Aids or Idols? The Place of Images in Worship

By Robin Phillips

In 2007, my family moved from an Anglican church in England to a CREC denomination in Idaho. The changes involved in this transition were entirely positive for us. We have been continually blessed to be involved in a church that takes Christian education seriously, is committed to faithful exposition of the Word and practices Biblical accountability, to name just a few of the many blessings we have benefited from.

But there were also some changes that were less than easy to adjust to, especially given our Anglican background. One of these was the institutionalized antipathy in American Protestantism against using visual objects as aids to worship.

The issue surfaced for me last year after my wife and step-daughter went to New Saint Andrews College to attend a lecture by visiting lecturer James Jordan. Our church had recommended the event, no doubt partly because Jordan, like Jeff Meyers, has played a seminal role in helping to shape the self-understanding of worship within the CREC.

I wasn’t able to attend the lecture, but when Esther returned she had some questions she needed to talk through with me. This is because Jordan made some confusing claims about the alleged sinfulness of using visual objects in worship. As I struggled to interact with my wife’s questions, I was forced to consider the question afresh: is it ever appropriate to use visual objects as a means of, or an aid to, the worship of God?

By ‘objects’, I mean any kind of two dimensional or three dimensional representation used in the context of public worship or private devotions. Obviously this is a huge category which encompasses an array of practices, stretching from the benign to the idolatrous. It is beyond the scope of this post to inquire into the legitimacy of any one specific practice; instead, I would like to raise the prior and more general question: what principles should undergird our thinking about this issue? 


Eradicating the Visual

I begin by returning to the question in its most general terms: is it ever appropriate to use visual objects as a means of, or an aid to, the worship of God?

On this question, the Protestant reformed tradition to which I belong answers with a resounding no. In discussing the second commandment, the Westminster divines not only forbad worshiping representations of God, but also “the making of any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever.” (Westminster Larger Catechism) While the Catechism does not explicitly reject representations of saints, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 takes care of that. As our church works its way through the latter Catechism, every year one of the men stands up and asks the congregation, “may not images be permitted in the churches as teaching aids for the unlearned?” The people are instructed to answer with is a resounding: “No, we shouldn’t try to be wiser than God. He wants his people instructed by the living preaching of his Word not by idols that cannot even talk.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 35) 

The automatic association between visual aids and idolatry does seem tenuous, as was the Westminster Assembly’s decision to support their argument against Christian iconography with proof texts that uniformly refer to Israel’s worship of false gods. Calvin seems to make the same mistake in Book 1, Chapter 11 of The Institutes, where his argument against Christian images rests on the assumption that such images are idolatry (and, of course, if that is your starting point, then it is very easy to construct a Biblical case against them!)

But this raises a legitimate question: is it even possible to eradicate all visual stimuli from the worship of God? We may be able to worship the Lord in a room with bare walls, but how many of us who can honestly claim to have sat through one church service without at some point representing God “inwardly” in our mind. If we are good regulative-principle-Calvinists, then every time we sing the Psalms are we not endorsing the use of created things as means of, or aid in, or prompt to (call it whatever you like) worship, seeing that frequently the Psalmists reach the peak of worship only after considering and meditating on the visible phenomena of the natural world? In this regard I am sad to have to inform my reader that not even the Psalmists use of the natural world measures up to a consistent application of Jordan’s strict criteria, for he writes that, “He meets man in the Word of God, in language, and because God is incorporeal, He meets man in language alone.” Jordan’s own application of this is that “God does not meet man in music. Nor does he meet man in visual art of any sort.” But if music and art are to be ruled out as legitimate means by which the Christian can “meet with God” (a position I have indirectly refuted HERE, by the way), then does it not follow that the natural world must also be ruled out? On the other hand, if we allow that we can meet with God in the natural world, since it “declares the glory of God” (Psalm 19) and moves us to spontaneous praise when we contemplate it (Psalm 97), then on what basis are we prepared to say artistic sub-creation cannot serve a similar end? If the things that God made can be so central to worship, why not the things that man makes which equally reflect the beauty of God’s holiness (Psalm 90:17)? If it is appropriate for the sight of God’s handiwork in the firmament to propel us to new heights of worship (Ps. 19:1-6), then why is it not appropriate for the sight of God’s handiwork in his saints (and I have Christian iconography in mind here) to propel us to new heights of worship? None of these questions can be adequately answered without first taking the time to develop a theology of sub-creation and to explore the spiritual function of art in the Bible. The development of such a theology is beyond the scope of this post, although enough theological work has already been done on this subject by others to convince me that such a project is in principle possible.


Worshiping God with Graven Images

It may be useful here to distinguish between private worship and public worship. “Of course,” one might rejoin, “there is nothing wrong with lapsing into praise of God because you have just climbed a majestic mountain or beheld a lovely sunset. In that sense, created things may certainly aid us in personally worshiping God. But public corporate worship is a different matter entirely. When gathering to worship God in the sanctuary, there shouldn’t be anything visual that assists us.

The problem with this argument is that the public worship of God in ancient Israel did include a vast array of visual objects and “graven images.” It is hard to read the descriptions of the temple and dismiss the precious stones (2 Chron 3:6), the carved Cherubim (3:7), the two Cherubim carved in the Most Holy place (3:10-13), the one hundred pomegranates on wreaths of chain work (3:16), the molten sea or bath supported by the likeness of oxen (2 Chron 4:1-5), etc., as mere decoration rather than a means of worshiping Yahweh. The people of God always understood that the plethora of images throughout the temple was fundamentally different to the images of false gods, the worship of which God had forbidden by the second commandment (Deut 5:8-9; Ex. 20:4-5). They also apparently saw no contradiction between the Lord’s command to make these carved images for the temple, on the one hand, and his prohibition of all “likenesses” in Deuteronomy 4:16-19, on the other.

In James Jordan’s book The Liturgy Trap, he writes that the second commandment “means that no pictures of God, angels, or saints are allowed. It also means no pictures of men, dogs, whales, trees, or anything else are allowed.” How do we square this with the fact that God mandated pictures of both angelic beings and animals in His temple? When writing about the temple shortly afterwards, Jordan does qualify his earlier prohibitions by saying that “We are free to make pictures and sculptures of things in the creation, including heavenly things…it is not wrong to have pictures, including faces, in the house of worship–provided we never, ever bow down toward them.”  Then later on he adds another qualification: not only are we never to bow down to the pictures in the house of worship, but we are not allowed to even look at them! As he says, “the only thing to look at in worship is other people.” I must confess that all of this seems most confusing to me. What is the point of allowing pictures in the sanctuary if people are not allowed to look at them? Are we to conclude that the art God ordered for the temple was not intended to be looked at? Even though the whole temple complex was designed to facilitate the worship of God, are we to conclude that the graven images in the temple were extrinsic to such worship?


Attributing Form to God

In appealing to the Old Testament temple, I do not want to gloss over the important paradigm shifts that have occurred between the Old Testament to the New Testament. But does scripture give us any explicit or implicit warrant for assuming that use of visual representations in worship is one of those changes? Does the New Testament ever abrogate the Old Testament’s use of visual representations in worship? Granted that the temple system has now been abolished, and that the symbols we use in Christian worship should reflect that important shift, are we to assume that the very principle of using visual representations in worship has changed? On the contrary, if anything, the incarnation would seem to further legitimize the use of such objects in worship. After all, the second person of the Trinity became a visual object Himself, taking on the form of one of God’s image-bearers. While this does not, in itself, suddenly legitimize the use of representations of God Himself in worship (although it should not be overlooked that Deut. 4:15-16 can no longer be truthfully said since mankind has now seen the form of God through the incarnation), it does underscore the fact that our faith needs to be robustly sacramental, rendering visible that which is invisible, even as Jesus was the image of the invisible God (John 1:18, Col. 1:15; Heb 1:3). From here, it is an easy step to the contention that visual objects can play an important role in new covenant worship, even as visual objects played an important role in old covenant worship. Only by introducing a radical discontinuity between the two covenants does it seem possible to justify the type of language used by the reformed creeds on this issue.

In his chapter in the Institutes on the “Impiety of Attributing A Visible Form to God”, Calvin considers the various times God did appear in a form, as when He appeared in the cloud, the smoke, the flame, and when the Holy Spirit appeared under the form of a dove. Conspicuously lacking in Calvin’s catalogue is the incarnation itself, although Calvin does mention the times when “God sometimes appeared in the form of a man…in anticipation of the future revelation in Christ.” Had the revelation of Christ itself qualified as an instance of God appearing in visible form, one wonders whether Calvin could still have confidently concluded that 

It is true that the Lord occasionally manifested his presence by certain signs, so that he was said to be seen face to face; but all the signs he ever employed were in apt accordance with the scheme of doctrine, and, at the same time, gave plain intimation of his incomprehensible essence

Or consider later in the same chapter of the Institutes:

“The Lord, however, not only forbids any image of himself to be erected by a statuary, but to be formed by any artist whatever, because every such image is sinful and insulting to his majesty.” 

How these statements of Calvin’s can square with the reality of the incarnation remains unclear. The Protestants who have followed in Calvin’s wake have manifested the same type of hermeneutical schizophrenia which is happy to interpret the fourth commandment through the lens of Christ’s resurrection yet fails to interpret the second commandment through the lens of the incarnation – that great event when visible form was attributed to God.

I am not saying that because of the incarnation that our church services can now become a big free for all, or that public worship can legitimately include elements that fall outside broad scriptural warrant. In this regard, I agree with the nuanced version of the Regulative Principle that Jeff Meyers has articulated in his book The Lord’s Service. But I am suggesting that if we are prepared to incorporate the denunciation of all images into the very worship service itself (which is what we are doing if we read the Heidelberg Catechism during the service), and if we are prepared to dismiss as idolatry those traditions stretching back hundreds of years which use images (which is the implication of the Westminster Catechism treating the issue under the Second Commandment), and if we are to join Jordan condemning as “apostate” all who leave our reformed churches to become a high Anglican (see below), then we need some pretty clear scriptural warrant. At the moment, I struggle to see that such warrant can be found in scripture.

The Dangers of Idolatry

In no way is it my intention to gloss over the dangers of idolatry. Indeed, the attempt of Eastern Orthodox iconographers to portray Jesus in His deity, like icons of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, does seem to run counter to Deuteronomy 4:15. Moreover, when we see our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers bowing before icons, we would do well to ponder whether the line between veneration and worship is as clear as they like to maintain. Maintaining the distinction between veneration and worship does not make one immune to the sin of idolatry since such a distinction was also a hallmark of classical idolatry (the pagans always knew the difference between the venerated statue of Diana and the goddess herself).

However, even on the issue of bowing before icons of venerated saints, it is possible that the question is not as clear cut as Protestants have typically assumed. While bowing down before someone is frequently associated with worship in the Bible (Acts 10:26; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9), this is not always the case. James Jordon recognizes this in The Liturgy Trap and argues that bowing down before men is often Biblically appropriate. In fact, he even advocates having the pastor bow before the congregation. What Jordon will not allow is bowing before inanimate objects. Yet it is a point worthy of mention that the Bible gives examples where the saints express devotion to God by bowing down before inanimate object such as the Temple or the altar in the Temple (Psalm 5:7; 2 Chr. 29:28-30) or fire that comes from God (2 Chron. 7:3) or the reading of the Word (Nehemiah 8). I am not arguing that because of these things that it is therefore legitimate to bow before Christian artwork. But I am suggesting that these passages undermine the knee-jerk assumption that any time a person bows to an inanimate object he is automatically committing idolatry.

Certainly, when images of saints are placed in the most prominent position in the sanctuary, one may legitimately ask whether they are functioning as a distraction rather than as an aid in the worship of the Triune God. However, even here it is easy to forget that when the book of Revelation shows us what a worship service in Heaven looks like, what we find is departed saints gathered around the innermost sanctuary of God’s throne room. Imitating this Biblical model and populating the sanctuary with saints cannot be wholly without warrant. Certainly idolatry is always a danger whenever a good thing is embraced. To try to eradicate all potential for idolatry (which seems to be what motivates many Protestants to eliminate all visual aids in worship) would be to dismiss every good gift which the Lord has given us.

It also seems that we should be cautious of the tendency to guard most tenaciously against those heresies that are generally not temptations to us, while lowering our defenses against those excesses which we really ought to be guarding against. High church Calvinists like myself love to talk about the dangers of dualism just as modern evangelicals love to talk about the dangers of externalism and ritualism, while fundamentalists like to focus on the dangers of liberalism. At some level, such polemics can function to obscure the idols in our own midst. Applied to the question before us, we would do well to question whether the paranoia among American Protestants against the alleged idolatry of using visual objects in worship has obscured the Gnosticism, Docetism and semi-Manichaeism in their own camp. 


The Slippery Slope

This is not merely an academic concern: I have been involved in more than one Protestant group that has descended down the slippery slope from the matter/spiritual dualism of radical Protestantism (with the corollary pessimism of visual objects in worship) to Gnosticism and then finally to the New Age. Usually this process occurs over many generations. It is easy for Evangelicals to think about visual objects in worship as the slippery slope to idolatry and externalism, while being oblivious to the very real sense in which the elimination of these things can function as the slippery slope into a worse state of affairs. This was something that Dorothy Sayers was acutely conscious of when her play, The Man Born to be King, was criticized for represented Christ on the stage. At the time she wrote the play, there was a law forbidding the representation of Christ on the stage unless the producer first received a special dispensation. In her introduction to The Man Born to be King Sayers suggested that this law had “helped to foster the notion that all such representations were intrinsically wicked, and had encouraged a tendency, already sufficiently widespread, towards that Docetic and totally heretical Christology which denies the full Humanity of our Lord.” (See my recent blog post, “Dorothy Sayers and the Aliveness of all Things.”)

Along these lines, one cannot help but wonder whether the slippery slope from rationalism to liberalism and from liberalism to apostasy that has ravaged the Puritan’s American descendants may have started, in part, with an overly cerebral orientation that would never have been sustainable had the whole body (ears, mouth and eyes) been robustly participating in the worship of the Triune God. It should also not be overlooked that the dualisms of dispensational movement only came about after years of non-physical worship oriented the American church to unconsciously think of matter and spirit as divisible. We might also ask with profit whether the tendency towards a privatized religion that is pushed on us from both secularism and much of the Postmodern project (and has resulted in the apostasy of so young people from Christian homes), is made more plausible by the Gnostic and semi-Manichaean orientation that is in the very air of Anglo-American Protestant culture and for which the use of images in worship can serve as a practical antidote. This is a point that Thomas Howard makes in his excellent book Evangelical is not Enough. Howard remarks that

…the Reformation has a lively sense of how prone we all are to magic and idolatry. We mortals would much rather bob at the cross than embrace its truth in our hearts. To light candles is much easier for us than to be consumed with the self-giving fire of charity so effectively symbolized by those candles. We lavish respect on the altar at the front of the church and neglect the sacrifice of a pure heart. Evangelicalism presses home these observations, quite rightly.

But it is one thing to see dangers; it is another to be true to the Faith in all of its amplitude. By avoiding the dangers of magic and idolatry on the one hand, evangelicalism runs itself very near the shoals of Manichaeanism on the other – the view, that is, that pits the spiritual against the physical. Its bare spare churches, devoid of most Christian symbolism…be speak its correct attempt to keep the locale of faith where it must ultimately be, in the heart of man. But by denying the whole realm of Christian life and practice the principle that it allows in all the other realms of life, namely, the principle of symbolism and ceremony and imagery, it has, despite its loyalty to orthodox doctrine, managed to give a semi-Manichaean hue to the faith…

If by its practice [our religion] implies that colors and symbols and gestures and ceremonies and smells are inappropriate for the house of the Lord and must be kept outside, for ‘secular’ and domestic celebrations like birthdays, parades, weddings, and Christmas banquets, then it has driven a wedge between his deepest human yearnings and the God who made them. (To read some more quotations from this excellent book, click HERE)

Now naturally idolatry is going to slip in anywhere it can, and it would be fatal to trust to any system of worship as a safeguard against idolatry. Yet the argument that visual objects are a Trojan horse to idolatry can go both ways, as I have attempted to show. In this regard, it should not be overlooked that James Jordan’s rejection of the visual in worship does seem to have led him into a tangled theological quagmire. For example, I am still puzzled by his statement that

To the extent that there is anything at all visual about worship, however, it is found in the presence of living human beings, not in artefacts and not in the sacraments. Everything else that is visible in the place of worship is part of context, not of content.

In a strict sense, of course, only God is the content of our worship. But that has never been the issue. Not even the most icon-kissing-saint-venerating-long-beirded-Eastern-orthodox-Christian-brother would say that images form the content of what we are worshiping. The whole question is whether they are legitimate as part of the context or worshiping God who is the content. If Jordan concedes that visible objects can form part of the context, then why draw an arbitrary distinction when it comes to images? This is not the only problem with the above quotation, however, for are not the sacraments just as “living” as human beings? Am I to close my eyes every time the bread and wine comes to me, lest the sight of the body and blood of Christ pollute my spiritual worship? In fact, if we strive to be complete consistent with the position that we must never use visual objects as a means of, or an aid to, the worship of the triune God, then wouldn’t we have to get rid of church buildings, pews, musical instruments, baptismal water and the elements of the blessed Eucharistic, since these are all visual objects which, in one way or another, assist us in the worship of God?

“Sure,” someone may reply at this point. “there is nothing principally wrong with using artwork and images in the sanctuary as aids to worship, but it does lack wisdom since it could very easily lead into idolatry, especially over successive generations.” The problem with such an argument should be apparent by what I have already said. Certainly one could make an equally convincing case that the absence of images as aids to worship start ourselves and our descendants down the slippery slope towards idolatry. After all, one might argue that the attempt to remove visual apparatuses from the place of worship or to permit them only after careful marginalization of their importance, unwittingly presses home the secular axiom that religion has its locale only in the heart. Doesn’t this collude with the Gnostic notion (revived by post-enlightenment spirituality) that spiritual truth must be kept unbodied?


Personal Testimony

This question is not merely one of academic interest. In the Anglican church we used to attend, my step-daughter and wife would find it very helpful to look up into the vaulted ceiling and images of the saints and angels. This would comfort them and remind them of the invisible cloud of witnesses that surrounded them at all times but especially during times of worship. It would also turn their minds immediately to the scriptural descriptions of God’s throne room, in which God is never alone, but always surrounded by both the angelic hosts as well as the departed saints (Rev. 6:9-10) who continually intercede for those still on earth (Rev. 7:9-17). The stained glass pictures of Bible scenes would keep our daughter’s distractible mind on things above and help her to remain focused. The cross at the front would be an ever present aid to remind her of the grounds on which her salvation rested. During the Easter season our daughter found that the stations of the cross – like Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion — powerfully brought her to a place of deep thankfulness as she saw what Jesus had done for her, his suffering and his love. Both were aids for helping her to worship God, just as the mountains, hills and heavens were aids in the worship of God for the Psalmists.

Am I to tell my wife and step daughter that this was all idolatry? That was the question I had to wrestle with when they returned from hearing to James Jordan lecture. Jordan leaves no doubt what his own position is. In his series of articles under, “The Second Word,” on his Biblical Horizons website, Jordan refers to the entirety of Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic traditions as “idolatrous”, “semi-Christian” and “semi-pagan” precisely because of their use of images. In the same series he characterizes the worship in these traditions as being “spiritual masturbation” while those who join these communions are condemned as “apostates.” 

These men already had Christ, the Bible, the Church, the sacraments, true worship, etc.  But they wanted something else.  They wanted idols.  They have yielded to the idolatry of their hearts.  They are apostates. 

But is the issue really that clear-cut? It seems that unless the scripture is very clear on this matter, we should be very hesitant to divide the body of Christ over it, which is what Jordan is doing by implication by suggesting that anyone who joins communions with images has functionally excommunicated himself from the people of God (i.e., become an “apostate”, to use his language).

There is one point on which Jordan and I do agree: the primary purpose of worship is not edification (in the sense of good feelings), or acquiring truth. Neither is worship a tool to satisfy our own psycho-emotional needs. I am in complete agreement with James Jordan’s comments about this in The Liturgy Trap, and especially his contention that worship is a response to God. However, given that the use of symbols and reminders is inescapable in offering this response (as the Psalms so frequently testify), the case for rejecting visual symbols as a means of worship seems tenuous at best and harmful at worst. Just as objects of taste (Eucharist) and objects of touch (Baptism) and objects of smell (Rev. 8:4) and objects of sound (Eph 5:19) can play a necessary role in worship, why do we draw a line when it comes to objects of sight?

Before we were Anglicans we had been involved in a crypto-Gnostic group in which my wife and step-daughter had become thoroughly exhausted through excessive and exclusive reliance on an inner subjective “witness.” When we abandoned that sect for the Anglican church, the visible reminders in the sanctuary of God’s objective work helped to stabilize my wife and step-daughter. It helped eliminate the subjective distractions that would otherwise pull them back into the mentality of the sect we had left. They found that pictures, images, colors, architectural beauties, different bodily postures (kneeling and crossing oneself) allowed the worship of God to permeate into all of life, rather than to be kept in the subjective compartment of the “spiritual.” It helped to underscore the point that our whole salvation is outside of ourselves, as Luther reminded Melanchthon.

I know that my wife and step-daughter are not alone in the experience I have related. Calvin acknowledged that in his day there were “not a few” who didn’t want such visual aids (which, in every case, he refers to as “idols” in his Institutes Book 1, chapter 11) However, he argued that this reflected the “stupidity” of those who had not been instructed in correct doctrine. As he writes,

“Of what use, then, were the erection in churches of so many crosses of wood and stone, silver and gold, if this doctrine were faithfully and honestly preached…?… From this one doctrine the people would learn more than from a thousand crosses of wood and stone. As for crosses of gold and silver, it may be true that the avaricious give their eyes and minds to them more eagerly than to any heavenly instructor.”


Disembodied Religion

It is a legitimate concern whether Calvin’s attempt to devalue the role of physical paraphernalia in worship led him to undervalue the role of the blessed Eucharist. Although Calvin makes every attempt to keep Word and Sacrament of equal value, it is clear that the former occupied a place of priority in his mind. If it were not for human weakness, Calvin argues, the Gospel could stand on its own without the need for more primitive means of grace such as the Lord’s Supper. As he writes,

“Forasmuch as we are so ignorant, so given up to earthly and carnal things and fixed upon them, so that we can neither think, understand nor conceive of anything spiritual, the merciful Lord accommodates himself in this to the crudity of our senses.”

According to Calvin then, the Eucharist is merely God’s concession to our materiality! It is hard to get more Gnostic than this. We could dismiss these remarks as out of context with the entire tenor of his theology were it not for the fact that elsewhere he further unveiled his Gnostic colours. For example, he elsewhere writes, “And when Christ commended his spirit to the Father [Luke 23:46] and Stephen his to Christ [Acts 7:59] they mean only that when the soul is freed from the prison house of the body, God is its perpetual guardian. . . .    It is of course true that while men are tied to earth more than they should be they grow dull. . . .” Elsewhere Calvin refers to “this earthly prison of the body. . . .”  The latent Gnosticism behind such statements also led Calvin to suggest that Galatianism was found wherever there is an emphasis on ritual.

In his book Against the Protestant Gnostics, Philip Lee suggests that the possibility that Calvin left the Eucharist dangling, an inadequately attached appendage to his system, could well explain what has happened to the Supper among the spiritual children of Geneva. Building on this, we might also ask whether Calvin’s treatment of the Eucharist as well as his suspicion of using visual objects as aids to worship, were both symptomatic of a false divide between the physical and the spiritual – a divide which has haunted Protestantism and finds fulfilment in the Gnostic subjectivism of the modern evangelical project (See 8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed and Gnosticism in Evangelical Theology.)

As much as we might lament this false notion of spirituality, and as much as we might long to return to a more holistic and robust expression of our faith, does not the very prohibition of visual objects in the sanctuary underscore the notion that the heart is the appropriate locale of religion? By forbidding visual objects in the sanctuary, are we not unwittingly pressing home the notion that the whole world of painting, whittling, casting and sculpting is a secular arena, while the appropriate object of religion is the “heavenly” world of the unseen? (Such would seem to be a direct implication of James Jordan’s view of salvation history. In his series on the Second Word he suggests that we currently live in the era of the invisible, dominated by hearing, while sight comes at the end of eschatological history.) Further, if our practice implies that colors, symbols, gestures, smells and three-dimensional objects are inappropriate for the house of the Lord and must be reserved for “secular” occasions like birthdays, parades, weddings and Christmas banquets, then are we not driving a wedge between the deepest human yearnings and the God who made them? Are we not reinforcing the myth that Christian truth should be kept unbodied – a myth that has had enormous implications for how modern evangelicals understand the meaning of “kingdom of God” and has virtually eliminated any concept of Christendom from contemporary Protestant consciousness? I leave this question open for our readers to ponder.

67 thoughts on “Aids or Idols? The Place of Images in Worship

  1. I think I agree.A couple of thoughts. First, though there are some Orthodox icons which represent the Father, they are generally under Western influence. The traditional Orthodox, and I believe the Orthodox cannons are very much opposed to this. Even Eastern Catholics are often uncomfortable with representations of the other two Persons of the Trinity.Second, the points about images not speaking, and about images being man-made are both simply unsupportable. Yes, an image does not continue speaking, but then neither does a book. If we have already decided the visual is not right, we can conclude the visual is not right. But we can't get there from the fact that the image doesn't speak. Though a pastor can answer back, a sermon and a book cannot. So if this is a valid argument against images, it is also a valid argument against publishing sermons, and absurdly, of reading Scripture–for not even Scripture answers back.Moreover, icons are painted in a way to make them look at you–with that stern sort of gaze that communicates more than words do. Images most definitely speak, though they use no speach nor language, their word is gone out to the ends of the earth.Moreover, images are man-made, but then *so are sermons*. And so if we wish to argue that images cannot be used in worship because they are man-made, sermons ought not be preached in the liturgy. Which is, again, nonsense.Finally, the charge of idolatry is simply not right. It may be–it probably is–a *forbidden* sort of worship of Christ, but bowing before an image is not, in itself, idolatry. If it were, it would be *treason* against a king to bow before his image, for he is not wood. But it clearly is not treason against a king, but an act of obesiance to a king, to bow before his image. Similarly, it is not treason against Christ but a form of obesiance to him to bow before an image of him. Though it may be like high-place worship, forbidden; it is not, in itself, treason. Such a conclusion makes nonsense of what we know of images. Would Queen Victoria have everyone in The Pirates of Penzance arrested for treason when they bow to her image???


  2. I also find labeling EO and Catholics "semi-Christian" particularly tacky as it is clearly a violation of "judge not." One of Jordan's, and most of the FV member's, criticisms of Rome and EO is that they make other Christians "semi-Christians." If we make such a judgment, we'd do better than turning around and calling them semi-Christian. "By that same standard…"If we say "Individuals who join communions that effectively excommunicate their Protestant brothers and sisters contradict their search for catholicity, and ironically, the goal of unity comes at the expense of further divisions in the body of Christ." We'd better not effectively excommunicate our RC and EO brothers for being idolaters and semi-Christian.Also, if Orthodox are semi-Christian idolaters, why do we like Dostoevsky or Schmemann? Do we not realize they were both idolaters–worshipers of the Calves at Dan. Don't recommend Schmemann or Doestoevsky as Christian authors, and then denounce EO as sime-Christian and idolatrous. If they are semi-Christian idolaters, don't say "We affirm our fundamental unity with all the saints within the body of Christ, including those in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as our great appreciation for the many gifts, insights, and contributions they bring to the broader Church." They are not worshipers of YHVH, and so are hardly Christian. Though perhaps the sentence is technically correct, it is highly deceptive if the EO and RC are semi-Christian idolaters.(Quotes from the Trinity Reformed statement "On Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, andReformed Catholicity." Also, I don't believe it is deceptive. I think the denunciations of the EO and RC are incompatible with it.)


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    You're preaching to the choir, man. When I read Jordan on this, I was so worked up I wrote up a 20,000-word rebuttal, which got me into a bit of trouble. One thing I particularly hammered on was the shocking terms he used for Catholics, Orthodox, and high-church Anglicans. Your point about Scripture being just as easily objectified and idolized is a very good one, I think. Jordan and indeed most American evangelicals could use a good beating over the head with some Barth on that point.


  4. Jay Brantner

    Not sure I'm following you at the beginning in saying that if God's creation should stir within us a worshipful attitude, then man's creation can't be ruled out immediately. I agree that there needs to be more said, but if God's creation makes us worship God, maybe man's creation makes us worship man. This is not the line I want to take, but your initial framing of the problem does leave it open. The bit about the temple is excellent. There are visual images of heavenly things and earthly things in God's mandate for worship in the Old Testament. Even with the regulative principle, I would say then that images are fine in modern houses of worship; this can be deduced by good and necessary consequence of God's Old Testament instruction. If God commanded it for worship at one point in time, it's helpful for worship. [Sacrifices are an obvious exception here, but that's because we actually have an all-sufficient sacrifice that is remembered weekly in worship in the form of the Eucharist. So even that is not as much of an exception as some may claim.]To try to eradicate all potential for idolatry (which seems to be what motivates many Protestants to eliminate all visual aids in worship) would be to dismiss every good gift which the Lord has given us. This is an excellent point. It also seems that we should be cautious of the tendency to guard most tenaciously against those heresies that are generally not temptations to us, while lowering our defenses against those excesses which we really ought to be guarding against. This is another excellent point, in which you sound like C.S. Lewis. In a more concrete example, it's the parents who have beer or wine at the table that should warn their children against drunkenness, and it's the parents who avoid such things at all costs that should warn against legalism and adding to the Bible's commands. Unfortunately, it is usually the opposite. In general, I like most of what Calvin says, but his view on art (both visual art and music) has always seemed awful to me. Very obviously it should not be the object of worship, and trying to make images of the Father is dicey as well. But crosses (or even crucifixes) are a constant reminder of the sacrifice that has been made for us, in a manner not entirely unlike the Eucharist. They can in fact focus our worship by reminding us of why we worship. As long as we don't worship them (venerating is a tricky thing that I'll leave alone for now), I see no problem. It makes no sense for four senses to be allowed and not a fifth (although some people don't want instruments, so maybe they only have three senses. . . ), especially when God has directly instituted at other times the use of the final sense in question.


  5. Jay Brantner

    Also, regarding how easily Scripture can be idolized, I direct you to my personal favorite heretic, Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona. I quote: "I will worship my King James Bible till I die.The Bible is God. (I John 1:1)When I was a kid everyone used to believe that the Word was God.Why doesn’t anyone believe that anymore? I guess they are trying to demote God’s word.By the way, the original manuscripts DON’T EXIST. I hate to break it to you, but they’ve been gone for a long time. God has preserved his word in this generation through the King James Bible. So it’s not an issue of which one corrects the other – we only have one – the KJV. The so-called “original Greek” is bogus. How exactly did he preserve it before 1611? I don’t know I wasn’t there, but neither were you.Sincerely,Pastor Steven L AndersonFaithful Word Baptist Church"


  6. patrick

    In no way is it my intention to gloss over the dangers of idolatry. Indeed, the attempt of Eastern Orthodox iconographers to portray Jesus in His deity, like icons of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, does seem to run counter to Deuteronomy 4:15. Can you please provide a reference for this assertion, that is where in Orthodoxy we portray this. Also, why is there no mention of the 7th ecumenical councel and its decisions in your article? In the final rulings of the synod, they said that it was necessary to portray visually the stories in the bible for the sake of the uneducated who didn´t have access to scripture. They gave many other reasons for why icons are necessary for worship. Why is it that protestants are quick to accept and affirm some councels but not others?


  7. patrick

    If we say "Individuals who join communions that effectively excommunicate their Protestant brothers and sisters contradict their search for catholicity, and ironically, the goal of unity comes at the expense of further divisions in the body of Christ." Who said this? Where? Orthodox don´t excommincate Protestants. As Archbishop Lazar says in his three part youtube interview on American Orthodoxy challenges, ¨It´s an act of hatred to practice open communion because you are drinking and eating your own damnation.¨ Protestants want to be cowboys that march up to the alter and take communion in order to prove a point. Why? As Orthodox we don´t do this divorced from other sacrements. The Eucharist needs to be seen in the context of all the sacrements. Protestants want to isolate this one sacrement, but the eastern church sees the Eucharist as dependent on other sacrements, such as confession and ordination, not to mention baptism.


  8. patrick

    In Orthodoxy, communion is seen as the fruit of unity, not as a means to it. It is absolutely wrong and false to be talking about ¨excommunication¨. Fr. Gregory Rogers speaks to this when he wrote, ¨One thing is clear. There was no confusion in the minds of the Fathers about where the lines of the Church were drawn. For all the discussion we may have in our time, in the patristic age things were settled. You were either in the Church or you were not. If you were in communion with the apostolic churches, you were in the Church. The unity of the Church cannot be broken or separated. Is Christ divided? The Church, which is the Body of Christ, cannot be divided but continues and is derived both historically and eucharistically from the apostles.¨ For the fathers, and biblical writers, schism, a breaking with the church, was very very bad, not the establishing of a branch. Where is the scriptural precedent for many denominations practicing inter-communion??? Heresy and schism are both closely related because they both violate the unity of the Church. Eucharist is a sign of unity.


  9. patrick phillips

    I´m sorry if my last comments were a bit polemic. It may be helpful for people to know that at Robin´s request yesterday for feedback I wrote a quite lengthy private response to this article, which was overwhelmingly positive. Maybe I read Robin´s article too quickly but I didn´t find references to ¨semi-Christians¨ or ¨excommunicating protestants¨, so I didn´t know where that came from and was taken aback when I read them in the comment section below. Some of the other comments that have been left seem equally weird and left-field to me. As far as the regulative principle is concerned, this seems to be central to this debate, but does it hold water? It is self-refuting since nowhere in scripture, or even in the early church, is scripture elevated to the extent that it is today by American evangelicals who advocate this principle. It has reached the point of biblical idolotry because huge portions of the New Testiment have to be ignored and swept under the carpet in order to justify the ecclesiastical relativism of those who advocate open communion. They use solo scriptura as the basis for the relativism. To quote Patrick Barns, ¨If we are going to have a discussion about the question What is the truth, must we not also include the corollary question of What Preserves the Truth? According to this verse the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, not the bible, the writings of the fathers, or anything else. These writings testify to, or are a witness of, the church´s tradition, but in and of themselves do not preserve the Truth. No document can do this.¨


  10. Patrick,I was agreeing with Robin against James Jordan et al. Personally I don't have a problem with Orthodoxy refusing communion to Protestants. Maybe there should be unity, but there isn't. But one argument raised against Orthodoxy is that they do not give communion to all the baptized, but treat Catholics and Protestants as semi-Christian–valid baptisms, but no access to the Eucharist. Now that argument may be valid or invalid. But if we make it, we'd better not turn around and say "Those Orthodox and Catholics are semi-Christian." We stand to judge the Orthodox according to the law, yet contrary to that very law condemn them. By that judgement whereby we judge you God shall judge us, white-washed walls we are.That said, in defense of the statement I quoted: We are not divorcing the Eucharist from Baptism, but rather insisting that extra requirements beyond Baptism introduce an unChurchly division between the Sacraments. We may be wrong, but we would say that any institutional disunity is nothing compared to the unity in Baptism. Which is why calling Orthodox semi-Christian is so odious.But your point about icons of the divinity of Jesus, and of the Father and Spirit bears repeating. There are not supposed to be icons of the Father or Spirit (except sorta of the Spirit in the Pentecost icon) and there are no icons of the Divinity of Jesus. There are icons of the Word, there are icons of the Second Person of the Trinity, but these are icons of Him as Man.


  11. Brad Littlejohn

    Jay–Yikes, that's scary stuff.Patrick–Thanks for jumping in. Matt has hopefully clarified things a bit for you here. The statement about Orthodox and Catholics "effectively excommunicating their brothers and sisters" is from the Trinity Reformed Church Statement on Catholicism or Orthodoxy, or something like that. I wasn't terribly happy with the statement myself, but in its context, it was a pretty irenic gesture. And, being familiar with the background to it, I can say that the concern is not simply with a closed communion policy, but rather, more so, with the haughty and exclusive attitude taken by some in those communions (particularly new converts) toward Protestants. I have no great objection to a church that has a closed communion policy for important theological reasons, but which otherwise seeks to develop as warm a fellowship as possible with outsiders. Of course the "arrogant and exclusive" perception may well be an inaccurate perception (no doubt, for the majority of Orthodox and Catholics it is), but was a perception based partly upon some painful experiences.As it is, while on the whole I do not buy the theological justification for closed communion (while the Eucharist is the fruit of unity, it is also the means to unity, and I think we have to hold both in tension; to take one rather than the other always leads to trouble), I more or less understand it, and I don't get irritated at Catholics and Orthodox who have that conviction. You're absolutely right about the problems of "solo Scriptura" and the regulative principle lying behind all this, and about the inconsistency in Protestants' selective acceptance of the ecumenical councils. These are points I made pretty forcefully in my essay against Jordan on this. If I had to guess why Robin didn't mention the 7th Ecumenical Council in his essay, it's probably because we as Protestants have so thoroughly swept it under the rug that few of us have any clue what it said anymore, and if we did, we'd know that citing it would get us absolutely nowhere with most other Protestants.


  12. Brad has dealt with these questions in his typically succinct way. Now you'll get my characteristically less than succinct version!To start with, I particularly liked Matthew’s comment about the double standard that so easily slips in and how a strict adherence of Jordan’s argument against images would exclude books and sermons as well.It does, however, seem problematic if we take the command to “judge not” as excluding our ability to label traditions as semi-Christian, which seems to be a necessary inference of Matthew’s comment that “I also find labeling EO and Catholics "semi-Christian" particularly tacky as it is clearly a violation of ‘judge not.’” We have to draw lines and make judgments if we are to avoid syncretism, and I would have no problem labeling some of the fusion of paganism and Christianity currently in vogue in the African church as “semi-Christian.” A Christianity that does not exclude in the end cannot even include, as the example of our Lord on this matter makes clear. Hence, the problem with Jordan calling the non-Protestant forms of Christianity semi-Christian is not that he is judging but that his judgment happens to be incorrect in this particular, proceeding as it does from a small-mindedness that is unfortunately endemic in American Calvinism. Jay makes a good point that my initial framing of the creation question (God’s creation stirs us to worship God therefore man’s creation can also stir us to worship God) does leave open the implication that “if God's creation makes us worship God, maybe man's creation makes us worship man.” Hence, it seems appropriate to flesh that argument out a bit. Remember that I am interacting with a line of thought which alleges that using created things as aids to worship is a species of idolatry. My fuller argument in response to this spurious claim is:The Psalms indicate that the natural world can act as an aid in the worship of GodThe natural world is a created thing.Therefore, in at least one case a created thing can act as aid in the worship of God.Since a created thing can act as an aid to worshiping God, it is false to say, “Using any created thing as an aid in the worship of God is always a species of idolatry.”Since it is false that using any created thing as an aid in the worship of God is always a species of idolatry, it is possible that products of sub-creation can act as aids to the worship of God. I merely say “possible” since at this point the argument has merely established the falsehood of the claim that using any created thing as an aid in the worship of God is always a species of idolatry. Further argumentation is required to move us from possibility to probability. Such argumentation can be furnished by factoring in (A) the role that human creativity played in the prescribed religion of Israel, including many cases where latitude was left with the individual artist who was merely instructed to design things “skilfully”; (B) the blurry edges between God’s creation and the type of God-glorifying human creations described in Psalm. 90:17 (“And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it”); (C) the important aesthetic dimension inherent in the dominion mandate as a necessary means by which God’s vice-regents glorify their king; (D) the many Biblical examples where God’s providence uses products of human creation, including human behaviour, as instruments pointing people to Himself, including cases where this leads to worship.Now I want to go through the different questions that my brother Patrick has asked (great questions, by the way) and quickly respond to each. Obviously I will not be answering those questions that Matthew has already helpfully responded to.“Can you please provide a reference for this assertion, that is where in Orthodoxy we portray this [icons of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit].” Unfortunately I am in England and so I don’t have access to my library where I read about that. Hence I am unable to answer this question of Patrick’s right now.“Why is there no mention of the 7th ecumenical council and its decisions in your article?” Brad was exactly right here. Unfortunately, like many Protestants I am woefully ignorant about some of the latter ecumenical councils. This, together with the fact that the article did not intend to say everything there was to be said about the topic, explains why I did not mention any of the councils. Patrick asked a great question about the regulative principle. “As far as the regulative principle is concerned, this seems to be central to this debate, but does it hold water? It is self-refuting since nowhere in scripture, or even in the early church, is scripture elevated to the extent that it is today by American evangelicals who advocate this principle.” I agree, but I am not defining the regulative principle in the way that you have probably encountered it. I wish I had Jeff Meyers book at hand, but basically my position would be that it is wrong to incorporate into public worship any practice that does not have Biblical warrant, but such warrant can include broad scriptural principles applied in wisdom. It is legitimate for such scriptural principles to include items which are inferred from scriptural teaching and themes rather than explicitly mandated. And the scriptural mandate for this is simply the repeated call for wisdom. Opening up the worship service to anything that isn’t sinful does seem to entail a deficit of wisdom.“For the fathers, and biblical writers, schism, a breaking with the church, was very very bad, not the establishing of a branch. Where is the scriptural precedent for many denominations practicing inter-communion???”This seemingly simple question of Patrick’s has the potential to open up a huge can of worms that could become very complex since it hinges on how one defines the church. A similar question was raised in the comments of my post about the great schism at and the comments quickly ran to 55 and it still wasn’t resolved. I mention this merely to point out that although I am going to attempt to give an answer, I am limited in the amount of time I have to get entangled in a debate about ecclesiological ontology.OK, so here goes.There is no straight-forward answer to this question since it hinges on how you define the church. But suffice to say, if it can be established that a “branch” is actually a heretical sect outside the visible church, then there is no scriptural precedent for inter-communion. But there is scriptural precedent for those groups within the visible church to practice inter-communion, and that precedent is found in Galatians. But first, some background about Galatians will be necessary to help set the context.The background to Galatians is the controversy with the Judiasers. The Judiasers have often been misunderstood. They were simply good Jews who were doing business as usual, as it had always been done under the Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, Gentiles could come into the covenant but not as Gentiles, they had to first convert to Judiaism. When the Lord restructured the covenant around Jesus, faith in Christ (as evidenced by the covenantal sign of baptism) replaced circumcision as the visible sign of entry into the covenant community. But the Judiazers didn’t like that. They wanted things to just carry on as they always had done in the Old Testament period. Under the Old covenant, if a Gentile wanted to join the covenant community, he had to get circumcised and begin living like a Jew. The Christian Judiasers were carrying on with this practice. The Judiasers failed to realise the newness of the good news. Even though Christ had died and risen from the dead, and even though the Holy Spirit was being poured out on Gentiles as Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48 & 15:8), the Judiasers continued with ‘business as usual.’ They said, ‘Yes, it’s fine for Gentile believers to become one of us, but they have to first go through the same process that proselytises have always had to go through. They must get circumcised and start keeping the Torah of Moses.’The Judiasers’ vision of God’s covenant would have been the correct view had it not been for Jesus’ work in radically restructuring of the covenant around Himself. They came on the scene too late in redemption history and the good news they were preaching was old news and therefore not good.When the Judiasers told people they had to get circumcised and come under the law (Torah) in order to be justified, it wasn’t a matter of trying to earn your salvation. In the Old Testament, keeping the Torah never meant living perfectly by every command. Consider Zechariah who, despite being a sinner, was said by Luke to have walked blamelessly in all the Lord’s commandments. The claim about Zechariah isn’t a claim that he didn’t sin. Rather, such a statement was possible because the text is not referring to law keeping in the abstract. It is referring to faithfulness within the context of the covenant. And the covenant itself had the sacrificial system whereby sin could be dealt with by faithful people. So when Zechariah (or someone else) sinned, he remained obedient to the commandments by sincerely availing himself of the sacrificial system. Thus, to keep the law meant faithfulness to the covenant. That faithfulness was expressed by entering into the basic structure that defined this people over and against the Gentiles, availing oneself of the atonement system, living by the Mosaic ceremonial codes, being separate from the Gentiles, and of course availing oneself of the covenantal sign (circumcision). All these points can be found in the Old Testament. The problem with the Judiasers was simply that it was no longer the Old Testament era. Jesus had come.Thus, the conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem council against the Judiasers was not between those who advocated a works-based soteriology vs. those who were contending for a grace-based soteriology (after all, hadn't salvation always been by grace, even under the old covenant?). Rather, the conflict hinges on two different ways of answering the question “How do you define the people of God?” Both groups believed in an expanding the covenant and both groups could assert that God’s plans were international, but whereas the Judiasers said that the Gentiles had to stop being Gentiles and enter the covenant through the door of conversion to Judaism, Paul asserted that faith in Christ was the only requirement.This backdrop makes sense of Paul’s criticisms of Peter that he recounts in Galatians. In Galatians 2:13, Paul called Peter a hypocrite. This is because Peter had stopped living like a Jew yet was now requiring (if only by implication) that Gentiles begin to live like Jews. In what way had Peter begun to “live like a Gentile”? Well, recall what happened to Peter in Acts. In Acts 10, Peter had a strange vision where the Lord lowered down a net filled with unclean animals and told Peter to eat. It is significant that unclean animals were used to represent unclean people, since the reason God gave for the clean/unclean distinction was in order that His people might be separate from the rest of the nations (Lev. 20:22-26). This vision was God’s way of telling Peter that things had now changed: Gentiles believers are now welcome into the covenant community as Gentiles (always before they had been welcome provided that they convert to Judaism and become ritually clean according to Mosaic law). Always before it had been unlawful for a Jew to keep company, much less eat, with a Gentile. As Peter said to Cornelius, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Acts. 10:28) The consequence of this is that Peter begins eating with Gentiles, to the great astonishment of the Jews (“’You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!’” Acts 11:3). But not only does Peter stop observing the clean/unclean distinctions, being, like Paul, “convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself” (Rom. 14:14), but Peter also insisted that Gentile converts not be made to submit to the ceremonial laws of Moses. As Peter had said in response to the Judiasers, “why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts. 15:10) Peter was not referring merely to circumcision when he said that, since circumcision by itself was not a yoke that was difficult to bear; nor is Peter referring to the yoke of God’s moral law, as if an age of antinomianism was now being ushered in; nor is Peter referring to the yoke of trying to earn one’s salvation, since that was not the issue with the Judiasers. Rather, Peter was referring to the need to follow the ceremonial customs of Moses, with the elaborate instructions for cleanliness that involved. This is because the Gentiles have been purified (made clean) through Christ. As Peter said in Acts 15:8-9, “So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.” Peter appealed to the fact that the Holy Spirit came upon Gentiles living as Gentiles and not as Jews, as the final proof of this new work. Given all of this background, we can begin to understand why Paul called Peter a hypocrite when he began to separate himself from Gentile believers and demand that Gentile converts start living like Jews.In his lecture, ‘Justification, Trinity and Catholicity’, Rich Lusk comments on some of the deeper issues involved in Peter’s actions. The relevance to Patrick’s question about inter-denominational communion should become immediately apparent. Lusk points out that,“We in the reformed world have been blind to the real issue in this passage which clearly centres around table fellowship. See, to eat a meal together in scripture is a covenantal act. It is an act of covenant bonding. When Peter ate with Gentile believers, he was acknowledging them as fellow members of the covenant community. He was acknowledging that apart from the Mosaic law, apart from living Jewishly, that these gentiles had right standing in the covenant. He was recognising their status as fellow sons of Abraham. Thus, by later withdrawing from table fellowship with those Gentile Christians, he was calling their covenant status into question. They were excommunicated practically speaking so far as Peter was concerned. They were out of table communion or table fellowship with him. By eating only with Jewish Christians, Peter was compelling the Gentile Christians to live as Jews, to submit themselves to the Torah of Moses. In other words, his action suggested that justification, which in this context has to be understood covenantally – right standing with the covenant – his action suggested that justification could not be obtained apart from Judaism – that is to say, apart from a Jewish form of life.”“Peter divided believers into two categories: there were Gentiles who believed in Jesus as Messiah but were now, because of Peter’s action, on the outside looking in, excluded from table companionship with the apostle. And then there were Jewish believers who, yes, believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but in addition to that maintained a Jewish way of life according to the customs of Torah. It was precisely this action of dividing the church into haves and have-nots, into first class and second class citizens in the kingdom, that drew forth Paul’s harsh rebuke. See Peter failed to understand the newness of the good news, that through Christ’s death the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile had been taken down, that the new age inaugurated by the Messiah brought about the fulfilment of all the prophetic promises – all the prophetic hope – which pointed towards the inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles in the Israel of God. Peter failed to come to grips with the way the way the death and resurrection had reconfigured the covenant community so that in Christ one’s heritage as a Jew or Gentile or one’s social status as a bond servant or a free man or one’s gender as a man or woman, had no baring whatever on one’s status or standing within the covenant community. Peter was trying to turn back the clock of redemption history, seeking to live BC in an AD world. He was clinging to features of the old age such as circumcision and the dietary laws, features of the old world order that, yes, were God-given, but now fulfilled their God given purpose in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So by dividing the communion table Peter was tearing Christ into pieces. Peter was denying catholicity." I would also recommend Tom Wright’s excellent discussion of Galatians in his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. But hopefully I have said enough to convince you that Paul’s discussion in Galatians about justification by faith has as much to do with our ecclesiology as our soteriology since it gives credence to a healthy sense of ecumenicism or 'catholicity' by demolishing all the man-made barriers that otherwise divide the people of God. That includes denominational barriers. If a church is part of the visible people of God, then it is just as wrong to excommunicate their members as it was for Peter to remove himself from having table fellowship with the Gentile believers. Hence, inner-denominational communion follows as a necessary celebration of the gospel’s catholicity. Put another way, if it was wrong for the Judiasers and Peter to divide the table between two types of Christians (Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians), then it is wrong for us to divide the table between white Christians and black Christians, or between Eastern Christians and Western Christians, or between Presbyterian Christians and Anglican Christians. And on and on. As Matthew suggested in his latest comment, Eucharist should not be divorced from Baptism, and the insistence that there be extra requirements beyond Baptism, introduces an unChurchly division between the Sacraments. “Any institutional disunity is nothing compared to the unity in Baptism.” Amen. Hence, at the reformed church I attend in America as well as the reformed church I have been attending in London, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics are welcome to join us for communion, as are all members of Christ’s visible body. You see, I am Protestant not in spite of my catholicity but because of it. At the end of the day, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are too sectarian for me, as they fail to allow for the full breadth of catholicity that is a necessary corollary of Christ’s death and resurrection. However, like Brad, I don't get irritated at Catholics and Orthodox who have that conviction, not least because I have generally found them to be less sectarian in their overall attitude than most Protestants who do have open communion. How ironic is that? Of course, this doesn’t mean that anyone is welcome to the communion table. Since the blessed Eucharist is a time for Christ’s people to commune with each other and with Christ, this necessarily excludes people from other religions as well as heretical sects which falsely claim the name of Christ, as well as those who have been legitimately excommunicated. Ecumenicism ceases to be ecumenicism once it lapses into syncretism or principled pluralism, precisely because the catholicity of the gospel has then been substituted for the catholicity of some broader category such as humanity or “religion” or “faith.”Wow, that was probably a much longer answer than your were expecting to your simple question about closed communion! Sorry for going on so. You can tell that catholicity is dear to my heart.


  13. Patrick Phillips

    Thank you Matthew and Brad. Yes, that does clarify things A LOT. I too have noticed the haughtiness of new converts to Orthodoxy and too have had painful experiences. A lot of it relates to things like callender issues and toll houses, which for most Orthodox people aren´t even really that important but now are being used in North America to bash people over the head with. These new convers overlook somehow the emphasis that a lot of our leadership puts on avoiding triamphalism. The reasoning behind the 7th ecumenical councel bears looking at. Icons were seen as a part of a multi-media pedogogical method. In today´s time when we are surrounded by visual stimulus everywhere, we forget that at one time it was only in the church where one could see visual presentations/documentaries of biblical events. Robin, I want to respond to what you said by looking at the implications of intercommunion, to see if you can take it one stop further. Similar to what I might ask of an Orthodox who was advocating female priests, I would want to know what parish life would look like such as the role of her husband and hearing confessions of a sexual nature. So here goes. One way we protect our doctrine in Orthodoxy, including those dogmas defined in the councel, is by excommunicating people who don´t advocate them. Thus, to open the door to Presybeterians and Anglicans would be opening the door for a doctrinal free for all. What would the implications look like? Would it mean that we shared also the sacrement of ordination AS WELL and that Presybeterian pastors could serve the eucharist? Would it mean that we ¨shared¨, in our monasteries, the sacrement of monastic ordination and that then these protestants could just leave the monastery whenever the Spirit moved, even after receiving ordination to be a Rosephor monk? Would complete intercommunion mean that Orthodoxy would allow Calvinist soteriology to be preached in the seminaries? The Eucharist, and our beliefs about the eucharist, are intregrally tied to having a sacramental priesthood that goes back to the apostles and is derived eucharistically from the apostles, which is why we can claim that priests can actually make the baptismal waters salvific. Protestants don´t have an understanding of the ontological power of the sacrements and so it is easy to casually suggest intercommunion without thinking of the consequences, which would be the death of Orthodoxy as we know it. If Orthodoxy opened its doors, would it mean that you would start attending Orthodox parishes? I´m not sure what the point of intercommunion really is. Because if opencommunion were practiced, as you suggest in many of your posts, it would mean that Presybeterians WERE PART OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH. As such they would have the rights to be ordained. If at that point they didn´t like praying to Saints, could they introduce a new liturgy that excluded any praying to saints? We could have a Vatican II type problem on our hands, ancient liturgies being abolished for folk masses, but Vatican II on steroids that would cause many splinters within the Orthodox church and lead to its disintegration. It seems like intercommunion is a phantasy put forth by people who don´t really have any desire to be part of Orthodox parishes except occasionally just to prove a point. Robin, I´ve been trying to get a hold of the writings of N.T Wright for a long time. I welcome the recommendation.


  14. I appreciate where you're coming from Patrick, but basically the short answer to your question is no, all those things would not need to follow. From my limited understanding of church history, I believe that prior to the Great schism the Western and Eastern churches were organizationally distinct yet still were in communion with each other.N.T. Wright has a wealth of his material online for free at


  15. patrick phillips

    Maybe I´m banging my head against a wall but we´re not living before the great schism and regional seperation isn´t going to protect things in the United States, South America or anywhere else where Iconoclasm and other heresies are still very much alive. If the body of Orthodox leadership doesn´t have the right to screen people based on doctrine, like some Pentecostals for example who don´t believe in the Trinity, then in the end it is only the indivudual conscience who, being his own Pope, gets to decide if he is worthy to take communion or not. Where is confession? Where is fasting eight hours before approaching the chalice…where are all the things the Orthodox practice as tied to communion, such as not having sex before Liturgy etc, etc. Eastern and Western differences in this day and age are characterized by theological differences rather than just regional ones. There is a whole western mindset that is contray to the eastern mindset. Before the great schism it wasn´t as pronounced. The point of my previous post was to show that what you suggest is more than just a slippery slope. Once protestants are admitted to communion, they would be seen as part of the church in a complete sense. Why in a complete sense? Because that´s what taking communion means for us. That would bring along with it membership rights, such as teaching in seminaries. If Bishops didn´t have recourse to excommunication, how would they protect the doctrinal purity? I didn´t even raise the question of liberal theology within Anglicanism or who we would keep a Bishop Spong at bay. Every year the first Sunday in Lent is called The Sunday of Orthodoxy, celebrated in Portland Oregon by all the Orthodox parishes having an ecumenical gathering at the Greek cathedral, and celebrating the triumph of Orthodoxy over the iconoclasts. It is a feast day to remember the 7th and last ecumenical councel. Fr. Matthew Tate repeats with a bullhorn the rulings of the Synod and we march around the church holding icons, affirming their use for worship. The Antiochian Church and the OCA are orginizationally distinct and yet they are in communion and come together. But the Prysbeyeterian church doesn´t even follow the same church callender or accept our Saints. How is it possible to functionally be in communion? The Anglican church tried open communion and now has nothing…how does it serve? The only good in such a scenario would be that protestants wouldn´t feel left out and could march up to the alter boldly saying ¨we´re Christians too¨, but the political consequences would be devestating. Please elaborate??


  16. Robin,You're correct, it isn't the labeling of the Orthodox as semi-Christian per se that is odious. It's the labeling of them as such, while still maintaining they are Christian. If someone simply says "no, the Orthodox are not Christian" I vehemently disagree, and believe they are splitting the Body of Christ. But: if someone says describes EO as members of the Church, lauds them as saints, is thankful for their contributions to the larger Church, and then calls them semi-Christian, they are committing a very serious error. Particularly, if one of their objections against the Orthodox is that they make Protestants and Catholics semi-Christians.Patrick,I think you're correct that even if you should be in fellowship with the Western Churches, now is not the time to commence fellowship. It would mean trusting the untrustworthy, if nothing else.


  17. patrick phillips

    Robin, after having lunch and reflecting, I can grant that you have a point. I think I was wrong—in a sense. Right now I attend a Presbyeterian church here in Brasil. As an Orthodox, I am allowed to take communion—they would like this. Of course I don´t. But in order to teach in their seminaries I would have to conform to their doctrinal standards. So maybe you are looking at it from exactly the other way around. Don´t forget though that during the period before the great schism, there was doctrinal unity…the east and the west have been growing further apart now for over 1000 years. Can I recommend reading Being As Communion and the Prologue of Ochrid. As to Matthew´s last comment, he is spot on. For example, in the Credendum Agenda attacks on Orthodoxy, they refered to us as a Synagog of Satan and accused us of institionalized idolatry. This was from the people who are upset that they can´t take communion. The organized scholarly response that Patrick Barns organized was met with letters saying things like Oh we´re just to busy to interact with everyone who emails us and a refusal to debate. or even acknowledgement of the articles. Robin has a more generous view towards Eastern Orthodoxy. But many don´t. According to their own view of Orthodoxy, as articulated by Douglas Jones, wouldn´t they be actually sinning big time to take communion in an Orthodox parish because of our supposed worship of Mary, idolatry and views on human Deification? One thing is clear (quoting Patrick Barns letter to David Bercot). There was no confusion in the minds of the Fathers about where the lines of the Church were drawn. For all the discussion we may have in our time, in the patristic age things were settled. You were either in the Church or you were not. If you were in communion with the apostolic churches, you were in the Church. The unity of the Church cannot be broken or separated. Is Christ divided? The answers the Fathers gave follow St. Paul: No, Christ is not divided. He cannot be divided in light of His Person and nature; therefore the Church, which is the Body of Christ, cannot be divided. In the patristic mind-set there is an organic, visible body that continues and is derived both historically and eucharistically from the Apostles and their teachings; one is either in it or out of it. I am curious (still quoting Barns) what would St. Cyprian think of your ecclesiology? What do you do with all of those references in the Fathers to unity, and the Church as constituted by bishops in universal and eucharistic communion with all other orthodox bishops? Is not unity one of hte chief themes of the Fathers? Heresy and schism were closely related because both of them violated the unity of the Church. To the Orthodox, Protestant ecclesiology appears to be inconsistant with the formulations of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod, being more theologically consistent with a Nestorian Christology than anything else. Christ´s intention for the Church of the New Covenant is clear: visible unity expressed through mutually recognized ministerial orders, Eucharistic fellowship, doctrinal agreement, and adherence to Christ´s Lordship. Every theological controversy that was debated in the Ecumenical Synods, as well as in the fourteenth century with St. Gregory Palamas and the Latinizing monk Barlaam, center around the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and God the Logos, that is, Christ. Do you not see that to dismiss these Synods and the dogmas they set forth with increasing clarity is to reject Christ Himself?


  18. Patrick, I want to interact with your point that "during the period before the great schism, there was doctrinal unity." In actual fact, there was neither doctrinal unity nor organizational unity. Even though the East and West were "in communion" prior to the Great Schism (and actually afterwards, because the split was much more organic than our retroactive historiography allows) there were major differences in how the East and West saw things. This included different ways of approachingA. philosophical understandingsB. misunderstandings created by language barrier createsC. different customsD. differences in understanding original sinE. political rivalriesF. growth of papacy’s powerG. doctrine of purgatoryH. ecclesiastical calendarI. celibacy of bishopsJ. use of leavened or unleavened breadK. Emperor Leo III's outlawing of the veneration of icons in the 8th century. L. dispute over Petrine DoctrineM. Filioque ControversyThe events of 1054 was merely when these tensions reached a climax. And it is interesting that even after the Great Schism many of the churches remained in communion with each other, despite their differences. It wasn't until the Crusaders' appalling activity in sacking Constantinople that the East/West split was final.


  19. Brad Littlejohn

    My "typically concise way," Robin? HA! You're probably the first person who's ever said that, and you'll probably be the last. As this is your post, and thus your terrain to defend, I've been being concise, but I assure you my comments would be as long as yours if this was my post. Wonderful stuff, though, in your comment.So let me be concise again (though much less so)Patrick: your concern that open communion would allow a doctrinal free-for-all sounds bogus to me. Doctrine is protected by guarding certain standards among those who would teach the word, primarily, and then by guarding much simpler standards among all those who would desire to be in regular membership. Opening up the Eucharist is simply a matter of showing hospitality to all those whom Christ has purchased with his blood and marked as part of his family in baptism, and who desire, as much as possible, to be in communion with severed brothers and sisters. If those coming to the Eucharist do not come with the full doctrinal understanding that you would like them to have, remember that the Eucharist is not about having all the right doctrine, but about having faith in Christ to feed us, and to make up our deficiencies in understanding. All those things that are part of Orthodox practice before Eucharist–do they view those as part of the esse or the bene esse of the sacrament? Presumably the latter. Thus, I don't see that someone is absolutely barred from communing because they do not understand and practice all the subsidiary rites. We have to always remember that it is the Lord's Supper, not ours, and we must not make our additions to it more important than the crucial thing–that He offers Himself there to His children who come to Him in faith.So it comes back to baptism, it seems to me. If you’re going to acknowledge that in Protestant baptisms, Christ still names the baptizee as His, as part of His Body, His family, then shouldn’t Protestants be able to sit at the dinner table?But are you acknowledging Protestants to have valid baptisms? I wasn’t sure after this: “No, Christ is not divided. He cannot be divided in light of His Person and nature; therefore the Church, which is the Body of Christ, cannot be divided. In the patristic mind-set there is an organic, visible body that continues and is derived both historically and eucharistically from the Apostles and their teachings; one is either in it or out of it.” So you’re saying that only in the Orthodox Church is the Body of Christ, and if you’re out of the Orthodox Church, you’re out of the Body of Christ?I don’t disagree with the words of your statement here, but I’m puzzled as to where exactly they’re aimed.“There was no confusion in the minds of the Fathers about where the lines of the Church were drawn. For all the discussion we may have in our time, in the patristic age things were settled. You were either in the Church or you were not. If you were in communion with the apostolic churches, you were in the Church.” See, here’s the problem. We’re not in the patristic age anymore. In that time, the Church was still more or less instititutionally unified (though there were some pretty ugly divisions and anathematizations that should’ve been handled better). We live in the aftermath of the Great Schism and the Reformation, so that now there are hundreds of millions of Christians, calling on the name of Christ in faith, seeking to obey Him and His Word, baptized in His name, gathering around His table and His Scriptures, in each of three different large mutually exclusive communions (and one of those is a mere aggregation of smaller communions). Despite all the grievous sins to lament that brought us here, this happened within God’s providence and His promise not to forsake His Church till the end of the age or to let the gates of Hell prevail against it. Therefore, I think it stands to reason that God has, in all this ecclesial mess, found some way of naming each of us, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, as his sons and daughters in Christ, and so we’d better find a way to do so as well. That’s not a call to relativism, to simply affirm everyone where he or she is and let them stay there. But it is to establish a certain baseline on which we can all work toward true holiness and unityin mutual support of one another.
Your quote from Credenda/Agenda–are you serious? When/where did they ever write that? I confess that I am taken aback and disappointed by that. I think the editors of that journal have matured enough in their understanding now that they wouldn’t say that (though I don’t know…I still find myself bowled over by occasional shockers); certainly I can assure you that Doug Jones at least (with whom I’m on pretty close terms) wouldn’t stand by those statements for a moment anymore. But you are right that many in our circles would think they’d be sinning big time to take communion in an Orthodox Church, and so it does strike me as somewhat odd for some of the same folks to criticize the Orthodox for not allowing us to. I will say only “somewhat odd,” but I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to call it “downright hypocritical.” And that is another reason why I am not too bothered by the Orthodox and Catholic practices of closed communion–if most of us Protestants would spit on an invitation to their dinner tables, why should we complain if they don’t invite us?


  20. patrick

    the filoque was put in the creed originally by a local councel as a safe guard against Arianism and might have been understood in that context. Look I have a suggestion to make. This was the same suggestion I made to my parents when they said they didn´t want to attend my baptism because of the practice of ´closed communion´, which really isn´t closed communion but open communion with certain responsibilities attatched. The church teaches that there are many ways of participating in the liturgy and many ways of being in communion. The Church offers blessed bread and blessed wine at the end of the service for visitors. This would be equivalent to what Prysbyeterians take every Sunday since they don´t believe in physical consecration anyway. Go to church, participate in the liturgy and take the blessed bread and the blessed wine. I can´t understand why someone would want to seperate themselves from the parishes in their city and from 2000 years of tradition just because of one theological point unless it were because of the pride. Where I live there are no churches. Take advantage of the blessings you all have.


  21. Hi Robin,I thought it was an excellent piece all the way through. This issue has been on my horizon, so to speak, for several years, though I have never had any significant time to explore it. So, unfortunately, I don’t feel qualified to give you point-by-point feedback on your arguments. But again, I found your exposition and counter-arguments quite persuasive.The last time I looked at the issue was about 8 years ago, as part of a project I was doing on the Reformed view of the 7th Ecumenical Council. I never reached any definite conclusions in that study (probably because I never finished the study!).However, from my readings of a number of the sources contemporaneous with the Council, I did conclude at least that the usual Reformed objections to Nicea II are superficial, and that the Council was not, in fact, some blatant instance of “apostasy” as men like Jordan so bombastically (and overconfidently) assert.As for Jordan himself, I was disgusted by most of The Liturgy Trap. I found his arguments therein to be, ironically, good ones FOR converting to Rome or Orthodoxy, not for staying away. Fortunately, since I am a graduate of NSA, Jordan does not impact my thoughts all that much. I find most of his work to be characterized by unhealthy speculativeness combined with hasty generalizations about others, and his rhetoric about those with whom he disagrees leaves very much to be desired.I wish I could offer specific remarks and / or constructive criticism, but again, I’ve just never had the time to study this issue out in the kind of detail it needs. I do recall Peter Leithart, with whom I studied theology at NSA, making the argument about images in the Temple, though. I wonder where Leithart stands relative to Jordan’s very extreme views.Thanks for the excellent work!


  22. Patrick, my family did go and attend two services at the Eastern Orthodox church in Post Falls and we found it a wonderfully refreshing time, although I was uncomfortable with some of the language used of the saints which was indistinguishable to me (admittedly an outsider) with the language of worship.


  23. Brad, you made some great points there!Matthew, where did Wes Callihan apologize?The thing that is strange about that article by Pastor Wilson is that in Doug's Canon Wired Discussion of Eastern Orthodoxy ( Doug recommended Robert Letham's book Through Western Eyes, which gives a totally (and much more sympathetic) interpretation of deification. Interestingly, he said he hadn't read the book even though he was recommending it! But Wilson is right about one thing: the Eastern tradition is not much good at systematic Western-style argumentation. I have found that frustrating before, as you will see if you read my public debate with Patrick Barnes.


  24. It's a very old article. I'm not sure why Pr. Wilson re-posted it when he did, as the other authors would not have stood by their position by then.And the nonsense about confusing the distinction between created and uncreated! Seriously! If an Orthodox were to say that we partake of God's ousia, or that we even have any sort of knowledge at all of God in his ousia, maybe. But they absolutely refuse to make such statements. <sigh>I'm not sure if Mr. Callihan apologized online or in a letter. I think he or a friend of his told me that in person.


  25. patrick

    How can Douglas Wilson say that the Orthodox don´t know how to argue, when Douglas Jones and the Credendum Agenda staff REFUSED to debate with the international team of scholars Patrick Barnes ammased to write counter articles to every one of their pieces???


  26. patrick

    it was St. Athenasious after all, a favorite of C.S. Lewis and many evangelicals, who made the famous statement about Deification, that Christ became man so that men could become God.


  27. Brad Littlejohn

    *sigh*Gentlemen, gentlemen…when people come to this blog, they will see below this post "32 comments" and they will be excited, because they will think, "Ah, an intense and lively debate about icons." But no, instead they will find an endless string of grumping and gossip about a series of articles against Eastern Orthodoxy that were written 11 years ago. I had hoped that, although it was not the subject of the post, we seemed to be entering onto a potentially fruitful discussion about open and closed communion policies, but instead we're all just back to sharing jabs against people we all disagree with. This does not seem particularly edifying.So, Patrick–you seem to have a real chip on your shoulder about this. It did happen, after all, 12 years ago. If it's true that there was "an international team of scholars Patrick Barnes amassed to write counter articles to every one of their pieces" then is it possible that you people are just a bit too jumpy? This is one of the most dramatic examples of overkill I've encountered in the realm of theological debate. It's would be like sending in the Air Force to bomb Baghdad because of the Iraqi guy who threw his shoe at President Bush. They weren't writing scholarly articles–none of them knew much at all about what they were writing about. So, just laugh at their silliness and move on. You do know that Credenda, back in the day, seemed to go out of its way to offend as many people as possible. Getting worked up about it is like taking a personal affront at a mosquito for biting you. No doubt that's why Doug Jones couldn't see the point in trying to get involved in an argument–though for someone to say that he is too busy to respond point-by-point is not to "REFUSE to engage"–I happen to be a very busy person as well right now and I can sympathize with trying to disengage from someone who wanted a long scholarly debate. Probably, if you asked him, he too would apologize now for his misguided polemics, but he would probably be amused that you still remembered the article–I bet he's all but forgotten he ever wrote it. Matt: Thanks for linking to the Callihan apology. Mr. Callihan is a saint, and has a true and deep appreciation for Orthodoxy that he helps instill in the many young people he comes in contact with (like myself). Tim: Thank you for chiming in to share your appreciation for Robin's post, but I would say that, sympathetic as I am to your critiques of Jordan, it doesn't make this blog look very good if we all just sit around trying to outdo each other in our disdain for James Jordan, with a few good whacks at Doug Wilson thrown in for good measure. I say this, remember, as someone who took Jordan to task in no uncertain terms on these issues a couple years ago. So, we're all agreed that we disagree with both the content and manner of his argument. But let's not gratuitously indulge in some self-satisfying Jordan slurs. Regarding Leithart–he recommended to me to the Jordan articles on this subject back when I was looking into this a couple of years ago, but when I came back outraged, he was sympathetic to many of my criticisms, and in particular agreed that the sectarian and uncharitable tone of the articles was wrong. He was kind enough to engage me in detailed discussions, and, although he remained thoroughly Protestant in his skepticism about images, he granted that many of the counter-arguments had some merit, and at least substantially complicated the picture, so that any criticisms would have to be much more carefully circumscribed. And I recall that in the discussion regarding the Trinity Reformed Church Statement on Orthodoxy and Catholicism shortly afterward, he was very careful in how he worded his critiques. I've never quite understood his close friendship with Jordan, but in spite of my disagreement with him on this point, I will certainly say that he is in this, as in all other matters, a very reasoning and reasonable man.


  28. Perry Robinson

    Hey Robin,Remarks on your post.Jordan’s principle is mistaken, since language is created and temporal as well. What he seems to mean is the mental. But if this is so, God does not think discursively. God does not reason through steps, so if carried out, Jordan’s principle would preclude even human language from expressing the divine. Can creation be God-bearing or no? Jordon doesn’t seem to think it can be.As for Orthodox images of the Trinity, these are not Orthodox. Here in sum is the history. During the Origenistic controversies, images of Christ as the Ancient of Days became diluted under Origenistic influence and instead of picturing Christ as the Ancient of Days and as an incarnate child, portrayed the Father as an old man with Christ in front of him as his junior. This was in keeping with the Origenistic view of symbolic art rather than a representational aim. Then during periods of Catholic influence in Poland, Russia and various Slavic countries, this error crept in again and a number of Russian synods were held to address it. (See Bigham, The Image of God the Father in Orthodox Theology and Iconography, via google books.Icons of the visitation to Abraham are just that, which are a type or foreshadowing of the Trinity, but it is not an icon of the Trinity.As for pagans distinguishing between veneration of a deity and the deity itself, they didn’t pay veneration to the image, but worship, which they thought was passed on to the deity. They did so because there was a prevalent belief that deities came to inhabit the statues at times to communicate with mortals. So what you need to be attacking is the principle of transfer. But if that principle is mistaken, then it is a mistake to think that say Thomas bowing before Christ gave worship to Christ, since what was paid to his human nature in a physical gesture could not be transferred to his divine person. So either Thomas was guilty of idolatry or he was incapable of rendering worship to the incarnate Christ. The problem then isn't the principle of transfer per se.Also, does anyone worry about pledging allegiance to a flag turning into worship simply because honor and allegiance paid to the flag could become idolatrous? Second, no one thinks that the distinction between veneration and worship is a sufficient guard against abuses, anymore than Protestants think that the maintaining of pen-ultimate authorities is a sufficient guard against making scripture a wax nose. The distinction doesn’t need to be a sufficient hedge as your argument implies, only a necessary one.As for the position of icons of saints in church, there is a fairly uniform hierarchy. The saints of the OT are usually in the rear of the nave with an ascending order up to the Ikonostasis and the apse with images of Christ and the Theotokos holding the most central position. Positionally, the lesson to be drawn is clear and precludes the idea that icons of the saints detract from the glory of the Trinity. Hence if someone worries over the placement of icons of the saints in church, they have not understood the intention of the church in the architecture. Remarks on your commentsAs for the regulative principle, where would the lions that Solomon added to his throne in the temple without expressed divine warrant fit in? As for schism from the visible church, I am not clear how your excursion into Galatians tells us how you demarcate what is the visible church. Granting your gloss on Paul, “denominational” barriers might need to be demolished but this assumes that the denominations all participate in the true church qua church. Why think that all these groups qualify as true visible churches? Second, the Orthodox for example don’t take themselves to be a denomination. Neither does Rome and historically, neither did the Anglicans or the Orientals. Third, the barriers that Paul removes do not seem on par with theological barriers between say the Lutheran and the Reformed. First because while the OT covenantal barriers were temporary, they were divinely instituted and so the argument from them to “man made”, apparently meaning optional seems strained. Second, because those who maintain those barriers are not up to conceding that they are “man made” but divinely revealed. As for the unity of baptism, it seems to take a weird view of baptism where the form of the rite and the doctrine behind it is irrelevant, of course I suppose until we reach some supposed common bottom. I don’t think the NT supports the legitimacy of baptism done apart from the apostolic community.While the mutual excommunications in 1054 didn’t necessarily seal the deal, the revocation of the 8th council by the West is a good candidate for thinking so, not to mention the Papal statements designating the Easterners as heretics on par with the Muslims and then the subsequent conquest of Constantinople and its 70 plus year Latinization. Then there is the formal condemnation of the Latins as heretical at the synod of Blachernae in the 13th century. The idea that the two have been in communion unbeknownst to either just won’t stand up to scrutiny. And even if it did, there never was intercommunion between Protestants and the Orthodox. Consequently this line of reasoning seems irrelevant unless we're talking about Rome.. As for a lack of organizational and theological unity prior to the great schism. B., E. & C. are accidental and so irrelevant. J. falls under C. A. is ambiguous. Philosophical differences varied on both sides and didn’t in any case amount necessarily to theological differences, at least not as codified ones until post schism. This is evidenced by the fact that say conciliarism lasted a long time in the west even after the schism. D. There is sufficient evidence that the older Irenaen view of sin persisted in the west up to and sometime after the schism. F. It is important not to read back into earlier ages later views on the papacy. While Rome became increasingly significant in the west under Frankish protection, conciliarism remained a strong theological thread up to and long after the schism. G. The doctrine of purgatory prior to the schism was far more fluid in the west and in the main mapped on to the Orthodox view of the intermediate state. That doctrine in the west really doesn’t get spelled out as a distinctive thesis until the middle ages. I. Celibacy of bishops is had by both east and west up to and after the schism. It is a practical rule for both sides and not a theological difference.M. The Filioque controversy was with the Franks a local matter up until Rome came to embrace it in the 11th century. This was one reason why the Easterners left it alone. They considered Rome’s opposition to it and the reconciliation at the 8th council in 879 to be an end to the matter. As for the Orthodox not giving systematic argumentation, I don’t think you’re looking in the right place. No disrespect to Barnes but his presentation seems more to be a result of lack of adequate education than representative of Orthodox theological methodology. Picking up any of the Cappadocian Father will show plenty of “systematic” and logical argumentation for a point or position. The same is true for Maximus’ disputation with Pyrrus for example. What the Orthodox oppose in “systematic” theology is the scholastic method, which takes reality to consist of oppositions.


  29. Perry Robinson

    Matthew,Regarding baptism, your point would stick if the Orthodox recognized as formally valid and sacramentally efficacious baptisms done by schismatics and heretics, but we don’t.Also, the Latin’s as represented by Rome weren’t Filioquist since the papacy opposed the insertion into the Creed made by the Franks. Hence Photius died in communion with non-Filioquist Rome.


  30. Perry Robinson

    Patrick,I have no idea what you are referring to when you speak of bread *and* wine being offered to visitors at the divine liturgy. The antidoron is blessed bread, but it is not eucahristic bread and there is no wine offered.


  31. Perry Robinson

    Brad,If the eucharist is a matter of hospitality shown to those whom Christ purchased, this on Orthodox principles would license unbelievers since he purchased them as well. Second, for those marked as members of his family, this assumes a non-Orthodox view of ecclesiology. The Orthodox do not take those in schism (and heresy) to be said members. This does not imply that they are completely bereft of grace or the divine life, but it does speak to the limits of the visible church. Protestants and Rome do not qualify. The claim isn’t one of full doctrinal understanding so your remarks seem wide of the mark. It is a matter of doctrinal unity and profession. One can profess doctrines implicitly and explicitly without understanding them. Most lay people do this their whole lives long. If the Eucharist is about Christ, then we’d need to share the same teaching about Christ, but we don’t. From a Reformed and Orthodox point of view, the Reformed hold to a non-Chalcedonian view, as brought to light by say Muller in his Christ and the Decree.As for the esse or bene esse, some of those things, parts of the rite or the rite in sum are of the esse of the eucharist to use Latin jargon. So for the Orthodox, they are non-negotiable. The Orthodox do not acknowledge Protestant baptism. The baptism of schismatics and heretics becomes valid and complete upon reception into the Orthodox Church, and not prior to it. So your argument would be a good one if the Orthodox admitted your first premise, but we don’t.On the contrary, we are still in the patristic age, since Christ has not stopped making Fathers of the Church. You write that the gates of hell have not prevailed against “it” but what is “it?” What constitutes the Church itself is not held in common between us. In the other direction, it is hard to see on the ecclesiology you seem to be working with how schism is even possible or that there doesn’t need to be anything serious done to remedy it rather than just open up the communion lines. How is schism from the church possible? You write of establishing a certain baseline, but what do you have in mind? It can’t be the Nicene Creed since the Reformed reject key parts of it or accept additions to it. And if it is to be more general than that, do you mean to say that the Reformed should be happy taking communion with the Pope under current Catholic teaching? I find that a rather big pill to swallow.
As for Wilson, while the Credenda articles were old, this other post is fairly recent and still shows the same signs of gross ignorance and misrepresentation, and that after more than a decade. Nothing much has changed so it seems the older Credenda articles are germane. As for scholarship, Carmen Fragapane seems to have handed them their head on a platter.


  32. Perry,I understand that Orthodox would disagree with that point, and I really don't mind that you do. I was more explaining it than arguing for it.My point about Photius wasn't meant to open a debate about the filioque, but to point out the doctrinal diversity in his time. That said, didn't the Pope believe the filioque true while engraving the Nicene Creed, without filioque, on tablets of silver, as an eternal witness to the true faith–i.e. didn't the Pope believe it as a theologumena, while emphatically rejecting it as anything approaching Creedal? While it doesn't in any speak to the question "should Orthodox be in communion with Catholics" it does speak to the diversity of theologumena in the ancient world.Brad,Point taken. Sorry.


  33. Also, does anyone worry about pledging allegiance to a flag turning into worship simply because honor and allegiance paid to the flag could become idolatrous?

    And more relevantly, does anyone worry about pledging allegiance to a flag because they don't have allegiance to the flag of the United States, but to the country itself.But I think there is this difference between this discussion and the Credenda one. This one is mostly a defense of Orthodoxy, or of something we have in common with the Orthodox, but a defense which contains some misinformed statements. It is not an ill informed attack on Orthodoxy.


  34. patrick phillips

    Hi guys,Brad, I was under the impression that the articles were much more recent. This was because Robin presented the magazine to me when I visited him a few years ago. I must confess I never bothered to check the dates so that when I subsequently came across the rebuttals, my response was just the opposite of Pastor Wilson, ¨The reformed know how to argue but just won´t¨ or have their heads in the sand. Admittedly I was frustrated. It´s like when David Ray Griffin wrote his Debunking 9/11 Debunking and sent it around to Popular Mechanics and the members of Congress who had written against the 9/11 truth movement and they did nothing and then reported in the press that the truth movement shuns scientific debate. In both these cases it may have been like sending the air-force in reaction to someone throwing a shoe, but things like this are done because the issues addressed are very important, life and death matters, and someone without a background to be able to evaluate these things can come away very convinced by the persuasiveness of only one side. Many people can be so pursuaided that they never look any further, unaware that attempts were made to debunk the debunkers. So to have Pastor Wilson say that the Orthodox don´t know how to argue is more than just a trivial error, it is a projection of a very misinformed view of the matter. They don´t even read the books the recommend, as is now admitted, or apparently the books they are slighting. Douglas Wilson has a huge following. When he speaks people listen. For this reason maybe he should be a little more careful. Brad, you keep suggesting that maybe it is only just my opinion that Patrick Barnes organized this pan-Orthodox scholastic response. You can go to his website and see. It´s all there, as well as the curt responses from the Cradendum Agenda staff. Perry, all OCA churches and monasteries offer blessed bread and blessed wine to visitors or to Orthodox who just aren´t taking communion. Since they believe that this also transfers grace, it could be seen as equilvalent to protestant communion. When I was a catechumen I was getting tipsy from the blessed wine since they have it in a jug on the table and let you just pour as much of it as you want.


  35. patrick

    Maybe not such an overreaction. As Barnes says in his preface, this was the first time evangelicals had even attempted to address Orthodoxy.


  36. Perry Robinson

    Patrick,None of the OCA parishes I've been to offer wine with the antidoron and I've been to a number across about four states. Maybe its a Russian custom as the Serbs and Bulgarians I know don't do it either.Second, it could only be equivalent to Protestant communion (as if all Protestants had the same view, which they do not) if we shared a common notion of grace, which we do not.


  37. Brad Littlejohn

    Perry,Thanks for your engagement. Perhaps it is easier, instead of answering point-by-point, to say it this way. I understand that we are coming from different paradigms, and that on an Orthodox understanding, the non-Orthodox are not part of the visible Church, at least not in its proper and full sense. On your paradigm, closed communion of course makes pretty good sense. I was hoping to find a couple of ways of bridging the paradigm divide to try to explain why, from our perspective, it seems that there ought to be a way of having inter-communion despite these issues. I had misunderstood Matthew’s comments about baptism, and had concluded that the Orthodox recognized Protestant baptisms (after all, Rome does, I believe). But if that is not the case, then you are right…the chasm is even larger than I had thought. Perhaps it is not possible to bridge the paradigm gap, but I will make one more try. You say that while those in schism are not members of the visible Church, “this does not imply that they are completely bereft of grace or the divine life.” Ok, thanks for conceding that. We certainly all need to be able to recognize the continuing work of the Spirit and testimony to Christ that is happening in the lives of individuals and communities of Christians in all kinds of denominational groups, schismatic though they may be. Now, if we have “grace and the divine life,” where do we get it from? Presumably by union with Christ through the power of the Spirit, since there is no other way to get it. And if we are in union with Christ, then we are part of His body, and since he only has one body, that means we are in some sense part of the Church, or in communion with it in some sense. I don’t think this is merely fancy word-play. My point is that, even if you want to say (as I would dearly like to say) that the body of Christ is the visible Church, which maintains an outward unity and historical continuity with the doctrine and the authority of the apostolic Church, then you have to admit that, for whatever reason, there seem to be all kinds of people who still have some kind of connection to this, communities following Christ, who have broken away from the one visible body. We may not know exactly how to account for that, but we have to leave room to account for it somehow. If you’re willing to admit that God finds a way to own me as his son in Christ, then it seems you have to be willing to find a way, in your theology and church practice, to own me as a brother in Christ, though no doubt a separated and seriously deficient one. I’m not naively assuming that these barriers aren’t that big of a deal, and that your scruples are pointless. I’ve wrestled through these issues a great deal (if you’re curious to see the fruit of some of this wrestling, including some engagement with Orthodoxy, you can see my book The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity), and I understand somewhat where you are coming from. But I think we need to avoid simplistic answers that allow theological convictions about what the Body of Christ should be to completely eclipse any wrestling with how it actually appears to be right now in history. So, as far as your specific points, I think this should suffice as an answer for most. But briefly with regard to a couple:“If the eucharist is a matter of hospitality shown to those whom Christ purchased, this on Orthodox principles would license unbelievers since he purchased them as well.” Yes, I recognize that…that was a poor choice of words. Shall I say, “those whom Christ has adopted”? I think you get my point, in any case…“The claim isn’t one of full doctrinal understanding so your remarks seem wide of the mark. It is a matter of doctrinal unity and profession.”No, I’m not talking about full doctrinal understanding. I mean that we can be in eucharistic fellowship even if we don’t have full doctrinal unity, as in, if I tend to think that the filioque is a helpful and valid expression of the Trinitarian mystery and you do not. “If the Eucharist is about Christ, then we’d need to share the same teaching about Christ, but we don’t.”It’s not necessary that we all have a perfect and perfectly united theology of who Christ is in order to feed on Him in faith. If we can all willingly recite the Nicene Creed in good conscience (even if we might argue when it came to the interpretation of certain points), then I think we are welcome at Christ’s Table. You suggest later that that wouldn’t work as a baseline, “since the Reformed reject key parts of it or accept additions to it.” I don’t know what you’re talking about…the Reformed that I know don’t reject any of it, and as far as accepting additions, I assume you refer to the filioque, which is something that I think many of us would be willing to drop for the sake of unity (in the Scottish Episcopal Church, where I worship, the liturgy omits the filioque).


  38. Brad Littlejohn

    Patrick, I understand your concern and I am sympathetic. I assure you that I have gotten very worked up many times about things Doug Wilson has said because “the issues addressed are very important, life and death matters” and “Douglas Wilson has a huge following.” (If you don’t believe me, just look here–notice particularly how much less guarded the earlier ones were. And note that most such things I wrote, I thought better of ever posting.) I’ve said to myself, “He can’t get away with saying stuff like that! There’s all kinds of people who are going to believe him, and that’s just false! We have to go out there and refute him!” However, I’ve also learned that the kind of people who are going to believe something just because he said it are probably going to continue believing it, even if you mount a dramatic, guns-blazing refutation (indeed, perhaps especially if you mount a dramatic, guns-blazing refutation). There is a lot of silly stuff that gets said in the theological blogosphere (and in theological print), and usually, you just have to wave your hands and say that if people want to read and believe that silly stuff, that’s their own problem. Of course, there is a time and a place for intelligent rebuttal, but I’ve also learned that a more understated approach is generally more helpful, instead of sending in the air force. One thing Credenda people have learned well is how not to seem inordinately defensive in the face of sharp criticism. When people start looking angry and defensive, their opponents are liable to grin triumphantly and turn a deaf ear. Not saying it’s the right thing to do, but it’s just how people are. So, on the whole, while I am sorry for what Credenda said about Orthodoxy, Barnes’s response was probably not the best approach.PS: Glad to find another 9/11 Truth sympathizer.


  39. bradley

    Great article, Robin. Thank you. This still leaves us with questions regarding specific implementation (such as bowing to and kissing icons of Christ), but that wasn't really the goal of your essay anyway. I appreciate the principles you've laid out, and I agree with them.Also, I appreciate that all of you can discuss The Liturgy Trap and Dr. Jordan while remaining charitable and gracious towards him. Bravo! It can be a touch exercise, but it's a very Christian one. (It's certainly better than a hypocritical attitude of, "Argh! JBJ is so stupid and derogatory in the way that he calls people names behind their back!")


  40. I haven't had a chance to read Littlejohn's recent comments yet, but since Pastor Wilson’s name was dragged into this earlier, I did just want to say for the record that he is a friend of mine and although I don’t always agree with him (it would be difficult to always agree with someone as prolific as him!) he is a man that I have a lot of respect for. Since moving to Spokane Esther and I have been very blessed to be able to sit under his and Nancy’s teaching on family issues.


  41. Brad Littlejohn

    Rightly said, Robin. I probably should have emphasized that more as well…I'm not sure whether I could call him a friend, but we remain on good terms.I noticed I missed one thing about your comment, Patrick. You said:"Brad, you keep suggesting that maybe it is only just my opinion that Patrick Barnes organized this pan-Orthodox scholastic response. You can go to his website and see. It´s all there, as well as the curt responses from the Cradendum Agenda staff."No, I've never intended to suggest that. I followed those links and saw it when you first posted about it. Btw, I'm a bit of a spelling stickler, and I notice you keep saying Cradendum instead of Credenda, and I finally have to say something about it. 😉


  42. patrick

    The spell checks on Brazilian comuters don´t work, Brad, as well as much of the punctiation indicators. Just look at how I´ve been spelling Prysbeterian. Perry, my point about the blessed bread and blessed wine is never raised in these intercommunion dialoges but could be helpful. I was trying to say that it could be seen as ontologically equivalent to the protestant communion from the protestant point of view. Of course we mean very different things by communion (which was why I recommended reading Being As Communion by John Zualoues), but that doesn´t stop protestants from insisting—somehow—that they have a desire to attend Orthodox churches but somewhere feel unwelcome.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s