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.