Monday, October 26, 2009

See the Art in Me

Well, a couple of days late on the promise, but here is the paper on Calvin, icons, and art that I recently wrote (slightly shortened and modified, but still pretty long - take it in chunks, if you must).

In Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin has proclaimed a very high view of God from the outset of the book. God is the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Author of Salvation. This very knowledge of God leads to a knowledge of self that finds humanity as utterly hopeless and constantly fallible in its search for God. Humanity does not find God; God finds humanity and declares Himself to them. Having set the stage for the relationship between man and God, Calvin begins 1.11 by titling it, “It is unlawful to attribute a visible form to God, and generally whoever sets up idols revolts against the true God.” It is through man’s “folly, nay, madness” that the icons of religion have been produced. Calvin writes that, “this brute stupidity gripped the whole world – to pant after visible figures of God, and thus to form gods of wood, stone, gold, silver, or other dead and corruptible matter – we must cling to this principle: God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him.”

Something to understand about the time that Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and the other Reformers is that the Church was dripping with fashioned icons to Saints and God. Images of God were everywhere, little pictures (or icons as they were known) were in all of the Churches and people's homes, and worship was being given to these icons. So, Calvin addresses this problem head on and says that it is against God's second commandment - Do not make a graven image. For my Lutheran and Catholic friends out there, you may be saying to yourself, this is not the second commandment, so let's take a brief look into God's command in Exodus 20:4.

Calvin has separated out verses 3 and 4 of Exodus 20 into the first and second commandment of God. First, God has commanded that He alone is deity. To follow this up, the second commandment relates to the first and for Calvin, explains what worship is approved or rejected by God. Worshipping God alone is accepted and approved; creating any sort of image, likeness, carving that could represent God or any other gods is rejected. Calvin writes, “But God does not compare these images with one another, as if one were more subtle, another less so; but without exception he repudiates all likenesses, pictures, and other signs by which the superstitious have thought he will be near them.”

Luther, however, has combined Exodus 20:3, 4 to represent the whole of the first commandment of God. The force of the commandment under Luther’s view is that one is to “regard me alone as your God.” Luther is concerned with the intention of the heart, not the display of icons or art. He says, “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.” Luther distastes the practice of works in faith and views this as the god that is against God, rather than a veneration of icons. He writes, “Idolatry does not consist merely of erecting an image and praying to it. It is primarily in the heart, which pursues other things and seeks help and consolation from creatures, saints, or devils.”

Both Calvin and Luther have a strong opinion formed before coming to the text. They have both seen an abuse of the first and/or second commandment in their time. For myself, the thrust of this commandment(s) comes in verse 5, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” It is because of this verse that I tend to agree with Luther’s view of the commandment that the action that God detests or loves is the intention of the heart in worship. If our heart is inclining towards worshipping an idol, then the purpose of sculpting that form will be for worship. However, if our heart is inclined for worshipping the one, true God, then the purpose for forming or painting an icon will be for aid in worship of the one, true God. The heart’s intention is pure, and the commandment is not broken.

During the time of the Iconoclast Controversy and the Seventh Ecumenical Council, iconophiles (people who were pro-icon) were asked to draw a clear line between worship and veneration. Veneration for man was done as an act of honor; worshipful veneration was “given only to the uncreated God.” Through the centuries, this distinction did not remain clear. The views of mankind as “brute stupidity” (said by Calvin) and “lazy-bellies and presumptuous saints” (said by Luther) shed light on why the distinction was no longer clear enough for the average layperson to grasp. A theology of worship and the place of icons in this worship needed to be addressed. Calvin argues in 1.11.9 that even a bow of veneration to the icons is a superstition. He says, “And there is no difference whether they simply worship an idol, or God in the idol. It is always idolatry when divine honors are bestowed upon an idol…because it does not please God to be worshiped superstitiously, whatever is conferred upon the idol is snatched away from Him.” Here is the heart of the matter for Calvin – worship is for God alone, man cannot distinguish between veneration and worship because the very act of bowing implies worship to the idol. Worship for Calvin must be “soli Deo gloria (to God alone be the glory) and finitum non est capax infiniti (the finite cannot contain the infinite).” In 1.11.10, Calvin describes the lengths these Christians are going to for icons – by taking up the sword in order to defend those who would burn them, by taking long, taxing pilgrimages in order to see images even if they have a likeness of it in their home. The outward actions show Calvin what is at the heart of the people. There has been a veneration not of just honor, but a bestowing of deity to the icons.

The use of icons in worship crosses a dangerous line. They had ceased being used as an aid in worship. They became the objects of worship, and therefore, took away what God alone deserved and should be given. For Calvin, there is no distinction between latria (worship) and dulia (service) – both are for God alone, not man and not an image. Since man cannot separate the image from worship, the image or icon should be destroyed. Calvin held firm to his convictions on theology and worship. Churches were stripped bare in Geneva. While he briefly accepts that art and sculpture can be a gift from God in 1.11.12, Calvin is vague about what can be painted or sculpted and in what function it can serve a purpose. William Dyrness writes, “Whatever Calvin’s good wishes might have been for those gifted in these arts, Calvin gives them no positive encouragement or guidance. As a result, artists and sculptors were mostly out of work in the Geneva of Calvin’s time.”

The theology of God that Calvin presents is one that I firmly believe and hold accordingly in my life. Worship as a response to this belief is an all-encompassing act. It transcends time and generations, and is an invitation by God to join in on something that is far bigger than ourselves that He has initiated through both nature creation and human creation. All of our actions in worship should point to God, and I agree with Calvin that the veneration of icons had crossed the line into worship of the icons and saints rather than of God. However, I believe that a reform in the area of iconography would have been more beneficial to the community rather than a destruction of church buildings and church art.

Luther had to deal with these matters more specifically because of the destruction of church buildings, icons, images and art in Wittenburg by the leadership of Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. Luther addresses the destruction of images by seeking a reform of the heart first, rather than a destruction of property. He writes, “For when they are no longer in the heart, they can do no harm when seen with the eyes.” Mere destruction of images, for Luther, will only swell up pride and preserve the idolatry in the heart of “false confidence and pride in works.” In his sermon on the destruction of images, Luther uses the first commandment as his basis for what should be obeyed. It is the command not to have any other gods that Luther upholds as the principle. If images are made in order to be a god, then sin and disobedience to the command has occurred. He states, “where, however, images or statues are made without idolatry, then such making of them is not forbidden, for the central saying, ‘You shall have no other gods,’ remains intact.”

Luther’s concern for the heart and proper worship are evident throughout this sermon. His strong stance against strictly enforced destruction is because he sees the church replacing the works of pilgrimage and indulgences with the work of destruction. In faith and belief there is nothing that one can do to achieve any sort of good standing with God, and Luther sees Karlstadt requiring people to destroy images as a call for works to be performed. Luther desires that through right preaching and the Holy Spirit’s work on man’s heart, the veneration and worship of images will be destroyed in man’s heart and the icons that are improperly used and abused will be destroyed accordingly.

What then should become of works of art in the church? Cathedrals were built higher, more ornately to draw men’s eyes heavenward towards thoughts of God the Creator. Art, structure and images have been found to serve the church in didactical purpose. Today, power point screens run during times of praise with pictures of God’s creation – working to focus the thoughts and minds solely on God. One would be hard-pressed to find a church that did not have an operating flannel graph in use every Sunday during Children’s Church twenty years ago. Windows are filled with stain-glass that depict the lives of saints – reminding us of the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us and the communion of saints that we as believers now have come into.

Every aspect of artistic life in the church should serve as a means to bring glory and worship to God. In the construction of the tabernacle in the Old Testament it is said:

“Then Moses said to the people of Israel, ‘See the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahsamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver – by any sort of workman or skilled designer.” Exodus 35:30-35

Not that this can be a proof-text for art in Christianity, but it shows that God valued giving talent and skill to His people in order that a place of worship, a place where they could encounter God and receive forgiveness, could be constructed in a way that brought beauty and glory to God.

Calvin’s strong stance against any sort of images in the Church and subsequently a lack of direction for artistic expression does not sit well with me, a daughter of the Creator who has been given a creative drive and talent with which I have tried very hard to find avenues to express my faith and give glory back to God through my art. The abuse in the Church during the period of the Reformation and before is clearly a sin in the heart of man. Worship belongs to God alone. There is room for art and images in the Church though, as they serve to point to God, to direct the congregations thoughts and vivid images of their mind to God, and as they serve as an outlet for the artistically talented to express notions of Joy, Grace, Peace, Faith and Love in ways that only they are capable of doing – whether by a paint stroke, a click of a camera or the molding of clay.

The Book of Concord, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959).

Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), vol. I.

Dyrness, William, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Eire, Carlos M. N., War Against the Idols (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Giakalis, Ambrosios, Image of the Divine: The Theology of Icons at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (New York: E.J. Brill, 1994).

Luther’s Works, ed. Conrad Bergendoff (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), vol. 40.

No comments:

Post a Comment