While this is dated June/July, this essay is actually being finalized and prepared for shipment in November. What this reflects more than anything else is my personal reluctance to take up this topic. The reason is that a number of friends and acquaintances have over the years, some rather recently, abandoned authentic Christianity for the heresy of iconolatry, moving into one of the three branches of the Church that are infested with idolatry: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Anglo-Catholicism. All of us have a natural reluctance to draw the line when it comes to our friends, but on a subject this important, which God says is extremely important, our friends sometimes leave us no choice.
I have stood forthrightly and clearly against the violation of the Second Word for as many years as I have been a teacher. Thus, when my friends decide to ignore God’s command, they can hardly be surprised that I must join Him in condemning them. For me to do any less would be unfaithfulness to the Lord who bought me. I have dealt with this topic in The Liturgy Trap, but as part of our studies in civilization, I must now take it up in more detail.
Part of the fundamental meaning of the Second Word is the opposition of the ear and the eye as means of interacting with God. The reason that the eye cannot be used as a way of interacting with God is that God is invisible. Visibility is not an attribute of God. God makes Himself visible, but in Himself He is invisible.
On the other hand, God is Pure Language. Language or Wordness is an attribute of God; indeed, so much so that the Second Person of the Godhead is the Word of God. As I have noted before, the first three commandments have a trinitarian focus, and it is precisely the Second Word (notice that they are all called “Words” not “pictures”) that relates to the issue of the visual in worship.
Not only does God reveal Himself in His Word and not in pictures, but even the nature of language itself and of the alphabet is brought into God’s nature. He is “Alpha and Omega,” and several passages of the Bible actually use the Hebrew alphabet (from aleph to tav) to lay out the truth of God. At this point, let me quote from my commentary on the book of Revelation, a work in progress, on Revelation 1:8.
Alpha and Omega
Jesus is the Word of God. In Hebrew, He is also the Alphabet of God. Those who want to take logos in John 1:1 as “logic” or “reason” are sorely mistaken. The Biblical concept of God as Word is much fuller than mere mental logic. It is that God is Pure Language. That is, language or wordness is an attribute of God. This is why the revelation and worship of God is verbal, not visual, and why adoring things made by human hands is forbidden in the Second Word or Commandment. It is also why the false worship in Revelation is image worship (Revelation 13:14). If we were to study the nature of human language, we would see that language itself reveals the nature and character of God. Up to this point, however, linguistics has been done without this theological reference point, though some Christian linguists are beginning to understand the matter better today, notably Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.
Thus, by taking the name “Alpha and Omega,” God says that He is the Fountain of all language. Apart from God, men grow silent and language declines. In hell no one speaks. Christian cultures are literary. Literacy spreads to all. Books are written and published. Language increases in expressiveness. People learn other tongues as part of their basic education.
There are a number of passages in the Scriptures that are arranged alphabetically. Most of us are familiar with Psalm 119, which is arranged in 22 sections according to the Hebrew alphabet. Each section has eight verses, all beginning with the same letter, and proceeding from aleph to tav (the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet). But several other psalms are also alphabetical, either completely or partially: Psalm 9-10 (which is one psalm), 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, and 145. Moreover, Psalm 1 begins with a word starting with aleph (“blessed”) and ends with a word starting with tav (“perish”).
The description of the Bride of the King, Lady Wisdom, in Proverbs 31:10-31 is alphabetical, proceeding verse by verse through the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the first four chapters of Lamentations is alphabetical. Chapter 3 of Lamentations has three verses for each letter: aleph, aleph, aleph, beth, beth, beth, etc. Nahum 1:2-8 is an incomplete alphabet.
If we take note of the themes of these alphabetical passages, we find that they are all very relevant to Revelation. Several focus on God’s Word. Loyalty to God’s Word brings blessing, while disloyalty brings judgment. Such are Psalm 1 and 119, and also Psalm 37 (an expansion of Psalm 1).
Several focus on God’s judgments. God provides a complete alphabet of judgment in Lamentations 1-4 and Nahum 1. It is a happy thought that God’s alphabet of judgment is broken in Lamentations 5, providing hope that He will not sustain His wrath against His people forever. God’s judgment is given an alphabet of praise in Psalm 34.
Proverbs 31:10-31 focuses on the Bride. The woman here is not merely a good wife, for what wife could ever do all that this woman does! This is the wife of a king, the Lady Wisdom of Proverbs 1-9, the opposite of Harlot Folly. The alphabet of the Bride is fully related to Christ’s Bride of Revelation 21-22.
Psalm 25 is a prayer in the face of danger, a prayer that God will help us persevere in the face of temptation and tribulation. This is an important theme in Revelation.
Finally, Psalms 111 and 145 are alphabets of praise to God for His faithfulness and attributes, and Psalm 112 is an alphabet of blessing for the faithful saints.
Thus, God’s Word embraces all reality and all history. The Alphabet of God’s existence is the standard by which we are judged and by which we live and find joy. It is the standard for His Bride (Proverbs 31). It is the vocabulary of His praise (Psalms 111 & 145). It is the description of His blessings, which are as wide as the alphabet of God’s totality (Psalm 112). And, as in Psalm 25, God’s alphabet of totality is something we can call upon in time of need.
God’s alphabetic attribute is His sovereign rule. The Father has given this alphabet to the Son. It is the book that the Son receives from the Father. Thus, it is the Son who is here called “Alpha and Omega.” He was the Almighty, the I Am, and the Lord God in the Old Creation. Now He is the Alphabet of all human life and of all existence.
(End of quotation from my studies in Revelation.)
Sight and Hearing
If I were to ask you which you would rather lose, your sight or your hearing, chances are good that you would rather lose your hearing. Biblically speaking, however, we should much prefer to lose our sight. It is because we are sinners that we prefer sight to hearing. This goes back to Adam’s sin in the Garden. Eve, with Adam standing by and approving, saw that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was beautiful, good for food, and desirable, and based on her sight she ignored God’s word of command not to eat of it. From that time on, people have been born into the world sinfully relying on sight more than on hearing. (Thanks to the Rev. Rich Bledsoe for the insights in this paragraph.)
But if you reflect upon it, you will realize that sight is not very accurate. For one thing, looking at another person tells you virtually nothing about him. You may think I have a beard because I’m a hippie, but the real reason might be that I agree with R. J. Rushdoony’s odd notion that God commands men to have beards! Or I might have a beard to hide a disfigured face, or because my skin breaks out when I shave. The real reason, if you want to know, is that my wife likes my beard, and so do I, and that’s all there is to it.
How do we learn about another person? By hearing what he or she has to day. Language reveals the inside of another person, something sight can never do. A person may lie, and use language to conceal, but that is only the opposite of revealing; and the fact is that a liar is indeed revealing himself. Thus, if we want to learn about God, we must hear His Word. Looking at Him, if that were possible, would not tell us anything. After all, Satan can appear as an angel of light, while God appeared as a disfigured man dying on a cross.
To take another example, consider the Rodney King beating of a couple of years ago. Everyone in the United States saw the videotape of a group of Los Angeles police beating Mr. King repeatedly with sticks, over and over, far beyond what anyone would think is reasonable law enforcement. It was completely clear that the police were out of control, and everyone judged them guilty. Seeing is believing. But, when the matter went to court, what was heard in testimony was quite different. First, King was hit with batons, which bounce back when they strike; he was not struck with sticks. Second, most of the blows were struck on the ground around King to try and subdue him. Third, King had lunged at the police, and had already taken some taser rounds, yet was still coming on. He seemed to have tremendous strength, and had to be subdued. A very careful and precise viewing of the videotape bore this out. The jury found the police not guilty (though since this was politically unacceptable, later kangaroo courts were set up to find them guilty anyway!). Now, even if I haven’t got all the facts straight here, the point I’m making is clear: seeing is not believing!
In his writings on linguistics and the nature of man, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy has pointed out that sight deals with things, while hearing deals with persons. Sight has to do with science, with observation, with objectivity. Hearing has to do with personal relationships, with subjectivity.
Man wants to turn God into an object, something we have under control. This is of the essence of Original Sin, and we all have this tendency. It is the great Achilles’ Heel of theology, that we talk about God too much and treat Him as an object. True theology must be conducted as prayer, and this is the great lesson of Augustine’s Confessions, for the whole book is written as a prayer. When we set up icons, or supposedly “consecrate” bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, we have turned God into an object or force, and we have made the essential first step to depersonalizing and taking control of God.
Because of this, all true liturgy is verbal, not visual. Nowhere does Bible command acts of obeisance before any manmade object. The Bible never shows anyone rightly doing any such thing. (In 2 Kings 5:18-19, Naaman makes it clear that his bowing is simply to help the king, not an action of his own, and is given permission to do it. Notice, though, that Naaman was very concerned about this matter. He did not want to bow at all.) The Bible expressly forbids it, and threatens a great curse on those who do it. Because of this, the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglo-Catholic churches are not liturgical churches; they are anti-liturgical.
The Silence of Images
Pagan religion is shrine religion. People go individually to a shrine or temple and make obeisance before an image. This is a very convenient kind of religion, because images do not speak. Thus, they can never challenge us to repentance. They simply reinforce Original Sin at all levels of life. To the extent that this kind of wickedness enters the Church, to that extent sin is not challenged and human beings defile God and one another.
How nice it is to go into a Church and tell our sins to some statue or crucifix or “reserved host”! Such things will never talk back to us. The Biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers teaches exactly the opposite: We must talk to other believers, who will inconveniently and annoyingly talk back to us!
Because iconic religion is essentially silent, it does not build community. People in the three iconolatrous churches will go individually to a shrine, or to some shrine set up inside the church building itself, and do their own private thing there. This privatization of worship extends to the performance of what is left of the Christian liturgy. For centuries, the Roman Catholic liturgy was conducted in Latin, leaving each individual to his or her own thoughts. When people go forward to a rail to receive the sacrament, they are essentially completely alone. In the Bible, the Lord’s Supper is celebrated as a meal, around a table, with the saints looking at one another; for it is the communion of the Church, not merely individuals, with God and with one another.
The result of iconolatry is cruelty. When we don’t continually interface with other people at something of a deep religious level, we become callous. Human rights have never been of much concern in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries, which is why the false hopes of communism and liberation theology have been strong in them, and it is no surprise that the rise of Anglo-Catholicism was accompanied by the rise of a militaristic and anti-Christian imperialism in Great Britain that treated colonial blacks and East Indians with contempt. Happily the Methodist movement within the Church of England acted as a counter to this tendency. Social justice arises out of Word-centered Christianity, and in the modern era that has meant Protestantism. The Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians, for instance, treated the aboriginals they encountered quite differently.
The connection between iconolatry and oppression is clearly made in the Bible, for it was during the period of the Kings that the violation of the Second Word became the main sin, and along with that the prophets repeatedly condemned the people for oppressing the poor, the widow, and the outsider.
Hearing and Authority
When I use my eyes, I am in complete control of the information that comes to me, for I can shut my eyes. I can shut my eyes in the face of an icon. If I read the Bible to myself, I can shut my eyes and stop reading.
The Bible does not say to read the Word of God but to hear it. This means someone else must read it for me to hear it. This means that Biblical religion cannot be individualistic but must be corporate. We cannot worship God silently at a shrine; we must be with others and hear them, and speak so that they hear us. But the ear is unlike the eye. I cannot shut my ear. The only way I can stop the sound is to leave the room.
This is because sound, unlike sight, makes a physical impact upon me. Sound is bodily, physical, while sight is mental. We are physically impacted only by very bright light. Paganism, which depreciates the physical body, also depreciates the hearing of words. Paganism goes for sight, for an image has no physical effect upon me.
But hearing also involves submission to authority. When I listen to you, I am yielding authority to you. I am allowing you to speak to me. When you listen back to me, you yield authority to me. Thus, speaking involves the mutual yielding of authority. Speaking and hearing involve mutual submission. Mutual respect and submission is the essence of community, and the only way I can get away from hearing you is to leave the room, to leave the community and go off by myself.
Seeing leaves me in complete control. I submit to nobody. The silent image only reflects back my own preconceived ideas to me. Instead of changing me, the image reinforces what I already am and think. No growth, no sanctification is possible.
Because hearing involves submission to authority, community becomes possible. Those who speak best have the most authority. They may be experts, and we listen to them. They may be elders, whose age reflects years of experience, and so we listen to them. In this way, culture and civilization become possible.
Of course, to one degree or another, all cultures have this aspect of hearing and mutual submission. God has said, however, that Christian culture is to maximize this dimension of life through the priesthood of all believers and the elimination of all counterfeits, all image worship.
Image-worshipping cultures have a high degree of anarchy, especially in religion. Real worship is individual obeisance at a shrine or temple. The isolated monk is regarded as a holy man, while in true Christianity, isolation is a great evil and monks should be viewed with grave suspicion. Some monks, even within Christianity, practice vows of silence, which surely is a vast perversion of God’s design. Celibacy and virginity are regarded highly, while in Biblical religion it is the married state that is celebrated as the highest expression of Godly life. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” said God, speaking of Adam as priest of the Garden. Only a married man, living in that most frustrating of all communities (marriage and family), can acquire the wisdom to guide the Church of God.
Because of the largely anarchical and individualistic character of religion in image-worshipping cultures, whether pagan or semi-Christian, the unifying point in society becomes the state. By way of contrast, in Christian societies, where the “one anothering” of verbal interchange and mutual submission is central, the state declines as a unifying force and society becomes free and open.
(to be continued)
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.