Of Icons, Wonder Years, And The Gospel

The Wonderjaar

We are in the midst of a wave of iconoclasm (image-breaking), which reminds me of the wave of iconoclasm that swept through the Netherlands in 1566, the so-called wonderjaar. About how the story of this episode has been told Judith Pollaman writes,

In the 1990s Alastair Duke first started applying this perspective not to what the iconoclasts said, but to what they did. Building on Freedberg’s insights and the work done by Natalie Davis for France, he thematised the highly ritual and symbolic character of the violence: the taunting and mocking of images, the ritual punishment, the mutilation, drowning and burning to which images were exposed. He argued that such actions could be explained only by acknowledging that to iconoclasts, the breaking of images was a test that constituted demonstrating the power of God over Satan, by destroying the demonic images.57 It was for this reason that the remains of the images were sometimes ritually disempowered even after they had been broken. In Doorn, broken saints’ images were buried face down, mimicking the treatment of criminals and suicides, under the main walking route in the church. To break images was to fight the devil and carry out God’s work. Anna van Brouchuysen, who in 1566 had been present during the image-breaking in the church of the Utrecht Franciscans, declared; ‘that our ancestors had been possessed by the devil when they admitted such idolatry with the images’. That is not to say that the iconoclasm had religious and anti-demonic connotations only. More elaborately than Duke, Peter Arnade has recently analysed the practices and targets of iconoclasts in a variety of cities and has shown that iconoclasts often also had political targets in view with their attacks. Yet it was the anti-demonic aspect of iconoclasm that Protestants themselves seem to have forgotten soonest and that has only now been fully retrieved.

In her fascinating survey of how the history of the Beeldenstorm, the assaults on, the toppling of, and desecration of representations of the deity, Pollman notes the long-standing reluctance to identify the iconoclasts. She observes how the Reformed tended to downplay the iconoclasts as “rabble.”

From the start, the Iconoclastic Fury that broke out in August 1566 was an enigmatic event. Although many people had feared an outbreak of violence, no one in 1566, or indeed afterwards, really knew for certain how to explain exactly how a summer of open air sermons and growing Calvinist confidence suddenly turned into a violent purge of the churches of the Habsburg Netherlands. At the time, Catholics were astonished that the small groups of iconoclasts had been able to go about their work without being struck down, either by God or by the authorities. It made some of them wonder whether God was ‘asleep’. But they also asked questions about the power vacuum and political paralysis that had prevented a focused response from the authorities, and raised critical questions about the role of the nobility, who at the very least should have anticipated the risk of violence, and had perhaps even organised it themselves. After all, some iconoclasts had claimed to be executing noble orders.

For a variety of reasons, there has been a reluctance, in some quarters to draw, until fairly recently, to draw a straight line between the fiery Reformed preaching of the period and the wave of iconoclasm that swept across the Netherlands. Some accounts held that the nobility set the mobs to their task. In other cases, as she notes, some consistories supported the iconoclasts. It seems likely that, in some cases, passions simply got out of hand. To be sure, any history of the Beeldenstorm of 1566 must account for a variety of factors, including the deep-seated resentments by the Dutch of their Romanist Spanish oppressors (in 1566, the Netherlands were on the cusp of a wave of Reformed martyrdoms and the beginning of the Eighty Years War), but a genuinely religious motivation cannot be excluded.

For decades the Reformed across Europe and the British Isles had denounced the idolatry of visible representations of any of the persons of the Trinity as violations of the second commandment. The Reformed churches all agree on this point. On this see the resources below. I started to become aware of the power of the fiery Reformed attacks on icons by learning the history of Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) in his home town of Trier, where he tried to lead the town toward the Reformed reformation. When the city fathers permitted him to hold a service in the city-controlled church, he denounced the idolatry of the Roman mass. It split the town. Guy de Bres (1522–67), the author of the Belgic Confession (1561) was one of those preachers. Herman Moded (Modetus; c. 1520–1603) was another.

The Reformed were deeply offended by the icons. They saw them as affront to the divine majesty and holiness. They saw them as a temptation to idolatry and as emblematic of a false religion. In 1566, in Europe, most everyone assumed that there must be a state-church. The only real question was which church and which religious orthodoxy would be enforced at the point of a sword. The idea that different churches and pieties could live side-by-side in a politically and religiously liberal (tolerant) society was an experiment that would not be attempted for another 200 years.

The Reformed were forced by Spanish persecution to meet secretly but in the summer of 1566 preachers gathered flocks outside of town and preached the law (e.g., the 2nd commandment against idolatry) and the gospel (i.e., Jesus Christ is the only Savior). They denounced the Roman cult of saints and the increasingly popular cult of the Virgin Mary. They exhorted the congregation, sometimes gathered at the foot of a hill, where they could place a lookout watching for approaching Spanish troops, to put their trust in Jesus as the only Mediator between God and man and as the only Savior for sinners.

Our Wonderjaar

We are living in a time that bears similarities to the wonderjaar. Passions are running high. Mobs are taking down, decapitating, and otherwise ritually humiliating statues (and all that they represent) all across the USA. Mobs, as is their nature, are full of holy (or unholy) zeal but rarely with knowledge. In a recent podcast Sharyl Atkisson catalogues all the statues taken down by force or preemptively by the authorities (thereby giving in to the mobs). She wonders how many of the vandals even know which statue they are removing or putatively why? She notes, as others have observed, there is no little irony in the destruction of memorials of abolitionists by those whom one would expect to support the abolition of slavery. It is striking to see demands to tear down a memorial that was paid for by the very-hard-won “pennies and nickels” (as the Frederick Douglass impersonator says) of freed black slaves. In this particular case it is also represents dubious iconography (reading of images). As one docent points out (in a video that I cannot locate now), the kneeling figure is a freed slave. He has broken his chains and he is on his way up (toward liberty and full participation in American life as a free man) not down. It is not a picture of oppression but liberation. That is how the freedmen, who paid for the statue, understood it but the mob cannot see anything but oppression.

Just as it has sometimes been difficult for scholars to see the genuinely religious motivations of the iconoclasts in 1566 so that aspect is missing here but the religious zeal of the current iconoclasts should be unmistakeable. It is important to recognize what is happening as a religious movement and moment. For the present anyway, it seems as if the old secular, liberal order, where different points of view, different politics, and different religions in America were prepared to live side-by-side, seems threatened. As a society, at least for the moment, we seem to be returning to the sixteenth century, with competing religions demanding that the state enforce their revelation, their eschatology, and their ethic (e.g., speech codes) upon the rest of us.

The icons being taken down in 2020 are mostly secular in nature but the the demand to remove them is rooted in a legal-eschatological religion that demands the realization (and imposition) of the eschaton (the final, heavenly state) now.  There have been attempts to work through the established order to remove some (e.g., Confederate memorials) statues. Many of the iconoclasts appear to be too young, however, to have engaged in the civil process (e.g., petitioning, legislation, persuasion) for very long. Some of the statues are being taken down because the statues represent the approval of grave injustices. At least some of those statues seem to have been erected during Jim Crow in order to intimidate black Americans. Some of the statues (e.g., that of an abolitionist in Wisconsin), however, are being taken down simply because they are old or are interpreted as supporting the establishment. In those cases, what is being attacked is the past and that past is being attacked precisely because it is the past and not the present. Clearly the past has been “othered,” as some like to say now. It is unknown to the mob and they are without empathy for the frailty and sins represented by the statues. The past is composed of the actions of sinful and frail human beings but the only past the mob seems to know is a story of good guys and bad guys.

Ask your parents and your grandparents about the family history and you will soon see that history is more complicated than that. The great uncle you love, who is so generous and kind had a past. Your grandfather was not always a saintly old man and on the discovery process goes. When we find out that matriarchs and patriarchs did not descend into history sinless and remain that way, we do excommunicate them from the family? If no sinners are allowed in the family who will be left? Not you. Have you looked in the mirror? You have not perfectly loved God with all your faculties and your neighbor as yourself.

In the Manichaean spirit of the age (thanks, in part, to Star Wars) the University of Pennsylvania just announced that they are removing the statue of George Whitefield from public display. They are retaining the statue of Ben Franklin because he repented of owning slaves, even though, according to Thomas Kidd, he owned slaves as late as 1781.1 He did not become active in the anti-slave movement until just before the end of his life (1790). According to Penn, Whitefield’s sins may not be forgiven but Franklin’s may.

So, in the same spirit, the amnesiac mob has succeeded in forcing the American Museum of Natural History to take down the statue of Theodore Roosevelt, who is depicted as  accompanied by an African guide on one side and a Native American/Indian guide on the other. According to the museum, the artist’s intention was probably not racist. He depicted the guide figures as noble and dignified but it is nevertheless true that Roosevelt held and expressed racist sentiments. He held genuinely white supremacist views and yet he also ate dinner once with Booker T. Washington, in the White House. He was the first American president to do that. Lincoln entertained Frederick Douglass in the White House but did not sit down to dinner with him. Stung by the racist Democrat criticism of him for eating with Washington, Roosevelt did not invite Washington to return and went on to damage relations between black voters, who had been loyal Republicans since the end of the Civil War, and his own party. It is plain that the two guide figures are not equals to Roosevelt. They are depicted as subordinate. So, Roosevelt’s statue is a perfect test because he is such an ambiguous figure. The statue captures something of the reality of ethnic relations in the early 20th century. White people were in charge. Ethnic minorities were marginalized. Do we remember that reality (and seek to do better) or do we remove the symbol of the past?

What symbol of the past is allowed to remain and on what grounds? Is the standard to be that we permit to stand only those symbols of the past that are deemed to be socially acceptable by contemporary standards? If the past is not depicted did it happen? Even if it is relegated to museums how long will it be allowed to stay there? After all, a statue that offends outside the building must also necessarily offend inside the building. Yet the past still happened. We need to learn it, the good, the, bad, and the ugly. If we are remove all public memorials to figures who are now discredited, the list would be rather long.

As noted previously here, J. Gresham Machen, the founder of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, has been found to have written racist sentiments to his mother in a private letter. On the basis of that sin, one critic wants Machen’s name banished from a building that bears his name. His sin cannot be forgiven. He must be erased from history. For more on this see the resources below.

The outrage seems one-sided. There is a statue of Vladimir Lenin, ironically, on private property, in Seattle but who cares about private property when social justice and civic righteousness is at stake? According to Augusto Zimmerman, there are numerous depictions (though no statues that I can find) of Karl Marx in the USA. Marx and Lenin, with the help of Joe Stalin are responsible for the deaths of millions since the Russian revolution. Surely they cannot be allowed to stand but I can find stories of only half-hearted efforts to remove those memorials.

My point is that we need to recognize that the modern wave of iconoclasm is just as religious as the iconoclasm of the 16th century. It is driven by an eschatology. It is not prepared to live with the past. It cannot live with dissent and it cannot be assuaged with half-way measures. Because it is a legal, graceless religion, there is no free favor, no forgiveness of sins, and no Mediator to whom one can appeal. In case you are uncertain how this story ends, read the history of the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. Spoiler alert: there is a lot of blood involved, and tyranny, thought control, and imprisonment. You probably will not like the story. The people who lived that history certainly did not.

In our wonderjaar we are seeing a manifestation of a kind of zeal, not for the glory of God as that which animated the persecuted Dutch Reformed Christians, but a zeal for an earthly eschaton and a zeal to obliterate the past. It is true that some of the statues left psychic scars but it is interesting that though we are supposed to honor how the offending statues are received by some minorities, we are supposed to ignore how they are received by other minorities. Despite its original intent, the Emancipation Memorial is received by some as a sign of oppression, so it must come down (whether in D. C. or Boston). Yet, the Italians who looked to Columbus with pride (despite his gubernatorial abuses), and American Southerners who regard confederate statues (despite the role of confederate leaders and generals in perpetuating slavery) as emblems of a certain nobility of spirit are to be ignored. In all three cases subjectivity has trumped history but when one subjectivity trumps another, we have entered the realm of power politics and not truth.

Paul And Philemon

Does anyone read the epistle to Philemon any more? The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit did not excommunicate Philemon, even though he was a slave owner. He calls him a “brother” and a “fellow worker” (συνεργός)  in the Lord. Did Paul stamp his feet and demand immediate righteousness from Philemon? He did not. His letter was intentionally not a demand. Paul says that he had authority (v.8) to demand that Philemon release Onesimus, he did not. Rather, he cast himself as a “prisoner for Christ Jesus (v. 1). He recognized that Philemon as a believer (v. 5)  and a benefit to the church (vv. 6–7).

Here is a turning point in the epistle:

yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (vv.9–16; ESV).

Paul was acutely aware of eschatology but his was of the semi-realized variety. For Paul, the Kingdom of God was inaugurated in Christ but it is not yet consummated. Contra Marx, it cannot be consummated by human political activity. It is God’s kingdom and it comes mysteriously, through the preaching of the gospel and is consummated only with the return of Christ.

He appeals to Philemon on the basis of their shared faith in Christ. Onesimus has become useful to Paul and to Philemon. Whatever was the issue before is gone. The Lord used Onesimus to help Paul and the latter credits that to Philemon. He could compel Philemon but he does not. He seeks Philemon’s consent. He contrasts consent with compulsion. Why? Because though Paul was, in the proper sense, an eschatological preacher he was not a legal preacher. He did not confuse the law with the gospel. He did not try to make the law do what only the gospel can do. The law norms. The law convicts but the law, as such, has no power to change hearts but the gospel does. Paul preached the gospel to Philemon and was content to let the gospel do its work.

When Philemon recognizes his own status as bondservant of Christ, saved by grace alone, through faith alone, he will see Onesimus for what he is, a fellow image bearer redeemed by the same grace of God, by the same blood that redeemed him. Grace works sweetly, mysteriously, effectually. When Philemon learns to regard Onesimus as he should, that will refresh Paul’s heart ( v. 20). He concludes his letter with grace, the free favor of God toward sinners, merited for us by Christ because it is grace that will move Philemon, not law.

We do not know how the story ended but we do know how Paul proceeded and that should be instructive to us Christians.


  1. Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin (Yale, 2017), 231.


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  1. Since you mention Benjamin Franklin, he once said that experience is the best teacher because it is the only school in which fools learn. Next, consider the calling-ignoring, personally destructive, utterly non-comical fool of the book of Proverbs. So, maybe our mob will get their revolutionary Utopia, and go to their graves regretting what they’ve wrought (I lived in China). Or, could this be a teachable moment? Will the mob, in its rage against the old liberal order and racism, disover what Darwin and his first disciples contributed to racim=sm? Or what Margaret Sanger thought of Blacks (human weeds)? Maybe this is a time where we can launch our own questioning and debunking of modern idols.

  2. Also, it is an interesting thought that as an Onesimus is mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch, in his letter to the Ephesians as their bishop, could he be the same Onesimus once the slave of Philemon?

  3. RSC, thanks for this.

    Groups who destroy images may seem liberal — and in many ways this may be so — but I want to highlight what you say about holy zeal. This is a fundamentalist component. Theirs is a legalism based on symbolic holiness.

    Sometimes it helps me sympathize with the fundamentalist religious zeal of those who tear down statues when I compare them to other groups in the church that seem built on over-realized eschatology. Perhaps the purity culture of I Kissed Dating Goodbye was an overreaction against sinful hookup culture. Maybe the Cathedral movement from hundreds of years ago wanted in some ways to rightly display the glory of God.

    Outside the church there may be mobs tearing down statues, but inside the church I sometimes think mobs are building statues. When pastors teach that multi-ethnicity is not an optional calling but a clear application of the Gospel they are moving it into a moral category. “Gospel application” can really mean “legal application, issue of law, sanctification.” The symbolic holiness of multi-ethnicity in the PCA seems to be an overreaction against sinful racism.

    Some tear down statues, some build up statues, but I remind myself about the lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world. His law is righteous, but because of our sin it brings death. But His LIFE is righteous and by His death He gives life to us while we are dead!

    Joe in St Louis

    • Joe,

      I think destroying icons is, by definition, the opposite of liberal. To be liberal, in civil life, is to be tolerant of a diversity of views and persons. The modern iconoclasts are the embodiment of illiberalism.

      I doubt your analogy. I hope and pray that all our P&R congregations will, as possible, become more diverse. The eschatological kingdom will include people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Shouldn’t our congregations reflect that future? Where our cities are ethnically diverse, so should our congregations be. I doubt that congregations that are intentionally ethnically isolated are to be desired. Obviously, there are some places where it’s not possible. My hometown is overwhelmingly monocultural. Where I live now, however, is populated by an amazing array of ethnicities. My city is probably 60% Hispanic but our congregation isn’t close to that. We are thinking and praying about how to reach the Spanish-speaking and the bi-lingual populations in our city. That outreach may result is increased diversity. We’ll see.

      I understand the concern about virtue signaling. I am also concerned that we’re not seeking ethnic trophies to show what good people we are. I am also concerned that Christ and his kingdom are placed ahead of culture. Being an intentionally monocultural congregation and quite possibly being an intentionally multi-cultural congregation, when culture comes first, both threaten the correct priority.

      Let’s focus on getting the gospel to all people, being welcoming and inclusive of all sorts of people, not for the sake of being inclusive but for the sake of being faithful and let the chips fall where they may.

  4. RSC, thanks I appreciate you.

    It’s good to guard against a mandating monoculture as well, yes.

    I appreciate your allusion to Revelation and you asking if our congregations should not reflect the next eschaton. It seems simple — and Biblical! — that of course we should keep in mind our destination as we plan our route.

    But let’s look at that passage in Revelation. What sort of qualification allows us to exhort people to be multi-ethnic, but doesn’t imply that we should teach them to speak in different languages? What about falling on our faces, or wearing all white?

    Do we exhort this multi-ethnicity at the congregational level and the denominational level, but not the household or neighborhood level?

    Speaking of households in the next eschaton, is the absence of marriage an implication for polyamory or at least celibacy in this world?

    We could go on and on. The streets of gold have implications for the Cathedral movement analogy. I don’t mean to be flippant. These are genuine questions. And I know you were NOT advocating mandating multi-ethnicity. But the use of this passage in PCA teaching is one of a long series of linguistic, psychological and exegetical techniques that could use more attention.

    I appreciate you

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