Friday, August 27, 2010

The human face of God

Here's my side of some correspondence that TFan and I recently had on religious art.

1. I interpret the 2nd commandment in light of Deut 4:15-19. As I construe that passage, the ban in divine images presumes a distinction between the deus revelatus and the deus absconditus. Apart from his self-revelation (general/special revelation), God is unknowable. His invisibility is a metonymy for his unknowability (barring self-revelation).

Images of God are disallowed insofar as images of God fail to faithfully represent God, and they fail to faithfully represent God insofar as the artist doesn’t know what God is like.

2. That interpretation harmonizes the 2nd commandment with the further fact that God projects images of himself to human observers in phenomena like theophanies (as well as written records of the same). God can depict himself because God knows what he is like.

To be sufficiently accurate, an image must be fair analogue of God. In the course of progressive revelation, God produces numerous analogues which symbolize his nature, deeds, and economic roles.

3. We have various throne visions in Scripture (e.g. Dan 7:9; Rev 1:13-16. These are picturesque self-depictions of God/Christ.

What is more, this picture language appeals to the imagination of the reader or listener. He forms a mental image of the verbal image. And that’s something he’s expected to do. Something he’s supposed to do. For the word-painting is directed at the imagination of the reader or listener.

4. I don’t see a principled difference between a mental image and an extramental mental of the same image.

5. (1)-(4) apply equally to incarnate or God discarnate. The argument doesn’t turn on the Incarnation, per se.

Rather, it turns on whether an ostensible representation is truly representational, and what makes that truly representational (or not) is if it corresponds to a divine self-representation. The Bible furnishes many inspired models of God.

6. Whether or not pictures of Jesus are permissible is not dependent on (1)-(5), although that could function as one rationale.

7. The Incarnation per se is not the differential factor. However, when the question at issue is picturing Jesus, then, by definition, that contextualizes the discussion in reference to God Incarnate rather than God qua God.

8. At the same time, I also think the Incarnation introduces another consideration irrespective of (1)-(5). Picturing Jesus is not the same thing as picturing the invisible God (Deut 4).

I’m not going to go into the supporting arguments for (8) because I’ve already been over that ground in several posts and follow-up comments.

9. I’m not going to comment on what historical artworks meet these criteria. Depictions of Jesus span the centuries, from the catacombs to Salvador Dali, and everything in-between–Romanesque, Byzantine, Celtic, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Pre-Raphaelite, &c.

Obviously I’m not going to take time to review of all that.

10. A picture of Jesus reflects the theological interpretation of the artist. It doesn’t tell me anything about Jesus, per se. Rather, it tells me how the artist views Jesus–for better or worse.

For now I’ll touch on your main points:

“As to 1) There's no complete picture that could be made without filling gaps between what Scripture reveals about what Jesus looks/looked like, and what is necessary to make a picture. If Steve agrees, then I suppose he and I would agree that there are no lawful pictures of Jesus.”

i) I don’t see why filling in the gaps is illicit. An artistic depiction of Jesus isn’t meant to be photographically realistic. That’s not a reasonable expectation we should bring to art. Since I know that El Greco never saw Jesus, I don’t expect him to depict his actual appearance. Indeed, it’s obvious that he’s using Latino models. So it’s not as if this is inherently deceptive.

ii) I guess, then, you tacitly assume that an artistic depiction of Jesus ought to reproduce his actual appearance. I can’t think of a good argument for that, but you obviously have something in mind.

iii) In addition, as I’ve also said in a recent post, there’s a difference between depicting “Jesus,” and depicting a dominical metaphor, like the Good Shepherd. What’s important in that respect is fidelity to the metaphor–and not the physical features of Jesus.

iv) Although this anticipates another issue you touch on, the Bible expects us to mentally fill in the gaps when it uses picturesque descriptions. So I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with that.

“As to 2) I don't agree with Steve's explanation here. I think Steve has not properly drawn the distinction between an analogy/metaphor and a similitude. ‘The LORD Is is my shepherd’ and ‘the Lamb of god’ are not similitudes, but metaphors. The painting of ‘The Last Supper’ is a similitude. The golden calf was a similitude.”

i) Every metaphor/simile is an analogy, although not every analogy is not a metaphor/simile (for one can also compare two literal items).

The primary notion is analogy, and not a particular mode of expressing the analogy (e.g. metaphor/simile).

Is a given analogy of God/Christ accurate or inaccurate? That’s the basic question.

ii) Yes, you can draw distinctions between metaphors and similes, but is that relevant? Does the Bible make that the key distinction? Is there a morally/spiritually fundamental distinction between the two?

iii) In fact, a metaphor is just a shorthand simile, while a simile is just an explicit metaphor. The difference is merely that a simile adds a qualifier (“X is like Y”), whereas that relation is left implicit in a metaphor. But even though a metaphor may baldly say “X is Y,” rather than “X is like Y,” it’s to be understood that a metaphorical predication asserts analogy, not identity.

iv) There is also a difference between a literary similitude (i.e. simile) and a material similitude (i.e. painting), although that is not necessarily a relevant difference.

v) As I’ve also pointed out (elsewhere), similitude (to use your word) can operate at direct or indirect levels. A picture of a shepherd is a likeness of a shepherd, while a likeness of a shepherd is (or can be, which is context-dependent) a likeness of Jesus. In that roundabout sense, a picture of a shepherd is a picture of Jesus. However, the pictorial likeness is a literal likeness of a shepherd (which also allows for artistic license), but a figurative likeness of Jesus. So it would be equivocal to say a picture of a shepherd is a picture of Jesus (without further qualifications).

“As to 3) I don't think we're supposed to imagine that Dan 7:9; Rev 1:13-16 are literal. It's unclear to me whether Steve thinks we should view them that way.”

i) I never said anything to indicate that I think Dan 7:9 is a literal depiction of God. Since it depicts God discarnate, this is symbolic rather than literal. In this vision, God simulates a kingly self-representation, as if God were a human monarch, with all the trappings. God is literally an authority-figure, so he exemplifies that property in the symbolic form of a human king.

ii) Apropos (i), it would be appropriate to think of God in those terms, and depict God in those terms, since that type of depiction is a divine self-depiction. That’s one example of how God choose to represent himself. That’s one of the ways in which we ought to think of him.

My argument isn’t contingent on the literality of the model.

iii) Rev 1:13-16 is a bit more complex. Unlike God discarnate, Jesus is not essentially invisible. Not only can he appear to people in human form, but he has a human form (body) in which to appear (unlike angelophanies). At the same time, this description undoubtedly has some figurative details.

a) If this constitutes an objective vision, then John didn’t see the figurative details. Rather, the figurative details were added in his literary description of the vision, where he draws on some stock OT imagery, of numinous heavenly beings, to bring out the theological significance of the vision.

b) If this constitutes a subjective vision, then the symbolism could be built directly into the experience, for, in that case, Jesus is projecting that imaginative appearance.

“As to 4) There is a difference in that one is is in the realm of thought/mind/spirit, and the other is in the realm of the physical. I don't know whether that difference is always significant. It's worth noting that the Westminster Standards would tend to agree with Steve on (4), although they therefore also forbid creating mental images purporting to be of Jesus.”

i) I don’t know what the Westminster Divines had in mind, and it doesn’t especially concern me.

ii) However, “creating mental images” is ambiguous. That could mean either of two different things:

a) Imagining Jesus in terms that don’t correspond to Biblical models.

b) Imagining Jesus in terms of Biblical models (e.g. dominical metaphors and Biblical visions).

"As to 10) Certain alleged images would seem not to fall in this category, such as the allegedly Lukan icon, or the Shroud of Turin."

BTW, that raises a potential dilemma. I haven't kept up with the latest turns and twists concerning the authenticity/inauthenticity of the Shroud. But if it were demonstrably authentic, that would incite idolatrous devotion among many worshipers in a way that an obviously fictitious depiction would not.

In that respect, there's a tension between the argument that pictures of Jesus are illicit because they are idolatrous (or promote idolatry), and the argument that pictures of Jesus are illicit because they don't resemble Jesus. For if a picture actually did reproduce his physical features, that would be far more likely to foster idolatry than a picture which no reasonable viewer mistakes for photographic realism.


  1. I'm guessing it's been asked before, but for any of you out there who agree with Coram Deo, "Can Jesus, the Theanthropos, paint a self-portrait?" Being fully man, He would have to obey the 2nd Commandment. But as God, doesn't He have the right to represent Himself as He wishes? BTW, I side with Steve on this issue.

  2. Steve,

    Thanks for fleshing out your position.


    Can God create a boulder too heavy for Him to lift?

    In Him,

  3. I think the idolatrous question comes into being if we are actually worshipping the said image or it helps us to worship the living God.

    Eg, when I go for private sabbaticals and sit beside the water, or on a hill looking over a sunset / sunrise I am filled with awe of the creator who made all this happen.

    I have no problems with any picture that represents Christ. Or any picture whose author has painted to represent the glory and majesty of long as the aim isn't to worship that picture as God.

  4. I have no problems with any picture that represents Christ. Or any picture whose author has painted to represent the glory and majesty of long as the aim isn't to worship that picture as God.

    So craig, based on your blanket statement above is it safe to assume that you're cool with Piss Christ just so long as no one worships it?

    If not, why?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

  5. Hi Coram Deo.

    Interesting picture and one I have not seen before. Interesting question also.

    I think that picture is very profound, even if the creators intent was to mock.

    Jesus when hanging on the cross would have been covered in urine, his own dung and vomit. He would have stank and to use crass language shit and pissed all over the place in public....

    That picture reminds me of the stark humiliation of Christ and the mocking he underwent by those who witnessed and sentenced him.

  6. Thanks for your reply, craig. I take it then that you're basically okay with "Piss Christ", check.

    Christ's body is also represented by the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Mass. A description of the Eucharistic adoration follows:

    "Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration is the adoration of Jesus Christ present in the Holy Eucharist. In the many Churches that have this adoration, the Eucharist is displayed in a special holder called a monstrance, and people come to pray and worship Jesus continually throughout the day and often the night. Christ’s great love for us was shown when he was crucified on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and give us eternal life. He loves us without limit, and offers Himself to us in the Holy sacrament of the Eucharist. Can we not give Jesus a few minutes of love and adoration in return?"

    In your opinion is this type of representation of Christ acceptable so long as the host [wafer] itself is not actually worshipped, but rather Christ's Real Presence within the host is worshipped?

    In your opinion are there any limits to man-made depictions, representations, or similitudes of Christ?

    Why or why not, and what forms the basis of your views? In other words how can you tell when "the line has been crossed" so to speak? Is it the point where actual worship is given to a graven image purporting to represent One of the three Persons of the One true and living God, or else a representation of some other god such as Baal or Dagon, for example?

    In Christ,

  7. Interesting question again Coram.

    I think there is two sides to your question. For example I enjoy woodworking and gardening. If I make a what I consider a nice table, chest of draws or other I can congratulate myself for a job well done.

    My intention was not to worship that piece. However I might sell or give that piece and the new owner might decide to worship that as a idol and call it God...

    Interesting question about Christ's presence...and how you have moved from art to Roman Catholicism.

    I am not comfortable with the whole concept and much of the outworking of RC to begin saying this I have not met any Catholics who actually worship the elements as God... I speak as one once who was married into an nominal Italian Catholic family and saw / heard many ungodly excesses.

    However Scripture says that God moves through, over and within all things... I have met many protestants who would use the Bible in the same way RC's use the elements to worship God....bit like the stereotype "Father son and holy scriptures"

    In the culture where God gave these commands about graven images the image represented the God of the nation / individual...such as baal, asherath poles etc...

    its interesting the whole issue about graven images and the "Ark of the Covenant" When King David danced and worshipped in front of the Ark when it was brought into Jerusalem was he worshipping it, or worshipping the God it represented?

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