The other day I was walking through Plaka (a region of Athens) and I saw a really fantastic icon. It was a large picture of Christ clothed in a purple robe, prominently displaying his wounds. This is good already, but I did a double-take on the text: around the image it said, in Greek, "o nymphios tes ekklesias" - "the bride-groom of the Church." I was actually very moved by this depiction, and its connection of Christ's wounds with the marriage of the Church.
I can give a few other accounts like this, from having been in Greece, surrounded by icons for four months. Nevertheless, I retain my Protestant unease with the manner of their use in Orthodoxy, and I don't think that the distinction made between worship and 'veneration' is very meaningful in practice.
Now, Pastor Shaun of Postscript Posthaste has an article entitled "The New Iconoclasm" discussing an article in Christianity Today about a resurgence in the use of images in worship services and the communication of the gospel by Protestants. One pastor is quotes as saying "When we limit the gospel message to the written and spoken text, we short-circuit it. We truncate it … The soul is moved by more things than the word." Pastor Shaun objects, citing Romans 10:17, "belief comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God," but I don't think this necessarily invalidates the use of images as a mode of communication of the gospel. For instance, it is sometimes helpful to occupy the visual sense or imagination in worship in order to avoid distraction, as I occasionally, when I find myself becoming distracted in times of worship, attempt to visualize certain prophetic visions of God found in Scripture, such as Isaiah 6. So what's good about icons, and what's bad?
Well, first, I think that one of the most powerful things in the physical appearance of an Eastern Orthodox church that we are entirely missing in Protestantism is the profound feel of the eternal character of the true spiritual church. That is, when we come together to worship as a body, we are worshipping God in community with the WHOLE Church, past, present, and future, which is constituted "wherever two or three are gathered." Being surrounded by the icons of various historical saints reminds us that when we worship God in community in the Church we are worshipping in fellowship not only with those who are alive right now and physically present, but with St. Jeremiah the Prophet, and St. Paul, and St. John Chrysostom, and C.S. Lewis, and all of the other believers, past, present, and future. This works, and doesn't distract us from the worship of God provided we remember that we too are part of this community (the 'communion of saints' spoken of by the Apostle's Creed), and we worship with the saints, rather than worshipping the saints or attempting to somehow worship God through them (which is what the Orthodox say they do; I'll deal with that shortly).
Secondly, there is what has already been talking about: an image can indeed communicate the deep truths of Christianity. It is not the same as a text, and cannot - must not - replace the Bible or the spoken word, but it can nevertheless be effective. This is what Christianity Today talks about Protestants recovering: the idea that the use of images can help people who are 'visually driven thinkers' or whatever to understand what they might not get from words alone, because of their distinctive learning style, and it can give us a more well-rounded 'feel' for the message - that is, it can help the message penetrate deeper than the intellectual level. For these reasons and others, Orthodox and Catholic churches in antiquity and in the Byzantine/Medieval period used images and statues in their churches so that people who came in could see the message of Christianity, even if they were illiterate. This too is a good thing.
A third point, one that Orthodox theologians bring up frequently, is that making images of Jesus reminds us, quite simply, that we can make images of him: that is, that he did in fact take on a fully material body and became a physical thing that can be depicted. This is a core truth of Christianity. But it is impossible to depict the Father or the Holy Spirit (the icon of the Trinity in the Church across the street from my school notwithstanding - my Orthodoxy professor referred to this as 'degenerate' iconography; it's not technically allowed). In this sense, the iconoclast controversy was seen as fighting Gnosticism all over again, in that the iconodules (venerators of icons) charged their opponents with denying the material body of Christ (of course the iconoclasts vigorously denied this charge). The point is, however, that Jesus really did take on a physical, human form, and pictures of him remind us of this: we can look at a portrait of a human man and say "that is God." The New Testament does in fact say of Jesus, "he is the image [Gr. eikon] of the invisible God" (Collosians 1:15).
However, the idolatry charge needs to be addressed. The Orthodox assert that they 'venerate' rather than worship the icons. This means, they explain, that they worship God through the icons by bowing and crossing themselves in front of them, and burning candles and incense, and kissing the icons. The idea, as I understand it, is that the very material is sort of 'redeemed' and made holy, taking on, to some degree, the divine nature, so that we see the divine nature in the icon and worship the divine nature. This is more clear in the veneration of saints, as Peter does in fact say, "He has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). The Bible itself, then, teaches that the saints (that is, all believers) become 'sharers' (in other translations, 'partakers') of the divine nature, and certainly we would think that this is perfected after death. The Orthodox, then, suppose that they can see the divine nature in a particular saint and worship the divine nature through that saint.
Now, the first problem I have with this is practical: it always, always, always slides imperceptibly into idolatry and syncretism. But this huge practical difficulty, it seems, arises from a relatively small theological error, which, I think, makes the whole thing rather insidious. Christianity does indeed teach the ultimate redemption of the material creation (Romans 8:19-24), and certainly 'redeemed' matter will reflect the divine nature, and redeemed human beings (such as the canonized saints) will be the clearest reflection of the image of God. I think that the error comes in simply in worshipping God's reflection here, which can never be the whole of God. We worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because each is the whole of God, so we are not guilty of worshipping only some one part of God in isolation when we worship on Person of the Trinity, but when one worships the reflection of God in the material creation - even if one successfully distinguishes this from the worship of the material creation - one worships a part of God at the expense of the whole. This is like worshipping Truth or Love. God is Truth, and God is Love, but Truth is not God, nor is Love, and when we worship God in pieces we are guilty of idolatry, because the true God is one single whole, and not a bunch of little pieces.
So then, we have three benefits to the devotional use of images, with one huge caveat. Is it possible to make use of images without falling into this trap? I think that it is. The Orthodox do, after all, view the cross and the Bible as icons, but Protestants insist that we are not committing idolatry, although we also make symbolic use of the cross and the Bible. Why should it be different with these? There are also often Bible scenes depicted on stained-glass windows of Protestant churches, surely these are not idols, nor are the banners often placed at the front of more liturgical Protestant churches to with symbols indicating where we are in the liturgical year.
Of course, the images being discussed by Christianity Today and Pastor Shaun are not quite like the Orthodox icons. We are simply talking there about using visual stimuli as part of worship and teaching. That's not a bad thing either, I think. Although we must be careful that worship doesn't become 'entertainment,' and even more careful not to slide imperceptibly into idolatry, I think that the it is possible to worship God with our sense of sight and with ability in the visual arts for those who have it, and to communicate the Christian message visually rather than merely verbally, and I think all of these things are good. So perhaps we ought to allow more images into our services, but let us be very, very careful.Posted by Kenny at May 18, 2006 2:45 PM
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