church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

I cannot be the only one who has had the experience of visiting a non-Orthodox church service and finding it stunningly empty and plain.  After long familiarity with Orthodox worship with its icons, incense, candles, vestments, Gospel books, and crosses, attending such services produces a kind of sensory deprivation, rather like sensory overload in reverse.  Entering those churches and experiencing their services left me looking around almost madly for something focus and feed upon—some cross or image.  But there was nothing:  the walls were barren and empty, with not even a plaque with an inscribed Bible verse to relieve the sensory monotony.  It is like bringing to your lips what you expected to be a cup of wine and finding it to contain tepid water:  it’s okay, I suppose, but disappointing to the point of surprise and irritation.

This is what Dom Gregory Dix once described as the Protestant “cult of bareness” and the “cult of plainness”.  That is, the unadorned plainness of the church building and the services were not accidental, but deliberate.  It was not the result of the builders and liturgists being cultural clods and Philistines, but of their being Puritans.  They were cultured men, and no doubt lived in homes that were warm, adorned, and full of images, whether the images were art reproductions of the great masters or more homely images—and perhaps (at a certain time) an image of Queen Victoria.  The people who worshipped in those suffocatingly plain churches had no problem with images and beauty; they just didn’t want them in church.

That was because their theology regarded any physical beauty, adornment, or image as interfering with the pure worship of God—such things as crosses or pictures were distractions at best and idols at worst.  (One should also not underestimate the power of anti-Catholic prejudice.)  In their understanding, worship involved a mental connection with the invisible God, the communion of mind with Mind.  Not that they would have used the word “mental” or “mind”.  Their preferred term was “spiritual”, and their favourite verse was “God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24, KJV).

They interpreted this to mean that because God is a spirit (i.e. He does not have a physical body as we do), those who worship Him must use non-physical means.  In this way of thinking, “spirit” is incompatible with “body” or anything physical.  This stark dichotomy is not common in the New Testament to say the least, and makes nonsense of the notion of “a spiritual body” (see 1 Corinthians 15:44).  But in this Puritan way of thinking, the use of non-physical things is incompatible with the true worship of the bodiless God.  That is why their worship eschewed physical things like icons, crosses, incense, vestments, and candles as inappropriate.  They distracted the mind from the true and non-physical (i.e. “spiritual”) worship of God.

There are problems with this approach.  For one thing, in John 4:24 Christ was not talking to the Samaritan woman about the mode of worship (i.e. did it involve physical things or not), but the question of access.  Jews believed that access to the presence of God was only through the sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, while Samaritans believed that such access could only be found on Mount Gerizim.  Christ denied both alternatives, and said that in the coming Kingdom, access would be neither through the altar at Jerusalem nor on Gerizim, but by the Spirit of God and in the truth of the Good news He was bringing.  Paul would later say more or less the same thing, and declare that both Jews and Gentiles (and by implication, Samaritans) would find access to the Father in the one Spirit (Ephesians 2:18).  The notion of the physical means used in worship was not in view.  The issue was geographical access:  which geographical mountain should be used—Jerusalem or Gerizim?   Christ said:  neither.  Access is now by the Spirit of God alone.

Also, the notion that the invisible and non-physical God must not be worshipped by physical means makes nonsense of the entire Mosaic system of worship, which precisely used physical things such as the Ark, altars, and sacrifices to worship Him.  Moreover this notion also sweeps away the Christian sacraments, which use things such as water, bread, wine, and oil to worship God and access His presence and power.  Groups such as the Salvation Army and the Quakers have refused the use of sacraments such as baptism and the Eucharist in their worship of God, but every other Christian group uses sacraments of some kind.  In fact the whole sacramental system presupposes that the God who made physical matter in the first place now uses it as the means for His people to approach Him.

This Puritan approach to worship not only views physical things as incompatible with true worship; it also regards the physical beauty of created things (such as icons and vestments) as rivals to spiritual beauty of God.  It believes that the mind of the believer will inevitably be beguiled by the beauty of the physical image and make it a substitute for the true beauty of God.  That is why such churches are not only empty of icons; they are empty of everything, with the walls utterly plain and bare.  Nothing of beauty is allowed lest it tempt the soul to linger on it instead of on the beauty of the bodiless God.  (I note in passing that this was the view of Muhammad, and accounts for the imageless interior of the mosque.)

Beauty does indeed beguile.  In fact it is irresistible to the human heart, whether it be the outer beauty of a woman (as Hollywood knows only too well), or the inner moral beauty of a kind and sacrificial act.  The world is full of beauty, and human beings (unlike, we suppose, animals) always respond:  we stand and marvel at the beauty of sunrises and sunsets, we pay money for beautiful art, we cultivate and delight in flowers and greenery.  For human beings, beauty is not a luxury; it is food.  The human spirit feeds upon beauty, which is why we languish in a concrete jungle and long to escape to the green country.  It is perhaps because of this nourishing and irresistible quality of created beauty that someone once said, “Beauty will save the world”.

Orthodoxy insists that the world is beautiful with the divine beauty, for all beauty comes from God and is a reflection of the divine beauty.  The created world is not hermetically sealed off from the divine.  It sparkles with the divine, for God is immanent in His creation as well as being transcendent above it.  (The author now known as “Pseudo-Dionysius” knew this.)  The beauty of a human face or of a dawning sunrise reveals the beauty and glory of God.

It is possible, of course, to make an idol of human beauty (once again, think of Hollywood), as it is possible to make an idol of anything.  Human beauty was meant to draw us out of ourselves (that toxic prison), to open up our hearts to something larger than our mere biological drives.  We see the beautiful face and the sunrise and think of God, the source of the beauty and the Giver of all gifts.  But one can refuse to see the hand of the Giver in the gift, and think only of the gift.

But this ever-present possibility of turning God’s gifts into idols does not mean that they are not His gifts after all.  It only means that we must look past the gift as we receive and enjoy it to find the Giver.  The beauty with which we adorn our church buildings—the colour of icons and vestments, the sounds of musical harmony, the flowery odour of incense—being manifestations of the divine beauty, lead us to their divine source.

In our gathered Eucharistic assembly, we are lifted up to heaven (the true locus of Eucharistic worship) and experience there the Kingdom of God.  That is why we strive to make our public gathered worship as splendid and glorious and beautiful as possible—precisely because it is a manifestation of the Kingdom of glory and beauty.  A bare and plain worship (such as we find in Quaker meeting houses and mosques) would suggest a bare and plain Kingdom.  A glorious temple proclaims a glorious Kingdom.  And a glorious Kingdom is precisely what we have—in the Book of Revelation, we find symbols of such glory, and heaven is stuffed with trumpets, white robes, and palms, and gold, and crowns—and bowls of incense.  Here on earth, we strive to reflect and proclaim these spiritual realities in our physical worship.  To quote Dix again, this realization of heavenly ideals “was part of the general translation of worship from the idiom of eschatology into that of time” (Shape, p. 314).

There is, however, another Puritan objection to glorious and beautiful physicality in public worship, and one well expressed by J. I. Packer, a man of integrity and piety (and of 5-point Calvinism—something of a rarity in the Anglican Church).  In Packer’s view, the problem is not so much with the temptations of beauty, but with the essence of an image.  For him, all visual images, when used in worship, are inherently deceitful and therefore sinful.

In his book Knowing God, Packer wrote, “We take the Second Commandment [with its prohibition of making images] as pointing to the principle that (to quote Charles Hodge) ‘idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods but also in the worship of the true God by images’.  In its Christian application, this means that we are not to make use of visual or pictorial representations of the Triune God, or of any person of the Trinity, for the purposes of Christian worship…The pathos of the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, for it hides the fact of His deity, His victory on the cross, and His present kingdom’ (chapter 4, “The Only true God”).

We may pause a moment to marvel at the thought of the crucifixion obscuring Christ’s glory when Christ Himself said that it was the crucifixion that revealed it (John 12:23-33).  But we understand his basic point, which is that because any single image cannot reveal the whole truth about God, no images are allowed.  Every image necessarily misleads and causes the mind to rest upon something lesser than God’s total majesty.

We also take a moment to note that the same could be said about Bible verses and sermons:  all of the truth about God cannot be contained in every Bible verse or every sermon.  Each verse and homily can only reflect one part of the total revelation, one facet of the many-faceted diamond of truth.  But that does not mean that all Bible verses are prohibited and no sermons on specific topics should be preached.  It only means that the verses are read and the sermons are heard as parts of a larger whole.  The same could be said about individual images:  each focuses upon a single truth and needs to be integrated into the larger whole.

In fact no image (or Bible verse or sermon) can reveal the totality of God’s glory—nor were they ever meant to.  Images, like human beauty, are sacramental, in that the archetype they represent is always larger than the image used to represent it.

Take, for example, an icon of Christ.  Ancient heretics like the iconoclasts tried to suggest that the image must somehow represent a nature, and so they posed a stark (and false) dilemma—they asked, “Which is it?  Does the icon of Christ represent His divine nature (which is admittedly absurd, since no one can adequately represent the divine nature) or does it represent His human nature?” (in which case icons are Nestorian, separating the human nature from the divine nature in Christ).  They were rather annoyingly smug about it, thinking they had us on the horns of their dilemma.  Which nature, they asked, did the icon of Christ represent?  The answer—obvious when you think about it—is that the icon represented neither nature of Christ, but His person, not a physis, but His hypostasis.  When I show you a photo of my wife, I don’t say, “This is a representation of Donna’s human nature”, but “This is a photo of Donna”—or (significantly for the theology of the icon) “This is Donna”.  For our purposes, the identity of image with person is complete, for (as St. Basil said), the honour offered to the image passes to its prototype.

Puritans like the late Dr. Packer are simply wrong.  The Second Commandment does not outlaw Christian icons.  In its time, that Commandment was intended to outlaw the limiting of Yahweh by portraying Him as a falcon, a bull-calf, or a man.  But a lot has happened since the Second Commandment was given—things like the Incarnation.  And since the invisible God became incarnate so that Jesus is now His εἰκών/ eikon, His image (Colossians 1:15), the formerly imageless God now has an image—an image that can be painted.  If one had a camera back then, one could have taken a photo of Jesus and said, “This is Jesus”.  You could have kissed the photo, if you liked:  the honour offered to the image would have passed to its divine prototype.  That is why we not only have beautiful icons on our church walls, but why we also press them to our lips.  No cult of bareness for us.  We prefer the divine beauty.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.