Sunday, March 02, 2008

What is an Idol?

I would like to take a break from 1st Timothy for a second to discuss a little future Th.M topic. Toby from Classical Presbyterian has challenged me to make the case that a stained glass image that is supposed to represent Jesus is the equivalent of worshiping an idol. However before I begin that I do want to say as with the discussion we had over the use of musical instruments, the fathers of the Reformed Faith are unequivocally on my side (not to say that Toby has a side). Just one medium snippet from John Calvin shows this:
Idolaters in vain endeavor to elude this second point (Deut 5:8-9) by their foolish cavils; as amongst the Papists that trifling distinction is commonly advanced, that only λατρέια, and not δελέια is prohibited. For Moses, first of all, comprehends generally all the Forms And Ceremonies Of Worship; and then adds immediately afterwards the word עבד, gnabad, which means properly to serve. Hence we conclude that they make a childish endeavor at evasion, when they pay only the honor of service to pictures and statues. But if we grant them what they desire, not even so will they escape; because the prohibition is equivalent to God’s declaring that He will not be worshiped in wood and stone, or in any other likeness. For unbelievers have never been carried away to such an extent of folly as to adore mere statues or pictures; they have always alleged the same pretext which now-a-days is rife in the mouths of the Papists, viz., that not the image itself was actually worshiped, but that which it represented. But the Spirit everywhere reproves them for worshiping gods of wood and stone, since God rejects that carnal worship which unbelievers offer before stocks and stones. If any one should ask them, whom they have it in their mind to worship, they will immediately reply, that they offer to God that honor which they pay to pictures and statues. But this frivolous excuse comes to nothing; because to erect the idol before which they prostrate themselves, is really to deny the true God; and, therefore, no wonder that He should declare that unbelievers worship wood and stone, when they worship in that wood and stone phantoms of their own imagination. And we have already said, that all rites which do not accord with the spiritual worship of God, are here forbidden: and this is enough, and more than enough to put to flight all such misty notions, (nebulas.)...But if it be not agreeable to our judgment that God should repay every one according to his deserts, and yet that He at the same time requires the sins of their fathers of the children, we should remember that His judgments are a great depth; and, therefore, if anything in His dealings is incomprehensible to us, we must bow to it with sobriety and reverence.
One could at this point say well we are not Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox and we do not offer prayers to the images of Christ or other fleshly beings in mediation that plaster our sanctuaries, and you would be right to say that. However it would not be right to say that praying is all that we do in the worship of God or that stain glass images of Christ cannot become idols of worship to people in the sanctuary. We deceive ourselves if we say that the images of the 12th Century Danish sculptor that adorn our walls dressed in a toga standing in for Jesus can in the least bit be taken seriously. Why would it even make sense for half-a-second to us to place a fake Jesus on the decor of the house of God? Would we tolerate placing a triangle in place of a cross? So why does it not bother us to place the picture of a sinful human in place of Christ, even if we are "worshiping" it? So even before we get into any real discussion of whether or not this false Christ can equal an idol we must first think about whether it is prudent to give people a false impression of what Christ looked like in the flesh. If we consider this I think we have the answer to our idolatry question already.


DROLLORD said...

A silly side note:
I know of a church here in the Grand Rapids area that has a stained glass window depicting the "I stand at the door and knock". A RPCNA minister I know commented that it's a portrayal of David at Bathsheba's door.

Reformed Catholic said...

Considering the great stained glass windows depicting Christ and the apostles in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, I'm wondering what Knox has to say?

Anonymous said...

I've thought a lot about this topic. I'm not an expert, but I've done my fair share of Reformed reading about this.

I think it certain that your research will show that the impetus to add images of Christ, the apostles and some saints to our churches was after the neo-Romantic, Anglo-Catholic revival of the early 20th century. I think this reflects our cultural captivity: We simply wanted to do it because we liked the aesthetic.

Why else make so many churches in the Gothic style??

The stained glass and ornate woodwork, with a big pipe organ are all vestiges of that movement. It may have taken 20 or 30 years to take root in the Presbyterian churches--as opposed to Episcopalian ones--but we took the idea when enough of our people forgot why we did not do such things.

Pretty typical of mainlines in general.

But that being said, I think that now that most of our churches are stuck with images of Christ in our sanctuaries, one would be hard pressed to say that these images (when off to the side and not the focus of the sanctuary) are idolatrous and need to be taken down.

The biblical warrant seems to revolve around worship of images, not the existence of them. This is the reason I won't bow in a Roman church, to any statue or the like. I worship the Lord alone.

But certainly, the image of Christ--in the imagination of an artist--seems to not be a good fit for a Reformed church. The fact that most of our churches have them is testament to our ignorance of what makes us Reformed and where we come from. Bad? Yes. Idolatrous? I don't think so.

But tacky can be a sin in the Lord's house, certainly.

What about Christian homes? Must we take down our Last Supper black velvet paintings? What about our crosses, our Rembrandt posters? Would our home be 'less sacred' than our church?

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

Reformed Catholic,

Well the great stained glass in Saint Giles was post-Knox. In fact they were put in during the 19th and 20th century (see Toby's words on the Anglo-Catholic revival).


One of the worst ones I know of off hand is in the Presbyterian (USA) church in Clarksburg, WV that I grew up in. There is a larger than life stained glass of the first minister of the congregation. It takes up the whole back of the Church. I preached there once and it stares right at you the whole time you are preaching (kind of the point I assume).


Speaking on the home issue I would say that it would not be prudent to have pictures of a representative Christ in your home but that is a matter I am willing to place in the liberty of conscience box. I myself have no crosses or pics of Jesus in my home.

I agree with the neo-Romantic movement being a large cause for this. I have been to several churches built prior to 1850 where it is patently obvious that stained glass was placed in well after the church was built. To me there is nothing more aesthetically pleasing than sunlight pouring through the plain windows of my Grandparents church (which is the one on the top of this blog). Even when I was a child stained glass windows seemed obtuse.

As far as the biblical warrant towards idolatry I would agree that if one just looks at Exodus 20 or Deut 5 it would seem as if the worship of idols is forbidden, not just their construction, but I believe that if one looks more fully at the record of the Old Testament especially (Cf: Lev. 19:4, 26:1, 2 Kings 23:24, Psalm 115:4, 135:15, Isaiah 2:8, 42:17, Jer 10:14, Hosea 8:4, 13:2, and Habakkuk 2:18) one will see that not only is the worship of human-made (physical or spiritual) idols forbidden but even there construction is denounced by God and his prophets. Calvin says that anytime you fashion a physical representation of Christ you bring the divine into relationship with a fallen object (interestingly enough both Paul and Calvin equate sexual immorality with idolatry).

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

One more thing.

It would be quite Reformed of me to say that anything that distracts (whether positively or negatively) from the preaching and reading of God's Holy Word is in itself idolatrous.

Anonymous said...

So you mean that I could be a stained glass window someday?

Wow. I had better keep the sermons good!

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

Well make sure to found a congregation and serve it for 30 years.

(Do not forget to have yourself buried in the basement).

ChipB said...

This is quite an interesting discussion. I had never been in a Presbyterian Church with stained glass images of Christ or the Apostles until I moved to Pittsburgh. Most of the churches I have been in are either very plain with large clear windows or they have stained glass windows with symbolic images - anchor, fish, etc.

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

I agree Chip. The only PC(USA) churches that I knew of in West Virginia that had stained glass at all were the Northern churches that had been members of the UPCUSA.

Dad said...

The original intent was to use pictures to explain the Bible to the uneducated masses but even I prefer Old Stone except for on pretty Spring Days it is awful hard to pay attention when the birds are flying around outside. The Clarksburg church is unusual with the buried pastor in the wall. Just like England huh :)

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

At the most basic the problem I have with 95% of Stained Glass are the images depicting Jesus. Now this is not to say that all stained glass is ok as long as you do not have a Jesus figure in them but I can tolerate stained glass in general, but the preference is to not have any at all. that depicts human beings in the sanctuary.

ChipB said...

What about a big gold Jesus?

Anonymous said...

I heard a new argument for images of the earthly ministry of Jesus:

He had a body.

We cannot make images that try to depict the Godhead, certainly. But the question that I think we should address is whether or not a painting or stained glass window showing Jesus hugging children or teaching in the Temple, when off to the side of the sanctuary, constitutes idolatrous worship.

Timothy said...

good post. I agree that whenever we try to make an image of Christ, we are robbing Him of His glory and do not do Him justice. Nothing good can come of it.

As for stained glass, I've seen quite a bit in my 7 years as a PCA pastor. One church in Dyersburg, TN actually has a Tiffany stained glass window of the mother and child. It was left to the church, along with a large endowment to build a new sanctuary. So the built the new sanctuary, which they didn't need, and had the Virgin Mary stained glass window placed so high in the sanctuary, that you get a sore neck if you look at it for too long.

BTW, they are trying to sell the window, which is valued at more than a million dollars. They've decided they no longer need it. I say that's a great decision on their part.

Benjamin P. Glaser said...


But the problem is that it is not an actual true representation of Jesus so therefore it a false representation of Christ and therefore a false deity.


Thanks. I look forward to being able to study idolatry pretty hardcore. This is one example of a serious lapse in judgment by those who claim to be of the Reformed orthodox ilk. Your citation of LC #109 is spot on and I would agree wholeheartedly of your critique of the ARP seal.