My Graduate Studies, Icons of Christ and Faith in All Its Amplitude

Strand Campus, King's College London
Strand Campus, King’s College London

Many of you know that I am currently completing the final stages of a PhD in historical theology through King’s College. Having been homeschooled and then having led a fairly sheltered and conservative life, it was a real shock to my system to be suddenly launched into the European theological scene. The suddenness of the experience was amplified by the fact that I never did a Masters degree, and even my undergraduate work had been done through correspondence.

A friend of mine who lost her faith when she went to college warned me that doing a PhD at a secular European university might be disconcerting to my “fundamentalist” Christian beliefs. She suggested that maybe I would be more comfortable pursuing my graduate studies at somewhere like Fuller. But I was resolute that I would be a King’s man.

Having almost completed my graduate studies, I am happy to say that I did not lose my faith. But at times I felt like I might.

Doing the PhD changed me in many ways, and it also significantly impacted my relationships with my immediate and extended family. Not only did I experience a number of theological ‘paradigm shifts’, but I also faced painful personal and psychological challenges. As I complete the process it feels like I am a different person than the Robin who walked onto the King’s College campus 5 years ago and asked “Where’s the library?” Whether I am a better person or not is up to God to decide, but I can at least hope that, like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s poem, it can be said of me “A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn.”

This blog is not the place to talk about the personal changes I went through working on my PhD. But I do want to share about some of the theological changes.

When I started working on my PhD thesis, my supervisor complained about what he perceived to be a Calvinist triumphalism. On earlier drafts of my thesis he wrote that I sounded like Iain Murray at his worst. As my research progressed and I delved deeper into theological scholarship, I found myself questioning many of my earlier assumptions about God, the world, mankind, and Christian worship. Unlike the personal changes brought about from my graduate studies, which I mainly kept to myself, I involved as many people as possible in the theological metamorphosis I was going through, including my pastor, various mentors and the elders of our Presbyterian church. Consequently, by 2011 (only one year into my graduate studies) I had a sizable stack of letters I had written, questioning previously held beliefs. I collected and expanded on these letters for the ‘Canterbury Letters’ that I published anonymously on the Creedal Christian blog in 2011. Only recently did I reveal myself to have been the author of these letters, in addition to making an expanded version of them available for download.

I wanted to share one of these letters here, based on real correspondence I had with Calvinist mentors. In this letter I gave voice to questions I began to have concerning the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith regarding the role of images and icons in Christian worship.

Dear Geneva George,

Ok, ok, but even if you are right, your argument would only delegitimize images of Christ. You still have not adequately answered my points about images of saints.

Do icons of Christ undermine Chalcedon Christology?
Do icons of Christ undermine Chalcedon Christology?

With regard to icons of Christ, you say that the problem is that they either (A) represent Christ’s divine nature, (B) represent His human nature; (C) attempt to blend the human and divine natures in a single icon. Option A, you rightly point out, is impossible; option B leaves us with a false separation of Christ’s human and divine nature, which is the heresy of Nestorianism, while option C is the heresy of Monophysitism denying Christ’s two natures. To put the icing on the cake, you then quote the Council of Chalcedon’s statement that the two natures of Christ exist “without confusion, change, division, or separation; the distinction of natures in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved.”

Before explaining what is wrong with your argument, I wonder if you have realized the implications. If this line of reasoning is correct then we should rip out all the pictures of Jesus from Sunday school curriculum, never participate in any Easter pageant, refuse to watch Mel Gibson’s film The Passion, and Christ’s disciples should never even have pictured Jesus in their minds. Moreover, we must not even talk about Christ, because one could always turn around and say, “if your statement about Christ is in reference to His divine nature, then you haven’t done adequate justice to it since language is circumscribed and finite; but if your language about Christ is in reference to His human nature only, then you have falsely separated Christ’s human nature from His divine nature like the heretic Nestorius; but if your statement about Christ attempts to blend both the human and the divine natures, then you have committed the heresy of Monophysitism.” Thus the problem with the argument is that, if true, it proves too much.

But, in fact, the argument hinges on a false trilemma that can be exposed by paying more attention to Chalcedonian Christology. You seem to forget that the Council of Chalcedon distinguished between Christ’s nature and His person. The above argument only works if the purpose of an icon is to portray Christ’s human nature. But no one has ever argued that. Defenders of icons throughout the centuries have always argued that the purpose of an icon is to portray the person of Christ in which the two natures are united. An icon of Christ does not blend the two natures, but represents the person who has two natures. As Daniel Clendenin has put it, summarizing the arguments used by Christians throughout history to defend images of Christ:

“An icon, then, did not attempt to represent either the human or the divine nature alone, but instead the unity and totality of the two natures in a single person. The defenders of icons pointed to the Eucharist, the precrucifixion transfiguration, and even the glorified, post-resurrection Christ as examples demonstrating how the totality of the divine-human person remained at the same time fully divine, fully human, and necessarily localized and therefore circumcricable.”

With regard to images of saints, your arguments about mediation and idolatry are simply sophistic and lack any meaningful content. Sorry for putting it bluntly! Consider your statement, “Any time an image, picture of anything is used as a medium through which to worship God, that thing becomes idolatrous and falls under the prohibition of the second commandment.” The problem here is that your concerns about ‘mediums’ are just as vacuous as your earlier remarks about “means of worship.” The dictionary defines ‘medium’ as an intermediate or middle condition between one thing and another thing. Now if we are going to maintain that anything which is a medium through which to worship God is automatically idolatrous, then not only must images be rejected, but so must the sacraments, hymns, prayers, Bibles, speech and even the natural world itself, since all these things can play a part in being intermediaries between God and man. Indeed, if we sing Psalm 104 in worship, with all its wonderful description of mountains, valleys and seas, then the natural world is in some sense acting as a middle condition (“medium”) between one thing (us) and another thing (God). The idea that worship has to be direct and unmediated seems to be a myth perpetuated by revivalism and has no place even in historic Protestantism. Images in worship may be inappropriate, but you cannot argue for that based solely on the fact that they function as “mediums.”

It is important to make these fine theological distinctions since it reveals that the typical iconoclastic position rests on shoddy thinking, illogical argumentation and (most importantly) unsound Biblical exegesis. Above all, your iconoclastic approach seems to hinge on the leaky bucket fallacy whereby you will employ one argument that is illogical in itself to come to the aid of another argument that is also illogical in itself, and after doing this about half a dozen times you feel like you have a case, when in reality all you have is just six or seven leaky buckets stacked inside one another. Put another way, a bad argument doesn’t become a good argument just because it has been joined together with other bad arguments.

I appreciate your concern that “Even if the use of images in worship may not always be idolatrous in the strict sense, the mere potential for idolatry to creep in is itself sufficient grounds to object to such practices.” Certainly idolatry is always a danger whenever a good thing is embraced. However, to try to eradicate all potential for idolatry (which seems to be what motivates you to eliminate all visual aids in worship) would be to dismiss every good gift which the Lord has given us. This is the basic problem with your slippery slope argument.

It also seems that we should be cautious of the tendency to guard most tenaciously against those heresies that are generally not temptations to us, while lowering our defenses against those excesses which we really ought to be guarding against. High church Protestants like myself love to talk about the dangers of dualism just as modern evangelicals love to talk about the dangers of externalism and ritualism, while fundamentalists like to focus on the dangers of liberalism. At some level, such polemics can function to obscure the idols in our own midst. Applied to the question before us, we would do well to question whether the paranoia among you and your Calvinist friends against the alleged idolatry of using visual objects in worship has obscured the Gnosticism, Docetism and semi-Manichaeism in your own camp. (OK, I’m being intentionally polemical, but the question is a legitimate one.) Moreover, by attempting to remove visual apparatuses from the place of worship, are you not subtly underscoring the secular axiom that religion has its locale only in the heart rather than the physical realm? Are you not implicitly colluding with the Gnostic notion (revived by post-enlightenment spirituality) that spiritual truth must be kept unbodied?

This is not merely an academic concern: In my youth I was involved in more than one Protestant group that descended down the slippery slope from the matter/spiritual dualism of radical Protestantism (complete with a large dose of iconoclasm) to Gnosticism and then finally to the New Age. Usually this process occurs over many generations. It is easy for Evangelicals to think about visual objects in worship as the slippery slope to idolatry and externalism, while being oblivious to the very real sense in which the elimination of these things can function as the slippery slope into a worse state of affairs. This was something that Dorothy Sayers was acutely conscious of when her play, The Man Born to be King, was preparing to be performed. The drama was criticized for represented Christ on the stage. At the time she wrote the play, there was a law forbidding the representation of Christ on the stage unless the producer first received a special dispensation. In her introduction to the play Sayers suggested that this law had “helped to foster the notion that all such representations were intrinsically wicked, and had encouraged a tendency, already sufficiently widespread, towards that Docetic and totally heretical Christology which denies the full Humanity of our Lord.”

Now naturally idolatry is going to slip in anywhere it can, and it would be fatal to trust to any system of worship as a safeguard against idolatry. Yet the argument that visual objects are a Trojan horse to idolatry can go both ways. Along these lines, one cannot help but wonder whether the slippery slope from rationalism to liberalism and from liberalism to apostasy that has ravaged the Puritan’s descendants in both America and England may have started, in part, with an overly cerebral orientation that would never have been sustainable had the whole body (ears, mouth and eyes) been robustly participating in the worship of the Triune God. It should also not be overlooked that the dualisms of dispensational movement only came about after years of non-physical worship oriented the American church to unconsciously think of matter and spirit as divisible. We might also ask with profit whether the tendency towards a privatized religion that is pushed on us from both secularism and much of the Postmodern project (and has resulted in the apostasy of so young people from Christian homes), is made more plausible by the Gnostic and semi-Manichaean orientation that is in the very air of Anglo-American Protestant culture and for which the use of images in worship can serve as a practical antidote. This is a point that Thomas Howard makes in his excellent book Evangelical is not Enough. Howard remarks that

Thomas Howard“…the Reformation has a lively sense of how prone we all are to magic and idolatry. We mortals would much rather bob at the cross than embrace its truth in our hearts. To light candles is much easier for us than to be consumed with the self-giving fire of charity so effectively symbolized by those candles. We lavish respect on the altar at the front of the church and neglect the sacrifice of a pure heart. Evangelicalism presses home these observations, quite rightly.

“But it is one thing to see dangers; it is another to be true to the Faith in all of its amplitude. By avoiding the dangers of magic and idolatry on the one hand, evangelicalism runs itself very near the shoals of Manichaeanism on the other – the view, that is, that pits the spiritual against the physical. Its bare spare churches, devoid of most Christian symbolism…be speak its correct attempt to keep the locale of faith where it must ultimately be, in the heart of man. But by denying the whole realm of Christian life and practice the principle that it allows in all the other realms of life, namely, the principle of symbolism and ceremony and imagery, it has, despite its loyalty to orthodox doctrine, managed to give a semi-Manichaean hue to the faith…

If by its practice [our religion] implies that colors and symbols and gestures and ceremonies and smells are inappropriate for the house of the Lord and must be kept outside, for ‘secular’ and domestic celebrations like birthdays, parades, weddings, and Christmas banquets, then it has driven a wedge between his deepest human yearnings and the God who made them.”

Great stuff, eh?

Canterbury Chris

Further Reading


Three Ways You Can Support This Blog

Get a copy of my book……..Buy our Essential Oils…………..Subscribe to Salvo

Saints and Scoundrels by Robin Phillips

Essential Oils

Salvo Magazine

Scroll To Top