Outward and Visible

Contributed by: The Venerable Christopher Brown, PhD


One of the notable developments in the eighties and nineties in American Christianity was the emergence of “Seeker Churches.” These churches focus on reaching the unchurched in a manner that is sensitive to their cultural outlook — thus making it easier for them to assimilate into the Body of Christ. Some have become among the largest and most successful churches in America, notably Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and the Willow Creek Church founded by Bill Hybels outside of Chicago.  Their philosophy of focusing on the unchurched has become extremely influential and has shaped the outlook of Christian leaders across a wide spectrum of churches and denominations.

In the effort to reach the unchurched, the seeker church approach strives to avoid seeming too “churchy.”  Some even avoid the word, “church,” altogether. A popular alternative is the neutral and secular word, “center.” There is a congregation in my area that is called “Christian Fellowship Center,” and elsewhere I have seen church signs identifying themselves as “worship centers.”  The underlying assumption is that modern people are skeptical and uncomfortable with the institutional church but are still on a spiritual search, and that shedding the traditional trappings of church can raise people’s comfort level. As a result, ritual is radically stripped down, and traditional Christian imagery virtually eliminated.   

Almost invariably these churches come out of the world of American Evangelism.  What is often not acknowledged is that this “stripped down” and minimalist approach is not merely derived from market survey analysis of what unchurched people “are comfortable with.” This approach also coincides with a prior theological outlook that has been typical of Evangelism since the Reformation — namely a deep suspicion of iconography, decoration, liturgical form and church tradition.  


John Calvin on Images
The classic and perhaps most vigorous articulation of this position comes from the 16th century reformer, John Calvin, who argued that human nature “is a perpetual factory of idols,” and that the use of imagery is idolatry — worship as divine of what is merely prideful human creation.  

“Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity as it slugglishy plods, indeed is overwhelmed in the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and empty appearance as God….man tries to express in his work the sort of god he has inwardly conceived. We must cling to this principle: God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him.”

Calvin did not reject all Christian art. “I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images are permissible.”  He proposes a qualifier, “only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing.” What is excluded is “God’s majesty,” which must not be minimized and diminished by human conception.   In theory, this would seem to provide a considerable latitude since images of Jesus, even the crucifixion, stories from the Old Testament and the Gospels are all things “the eyes are capable of seeing.” But in the context of worship Calvin thinks their use concedes too much to corrupt human imagination.  He concedes, “all almost images that until now have stood in churches were of this sort,” nevertheless, “these images had been called forth not of judgement or selection but of foolish and thoughtless craving. Hence even if such images “contained nothing evil” they still had no “value for teaching,” and were driven by essentially faithless need for depiction.

Calvin’s searing critique of imagery had wide influence – even in the Church of England where statuary was removed, and images were painted over and replaced by biblical verses carefully  inscribed on the walls of churches. Only the Lutheran churches were initially resistant to this severe rejection of the visual. (An example is Luther’s own parish of St. Mary’s in Wittenberg, where the altar piece includes a large painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder of Jesus at the Last Supper, in which the apostles appear as Luther and his colleagues.)

The Iconoclastic Controversy
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was not the first time images came under attack. Almost a thousand years before, in the 8th century, the “Iconoclastic Controversy” convulsed the Byzantine Church of the Middle East. In 726 the Byzantine emperor Leo III took a stand against the worship of icons, and in 730 their use was prohibited.  It is difficult not to see this as reflecting the influence of Islam, which strictly prohibited all religious imagery, and which had conquered much of the Byzantine empire to become the dominant political and cultural force in the region.  The situation was reversed in 78 when Empress Irene convoked the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea which condemned Iconoclasm (rejection of icons) as a heresy and reestablished the use of images.


John of Damascus
The Council based its decision on a vigorously argued rationale by John of Damascus  (676-749). John was the greatest theologian of his day and is often called the last of the Church Fathers.  John was fully aware of Old Testament prohibition of images, and he shared Calvin’s view of that God in his eternal majesty is beyond human conception, “Who can make a copy of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed, and unportrayable God.”

John makes two basic arguments: one based on the Doctrine of Creation, and the other from the Doctrine of Redemption.  In the first place, John reminds his readers, “from the beginning God made man in his own image.” From the start God has endowed our earthly humanity with the reflection of himself.  Even granting that the “imago dei”  (Image of God) is not our actual physical form and God does not have hands and feet as we do, our concrete embodied humanity itself already points to God.  “For what reason,” says John, “do we adore one another, except because we have been made to the image of God?” He quotes Basil of Caesarea, “the honor paid to the image resounds to the original” – a principle that is the foundation of all Christian iconography.

John’s argument from the doctrine of Redemption is based on mystery that in Jesus Christ, the “Word became flesh.” Says John, “through the bowels of His mercy God our salvation was made man in truth…really made man in substance.”  God has made himself tangible, as the Epistle of John says , “we have seen and touched and heard, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it.” (1 John 1:1-2) The fact that the incarnate Christ “is the image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1:15) and that God has become visible in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth and meets us on our own level, points to the value of visual representation.

John of Damascus puts it this way: “when the invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen; when one who, by transcending his own nature, is bodiless, formless, incommensurable, without magnitude or size, that is, one who is in the form of God, taking the form of a slave, by this reduction to quantity and magnitude puts on the characteristics of a body, then depict him on a board and set up to view the One who has accepted to be seen.”

The classic Protestant suspicion of imagery and use of the visual is based on the conviction that true faith need not rely upon the human proclivity to make sense of the divine in tangible human terms.  But in the divine “condescension,” God chooses to make himself tangible – even material. Hence, the rejection of the “outward” and “visible” risks slipping into a tacit Gnosticism (the heresy that Christ never truly took on material flesh) and minimizing of the Incarnation.

What then?
This is not a polemic against Seeker Churches. There are ways in which Seeker Churches exercise this incarnational principle of meeting people on their own level in innovative and creative ways.  Often the worship in such churches draws from of popular forms of entertainment and is highly media savvy. This is one reason such churches have such a wide appeal – and they have much to teach us.

My point is simply that liturgical churches should think twice about downgrading the outward expression of ritual and symbolism in order to appear less “churchy.” Rather a better approach would be to be more imaginative and invitational in drawing newcomers into the rich outward forms of sacramental worship as something deeply consistent with the Gospel, and with our own human nature.

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