Tuesday, January 27, 2009

3 The Institutes: The Heart of Idolatry

When discussing idolatry, and in particular whenever the question of images of Jesus Christ is brought up, the discussion (by those who approve of images of Jesus) usually turns to the question of what lies at the heart of the 2nd commandment. The defense offered by those who support the use of images (whether images of Jesus Christ, or of a dove, or of a flame, both meant to represent the Holy Spirit) is that "we don't bow down and worship these images, so they are permissible".

Calvin questions this right at the start of his chapter on images, chapter 11 of Book I of the Institutes. His target in the first four sections of this chapter is the illegality of images, according to God's Law, considered in and of itself. A key concept around which Calvin builds his case is stated in the first paragraph of this passage: "for God himself is the sole and proper witness of himself." (p. 100, Institutes of the Christian Religion) For Calvin, the argument begins here - God alone is the one who can authorize representations of or physical manifestations of himself, and nobody else. Hence the commandment, Calvin argues, that NO likeness or image of God in any way may be made. He elicits a principle from the Scriptural text, too - that "God's glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him." (ibid.) There is no way to present to us an image of God that is truthful, or that fails to detract from His glory. We can do all we want to wiggle around the letter of the Law given in Exodus 20:4, but it must be recognized that even the letter of the Law given there elucidates a principle that is at the heart. It is not possible, period, for a man to construct any kind of image whatsoever and, without sin or blame, represent God with it. This includes, I firmly believe, images of Jesus Christ, the God-Man (but Calvin doesn't go into this here, though I am equally firmly convinced that he repudiated images of Jesus Christ just as much as images of Mary). Calvin here is discussing the representation of the divine being - the one true and living God, who is spirit and whose worship must be according to spirit and truth.

It is sometimes argued (and I have argued with people putting forth this argument) that images like the dove, or the flame are appropriate for use in worship and guiding thoughts and prayers because God Himself used those images as representations of Himself. To that I say, first, that nevertheless, God has condemned such images by His direct command in Exodus 20:4; but secondly, the fact of God using such representations of Himself has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is right for us to do so. If God's physical presence was "in" those manifestations - it would have been appropriate to offer Him worship through them, as HE designated those manifestations as representing Himself. Moses spoke to the flame in the bush, rightly, because God was *there* in a particular way. Would it have been appropriate later for Moses to recreate the event, in order to have an image by which to worship Almighty God? NO.

Christ, too, was the Divine and simultaneously human - He was and is the express image of God, we are told in Scripture. Was worship offered to Him, properly, being venerated as He stood there with the disciples? Indeed! Is it appropriate to make a statue of Christ in order to have a focal point for prayers, to excite the emotions and raise up our thoughts to the divine reality of Jesus? NO - for the same reason as it would be wrong for us to have a bonfire to represent God and worship Him through it - even if our minds were solely focused on worshipping the true and the living God.

I firmly believe that many who were condemned as guilty of idolatry in the episode of the golden calves, truly believed they were worshipping God through them (not worshipping the idols themselves, but using them to direct their prayers). This is the heart of idolatry - worshipping God in a way that He has not prescribed. He condemns the use of images. Period. We mustn't then use or allow them, even with the best of intentions. So argues Calvin, and with him I couldn't agree more completely.


David Porter said...

I haven't studied this section yet, but it occurs to me that you left out part of the verse:

"You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."

Using your logic, isn't that picture of a big bass I caught, when I was a child, a sin? Because, using your logic, he also says, "that is in the water under the earth".

It would seem to me that God is telling us not to make idols to worship.

If I have Michelangelo's "Pieta" sitting on my desk, I don't worship it. It does, however, serve to help me understand the woe of that moment.

As I said, I haven't studied Calvin's argument yet, and I will study it prayerfully. But, you logic doesn't make sense to me.

I hope you take this in the spirit in which it is intended.

Todd said...

The purpose of the commandment, it seems to me, is to prevent the making of images for the purposes of worship. This goes farther (and I think from the illustrations of the commandment given to us in Scripture, this is what the commandment actually does mean) than merely saying "you shall not make a brass eagle and worship the eagle". This means that you don't make images with the intent even of worshipping the true and living God by means of it.

Now what does it mean to make an image with the intent of putting it to use in worship?

Well, first of all, it means that the bass you mention is just fine. It's not meant to represent God or focus the mind on God as you worship God.

But what was the purpose of "Pieta"? What is the purpose of the "Jesus's Senior Portrait" that we all know because it was mass produced from the 70's onward? What is the purpose of statues of Jesus in Roman Catholic churches? All of these are meant to excite the emotions and give the mind a focus so that God might be worshipped. As such, I believe, all fall short of the commandment, which instructs us specficially not to make and use such things.

What does a picture meant to represent Jesus do? If it is not meant to incite worship and worshipful thoughts about Jesus, then I am not clear what its purpose is. If it IS meant to incite worship, then we have two problems. First, I believe, is the 2nd commandment itself. It's a violation because Jesus is God, and we are not to use images that are meant to depict God for us as foci for our eyes as we meditate on Him and worship Him.

But even if you don't grant me that, there is a second problem, a more clear violation of the 2nd commandment. Nobody argues that the Divine is to be imaged. Everyone who argues for pictures of Jesus seems to argue that, since Jesus is a man, it's okay - images of men are allowed, and what's more, God made His express image in Jesus Christ the man. True. However, if one tries to depict Christ (about whom we have NO idea what he looked like except that He was a Jew) what is being depicted? If the man alone, then we are not picturing God, and we are falsely depicting the Messiah, for He is fully God and fully Man. If we are trying to depict Christ truthfully, then we are in strict violation of the 2nd commandment because we are trying to depict the Divine 2nd person of the Trinity.

This goes beyond what Calvin had to say in this section, but only so far. Images to be used in Worship - public, private, whatever - he argued, and I argue together with him, are violations of the 2nd commandment.

Obviously you have to do what is right according to your conscience - I only offer this as food for thought. It took me a long while, but I have come down firmly on the side of the issue that I've explained above.

David Porter said...


I just finished Calvin's polemic on this subject, and wonder if perhaps we are now in agreement, as I have now considered his whole argument, and have prayerfully changed my position:


* It is an affront to God to represent him in any visible fashion.
* Visible representations of Christ, and the Holy Spirit by themselves, serve no purpose and furthermore lend themselves towards idolatry.
* Visible representations of Christ, and the Holy Spirit engaged in historical settings, are valuable for teaching and admonition.

Here is a link to my post on this matter: http://tinyurl.com/cbhtm9


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