Love the Government, Hate the Government

I have for several months now been vexed by the irresolvable contradictions of the American political mindset.  For the first two decades of my life, I was brought up to believe that the problem with our society was that we had way too much faith in the government–the State was our Saviour, an idol to which we sacrificed all and for which we looked for every solution.  And this critique resonated deeply with me.  

For the past year, though, I have begun to wonder.  Having traveled overseas, what has struck me most about America is not how much faith we put in our government, but how little.  The rise of the Tea Party movement and the fall of Congressional approval ratings to historic lows has underscored this long-growing tendency of American politics.  We don’t trust our government to do anything; we consider it not our government, but simply the government, an alien entity that forces us to obey it and pay it tribute, like an invading force.  And perhaps this should be a greater matter of concern than the State-as-idol concern.  After all, our current situation bears all the marks of the decline and fall of a great civilizations, as summarized by Carroll Quigley in his 1963 The Evolution of Civilizations (thanks to my Dad for this quote): 

“[There is] acute economic depression, declining standards of living, civil wars between the various vested interests, and growing illiteracy.  The society grows weaker and weaker.  Vain efforts are made to stop the wastage by legislation.  But the decline continues. The religious, intellectual, social, and political levels of the society begin to lose the allegiance of the masses of the people on a large scale.  New religious movements begin to sweep over the society.  There is a growing reluctance to fight for the society or even to support it by paying taxes.”

Perhaps the idolatry and the hatred of the government are just two sides of the same coin–in modern Europe, they don’t distrust their governments so thoroughly because they never invest them with such a sacred aura in the first place…the government is simply a boring bureaucracy that gets an important job done with more or less efficiency, usually less than desired, but not enough to warrant massive protests.  At any rate, I’ve been pondering this problem unsuccessfully for several months now, hoping for a brilliant insight.  

I haven’t had one yet, but this morning, I came across an article by Patrick Deneen on The Front Porch Republic, which eloquently ponders and describes this national schizophrenia as a result of our contradictory longings as a people and hatred of ourselves: 

“Our hatred of Washington is a hatred of ourselves, above all for our contradictory longings that we refuse to face. We pine for a time of accountability and responsibility, but fear the burdens of sacrifice and self-government. We ache for a government that can make America great again, and suspect that any effort in that direction will further impoverish subsequent generations. We long to be self-sufficient, but fear a world without safety nets.”  

The whole essay is well worth checking out.


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.