wrong about their disdain for icons, they lose nothing by disdaining said icons. However, if the iconclasts are right, then iconographers have offended God in their use of icons.

The only objection to this reasoning I can see is if someone could present a positive case that establishes the biblical requirement to use images or icons (whether in the context of worship or not). I don't know that anyone has ever made such an argument, and I don't know what NT passage one could possibly use to support such a case, unless one wants to really stretch definitions and call the elements at the Lord's Supper an "image" of sorts. [Side note: if the Lutherans are right, and Christ is bodily present at the Supper, then, actually, it is not an image at all.]

Strangely enough, while this Lutheran crowd does not make the above argument, it seems that they still raise the issue to the level of a test of orthodoxy. Behold the stunning logic:
Don't miss the trump card: the Christological dogma. God became man and
therefore God *can* be depicted; iconography is simply fully embracing the dogma
of the Incarnation.

You'd think that affirming the Athanasian Creed and Definition of Chalcedon would be good enough to embrace the dogma of the Incarnation, but apparently you're a lightweight if you haven't gone all the way and tacked up an icon or two in your house or place of worship. One chap even went as far as to say that us Calvinsits have a "semi-Nestorian and Satanic Christology" and "deny the hypostatic union" in a comment at Baylyblog. Although the issues are certainly related (as are all issues in theology), having a perfect Christology simply isn't going to select for a particular understanding of worship. We can "fully embrace" the Incarnation yet still question the propriety of depicting the Incarnate God and using such depictions in worship of the Incarnate God.

In all of this I keep wondering, "is Word and Sacrament simply not good enough for you folks?" I worry about what sort of answer I would get from this bunch of Lutherans. Are we really missing out on something vital here? If so, please prove from Scripture that it is vital or even important to Christian worship. If so, then why does it seem to be missing from the first century church, as depicted in the New Testament? If it is not vital to Christian worship, then why dost thou protest so much? If we took away your icons, would you cease to function as a church, or at least by spiritually crippled? Would you, personally, find yourself in spiritual or emotional doldrums without them?

McCain quotes Luther in this respect:
Images, bells, eucharistic vestments, church ornaments, altar lights, and the
like I regard as things indifferent. Anyone who wishes may omit them.

It is hard to tell, but it may very well be true that McCain agrees with Luther here. I hope so. Certainly, no Eastern Orthodox cleric could make such a statement.

Given this reasoning, one may ask why I am not a full-blooded Baylyesque iconclast? I have a mountain of respect for such brethren, but I cannot go along with their blanket prohibition against the use of images. The Gadbois Wager makes me extremely wary of the use of images, but the hole in the Wager that prevents me from prohibiting images is the doctrine of Christian freedom. If McLaughlin's reasoning in his article is right, the Scriptures do not strictly prohibit the use of images in or out of worship, and the doctrine of Christian freedom tells me that it is a sin for me to prohibit that which Scripture does not prohibit. This principle is the only thing that gives me any sympathy at all for McCain's side. It is hard for me to see how visual depictions in worship can possibly be inherently wrong if they were used prominently in Old Testament worship (ex. the Temple and Tabernacle). Furthermore, since the cultural mandate includes the task of visual artistry, I think we should use all forms, means, and tools that are not prohibited by Scripture to do so.

As a practical matter, however, I think that in our age we must, more often than not, break our bronze serpents to pieces (2 Kings 18:4), whether commissioned by Moses himself or painted by a Thomas Kinkade wannabe.


P.S. - I have no clue what sort of ecclesiological theory is behind the following statements by McCain concerning Calvinists:
[The Bayly Brothers] are fine, pious, and sincere Christian pastors who are
conservative Calvinists.

and then:

They can expect no fellowship from me.

Category: Theoblogia


  • Matthew 11:29 "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls."

    Matthew 21:5 "Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass."

    And don't forget Philippians 2:5-8.

    Don't worry, we have triumphant pictures of Jesus too. You're the only one who is proposing we do away with the depiction of fully half the truth of the God-Man, fully half of what saves us from our sins.

    By Blogger Eric Phillips, at 8:51 PM  

  • Brother Eric,

    I am most grateful for any correction I deserve on this matter. But if I am wrong, then please, PLEASE, show me from Scripture. I am glad that my (Lutheran?) brethren have "triumphant" pictures of Jesus, and that would certainly not fall under my criticism of the Kinkade/Buddy Jesus silliness.

    And, as my article stated, I am not a pure iconclast. "Depiction" of Jesus, per se, is not wrong. What makes it wrong in some cases is HOW He is depicted and WHY that depiction exists.

    This bring me back to my original point - is it essential for such depictions to exist? How is it that we somehow deny the fullness of the Incarnation if we don't see these depictions as important (indeed, we see them as often counterproductive) in worship?

    Eric, I'll be curious to hear more specifics if you wish to criticize my post. Just remember that Reformed opinion is not unanimous on this matter, although I hope you could understand our unanimous CAUTION when it comes to visual depictions of Christ.

    Blessing in Christ - Dave

    By Blogger David Gadbois, at 12:03 AM  

  • "I am most grateful for any correction I deserve on this matter. But if I am wrong, then please, PLEASE, show me from Scripture."

    Dude, I just quoted two verses and reference a third passage. What are you talking about? I wasn't addressing the rest of your post, just the part where you said that Jesus should never be depicted as MEEK.

    By Blogger Eric Phillips, at 7:27 AM  

  • Eric,

    First, I should note that it was unclear as to what relevance those verses had to my post when I first read your original comment. I had no idea what you were getting at other than you generally disagreed with my post and thought that we were proposing to do away with the depiction of "fully half the truth", etc.

    As for the "meek" issue in particular, I note that all of those verses are referring to the state of Christ's humiliation, not Christ's present state.

    By Blogger David Gadbois, at 9:48 AM  

  • God specifically tells us not to make images of Him, because we don't know what He looks like.

    Deut. 4:15-16
    You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman

    Therefore, any image of God that is not accurate is guilty of idolatry.

    By Blogger Ronnie, at 10:01 AM  

  • Ronnie,

    Actually, that passage from Deuteronomy prohibits the use of images on the basis of the fact that God has no "form." But Jesus, the God-man, has a human form. That's where I think this sort of reasoning goes astray.

    By Blogger David Gadbois, at 12:08 PM  

  • Hi David,

    Actually the passage does not say that “God has no ‘form’”, but instead they did not *see any form*. That is a difference. The point is they did not know what God looks like so any image of Him would not be accurate. I think providentially this is the reason no one knows what Christ looks like. Furthermore, *any* human form is still not an accurate representation of Jesus and therefore still guilty of idolatry. Notice how we have pictures and images of African-American Jesus, European Jesus, blue-eye Jesus, muscular Jesus, blonde hair Jesus, etc. Everyone makes Jesus in their own image and this is idolatry. In this present age we walk by faith and not by sight( 2 Cor. 5:7), yet it is our hope that *we will see Him again* at the eschaton. In this age we *do not see Him*, yet we love and believe in Him( 1 Pet. 1:8). Those who push for a visible manifestation of Christ now are guilty of a over realized eschatology. If someone can give me a true representation of the God-man then yes, but these generic images made according to the likeness of our mind, no.

    By Blogger Ronnie, at 1:06 PM  

  • "Actually the passage does not say that “God has no ‘form’”, but instead they did not *see any form*. That is a difference. The point is they did not know what God looks like so any image of Him would not be accurate. I think providentially this is the reason no one knows what Christ looks like."

    Hi guys. Okay, if I understand this correctly, Ronnie's first two premises go like this:

    1. If any given group did not "see any form" of God, then that group did not know what God looks like.

    2. If that group did not know what God looks like, then any image of God made by that group would not be accurate.

    . . . to which I add the following:

    3. According to Christian belief, it is the case that the people of Israel in the OT did not "see any form" of God (Deut. 4:15-16), but it is not the case that the witnesses of Jesus in the NT did not "see any form" of God (since Jesus was the God-man).

    4. Therefore, according to Christian belief, it is the case that any image of God made by the people of Israel in the OT would not be accurate, but it is not the case that any image of God made by the witnesses of Jesus in the NT would not be accurate.

    To better explain the phrase "see any form", we should distinguish between what it is to see God in His divine form and what it is to see God in His human form. And it seems that if one can see something, one can represent it -- in this case, in the visual sense.

    Now, the way I understand it, Iconoclasts and Iconodules agree that God cannot be represented in His divine form, for "no one has seen God at any time" (John 1:18). But they differ in that only the Iconodules believe that he can be represented in his human form, for "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14).

    The bottom line is that the Iconoclasts do not believe that God can be represented in any form, and the Iconodules do believe that God can be represented, but only in His human form.

    Whether God should be represented in any form is another question.

    By Blogger Joshua, at 3:04 AM  

  • The bottom line is that the Iconoclasts do not believe that God can be represented in any form, and the Iconodules do believe that God can be represented, but only in His human form.

    I would argue that God could be represented in His human form if we know what He looked like. I don’t consider a generic human image as accurate anymore than I consider a blonde hair, blue-eyed picture accurate. Since no one knows exactly what Jesus looks like in His human nature then every representation is a false and inaccurate one. Also remember the constant NT eschatological hope is that we will see Him then, not now! This age is the age of faith, not sight.

    By Blogger Ronnie, at 7:09 PM  

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