Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The problem with worshiping images (J.I. Packer)

Good stuff from chapter 4 of Knowing God. . .

Historically, Christians have differed as to whether the second commandment forbids the uses of pictures of Jesus for purposes of teaching and instruction (in Sunday-school classes, for instance), and the question is not an easy one to settle; but there is no room for doubting that the commandment obliges us to dissociate our worship, both in public and in private, from all pictures and statues of Christ, no less than from pictures and statues of his Father. (p. 45)

To illustrate: Aaron made a golden calf (that is, a bull-image). It was meant as a visible symbol of Jehovah, the mighty God who had brought Israel out of Egypt. No doubt the image was thought to honor him, as being a fitting symbol of his great strength. But it is not hard to see that such a symbol in fact insults him, for what idea of his moral character, his righteousness, goodness and patience could one gather from looking at a statue of him as a bull? Thus Aaron's image hid Jehovah's glory.

In a similar way, 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. It displays his human weakness, but it conceals his divine strength; it depicts the reality of his pain, but keeps out of our sight the reality of his joy and his power. In both these cases, the symbol is unworthy most of all because of what it fails to display. And so are all other visible representations of deity. (p. 46)

These examples show how images will falsify the truth of God in the minds of men. Psychologically, it is certain that if you habitually focus your thoughts on an image or picture of the One to whom you are going to pray, you will come to think of him, and pray to him, as the image represents him. Thus you will in some sense "bow down" and "worship" your image; and to the extent to which the image fails to tell the truth about God, to that extent you will fail to worship God in truth. That is why God forbids you and me to make use of images and pictures in our worship. (p. 47)

Packer goes on to warn that even if we wouldn't think of bowing down to a bull, or praying before a crucifix, it's still possible to fashion a false likeness of God in the form of mental images. "I like to think of God as [fill in the blank]." How can we be sure we are worshiping God in truth? Packer points his readers to the Son -- "the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature" (Hebrews 1:3). It's in Jesus Christ that we find the final truth about God. By centering on him the false images we are prone to manufacture -- whether with our hands or with our minds -- are replaced by true ones.

This is one of those books I want to read over and over.

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