Monday, August 1, 2016

Luther and Art. . .

In a post a while back I stirred the pot some by insisting that Lutherans were not iconoclasts.  To revisit the point, I want to draw on some history.  First of all is the friendship between artist Lucas Cranach and  Luther.  It is no secret that they were close -- godparents of each others children even!  Cranach illustrated Luther's books and pamphlets.  Second is Luther's own history rejecting the iconoclasm of Karlstadt and insisting the images, statues, stained glass, etc., were not problems, at worst things indifferent and at best useful for instruction and devotion -- iconic images that conveyed the truths of God and His Word.  That said, Luther went even a step further.  He rejected the Anabaptist position as false because it focused on the wrong problem -- not the images themselves but the penchant within the human heart for imagining worse than hands can create.  Finally, Luther believed that man was addicted to idolatry and therefore art directed by the church for the faith would counter the inherent desire of man to imagine God in his own imagination.  Luther knew that an imageless faith was an impossibility due to sin and that the counter to this weakness for invented images of God were faithful images that truthfully depicted the Word of God and spoke the Gospel in shape, form, and color.

Why is this important?  Man is inherently an idolator and this idolatry is expressed visually as well as in thought and word.  Iconic imagery prevents the idolatry by shifting the focus upon that which is faithful to God's Word, which effectively speaks the Gospel, and which glorifies God instead of replacing Him with false gods.  Like Blessed John the Forerunner, the role of art in the Church is to point to Jesus -- the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

We live in a visual age.  We are constantly reminded that people are visual learners.  If this is true, then it is an even more compelling case for faithful Christian art that instructs the faithful and counters the heroic art that glorifies man or the shocking art that degrades us.   Facebook suggests that words will soon disappear from social media and it will exclusively visual image or video.  If that is the case, the cause for Christian art is made more urgent or the young will be left with a one sided and unfaithful influence that will be difficult to escape.

Zwingli turned the church into a meeting room devoid of images and stole the art that had directed the imagination of the people.  In contrast, Luther cultivated this art and, though without a formal theology of art or icon, encouraged the faithful use of the media in service to the Gospel.  Art is sorely needed not only to tell the truth about God but to tell the truth about man.  We live at a time when we are in greater danger than ever in succumbing to the allure of a technology that has been invested with all our hopes and dreams of happiness and improvement.  Man is in love with the ability of technology to provide momentary pleasure that is seemingly inexhaustible in delivering the new and better.  Unless art also tells the truth of man (depicting the fragility of our lives and the character of suffering technology tries to hide), we will be ill-equipped to answer the fallacy with fact, the temptation with truth.  Now is the time to rediscover the noble history of Lutheran art and artists (from Albrecht Durer to Lucas Cranach to Hans Holbein -- to name a few).  Now is the time to restore the role of art as emblem and agent of the Word, depicting for the eye that Gospel heard in the ear, felt in the touch of baptismal water, and tasted in bread and wine. 


John Joseph Flanagan said...

I think we must recognize that there are opposing views about artistic icons in the church. Secondly, we must note, even as we revere Luther for his many achievements and insights, he was certainly not right about everything. So the arguments for or against iconoclasts continues, and indeed it is true we humans are a visual species, and our inherent imaginations construct idols as a habit and addiction. But where does God's word come into the argument? Do we ascribe the admonitions against images as a mere Old Testament prohibition which no longer matters....after all.... we are steeped in our own peculiar dispensationalism....Law and Grace? Does it necessarily mean we are under "bondage" to the Law and the ceremonial prohibitions if we avoid icons? Are we to "pick and choose" what parts of OT commands we obey, and which parts we can ignore? After all, we do not stone adulterers. Indeed, the church reformed and the excesses of OT rules are gone. The extremists of the faith, the hyper Calvinists and Putitans of old, who forgot about compassion and used cruelty and hanged accused witches in a sanctimonious bloodletting using Holy Writ as a rationale. But we are beyond stoning and the stocks, but must we also remove God's commands regarding the use of icons as a worship aid? I suppose there shall be talk about this issue long after I am gone from the earth.

Unknown said...

I think everybody realises that there are opposing views about artistic icons in the Church, between Lutherans and non-Lutherans.

Amongst Lutherans the conflict is between knowledge and ignorance. Too many who formally belong to a Lutheran congregation have never understood that being Lutheran is something other than being a Baptist who, for some reason or other or for no reason at all, insist on Infant Baptism.

And although many of these formal Lutherans may revere them, the people from whom they have learned tidbits and jingles of Reformed Theology are certainly not right about everything.

And there is no need to ascribe the Reformed admonitions against images as a mere Old Testament prohibition which no longer matters, since Reformed admonitions do not actually amount to an Old Testament prohibition.

The fact is that there are no admonitions against images whatsoever in the Old Testament. What there is is a prohibition against the worship of images of idols, which is something completely different. From the structure of the Ten Commandments, and from the severe warning against idolatry following this particular prohibition, it is clear that this particular prohibition in the context of the Ten Commandments falls under the Second Commandment and is not a Commandment of its own. And that it is not a prohibition against images as such, but rather against the worship of images, is furthermore made evident by the fact that just a few chapters further ahead, God gives very specific commands regarding the making of graven images for the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.

Since Christ has declared His body to be the true Temple, however, and given no command to rebuild the old Temple, the destruction and abolition of which He predicted, there is no need to "remove the command of God regarding icons as a worship aid" - since He Himself has done that.

And thus there is no need for us, either, under the new covenant, to follow the only command God ever gave So we do not need to follow the only command God ever gave "regarding the use of icons as a worship aid" by reconstructing the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Jais, I do not understand if you are endorsing use of icons or if you simply see it as a gray area open to Christian Liberty. Nevertheless, when artists through the ages depict the Lord in a painting or a cartoon caricature, whether intended as a "worship aid" or not, we have presented a denigrated imaginary representation and acted without reverence toward God.

Unknown said...

I do not think that I will accomplish much by getting into a lengthy debate with you, since I doubt that I have the skills to explain much to you.

Bottom line: there is no prohibition in Holy Scripture against the use of images as an aid in the proclamation of what God has done in Christ.

And it seems less than appropriate to me, without any basis in Holy Scripture to announce such a severe judgement of hearts and minds as that all who have done so through the ages, regardless of their motivation for doing so, all have "acted without reverence toward God".

Unknown said...

O, the prohibition against the worship of images of false gods fall under the First Commandment, of course, not the Second ...