Thursday, May 06, 2004

Is Mel's movie impious?-2

3. The Apophatic argument

Scripture uses a number of verbal images for God: it says that God is a father, a farmer, a carpenter, a potter, a king, a shepherd, a warrior, &c. Verbal imagery naturally conjures up a corresponding mental image. Would a critic of theographic or Christographic art contend that we should suppress the mental image trigged by such picturesque usage when we read the Bible? What's the point of picture-language if we are not allowed to picture or depict it? And what's the moral or spiritual difference between a subjective and an objective image?

When the Israelites started out (e.g., the Patriarchs), they didn't have much revelation to go by, so it was natural for them to picture and depict God according to pagan models (e.g., wild animals). But in the course of progressive revelation, there are more and more authorized images of God in Scripture. Those who begin and end with the second commandment tend to forget its place in the inaugural stages of progressive revelation.

In the contemporary and escalating debate over unisex Bibles, conservatives have laid great weight on the masculine metaphors for God in Scripture. They insist, and with good reason, that these are more than merely anthropomorphic; rather, they implicate God's economic identity and even his essential character. Divine images are self-revelatory and normative for the church.

But when it comes to theographic and Christographic art, they suddenly abandon ectypal theology for apophatic theology. They treat God as so inscrutable that any and every analogy reduces to sheer equivocation.

Traditionally, this sort of religious epistemology is associated with Greek orthodoxy. There is no cognitive knowledge of God, but God can be apprehended in a mystical encounter.

This view is in tension with Protestant epistemology, which is predicated on the principle a realist epistemology—grounded in propositional revelation. God-talk has constantive force. Even symbolism has a representative and referential terminus. It is symbolic of something.

4. The Nestorian Heresy

Debate over the second commandment shades into another related objection, to the effect that no image of Christ can successfully capture the divine dimension of his identity. Hence, any such effort is guilty of the old Nestorian heresy by only presenting the human side of Christ, and thus dividing the hypostatic nature. By way of reply:

1. From the standpoint of historical theology, it should be unnecessary to point out that this way of framing the issue is a misappropriation of dogma, for it is not as though Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus represented the iconoclast faction!

2. At one level, even a mere man is revelatory of the divine nature by virtue of the imago Dei.

3. It is hard to see how this amounts to a Scriptural objection. Could we pick Jesus out of the crowd because he had a numinous or nimbic presence? Although there may be occasions when Christ did project a divine aura (the Transfiguration), yet most of the time he looked like an ordinary man.

What did the Apostles see when they looked at Jesus? Did they see anything other than we would see if we were in a position to take a picture of him? To be sure, Christ is much more than a man—is God incarnate, no less; but he is no less than a man, and what they saw was a man. The sensible object was the humanity, not the divinity. They may have perceived a divine presence, but that was not presented to the senses as a tangible deliverance.

You might as well argue that the Incarnation itself failed to do justice to the divine nature of Christ by hiding his divinity behind human flesh.

Even theophanies represent rather than present the Godhead, for the spiritual nature of God is essentially invisible. This goes back to the old truth that, in some measure, the revealed God remains the concealed God.

A related criticism is that since mere men such as Spartacus were crucified, a film about the crucifixion of Christ fails to distinguish the sole and sufficient merit of his atonement from the death of many sinners.

But if this objection holds true for the film medium, then it holds true for the Gospel genre as well. Both the dramatic narrative of cinema and the historical narrative of Scripture convey their message by more by showing than by telling. This is one reason the NT complements narrative theology (the Gospels) with didactic theology (the Epistles).

4. One of the ironies of the Nestorian objection is that it adopts such a Catholic form of reasoning. Compare the following two syllogisms:

i) The 2nd commandment forbids images of God
ii) Jesus is God
iii) Ergo: the 2nd commandment forbids images of Jesus

i) Mary is the mother of Jesus
ii) Jesus is God
iii) Ergo: Mary is the Mother of God

The form of the Nestorian objection is far too Mariolatrous for our liking!

5. The flaw in both syllogisms lies in a certain equivocation of terms. Although each of the two natures of Christ is predicable of the person of Christ, each nature is not predicable of the other nature.

6. If those who support Christographic art are guilty of the Nestorian heresy, then are those who oppose Christographic art guilty of the Docetic heresy? These sorts of appeals either prove too much or too little.

7. Many critics operate with a false assumption about the function of representational art, to wit: they fail to draw a what/that distinction, which, in turn, beclouds the question of how a picture represents its subject.

A picture of Christ is not, and does not intend to be, a picture of "what" Christ is--whether human or divine or both, whether the Messiah, Redeemer, and/or judge (excepting pictures of the great Assize).

The image is just a visual token of Christ—"that" the figure depicted is taken to be Christ, but not necessarily "what" Christ is in his person and work.

Let us draw a parallel with the sacraments. Take the communion bread. This represents the Crucifixion, but one can hardly say that it resembles the Crucifixion. It is not a picture in the descriptive sense of the word. And it doesn't tell us what the Crucifixion signifies.

Of course, it's possible to have more of an internal relation between sign and significate. Some metaphors are more natural than others. But that's a bonus point.

Expressed schematically, the what/that distinction is as follows:
what: sign=significate
that: sign>significate

5. Sufficiency of Scripture

The last of the general objections is that Christographic art violates the sufficiency of Scripture. But this objection trades on a half-truth. There's a sense in which verbal revelation enjoys priority over non-verbal revelation. By the same token, preaching takes a certain precedence over the sacraments.

This emphasis is one of the things distinguishing Catholicism from Protestantism. Catholicism is image-centered whereas Protestantism is word-centered. And this is probably why Catholic filmmakers generally make better movies than Protestant filmmakers.

However, word and sign must never be pressed into an antithetical relation. Throughout the Bible, God employs both word-media and event-media in revelation. And word and sign are both in play in the teaching of Christ. A miracle is an enacted parable.

No, preaching cannot be replaced by another medium. But sign may supplement the word. There is, indeed, Biblical precedent for drama in preaching (e.g., Ezk 4). Likewise, the sacraments serve as visual aids and object lessons. They are no substitute for the word of God, but they assist our comprehension and retention of the Word.

In a sense, general revelation needs the context of special revelation in order for the former to be adequately understood, or at any rate to act as a constraint against distortion and error to which humans are prone when left unguided by Scripture. But then we don't infer from this that general revelation simpliciter has a tendency to mislead, much less because it involves images. What we say is that "if" one reflects on general revelation in the context of special revelation it achieves results that it doesn't otherwise. The same general logic applies to images. They have no intrinsic tendency to mislead. Context is crucial.

Surely the point behind the second commandment is to prohibit the worship of false gods, not teach us some statement about information processing.

The Bible uses a lot of picturesque imagery. And the historical narratives of Scripture contain many visual descriptions. Is a critic telling us that the reader should never try to see, to imagine, to visualize what the Bible describes? Isn't there some value in a reader attempting to picture the scene depicted in Scripture? To be a participatory reader? To enter as fully as possible into the text?

In addition, we don't read the Gospels through quite the same set of eyes as the original audience. It is one thing to read about a crucifixion, quite another thing to see it. Many of the original readers were witness to this cruel form of execution. A graphic historical reconstruction of the event can bring us closer to the original intent and barbaric impact of the text.

For the modern reader, our mental picture of Bible history has been informed by Biblical archeology. And many movies about Bible history have also been informed by Biblical archeology. The text supplies the dialogue, but archeology supplies the visuals. Would a critic also say that Biblical archeology violates the sufficiency of Scripture?

Another objection is that just because God has depicted himself in various ways (theophany, Christophany, Incarnation), that doesn't give us the right to depict him. But the underlying principle is so broad that it could either be true for false depending on the situation. No, we don't have a right to do whatever God does. On the other hand, imitating the Lord is a general directive of OT piety (e.g., Lev 11:14-45; 19:2; 20:7

There is yet another point of tension, if not outright contradiction, between arguing—on the one hand—that the film medium is illicit because moving images are an inadequate medium to convey theological truth, and—on the other hand—arguing that the film is illicit because it conveys a false theology in terms of its Roman Catholic distinctives.

III. Supporting arguments:

1. Church history

Many critics are under the impression that theographic or Christographic art is contrary to the Reformed tradition.

Because a number of critics have attacked The Passion in the name of Calvinism, it is necessary to draw some boundary-lines—especially as some of the critics seem not to be overly-conversant with the tradition they profess.

For example, some of the critics attack The Passion on the basis of the 2nd commandment in general and the regulative principle in particular. But such a line of attack assumes that Calvinism is identical with 17C Presbyterian theology. But this is a decidedly provincial definition of the Reformed tradition.

To begin with, it appears to have been forgotten that a not few of the Westminster Divines were Anglicans (e.g., Brownrigg. Coleman, Featley, Hammond, Holdsworth, Lightfoot, Morley, Prideux, Sanderson, Selden, Ussher, Westfield), which goes to show that the Anglican view of the 2nd commandment was not thought to be outside the pale of Reformed orthodoxy. Indeed, Toplady wrote a whole history of the Reformed tradition within the Anglican church. (Cf. The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England.)

So the RPW doesn't distinguish a Calvinist from a non-Calvinist, but, at most, serves to distinguish a Reformed Presbyterian from a Reformed Anglican.

And even if we limit ourselves to the RPW, this is irrelevant to the current debate inasmuch as the RPW is, as the name implies, a rule of worship. It only applies to what is permissible in public and private worship. It does not, of itself, forbid the fine arts or sacred art outside the church. So unless the critic is going to equate a movie-theater with a house of worship, invoking the RPW is quite beside the point.

Historical Calvinism is not hostile to sacred art or the fine arts. As Kuyper observes,
"When his colleague, Prof. Cop, at Geneva, took up arms against art, Calvin purposely instituted measures, by which, as he writes, to restore this foolish man to sounder sense and reason. The blind prejudice against sculpture, on the ground of the second commandment, Calvin declares unworthy of refutation," Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans, 1983), 153).

Kuyper's observation is significant, both for what it says about Calvin as well as the Dutch-Reformed, for the Dutch-Reformed were great patrons of the arts. Holland has a number of historic organs, such as the Aa-Kerk, Martinkerk, and Alkmaar organs.

Holland is famous for the Dutch and Flemish schools of painting, which extended to sacred art. Rembrandt is the best known example. As one art historian has noted,
"After the Synod of Dort…The strict Calvinists became the official church, and attached themselves to the head of State… [Rembrandt's] first commission, the scenes of the Passion, was given to him on behalf of Prince Frederick Henry of Orange, head of the official Calvinist party," K. Clark, An Introduction to Rembrandt (Harper & Row, 1978), 117.

Holland was also a center of drama, including sacred drama, of whom Joost van den Vondel is certainly the most celebrated, but hardly the only name. And sacred drama isn't limited to the Dutch Reformed, but extends as well to the mother church of Geneva, for Beza, Calvin's right-hand man and successor, also wrote Christian plays.

Since Holland had a national church along Erastian lines, all such artistic expressions could have been banned by force of law were they deemed to be at odds with the official stamp of Calvinism. (For a general overview of church/state relations in Holland, cf. W.R. Godfrey, "Church and State in Dutch Calvinism," Through Christ's Word, W.R. Godfrey & J. Boyd, eds. (P&R, 1985), 223-43.)

It also cannot escape notice that many of the critics come from Reformed denominations which are very loose in their adherence to the RPW. Strict subscription to the Westminster standards, commits you, not only to the Confession and catechisms, but to the Directory of Worship. It commits you to the divine right of kings, the abiding validity of the Solemn League and Covenant, the historicist reading of Revelation, strict Sabbatarianism, exclusive a cappella Psalmnody, and a very rigid liturgy.

The Westminster standards include the Directory of Worship, which is, in turn, underwritten by the Solemn League & Covenant (see the preface). The original version of the WCF equates the Pope with the Antichrist. This assumes the historicist reading of Revelation inasmuch as it identifies the Antichrist with the papacy—which is a church historical entity. Likewise, the crown stood for the status quo ante.
The original version was only revised after the Revolutionary war and overthrow of the monarchy in America.

In other words, if you're going to be a stickler about this, and use it as the yardstick for measuring The Passion, then you must believe that the only true Calvinist is a Cameronian. (We would also note in passing that a true purist will use the old Geneva Bible rather than the KJV, which is a trophy of Anglican scholarship.)

It would seem, then, that many who attack The Passion in the name of Calvinism would be well advised to bulletproof their windowpanes lest the stones they hurl today should one day rebound.

1 comment:

  1. A compilation of most if not all our posts on the topic of graven images and the second commandment can be found here.