Sunday, May 22, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (5): What's So Bad About Graven Images?

Below is the fifth 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’d like to begin by responding to your following comment:

“Of course, there is nothing wrong with lapsing into praise of God because you have just climbed a majestic mountain or beheld a lovely sunset. In that sense, created things may certainly aid us in personally worshiping God. But public corporate worship is a different matter entirely. When gathering to worship God in the sanctuary, there shouldn’t be anything visual that assists us, least of all images.”

I’ll start by explaining where I agree. I do think your distinction between private and public worship is necessary when dealing with questions of this sort. The people I know who conflate this distinction always end up devaluing both the sacraments and the Lord’s day.

But while I accept the distinction, I think the argument you go on to make is problematic. If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that visual/material phenomena is fine in private worship, but is idolatry in corporate worship.

Immediately certain problems arise. First, if an image is simply a visible sign of an invisible reality, then the Bible is just as much an ‘image’ as a statue to the blessed virgin.

Secondly, consider that the Psalms, which you agree use created things such as the firmament and mountains as aids to worship, make up the hymnal that your church uses (I don’t go along with your church on exclusive Psalmody, but that is a debate for another time!).

Thirdly, how do you explain that the public/corporate worship of God in ancient Israel did include a vast array of visual objects and “graven images.” It is hard to read the descriptions of the temple and dismiss the precious stones (2 Chron 3:6), the carved Cherubim (3:7), the two Cherubim carved in the Most Holy place (3:10-13), the one hundred pomegranates on wreaths of chain work (3:16), the molten sea or bath supported by the likeness of oxen (2 Chron 4:1-5), etc., as mere decoration rather than a means of worshiping Yahweh. While the people were not to worship these images throughout the temple, they were a means to worshiping God along with everything else in the temple.

The people of God always understood that the plethora of images throughout the temple was fundamentally different to the images of false gods, the worship of which God had forbidden by the second commandment (Duet 5:8-9; Ex. 20:4-5). They also apparently saw no contradiction between the Lord’s command to make these carved images for the temple, on the one hand, and his prohibition of all “likenesses” in Deuteronomy 4:16-19, on the other. I feel that your comments have failed to take this into account.

You quoted James Jordan’s book The Liturgy Trap, where he wrote that the second commandment “means that no pictures of God, angels, or saints are allowed. It also means no pictures of men, dogs, whales, trees, or anything else are allowed.” Well, my question for you is simply this: how do you square this with the fact that God mandated pictures of both angelic beings and animals in His temple? Even James Jordon, when writing about the temple shortly after the section you quoted, has to qualify his earlier prohibitions by saying that “We are free to make pictures and sculptures of things in the creation, including heavenly is not wrong to have pictures, including faces, in the house of worship--provided we never, ever bow down toward them.” Then later on he adds another qualification: not only are we never to bow down to the pictures in the house of worship, but we are not allowed to even look at them! As he says, “the only thing to look at in worship is other people.” I must confess that all of this seems most confusing to me. What is the point of allowing pictures in the sanctuary if people are not allowed to look at them? Does this mean that the art God ordered for the temple was also not intended to be looked at? Even though the whole temple complex was designed to facilitate the worship of God, are we to conclude that the graven images in the temple were extrinsic rather than intrinsic to such worship? I must admit, this is also very confusing to me!

One final point before I let you go. In appealing to the Old Testament temple, I do not want to gloss over the important paradigm shifts that have occurred between the Old Testament to the New Testament. I guess my question would be: does scripture give us any explicit or implicit warrant for assuming that use of visual representations in worship is one of those changes? Does the New Testament ever abrogate the Old Testament’s use of visual representations in worship? Granted that the temple system has now been abolished, and that the symbols we use in Christian worship should reflect that important shift, are we to assume that the very principle of using visual representations in worship has changed?

I don’t think so, and here’s why. If anything, the Incarnation would seem to further legitimize the use of such objects in worship. After all, the second person of the Trinity became a visual object Himself, taking on the form of one of God’s image-bearers. While this does not, in itself, suddenly legitimize the use of representations of God Himself in worship (although it should not be overlooked that Deut. 4:15-16 can no longer be truthfully said since mankind has now seen the form of God through the incarnation), it does underscore the fact that our faith needs to be robustly sacramental, rendering visible that which is invisible, even as Jesus was the image of the invisible God (John 1:18, Col. 1:15; Heb 1:3). From here, it is an easy step to the contention that visual objects can play an important role in new covenant worship, even as visual objects played an important role in old covenant worship. Only by introducing a radical discontinuity between the two covenants does it seem possible to justify the type of language used by the reformed creeds on this issue.

Blessings in Christ,

Canterbury Chris


Anonymous said...

Your argument is pretty pathetic. The commands of the Lord to make certain things for the temple were very specific exceptions to the commandment not to make any graven image. The use of other images in worship was specifically prohibited. For example, the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness later became a focus of worship and the Lord chastised the people for their error. As with statues of Mary, these graven images confuse people and lead them away from the truth of the word of God and from the truth of his creation.

They also create an unecessary point of departure between Christian, Muslim, and Jewish practice that greatly dimishes our witness as a Church to these other groups.

Bryan Owen said...

Dear Anonymous,

I am posting your comment in response to my friend's piece, even though in breach of my comment policy your tone initially comes across as disrespectful and I have specifically requested that those who choose to post anonymously provide a pen name.

I may not be as generous in the future.

Bryan Owen+