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Recently, Tim Challies wrote an article titled “Why You Should Not Wear a Crucifix“. Here are a few thoughts about some of what was said on it.
1. God’s Glory in Creation
“A true image of God,” wrote Calvin, “is not to be found in all the world; and hence … his glory is defiled, and his truth corrupted by the lie, whenever he is set before our eyes in a visible form …”
How about the incarnation? Are not human beings true images of God either? And the idea that God’s glory is defiled when visibly depicted? I guess Moses face wasn’t radiant with the divine glory then. And neither was Jesus at the transfiguration. And in heaven we’ll only think about God but not see anything. Unless of course… the problem is just matter… hmm… I don’t want to say that gnostic, but…
It seems to me rather that God’s visible glory was actually a means of sanctification. Setting apart whatever it came in contact with. In fact Scripture seems quite clear that God’s spiritual light, which enlightens our mind and hearts, is not just a concept or symbol to describe what God does. But a real power that can be manifest through and in physicality.
That’s the glory cloud of the Old Testament. And the light radiating from Moses. Not some created effect, but the spiritual light of God’s own glory. Remember that immaterial/spiritual =/= abstract. And spiritual things are only invisible, in so far as our spiritual eyes are closed. In fact, the Church Fathers speak of the Transfiguration, not so much as Christ being changed. But the disciples eyes being opened to see the Glory that was there all along.
“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. (Matthew 17:1-2)
“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:12-18).”
Remember, human nature has two aspects, though it is one whole. The soul and body then work together and what affects one part of it, affects the other. When the Holy Spirit/God’s grace is present in our souls and we walk according to the Spirit, being filled by Him, we sanctify and hallow our bodies as well as our souls. Just as when the Spirit filled the temple with God’s Glory (his divine energies) the temple itself became sacred. Or when God appeared to Moses by the burning bush, the ground was sacred. So too, our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit are sanctified and participate in the divine energies, as we grow in virtue and Christ likeness. And even when death comes, God will not leave his temple in ruins forever. As the Nicene Creed says “We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” And Christ, being God, would have sanctified his body from the moment of inception. It seems the demons could see this hidden reality, which was always present.
“Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. (Mark 1:23-26).”
2. Making the Nature/Person Distinction
“The pathos of the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, for it hides the fact of his deity, his victory on the cross, and his present kingdom. It displays his human weakness, but it conceals his divine strength; it depicts the reality of his pain, but keeps out of our sight the reality of his joy and his power. In both these cases, the symbol is unworthy most of all because of what it fails to display. And so are all other visible representations of deity.”
First, I think this has a hint of the Nestorianism which often comes with Reformed arguments against iconography. The ideas is that somehow the person isn’t being depicted, since images would only show his humanity, not divinity. I don’t know about you but when people saw this 1st century Hebrew, their first thoughts weren’t “Look at that divine nature.” And yet, his incarnation was a true representation of his *person* which is not identical to the divine nature. Person and nature are not the same in historical Christian theology. At the incarnation, the one who bore human nature, suffered and died is God the Logos. Taking on humanity did not result in a second person. And since persons don’t equal natures, the full person is still known and represented even in their humanity.
But saying that if we don’t depict the divine nature (how does one do that first of all?) the whole person isn’t being shown? That’s Nestorianism. Plus, you can’t depict all of human nature either. My profile picture doesn’t show my soul, but it’s still a picture of… *me*. And if some kid draws an image of me, I’m not going to say “Nope, I’m not blue, and my head’s out of proportion, so this is not a representation.” Just because it doesn’t look exactly like me. We don’t apply such standards to any other area of life (images in history books of historic characters that the author has never seen).
Even consider those who met Jesus in person. Apart from the transfiguration, he would have looked and appeared human. And yet, he was the accurate representation of the Father’s person. Showing that in order for the person to be shown, one does not require indication of both natures. Or else, how are we in the image of God, considering we don’t have divine natures. Are we idols? Sure, we are not pictorial images. But the point is that accurate representation of a divine person, in humanity, does not require the divine nature. Remember the person/nature distinction. So saying “We are only depicting him in his humanity and thus its an idol” confuses the two categories.
Remember what Jesus said “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:9).” If depictions of Christ are invalid because they don’t display the divine essence, then the Cross must not be an accurate depiction of God, since in his divine essence he cannot suffer. But this is simply Nestorianism. The general confusion of nature and person seems to implicitly show up in reformed theology a lot (total depravity etc). Which is why a very well known Reformed preacher has infamously said “We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross.” Nestorianism is like high quality counterfeit money; All over the place, easy to miss and we’ve all probably owned it unknowingly before.
“That is the same mistake being played out in the following piece “The heart of the objection to pictures and images is that they inevitably conceal most, if not all, of the truth about the personal nature and character of the divine Being whom the represent.”
If by personal nature and character of the divine being is meant to equate the divine essence with the divine person, then that is a Nestorian Christology. If however they are not identitcal, then without “depicting” the divine essence, one can still depict the full person by imaging their humanity. Since their personhood is not contingent upon the divine essence. It is exactly for this reason that the personal nature and character of the divine *person* is not lost when the Logos came in human form or is depicted in human form. It is precisely because the divine essence has no visible form that it is not depicted. Or that God was not to be depicted in the Old Testament. Or why the Orthodox officially do not allow images of the Father. “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. (Deuteronomy 10:14-17).”
Calvin is correct if he is talking of the Father by saying “Therefore, to devise any image of God is itself impious; because by this corruption his majesty is adulterated, and he is figured to be other than he is.” But incorrect if this were to apply to the Son or divine glory (which the orthodox distinguish from the essence) because the person, not being reducible to nature, isn’t lost in their humanity. And since the natural telos/design of creation is to be a display and bearer of God’s glory, there can in principle be nothing wrong with visible displays of God’s glory.
I’ve even had Reformed folk tell me that one should not even have an image in their mind whilst praying or reading scripture. I’m sorry, but if I read that Jesus is flipping tables, guess what’s in my head? Not to mention that even in the Old Testament, God uses various imagery to describe himself and his actions. Clearly these are not depicting his divine essence, however if people were to think of these images whilst praying or reading Torah, they are not idolaters. God is hardly going “I’m going to use all these pictures but DON’T think about them.” In fact, if one really want’s to play that game, if when you’re praying to the resurrected Christ, and in your head you’re trying to picture nothing… how is that not a “misrepresentation”? We serve a Saviour who became incarnate. Shall we then turn around and emphasize his deity, to the denial of his humanity? As we are accused of doing the inverse? All Christological problems come from an inbalance on or the other. Heading either up towards gnosticism, or down towards creatureliness. As opposed to the incarnation; Glorified humanity, in one divine person. The synergy of “Spiritual Body” as St. Paul puts it (1 Cor 15:44). The nature person distinction is so important to Christianity. For it is at the heart of Triadology and Christology. Any mistake here, and the ripples will be felt for miles down the road.
3. Displaying Christ As Defeated
There also seems to be an issue with depicting Christ on Cross because it makes him look weak. Or as someone said to me “I wear a cross, but refused to get one with an image of Christ on it, because he is no longer on the cross, he’s not dead he’s alive. So in my eyes he should not be depicted as a dead defeated man hanging on a cross because it was the greatest victory in history.” I think that line of thinking is rather confused. If not missing the point of the Cross all together.
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (Galatians 3:1)” The main way Christ tells us to depict him and the central aspect of Christian worship is: the Eucharist. Which Paul says “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26) .” Christ’s words on about the bread and wine are also the only direct quote that Paul uses of the Lord. And Christ was in no way defeated on the Cross, but the Cross was a victory. That is the greatness of it. How something that would normally be a cause for shame and death, was actually the instrument of our salvation. So too it’s a constant reminder of what victory in this life looks like: a cross. Dying to self. And in the Church, we constantly depict him as resurrected too. But why not both? It’s not either or. No Cross, no Resurrection. That’s why don’t just celebrate Easter. But call Good Friday “good.” As I told my friend, saying that having Christ on the Cross is leaving him there, is like saying having a picture of you in secondary school is leaving you there and not saying you went on to attend university.
Another sentiment often given as seen in the article, is that an empty cross is better. It implies that Christ is resurrected. After all, we don’t serve a dead Saviour right? Or in the words of my friend “the empty cross both reminds me if the price he paid but also that he is still alive and no longer on the cross, for me, the empty cross depicts a fuller story.”
Well, an empty cross could also be taken to mean that someone didn’t die yet, or escaped it. Or as someone else I know put it, “An empty cross hardly means resurrection. Every cross that was ever used to kill someone was empty eventually.” If we’re going to talk about what it means “to us” subjectively, then no objective argument for or against can be made. But if the argument is that somehow depicting him on the cross is a problem because he didn’t stay there and it makes him look defeated, well:
a) He didn’t stay a baby either, I’m not going to take down Christmas decorations. It’s not either or, but both and.
b) It wasn’t a defeat.
c) Every time you partake of the supper, the primary way he told us to remember him, the emphasis as Paul said is on his death. Or as another friend of mine beautifully put it “An empty cross is just an instrument of torture, it is a sacrifice left incomplete, a dowry left unpaid, love left unexpressed, and a bride left unredeemed. Whilst Christ crucified is our sacrifice offered in expiation, our dowry paid, his bride redeemed, and our savior’s love for us expressed.”
What’s ironic is that all this is in light of constant proclamations by Reformed preachers that we need to focus on the Cross. Last I checked, someone was on it. Really, it’s a Cross with no Christ. Seems some want to venerate the Cross more than the Orthodox!
All this to say that at the very same time, I understand. I understand the implicit aversion that some may have when seeing a crucifix. Even myself, with no theological objections to it, I’m still existentially getting used to seeing statues of the Crucifixion (I can handle flat pictured better). But for more than a year now, my views on these issues have changed. I can see why from a Reformed lens, many things in the Orthodox or Catholic world seem odd or just plain wrong. That’s why I think it’s key to look at the underlying assumptions we are bringing to the table. That way, we won’t be talking past each other as we discuss these things.
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