Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (6): Dishing Out the Docetism

Below is the sixth 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,

Wow – you seem to take the regulative principle as being self-evidently true, and because the comments in my last letter fall outside the narrow confines of your application of this principle, they must necessarily be false. But did you ever stop to ask whether the regulative principle, as explained in your last letter, actually conforms to its own criteria? That is to say, does scripture itself teach the legitimacy of the regulative principle as you have articulated it?

I leave that for you to ponder while I move on to address the stuff from Calvin that you gave me to read. Trust you to refer me to John Calvin!

Actually, I think Calvin was a first-rate thinker, and I have a lot of admiration for him. But in this chapter you gave me to read from the Institutes on the “Impiety of Attributing A Visible Form to God,” Calvin is completely sub-par.

I did find it very interesting, in light of what I said in my last letter, that while Calvin goes through all the various times God did appear in a form (as when He appeared in the cloud, the smoke, the flame, and when the Holy Spirit appeared under the form of a dove), he lacks any mention of the incarnation itself! I found that most puzzling. Curiously, Calvin does mention the times when “God sometimes appeared in the form of a man...in anticipation of the future revelation in Christ.” Had the revelation of Christ itself qualified as an instance of God appearing in visible form, one wonders whether Calvin could still have confidently concluded that

It is true that the Lord occasionally manifested his presence by certain signs, so that he was said to be seen face to face; but all the signs he ever employed were in apt accordance with the scheme of doctrine, and, at the same time, gave plain intimation of his incomprehensible essence.

Or consider later in the same chapter of the Institutes:

“The Lord, however, not only forbids any image of himself to be erected by a statuary, but to be formed by any artist whatever, because every such image is sinful and insulting to his majesty.”

How these statements of Calvin’s can square with the reality of the incarnation remains a complete mystery to me. If a visible image of God is insulting to His majesty, then the physical body of Christ would be insulting since that was a visible image of the invisible God according to Colossians 1:15 (“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation”). If this be true, then it’s time to start dishing out a bit of Docetism.

No offense George, but I think you have followed in Calvin’s wake in manifesting a similar type of hermeneutical schizophrenia. Consider, you are more than happy to interpret the fourth commandment through the lens of Christ’s resurrection, yet you stop short of interpreting the second commandment through the lens of the incarnation – that great event when visible form was attributed to God.

In no way is it my intention to gloss over the dangers of idolatry. I agree that maintaining the distinction between veneration and worship does not make one immune to the sin of idolatry. However, since you mentioned the issue of bowing before icons and statues of venerated saints, I am wondering if the issue is really as clear cut as you assume. While bowing down before someone is frequently associated with worship in the Bible (Acts 10:26; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9), this is not always the case. James Jordon recognizes this in The Liturgy Trap and argues that bowing down before men is often Biblically appropriate. In fact, he even advocates having the pastor bow before the congregation. What Jordon will not allow is bowing before inanimate objects. Yet it is a point worthy of mention that the Bible gives examples where the saints express devotion to God by bowing down before inanimate object such as the Temple or the altar in the Temple (Psalm 5:7; 2 Chr. 29:28-30) or fire that comes from God (2 Chron. 7:3) or the reading of the Word (Nehemiah 8). These passages seem to undermine the knee-jerk assumption that any time a person bows to an inanimate object he is automatically committing idolatry. Now the person may be guilty of idolatry, but you would need another argument to establish that.

You write that when we meet to worship God, the focus should be on Him and not on the Saints. I agree. But it is far from obvious that icons or statues of saints takes the focus off the Lord any more than a Bible or a pulpit. Quite the contrary, for where are we when we meet for worship? The book of Revelation shows us what a worship service in Heaven looks like, and what we find is departed saints gathered around the innermost sanctuary of God’s throne room. Imitating this Biblical model and populating the sanctuary with saints cannot be wholly without warrant.

Now I’m not saying that because of the incarnation that our church services can now become a big free for all, or that public worship can legitimately include elements that fall outside broad scriptural warrant. In this regard, I agree with the nuanced version of the Regulative Principle that Jeff Meyers has articulated in his book The Lord’s Service. But I am suggesting that if we are prepared to incorporate the denunciation of all images into the very worship service itself (which is what your church does when it reads the Heidelberg Catechism during the service), and if we are prepared to dismiss as idolatry those ecclesiastical traditions which have been using images for hundreds of years (which is the implication of the Westminster Catechism treating the issue under the Second Commandment), and if we are to join Jordan in condemning as “apostate” all who leave our reformed churches to become a high Anglican, then we need some pretty clear scriptural warrant. At the moment, I struggle to see that such warrant can be found in scripture.

Blessings in Christ,

Canterbury Chris


Anonymous said...


James said...

Canterbury Chris -

Very well put. Thank you so much for this. These are topics one doesn't see addressed frequently.

Particularly good for me was the mention of saints in the book of Revelation, which brought me to thought. I had previously been somewhat uncomfortable with images of saints, so this is quite enlightening.

I do look forward to reading more of your excellent letters.

Fr. Owen, thanks for publishing these.