Worship And The Visual In Protestantism

The medieval Catholic church had a strong sense of the importance of the visual in church life, in relation to both worship and Christian education. Gospel scenes were often painted on church walls to act as visual aids for the illiterate. Altarpieces that provided vivid depictions of the crucifixion enabled worshipers to appreciate the suffering of Christ and the benefits resulting from his death. These were supplemented by panel paintings, decorated pulpits, and pictorial epitaphs, all of which represented the core Catholic understanding of the creation, salvation, and future judgment of the world in a powerful visual manner that captured the imagination.

Early Protestantism was divided over how to use the visual in relation to worship.45 The emerging Reformed tradition took the view that all images were prohibited by the Bible. Images distracted from the preaching and could easily become objects of worship in themselves. The iconoclasm of this wing of the Reformation was conceptual as much as physical: it was not merely that Reformed churches rejected physical religious images and statues, but that they rejected the very idea that images could serve a fundamental theological role—an idea deeply embedded within Catholicism—as a return to paganism.

Reformed Protestantism had no difficulty with the verbal images of scripture. These, however, were logocentric: they used the word of God as a means to govern and control the human imagination. Images such as God as shepherd (Psalm 23:1) were developed and amplified by the written and spoken word, always under the authority and control of the Bible. Puritan preachers in particular were anxious about what would happen if the untutored imagination of the laity were to encounter visual representations of the divine. Such encounters, they believed, would inevitably lead to idolatry (through confusing the image and its referent) or heterodoxy (through misinterpreting the image).

This point was set out with theological precision by the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), which rapidly established itself as normative in matters of Reformed life and thought. This catechism developed the idea that images of God are neither necessary nor helpful for Christian believers. There is an interesting parallel with Islam here, in that both Islam and Reformed theology are concerned that images of God meant to aid in the worship of God could become objects of worship in themselves. The traditional question-and-answer format that follows is characteristic of Protestant catechisms of the age. The discussion is based on the Second Commandment, which is translated in the Geneva Bible (1560) as: "Thou shalt make thee no graven image, neither any similitude of things that are in heaven above, neither that are in the earth beneath, nor that are in the waters under the earth" (Exodus 20:4).

Question 96: What does God require in the next commandment? Answer: That we should not portray God in any way, nor worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.

Question 97: So should we not make any use of images? Answer: God cannot and should not be depicted in any way. As for creatures, although they may indeed be depicted, God forbids making use of or having any likeness of them, in order to worship them or to use them to serve him.

Question 98: But should we allow pictures instead of books in churches, for the benefit of the unlearned?

Answer: No. For we should not presume to be wiser than God, who does not want Christendom to be taught by means of dumb idols, but through the living preaching of his Word.

The Heidelberg Catechism emphasized that knowledge of God and the presence of God are mediated through the word—through the reading of the Bible and preaching. This strongly logocentric understanding of the mediation of the divine held that anything that distracts from attentive listening to the public reading of the Bible and the exposition of its contents is to be removed as a matter of principle.

For instance, the internal walls of Calvinist churches were whitewashed. This practice seems to have served three functions. First, it eliminated distractions. Where pre-Reformation churches were being converted for Protestant use, existing murals or ornamentation were simply blotted out. Second, the use of whitewash symbolized cleansing and purification. This was an important principle in the first phase of Reformed church practice. For Zwingli, whitewashing the pagan art of Catholic churches was a visible sign of their having been cleansed and rededicated to the worship of the true God.46 Third, whitewash symbolized light; in much the same way the Reformed churches preferred clear glass in church windows, whitewashed walls were devoid of distracting ornamentation or illustration.

At times, the Reformed attitude toward images verges on iconopho-bia—a fear that the open, conceptually porous nature of images lacked the closed, conceptual precision of tight theological arguments.47 Although the historical context of Calvinism limited its engagement with Orthodoxy, there is no doubt that its fundamental theological trajectory was hostile to the use of icons in worship or personal devotion.48

Lutheranism took a fundamentally different approach from the outset. While Luther may have objected to some of the themes depicted in the ornamentation of Catholic churches, he had no problems with the medium itself. Many traditional Catholic images were abandoned, most notably Mary and the saints. In their place, Lukas Cranach the Elder and his school developed altarpieces and other visual forms that affirmed Lutheran themes. Alongside traditional depictions of the crucifixion, we find representations of the dialectic between the law and the gospel. Those who found this polarity difficult to assimilate at the conceptual level could enjoy—and even understand—the idea when expressed visually.49 The law is portrayed as barren, leading only to death and condemnation; the gospel, however, brings life and hope.

The subsequent development of Protestant attitudes to the use of the visual arts in church architecture in general, and to worship in particular, shows a pattern not dissimilar to that observed in relation to music. Most Protestants, especially Puritans in both the Old and New Worlds, remained hostile toward any form of visual adornment or ornamentation of churches and to the use of visual aids to worship or devotion.50 Yet as time passed theological resistance to the use of such devices began to wane. Stained-glass windows began to appear in Reformed churches. The importance of ecclesiastical architecture in enhancing the experience of worship began to be appreciated. Especially within Lutheranism and Anglicanism, an understanding developed that the beauty of a church interior could be seen as a mirror of the beauty of God.

Yet one point must be made in closing these reflections on the place of the visual in Protestant worship. During my frequent trips to Zurich to research the origins of the Reformation, I have been a regular visitor to the city's "Great Minster," which abuts the libraries in which I have conducted much of my research. I have often sat within this spacious building, which dates back to the twelfth century and was totally reordered under Zwingli. Its brilliantly, almost clinically, white interior is austere. The size and location of the great pulpit expresses the theology of Zwingli and his successors: God is known and encountered through a text—the Bible. The forbidding, frigid elegance of the building gently insinuates the inadequacy and illegitimacy of expecting to encounter God in any other place and in any other way.

I admire that simplicity and elegance, and I understand both its historical origins and its symbolism. Yet today, when that history has largely been forgotten and the symbolism has ceased to be meaningful for so many, the building seems instead to point to an absent God, a God who does not speak, a God who cannot be experienced. It is not unlike the poetry of the Anglican priest-poet R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), who found the silence of an empty church to be a disturbing expression of the absence of God.51

As the English rationalist critic Thomas Hobbes pointed out, this Protestant God might as well not exist, since his supposed existence seems to make very little difference to anything. A permanently absent God is about as much use as a dead God. If the existence of God makes little or no impact upon the experiences of everyday life, the business of living might as well be conducted without reference to him. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), the great Dutch Protestant lawyer, noted that the end result of all this was a world in which people lived etsi Deus non daretur—"as if God did not exist."

The problem for this strand of Protestantism is that its alternatives represent God as being accessible, capable of being encountered and experienced in the here and now. For example, seventeenth-century Catholicism offered an imaginative alternative to this aesthetically severe Protestant approach to sacred spaces. Once the Council of Trent had countered the theological threat posed by Protestantism, Catholicism turned its attention to exploiting its aesthetic deficiencies. One of its chief weapons was the development of the Baroque style, which flourished during the period 1600 to 1750.52

Baroque churches were much larger in scale than their predecessors, and their interiors were sumptuously decorated with sculpture and paintings. Baroque church interiors were designed to elicit an immediate, emotional response from congregations and visitors through their dramatic lighting effects, symmetry, dynamic architectural forms, and lavish decoration. The idea was that a church interior should be a visible, tangible embodiment of the glory of God, seamlessly integrated with the preaching and sacramental life of the church. When this style of architecture was integrated with the baroque musical style, the holistic vision of the beauty of God and the gospel thus presented posed a formidable challenge to forms of Protestantism that remained suspicious of any use of music or visual arts in worship.

The challenge to this form of Protestantism was not limited to Catholicism. The rise of Pietism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries posed an internal threat. This Protestant style, in reaction against the indirect, word-centered approach to Christian spirituality, held that the essence of a "living faith" was direct experience of God. This emphasis on the existential certainty of knowing God is expressed in Charles Wesley's hymn Free Grace, written shortly after his conversion in 1738:

Still the small inward Voice I hear, That whispers all my Sins forgiv'n;

Still the atoning Blood is near,

That quench'd the Wrath of hostile Heav'n:

I feel the Life his Wounds impart; I feel my Savior in my Heart.

The weight given to the subjective perception of the living Christ in the believer ("I feel my Savior in my heart") was a corrective against what was seen in sharp contrast as a somewhat cerebral "book-knowledge" of God. A very similar point must be made concerning Pentecostalism, a more recent form of Protestantism that insists on the immediate accessibility of God through the Holy Spirit. We consider the implications of the dramatic rise of Pentecostalism in the final part of this work.

In this chapter, we have considered the internal aspects of faith, examining how the life of Protestantism has been shaped by its controlling beliefs and values. But what of the society within which Protestantism is located? In what way do its beliefs and values influence culture in general? Our attention now turns to the complex interaction between Protestantism and Western culture.

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