The Second Word IV: Implications

What About Catholics? (continued)

Usually, such people are not seeking graven images, but rather their idolatry is of a broader character. They are seeking a home on earth. Scott Hahn’s book is called Rome Sweet Home. This is the essential sin, for there is no home on earth. The Church is not our home; God is our Home. We live now in a pilgrimage toward our home. The Church is a prophetic institution, calling us forward. To a very limited extent, the Church pictures God’s home for us, but the Church may never be treated as our home. If we view the Church as home, we have put the Church in the place of God. We have made the Bride into God.

If we want the Church to be home, we are scandalized by all the tribulation in the Church. But the epistles make it clear that the Church is full of trial and tribulation. Those who want to find a home in the Church are those who want to get away from trial and conflict. They don’t want to be stuck in the wilderness, so they compromise with the Canaanites to get into the land. They don’t want to be out in the woods with David, so they compromise to be at Saul’s court. They want comfort, not conflict.

Of course, all of us want comfort, not conflict. But the Bible tells us that we shall not get to Comfort until we get to God in heaven. In this world, we shall have tribulation. If we decide to flee the tribulation of the collapsing Protestant Church, and go into an iconolatrous church, we have left the true faith. God may treat this as a sin of wandering, and take us to heaven anyway, but we must surely not approve of it.

Returning to the subject of iconolatry, this is how I have come to think about it. The sinful heart of unregenerate man, which persists in Christians as the “flesh,” hates God and wants to bow to manmade objects. The righteous converted heart wants to converse with God and be challenged by His Word. The Second Word of the Ten Words is given as a severe warning against yielding to the temptation to act out our hatred of God. But all Christians both love and hate God, though real Christians love God more than they hate Him. In authentic Christianity, the very possibility of expressing our hatred through iconolatry is abolished. In the inauthentic semi-Christian churches, however, we find both Word and icon, statue, bowing to crosses and sacraments, etc. Thus, we have to say that such churches are, as such, in deep sin. Individuals within such churches may be, and often are, real Christians who love God more than they hate Him. Because these churches encourage iconolatrous practices, these Christians are led into confusion and do things they should not do. Yet, if they love the Word more than the icon, they are real Christians. We should encourage them to break their icons and become consistent, to grow in grace and holiness.

Bowing to Men

The Second Word does not forbid bowing to men. In fact, given the mutual submission that arises in a verbal, Christian, society, bowing to one another becomes an important aspect of life (Genesis 23:7 & 12). In Christian societies, men bow to one another; in paganism, men bow to rulers, but rulers do not bow to them.

We can bow to other human beings, and indeed prostrate ourselves before rulers, because they are not manmade objects. Human beings are the very image of God, and are made by God. Icons are not the image of God, and are made by man. Venerating human beings is veneration of the image of God. Venerating icons is the veneration of man’s work.

Religious Art

The Second Word does not prohibit all art. It only prohibits bowing to art in worship.

The Second Word does not prohibit depictions of Biblical scenes. No one has ever been tempted to bow down before a depiction of the whole scene of the nativity or crucifixion, or any other Biblical scene. Such depictions are essentially narrative supplements. It is not possible to think of them as encoding the personality of some dead saint or of God Himself. In the same way, nobody is tempted to get down before the television and worship while watching Jesus of Nazareth. There is a difference between pictures for instruction or art, and pictures for worship.

The Second Word does not prohibit art in the environment of worship. The Tabernacle and Temple included angels, pomegranates, lions, oxen, flowers, and other artistic objects. No one bowed to these things. No one talked to them. They were symbolic decorations. The house of God represented the entire world, so symbols of the world were included in it. The same can be true today.

The Second Word does not prohibit pictures of God and Jesus. Would it have been a sin for a teacher in a synagogue to draw a cloud on the blackboard as a symbol for God’s presence? But with the coming of Jesus, 1 John 1:1 writes, and this was scandalous to the Jews: “What we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled.” We don’t know what Jesus looked like, and thus all pictorial representations of Him are symbolic; but since He came to be seen, there is nothing wrong with picturing His presence as a human male. Indeed, since God is essentially invisible, He must make Himself visible to us in some created form. Usually this is a man shape, as in Ezekiel 1:26. Human beings are, after all, designed as visible images of God. Thus, to portray God in human shape does no violation to Biblical theology, but in fact expresses it. Such symbolic portrayals are acceptable in art and instruction, but not as icons. For a fuller discussion, see Jeffrey Meyers’s Vere Homo: The Case for Pictures of the Lord Jesus Christ (published by Biblical Horizons ; $5.50).

In the Old Creation, human beings worshipped God through animal sacrifices, and thus images used in idolatrous worship were usually of animals or composites of animals and men. In the New Creation, we approach God through the Man Christ Jesus. Thus, in the New Creation, idolatry takes the form of setting up human faces and bowing to them: precisely what is found in the semi-Christian churches.

For this reason, I think it unwise to have symbolic pictures of Jesus and God in the environment of worship. History shows that men will tend to abuse these. They are not wrong per se, and perhaps eventually the Church will be mature enough not to abuse them.

Also, when we see only one picture of Christ week after week in Church, our theology becomes distorted. If there is a crucifix down front, we miss the truth of Christ as teacher, as resurrected, as ruler, etc. If there is some “gentle Jesus” down front, we will tend to forget the man who whipped the traders out of the Temple and who cursed the Pharisees and scribes. If there is a Pantocrator down front, ruling all things with unsmiling eyes, we tend to forget His compassion and nearness to us. Best therefore to keep pictures of Christ away from the intense focus of worship.

Saluting the Flag

Is it proper to salute the flag? After all, it is a manmade object, and it is not a human being. True, but it is also not used in worship. It is not a substitute or supplement to God’s pesel, the Ten Words, and more generally, the Bible.

Moreover, “saluting” is not the same as bowing. The word “salute” originally meant “kiss.” In our culture it is a gesture of loyalty and affection, not of submission. It does not violate the specific demand of the Second Word, which involves bowing and prostrating. We should, I believe, refuse to bow to or prostrate before the flag, but we are not asked to do so.

Art and Technology

All human progress, the growth of God’s Daughter into a woman fit to be Christ’s Bride, depends on keeping the Ten Words and the rest of the Bible. Idolatry views the creation as full of gods, because ultimately the creation (“nature” “being”) is god. Thus, the pagan fears to manipulate the creation, lest he offend the spirits of trees or water or stars or ancestors. When the First Word is clearly understood, men no longer fear black cats and the number 13. They are able to manipulate the creation. They no longer see themselves under the creation, but over it as God’s priests. Science, technology, and art can develop.

But breaking the Second Word sneaks idolatry in through the back door. Now men believe that their own priestly manipulation of the creation serves to mystify the creation and suck divine energy into it. As a result, the works of men’s hands become mysterious, and technology and art are aborted in their development. Men see themselves as under their works, not over them.

As I wrote in The Liturgy Trap (p. 29): “Fourth, I believe that the second commandment channels and regulates our artistic impulses. I have mentioned the profound depths of the human personality made in God’s image. It is from those profound depths that the artistic impulse arises, the impulse to function as an image of God and make things. Out of those depths comes the sinful impulse to abuse art idolatrously. The second commandment, by rigorously fixing the place of art, directs the artistic impulse properly. As images of God we are to make “worlds” that are subordinate to us, but we are never to try and make “worlds” that are superordinate to us. We can never make any kind of religious contact-point. Because liturgy is the highest form of art, it is precisely the liturgy that stands in gravest danger of iconolatrous corruption. The second commandment shows us that everything we make and do in liturgy is subordinate to us, part of the man-made things we offer to God as good works. The only things in worship that are superior to us are the things God does: Word, Sacrament, and other people (True Images). All works of our hands come behind us, not ahead of us, in worship.”

Accordingly, the semi-Christian churches, especially the Eastern Churches where this is most highly developed, are little interested in technology and the arts. They view the human working with creation as a way of mystifying it, of infusing it with the “uncreated energies” of God, as the Orthodox put it. They seek to raise the world up mystically instead of developing it forward historically.

Human action does indeed transform the creation, but it does so historically, developing it as creation, growing it toward the marriage to the Son. For the Eastern Church, however, human action transforms the creation by merging it with God’s “uncreated energies.” Their view of transformation is not historical but mystical.

Thus, authentic Christianity and iconolatrous semi-Christianity move in opposite directions. Authentic Christianity sees any view that man and the world are merged with God as something to be avoided, as a sinful belief to be left behind. Thus, authentic Christianity becomes more and more creaturely, more and more open to God’s Word, more and more of a Bride in contrast to the Divine Groom. Iconolatrous semi-Christianity, however, views the movement of history in the opposite way. For them, we are to become more and more merged with God in some mystical sense (which, of course, views God as a force or thing, not as a person to interact with). Instead of sharpening the contrast between God and man through the course of history, overcoming Original Sin and exploring what it means to be a creature under God, the iconolatrous semi-Christian view seeks to blur the contrast.

Of course, since Orthodoxy also seeks to be Christian, Orthodox theologians always safeguard the uniqueness of God by distinguishing His uncreated essence from His uncreated energies, and we must give them credit for this. Their system is, though, essentially wrongheaded, and arises precisely because they have violated God’s Second Word.

Thus, it has only been in Protestantism that the sciences, arts, and technology have developed. To some extent the Renaissance also, since it affirmed the goodness of the creation, also contributed to this development. Protestant cultures, however, have been the seats of exploration of the world, scientific study, technological development and invention, and artistic diversification and enrichment.

The Golden Calf

The story of the Golden Calf, recorded in Exodus 32, is important for us to consider as we look at the meaning and implications of the Second Word. The Golden Calf is routinely misunderstood, and that is why we must consider it closely here.

Scholars of the comparative religious school sometimes say that the Golden Calf was the Egyptian Apis Bull, and that putting up an Egyptian idol was part of the idolatrous religious inheritance of Israel coming to the fore. While the Egyptian bull might be somewhat in the background here, the fact is that the Apis Bull was a living animal, not a golden idol. It is unlikely that the Israelites were simply expression Egyptian religion on this occasion.

Some have argued that the Calf represented Yahweh, others that Yahweh was seen as riding on the Calf just as He rode on the cherubim. They point out that the calf is one of the faces of the cherubim in Ezekiel 1, and that this might have been known earlier.

The problem with these views is that they do not pay attention to the explicit statement of Exodus 32:1, which points in another direction:

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us elohim who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

The calf is a replacement for Moses. Moses was missing, and the people wanted a leader. Moses brought them up, now they needed a replacement to go before them.

They asked for an elohim. This word is used for God, for gods, and for men who are leaders. It essentially means “the power(s) that be.” In this passage, it means a power that will replace the leader, Moses.

Moses was the human mediator, the leader who was taking them to the promised land, who was leading them forward in history. But Moses was gone. Thus, another leader was needed.

But Moses was only one half of the mediator. The primary half was the Angel of Yahweh, who in the Pillar of Cloud and Fire had led them out, and who was going to go before them (Exodus 23:23). Moses, the human mediator, had disappeared into the Cloud, the Divine Mediator. The close connection between the two points forward, of course, to Christ, the unique God-man. It appeared that both aspects of their mediator-leader had disappeared.

Thus, the Golden Calf was a pesel, a manmade image that would serve as mediator to the Power of God and that would lead them to Canaan.

Why a calf? I believe the primary reason is that the calf was the greatest sacrifice in the worship system of Israel. The calf signified the High Priest and the nation as a whole (Leviticus 4). While these details had not been revealed as yet, the people already knew that there were but five sacrificial animals (Genesis 15) and that the bull was the most powerful of the five. Moreover, the bull, unlike the goat, sheep, dove, and pigeon, was used to pull carts, and thus was the right animal to pull Israel forward. It was the right animal to set up as a symbol of a mediator-leader.

The sin of the people was impatience. They could not wait a mere 40 days. They demanded action now. And, as we have seen, their hearts, following Adam and Eve, naturally demanded something visible to use as a mediator and to follow. Similarly today, those who are impatient with the bad estate of Protestantism sometimes look to one of the iconolatrous churches as the answer. Their sin is impatience.

This incident confirms for us that the purpose of graven images was to serve as mediators. The Golden Calf was not a symbol of God in Himself, nor was it a symbol of the powers that God controls. It was an image through which men could, supposedly, contact God.

The fact that Israel immediately fell into the sin of iconolatry shows the power that this sin has on the human heart (Exodus 32:8, they “quickly turned aside”). We should not be surprised that the Church has had this problem throughout the ages, especially when Jesus has “delayed” to come back. Men refuse to be patient, and so set up visible images as mediators. Icons are proof and manifestation of Original Sin.

As we have seen, however, using visible objects in worship completely short-circuits all historical maturation. The people could not possibly go forward led by an image. The image would only tell them what they already knew. No challenge was possible from the image. No change could come to their culture. Thus, in order for the people to move forward to Canaan, the image had to be destroyed.

Jeroboam’s Golden Calves had the same meaning. They replaced the prophets and priests as human mediators and Yahweh as Divine Mediator. Thus, Jeroboam replaced the one and only throne of Yahweh in Jerusalem with two new throne. He replaced the priests, and he was attacked by the prophets, who rightly recognized that he was setting up a substitute for their communication of the Word of God (1 Kings 12:31-33; 13:1-3, 33).

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons