Monday, May 16, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (4): Images in Worship

Below is the fourth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

I’m not ignoring your rejoinder about the saints, but I’m conscious that I still haven’t yet responded to your remarks about the use of images in worship.

Your comments about the second commandment are certainly interesting. But as with the issue of saints, the problem seems to be that if your statements are sound they prove too much.

Since you didn’t present any argument but simply referred to the Westminster Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism, I went and looked up the relevant passages. I found it interesting that the Westminster divines not only forbad worshiping representations of God, but also “the making of any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever.” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 109). While the Catechism does not explicitly reject representations of saints, I noticed that the Heidelberg Catechism takes care of that when it asks, “may not images be permitted in the churches as teaching aids for the unlearned?” The people are instructed to answer with is a resounding: “No, we shouldn't try to be wiser than God. He wants his people instructed by the living preaching of his Word not by idols that cannot even talk” (Heidelberg Catechism 1563, Lord’s Day 35).

I must say, George, that the automatic association between visual aids and idolatry does seem tenuous, as was the Westminster Assembly’s decision to support their argument against Christian iconography with proof texts that uniformly refer to Israel’s worship of false gods. Calvin seems to make the same mistake in Book 1, Chapter 11 of The Institutes, where his argument against Christian images rests on the assumption that such images are idolatry (and, of course, if that is your starting point, then it is very easy to construct a Biblical case against them!)

But this raises a legitimate question: is it even possible to eradicate all visual stimuli from the worship of God? We may be able to worship the Lord in a room with bare walls like my uncle does, but how many of us who can honestly claim to have sat through one church service without at some point representing God “inwardly” in our mind.

Moreover, if we are good regulative-principle-Calvinists like you are, then every time we sing the Psalms we are endorsing the use of created things as means of, or aid in, or prompt to (call it whatever you like) worship, seeing that frequently the Psalmists reach the peak of worship only after considering and meditating on the visible phenomena of the natural world. That is why I said a minute ago that if your argument proves anything, it proves far too much.

On the other hand, if we allow that we can meet with God in the natural world, since it “declares the glory of God” (Psalm 19) and moves us to spontaneous praise when we contemplate it (Psalm 97), then on what basis are we prepared to say artistic sub-creation cannot serve a similar end? If the things that God made can be so central to worship, why not the things that man makes which equally reflect the beauty of God’s holiness (Psalm 90:17)? If it is appropriate for the sight of God’s handiwork in the firmament to propel us to new heights of worship (Psalm 19:1-6), then why is it not appropriate for the sight of God’s handiwork in his saints (and I have Christian iconography in mind here) to propel us to new heights of worship? None of these questions can be adequately answered without first taking the time to develop a theology of sub-creation and to explore the spiritual function of art in the Bible. However, your knee-jerk reaction against the use of images in worship leaves no room for this.

Blessings in Christ,

Canterbury Chris

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