Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Speaking the Colors of Life: A Possible Case for Icons

Jacques Ellul argues, roughly, in his Humiliation of the Word for careful attention between the differences between the word and the image. The word has a kind of temporality and indeterminacy about it that demands presence and locality. Someone speaks and we either hear or we don't hear, it happens and then it is gone. It has potency, but a floating kind. The word strikes and then disappears. If one misses it, the moment is gone. A spoken word can be remembered or repeated, but this is a representation of a phenomenon that has passed.

For Ellul, the written word is not the same as the spoken word, and it in fact has more in common with the image. The written word and image seeks to engrave a certain moment, a freeze-frame of what was indeterminate. The word has potency, but also a mortality. It goes away, it can't be controlled, but its meaning flutters. The image or written enacts a kind of freezing upon life. It has now been rendered in such a way that the word or image can be assessed and examined. Some Post-Modernists find this as an incredible act of ontological violence, but I think that's stupid. Even if it is violent (which I doubt), that doesn't therefore prove that it is somehow immoral or evil.

However, Ellul's point is to show how this is dangerous. Trying to clamp down on the power of the word and freeze it can lead to the misappropriation of it for all sorts of reasons. This, he argues, was part of the reason behind numerous radical Reformers' insistence on destroying statues and stained-glass. They took the 2nd Commandment to heart and feared the power inherent in freezing the Word of God into many times erroneous images that threatened to distort the pure Word of God.

Yet I think these same arguments can be proof for the use of images in Christian life. Ellul's construction of the Reformation is a weariness of freezing images of God. One might reflect on this when one sees the purveyance of stupid bumper-stickers and refrigerator magnets (among many other media) quoting Bible cliches, many times devoid of context or sobriety. I think of Thomas Kincaid as a symptom of this abuse of the engraved word, namely turning the Word of God for the wistfulness of a fantasy. Kincaid's own struggle with alcoholism only compounds how Christianity, for him, became an escapism from the difficulties of life. Christ is blasphemed, and Feurbach proved, through the success of these men and women.

However, the problem is the danger of abuse, but not the abstention of use. If the engraved word is more akin to an image than the spoken word, then we see in Scriptural practice the presence of God in His mighty works for His people. We see God both present and absent, in how He speaks to Moses out of a Cloud. There is significance to how God gives Moses His name, which is not a name at all, but the illuminating darkness of blinding light. Moses can never know God except indirectly, this was not a claim that God was Being (contra. Thomas), but that God may be met in all being. The later Jews who changed the name of God to, literally, Name (HaShem) was perhaps superstitious, but it was ground in an understanding of what happened in Scripture. But I'd rather trust Moses' account, namely that what was written down, "Yahweh", was a name of God, but a nameless name. Considering the word was engraved, it was not blasphemous to say or use it, because it itself is a cover for the Glory of God.

However, in the Incarnation of Christ, we are given not only the name of God's Son, delivered by the Angel Gabriel, but we see the power of the Name. The Power of the Name Jesus is simultaneously Human and Divine, it is the direct power and presence of God, the full presence in the work of God completing the fullness of times. Speaking with the Apostles, we can say that Jesus is the Divine Name by which all of Creation, all of mankind, is saved; there is no other. In the advent of the Messiah, the promised Divine presence of God with His people, eternalized in His Ascension and Reigning as a Man, God's Word assuming Human Nature, we see God granting a kind of Iconic presence viz. speaking the word. When we say Jesus Christ, this is a great power and privilege (and misusing this name, more so than other phrases, like God or Lord or whatever people cuss by, is truly blasphemous). When we speak the name we call to bear a representation of the Real, Who is, by Nature, the Immaculate Image of the Father of All Lights.

Ideally, the icon is saying the word with color. It is a representation of the very same Real. It does not intend to depict physical description, but, like a word, communicates truth. This is why icons of the saints in Eastern iconography all look the same, looking similar to the iconography of Christ, namely that what is displayed is the same holiness. Since we are given the power and privilege of speaking the name of Christ, even risking the abuse of the Only Name under Heaven by which we are saved, we may speak such through the icon, though it might also be an opportunity for blasphemy (think of Buddy Jesus).

This is a tentative idea, but worth pondering. This does not prove any one instance or practice, but is a framework for assessment. The written word, as the image, is an opportunity for great risk. But, as many early synagogues show, numbers of Jews did not see a problem with mosaics of creation and the saints as a part of their worship environment. However, we need to see this within the context of the 2nd Commandment and the sins of worshiping in High Places. What these mean, in conjunction with the above, should be included in any discussion about the uses of visual images in Christian worship.

Addendum: It should be obvious, but the Lord's Supper and Baptism, utilizing the meaning conduits of matter, namely water, bread, and wine, fits this representational form. In these, God's Spirit actually transforms us and the elements into Communion with Christ, where we partake of His flesh and blood. This is absolutely necessary, and thus somewhat out of the parameters of our argument. In Christ Jesus, we are a given a name we can speak. Christians are not limited, in literalistic fashion, to the mere text of Scripture in speaking of God. What I mean is that no Christian has seen a problem in writing about doctrine or offering sermons that are not verbatim from the Bible, even if they are wholly, or in part, derived from Biblical concepts and formula. The icon falls under this discussion.


  1. I hope you don't mind me engaging with an older post.

    This is of interest to me as I've been wrestling with the rightness (or otherwise) of images of Christ recently. There's a big part of me that's very wary of possible idolatry. Some would say that Christ should never be depicted, because he was God and God should never be depicted. What I'm tentatively wondering is this: I think I'm right in saying that the NT (which I take as the church's primary canon, the glory of the Old having faded)never says directly that God shouldn't be depicted, more that he can't be as He is Spirit... therefore any image would be misleading and therefore wrong as a deduction from that premise. But as you say, Jesus is 'depicted', however abstractly, in the Lord's Supper, which would be blasphemy under the previous sentence's logic. So does that legitimise images of Jesus as long as they're thought of as imprecise abstractions and nothing else?

    That said, I do see the danger of images of Jesus, in making him a particular race, involuntarily making people think he really did 'look like that' etc... or leading to adoration of the image, which I think there's a strong temptation to do. And although the Lord's Supper may demonstrate that God in Christ can be depicted in some way, I suppose that has explicit Biblical sanction, which making other images doesn't have.

    These things go back and forth in my head... if you have any further thoughts I'd be glad to hear them. A similar issue in terms of acceptable development of Scripture would be the creation of extra-Biblical days that could bind peoples' consiences (Romans 14:5) - Christmas, for instance - but I don't want to overload you.

    1. No, I don't mind! I write to wrestle with ideas and stir thinking.

      I don't like how I framed it in this post, but I guess the content of my thinking is thus:

      Scripture is a primary locus of authority and is not only the norm, but normative for all thinking/speaking/acting. Doctrine and dogma, even our preaching and speaking, receive a derivative authority. Creeds can be shorthand for a series of themes in Scripture, without claiming comprehension or total authority. Doctrine, such as the Trinity, is also a derivative shorthand for patterns in Scripture. Can I bind people to the doctrine of the Trinity? Yes and no. It is only binding in as much as it conforms to the patterns of Scripture. It is a received authority. Thus, if a Unitarian argues against the Trinity, the success of the argument depends upon adeptly showing how the Trinity is a way to talk about a series of patterns and themes in Scripture.

      This is how I would argue for the use of images. They have derivative authority and they, like doctrine, bring together themes. Of course, the images should only have Scripture as referent, which is their authoritative backbone. Thus, images of Christ are ok, but only within their Scriptural context. I think portraiture is a mistaken approach. It's not exactly a "books for the unlettered" approach, because I don't think the images are a concession to weakness, but rather represent the flowing of the Word into other media (like preaching, doctrine, etc.) This is how we can imagine why Scripture can be translated. We're bound to Scripture, but not in a wooden sort of way (i.e. when preaching I can only say the words of Scripture).

      The issue of people thinking images of Christ make him look a particular race, age, etc. is a potential risk, but it's the same for any sort of doctrine or preaching. Many run-of-the-mill Evangelicals teach a penal substitution atonement that sounds like a division in God. They've invited scorn and blasphemy from atheist critics. I'm not going to tell them to stop preaching, I'm going to tell them to learn the truth and throw out those old sermons and books. This purification is the role of iconoclasm, removing that which has become degraded and corrupt to an extreme level. On the eve of the Reformation, machinists had figured out how to make mechanical statues, with moving eyes and limbs. The purpose was to imitate the miraculous. Such things should be heaped in a bonfire.

      I don't agree with Proto's assessment that depicting Christ, prima facia, is Nestorian. People walking around Palestine did not see the divine nature of Christ as he walked around; rather, it was revealed to them that this Jesus was the Divine Person of the Logos. And so as the Apostles could see Christ's human nature, through their senses, and divine person, through revealed faith, without seeing his divine nature, which is impossible, so can an image, derivatively, communicate the same thing.


    2. I take back my comparison between the Lord's Supper and the images. I don't think that's how "it works". The Lord's Supper is not a picture, to see with the eyes and cognitively process, so much as it is a rite of Christ's grace. The Lord's Supper is only the body and blood in the whole process, in the breaking and blessing, the eating, drinking and thanksgiving. And it is the body and blood in such a way that it is spiritual communion with the risen Christ, whose body incorporates you and whose blood washes you of sins and makes you clean. From an outside perspective, Christ is revealed in the whole act, but only in the whole act. There is no static image here.

      As for extra-biblical days, it depends on what you make of them. If someone makes them equivalent to Old Testament high-holy days, then they're a Judaizer and totally mistaken. However, one can use a church-calendar as a means of corporate remembering of such and such events. It's the same way that your church can "bind" you to worshiping on Sunday. It's a question of good order with a theological rationale, but not a doctrinal question. Is Sunday the only day to corporately worship? No, but its a functional standard that most have adopted for relatively solid reasons (i.e. 1st/8th day that Christ rose from the dead). What is the alternative? To merely abandon Sunday just because would invite schism and be a form of superstition. However, there could be substantial reason why an alternative may be chosen.

      It's in the latter category that a lot of thinking about Christmas should be done. If it's just a day to recall the nativity events in the gospel, and in so doing offer worship and thanksgiving, then fine. But there's usually a lot more then that. It is a civil religious holiday of consummerist gluttony, it blends nation, and/or state, with church in blasphemous ways, it has obscene particular forms that people harass you with. And, in addition, there's the Judaizing element I mentioned above, where if you don't get involved properly, you're a pariah. And usually there's all sorts of doctrinal error afoot: the hyper-fixation on baby Jesus, which totally misses the point of Matthew and Luke's inclusion of the birth accounts.

      I think Christmas is far more problematic than Sunday, and it's worthy of far more scrutiny for a discerning Christian. But, as you may well have experienced, many don't care. While an alternative may be changing the date for congregational worship, most would have little interest, and it smacks somewhat of a cultish need to do it in the first place.

      It's not needed, all of my argument is ex-post facto justification and accommodation. I'm more or less in line with Cranmer's notion of it in the 39 Articles: the days are an issue of good order and even teaching opportunity; there's nothing holy about them, innately, and should fit the times and place one is in.

    3. Thanks, Cal. All very helpful and worth pondering.

      It seems we have some common interests, btw - Ellul has been a major influence on me. The Technological Society completely changed how I see the modern world, and The Meaning of the City was important for me, too. I find Maximus the Confessor fascinating, but perhaps more in the idea of his ideas than actually reading him, if that makes any sense.

      Speaking of Proto, it strikes me that you're like him in many ways, but somewhat more open to the broader church tradition. Emphasising 'somewhat'!

    4. I've been reading and interacting with Proto for a few years now. It has been a long slog, thinking through a lot of issues, and I'm arriving at a kind of homeostasis for my sense of things. It doesn't mean I'm done learning, but I have general platform which I'd stand on and argue from. While Proto is not the only influence, I'd chalk him up as one of the major ones. So, if there's a resemblance, it's certainly in a teacher-student sort of way, or at least as much as possible through the impersonal relationship of blog posts and comments.

    5. He's had a big influence on me too. But you've certainly got your own distinct voice and contribution to make.