Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Once I was a little fig tree trunk...

"Once I was a little fig tree trunk, a useless bit of wood, when the workman, in doubt whether he should make a stool, preferred that I be a god." ~ Horace

I admit it. I already knew that I would think Calvin was going a bit over the edge here even before I read this morning's lesson. I read it in the past and paid little attention to it, but I knew the gist of what he was saying. Calvin seems a little over-zealous or even fearful in my opinion when confronted with the possibility of idolatry. He believes that any images or likeness to God is idolatry. No images of anything should appear in places of worship.

Calvin uses multiple biblical references for defending his view. As expected, his first reference is taken from the Ten Commandments. Commandment number two reads “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex 20:4). We often shorten this commandment to “do not make any idols.” Calvin stresses the “or any likeness” portion of the commandment. He leaves off everything in verse 4 after “likeness” in his argument. He also, more importantly, leaves off the next verse which instructs us to not bow down and worship these idols. It is here that I think God has the problem with images. It is true that we cannot perfectly represent God in any image, but is God insulted when artists depict some of the ways he has shown himself to us?

Calvin's response to that question is, “But God does not compare these images with one another, as if one were more suitable, another less so; but without exception he repudiates all likenesses, pictures, and other signs by which the superstitious have thought he would be near them,” and then, “We so how openly God speaks against all images, that we may know that all who seek visible forms of God depart from him.” Once again, I think the issue here is intent. God does not want us bowing down and worshiping these images. Is that what would happen if someone were to paint a picture of a cloud column leading the Israelites through the wilderness or a dove descending from heaven at Christ's baptism?

It is interesting that the Greek Christians tried to delineate sculptures from paintings claiming that sculptures were “graven images” and paintings were fine. I agree with Calvin that they are both representations whether you are carving something or painting the same thing. “But the Lord forbids not only that a likeness be erected to him by a maker of statues by that one be fashioned by any craftsman whatever, because he is thus represented falsely and with an insult to his majesty.” I am still not convinced that God is insulted when artists depict God in ways that he has shown himself to us – the depictions not being created to be worshiped but to help bring a mental image of the story being conveyed.

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