We’re Iconoclasts…Or Not

Reformed Christians have typically spurned the outcome of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (a.k.a. Nicea II, A.D. 787), which endorsed the veneration of icons.  Presbyterians and their brethren have instead tended to be iconoclasts (e.g., Q. 51 of the Shorter Catechism, which interprets the second commandment literally and forcefully).  My church’s building–which is a classic Reformed house of worship–has exactly zero images of Jesus in the worship space (there is one portrait of Christ, dating from the 1950’s, in the music room, though).  And no icons of the saints.  And certainly no images of God the Father.  Heck, there’s not even an effigy depicting the Holy Spirit, like a dove or something.  Just symbols like the cross and palm branches and crowns.

I was recently in a Presbyterian church building that had all the classic marks of Calvinism: plain white walls, monotone colored glass, pulpit in the middle of the chancel, simple-yet-reverent architecture.  And there was one giant thing that stuck out like a sore thumb: an enormous print of Warner Sallman’s famous Head of Christ (like 4’x5′!) on the back wall of the apse (given, I’m sure, as a memorial).  There, in this austere, imageless house of prayer, was an image of Jesus, gazing off stage left.  So what gives?  What happened to the Catechism and its forceful denunciation of images of the Godhead?

I don’t mean to be picky; I actually like Sallman’s depiction (it, along with Jesus, the Children’s Friend and Good Shepherd, were a part of my childhood in the Faith).  There’s nothing inherently wrong with Head of Christ.  But please let me be picky for a second.  That portrait of Jesus hanging in a Calvinist sanctuary represents lots of things: the encroachment of popular religion into Christianity in the second half of the 20th century, the lowest-common-denominator ecumenism that has made mainline Protestant communions indistinguishable from each other, the priority of individual preference over theological propriety, and the general loss of Reformed distinctives.

Like I said, I don’t have a problem with icons or images of Jesus and the saints (although when I see depictions of God the Father, I usually flinch).  They certainly make sense in the context of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.  And devotionally there’s no issue.  Nicea II was largely correct.  But the problem is Reformed Christians acting like un-Reformed Christians; Calvinists giving away their heritage for no good reason.  I don’t want to see Head of Christ in a Reformed sanctuary any more than I want to see an Amish man checking his smart phone, or a Catholic priest wearing a Hawaiian shirt.  You get the idea.


UPDATE: This is the same thrust as my most-read post, “A Reformed Lectionary Is Like a Kosher Ham Sandwich.”


One thought on “We’re Iconoclasts…Or Not

  1. So-called pictures of Jesus? First of all, the only physical description of him is in Revelation one, in which John, who had leaned on the breast of God Incranate, fell at the feet of the glorified Christ as if dead. No artist can capture that (although Albrecht Durer tried manfully).

    Someone may try to portray me as a handsome, blue-eyed Nordic youth to flatter me, but I am old and Mediterranean. Should I not feel a little insulted? Can we not show the same respect for God, even if he did choose to walk among us in our flesh and nature?

    The Word of God written plainly orders us to keep away from idols. Our worship is a matter of hearing and remembering, not seeing. Illustrations–OK; icons, nix.

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