Some thoughts on iconoclasm

Not long ago, I was observing some conversation with the anti-Jesus-pictures crowd. These were Protestants of a Calvinistic bent, although iconoclasm certainly is widespread among certain Arminian-leaning groups as well.

One line of argumentation they took was that, quite simply, God absolutely cannot be pictured. Since Jesus is God, He therefore cannot be pictured, and arguments to the contrary are “Nestorian” by nature (Nestorian belief suggests a faulty separation of the two natures of Christ in His person).

This line of reasoning seems to do violence to the notion of the Incarnation altogether. Clearly, to look at Jesus IS to look at God, and Christmas/Epiphany is a great announcement of this (“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity”). Or as the apostle John puts it, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known.” It’s an acknowledgement that in Jesus, God is tabernacled in a tent of flesh, and we can approach Him safely. Eyes can see, ears can hear, and hands can touch, without dropping dead– indeed, for healing and resurrection.

Yet, despite the fact that Jesus Himself looked like an ordinary man as He walked this earth in His incarnation– and presumably cameras and video would show Him not appearing very almighty most of the time– the iconoclasts seemed to think that this was not a proper God-representation. If you’re going to have a picture of Jesus, it is thought, you would have to visually communicate everything about Him, or else the picture is a dangerous lie.

Here’s where, perhaps, some misunderstandings on the nature of art and pictures comes into play. Just because no picture can possibly communicate everything that can be communicated about Jesus, that’s a cause to ban pictures? You might as well ban not only all the arts, but all other writing and communication about Jesus as well. And not only pictures of Jesus, but pictures of ordinary men would be lies, too; paintings cannot literally depict the human soul, for example. (While we’re talking about God hiding Himself in that which we can see and touch, let’s talk about the Nestorian suggestion that Jesus’ body is chained to the right hand of the Father in heaven, and therefore His disembodied spirit is all that is with His church today, as opposed to the whole Jesus who is present with us not only His spirit, but in His actual body and blood…)

Chesterton once said that the essence of every picture was the frame. He meant that good art requires limits and boundaries. It means saying something specific, and knowing when to sit down again. This might be an area where creative Lutherans can learn. We rightly value art and writing (hymnody, for example) that is rich, detailed, and extensive, with lots to confess. But it’s also okay to say just a few Gospel-centered things, and say them very well and artfully. In the ephemeral Internet age, it may often frustrate us to see pithy but inaccurate sound bytes that confess the faith poorly indeed. But we fall into the opposite error, that of the iconoclasts, if we think that if a creative statement does not say everything that could possibly be said, then it is therefore a lie. There is a time to be succinct, and a time to be long-winded; a time for the Apostles’ Creed and a time for the Athanasian Creed, as it were.  Art can be both, but it is not good merely because it is one or the other; it’s good because it skillfully confesses truth and knows when it’s time to sit down.




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