Thursday, December 19, 2013

Joel J Miller on depictions of Jesus

From the blog Joel J Miller, a post entitled "Read this before you burn that picture of Jesus."

According to her recent post in Her*meneutics, Hill has asked teachers to excuse her kids from coloring nativity scenes and says she covers books depicting Christ in brown paper. To be clear, Hill has nothing against Jesus. She seems quite devout. Rather, her beef with his image comes from a conviction that Christ should never be depicted.

Arguing for her view, Hill says her “objection to visually representing the second person of the Trinity is not a new position. Until the late 4th century, the Christian church universally condemned images of Christ.”

Oh, bother.

This statement is false — on many levels. For starters, Roman catacombs featured icons of Christ, Mary, and many other biblical figures more than century before her “late 4th century” date. And while there is an absence of such iconographic depictions before 200 AD, they exist shortly thereafter — their absence being for reasons other than religious scruples, according to such scholars as Paul Corby Finney (The Invisible God). It's an interesting "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc" argument. Because few of something existed before a certain time, some prohibition must have been in place to stop it.

What’s more, the idea of a universal ban is absurd. No church-wide council ever pronounced such a rule. And the fact that icons, frescoes, and mosaics exist in all the ancient Christian traditions to this day (Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian, Malankara, etc.) indicates an early and widespread adoption of divine depictions.

Even if there were bans, they came much later during the iconoclastic controversy in the East, and such bans were far from universal. “Controversy” indicates less than universal agreement, and, importantly, the icon-smashers lost the argument.

Hill skips that entire episode and goes straight to the Reformation. “[I]n the 16th century, many of the Protestant Reformers revived this practice [of banning images].” Another interesting take on things: If a heresy pops up twice, there must be something to it.

That’s exactly right, as anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way could have attested. It’s one of the darker moments of the movement, evoking images of the Taliban, rather than erudite theologians and biblical scholars. Protestants swept churches clean of images, scraping frescoes off church walls, smashing icons, toppling statues, and destroying altarpieces (see Carlos Eire’s War Against the Idols and Eamon Duffy’s Stripping the Altars).

The argument for doing so then (as now) goes back to the Second Commandment — but an interpretation of that commandment divorced from over a millennium of Christian teaching and practice. From Ireland to India, Ethiopia to Denmark, Christians depicted Christ and his saints...

Complete article here.

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