Part of Saturday was spent trading tweets with Matthew Milliner, who teaches Art History at Wheaton College. We had a good, genial conversation from two different confessional traditions. I’m not sure but judging by his arguments I inferred that Matthew may identify with one of the Greek Orthodox traditions. In case it isn’t clear, I have subscribed the Reformed confession.
Matthew tweeted something about neo-Reformed iconoclasm in contrast to Rembrandt-driven aesthetic arrogance that conveniently forgets iconoclasm. I thought that was interesting so I piped up to the effect that the confessional Reformed tradition can have both iconoclasm and Rembrandt’s aesthetic because our distinction between cult (what is done in worship) and culture (what is done outside of worship). I recognize that there’s cult in culture and culture in cult but this was Twitter and one can only do so much in 140 characters. In both spheres we are affirming the the inherent goodness of the created world (contra Gnosticism) but recognizing that we are fallen, prone to idolatry (and too often literally prone before idols!). Thus, in our view, in the second commandment, God has forbidden both the worship of images and the use of images of any member of the Holy Trinity in worship.
The Reformed understanding of the second commandment is quite clearly set out in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):
96. What does God require in the second Commandment?
That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.
97. May we not make any image at all?
God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping any likeness of them, either to worship them, or to serve God by them.
98. But may not pictures be tolerated in churches as books for the people?
No, for we should not be wiser than God, who will not have His people taught by dumb idols, but by the lively preaching of His word.
This was the universal doctrine of the Reformed churches in Europe and in the British Isles. It remains the Reformed confession.
The real issue is not what the Reformed understanding is. The pressing issue before us is whether one may deny the Reformed confession and call such teaching “Reformed.” For regular readers of this space this theme will be familiar.
Imagine if a Lutheran said, “I am a Lutheran but I deny that the body of Christ is in, with, and under the elements of communion” or if an adherent of the Roman communion announced, “I am Roman Catholic but I deny that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on the earth” or if one said, “I am Greek orthodox but I think icons are just plain crazy.”
Such assertions and denials would be more than odd. In the face of such assertions and denials most objective observers would say, “Well, you are not a very faithful Lutheran/Roman Catholic/Orthodox Christian.” That observation would be, as my father-in-law likes to say, “Just stating the facts.” Our Baptist friends confess that a baptism, by definition, can only be administered to professing believer. Any other administration is not a baptism. By Reformed lights, that’s an error, but it’s clear enough. If one announced, “Hey, I believe in infant baptism.” That’s a good step toward becoming Reformed but it places one’s status as Baptist in real jeopardy.
If we are prepared to accept such reasoning with respect to these various Christian traditions, why is it then, that it that Reformed folk have such a difficult time applying the same reasoning to defining the adjective Reformed? We’ve just seen that the Reformed confession is unequivocal that it is contrary to the revealed will of God to represent any person of the Holy Trinity either to worship the image or to use the image for the purposes of worshipping the triune God. Now, the Reformed confession may be incorrect (I don’t think it is) but, for the moment, that is not what is in question. What is in question is whether one may deny what the Reformed churches confess and still be Reformed.
Thus, we come to Justin Taylor’s online publication of a summary of John Frame’s Doctrine of the Christian Life lectures/volume. There are two significant problems with this summary. First, the brief survey of the Reformed objections to images is inadequate, a caricature—pun intended. Second, and necessarily connected to the first, his response to the objections flatly contradicts the Reformed account of the faith. His arguments have much more to do with the Eastern Orthodox traditions than they do with the Reformed confession of Scripture. It may be that the Reformed churches are all wet about images and that we’ve been wasting our time for 450 years but we still confess that images of any person of the deity are forbidden. We agree with Heinrich Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession (1561/1566) when he said,
Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters. He denied that he had come “to abolish the law and the prophets” (Matt. 5:17). But images are forbidden by the law and the prophets” (Deut. 4:15; Isa. 44:9). He denied that his bodily presence would be profitable for the Church, and promised that he would be near us by his Spirit forever (John 16:7). Who, therefore, would believe that a shadow or likeness of his body would contribute any benefit to the pious? (II Cor. 5:5). Since he abides in us by his Spirit, we are therefore the temple of God (I Cor. 3:16). But “what agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (II Cor. 6:16) (Chapter 4).
Bullinger’s point was that it is not docetic to forbid images. It is docetic to make them. How so? The humanity being represented by an image is not Jesus’ humanity. It is the product of a human imagination. Now who is denying Jesus’ true humanity?
The representation cannot be of Jesus’ humanity. Those who saw it (or the Spirit in the form of a dove) are long gone. They left no visual record—which might be instructive were we minded to note their example—and thus any representation is necessarily the product of a human imagination.
When it says “any likeness of anything in heaven above or in the earth below” Scripture clearly intends to prevent and forbid just exactly this sort of exercise of the human imagination in the representation of God. Any ostensible representation of Jesus is in the likeness of something created, something the author has experienced but that something is not God the Son incarnate.
Yes, Jesus was incarnate and he remains so. We will see his true humanity when he descends. Until then he is pleased to be represented to us not by the product of our imagination but by the foolish (1Cor 1) announcement of the Gospel and by those divinely authorized visual representations: Holy Baptism and the Holy Supper. It is this strong, hearty affirmation of the very real, tangible, earthy sacraments that signals that the Reformed confession is not docetic.
It is not a mistake that the sacraments are called “signs” and seals. Paintings are signs. Icons are signs. Statues are signs but not one of them is divinely authorized. The two Dominical sacraments, however, are divinely authorized. That is why they alone are signs and seals of Christ and his promises.
During our exchange Matthew asked me a difficult question and I hesitated. On the Reformed view, shouldn’t Rembrandt’s attempt to represent God the Son incarnate be destroyed? If the Reformed say yes, we are cultural Philistines. If we say no, we are unfaithful. I tried a couple of dodges. Put them in a temperature-controlled closet, I wrote. As a historian I do find it inconvenient that the works of so many important figures have been condemned and destroyed. It has led to a great lot of guess work. I might also plead that I was standing in the aisle of a supermarket when Matthew put me on the spot. It turns out that supermarkets are not ideal locations for sorting out theological conundrums. Nevertheless, I’ve had some hours to reconsider and I have: Better faithful and a Philistine than unfaithful.
Anyone who wants to see the Reformed arguments in detail can find them in David VanDrunen, “Iconoclasm, Incarnation and Eschatology: Toward a Catholic Understanding of the Reformed Doctrine of the ‘Second’ Commandment,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6 (2004): 130–147 and Danny Hyde’s summary of similar arguments In Living Color: Images of Christ and the Means of Grace.
That is a great quote from Bullinger.
That product of imagination is not even good imagination; Jesus is typically represented as a European, but I suspect that a Middle Eastern man of his time would be of different appearance; it also seems that many of these depictions of Jesus, as in European art, are an effort to make God in their own European image and likeness.
There is one thing that troubles me. I don’t claim to be an expert of the Reformed tradition, but I get the impression that it is evolving (or has evolved) from within in at least some circles so that images of Christ are viewed as acceptable. I am specifically referring to NAPARC churches. So why should some of us outside the Reformed tradition really take all that serious the claims that to be Reformed one must reject images of God? How can these Reformed Christians remain in good standing within their denominations? Should I expect more schisms within NAPARC churches within my lifetime?
And to add a little humor, I have questions for people who love images of God. Why do the depictions have to be of a man with no body hair? Why can’t the depictions be of hairy man like some of us? It is as if they took him to a spa or did some kind of laser surgery to remove all the hair on his body. Or for the feminists, why can’t the depiction be of someone that appears female? What is unacceptable?
“The real issue is not what the Reformed understanding is. The pressing issue before us is whether one may deny the Reformed confession and call such teaching “Reformed.””
Dr Frame has never seemed hesitant to answer that in the affirmative, so his views on images shoud not be a supprise, consider this example he gives:
[Defining America by the founding documents, and defining it as an empirical community, lead to two different and inconsistent conceptions. People who define America only by its founding documents are likely to say that subsequent developments are “unamerican.” But to say that is merely to express a preference. That preference may be a good one. But merely to express it is not likely to persuade anyone to share that preference. This case is similar to the attempt to define “Reformed.”]
I agree that there are analogies between constitutionalism and confessionalism but I deny that it is mere subjectivism or preference.
I addressed this problem in the book. Had John not gotten bored by the chapter on confessional subscription he might have noticed how I dealt with it.
On the theory summarized in your comment, what do the Reformed confessions mean? What regulative power do they have?
Interesting comments, Dr. Clark, along with Alberto’s reference to the issue of images of Christ’s humanity.
This is an issue which I suspect both of you have studied more than me. I’m in agreement with the position against images of Christ but since basically nobody I deal with on a daily basis agrees with me, I don’t choose to fight on the issue. However, is it not correct that the only NAPARC denomination which officially approved images of Christ’s humanity is the old RPCES which no longer exists, and it is not true that when the Prussian Union was created, one of the forced compromises was to require all the member churches, including the former German Reformed churches, to have an image of Christ on the central altar/communion table as a way of demonstrably showing the deviation from the former Reformed confessional standard?
I think the Reformed tradition is pretty strong against any form of images of Christ, even the Heidelberg/German Reformed wing tradition which was trying as much as possible to avoid offense to the Lutherans.
Also, with regard to Rembrandt, is it not true that he was associated with, if not the full-blown Arminian wing of the Dutch churches, at least those who inclined toward “moderate” views? If so, I hardly think he makes a good example of Reformed confessional art.
One interesting note is that in Acts 19:19, we see destruction of historical artifacts. “And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.”
This may not jive well with a 2k understanding of cult and culture, but the import seems to be that if the given object is in possession of the Christian and it directly violates scripture (i.e., witchcraft, in this case) then the action to be taken is destruction. This is seen in the OT as well.
Should Christians destroy Rembrants’ who are owned by galleries? I don’t think so.
Should Christians buy Rembrants and destroy them? I don’t think so – otherwise we would be spending money all the time.
Should a Christians who own Rembrant’s representation destroy it? From Acts 19:19, that may very well be the case.
In addition, the fact that they valued the witchcraft books shows the degree to which such a behavior would be considered illogical by the on-looking world. Why would someone destroy a multi-million dollar painting? Because it is in direct opposition to the God who made the man who painted the image.
I was thinking of Acts 19 when I wrote
Why do you think that private persons destroying their own property would be in tension with a two-kingdoms analysis of Christ and culture?
At least a strict 2k might recognize such property as pertaining to Natural Law – i.e., it is a expression of the natural order (culture?). In my mind I could see a 2K defendant not destroying the artwork because it contributes to historical understandings, sociological developments, etc. – that is to say, it belongs to the (fallen) natural order. This might be a stretch, but I could at least see such an interpretation. Such a position might turn over the artifact to a museum instead of the fireplace.
There might be distinguishing factors here though – witchcraft is catechetical in its purpose whereas Rembrant’s painting isn’t necessarily so. Certainly such a painting would never have seen the light of day in Ancient Israel, but this side of the cross we distinguish between these things because we are not a theocracy, but live in the 2 kingdoms.
Would it be possible to recognize that Rembrant’s work came from a different tradition and while they belong perhaps in a museum as prime examples of artwork from that period, it is no less offensive as an object within a worship context as a statue of Diana. Thus, like the altar to the unknown god, it might be an example of the pagan-mindset which attempts to worship God in ignorance and refuses to acknowledge that the only true image of God used in worship is that which He has commanded?
From what tradition do you think Rembrandt came?
FWIW, there is a matter of private property here. I’m not advocating vandalism or the destruction of other people’s private property!
Asking the 2K question is just that. It’s a question. It’s a way of analyzing problems. It’s not a guaranteed outcome. There isn’t a “2K” ethic. There’s just a 2K question: How do the two spheres relate here?
Thanks, that’s a helpful way to approach the discussion. Could be a good reference to what Paul discusses under Christian liberty? I.e., one man considers the Rembrant painting part of culture and turns it over to the museum, and another man believes it to be pure violation and in turns it to dust?
“On the theory summarized in your comment, what do the Reformed confessions mean? What regulative power do they have?”
Mmmmm. As much as the majority and/or those in control of the church courts are willing to give them.
For example, in the PCUSA, less than zero (they were an embarrassment). In the PCA (where I’m now) the WS figures prominently in the church courts, although there are doctrines (like the one under discussion here) that are blatantly violated with the excuse that it doesn’t strike at the system of doctrine contained in the WS.
Moving on from your question, while I agree that our confessions should define what is acceptable in our churches, I find statements like, “The real issue is not what the Reformed understanding is”, troubling. If there isn’t a Reformed understanding or consensus on this issue (or any other confessional issue) to the point where it drives our polity and practice, what’s the value of pushing for a definition that defines Reformed as strict adherence to the confessions? Why define the majority of NAPARC churches as not Reformed? (I’m basing that assumption on personal experience with this issue, nothing scientific)
I guess I don’t quite understand what you’re saying. Can you try again?
Are you troubled by the discrepancy between confession and practice? If so, what do you think we should do?
The way that discrepancies between confession and practice should be addressed is through teaching of the body, and when necessary, dicipline through the courts of the church. Of course, the question is how that will happen. How do we create a desire in elders hearts to be confessional? I’m not sure that the real question IS whether there is an objective definition of reformed. I doubt those of us who desire more confessionally Reformed churches will convince those who don’t to agree to a definition of reformed that would put them out of the church. Isn’t the real question how we convince our “Reformed” brothers that our confessions are Biblical? How do we give them a desire to return to our faith as we historically confessed it?
Nate, maybe instead of possessing Rembrant you think of Gibson (as in, “Passion of the Christ”). More realistic, and maybe doesn’t quite feel so philistine-y to toss it since it contributes to not much more than religio-tainment.
Certainly much easier. And the fact that it’s historically inaccurate should be reason enough to toss. A denial of truth on both fronts – representing Christ pictorially and misrepresenting history. And it’s easier to throw away a $20 DVD than a $200k painting…
You might say we part with easily what costs us little?
We do have to distinguish between what was done under Christendom and what the possibilities are now. I don’t want the magistrate seizing private property on religious grounds or because of what the magistrate believes to be religious orthodoxy.
Observance of the Reformed theology and practice of the 2nd commandment is not popular. I hope both individuals and congregations will begin to reckon with it more deeply.
Sounds like a good argument that images of Christ (obviously not claiming to be historically accurate representations) are not necessarily sinful outside of worship. I see this as within the bounds of HC (or rather not addressed by HC), which pretty clearly scopes its statements to the context of worship. But there is always LC109 which goes above and beyond in forbidding any images in any contexts.
You cite DVD’s paper, and I would additionally refer interested parties to this debate on the topic of images outside of worship, and then this sequel on the topic of images in worship (with a Lutheran).
I was answering the (implied) charge frequently made that Calvinist are opposed to art. We’re not but our distinction between cult and culture makes a space for art but restricts art to its proper sphere.
If representing the second person of the Trinity (or the third) is sin then it doesn’t matter whether it’s done in or out of worship. That’s exactly why the catechism says that the pope was wrong, we cannot use images of Christ as books for the people. Read in its context, the HC cannot be interpreted to permit images of the Trinity even outside of worship.
Ursinus distinguished between images of the Trinity and images of creatures. On p. 527 he writes,
Otherwise, Ursinus left no room for images of the deity in any form. Notice that he spoke of images in the churches. That’s because the pre-Reformation churches were full of images that were present continually whether worship was being conducted or not.
Ursinus answered objections over the course of his exposition of the 2nd commandment (as he explained the HC):
Thx Dr. Clark.
Most of that I think doesn’t address the apart-from-worship question. All of it is explicitly addressing (like the words of HC98) images “in churches”. The closest I see there is Obj 4, even then the objection includes the phrase “in the Reformed churches.” So I can’t tell whether the objection is saying “people in the church bodies have images outside of the church buildings they are not worshpping,” or if they are saying, “sure, we know there are images in the reformed church buildings, but we think it’s OK because the images not being worshipped.” If the latter, then I don’t see the question addressed.
So where’s the history showing what the Reformation did with images outside of churches? I couldn’t find any. Except that Rembrandt was never disciplined for his paintings of biblical scenes including Christ (and he was not in a discipline-free church, he had a mistress at one point, and she was disciplined for adultery (but Rembrandt got off?))
Another question, if we are forbidden to paint the incarnated 2nd person of the trinity as a human male, say, walking on water to disciples on a boat, are we forbidden to paint the endoxated 3rd person as a pillar of smoke or fire? Certainly if we tried, we would fail to capture accurately the actual shape or color or height, so that would be “necessarily the product of a human imagination…in the likeness of something created, something the author has experienced but that something is not God the” Spirit endoxate, no?
…or even it would be instructive to know what happened to images in churches; were they destroyed, or just removed from the churches into private or museum contexts? Sent back to Rome?
Good question. The answer varies by location. In some places they were destroyed. In some places they were put into storage–they were retrieved by Romanists and Anglo-Catholics later and restored. In most cases the decisions were made by magistrates not by ecclesiastical authorities.
Most of his discussion focuses on the problem of cleansing the churches of icons, which was the problem they faced immediately in the Palatinate.
I cannot see what he says here, however, that would lead one to think that he or the HC was saying, in effect, “no images in church but if you want to make them at home we don’t care.”
It seems clear to me that household gods are forbidden under the “books for the people” prohibition.
Yes, we shouldn’t make any representations of the deity. Ever. Under any circumstances. No smoke. No doves. No clouds. Nothing. God gave us bread, wine, and baptism. That should be enough.
And it seems clear to me that HC98 is only talking about worship: “But may not pictures be tolerated in churches as books for the people? No, for we should not be wiser than God, who will not have His people taught by dumb idols, but by the lively preaching of His word.” Where does lively preaching occur? Not at home.
Anyways, we’ve circled all the way around this tree I think, no need to keep going around and dig a rut.
Sorry, can’t resist: “No smoke. No doves. No clouds. Nothing.” Well surely you can’t mean no images of smoke or doves or clouds at all, but merely no images of smoke or doves or clouds in contexts that would indicate they are representing God. So I guess it’s a judgment call whether any particular smoke or dove or cloud is such a representation — like pornography, we just have to know it when we see it.
On “No doves” maybe you can answer a question that has long bugged me. My father’s church in Scotland (“little Dunkeld”) is a classic post-reformation Scottish church: plain pews, plain glass, central high pulpit towering over the communion table, font and lectern with open Bible. You’d love it. But over the sounding board on the pulpit is a carved image of a dove. There is no question as to what it represents: the Spirit of God hovering over the preached Word, making it effectual, which is itself a very Reformed idea. But a carved representation of God in such a plain church? What were they thinking? I don’t think it is a unique church building either. Any thoughts on where this came from?
Good question. I can only speculate but in my experience I never heard any objections to representations of the Holy Spirit until perhaps 10-15 years ago. I’m sure that objections to it seem petty and narrow-minded to most who encounter them. I suppose that it doesn’t seem like quite the same thing, painting/carving a dove as drawing a human and saying “Here’s Jesus.” As you say, when it’s being done to communicate a Reformed idea then it seems different. Of course, it is effectively “books for the people,” which is not a Reformed idea. I suspect that it’s one of those convictions that just slipped away. The 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries were not good centuries for us. We’ve been on a reductionist path for a long time, which is why speaking up about such things seems so jarring in our time. I can think of two strongly, even staunchly conservative, confessional Reformed congregations that have giant representations of the second person of the Trinity in stained glass. How can that be? Ursinus actually comments on this in the lectures on the catechism. They were evidently facing this problem in the 16th century. So, in that sense it’s a perpetual problem. The Dutch regional synods battled the laity re the Reformation of worship in the late 16th century. So, it’s like whack-a-mole.
Dr. Clark, for whatever it’s worth, the (non-Reformed) church building we used to rent had a large stained glass representation of Christ with an iconic cross. One of the elders from an OPC background had requested permission to cover it — his former OPC church in another state had done that while renting a church building — but permission was denied.
For years, we basically ignored the window.
Let’s just say that window was not a good thing to have in the building on the Lord’s Day that we had a curious visitor from Saudi Arabia who was studying in a local college and wanted to learn more about what Christians believed. It sure would have been nice to avoid having to deal with idolatry issues in dealing with a Muslim. The scandal of the cross does not need to be compounded with other issues that Reformed churches don’t believe anyway.
Idolatry has consequences.
It may be a good thing that we no longer rent that church building.
Whatever Justin Taylor says, the busy bees over at Called to Communion have known what to do with Prof. Frame’s novelties re. images of Christ.
Yes, if the context is: “here’s the history redemption and God the Holy Spirit is represented by the smoke portrayed here” then no smoke. If it’s just smoke, i.e., no attempted representation of the deity.
As to private images, I can say that pious Reformed houses did not have them until the modern period, about the same time catechism instruction fell on hard times.
While on the subject of images, isn’t it a bit Nestorian to first of all say that to have images of God is sinful (either in or outside of worship) but then to say that it is permissible to have images of Christ (either in or outside worship)?
Interesting. Can you elaborate?
This is interesting. Can you elaborate a bit on the connection?
Well, I’m honestly not very good at church history, but I was thinking that since we can call Mary the theotokos on the basis of the communicatio idiomatum then likewise to make an image of Christ is to make an image of God, thereby breaking the second (or first) commandment.
Anyone who refers to the communicatio idiomatum in a comment should get a prize!
I like this quite a lot. Jesus is God the Son incarnate. His deity cannot be represented. Folk typically say, “but I’m representing his humanity.” That does seem like a Nestorian separation of the two natures.
Many years ago, I was visiting in a DEFINITELY NOT REFORMED church (just standard Arminian evangelical). This church had a window in it which portrayed our Lord Jesus – wearing a cowboy hat! It was hanging off the back of His neck with the strap around His neck. Hopefully, no Reformed church has ever gone that far over the cliff…! Oy.
Darrell: On the muslim thing, with the fall of the eastern empire, some of the geometric designs that replaced the images in the church to mosque remodels are quite beautiful.
On a slightly different vein, excellent article: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2012/10/a-lethal-difference-of-attitud.php
I’m going through old email now, Dr. Clark… thank you for reminding us of Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism in regard to Second Commandment issues.
That section was helpful to me many years ago in dealing with the question of images of Christ, when I had conservative Reformed people in the CRC telling me the opposite viewpoint.
Going back to the confessions is important to see what they say, and it is helpful to see what the early synods and commentators said about the confessions at the time they were written.
Original intent counts in both secular and ecclesiastical jurisprudence.