Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Protestantism and Idolatry

Hallalhippie left an interesting comment explaining Denmark's exprience in converting from Catholicism to Protestantism 500 years ago, and how through this process the icons in churches "were painted over", and only now "the pictures are being reconstructed for historical value." Hallal's explanation was given in good faith, but I dispute the official reasoning given to him/her that the icons were erased to "keep people listening" - a clever excuse by the Protestant Church to pass by the logical modern folk of today - and assert that the real reason behind it was to destroy the perceived "idolatry" of Catholicism. I searched google and found this interesting piece on Protestantism and idolatry:

Many Protestants, especially those of evangelical or fundamentalist sects, believe that in attributing holiness or power to human artifacts, they foster disbelief in God's omnipotence, and his independent and sovereign will, and suggest instead to human fallibility that God can be manipulated. To them, this is the essence of idolatry considered as a sin. They also consider the Roman Catholic cult of relics to be idolatry, as is the practice of pilgrimage to distant shrines; they hold instead that God is no less accessible here and now than he is in a distant holy place. Especially suspect in Protestant eyes is the belief that articles such as Lourdes water, holy water, blessed handkerchiefs, and so forth possess supernatural powers, such as for healing. To the Protestant mind, this seems akin to the forbidden practice of magic. For these believers, idolatry can be viewed as a sort of fetishism. "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." (John 4:23) Jesus spoke these words to a Samaritan woman who wished to discuss sectarian divisions about the right shrine to worship at; many Protestants read Jesus' response as dismissing the importance of such divisions. Instead, they interpret this passage to mean that true worship is a matter of the spirit, the mind and the heart - in other words, it is highly abstract. Sacred places, shrines, and ritual tools and forms are, at the very least, not of the essence of the faith. Worse, if a special sanctity is thought to abide in some object, it represents a spiritual danger.

Almost all Protestants (as well as most Jews and most leading Muslims) hold that veneration and worship are for all practical purposes identical. Protestants who hold this position also believe that sacrificial worship (which Roman Catholics and the Orthodox call latria, see below) no longer holds a place in Christian worship; Christ's sacrifice on the Cross is unique, unrepeatable, and complete for all time, so that no human act can add or subtract from its power, or lay claim to its saving efficacy.

Most typically, non-Catholic Christians are not offended by religious art, or pictorial representations of Christ, especially as he is depicted in biblical or historical settings. However, some consider it necessary to avoid religious use of these objects, especially as the focus of communal worship. In order to avoid praying before them, lighting candles to them, and other acts that make it appear as if the image itself is holy or an object of devotion, many Protestants avoid locating any representational art in front of the congregation, although exceptions may be made for the Christian cross. In most cases, it is the devotional use, especially, that is avoided.
In some cases, it is not only the veneration of images, but also the making of an image that is avoided. Any visual representations of Jesus of Nazareth, including drawings, paintings, stained glass windows, sculpture, and other forms of representational art, are considered a violation of the commandment of God prohibiting the pretended depiction of deity by images. Calvinist theologian
J. I. Packer, in chapter 3 of his book Knowing God, asserted that even to imagine Jesus Christ as having a specific physical appearance would be a form of idol worship. A typical Christian argument for this position might be that, God was incarnate as a human being, not as an object of wood, stone or canvas; and, therefore the only God-directed service of images permitted, is the service of other people.

Others go even farther to eliminate, if it were possible, any kind of religiously symbolic art of any kind, in addition to any representational art. The use of a cross, censer, candles, or vestments in a place of worship, is considered idolatrous by some. By using tools and items of furniture or clothing only in the context of religious ritual, these implements seem set apart as holy; they would be profaned by ordinary use. This too is believed to pose a danger that these objects are being worshipped or are becoming talismans. During the period of Archbishop William Laud's conflicts with Puritans within the Church of England, the use of ritual implements prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer was a frequent cause of conflict. (See vestments controversy)

Some Protestant groups have criticized the use of stained-glass windows by many other denominations, while Jehovah's Witnesses criticize the use of windows, statuary, as well as the wearing of a cross. The Amish are the only Christian group that forbids the use of images in secular life. In their critiques, these groups argue that such practices are in effect little different from idolatry, and that they localize and particularize God, whom they argue is beyond human depiction.

The concluding explanation is given here:

Every sensory or mental image we have of the Deity is a figment of human imagination that falls short of the truth. For Protestants, the prohibition of the worship of graven images is the beginning of the acknowledgment of this limitation on the human mind and imagination.

The Islamic world of today may be guilty of falling behind the ages (not really our fault; the Wahhabis bought a considerable amount of influence with their oil money over the last 40 years), but the "Western" establishment is also guilty of forgetfullness of the history through which it itself had evolved.


Anonymous said...

Wery well observed. In the debate following the cartoon crisis and especially those concerning refom of islam, I have found it very strange to see Luther and other protestant reformers mentioned as an example for reform in Islam, since these would have much more in common with the MB and the likeminded. Just check up on the Puritans in England. Protestantism was very conservative, and this conservatism was probably one of the resos why it was so violently opposed in Europe. In many ways I can see a paralell between current islamism and conservative protestantism. Whereas the catholic church, form the onset had an active policy of incorporating old traditions into christianity by giving them a cristian content, protestants wanted a more pure form of christianity, and this puritanism has been a dominant factor in northern Europe until very recently (and some would say it still is).
K from Oslo

Seneferu said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, K.

Tsu Dho Nimh said...

Senerafu -
The Protestants rejected most of the practices of the Catholic church of their day - as well as the religious use of art, they rejected indulgences, celibate priests, vestments, etc. There were differences in what they rejected: the controversey over wearing vestments shows one. They insisted that anything they did have a Biblical basis, and rejected the accumulated writings of the theologians and Popes over the ages. For Islam this would be the equivalent of using only the Koran, not the accretion of Hadiths. They also rejected the idea of intermediaries (priests, saints) between God and individuals. That would take it beyond Wahabism into uncharted territory ... leaving the individual to read and interpret and decide what the Koran really means and how to best follow it.

The art in most churches was allegorical, used to instruct a largely illiterate population about theology and major biblical concepts. In one instance, the art had an unintended effect. The Jesuit missionaries to the Flathead tribe in Montana built a chapel, which was decorated by fabulous frescos in the mid 1800s, including the traditional "Judgement day" that shows the faithful ascending to Heaven and the sinners being dragged off to Hell. The artist, an Italian, painted the typical scene and the attendance at church services dropped drastically. When the priests asked why, the Indians pointed to the fresco and said "Look, only white people going to heaven and hell." They retouched the frescos, and it now shows some Indians headed in both directions. has pictures of the interior. Even for this non-Catholic, it's a beautiful church. The acoustics are superb: despite being Protestant, most of my great-uncles sang in the choir here because they liked the way it sounded.