Distancing Through Icons
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col 1:15)
In the incarnation of the Word (Jesus), we see the divine entering into the level of the ordinary. He entered the world and took His place among the poor (ordinary) people and entered into their experience completely. In this, we see the scandal of His cross-prefigured in the incarnation. However, the incarnation is unthinkable for the religionist, for His God would never lower Himself to the level of the ordinary or even the physical. Therefore, God must be removed and put in His rightful place, which is the sacred. He must be shrouded in the pretentiousness of the world in all of its glory. He must be taken out of the ordinary and everyday, away from the ordinary people and placed in the hands of the great orators, philosophers, and the artists who can give Him the honor He is due. He must be turned over to those who can express Him adequately in image, word, and thought. In this, He is imaged through sacred art, theology, or philosophy. Moreover, a new language must be created to explain and converse about this noble god of the sacred. The ordinary language of the common people is no longer adequate. God must be spoken about with the language of the philosopher or theologian. So we have the creation of what I call “God talk.” In all of this, the simplicity of the gospel is lost and the common people are distanced from God. Through icons, philosophy, and God talk, the ordinary person is thrice distanced from God. For God is taken out of their world and put in the world of the sacred, a world that can only be explained and imaged by the highly educated or skilled professionals who have a knowledge of the holy language.
Distancing and Subversion Through Icons
To begin with, we need to raise the question as to what an icon or image is. Is it an idol? But what is an idol? Is it simply a false god of wood and stone who was worshiped by ancient people? In a purely physical sense, an idol is a physical image intended to reflect or symbolize God or some characteristic of the divine. However, we must go beyond the physical to have a clear understanding of icons and idols. We must go to the root of the problem, which is the human heart. The apostle Paul hints at this when he says that all greed is idolatry (Col. 3:5). Idolatry is a problem of the heart that manifests itself in the making of icons and idols. But this still does not tell us what an icon or idol is. I suggest an idol or icon is a symbol of an ideology, a way of thinking that is contrary to the mind of God. In this, we are saying a physical icon or idol is only a reflection of the true false god that a group or individual has built-in their minds and hearts.
Let me give a few examples of the icons or symbols of an idolatrous mind. In the ideology of communistic materialism, the physical idol or icon is the state or government, which is raised up and given the status of God. One Marxist refers to the state as “God walking on the earth.” In many religious ideologies, the holy man or institution is the physical icon of the body religious. In paganism, which has as its highest value pleasure, the human sex organs become the symbol of their idolatry. All these ideologies and their symbols are a reflection of a mind that hates the true God, a mind which is contrary and hostile to God, a mind that cannot please God. It is only in Jesus Christ that we can see the true and pure mind of God. Therefore, any icon other than Jesus Christ is a symbol of man’s hostility and ignorance of the true God.
Iconicism is the way certain men reduce the true God to a manageable size. They do this because they cannot tolerate standing before the immensity of the true God, which leaves them with a sense of helplessness. Therefore, they reduce God to an idol. The God of heaven must be brought down to earth by imaging Him with something in the creation, or by putting Him into a system of thought that reduces Him to the opinion of a man or a group of men. In essence, the building of systems is very much like the making of idols; both make God small and mankind larger in their own eyes. When God gave the commandment that His people were not to make images or to worship them, He also revealed Himself as a jealous God. We gather from this, God is jealous in protecting His true image; very similar to how a man is jealous to protect his own name, which is a symbol of the man. When men make icons or systems, they can only tarnish God’s real image, for no icon or system can adequately image the true God. When men deface God’s image by making icons and systems, God’s wrath is upon them and their idols. His turning them over to their idols and ideologies; this turning over to their false god is a manifestation of the wrath of God upon them. In essence, they become the plaything of their own imagination or the image they have created. They seek life in their image or system, but find only death because there is no life in idols or systems, but only death (Gal. 3:21). Life is only to be found in the true image of God, who is Jesus the Christ. “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (John. 5:11-12).
Today’s moderns like to think idols were a problem of the ancient and that modern man has outgrown the problems of idols and idolatry. However, this belief comes more from modern man’s pride than from any evidence. In fact, the evidence seems to be growing that ancient man was not as primitive in his thinking as today’s moderns would like to think. In many areas, ancient man’s thinking was superior to ours. For the most part, ancient man did not believe that the icon or image was actually a god, but rather he believed it to be a likeness or symbol of his god, which is not unlike many modern men who claim icons help them focus on the spiritual things behind the icon.
When the Israelites made a golden calf and worshiped it, they understood the image itself was not the God who brought them out of Egypt. They realized it was just an image or an icon of the God of heaven. In making the icon, they were simply attributing to the God of heaven the characteristics of the icon, which was in this case a young bull that symbolized power and strength. From a human point of view, one might think God would be pleased with this honor. However, from the response of Moses, it was obvious God was not pleased with this honoring of His power or strength through a visual image. The reason is that God and His characteristics cannot be symbolized with anything in His creation other than His Son Jesus the Christ. Even here we must hasten to point out that we are not talking about the physical form of Jesus the man, but rather His spiritual and moral character as reflected in His life and resurrection.
The Early Christians’ View of Icons
It is known today; like its Jewish roots, primitive Christianity was inimical to all icons, and for that matter, all religion. Bernard J. Cooke, a Catholic theologian, in his book The Distancing of God gives two reasons for this hostility. He explains, “Earliest Christianity had been wary of religious images, influenced no doubt by the Mosaic proscription of graven images. In addition, the overall tendency to accept the basic experience of daily life as the sign of God’s presence in their midst meant that there was no need to seek iconic symbols for the divine presence. Paul stressed that Christians themselves were the sign of the Spirit’s activity in history-and undoubtedly early centuries listened to him” (page 97).
In other words, it was their Jewish roots, as planted in the Ten Commandments, which created their hostility toward icons of all kinds. They simply took the Scripture at face value when they said; “You shall not make for yourself an idol [image] in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4). The reason for this restriction is that man can never image God with anything physical, and there is nothing tangible that can adequately image any aspect of God’s character. When imaging God, the sensible can only be misleading and will always make God small. In view of this, humans should not even attempt to image the true God in their minds for God cannot be imaged by the human mind. Any image of God we have in our mind, at best, can only be an idol or image of a false god we have created with fragments of reality we have pieced together with our human imagination.
Effects of Icons
The subconscious power of symbols and images are just beginning to be understood by psychologists, and the findings are alarming. Modern man is just beginning to realize the power of symbols to shape his beliefs and behavior at a subconscious level without him even being aware of it. This alone should reawaken our concern about the uses of icons in Christian worship and teaching. We should be very much aware of the danger of the visual for it was the visual that deceived Eve.
I believe we can see the link between the visual and the ethical behavior of many Christians by observing the contrast in their behavior when they are with other Christians or in a sacred place in the secular world. It becomes obvious that many are different people depending on the location and the people they are with. Could there be a link here between their ethical behavior and the visual? What image of God do these people have in their minds? Does their God resemble the God of heaven who is a living, seeing, and omnipresent God, or is their god like a dumb idol locked away in a sacred place that neither sees nor hears? Where did this image of God come from? Does this image operate on the conscious or subconscious level? I suggest it works at the subconscious level and it comes from the visual stimulus that religion uses to deceive men into believing God is present in their sacred places, which on the subconscious level leaves the impression He is not present in the everyday world of the common man. This belief then leads to the idea that what is done in the secular is not seen or heard by the God who is locked up in the sacred. All of this reduces the living God to nothing more than a lifeless idol. So, here we charge religion with reducing the true God to the status of a dumb idol. We include in this indictment the Christian religion.
The Lord Himself pointed out the connection between the visual and the ethical life when He said; “The eye is the lamp of the body, if your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness” (Matt. 6:22-23). In another place He said; “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (John 9:41). From the words of Jesus, I suggest that everything we see has a subconscious impact on our very being, and that the visual forms shape our moral and ethical lives. Thus, it is the visual that warps and distorts one’s inner life. Here we can see the danger of pornography of all kinds including icons, which are nothing more than religious pornography and propaganda. I base this radical statement on the fact that the visible can only give a distorted image of the true God.
The Incarnation and Icons
Even a greater deterrent to icons than the ones listed above was the early Christians belief in the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus and His Spirit-filled people. Only God can image God and He did this when He created man in His image as a living soul (Gen. 1:26). Though we see this image being tarnished in the fall, we also see Him completing and perfecting it in Jesus the Christ, who is said in a number of places, to be the image of God (Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3, 2 Cor. 4:4). In this current age, God is now transforming every Christian into the image of His resurrected Son. Though that image at the present time is hidden in Christians, those who have the Spirit can still see it with an eye of faith. The work of transforming Christians into the image of Christ, who is the image of God, will be completed in the final resurrection when we all share totally in the image of Christ. We must concur with early Christians in the belief that if God is present in the person of His Son and His Spirit-filled people, there is absolutely no need for icons or images of any kind in the Christian faith. The living symbols of Christ and His people are the only symbols that can image the living God, for they are the only images created by God and they are the only living symbols God has given to man. They, and they alone, have the life of God in them. Any other icons must be viewed as a departure from the faith and a form of distancing of God from the common people and their everyday experiences. Idols and icons are in a sacred place: the living Christ. His body (Christians) is in the entire world and those who are a part of it are alive with the living God inside of them. Therefore, Christ is being reflected by them through the power of the Spirit that lives in them (2 Cor. 3:18).
God’s True Icons
When we use the words idol or icon, we usually use them in a negative way, as when we refer to a pagan or false God. However, the words idol and icon basically mean an image that represents something we reverence or worship. With this in mind, we can refer to the Christ of God as God’s icon or idol. The writer of the book of Hebrews borders on this when he says of Christ; “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). Of course, the writer is not talking about seeing the Christ with a fleshly eye, but rather he is talking about seeing the Christ with the spiritual eyes of one’s heart. When one sees Christ this way, he also sees the Father’s mind and heart, for the Father’s mind and heart is filled with Christ and Christ’s heart and mind is filled with the Father. Therefore, to see the Son is to see the Father and to know the Son is to know the heart and mind- of the Father.
The apostle Paul tells us that Christians are now reflecting the image of Christ to the world and angels (2 Cor. 3:18). In fact, he says we are being transformed into the likeness of His Son. In a sense, we could say that Christians, like their Lord, are God’s living icons and are filling the world with the image of God. In fact, they are filling the whole universe with the image and presence of their Lord. When people look at Christians, they are to see a reflection of the Christ, who is the image of the living God. I propose that if God has living icons in the person of His Son and His Spirit-filled people, why in the world does He need dead lifeless icons and images that neither see nor speak?
How then did icons get into the Christian movement and why were they introduced? The answer is, they could not get in until the movement had been subverted and its main or master symbols had been changed. As we have seen in previous chapters, this subversion did not happen overnight, but gradually took place over a number of centuries as the symbols of law, holy men, institution, and rituals were added. However, I believe the addition of these symbols alone could not explain the radical departure and subversion that took place when icons were added to the Christian faith. I believe one can trace the beginning of this subversion to a church that had already been distanced from its radical root and had developed a lust for respectability. In order to win this respectability, it would have to compromise with the pagan masses, their religions, and with their culture. It found that with some compromising, it could attract the masses and with the multitudes came success and power. This was too much of a temptation for a group that up to that point had experienced nothing but rejection and persecution. So, failing the temptation to a will to power, a temptation that its Lord had rejected, it opened its doors to hordes of unconverted pagans who brought with them numerous superstitions, fetishes, and a lust for images into the church. (Note Cooke, page 98)
When the church, in its institutional form, found itself filled with multitudes of unregenerate pagans who were addicted and accustomed to the visual stimulus of pagan images and pretentiousness, it found itself with the problem of how to keep and teach this group of people who did not have the Spirit of Christ, nor a love for the Word spoken or written. The answer was simple; change the menu, but not the diet. In other words, continue to use the visual, but simply change the icons to reflect the story of Christ and the Christian movement. Though their intention may have been good, the outcome was disastrous. The icons soon degenerated into magic and superstitions, further subverting the faith and distancing the common person from the living God. We might say that the institution, along with its mass numbers of unconverted members, opened its doors to symbols, which before this time, would have been an abomination to the Christian faith. Their act not only opened the doors of the church for icons, but also to all forms of visual stimuli that were so common in pagan religions. In this, the lust of the eye was made respectable in the church and remains that way to some degree in much of what is called the Christian church (1 John. 2:16).
A quick inventory of pagan religion, and for that matter, all organized religion, will show that religionists have the propensity for taking God out of the ordinary and placing Him back in the sacred. In order to do this, a sacred place must be created. Then the sense must be created that the deity is somehow present in the sacred place in a way that it is not in the unholy or ordinary. Using the visual to create a sense of other-worldliness does this. This sense of other-worldliness is created through a host of other world symbols: the burning of incense, mystical ritual, mystical language, emotional music [sacred], lighting (usually the lack of it), the ostentatiousness of the structure itself, and, of course, the images or icons of the deity or other heavenly beings. Western Christians easily see all this in pagan religions, but we are not talking about pagan religions. We are talking about that which calls itself Christian. It is quite obvious from just a casual reading of the New Testament that all of this religion has no place in a movement that was started by a carpenter with the help of a few fishermen, amidst a group of ordinary folks with little money or power, a group that gathered mainly in the homes of its members for over two hundred years.
We should not be under the impression that the addition of icons to the faith went unchallenged in the earlier centuries of the church. To the contrary, there were numerous men in the church who spoke out boldly against icons. However, they were too few and not powerful enough to keep the will of the masses of unconverted pagans from ruling the day.
In spite of this, God continued to raise up men throughout the history of the church who have spoken out against the use of images in the Christian movement. There also have been a number of iconoclastic movements that rose up in protest against the use of icons. These restoration or reformation movements, by and large, had little or no influence on the institutionalized church. Their call for the church to forsake the visual was generally completely ignored. This is not surprising seeing that the institutionalized church depends on the visual for its very existence, for without the visual it would soon crumble and turn to dust like all idols. Unfortunately, history bears out that iconoclastic movements can and often do degenerate into idolatry themselves. This happens when an iconoclastic movement loses sight of its purpose and subsequently is overcome by the visual and its own lust for success. Then their preaching against icons, images, and the visual takes on a form of legalism, which itself is a form of idolatry. In legalism, an ideology, or a system, becomes the idol replacing the original icons that were being attacked by the movement.
Most of these movements begin in protest to the institutionalization that has grown up in the mainstream church: in other words, to the form, structure, and institutions of religion. But given enough time and success, they seem to mutate into what they were originally trying to destroy. Those involved in iconoclastic movements should remember what Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
Once a movement has turned into what it was trying to reform, it becomes an impossible situation to correct. For the only course to correct it is institutional suicide. Though this may be possible, it is not likely. Institutions do not die easily. It is very unlikely that the infrastructure of any organization would allow the institution benefiting it to die, much less participate in destroying it. This is why a clerical system is the first warning sign of a subversion of an iconoclastic movement. Clergymen are symbols of institutionalism and are more protectors of the institution than proclaimers of the faith. The infrastructure of religious institutions is usually made up of seminaries, Bible schools, and colleges that train the professional religionists for the institution. These in turn become guardians of the institution; of course to the astute, this represents nothing more than a highly structured form of censorship that would hit right at the pocketbooks of all dissenters.
Here may lay the obsession with the religious professionals being so highly educated or the most educated in a given group. Their education represents or is a symbol of their power over the group. This power is desperately needed by the institution in order to survive. Seeing that our culture will no longer accept an ex cathedra power, the institution must impose a new form of authority and power. Like most institutions of the last few centuries, the church has turned to the power of the knower. Even though the knower has the power in this situation, the institution reserves the right to determine who the knower will be. Of course, all institutions have determined that the true knower is the one who will accept and teach everything that the institution wants him to teach. All this is done in the name of protecting the truth. The truth is, it is done to protect the authority and infrastructure of the institution with the bottom line being financial as much as a love for the truth. Unfortunately, many good men are caught up in this system of the world without even being aware of it.
Icons: A Wall of Hostility
There is also another problem with icons that has never really been given the consideration it should have, and that being the mediating effects icons have among believers and even between the believers and unbelievers. Since the introduction of icons into the Christian movement, they have represented a dividing wall or a mediator between believers in Christ. They have also hindered any dialogue between Christians and the rest of the seed of Abraham, namely Jews and Moslems, who simply refuse to accept any religious icons. In fact, both Jews and Moslems view the uses of icons as nothing more than a form of pagan idolatry. It would seem in view of this, that Christians who love Jesus Christ and share the mind of Christ, who wants all men to be saved, would be willing to refrain from the use of icons for the sake of Christian fellowship, so that others who are of the seed of Abraham might be saved.
Icons as a form of mediation are also distancing Christ and the Christian movement from the general populace, who because of modern science, have in themselves become iconoclastic in their thinking. Most educated people, even though they are not Christian, now view all icons as superstition. I find it somewhat ironic that it is now pagans who are breaking down the idols of Christians instead of Christians breaking down the idols of pagans. This is not to say that non-Christians do not have their own idols. They are just more clever at hiding them. However, I do feel that the humanists stand justified in their criticism of Christians for their religious icons and their ostentatiousness, which is more of a model taken from paganism than from the Man from Galilee.
The majority of people today, both Christian and non-Christian, believe idols were a problem in Biblical times but are no longer a problem for modern man. However, this is only true when one uses the term idol or icon in their most restrictive sense as an image made with human hands. In its broader sense, an idol could be anything that is exalted to a place of being one’s absolute or anything that would form or shape one’s values (Col. 3:5). In his book, Radical Monotheism and Western Civilization, H. Richard Niebuhr points out that our true God is the thing that forms our center of value and holds our loyalty. Our faith-in these gods then takes two basic and dominant forms according to Niebuhr, “a pluralism that has many objects of devotion and a social faith that has one object, which is, however, only one among many” (page 18). By the expression “social faith,” he means that one has put his faith in a group or society of people making them the center of one’s values and making them the absolute of his loyalty. Social faith can be directed toward a family, tribe, nation, or a religious group. This social faith turns these groups into his absolute or his god. When this happens, men have created their idol. Probably the most obvious examples of a social faith is the faith of a member of a cult, or political party whose faith, though not recognized by the individual, is centered in the group and not God.
It is here that we find the icons or idols of the contemporary church. The modern church has made itself into an idol in that it has exalted itself in the eyes of many to the point it has become their absolute. In exalting itself and making itself larger in the eyes of its members, it has made Christ small and has distanced people from God. In this, the church itself has become a symbol of mediation, an idol that distances people from the true God. This happens whenever the church takes an institutional form and sets itself apart as the absolute authority (God) in the eyes of the people. In doing this, it confuses the body with the head and exalts the body to the place of the head. In an institutional form, the only way the church, if it can still be called the church, can keep its members is by making itself the absolute and setting itself up as the mediator between God and man. Once this is done the institution has tremendous power over its members, for to leave or disobey the institution is to leave or disobey God, for the institution is God.
Of course, Christians are not the only ones who are guilty of making a group or movement their absolute. There are all kinds of systems, causes, and movements that men have made their absolutes and in turn given their loyalty to in various degrees. Probably the most common one outside the religious realm is nationalism. Nationalism is making an absolute out of one’s nation or society; in other words, making one’s nation and culture the highest authority and the measurement of all things. It is here we find the idolatry of the Western church, and especially those who claim to be evangelical and fundamentalist. The betrayal of this idolatry is seen in the presence of the American flag in many of their places of worship along with the Christian flag. How can two nations that are completely antithetical to one another, as symbolized by their symbols (flags), one being an eagle and the other a slain lamb, be reconciled? The truth is they cannot be except by reducing the God which is above the many to a God who is just one among the many.
A Land Filled with Idols
There are so many systems, causes, and movements today, that hardly a day can go by without someone soliciting one’s loyalty and support for some cause or ideology. These range from Americanism to Communism and have so cluttered the landscape of people’s minds that it has become difficult for many to sort it all out. However, the landscape today is not unlike the landscape that the early church encountered when it entered the world for the first time with the gospel of Christ for the very purpose of breaking down the idols of the world and turning people to the living God. The reason the early church was so successful was that it carried with it no idols of its own. Here lies the terrible failure of the modern church. We cannot call the world to turn from its idols when we have our own to deal with first. Let us take the log out of our own eye before we try to take the speck out of our brother’s eye. Let us destroy the idols in the Christian movement before we try to destroy the idols of the world.
It is my opinion that the Christian Church, for the most part, has failed so miserably in breaking down the idols of the modern world that God has actually had to raise up some secular disciplines to break them down. There is little doubt in my mind that God is using many worldly disciplines to destroy that part of His church that has slipped into idolatry. This should not be surprising for God has frequently used pagans to do His will even though they were not aware of it at the time. Like many of our secular disciplines, they often went too far, and God in turn ends up destroying them (Isa. 10:511). Before the church sends its white knights out of the city to slay the dragons of secularism, maybe it should have them stay at home inside the city of God and kill its own dragons. I really believe God is fully able to take care of our secular friends and all their twaddle (1 Cor. 5:12). It is enough for us to simply become a light on a hill. If we can accomplish that, God will be well pleased and the church will again become the light of the world. However, this cannot be accomplished until Christ is made the center of the church’s faith. In order to make Him the center, all this religion along with its idols and systems must be removed from the center so that Christ might be all and all.
In all of this, God is calling us to be a people who are to live without idols until our Lord returns from on high. This is not an easy task when you consider that our culture and even the religions of that culture are persistently making idols of all kinds. We must remember that faith by its very nature is iconoclastic. When it ceases to be iconoclastic, it is no longer the faith of Christ. Therefore, let us prepare our minds for the battle against the idols of this world and the icons of the church. Let us cast down the religious, political, and cultural ideology that stands opposed to God. Let us throw them down and grind them into dust as Moses did with the golden calf. Let the world begin to fear and hate those who have the power to destroy idols (Rev. 11:1-6). “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1John.5:21). Amen.