In my first entry on the topic of image usage in the church, I looked at how the earliest generations of the Church engaged with imagery. In this, I saw what seemed an exclusively polemical treatment of images against the Paganism of the day. Moreso, a critique of the medium itself in devotional contexts. This was rooted in the exchanging of reality for representation that occurs in the adoration of the image made of inert matter, instead arguing that the image of God is the quickened individual. In the 3rd century, we read of a Church being ransacked and yet possessing ‘no image of Divinity’ and by the 4th the toleration of images for the purposes of education, but not adoration. At the same time, we see the beginnings of Christians tolerating, or even accepting, the Imperial cult of the Emperors. Something they’ve previously condemned.
In the second entry, I chart the changes from the late 4th and early 5th century to the period of the iconoclasm. In this, we see proskynesis extended to both images of the Emperor and relics. By the mid-5th century, we see the adoration of and appearance of miracles being attributed to images of Christian emperors. Christians begin to adore objects that blur the boundaries of relic and image. Images not made by the hand of a man, like the Mandylion of Edessa. Adoration is soon extended to the manufactured imagery of the Christ and the Saints. Justifications for these practices drew on Platonic thought that had been baptised by writers like Pseudo-Dionysius. These justifications argued that the images of the saints and Christ were forms that shared a relationship with the object of their depiction. This is summarised in the word of Basil the Great by the phrase “Honouring the image leads to the prototype.” The rise in dreams and miracles that were associated with these images, particularly in the East of the Church even went so far to suggest these distinctions were collapsed in the worship of images which undertook a sacramental appreciation as means by which Gods grace was extended to their votaries.
We then examined the arguments of John of Damascus in the context of the Iconoclasm and see that by the late 7th and first half of the 8th-century the worship of images was argued to constitute part of the tradition handed down by the Apostles to the Church. We also see a distinction and hierarchy in terms of the worship that can be extended to various created things and the reservation of ‘adoration’ for God alone. I drew out the differences, and what I believed are shortcomings, in John’s argument by reflecting on his quoting of scripture and the writings in my first entry by earlier Fathers of the Church. I was left with the distinct impression that John’s formulation of the arguments for the worship of images was not symphonious with earlier generations of Christians, nor scripture itself. I closed this final entry with three options available in light of this conclusion: I am wrong in my reading of history, the dissonance between earlier later centuries can be explained away with a doctrine of development, or that John and the Church of the period had strayed into error with its worship of images. I use the word worship because that is the distinction John makes, in the translations I have read, between that and the act of adoration.
In all sincerity, I feel like I have tried to be faithful to the evidence provided, I also feel a post-hoc justification of the development of doctrine is not something John himself would have subscribed to during his own day. John’s argumentation for the worship of images was predicated on it being part of the holy-tradition of the Church. This was an appeal to a Church that was unchanged. Yet if the evidence provided is correct the Church did change. This leads me to the final conclusion and if one must choose between the later church and the earlier church the second of the two can claim a greater proximity to those who formulated the holy scriptures and the apostles themselves. In light of this I will now attempt to chart out the implications for some of this in this final entry.
What of the miraculous claims?
One of the first pieces of criticism I got after voicing this view was doubting the miraculous accounts attached to images, and inevitably relics of the periods in question. A big part of the growth in the practice of the worship of images and relics was the petitionary nature of much of the worship shown towards them. This wasn’t the sole reason, but its hard to ignore. What I’ve tried to do here is looking at the history of the practice, which is methodologically naturalistic. This is undeniable but it isn’t to necessarily deny the miraculous out of hand. A treatment of the subject I think is hard to do without launching into its own more extensive examination of the claims made but let me attempt to summarise my view on the miraculous claims made.
I do not doubt God works today in supranatural ways for those who love him. I believe he is still at work today. Just the other week in my small group I heard news of a previous leader of our group experiencing the spontaneous disappearance of extensive cancer in response to prayer. I believe it, I believe God has worked in my life in related ways. Do I believe God works in relation to particular geography or objects? In a sense, but I believe this is not an inherent attribute of the object or geography in question. God heals in response to faith or in order to bring it about, Jesus did miracles his disciples could not and yet his refrain was a variation of “Go in peace, your faith has healed you” or “your sins have been forgiven”. It isn’t a one-way exchange and is dependant on Gods purposes. I cannot explain every account of every miracle and it is the nature of religious experience that there is an inherently contextualised and arguably subjective nature to it given it transcends so much of our ordinary experience. It’s an open question but one I think should not be forced either way.
At the same time, there is something I find distasteful about seeing objects in a votary or even utilitarian petitionary context. In the language of Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou’ the petitionary object becomes an ‘It’ which creates a distance between the work of God in our lives, and even the person associated to the image or relic. Buber’s Thou, by contrast, is not a means to some object or goal but a relationship involving your whole being with that of another. Ultimately this draws us to God. By example, the love I have for my wife has a physical component to it but it is not bound ultimately by time and space. It is not a means to some object or goal but rather bears fruit as the natural outpouring of our union in the form of life, our son. The cult of relics and images, by contrast, is made up of objects whose telos is as receptacles of devotion. The telos of a holy man is not to be worshipped, but when we carve up his body after death, put it on display, or draw images of him for this explicit purpose these turn him in some fashion into a dispensary, spectacle, or stranger by this conduct towards him. Would I treat my Father, Brother, Wife, or Son in this way? No. They become something they never were in life and it is arguably dehumanising to them (for they continue to exist in a form of continuity with their life hereafter death). Our subsequent relationship with them via this medium becomes one of ‘It’ rather than ‘Thou’.
To see and to be seen, representation and reality
Another thing I am left thinking about is the power of the visual medium more generally. I couldn’t help but be struck by how prescient the writings of the earlier fathers were regarding the role of imagery. I could only imagine what they would think of our current media-saturated age. Even in the transition from the 2nd and 3rd century through till the 4th, there seems a transition between an emphasis on the observer to the observed. Earlier there is a rebuke of the folly of the observer who can be fooled by representations. Later there is the justification raised that observed images can serve a didactic role. Both of these rest on the power of an image to make truth claims regarding reality that can bypass ignorance and reason (It was the eyes of the spectators that were deceived by art – Clement of Alexandria). It is not a surprise therefore that the imagery we think of when we think of authoritarianism is that of the power of the gaze (Remember, Big Brother is watching you).
The authorial role of images leads many to assume it communicates truth but the strength of the claim itself is not bound up in the image, it is always a given. It also turns the subject depicted into an object. The depicted becomes an ‘it’ rather than a potential ‘Thou’. We’ve all heard stories of how certain cultures believed a camera could steal someone’s soul. An image, of course, doesn’t steal a soul but it does have the potential to take something from someone, the representation can replace or subvert the reality of a person’s primordial character. Anyone familiar with social media knows this from the selective grooming and editing we and our peers apply to our public personas on contemporary digital networks. If I believed how I represent myself online is the reality of who I am I would be fooling myself. By contrast the earliest Christians seemed to appeal to reason as an alternative to imagery. Like the Jews we are a people of the book and reading (or recital atleast) has always played a massive part in the life of the Church. What, if any is the advantage of reading or recital by contrast to imagery? I’ve been massively inspired by Nicholas Carr’s book on the influence of the Internet and he writes on the subject of reading…
“In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”
Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
Reading cultivates the imagination and engaged the faculties of reason. Even in a pre-literary age reading played a massive role in the Synagogue and later in the Church, Carr elsewhere writes…
“Even the earliest silent readers recognized the striking change in their consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in the pages of a book. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, “as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of my memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.” Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, or the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was—and is—the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading.”
Nicholas Carr, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
In reading, especially silent reading, there is a nascent freedom and intimacy that in scripture draws people to God. This is why, in turn, the Jewish and Islamic prohibition on imagery, whilst excessive, is not without some merit. Art Historian Titus Burckhardt expounds on this…
The absence of icons in Islam has not merely a negative but a positive role. By excluding all anthropomorphic images, at least within the religious realm, Islamic art aids man to be entirely himself. Instead of projecting his soul outside himself, he can remain in his ontological centre where he is both the viceregent (khalîfa) and slave (‘abd) of God. Islamic art as a whole aims at creating an ambience which helps man to realise his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an ‘idol’, even in a relative and provisional manner. Nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God. Thus Islamic art creates a void; it eliminates in fact all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world, and in their stead creates an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace.
Titus Burckhardt, Mirror of the intellect: essays on traditional science & sacred art
C.S Lewis has expressed a similar sentiment more than once on this predisposition for the human heart to fashion idols…
Images I must suppose, have their use or they would not have been so popular. (It makes little difference whether they are pictures and statues outside the mind or imaginative constructions within it.) To me, however, their danger is more obvious. Images of the Holy easily become holy images – sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast.
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, pp.76-77
In which he essentially encapsulates my understanding of what happened with images in Church. Images of the holy became holy images, something I think the earliest Fathers were aware of. Elsewhere he writes…
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
To which some may say that the holy image retains a distinction apart from its prototype, this is what an Icon might be to someone. A thing in itself which serves as a devotional aide. Yet the appeals to the miraculous character of the images itself challenges this. Ernst Kitzinger in his summation of the role of images between Julian the Apostate and the Iconoclasm wrote…
In all acts of worship, even the most elaborate and intense, it is possible to claim – as was, in fact, maintained over and over again by defenders of images of all times – that the icons served merely as a symbol, a reminder, a representative of the deity or saint for whom the honor is intended. Wherever magic is involved this claim tends to become void. The common denominator of all beliefs and practices, which attribute magic properties to an image, is that the distinction between the image and the person represented is to some extent eliminated, at least temporarily. This break down the barrier between image and prototype is the most important feature of the cult of images in the period under review.
Ernst Kitzinger, The Cult of Images before Iconoclasm p100-101
Even now you only have to scratch the surface of an internet search to uncover stories of contemporary miracles being associated with Icons. This apologetic provides a motte of images being used as a devotional aid to defend the bailey of the special sacramental beliefs images can enjoy in certain Christian traditions.
The image doesn’t just point to the prototype, they can be collapsed into its very being. This transformation, however, is a difference of degree rather than kind given the inherently presentational nature of images, they are not propositional. Is a miracle presentational or propositional? I believe the former because they are signs, not arguments. Icons therefore whether merely devotional or miraculous serve the same goal and this is the justification for their worship in the writings of John of Damascus. A justification I think is fundamentally misplaced given their manufactured nature. Cultural critic Neil Postman touched on something of this when he wrote of the obsession in American culture with entertainment. He wrote…
“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Images, even if not entertainment, are not propositional. Think of the contemporary power of memetic images on the internet. They might not always be correct, but they cannot be argued with. Icons are arguably, in part, an antecedent form of the contemporary meme.
Later critics of the use of images
The distinction between what John distinguishes as adoration and worship is something that came under extensive scrutiny during the Reformation. Whilst the views of the Reformers varied in degree of criticism there was a consensus in kind regarding image worship. Yet John Calvin gives the most incisive critique in his Institutes that speaks directly to John of Damascus’s bifurcation of worship and adoration.
The distinction of what is called dulia and latria was invented for the very purpose of permitting divine honours to be paid to angels and dead men with apparent impunity. For it is plain that the worship which Papists pay to saints differs in no respect from the worship of God: for this worship is paid without distinction; only when they are pressed they have recourse to the evasion, that what belongs to God is kept unimpaired, because they leave him latria. But since the question relates not to the word, but the thing, how can they be allowed to sport at will with a matter of the highest moment? But not to insist on this, the utmost they will obtain by their distinction is, that they give worship to God, and service to the others. For “latreia” in Greek has the same meaning as worship in Latin; whereas “douleia” properly means service, though the words are sometimes used in Scripture indiscriminately. But granting that the distinction is invariably preserved, the thing to be inquired into is the meaning of each. “douleia” unquestionably means service and “latreia” worship. But no man doubts that to serve is something higher than to worship. For it were often a hard thing to serve him whom you would not refuse to reverence. It is, therefore, an unjust division to assign the greater to the saints and leave the less to God. But several of the ancient fathers observed this distinction. What if they did, when all men see that it is not only improper, but utterly frivolous?
Calvin’s treatment here could warrant its own series, as he goes on to give examples from scripture repeatedly of the condemnation of even dulia even being extended to anyone or anything but God. He also picks up on the interesting distinction between what John calls worship and adoration and Calvin calls service and worship. Yet his line “the question relates not to the word, but the thing” I think speaks volumes. If someone in their ignorance extended latria to which only dulia was appropriate have they fallen into idolatry? I find this line of argumentation interesting because the Reformed faith is frequently argued to be too cerebral or abstract by contrast to the ‘incarnational’ expressions in the liturgy of Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. Yet here Calvin applies a critique based purely on the embodied displays that occur with regard to the image. Words aside the displays afforded to both objects of latria and dulia, however defined, possess only internal distinctions impossible to determine from the outside. When the distinction is internal without which the external display is idolatrous is this not the more cerebral? Is not the prohibitive tone here not the more incarnational?
Thomas Cranmer also made statements critical of the practice but focused instead, as far as I can see, on the then contemporary abuses, scriptural prohibitions and absence of any written material defending the practice in proximity to the lives of the apostles. He writes…
It is not also taught you in Scripture, that you should desire St. Peter to preserve you from the pestilence, to pray to St. Barbarra to defend you from thunder or gun-shot, to offer St. Loy an horse of wax, a pig to St. Anthony, a candle to St, Sithine. But I should be too long, if I were to rehearse unto you all the superstitions that have grown out of the invocation and praying to saints departed, wherewith men have been seduced, and God’s honour given to creatures.
This was also no small abuse that we called the images by the names of the things, whom they did represent. For we were won’t to say, “This is St. Ann’s altar;”-“My father is gone a pilgrimage to our Lady of Walsingham;”-” In our church St. James standeth on the right hand of the high altar.” These speeches we were wont to use, although they be not to be commended. For St. Augustine in the exposition of the 115th Psalm affirmeth, that they who do call such images, as the carpenter hath made, do change the truth of God into a lie. It is not also taught you in all Scripture.
Thus, good children, I have declared how we were wont to abuse images, not that hereby I condemn your fathers, who were men of great devotion, and had an earnest love towards God, although their zeal in all points was not ruled and governed by true knowledge, but they were seduced and blinded partly by the common ignorance that reigned in their time, partly by the covetousness of their teachers, who abused the simplicity of the unlearned people to the maintenance of their own lucre and glory. But this be profitable, for if they had, either Christ would have taught it or the Holy Ghost would have revealed it unto the Apostles, which they did not. And if they did, the Apostles were very negligent that would not make some mention of it, and speak some good word for images, seeing that they speak so many against them. And by this means Anti-christ and his holy Papists had more knowledge or fervent zeal to give us godly things profitable for us, than had the very holy saints of Christ, yea more than Christ himself and the Holy Ghost.
Now forasmuch, good children, as images be neither necessary nor profitable in our churches and temples, nor were not used at the beginning in Christ’s nor the Apostles’ time, nor many years after, and that at length they were brought in by bishops of Rome, maugre emperors’ teeth; and seeing also, that they be very slanderous to Christ’s religion, for by them the name of God is blasphemed among the infidels, Turks, and Jews, which because of our images do call Christian religion, idolatry and worshiping of images: and for as much also, as they have been so wonderfully abused within this realm to the high contumely and dishonor of God, and have been great cause of blindness and of much contention among the King’s Majesty’s loving subjects and are like so to be still, if they should remain: and chiefly seeing God’s word speaketh so much against them, you may hereby right well consider what great causes and ground the King’s Majesty had to take them away within his realm, following here in the example of the godly King Hezekias, who brake down the brazen serpent, when he saw it worshiped, and was therefore praised of God, notwithstanding at the first the same was made and set up by God’s commandment, and was not only a remembrance of God’s benefits, before received, but also a figure of Christ to come. And not only Hezekias, but also Manasses, and Jehosaphat, and Josias, the best kings that were of the Jews, did pull down images in the time of their reign.
The Life, Martyrdom, and Selections from the Writings of Thomas Cranmer, p.139-142, (1809)
Cranmer here comes across as more openly iconoclastic than might have previously been assumed. Yet he seems to be articulating an awareness that Calvin elsewhere had written extensively (as any one has permitted himself to devise an image of God, he immediately falls into false worship (Harmony of the Last Four Books of Moses, p. 108). Martin Luther, by contrast, showed a much more moderate view, if only to mitigate potential opposition.
Here we must admit that we may have images and make images, but we must not worship them, and if they are worshipped, they should be put away and destroyed, just as King Hezekiah broke in pieces the bronze serpent erected by Moses [II Kings 18:4]. And who will be so bold as to say, when he is challenged to give an answer: They worship the images. They will say: Are you the man who dares to accuse us of worshipping them? Do not believe that they will acknowledge it. To be sure, it is true, but we cannot make them admit it. Just look how they acted when I condemned works without faith. They said: Do you believe that we have no faith, or that our works are performed without faith? Then I cannot press them any further, but must put my flute back in my pocket; for if they gain a hair’s breadth, they make a hundred miles out of it.
Therefore it should have been preached that images were nothing and that no service is done to God by erecting them; then they would have fallen of themselves. That is what I did; that is what Paul did in Athens, when he went into their churches and saw all their idols. He did not strike at any of them, but stood in the market place and said, “You men of Athens, you are all idolatrous” [Acts 17:16, 22]. He preached against their idols, but he overthrew none by force. And you rush, create an uproar, break down altars, and overthrow images! Do you really believe you can abolish the altars in this way? No, you will only set them up more firmly. Even if you overthrew the images in this place, do you think you have overthrown those in Nürnberg and the rest of the world? Not at all. St. Paul, as we read in the Book of Acts [28:11], sat in a ship on whose prow were painted or carved the Twin Brothers [i.e., Castor and Pollux]. He went on board and did not bother about them at all, neither did he break them off. Why must Luke describe the Twins at this point? Without doubt he wanted to show that outward things could do no harm to faith, if only the heart does not cleave to them or put its trust in them. This is what we must preach and teach, and let the Word alone do the work, as I said before. The Word must first capture the hearts of men and enlighten them; we will not be the ones who will do it. Therefore the apostles magnified their ministry, ministerium [Rom. 11:13], and not its effect, executio.
Third Sermon, March 11, 1522
Luther invokes, like Cranmer, the shadow of King Hezekiah but he also invokes Acts 17 but differs in his conclusions of it than John of Damascus. Luther, correctly I believe, calls out the fact that Paul is making this statement ‘after’ the Incarnation and upholding the prior prohibition. Yet he shows a pragmatic awareness, again through drawing on Paul’s example, that reflects perhaps not a better view of human nature compared to Calvin and Cranmer but an emphasis on the faith in the power of the Word to bring people into right thinking on this topic, that and a more pragmatic attitude regarding transitioning people away from imagery as an object of devotion. He does not seem here to be arguing for the active overthrowing of images but against the active setting up of them.
It is also worth noting that the Second Helvetic Confession of the Lutheran church actually quotes Lactantius…
Furthermore, wherever we turn our eyes, we see the living and true creatures of God which, if they be observed, as is proper, make a much more vivid impression on the beholders than all the images or vain, motionless, feeble and dead pictures made by men, of which the prophet truly said: “They have eyes, but do not see” (Ps. 115:5). Lactantius. Therefore we approved the judgment of Lactantius, an ancient writer, who says: “Undoubtedly no religion exists where there is an image.”
Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter IV – Of Idols or Images of God, Christ and the Saints. 4. The Scriptures of the Laity.
Finally, Peter Vermigli seems to try (in my mind) to reach some place of compromise. He writes…
My opinion is, that images oughte utterly to be removed out of holy temples. But in other places there may be some use of them. At the least, they may bring an honest pleasure, which may have some utilitie ioyned with it, if they represent those thinges whiche are monuments and examples of pietie. But they are in no case to be suffered, no not in other places also, if they shoulde become occasions of idolatrye. For then must we always imitate Ezechias. Neither ought we at any tyme to attribute more unto them, then unto the holy scriptures. For who falleth downe uppon hys knees, and worhippeth the booke eyther of the new Testament or of the olde? None undoubtedly, which is godly wise. And yet in them both, Christ and also the workes of God are more truely and expressedly set forth unto us to contemplate, than they are in all the images of the world. Neither is this to be passed over, that the maner of having images came unto us rather from the Ethnikes, then from the practice of holy men.
Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary upon the Epistle to the Romans, p. 32.
Vermigli than provides guidelines for what he believes to be the appropriate utilisation of images…
If we have images privately, two other thinges also ought diligently to be taken hede of. First, that they be not lying images, so that under the title and name of sayntes, they represent not those which ever were extant. Suche as are the signes of George, of Christopher, of Barbara, and of such lyke, which are by images and pictures obtruded as sayntes, when as there is nothyng found, of certainty touching them. Nowbeit, I deny not, but that some things may sometimes be painted, which may by an allegoricall signification profitably enstructe the beholders. Farther, we must beware that the pictures or tables be not filthy or wanton, wherewyth to delyght our selves, lest by the syght of them, should be provoked wicked lustes.
Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary upon the Epistle to the Romans, p. 32.
Vermigli here directly touches on the point of earlier Fathers here by wanting to guard against passing representation off as reality. Its questionable to what degree this is possible but the attempt shows something of an attempt at a moderating ‘golden mean’ for images. At the same time Vermigli seems to share a definition of idolatry that seems comparable with that of Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius and others but most notably in keeping with the rubric for image usage given by Gregory the Great. In our own media-saturated age this seems the most attainable approach and by the standards of earlier Fathers the most liberal second only to Luther’s whilst being of one mind with the earliest writings we have available on the topic (both within and without scripture).
In the entirety of my youth, until my mid-twenties I moved in broadly non-denominational evangelical circles. One of the things the appealed to me out of more liturgical traditions was the confessionalism and idea of seeking to ‘embody’ our theology and beliefs during services. I was sensitive to the criticism that faith without a measure of these things can come across as internalised or cerebral. Yet this is the same desire which has lead me to query the use of images. Particularly amongst a certain species of Anglican, the adoption of Icons seems particularly popular right now. If how we conduct our bodies has a theological weight to it how do we determine the appropriate worship, honour, and veneration shown to material objects? To argue the distinction is an internal posture that seems to me, like Calvin, that this is one without a difference. This seems incredibly cerebral and I have been comforted, and surprised, to discover the earlier writings of the Fathers seem sympathetic in their, what seems at times, eye-wateringly literalist understanding of idolatry that sits in accord with the scriptural precedent.
Reading around on this topic has actually sobered my attitude towards images wherein I had previously entertained a form of nebulous ‘good disagreement’ on the topic. The idea of worshipping created objects seems predicated on philosophical arguments that weren’t shared by the earliest Church Fathers nor the Reformers. As a result, I have begun to take exception to the use of Icons and think all Christians, but especially Protestants, who dabble with such things increasingly have no grounds to do so. To me now the argument regarding the worship or veneration of images is predominantly a philosophical one, because it has no warrant in scripture or even the oldest expressions of the tradition.
The more I read on this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the line in Article 19 of the Anglican 39 Articles that reads “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” because this has been so widely accepted, for a time, and yet the church was wrong on this. I reach this view by an appeal to history, a practice described by the old Cardinal Manning as “both a treason and a heresy”. Yet, as with Manning, I cannot help but feel that John of Damascus reached his conclusions by appealing to the tradition of his day, a tradition that seems to not be historically consistent on this. Tradition in this light seems more the voice of the Magisterium in the given hour. At the same time, it feels ridiculous for me to say as such, what do I know compared to such figures? Yet this isn’t my own formulation but what I believe was said and argued by Paul, Clement, Origen, Arnobius, Lactantius and more. Something which is subsequently confirmed in the writings and confessions of the Reformers.
My own view falls somewhere close to Vermigli’s take on the use of imagery. That if people take to adoring images I would have the temptation to, like Serenus the Bishop of Marseilles, throw down. At the same time we should have no prejudice against imagery generally but merely they should be accorded the place and positioning that would not lead people into error with regard to their conduct around them. I work as a designer and I have no prejudice against a visual medium. I love the stained glass in my church, I love classical architecture, I’m not opposed to mosaics or murals. I have a grudging admiration for the overt application of geometry in Islamic architecture. I also think there is a space for depiction and commemoration of people like the Patriarchs, great Christians from history and the Incarnation itself. I also think a whitewashed Church is not an empty one. I imagine the Temple of Jerusalem was beautiful when it existed, how more so should Churches be? At the same time, it is precisely because I am a designer that I realise the power and influence images can exert. Because I am a sinner I know my heart is prone to idolatry and wish to be above every reproach and temptation the devil can dangle before me.
In my own home, I have illustrations and prints of scenes from scripture. I have an illustration of Anglo-Saxon Cuthbert taking the Gospel to the Pagan Picts and illuminated passages of scripture hanging in the centre of my living room. The reason for all of this is so that it is present in the mind of family and…
So that when my child asks me, “What is this?” I may say, “That God the Word became man, and that for His sake not Israel alone passed through the Jordan, but the whole human race regained their original happiness. Through him human nature rose from the lowest depths of the earth higher than the skies, and in his Person sat down on the throne his Father had prepared for him.”
Yet this does not mean I need to pray ‘through’ such images or worship them in any fashion. In the wrong context, images can be as much a hindrance as a help. This whole process, writing this, has helped focus me. What is the image of God? My fellow man, my brother Christian. Not the object he has made.