Sermon Review: Church Art and Icons, Part 2

Gabriel continues his review of a recent Mark Driscoll Sermon.  For Part 1, click here.DW IconsThere seems to be an assumption that the Jews and ancient Christians were iconoclasts.  Were the Jews really iconoclasts? If so, did they reserve prostrations and other bodily forms of respect for God only?  New evidence from evacuations suggests otherwise. The synagogue at Dura-Europos (pictured above), one of the most ancient of Jewish synagogues found to date, is filled with icons depicting Old Testament stories.  The Palestinian Talmud records (in Abodah Zarah 48d) “In the days of Rabbi Jochanan men began to  paint pictures on the walls,   and he did not hinder them” and “In the days of Rabbi Abbun men began to make designs on mosaics, and he did not hinder them.” The oldest of Jewish books contain illustrations of the stories they describe.

We know that there is nothing wrong with using body language to convey honor, respect, and veneration. Everything from the mezuzah to the Torah was venerated (kissed) by pious Jews, and Christ would have done the same.  This is an ancient custom Christianity inherited from Jewish custom and worship.  There are many examples in the Bible where a person bows to someone else in order to show honor towards that individual. In Genesis 33:7 we find Leah, her children, Rachael, and Joseph  bowing to Esau.  In 2 Samuel and 2 Kings we find Absalom bowing before the king.  A woman bows before a man in 1 Sam/1 Kings 25:23). People were to bow before the Ark of the Covenant, which had sculptures of Cherubim.  We are commanded not to bow down to someone or something in order to give it worship.

There is however, nothing wrong with the cultural incentive to bow or prostrate yourself in front of something to show it due respect, honor, and veneration.  Instead of bowing, Americans salute the flag and their elders.  This is the American equivalent to showing honor to many culture’s enticement for prostrations and bows.  If we take the second commandment to its logical outcome, we must translate the gestures to our culture’s norm and never salute the flag, kiss the hand of a maiden, or curtsey or bow after a performance.  Likewise, if we take the instruction from the second commandment not to make a carved image, or a likeness of anything that is in heaven or earth, we must inevitably conclude that we must trash our family pictures, household decorations, televisions, movies, advertisements, and that a plethora of other depictions are evil.

This is just silly.  Even Pastor Mark notes the art is perfectly acceptable.  He still leaves a gap in his theology by allowing images to be represented, but not formally recognized as tools of worship or having any theological implications.  This is of course contradictory given Mars Hill’s use of visual media of evangelization and mission work.  There is a theology behind icons that Pastor Mark utilizes whether he acknowledges it or not.

The oldest Christian icon is attributed to Luke the Physician, depicting the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus.  Christian icons have been found that date as early as the second century.  They are found all over the Catacombs in Rome, Alexandria, and other places in the ancient Christian world.  In order to formally describe how icons have been used throughout the centuries in Christian worship would take volume upon volumes of books to begin to evaluate the position. All this say, icons used by Christians have a very long history that was inherited from an even longer history from their Jewish predecessors. Some of the oldest churches have been found with icons covering their walls.

The Church Fathers saw the icon as a Gospel for the illiterate. St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome says, “Images are used in churches so that the illiterate could at least look at the walls to read what they are unable to read in books.”  St. John of Damascus says “The image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to the literate, an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to sight as words to hearing; through the mind we enter into union with it”.   Act 6 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) comments that, “What a word communicates through hearing is what art shows silently through an image”.  Icons can play a catechetical role, a theological role, and a anthropological role.  St. John of Damascus says, “If one of the heathens comes to you saying: show me your faith… you will take him to church and put him before all kinds of holy images.”  Simultaneously, an icon does not just represent something; rather it reveals something.

In my next post, I hope to bring together the concept of the Incarnation and the redemption of Creation as represented by icons.