Reformacja w Polsce, Reformation in Poland

Biblical Horizons Blog

James Jordan at

Biblical Horizons Feed

No. 57: The Second Word V: On Images and Art, Part 1

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 57
Copyright (c) 1998 Biblical Horizons
May, 1998

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy has pointed out in his essay "Hitler and Israel, or On Prayer" (available for $2.00 from Biblical Horizons ) that it is God’s word "No!" that establishes in a culture the distinction between the Creator and the creature. The Bible repeatedly says "No!" to every human attempt to confuse the two. He writes, "No language that has not been revitalized by a translation of the Bible distinguishes clearly between acts of God, the properties of nature, the roles of man" (p. 180).

He provides several examples. One is mathematics. For the Greeks and for all pagans, mathematics is tied in with mysticism. Numbers are magical, powerful, and thus the truths about numbers are jealously guarded secrets. Men raise their voices to intone or proclaim (to the few) the secrets of numbers. (A York Rite Freemason once told me one of the "secrets" of Freemasonry, that they "jealously guard the Pythagorean Theorem"; though it must be admitted that in American Freemasonry such rituals are little more than games.) When Christianity arrives, however, mathematics is reduced to a matter of fact. Men no longer chant or shout when they teach the principles of arithmetic and algebra and geometry. The distinction between God, the Creator, and the numerical properties of the creation has been established. (When third-grade children chant multiplication tables, they are not intoning fundamental principles, but merely using a mnemonic device.)

Astronomy is another example. For the ancients, the stars and the constellations had magical, godlike powers. This notion is still preserved in astrology. As with numbers, men raised their voices to proclaim the mysteries of the heavens. But when Christianity comes, the stars become mere creatures. The constellations become just an aspect of the old sky-rainbow revelation set up by God for the Gentiles.

Another example is chemistry, which is a science that has been sorted out from the mystical art of alchemy.

The matter before us is the arts, especially the visual arts. We can discuss music as well, because for the ancients music was also mystical and divine. Men became enchanted through listening to and making music. Music "in-spired" men with the spirits of gods. Only when Christianity came did music become a created thing, something man has dominion over instead of something men conform and submit to.

The arts are human creations. God, of course, is the Great Artist and the Great Singer, whose Breath (Spirit) sounds out His Word into the air for men to hear. But the music and song made by men are creations, and only creations. So are the paintings and statues men make.

For the ancients, however, the visual arts were ways in which men participated mystically in the divine. In-spired by a god or spirit, a man would make a painting or a statue, and that painting or statue would then house that spirit or god or divinity in some sense.

Just as it took some time for astronomy to separate from astrology, and chemistry from alchemy, so it took time for art to separate from mysticism. Initially, the Church took very seriously the Biblical prohibition on viewing any man-made object as housing some aspect of divinity. There was no bowing to icons, statues, crosses, or the sacraments. The Church recognized that God could and did use man-made items for His own purposes, just as man uses the world God made for his own purposes. But the Church also recognized that no man-made item could capture or house God or any dimension of divinity, any "aspect of God-ness."

For the tribal man, the masks on the walls of his hut held spirits of (angelic)-animal or ancestral powers, and when he put on a mask, he was possessed by that animal or ancestor. Similarly for the city-&-temple man, such as the Egyptian or Aztec, the signs on the walls of his Temple pleased the sky-god, and thereby "captured" him so that he dwelt in the Temple.

Israel also had faces of cherubim and symbolic decorations on the walls of the Tabernacle and Temple, but these were merely symbolic. They represented the people of God gathered around Him in various capacities, and they pleased Him only when His people pleased Him. When the people sinned, the Temple was considered defiled, regardless of its state of physical repair. In no sense did the priests capture Yahweh; indeed, He made it plain that He Himself dwelt in the heavens and only His "name" was put in the Temple (1 Kings 8:27-30; and significantly, Psalm 138:2). Thus, for Biblical religion, the works of man’s hands represents man before God, not God before man.

This was also true of the animal sacrifices and the bread and wine offered to God. These items represented the people, not God. They were brought by the people to God, as covenant reminders — "memorials" — not given by God to the people as pieces of Himself. When Yahweh gave some of the flesh and bread back to the priests and people to eat, this was a gift from God, not a piece of God. It was sharing a meal with God, not eating a piece of God. The bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ — His glorified humanity — not His deity.

We can say the same kind of thing about music. For the tribesman, music and dancing were used to bring about the in-spiration of a god within the dancer. The masked dancer-singer became possessed by his god-spirit. In the sky-god Temple cultures, music performed a similar function, enabling Temple prostitutes to become possessed by the god so that copulating with them was copulating with the god.

In Israel, however, music was a sacrifice of praise offered by men to God. God had given His word in the Psalter, and men sang it back to Him as a way of pleasing Him. The music added to the Word was a human addition. Yes, it was vigorous and rhythmical, or quiet and reflective, but it was not done to bring about a mass enthusiasm; rather, it was done as a corporate offering to God. We can contrast true Biblical praise with the shamanistic use (abuse) of music and sound in hardcore Pentecostalism, for in such circles, music is a means of self-stimulation and mass-enthusiasm — not to mention hysteria and frenzy.

The Key Command

In the law of God, in its central form (the Ten Words), it is the Second Word that is God’s great "No!" to any notion that the works of man’s hands can become infused with the divine. The Second Word forbids bowing down to any object made by human hands. By implication it forbids any act of religious awe or veneration given to such an object, whether it be kissing it, or lighting candles before it, or offering it fruit, or burning incense before it. Thus, even when Yahweh gave back part of the sacrifices for men to eat, they never bowed to the pieces of meat or bread, or venerated them, or kept back some of it so they could take it home and talk to it later one. Thus, even though the Temple was Yahweh’s palace, the priests were never told to bow down to it or to any part of it, for it was merely a man-made symbol. (For a full discussion of the Second Word, see Rite Reasons 33-36.)

God put this "No!" right at the heart of human life, at the center of the world, on the first/last day of the week, when humanity gathers before Him for worship. Set at the center of life, this powerful "No!" informs the human consciousness at its most intense and important place, worship. By making the distinction between Creator and creature plain and simple at this foundational level, God instituted a reformation of human consciousness that would spread to all other areas of life. It is only when the Second Word is clearly set forth as God’s "No!" in a culture, that the arts and sciences can develop free from mysticism. Thus, it was only with the advent of Protestant Christianity that either of these really "took off." Thus, while such distinctions as those between astronomy & astrology and chemistry & alchemy are extremely important, the most important distinction is between iconic worship and aniconic (imageless) worship.

Recognizing this, and determined to blur the sovereignty and creatorhood of God, Satan moved forcefully to strike at the Second Word. He used two tactics. The first we shall discuss was the blurring of the Second Word itself. The second was the introduction of iconic worship into the Church.

The early Church followed the Jews, such as Philo and Josephus, in distinguishing the First and Second Words. Such writers as Origen, Gregory Nazianzen, Jerome, and others clearly do so. (See the article "Decalogue," in M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature [1867-87, variously reprinted].) Augustine tells us, however, that at the time he wrote there were already those who wanted to combine them, while separating the Tenth Word into (9) a command against coveting the neighbor’s wife and (10) another command against coveting everything else. He seems to have favored this view, and in the Western Church, until the Reformation, this erroneous view prevailed, as it still does in the Roman and Lutheran Churches.

By subordinating the content of the Second Word under the First, Satan was able to spark the notion that the only images forbidden were images of false gods. It was all right to venerate and adore images of the cross, Jesus, saints, and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Naturally, this also meant that the huge amount of Biblical evidence against venerating images of the true God had to be set aside and downplayed. As a result, the clear Biblical prohibition on this practice was not clearly perceived in the Western Church.

The Early Church

Venerating the sacraments, cross, and images was unknown in the early Church. From what we can tell, the early Church continued the mindsets and traditions God had established.1 We know that they created pictures church walls, ceilings, and floors, on tombs, and other places, but these were only pictures, illustrations.2 With the coming of Constantine and the acceptance of Christianity as the approved religion of the empire, things changed. A large number of people came into the Church who were not at all discipled. Many were Christians in name only. Others were true believers, but very ignorant. They brought with them the mindsets and traditions of their tribes and villages, of their cities and Temples.

1The universal hostility to images in the early Church is well summarized by Moshe Barasch, Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea (New York University Press, 1992). Barasch’s chapter on Eusebius is of particular interest, since it makes rather clear that the early Church distinguished between mere depictions and symbols on the one hand, and any notion of a material object as a contact-point with God on the other. 2The definitive work in English on this subject is Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985).

Before Constantine, the Christians had shown no interest in supposed "holy sites" in the "holy land." They had shown no interest in making pilgrimages there in order to pick up some kind of magical sanctity. They had shown no interest in the magical properties of relics, such as pieces of the true cross.3 They had not regarded the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper as having magical properties. They did not adore the bread and wine, nor did they bow to the cross, or venerate images in any sense. All these things gradually changed after Constantine.

3Indeed, there is no evidence that the cross even existed as a symbol in the Church before Constantine. The Bible says that Jesus was crucified on a tree, which was probably a real tree. Roman soldiers did not normally dig holes and use posts when they had real trees around. The cross Jesus carried was the cross-piece.

The Christianized Empire placed before the Church the same challenge as Solomon’s Empire had. Before Solomon, the difference between believer and heathen was clearly marked, for the wicked went after other gods (as in the book of Judges). Now, however, the wicked had a reason to pay lipservice to Yahweh. They were motivated to bring a false understanding of the Temple to the Temple, viewing it as a place where Yahweh dwelled, and as an object whose presence in their midst guaranteed them success and prosperity. They were motivated to rename their Baals and Asherahs, so that they became Yahweh and His Consort. They kept their image-oriented mystical worship at high places, but said it was worship of Yahweh.

The prophets, however, insisted over and over again that this worship was in fact idolatrous. The wicked might say that their images represented Yahweh, but in fact they did not represent Him, for He could not be represented. They might say that their religious acts were done for Yahweh, but they were not accepted by Him. Regardless of what you call them, said the prophets, these objects are in fact idols.

The same conflict now began to seethe in the Christianized Roman Empire. The orthodox theologians warred against the icons and images, finally condemning them at a council in ad 754, but in 787 a wicked council overturned this decision and declared that worship through images was an essential part of the Christian religion.

(to be continued)