Protestants of Reformed and Anabaptist leanings have historically been hostile to religious icons and images, whether two- or three-dimensional. Protestant iconoclasm often extended to depictions of the crucifixion or even to a bare cross. The argument of Protestant iconoclasts, like that of the Byzantine iconoclasts before them, begins with an understanding of the Decalogue. The argument of supporters of religious art in contrast begins with the doctrine of the Incarnation and an assertion that the Incarnation is a divine self-disclosure which alters the imaginability of the divine. God the Son incarnate, Jesus Christ, is himself the ‘express image’ of the Father. Though the Father remains unimageable, as being without body, parts, or passions, the Incarnate Son can be depicted in a theologically accurate fashion. Therefore, following the teaching of Saint John of Damascus and of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Orthodox and Catholic Christians permit sacred art, including depictions of the saints and of the incarnate Lord and of his Mother.[i]
The permissibility of icons and images in principle, however, does not mean that all religious art is good or true. I was given at my diaconal ordination a book of depictions of the crucifixion. One image was a ‘crucifix’ in a World Council of Churches building in Nairobi. The man on the cross was shown with his knees hunched up towards his chest, his hair on end, and screaming. This image is theologically false or, at best, radically inadequate. It simply shows a tortured man, with no indication of anything salvific or redemptive about him or his suffering. In contrast, theologically controlled and true depictions of the crucifixion indicate both the humanity of the Crucified and also his divinity. As a rule, crucifixes show Christ in repose, as one who has suffered crucifixion and death, but not as one purposelessly tortured. Just as the crucifixion can be explained in expository prose in a fashion that is either true to Scripture or false, faithful or faithless, so sacred art can either teach orthodox Christian truths or it can reject, neglect, or distort those truths.
The imaginability of the divine, brought about by the Incarnation and the resulting new covenant, may also owe something to a growth in religious maturity. It seems likely that primitive religious faith does not easily distinguish the image from what or whom it depicts. A modern Anglo-Catholic adult easily can make such a distinction. Therefore, much of the purpose of a prohibition on sacred art has passed away both through an objective heightening of revelation by the Incarnation and also through a subjective alteration in the capacity of men and women to grasp that revelation and to avoid gross idolatry.[ii]
Under the conditions established by the Incarnation, clarified and explained by the Seventh Council, it appears that sacred images are now in the same theological category as verbal descriptions, analogies, and theological formulae. As an icon can be theologically correct or theologically false, so a doctrinal explanation of the Incarnation or the Passion, for example, can be true or false, accurate or misleading. For Christians there is now in principle no difference between an icon in written words, in a sermon, in paint, in glass, in plaster, or in wood.
The potential and the dangers of sacred art and of sacred theology are actually quite similar.[iii] Sacred art can explain and disclose, but also can cloak, mislead, or distort. So too most positive theological language is analogical and approximate and, therefore, not univocally true. ‘God is our Father,’ is true, but also is an analogy that can mislead, since God, unlike all human fathers, is a being – to repeat – without body, parts, or passions. Analogies are true, but only to a point. Theological objections to sacred art, then, seem applicable also to sacred language, including the language of Scripture. Just as orthodox theology is the appropriate response to erroneous theology, so sound religious art is the appropriate response to bad taste and theological error in sacred art.
Ouspensky speaks of something like this assimilation of sacred art and sacred theology when he claims that, for the Church, ‘the icon is not an art illustrating Holy Scripture; it is a language which corresponds to Scripture, to the very contents of Scripture’ (Ouspensky, p. 166).
One might reply, of course, that the assimilation of pictorial and verbal icons, of sacred art and sacred theology, while not entirely unjustified, is contradicted by biblical authority, which prohibits depictions of God (and of all living beings) but freely uses analogical language in its large body of language about the divine. That is, I take it, the traditional argument of Protestant iconoclasts. But this argument from authority is contradicted by an appeal to conciliar authority (Nicaea II) and by ecumenical practice and Catholic theological consensus. It is, then, sufficient for Catholic and Orthodox Christians to recall the theology of the great iconodule Fathers and the ecumenical consensus that honors the sacred images. This alteration in the commandment concerning images is similar to the alteration of the meaning of the commandment concerning sabbath observance: the commandment remains and has an enduring meaning, but that meaning was altered by the authority of the New Testament and of the Church.
Anglicans historically have waffled about sacred art. There were some iconoclastic tendencies in the early Tudor Reformation and, especially, in the Interregnum of the following century. Certainly the churches built after the great London fire, for example, lack the profusion of sacred art in the typical medieval English church. A desire not to oppose too definitely the iconoclastic tendencies of the Calvinists in particular led many Anglicans to dispute the authority of Nicaea II. As in several important areas, this historical waffle is ruled out by the doctrinal clarity of The Affirmation of Saint Louis, with its acceptance of the Seventh Council and of consensus doctrines found in the central tradition of East and West, particularly in the first millennium.
[i] For an extended presentation of the Orthodox position, see Theology of the Icon, by Leonid Ouspensky (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1978). Ouspensky’s theological argument is not contradicted by his rather credulous attitude towards some historical and factual matters.
[ii] An earlier and similar growth in religious maturity can be seen within the Old Testament itself in its use of metaphors for God’s relations with Israel. Early stages of the Old Testament avoid marital and nuptial figures for the relationship between God and Israel: such analogies were too dangerous to permit when monotheism was weak and when the mythologies and worship of the peoples around Israel were heavily sexual. In later stages of the Old Testament marital imagery is used and sets the stage for its frequent presence in the gospels, the Pauline literature, and in Revelation.
[iii] One might also suggest that sacred music can be more or less objectively suited to accompany Christian worship, but that suggestion would lead me beyond my own competence.