So there you are, standing in the midst of a huge crowd, singing your heart out in praise of Christ and His redeeming blood. The band is outstanding, and loud. The lights are dimmed. The words are projected for all to see. And behind those words, just to make sure you really get what you’re singing about, there’s a picture of Jesus with His hands outstretched and nailed to the cross. It just fits the mood perfectly and seems to bring home to many of the people there the reality of the price He paid at Calvary. Tears stream down a few faces. Others light up in joyful smiles. The creative one on the worship team has done his job well and that picture has helped people worship.
So there you are, standing in the midst of the huge crowd, singing. The music is outstanding, and loud. The lights are dim – just some spots at the front gently flickering really, giving a nice ‘authentic’ vibe. The smoke rises at the front of the church (perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, all the cool churches are doing it). And as you sing you look, naturally enough, at the screen, where, displayed for all the view, there’s a picture of Jesus with His hands outstretched and nailed to the cross. It just fits the mood perfectly and seems to bring home to many of the people there the reality of his sufferings at Calvary. Tears stream down a few faces. That picture has done its job again in helping people to worship.
Now, those two scenes look rather alike, don’t they. You might even think I’m describing exactly the same church service twice over – and it’s true, from those descriptions I could be. But that’s not really what I’m describing. I’m describing church services taking place very far away from each other. Not so much far in space as far in time, for those services took place 500 years apart. The first one is just what you’d imagine it to be, a contemporary evangelical worship service now in 2014. The second take however is what you might have encountered in 1514. Yes, 1514.
In other words this is what you would have encountered before the Reformation, not after it. It’s a description of worship in the medieval catholic church. The smoke isn’t coming from smoke-machines, but censors. The flickering spots at the front aren’t spotlights, but the candles on the altar. And the screen isn’t a projector screen, but a rood screen or an altar screen. And now that I’ve told you all that, suddenly the two scenes couldn’t seem further apart. What hath contemporary evangelicalism to do with medieval catholicism?
Well, I’m quite convinced that the answer to that question is ‘a lot more than you’d imagine’, but I’ll leave that aside for now, as it’s the place of the image of Christ in these two church services that my focus is upon today.
In medieval catholicism (as in modern-day Roman Catholicism), images of Christ abounded to help people worship. But my first scene above wasn’t a scene from medieval catholicism, it was a scene from present-day evangelicalism.
Hang on! What’s going on? Is this what we’ve come to? Why are we suddenly skipping back 500 years to feel worshipful? Is a picture of physical suffering more significant to us than the truth that Jesus has borne the wrath God in our place? Have we forgotten the biblical lessons we learnt at the Reformation?
Now maybe at this stage you think I’m just some sort of reactionary Protestant standing on an old tradition. But the rejection of images of Christ wasn’t a mere Protestant tradition for the Reformers – after all, there wasn’t any Protestant tradition in place at the time of the Reformation – it was a biblical conviction. The second commandment tells us, ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.’ (Exodus 20:4-5). Now, the first commandment has already banned the worshipping of any god other than the true and living God, so what the second commandment is dealing with is the wrong worship of the true God – representing the true and living God with images and using them in worship.
The Heidelberg Catechism sums up this biblical teaching from the Reformation very clearly. (It even anticipates the objection some people will raise – ‘but can’t we just use images of God as visual aids to teach people?’). Here’s what the Heidelberg has to say:
96. What does God require in the second Commandment?
That we in no way make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.
97. May we not make any image at all?
God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping of any likeness of them, either to worship them or to serve God by them.
98. But may not pictures be tolerated in churches as books for the people?
No, for we should not be wiser than God, who will not have His people taught by dumb idols, but by the lively preaching of His Word.
That’s what Reformed Protestants have always believed (and here I say ‘Reformed’ Protestants in deliberate contrast to Lutherans). And this is the biblical teaching that was handed down from the Reformation to British Evangelicalism, via the Puritans.
And here let me speak briefly (for just one paragraph) to my own specific tradition. As Apostolics, we consciously stand within the Puritan heritage. (It’s no accident that the Apostolic Church’s publishing department was called the Puritan Press.) While certain other branches of evangelicalism may have had their Reformational heritage tempered by other historical influences in the intervening centuries, our heritage has been from the Reformation, via Puritanism and then Welsh experiential Calvinism, through to the Revival of 1904 and the beginnings of the Apostolic Church. Historically we’ve been very reluctant even to have crosses inside our church buildings (though occasionally outside – i.e. not in sight during worship), never mind images of Christ.* If, as an Apostolic, you want to make a case from Scripture that images of Christ are commended, that’s well and good. But if you just want to promote their use without turning to Scripture and showing how we’ve got it wrong for the last hundred years (and the 400 before that), well that’s another matter entirely. So, without making such a biblical case, there’s no place for images of Christ behind song words on the projector, or the promotion of films or TV shows which break the 2nd Commandment by portraying Jesus.
Let me turn away again from the narrow confines of my own tradition now to address us all with one final plea in conclusion. Let’s not return to the medieval darkness, for not only are images unbiblical, but we have no need of them. We have free access to our loving heavenly Father in worship, for we are united to Christ, made alive in Him, raised up together with Him and seated with Him in the heavenly realms. We’re not gazing at our God from afar, needing some picture to remind us who He is. No. Through the blood of Jesus we have been brought nigh!
*Now, a few readers with exceedingly long memories might possibly object at this point. ‘Didn’t the symbol of the Apostolic Church used to contain an image of Christ?’, they may ask. Well, no, it didn’t. It contained an image of the shepherd from the parable of the lost sheep. Now we know that that shepherd in the parable represented Christ, but it wasn’t directly a picture of Christ, but a picture of something which represents Christ – much in the same way that Presbyterians (who hold to the same Reformation understanding of images of Christ as we do) use the Burning Bush as their symbol. We know from Scripture that that was Christ – the Angel of the LORD – in the burning bush, but their picture isn’t directly a picture of Christ, but a picture of something which represents Christ.