Smash your statues
What we worship might not be who we should worship
Smashing things can sometimes be exactly the right thing to do.
I’ve just returned from leading a tour to Europe commemorating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting the 95 Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
But the centrepiece of the building is not the altar but the pulpit.
It was a tremendous privilege to stand in places where leaders in the European Reformation had stood. As always with visiting places of historical significance, seeing things gives you all kinds of fresh insights. In particular, we were struck by the impact the Reformation had on church architecture and furnishing.
Visit a Roman Catholic cathedral like St Vitus’ in Prague, and you will find it a dazzling visual display, with elaborate depictions of biblical stories and saints’ lives. The focus is clearly the ornate high altar and the most important act in this form of Christianity is saying of the mass.
Visit the Grossmünster in Zurich, where Ulrich Zwingli preached up a storm in the 1520s, and you’ll find it almost completely bare of the kind of iconography found in St Vitus’. Stained glass has been reintroduced in the 19th century to some degree. But the centrepiece of the building is not the altar but the pulpit. An open Bible rests on the wooden table, which sits in a central position in the church.
During the Reformation, quite a bit of smashing was done. Statues were defaced. Church furniture was removed. Colourful paint was scraped away.
Some of it was probably done just because some people like smashing things.
Time and time again, our tour guides would indicate that this was a great pity, and that much of beauty and value was lost in the 16th century. What barbarians those Protestants must have been!
And no doubt: some of the destruction was simple aggression against the wealth and power of a corrupt church order that was being renewed. Some of it was probably done just because some people like smashing things.
But there was more to it than that. There was a vital principle at stake. For a start, we tend to look back at the destruction of images in the 16th century as vandalism of art – a bit as we would imagine the destruction of the Mona Lisa. But the idea of “art” then was not quite the same as ours. Statues and images were not “art” as we know it, but images designed to serve a theological understanding of how human beings connect with the divine. In this understanding, the Reformers saw a great spiritual danger for the people of God.
But you can’t worship him, the one true God, by a means of your choosing.
The Reformation rediscovered the biblical emphasis on the word of God. It is by his word that God graciously speaks to his people; and it is to his word that they respond by faith.
Remember the great opening commandments of the Ten Commandments. They spell out exactly who God is and how to worship him. You worship him and him only. It’s exclusive. But you can’t worship him, the one true God, by a means of your choosing.
The spiritual danger of bowing down to images – even images allegedly of the true God – is that pictures of the invisible God necessarily distort his true character. He is not visible to the eyes precisely because he is not limited to a created form. To depict him by means of an image – however gloriously conceived by a human craftsman – would be to blaspheme against him, necessarily. To go further and to offer worship to the image is even worse.
Remember the golden calf that Aaron made?
The problem here is that we human beings are lazy and idol worship is lazy. It’s the easier route: to believe that the picture of God is what God is like makes him comprehensible and locatable. I think I know where God is and what he looks like. But every picture of him is wrong and prevents me from listening to him. As John Calvin said, “the human heart is a factory of idols.”
There is no doubt from the Old Testament what the people of God ought to do with idols. Remember the golden calf that Aaron made? I am sure it was a really beautiful works of art, and I am sure that the Israelites who bowed before it argued that they were worshipping the true God and that they found the golden calf to be spiritually helpful. But the only right thing to do was to commit it to destruction. Smash it.
Indeed, the stained glass windows of my own church building offer depictions of Jesus.
This intolerance of idols is part of the New Testament faith as well. The only true “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) is Jesus Christ. But this is where most Christians haven’t in general been as radical as the Jews or the Muslims. Surely depicting Jesus is something Christians could and should do, because Jesus is the invisible God made flesh? Indeed, the stained glass windows of my own church building offer depictions of Jesus.
The Elizabethan theologian Bishop John Jewel argues against even depicting Jesus Christ in an image or statue. Why? He says that such images must inevitably be distortions since we have no idea what Jesus truly looked like, and no image could depict Jesus’s divine nature. As he wrote: “As soon as an image of Christ is made, by and by is a lie made of him, which by God’s word is forbidden.” What is offered in a statue or picture is a falsehood. We know this because wherever you go in the world, you find Jesus looking racially like the locals – when we know he can’t have looked Swedish or Korean, but 100% Jewish.
There is nothing so awful to God in the Bible as idolatry.
I am not so black and white as Jewel about this, but here’s the thing: before the Reformation, the images and statues of Jesus and the saints were, for illiterate people (which was 90 per cent of people), the only way to learn about the deep truths of God. There was no preaching or reading the Bible aloud, in anything but Latin. And what occurred was that the images and statues were venerated as if they were the real thing and you were doing spiritual business via the medium of the image.
In the sixteenth century, the stakes were incredibly high. There is nothing so awful to God in the Bible as idolatry. And yet, the people of God in Western Europe were being led astray to worship the true God falsely, as if he were just another pagan deity. Can you see why the Reformers argued so strongly that their churches should be cleansed of this gaudy bric-a-brac, however fine? John Jewel likened these churches to a painted harlot – apparently beautiful on the outside, but spiritually ugly. He wrote: “God’s horrible wrath and our most dreadful danger cannot be avoided without the destruction and utter abolishing of all such images and idols out of the church and the temple of God.”
… it is no vandalism to destroy what deceives God’s people.
I think he was right. If people are worshipping an image or a statue, or venerating it as if God inhabits it in some way, they are deceived, and it is no vandalism to destroy what deceives God’s people. We may look derisively at the Reformers from the distance of centuries, but they knew that the honour of the true and holy God and the salvation of human beings was at stake.
But before you pick up your hammer … our idols today are not for the most part the images and statues in churches. False worship comes to us in different guises. To embody the anti-idolatry of the Reformers would not be to conduct a raid on church property (in most cases). But they were vigilant about anything that led people to believe a connection with God is given to us other than the word of God concerning Jesus Christ.
Do we have the same boldness to defend the people of God from distraction from the word of God?
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.