Idolatry and Immediacy

“Idolatry, taken in its broadest sense,
is born of the human need for a God who is near.”
(Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, page 326
)

As we saw in our last post, Bavinck distinguishes between general and special revelation: whereas the former refers to God’s self-revelation in creation, the latter refers to God’s self-revelation in a supernatural way (i.e. something not found in the created order).  The Christian faith, he notes, believes that God has revealed something of Himself in creation but has especially made Himself known to fallen man in the special revelation of Holy Scripture.

However, he reminds us that Christianity is not alone in its reliance upon a divine book or claims of heavenly messages that guide the faithful. For “[h]istory teaches us that not a single religion can survive on general revelation alone” (Volume 1, Chapter 11, page 324). This belief in divine revelation manifests itself in historical religions in three ways: 1) the desire for a god who is near and not far away 2) that gods make know their thoughts and will to man & 3) that special intervention and divine assistance from the gods is available to man in times of distress (as summarized from page 326).

What then, according to Bavinck, distinguishes Christianity’s and other religion’s understanding of special revelation? Or what makes the Bible so special?

“In pagan religions it is human beings who seek God (Acts 17:27). In every way they attempt to bring God down to themselves and into the dust (Romans 1:23), and by all kinds of methods they try to achieve power over God. But in scripture it is always God who seeks human beings. He creates them in his image and calls them after the fall. He saves Noah, chooses Abraham, gives his laws to Israel. He calls and equips the prophets. He sends his Son and sets apart the apostles. He will one day judge the living and dead. The religions of the nations, on the other hand, teach us to know human beings in their restlessness, misery, and discontent but also in their but also in their noble aspirations and their everlasting needs – human beings both in their poverty and riches, their weakness and strength. The noblest fruit of these religions produces humanism. But Holy Scripture teaches us to know God in his coming to and search for human beings, in his compassion and grace, in his justice and his love.” (emphasis mine – Volume 1, Chapter 11, page 327)

As Bavinck notes, in the quote at the top of this post, the human need is for the divine to be near to him. But because man is sinful and thus twists God’s general revelation to suit his needs, he makes a god or a faith based on his need: this is what scripture calls idolatry. The only way out of this morass is to believe in God who, as Bavinck notes, came to us and promises to fulfill our greatest needs and desires: not by being whom we want Him to be but by meeting our needs even when we would not have sought Him out on our own (Romans 3:10-11 & 5:8-11). That is, those in the scripture record & church history who have truly found God, discover that it was not they who were seeking Him, but He who sought them. As John says: “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

The special revelation of the scriptures, therefore, it is not merely an outward gift (a book to be read) but also the inward testimony of God’s implanted word that changes and remakes us (1 Peter 1:22-25). May we therefore praise our God, who is always near in that Word: to comfort, to bless and to help us.

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Pictures of Christ

In a previous post, I mentioned that I would be open to receiving and answering questions from the web community. The following is one from a reader of our blog:

How is the image of God in Jesus Christ, the man, different than the image of God in mankind? So that imaging Jesus (as a historical person) is viewed as a violation of the 2nd commandment while imaging other historical persons (also created in the image of God) is not viewed as such?

Anonymous

I should note, first of all, that I am firmly committed to the Reformed understanding of the 2nd commandment which has, historically, prohibited the creation or use of pictures of Christ in any form. The Heidelberg Catechism, expositing the second commandment,   states that “we are not to make an image of God in any way” (Q&A 96). And since the Christian faith affirms that Jesus is God then the issue seems fairly clear: 1) do not make images of God 2) Jesus is God 3) do not make images of Jesus.

However your question complicates the matter doesn’t it? Jesus is not only God but human (and fully human I might add). As the Apostle’s Creed puts it, He was “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.” All those who looked upon our Lord saw a man: not a man unlike them, or one who appeared in a ghostly fashion, but one who ate, drank, slept, and lived as any other. We, after all, confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2-3).

So what then is at stake if we make a picture of Christ? Are we not simply affirming the cardinal truth of His humanity? The answer is no. For as much as we believe our Lord is a type of Adam, He is also greater than him who is our first father in the flesh  (1 Corinthians 15:45-49). For even well intentioned people who wish to affirm Jesus’ humanity in a picture are in danger of robbing Him of His divinity. Whenever we think of Christ we ought to think of Him as being the Son of Man and simultaneously the Son of God. He is not either or, nor is He one more than the other. Of course some have attempted to portray His dual natures in images by pasting a halo around His head, or by making Him out to be a glowing being that radiates a gentle light (holiness?). But the irony is that this not only compromises His divinity (for how can God who is “dwelling in unapproachable light” 1 Timothy 6:16 have such an inviting countenance?) but it also compromises His humanity. Is this really how the gospels portray Jesus for much of His earthly ministry? And when our Lord did shine with great glory, was is not much more glorious? (Mark 9:2-6).

Furthermore, I believe that any picture of Christ ultimately misrepresents Him since He is NOW clothed in glory and honor at the Father’s right hand (Revelation 1). Though Christ retained His humanity even as He ascended into heaven, the Jesus of the New Testament is not as He once was on earth. As Paul says: “Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer” (2 Corinthians 5:16). If this is true for those who saw our Lord in the flesh, how much more is it true for us who have never gazed upon Him? Indeed, as Matthew Henry comments:

Those who make images of Christ, and use them in their worship, do not take the way that God has appointed for strengthening their faith and quickening their affections; for it is the will of God that we should not know Christ any more after the flesh.

What all of this demonstrates to us is that the human imagination is a powerful influence and one that easily corrupts what scripture teaches about Christ. Is this not confirmed in the history of Israel? Who would have thought that the formation of idols would lead to blatant denial of God Himself? And yet this is what happened time and time again.

This also was the conclusion of our Reformed forefathers. Having reformed the church at a time when idolatry was rampant, they held high the standard of God’s Word over man’s thoughts or attempts to worship Him. In particular the Heidelberg Catechism asks:

98. Q. But may images not be tolerated in the churches as “books for the laity”?

A. No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants His people to be taught not by means of dumb images but by the living preaching of His Word.

What is wrong with a picture of Christ since it teaches us, like a book, about His humanity? Simple: God has always taught us by His Word, that is His declared (not pictured) Word. Even when He commanded the tabernacle to be built with many images, these were a picture of the heavenly reality which has now come to its fruition in Christ (Hebrews 8&9). For since He is the full revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-2) we no longer need to rely upon dumb images.

Indeed we, as Protestants, believe in the sufficiency of God’s Word.  If “whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein” (BC, Article 7), images are  not needed to effectively communicate the gospel. Otherwise Paul would be wrong to rely solely upon the preaching of the Word to convert sinners. (Romans 10:14-15; 1 Corinthians 1:18ff.). Indeed if the word of God is sufficient, why are such images needed? Do not the gospels portray in their descriptions and words sufficient evidence of our Lord’s humanity? What else do we need to know about Him than what has been given? For we possess no pictures of Christ nor are we commanded ever to portray Him. Surely if this was needed God could have provided it. Instead He gave us His word that we might know the truth about our Lord (John 20:30-31)

But we are weak, aren’t we? We want to see, we want to have evidence of God’s presence and kindness. So we ask to see God or to find our fleece dry or wet in the morning. And God is mindful of our frailties (Psalm 103:14ff.). That is why, as others have noted, that God has already appointed an authorized ‘pictorial form’ of Christ to His Church: the sacraments of baptism & the Lord’s Supper. In baptism we see the cleansing blood of Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. In the Lord’s Supper we remember the atoning work of Jesus in His once for all offering for sinners and His continued presence to strengthen His people with His crucified body and blood. We simply need to be satisfied with the spoken and visible word that God has appointed.