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No. 59: The Second Word V: On Images and Art, Part 3

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 59
Copyright (c) 1998 Biblical Horizons
September, 1998

The Failure of the Church

Yet a third factor played an important role in this historical development, in addition to the imperial adoption of icons and the rise of the icons of the holy man. Brown writes: "The great Christian basilicas of the previous centuries tended to stand empty, except for great occasions. In these, the solemn liturgy of the Eucharist was celebrated. But this liturgy had become awesome and distant. In it, Christ was withdrawn from the masses in a deliberate attempt to surround the Eucharist with the trappings of an imperial ceremonial. Personal piety, therefore, leaked away towards the icons. For the icons were the way to the intercessions of the saints who formed the back-stairs government of the awesome throne" (p. 283).

In other words, the flourishing of this pagan piety was mainly the fault of the Church herself. The local Church had ceased long ago to be a gathered community, sitting around a table with Jesus. People hungry for contact with God, or "God," were virtually driven to look elsewhere.

Icons and Cities

A final aspect of the drift into idolatry is discussed by Brown. The Mediterranean city had always celebrated its founder, who was viewed as being divinized at death and becoming a god. This founder-god was the official protector of the city. When a city became Christian, the old founder was replaced by a new founder. The founder of the new Christian city was usually the evangelist who first brought the gospel to the city, and who often had been killed for his pains. This martyr-founder, now in heaven, became the official protector of the city. His image was put on the city walls and/or high on the walls of the church, facing outward against the city’s foes.

The Crisis

"The Arab raids of the late seventh century fell like a hammer-blow on the rich and loosely-knit world that we have described. They created a deep demoralization. Only one city, Nicaea, felt that it could convincingly ascribe its deliverance to its local icons.  . . . Byzantines had faced enough crises to know what to do. They knew that God was frequently angry with them for their sins.  . . . What the Iconoclasts were intent on removing and punishing was not particular sins but something more serious: the root sin of the human race, the deep stain of the error of idolatry" (pp. 284-285).

The position of the Iconoclasts was hard to refute. It was clear that the icons had failed to protect the cities they were supposed to guard. It was also clear that the Empire was being judged. It was further clear that this judgment came after a century and a half of proliferating images, images the Bible clearly condemned.

Politically, the situation in the Empire had changed. No longer was it possible for Byzantium to function as a loose association of cities with an Emperor at the top, for the cities were falling. The Emperors moved to centralize power, and part of centralizing power was to favor the Church against the monks, against the "holy men." This meant favoring the Iconoclasts and making the basilica, the cross, and the Eucharist the only "holy" objects.

Meanwhile, faced with justifying their practices, the Iconodules formulated arguments to buttress the use of veneration of icons. Grotesque misinterpretations of a few selected Bible texts, along with a greatly inflated argument that icons had always been used in Christendom, coupled with a complete adoption of Greek philosophical notions about truth and education, formed the bulwark of their arguments.9 The Iconodules demanded something relatively new. If the Empire was going to center its religious activities in the Church, the icons should be placed in the churches. Refugees had brought local icons from their defeated towns and cities, and they wanted these put up in the churches.

9For a completely sympathetic presentation of the Iconodule position, see Ambrosios Giakalis, Images of the Divine: The Theology of Icons at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Leiden: Brill, 1994).

Although there was conflict and persecution back and forth for the next couple of centuries, eventually the Iconodules won the battle. The Church became the center of Byzantine Christendom, but the icons were included in the churches.

The Western Christian churches did not go through the Iconoclastic Controversy, and initially were reluctant to bring images into the Church. Eventually, however, the Roman Catholic Church became almost as enamored of the veneration of man-made objects as the Eastern Church had become, though in the West, statuary tended to predominate over painting.

Renaissance and Reformation

The tares grow alongside the wheat, and about the time that the Church truly rediscovered the Biblical revelation, Satan raised up a counterfeit that rediscovered the ancient pagan writings of Plato, Aristotle, and the supposed Egyptian writings of Hermes Trismegistus. After a millennium of Christianity, however, the neo-pagans of the Renaissance could not go back to putting themselves under the spell of art, music, number, and matter (chemistry), though they could still revive astrology. They were, however, able to coopt these things to a great extent.

The reason is that the Reformation, necessarily perhaps, threw the baby out with the bathwater. Not only did they say that the arts and sciences were merely human devices, and in no sense divine, but they also removed them from the worship of the Church. They knew that a highly symbolic and decorous architecture characterized the central worship sites of God in the Old Creation (tabernacle and Temple), and that a powerful music with choir and orchestra was used in the Temple, but they rejected these as unfit for the more "spiritual" (read: intellectualized) worship of the New Creation. Very strange exegetical manouvers were needed for this, but the Reformers and their followers proved up to the task, sadly.

The result was that that arts ceased to be tied to worship as the place where this human gift was offered to God. Visual art moved almost exclusively to museums and the homes of the wealthy. Art music moved almost exclusively to the concert hall.

This was a necessary stage in the development of Christian and human consciousness, but it is a stage that must now be brought to an end. We now see that cutting the tie between the Church and the arts has led to their being taken over the neo-pagans. And increasingly we see music reverting to a kind of paganism in which people go to rock concerts or hyper-Pentecostal churches and are absorbed and rendered helplessly enthused by the sheer volume of sound. Once again people are "coming under the spell" of music, instead of taking it in hand and offering it to God as praise.

Image and Tradition

Tradition is a very trick item. Most people have the idea that their traditions go back for centuries, but very often what is thought of as an ancient tradition is only a few decades old. The generation that grows up under the spell of a new idea tends to think that that idea is older than it is, and the next generation takes it for ancient tradition. We see this in the Bible itself. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day believed in a supposed Oral Law tradition handed down from Moses. This tradition did not exist at the time the last writings of the so-called Old Testament were issued, nor did it exist at the time of the Maccabees. It was only a few generations old in Jesus’ day, and Jesus repeatedly attacked it as a demonic invasion of the community of truth. But the Pharisees were convinced that it was ancient, and eventually wrote it down in the Mishnah, wrote commentaries on it in the Talmuds, and to this day the Oral Law tradition continues to define Rabbinic Judaism.

Similarly, the iconodules came to believe that the service of icons in the Church had been present from the beginning, although there is no evidence of any such a practice before the 700s. This myth is perpetuated in the Roman and especially the Eastern Churches. In these semi-Christian groups it is regarded as a fact that God instituted the service of icons, though how such a service is to be understood is open for debate. Modern Orthodox theologians, for instance, are far too sophisticated to believe that icons contain any kind of "stuff," whether God-stuff or the stuff of the person pictured in the icon. Rather, they maintain that the icon is a kind of telephone to the person of the saint (or God) at the other end. The icon is a window into heaven, and thus to stare at the icon is to gaze at the saint, and to speak to the icon is to chat with the saint; to kiss the icon is to kiss the saint, and to bow to the icon is to honor the saint. Yet, in spite of these "advances" in conception, the notion of a transmission of some kind of power is not absent from the modern advocates of icon veneration. The icon is not merely a pictorial representation, a symbol of a person or event, but actually makes a connection and transmits power.10

10For a discussion, see Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, trans. G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983).

There is no need to repeat here the arguments against such a notion, for we have done so in our essays on the Second Word (Rite Reasons 33-36). The Bible strictly forbids such veneration on pain of horrible curses, and so the Christian mind seeks to understand why the Bible makes this prohibition, and does not seek to justify disobedience. For the Orthodox, the image is a visual communication of truth just as the Bible is a verbal communication of truth, but Biblical religion teaches that God never intended the eye as the organ whereby divine truth is received. Truth is verbal, never visual, for while God is Word, God is not visible.

Image and Theology

Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and their imitators in Anglo-Catholicism, can never attain to a fully Christian understanding of reality as long as they maintain the veneration of man-made objects. These groups refuse to hear God’s "No!" As a result, there is always some point in their philosophies where God and the creation merge in an ultimate pantheism. It is to the credit of the better theologians in these circles that they resist this tendency, but until they burn their images, they will never completely avoid it.

Biblical religion clearly distinguishes between art and icon. Art is symbolic representation. It is something that man makes and that may and should be offered to God as a gift, as a service. It is not something that comes from God to man. Visual art can be sermonic, but it can never be on the level of the Word of God. Just as we do not treat the preacher’s sermon as the same as God’s own words, so we must not treat religious art as some kind of silent communication from God.

And this brings us back to our beginning. Christianity sorts out chemistry from alchemy, astronomy from astrology, and science from magic. Important as these advances have been, they are not the heart of the matter. At the center of human life is worship, and it is at the point of worship that the essential distinction must be made. Liturgical observance of the Second Word is the foundation of all other advances is knowledge and dominion.

There is another aspect of the matter that must also claim our reflections. Art is glory. It is man’s labor to continue God’s original work of bringing light, form, and filling to the world. The Spirit who entered the world to work on the first day of creation, entered the dust to make man as His agent on the sixth day. Man is the agent of cosmic glorification. Now, since God is glorious, man’s work of glorification is a work of revealing God’s glory in the cosmos and history. (See my paper, Christian Piety: Deformed and Reformed, available for $2.00 from Biblical Horizons .)

Glory is not, however, the place where God meets man; and this is what the Orthodox semi-Christians forget or do not admit. Glory is an outflow of God’s relationship with man — apart from God, men tend to uglify rather than glorify the cosmos. God meets man in language, in personal discourse. Music may glorify that conversation — and it should do so in worship — but God does not meet man in music. Nor does He meet man in visual art of any sort. He meets man in the Word of God, in language; and because God is incorporeal, He meets man in language alone.

Another way to put this is that God meets man only through the Son of God, the Word. The Spirit is the glory, the music, the visual display, of God; but God does not meet man through the Spirit. By insisting that icons are a separate channel of non-verbal communication with God and the saints, the Orthodox separate the Spirit from the Son. Understandably, they deny that the Spirit proceeds from the Son. Biblical religion, however, insists that the work of the Spirit is to enable us to understand the Word of the Son, not to be a separate way of approaching God. God’s "No!" is a rejection of any attempt on the part of man to approach God apart from His Son.

The Son has promised to meet us two places: in our sin and in our weakness. He will rejoice in our glory, but only if we have first encountered Him in our humility. As sinners, we must meet Him in our sin, and as creatures, as newborn babies, as little children, we must meet Him in our weakness. Good works, maturity, and glory must be the outflow of that encounter, not the basis of it.

Worship is the heart of life, the repeated new-beginning point set at the center of the world on the first day of the week. Thus, worship is the place where we come back to being sinners and come back to being infants. True, we are more than that, and it is very appropriate to offer to God the best of the firstfruits of our hands in worship. It is appropriate that worship have an element of glory, therefore. But we must never confuse that element of glory with the foundation of worship, which is the simplicity of confession of our sin and our re-adoption as children. The first part of the covenant renewal, the Entrance, consisting of call, confession, and absolution, should not be glorified. This is the time for kneeling and speaking, not for standing and singing. When people are attracted to the Church because of her glory, whether that glory be great rhetorical preaching or a wonderful interior design, they are attracted for the wrong reasons and by the wrong aspect of the Church. And when that happens, the Church must sometimes set aside her glory in order to make clear her purpose and mission.

In summary, the heresy of icon veneration destroys Biblical religion along the following lines:

1. It confuses eye and ear. The eye is the organ of dominion, seeing the visible cosmos, not the invisible God. The ear is the organ of submission, hearing the Word of God. The eye can only reveal things, while the ear reveals persons. Looking at a person only reveals his or her "thingness"; it is only in listening to a person that we discern his or her personhood. Icon veneration, thus, reduces persons to things.

2. It separates the Son and the Spirit, viewing glory as an avenue to God apart from the Word.

3. It positions the glory-work of human beings at the foundation of human life, implicitly displacing God’s Word as the foundation of the life of sinners and helpless infants. It makes the eschatological glory of the Bride equal to the protological humility of the Son as the foundation of the Kingdom, and by so doing eternalizes time and destroys history. Pagan contemplation replaces Biblical obedience.

4. And, apart from all theological considerations, it openly violates the Second of the Ten Words, thereby bringing down the curse of God to the third and fourth generations of those who thereby "hate" Him.