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I typed this up the other day after reading a couple essays about the Reformers' view of the role of church art. It is admittedly rantish and imbalanced, and there is of course another side to this issue. But, let me begin by ranting, and more careful reflections will follow later.

As I read about the Reformed tradition and the visual arts, I can’t help but be struck by our towering stupidity, arrogance, narrow-mindedness, exegetical blindness, philosophical absurdities, and paradigm confusion. Does that convey the problem sufficiently? To my mind, the Reformed myopia on this point is so shameful as to deeply compromise the credibility of the tradition on every other point. If on a point like this we have been so blind to Scripture, tradition, common sense, the relationship of matter and spirit, etc., then how can be trusted to be faithful in greater things?
And here is the rest of it.First of all, so far as I can tell, the only Biblical justification adduced for the iconoclastic frenzy that the non-Lutheran Reformers engaged in is a facile appeal to the second commandment, without bothering to actually see how Scripture applies it. The exegetical argument is so weak, given that the Old Testament itself does not seem to understand the commandment in nearly the strong terms that the Reformers did (there’s statues of cherubim in the Holy of Holies, for Pete’s sake!) that it seems that the iconoclasm must derive from another source. And so it appears—Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, etc., were knee-deep in the most dualistic Platonism—matter=bad, spirit=good; word=good, image=bad. There was a fear that material things get mixed up at all in spiritual matters and distract us from the pure intellectual contemplation of God. And there was the insistence that God was infinite and so impossible for us to comprehend—any image that attempted to picture him was idolatrous—but of course, for some reason, words were not. No, words offered the pure truth of God, undiluted, unsullied, and thus could not become idolatrous, because they were the real thing. Hopefully the more mature understanding of the vaporousness of language that we have regained in the 20th century, and the considerable experience we have had with word-idolatry will dispel such illusions. Needless to say, neither of these bizarre philosophical dichotomies is found in Scripture.
Let’s look at the Heidelberg Catechism, to see an example of this inattention to the Bible:
Q: “Should we, then, not make any images at all?”
A: “God cannot and should not be pictured in any way. As for creatures, although they may indeed be portrayed, God forbids making or having any likeness of them in order to worship them, or to use them to serve him.”
Eh? First of all, the whole point about us not picturing God can lean only on OT prooftexts; in the incarnate Christ, God has taken on visible form; he has pictured Himself for us, so, although a lot of theological work has to be done to make sense of this (and had already been done before the Reformers, if they’d cared to read it), it would seem that things are different now in this respect. As for the second prohibition, it is far broader than the Old Testament itself can support. Likenesses of creatures populate the temple and tabernacle…minimally, we have pomegranates, cherubim, and bulls, in addition to other more stylized representations. It’s hard to see how, as part of the worship building, these are not being “used to serve Him.” But...images used for instruction are going to be fine, right? Apparently not…
Q: “But may not pictures be tolerated in churches in place of books for unlearned people?”
A: “No, for we must not try to be wiser than God who does not want his people to be taught by means of lifeless idols, but through the living preaching of the word.”
Yeah, you sure better not try to be wiser than God! And since when does God only use words to teach his people?! The Old Testament contains strikingly visual teaching all throughout—from the dramatic visible signs and miracles that God works, to the richly adorned and heavily symbolic visual instruction of the tabernacle and temple, to the repeated use of object lessons by prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Not to mention that this is all just the Old Testament, and it culminates in the Word becoming visible, and taking life, and walking amongst us for us to see, taste, and touch. Biblical religion is no disembodied Platonic discourse, but an engagement with God with all five senses. Sometimes you have to wonder just what Bible these people were reading.

5 comments:

Okay, okay, you make a good point. But do you have to be so pejorative about it?

I want to make a few minor points in defense of the Reformers, though:

First, you say "...a lot of theological work has to be done to make sense of this (and had already been done before the Reformers, if they’d cared to read it)." That's a low blow. Depending upon which Reformers you're talking about, they probably *were* familiar with prior theological work on this subject. Calvin--the namesake for your blogpost--was certainly more familiar with the Early Church Fathers than either of us.

Secondly, remember their historical context. (Yay for postmodern criticism!) The Reformers weren't exactly surrounded by careful, thoughtful use of icons. Their behaviours and philosophies arose in reaction to horrible abuses in the Church. Perhaps they were part of a pendulum swing. Perhaps they did suffer from what you call "Reformed myopia." But even if they did, nearsightedness is excusable. It just means you're attacking the problems that lie right before your eyes. Doing that is hard enough without trying to formulate eternally balanced opinions.

Or, to say it another way... It wasn't uneducated idiocy that drove Calvin to preach against icons. Do you think Calvin would've changed his mind if he just studied the Bible more or paid more attention to Early Church Fathers? I doubt it. I suspect he had other, more culturally specific motives for opposing icons.

Thirdly, you say you're ashamed of the Reformers... but if you chose to, you could be ashamed of *any* part of the Church's history. Every decade in the last 2000 years has been doctrinally shameful. And frankly, some of the Early Church Fathers are a lot more shameful than Calvin; we're just accustomed to them being weird. Augustin taught that Mary never sinned. Probably the only reason you find Calvin more acutely embarrassing is because he's closer to you. You expect more of him.

May 4, 2009 at 6:41 AM  

In all fairness, Bradley, it should be noted that Luther and Calvin, along with most of the other reformers, had no problems with most of the Church's teaching on Mary, like the Immaculate Conception, her Perpetual Virginity and the fact (the scriptural fact) that she is to be blessed above all other women in all ages.

Just so we're square on the reformers' views.

May 5, 2009 at 12:36 AM  

Bradley,
I agree with all three points. That's why I said the post was unbalanced. In particular, I know I have to be willing to forgive the Reformers because of their historical context...they had to deal with things that we don't, and of course they were inclined to lose sight of the big picture amidst their particular concerns. So I can forgive them..though sometimes it takes a lot of effort.

The fact remains, though, that the radicalness of their views on images cannot be squared with the tenuous Biblical arguments alleged, and is clearly the result of a seriously flawed a priori dualism.
This is especially troubling, because if your theology is corrupted by a spirit-flesh dualism at one point, it's likely to be at other points.

May 7, 2009 at 3:48 PM  

Late to the conversation, I found this post while googling "presbypalian". I am undergoing a painful separation with my church of birth, leaning toward learning more about my fantasy church. Steeped for almost 5 decades in Reformed everything, I'm now considering embracing my poetic side and the Episcopal church. I have always thought that the Reformers missed the boat on some points, throwing the "baby" out with the "bathwater". Lately, I've come to think that perhaps the issue is actually deeper than that. I've come to suspect that perhaps there is a tone-deafness or even color-blindness in effect. I haven't yet fleshed out these differences, but am wondering whether there is sufficient interest to warrant a book on the subject?

August 21, 2009 at 12:17 AM  

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August 21, 2009 at 12:19 AM  

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