A Breath of Fresh Air

I’m prone to forget just why it is that N.T. Wright stands head-and-shoulders above all of his colleagues and rivals in the field of New Testament Studies, until I read an article of his again, after wading through a dozen scholars drivelling an intolerably boring concoction of scholarly minutia and sudden non-sequiturs, mixed (more often than not) with a large dose of heresy.  You turn the next page of the essay collection and out Wright bursts, big, boisterous, booming, and jolly, like a Santa Claus, come to think of it, with a huge sack of goodies on his back, nuggets of insight filled with common sense, clarity, and lo and behold! orthodoxy, delivered with an air of easy jollity and peerless prose.  I found myself typing up whole paragraph-long quotations, out of pure joy at their lucidity and good sense.  They are not, by any ordinary standards, particularly eloquent, nor are they necessarily groundbreaking (although they are helpful for my Romans 13 research).  But they are excellent.  So, here’s a few, from “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire” (the tenth essay in the ten-times-more-tedious-than-it-sounds-from-the-title Paul and Politics, ed. by Richard Horsley):

 

“The evidence now available, including that from epigraphy and archaeology, appears to show that the cult of Caesar, so far from being one new religion among many in the Roman world, had already by the time of Paul’s missionary activity become not only the dominant cult in a large part of the empire, certainly in the parts where Paul was active, but was actually the means (as opposed to overt large-scale military presence) whereby the Romans managed to control and govern such huge areas as came under their sway.  The emperor’s far-off presence was made ubiquitous by the standard means of statues and coins (the latter being the principal mass medium of the ancient world), reflecting his image throughout his domains; he was the great benefactor through whom the great blessings of justice and peace, and a host of lesser ones besides, were showered outwards upon the grateful populace, who in turn worshipped him, honored him, and paid him taxes.  In all this, the book asks pertinently, were the emperor’s subjects doing something religious, or something political?” (161)

“His missionary work must be conceived not simply in terms of a traveling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering thier lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth.  This could not but be construed as deeply counterimperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire; and there is in fact plenty of evidence that Paul intended it to be so construed, and that when he ended up in prison as a result he took it as a sign that he had been doing his job properly.” (161-2)

“It is, of course, much easier to highlight Paul’s confrontation with some aspect of his world when the aspect in question is one that is currently so very deeply out of fashion.  To say that Paul opposed imperialism is about as politically dangerous as suggesting that he was in favor of sunlight, fresh air, and orange juice.” (164)

“Paul, in other words, was not opposed to Caesar’s empire primarily because it was an empire, with all the unpleasant things we have learned to associate with that word, but because it was Caesar’s, and because Caesar was claiming divine status and honors which belonged only to the one God.” (164)

“[Calling Jesus “Lord”] was a challenge to the lordship of Caesar, which, though ‘political’ from our point of view as well as in the first century, was also prodoundly ‘religious.’  Caesar demanded worship as well as ‘secular’ obedience: not just taxes, but sacrifices.  Caesar, by being a servant of the state, had provided justice and peace to the whole world.  He was therefore to be hailed as Lord and trusted as Savior.  This is the world in which Paul announced that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was Savior and Lord.” (168)

 

 


The Problem in a Nutshell

The contents of this post are probably nothing new if you’ve this blog for awhile, but as people back home sometimes get baffled and think I’m a left-wing loony, I’ve been thinking of a way to encapsulate where I’m coming from politico-economically in a nice, neat (though none too eloquent) nutshell.  So here’s a try:

I’m for a free market, or more importantly, a free society, which includes a free market.  Freedom requires the removal of oppressive constraints.  But oppressive constraints are precisely what are put in place by large and powerful entities determined to retain and advance their power.  We live in a world full of massive, extremely wealthy and powerful entities.  Our government is one, to be sure.  But when there’s ten bullies on the block jockeying for position, you don’t get freedom just by taking out the current top bully–rather, by doing this you invite the nine others to come in and take his place, and woe to you if they turn out to be less benign than the first.  If we’re going to live in an age of massive, centralized multinational corporations, then unfortunately we’re going to need massive, centralized governments to keep them in line (though unfortunately, these will often collude with the corporations, rather than restraining them).  You focus just on removing the governments and you don’t get freedom, you just get regime change–indeed, from a constitutional regime to an unrestricted one.  Conservatives talk as if freedom will be attained simply by removing one bully from the equation–the government–and leaving all the others untouched.  But if they get their wish, they may find that the government was, for all its foibles, the only thing maintaining some semblance of freedom from all the other bullies on the block.  So if we’re going to talk about freedom, let’s start talking about how to shrink all the bullies down to size, something that will require laws and constraints–things which, believe it or not, can be aids to freedom, rather than chains.

Now, I realize now that that’s really only half of what needs to be said, so I suppose I’ll try to work up a Pt. 2: The Solution in a Nutshell.  Heh, that should be fun…


Three Possible Objections (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 6)

When I considered possible objections or qualifications to my “A Christian Answer to Coercion,” I realized that these questions led quickly into a dense thicket of some the thorniest questions of Christian ethics.  Without trying to resolve these fully or offer answers to how we ought to act in every conceivable situation, I will try to address three particularly important objections, without being more laborious than necessary:

  1. Doesn’t this response amount to quietism, leaving coercive structures in power?
  2. Even if we shouldn’t fear for ourselves, isn’t it legitimate to act out of fear for others?
  3. Isn’t there such a thing as legitimate self-interest?  If so, doesn’t this mean that a certain amount of fear and a certain regard for my own well-being is part of an appropriate Christian response to would-be coercers?

 

So first, haven’t we left the coercion of kings and corporations unchallenged?  By saying, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t have to demand our tax money, we’ll give it to you freely!” or “Don’t worry, you don’t have to threaten to fire me, I’ll work hard freely” don’t we simply leave the power structures in place, to continue demanding, oppressing, trampling on people?  Even if I myself am so holy that I don’t care how much I’m trodden on, don’t I thereby invite the powers to tread on my weaker neighbors and co-workers?  This is a powerful objection, as it appeals to love.  If I love my neighbor, I will resist the would-be coercer–not for myself, but for my neighbor’s sake.  To be a quietist who simply let coercive structures do their thing wouldn’t be Christlike–he challenged such structures in defense of the defenseless.

Two points may be made in response.  First, willing service is not mere quietism; it is not only morally right, but often the most effective way to resist the coercive powers that be.  “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).  The simple act of fearlessly and voluntarily doing good to the oppressor, when they are desperately trying to intimidate you and elicit a fearful response, is a dramatic act of subversion, which knocks the sword out of the oppressor’s hands, unmasks the emptiness of his power, and may even bring him to repentance.  So fearlessness is in itself a powerful response to coercion.  

Second, when a further response is required, fearlessness is a necessary prerequisite for such a response.  We should love our enemies, but not to the point where this requires us to stop loving our neighbors; thus Jesus did not just yield to the Pharisees’ wishes, but openly opposed them and spoke out against them on behalf of the weak and despised.  However, this challenge was so effective because Jesus was not himself afraid of them; he had no fear on his own account.  So, while there will be times when certain government or corporate policies must be opposed for the sake of those who will suffer from them, our opposition will be far more effective if it is clear that we fight not for our own rights, or out of fear of our own suffering, but from love of neighbor.  Conservatives will argue that higher taxation will hurt everyone, including the weakest; the argument may or may not be sound, but if it is, it would be far more effective if anti-taxation rhetoric was not couched so often in terms of “leave me alone,” “I want my rights,” “It’s my money!”

 

With the discussion of love of neighbor, another challenge arises: shouldn’t I be moved by fear for those I love?.  Perhaps I cannot loose coercion’s hold on myself so easily as it seemed above.  Let’s return to the initial classification of motivations given in Part 2 of this series to see how this might be the case.  There we noted not all “fear” is selfish fear; fear for another’s well-being can be driven by love.  At the time, it seemed that we could easily enough say that, being subordinate to love, this kind of fear was simply an element of love.  But if fear can be present even in love, how can perfect love cast out fear?  If I love others, it seems that coercion does not disappear so easily; perhaps I don’t mind if the SS officer points the gun at my head, but what if he points the gun at my wife’s head?  

But I don’t think this fundamentally changes anything.  All fears are to be relativised by our fear and love of God; thus no one should be able to coerce me by fear for another’s well-being to do what is wrong; I will fear God more and still disobey.  Likewise, if they are trying to get me to do something that is not in itself wrong, my response should be motivated by desire to do what is right, and their attempted intimidation should be irrelevant.  Fear prompted by love of another is not in itself wrong, but if it leads us to act in a way contrary to the love of God, it is revealed as the product of distorted, wrongly ordered love.  

 

A third objection might appeal to the notion of “legitimate self-interest,” a popular theme not only of capitalism but indeed of centuries of the natural law tradition.  I am to love my neighbor as myself, not against myself–it is perfectly legitimate and morally upright to have a certain concern for my own survival and well-being, and thus to act in my own defense.  Because of legitimate self-interest, it is not always wrong for me to fear for my own safety, and to act to protect myself.  If someone tries to kill me, I am not required just to stand there and say, “Well, I’m not afraid of you, so go ahead and kill me”–I can legitimately try to run away, right?  After all, the apostles fled Jerusalem when they were being persecuted there.  On a more mundane level, if a thief comes into my house, can’t I defend my possessions?  And if so, if a government demands too much tax money, can’t I try to defend myself against it?  

This is a fair objection.  What I said above was, more or less, that Christian should respond to coercion by voluntarily giving the would-be coercer what he wants, as long as it wouldn’t be immoral to do so, and if it would be, then to refuse fearlessly.  But if a certain degree of self-interest is legitimate, then wouldn’t it be “immoral” to act carelessly against it?  E.g., Wouldn’t it be immoral not to preserve my life if possible, and not to preserve my possessions if possible?  

I confess that I am not altogether sure what to do with this objection, since I am not altogether sure how far I think “legitimate self-interest” extends.  Certainly I think that, if are to think in terms of rightly-ordered love, then self-interest cannot extend to the point of depriving another of what I am seeking to protect for myself.  Thus I cannot seek to kill another merely to protect my own life; but if I can protect my own life merely by escaping, without doing harm to another, then I ought to.  This would suggest that if I could protect my possessions merely by withholding them when they are illegitimately demanded, I ought to.  All of which would suggest, for instance, that I would be perfectly legitimate to oppose heavy taxation, and avoid paying if possible.   But this argument seems to have led us into direct contradiction of Romans 13, at least as I have read it.  It also seems to contradict, “If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also” (Mt. 5:40).  But that command seems absurd, especially in light of the examples of economic bullying we’ve looked at–does this really mean that, whenever someone tries to intimidate me into buying or selling something, I would have to respond “in love” by doing as they asked, and doing more than they ask?  This seems absurd.  

 

A closer look at the context of commands like “If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also” readily suggests an answer.  Self-abnegation is not a goal in itself, so I do not have to act against self-interest anytime anyone wants me to do something for them.  Rather, I think that the concern is to avoid and overcome conflict.  If someone demands something from me in a way that I cannot refuse without generating conflict, and if their demand has negative effects on myself alone, then I ought to willingly yield to their demand, and try to go above and beyond, to overcome their evil with good.  However, if someone wants something from me, but I can reasonably refuse without conflict, then I may take self-interest into account and refuse their demand.  This explains why it is that, if the government seeks to coerce me to to pay exorbitant taxes, I should willingly yield, but if a business uses one of the more subtle forms of coercion we explored above, to try to take advantage of me and get me to buy a product, there’s no reason I have to buy it.  (Of course, I still ought never to return evil for evil, e.g., by trying to rip off a store that I know is trying to rip me off.)  Thus, there does remain an important distinction in this regard between many forms of political coercion and certain forms of economic coercion, but, as we have seen earlier, it does not lie where many imagine it.

 

These answers do not provide a comprehensive account of how we ought to respond to all coercive situations.  Clearly, the picture is more complicated than merely saying “‘Perfect love casts out fear,’ so just love God and love very oppressor and there will be no reason to fear.”  We always have to take into account all kinds of questions about what is being demanded of me, why, what will happen if I acquiesce, what will happen if I refuse, etc.  

None of these complications, however, should change our fundamental posture when faced with intimidation and coercion.  We should seek to cultivate a faith that fears God above all else, and which thus cannot be easily swayed by worldly fears.  We should seek to cultivate a love of God, neighbor, and even enemy that strives to do good even to those who don’t deserve it, which thus heaps coals of fire on their heads, and renders their coercive sword powerless.  


Other Posts in This Series

Coercive Corporations?

The Psychology of Coercion

Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere

Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere

A Christian Answer to Coercion


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.


A Christian Answer to Coercion (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 5)

(Sorry it’s taken so long to post this.  I was trying to anticipate certain objections and the responses to them became so complex that I’ve decided not to include them in this post, but to put up a sixth post, shortly, exploring various objections and qualifications)

My emphasis earlier on the subjective dimension of coercion leads me to a distinctively Christian take on all this.  “Perfect love casts out fear.”  As Christians, we ought to have our desires so reshaped that we are motivated above all by love and become immune to fear–at least to any fear of man.  This is of course a point that we will never fully attain to, but it is our calling.  If this is true, then this suggests that Christians ought to be un-coerceable, and not merely in the sense that coercion fails to persuade them (e.g., I do not blaspheme when the gun is put to my head), but that, because this is necessarily the case, coercion never enters the picture.  If I am committed to love and obey my master as if I am obeying Christ, then the fact that my master could whip me if I disobeyed is simply not relevant to me–it does not have an effect on whether I obey him–in short, he does not coerce me.  If I am committed to pay taxes to my government even though I disagree with it because I love Christ and he commands me to love my enemies and pay my taxes, then the fact that I could be jailed for tax evasion is utterly irrelevant, and I am not coerced to pay my taxes–the hypothetical presence of coercion is, so long as I am following Christ, a contrafactual hypothetical. 

I am convinced that this is precisely what Romans 12-13 is up to: “‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome with good.  Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities….For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.  Do you want to be unafraid of the authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain….For because of this you also should pay taxes….Render therefore to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, custom to whom custom is owed, fear to whom fear is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.  Owe no one anything except to love one another.”  

(I opt for the reading on which “fear to whom fear is owed” does not mean that fear is owed to the authorities, but rather, in light of the earlier verses, we are to discern that it is not, and render it only to God.)

In other words, Paul is calling upon the Romans, who would have been paying their taxes out of fear (Roman tax-collectors were not nice guys), and calling upon them to voluntarily render payment to these authorities, recognizing that God had put them in their place.  As long as they are acting out of such a spirit of Christian love (which is, in context, what he means by “good works”), they will have no reason to fear the authorities–not, of course, because there is no chance the authorities will do anything bad to them (Paul is not so naive as that!)–but because “perfect love casts out fear.”  The “sword” of coercion only enters the picture when love leaves the picture, rebelliousness (what “doing evil” means in context) enters the picture, and so does fear.  Taxes therefore must be paid, but joyfully and willingly, as a debt of love, not out of fear.

So I suggest that Christians do nothing but condemn themselves when they rail against the coercive taxation of the government–as Christians, such coercion has no hold on us.  

 

The same principle clearly applies in the economic sphere as well, and is a common motif of Jesus’s teaching in the gospels.  Our faith in God should make us immune to worldly fears, which more often than not concern money.  Jesus addresses this head-on in one of the most powerful passages in Luke: “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on.  Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds?… And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Lk. 12:22-24, 29-34)  If we are freed from the fear of not having enough money, power, and prestige, we will be set free to give to the poor, and economic coercion will have no power over us.  We will not buy simply because we are afraid of not having everything that our peers expect us to have; we will not sell or work out of fear of not making enough money–rather, we will buy, sell, and work out of love for God and neighbor, free from fear and coercion.  

 As Christians, then, we are called to be un-coerceable.  Either we serve willingly, as unto the Lord, and coercion is irrelevant, or else, when faithfulness requires, we refuse fearlessly, and coercion is irrelevant.

 

This answer, however, is clearly somewhat idealistic, and open to at least three challenges.  I will explore these and offer certain qualifications in the following post.

 

Other Posts in this Series

Coercive Corporations?

The Psychology of Coercion

Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere

Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere