REFLECTIONS UPON THE USE OF TANGIBLE IMAGES IN THE WORSHIP LIFE OF THE CHURCH - PART FOUR
By: Larry D. Harvey
In this issue, we will continue to consider the use of tangible images of God and the Persons of the Trinity within the worship life of the Church and particularly within that physical space we know as the Chancel. We have previously considered several passages from the Holy Scriptures in Part One of this series, what we believe about the Holy Scriptures in Part Two, and undertaken a brief overview of the life of Martin Chemnitz and his conflict with the supporters of the writings of the Council of Trent in Part Three.
Again, we will draw from the Examination of the Council of Trent cited in Part One of this series, and all page references herein will be to that four volume work by citation of the particular Part, i.e. Volume, and page reference, unless otherwise noted.
We must also remember that Chemnitz was concerned specifically with the Decree of the Council of Trent Concerning Images that arose from the 25th Session of the Council of Trent (IV, pp. 53,54), while we are concerned more specifically with the use of tangible images in the Church today, with particular focus upon Deuteronomy 4:15-18, 23,24
"Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under earth....Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.'" (Emphasis added, ESV)
In the introduction of Chemnitz's writing about images, as he identifies the "Point at Issue" (IV, p. 55), Chemnitz notes first of all that "It is greatly be wondered at that, as we shall show later, such dreadful, hostile, and even bloody fights arose in the church about pictures or statues, that is, about a thing in which the Christian religion and piety are not even partially located." (IV, p. 55)
As we shall examine in more depth later, in the history of the Church, one will find those who vehemently argue that absolutely no images whatsoever are to be in any way tolerated in the life of the Church, whether or not they are present for worship or are present for people's adoration. You will also encounter that this prohibition was not limited to places of worship, but included places where people gathered in the civic sphere and private places, such as within homes. Some adherents zealously demolished any such images, wherever located, seeking either worship places completely devoid of images or an earthly realm without such images or both.
In contrast, the supporters of the Council of Trent decreed that it was necessary to have and retain tangible images in the churches, implying if not out rightly expressing that such images were a critically important part of proper worship of God and Christian piety. The Council of Trent and its supporters taught that "honor and indeed worship is to be accorded images, and that with the same worship with which what is signified by the images is to be venerated". (IV, p. 55) In other words, if the particular image is one of God Himself or of Jesus Christ, for example, that image was to be venerated with all of the aspects of worship due to God or Christ Himself. That understanding supported the honoring of the images with such things as gold, other items of value, candles, vows, ceremonies, bowings, and even prayers and invocations.
It is important that we note, before we really begin to examine all the facets of the use of images in the Church, that Martin Luther, "...according to the rule of Scripture, placed images that represent true and useful histories among the adiaphora which for the sake of beautification, remembrance, or history may be kept without superstition; and yet, if one does not have them, nothing is taken away from religion or piety. However, he showed that the worship of images is forbidden and condemned by the Word of God. Therefore he taught that superstitious opinions about images are to be removed from the minds of people through the teaching of the divine Word; that if any images are there for the purpose of being worshipped, they are to be removed by public authority; and that if it is to be feared that there is danger of idolatry from the images, they should rather be destroyed." (IV, pp. 55,56). In other words, let us be clear in our understanding that Luther put the use of tangible images among the adiaphora in the life and teachings of the Church.
As noted in the translator's footnote to the description of Luther's teachings quoted above, adiaphora are "(t)hings neither commanded nor forbidden by God, which therefore Christians may observe or decline to observe without sin." (IV, 56, footnote). So often in the life of the Lutheran Church today it seems like the characterization of some practice as being among the adiaphora, means that the Church can quit thinking about it. Some make it sound like there is no possible danger or harm in a Christian's or a Church's decisions or practices in such matters of Christian liberty. However, even if we know that a practice is neither commanded nor forbidden by God, we must consider how the practice may be perceived by others who may not yet have as mature an understanding of God's Word or as strong a saving faith as is enjoyed, by God's grace alone, by the decision makers. Consider Paul's discussion of food offered to idols in his First Epistle to the Church in Corinth. "However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ." (1Co 8:7-12; ESV).
Practices, rites, ceremonies, and all similar aspects of the life of the Church are to be tested against the likelihood that false teaching, superstitions, confusion as to God's Word, comingling of Law and Gospel, or a diminution of God's grace or our salvation solely for the sake of Christ's merit, have moved from mere possibility to likely probability. That requires a constant reexamination of the Church's practices and disciplined consideration be given to the attempts by Satan and his followers to lure away God's people from the Church which consists only of those with saving faith. In today's world, the Church must consider the influences and teachings being poured out upon God's people by way of the internet, radio, television, "Christian" bookstores, and the like.
The adiaphora of Church rites are addressed in several places in The Book of Concord of 1580, The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, including in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XV, 49-52; Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXVII, 26-35; Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article X; and Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article X.
Let us look at excerpts from Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article X, of which Chemnitz was a principal author and signatory. "There has also been a controversy among some theologians of the Augsburg Confession concerning ceremonies and church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God but which have been introduced into the church with good intentions for the sake of good order and decorum or else to preserve Christian discipline...We should not consider as matters of indifference, and we should avoid as forbidden by God, ceremonies which are basically contrary to the Word of God, even though they go under the name and guise of external adiaphora and are given a different color from their true one. Nor do we include among truly free adiaphora or things indifferent those ceremonies which give or (to avoid persecution) are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from that of the papists, or that we are not seriously opposed to it. Nor are such rites matters of indifference when these ceremonies are intended to create the illusion (or are demanded or agreed to with that intention) that these two opposing religions have been brought into agreement and become one body....Neither are useless and foolish spectacles, which serve neither good order, Christian discipline, nor evangelical decorum in the church, true adiaphora or things indifferent....We further believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, reduce, or to increase ceremonies according to its circumstances, as long as if does so without frivolity and offence but in an orderly and appropriate way, as at any time may seem to be most profitable, beneficial, and salutary for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the edification of the church....We believe, teach, and confess that at a time of confession...the entire community of God...and especially the ministers of the Word as the leaders of the community of God, are obligated to confess openly, not only by words but also through their deeds and actions, the true doctrine and all that pertains to it, according to the Word of God. In such a case we should not yield to adversaries even in matters of indifference, nor should we tolerate the imposition of such ceremonies on us by adversaries in order to undermine the genuine worship of God and to introduce and confirm their idolatry by force or chicanery." (FC, SD, Article X 1, 5, 7-10; Tappert edition, Fortress Press, 1959, pp. 610-612).
In our attempt to basically follow the argument of Chemnitz concerning images, in the issues that are ahead, we shall look at images employed by the heathen, the teaching of the Old and New Testament concerning images, that the primitive church did not use images for worship as we note that the images were not easily admitted into the church's places of prayer, and how and when images began to enter the church's worship life, what fights thereby came into being, and what superstitions began to be attached.
As we continue to look at images in the context of our life in the Divine Services, may we humbly, despairing of our own wisdom, flee to His throne of grace saying "Lord, teach us to pray." (Luke 11:1; ESV).
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