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The problem of images in Anglican worship

Editor’s note: This is one of two viewpoints presented. Click here for the opposing view.

In Matthew 22:20, Jesus asks, “Whose is this image and superscription?” The question is a legal one. The Pharisees are asking whether it is legal to pay tribute to Caesar or not. Jesus responds by asking, “Who owns the money with which you would pay it?” The question is settled when the Pharisees are forced to admit that Caesar owns their money. They are forced to admit this because Caesar’s image is on the coin. His image thereon establishes his ownership thereof.

The right to representation is a legal one. Fair use and licensing agreements govern the legal use of images, photographs, likenesses, trademarks, and other representations of persons and property. The image and the object it represents may be subject to these laws. For instance, it is unlawful to take photographs during most live performances; however, it is permitted to take photographs of the very same actors who were just minutes ago on stage performing, if one encounters them later on the street. Campbell’s Soup owns its corporate marks and branding and may sue to prevent their appropriation and misuse. Andy Warhol may appeal to “fair use” and use them anyway to make an artistic comment on consumerism.

God’s image and images of His creation are likewise subject to legal sanction. There is no question of God’s ownership of Himself1 and of His creation.2 Malachi appropriately asks, “Will a man rob God?”3 The unlawful making and use of God’s image and representations of His creation seems to do just that. Just as we would expect Campbell’s Soup to defend its corporate image against misuse, so we can expect God to bring covenant lawsuits against His people for the same offense. Portions of the prophets may be read as oral arguments for the prosecution in just such a case.

The question of images and their use in worship is therefore a legal one before it is a liturgical one. Indeed, the liturgy must conform to the terms of the covenant (a legal instrument) that it ratifies or memorializes. When images begin to appear in Christian worship, particularly in Reformed and Evangelical Anglican worship, we need to ask if that worship is still reformed, if is still faithful to the terms of the New Covenant.

Image-making and ownership

The Byzantine iconoclastic controversy, which raged in the 8th and 9th Centuries, was a legal battle between church and emperor over the licensing of images both sacred and secular. The iconoclast view was rooted in the earliest days of the church, which had always viewed images with suspicion. Later, images were banned outright by the Council of Elvira in Spain (306).4 The rise of Islam and continued Jewish polemics against the church likely played a part in renewed hostility towards images as well.5

At the heart of the matter was a fight over who had the legal right to make visible representations of the heavenly and earthly realms: church or emperor? The iconoclastic controversy was a battle of church vs. state over licensing. The Byzantine emperors took the side of the iconoclasts:

But the truth is that iconoclasm was from its beginning an attack on the visible representation of the civitas Dei on this earth. Not only because the images had such an important place in the Byzantine Church, theologically and liturgically, that an attack against them was ipso facto an attack against the Church but also and still more because, as we shall see, the emperors showed unmistakably that even in maintaining the belief in the supreme, supernatural government of Christ, they did not wish to permit on this earth any other but their own image or more exactly the imagery of their own imperial natural world.6

Simply put, Caesar still owned everything, and he would exercise his property rights by licensing all representations made of him and his realm. The Byzantine church fought the empire to a draw, eventually winning its right to a freehold on sacred representations. It was a pyrrhic victory, however. The church had consigned herself to being the liturgical department of the empire.7 Byzantine art became fixed and static.8

When the Pharisees handed Jesus the tribute coin, he asked them, “καὶ ἡ ἐπιγραφή?” (“Whose likeness is written above?”). The owner had left his mark. Image-making is an act of ownership. God made man in His own image and gave man a license to represent Him. The redeemed man is obliged to represent God faithfully.

Image-making and culture

After man’s fall, the image of God on earth was lost, though not the memory nor the hope that the seed of the woman would one day restore it.9 Types arose that prefigured the One who would come and who would bear the image faithfully. He has come, but Creation still groans under the curse10 until the curse runs its course and God is all in all.11

The prospects for godly culture-making with cursed material and cursed labor are not good. Even less hopeful is the prospect of making an image worthy of worship. Hence God’s explicit commandment against it.12 In the most pessimistic view, culture is impossible for “Man can build nothing, for the simple reason that he has no material to build with.”13 But for supernatural revelation and grace, true religion would be impossible too.

A more optimistic view, “Man’s likeness to God expresses itself in man’s striving and ability to become a creator,” is one with implications for the problem of images: “Modern science has emerged victorious from its encounter with nature because it has sacrificed qualitative-metaphysical speculation for the sake of a functional duplication of reality …”14

Can images be functional duplications of reality, specifically, of supernatural reality? If so, might they be allowed in worship? What sort of culture can produce such functional duplications of supernature? Would it share in common (by common grace) the same cultural raw material that produces pornography?

The eastern Roman empire may have been such a culture. It was extraordinary in many ways, and perceiving its unique ability to duplicate supernature reasonably well, made this the Byzantine justification for using images in worship. It was said, of course, that these images were of no common origin. The αχειροποίητα (acheiropoieta) were sacred images not made by human hands. “The origin of these αχειροποίητα is sometimes imagined as a kind of supernatural emanation or impression.”15 They were copies of a holy prototype. Because man did not initiate the copying process, he is not in violation of the commandment if he continues to duplicate them. Copies may and ought to be copied again and again. That’s what copies are for. And if the copyist is less-than-skilled, no matter. The concern is only for functional similitude:

This becomes very clear in a chapter of Theodore of Studion, in which he discusses the question of what would be the effect of a possible lack of skill in the artist upon the identity between the worship received by the image and that destined for the prototype. He solves the problem by stating that the identity does not exist in so far as there is a discrepancy, but only in so far as there is a similitude.16

That the justified man has a long way to go before he reaches perfection is agreed to by all Christians. This is the doctrine of progressive sanctification. But whether cultures can progress in holiness is hotly contested. Within Calvinism, postmillennialists believe God will enforce his covenant sanctions within history (not waiting for the end of time or for a supposed rapture to take place) and that God will bless the multi-generational work of covenant-keepers and their cultural institutions, including their families, churches, schools, and states.

Equally hopeful is Tim Keller, who focuses his efforts on global cities, writing that “cities have more of the image of God per square inch than any other place on earth.”17 Keller seems optimistic that raw cultural material (especially when found in dense urban concentrations) has great potential. Pietists simply say no. Let the curse run its course. The elect can huddle together in small groups and read John Owen.

No matter how righteous a culture may seem to be (or may in fact become), can a culture ever produce an image worthy of worship? I say no. Redeemed and sanctified man will never be the image maker. He will never be the owner. Rather, his destiny is to be an image bearer for eternity.

Image-making and worship

Yet man is also obliged to create lasting works. Though the nations are but a drop from the bucket,18 the glory and honor of the nations “of them which are saved” will be found in the new Jerusalem.19 This means there will be a human cultural legacy in eternity. Could that legacy include images? I think it could. Man’s ability to represent things in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth is a function of his ability to create knowledge, as he did in Genesis 2:19, when he named the animals.

The Fall changed man’s ethics and morals. From then on, he loved the lie and suppressed the truth. It destroyed his friendship with God. It distorted his relationship with the woman and the plant and animal kingdoms. “It did not render him inhuman and incapable of doing what humans do.”20

The heavenly city will include the glory and honor of the cities of man. It may even include some Byzantine icons, a few evangelical smoke machines, some pastor’s skinny jeans, and an Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. It will not include their idolatrous worship.

John tells us what worship in the new Jerusalem is like. He tells us what true worship has always been like: “And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.”21 The Church’s worship is not a replica. It is the real thing. Jesus is the only image of God we have, and He has ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο. He has made the Father known.22 The Christian does not carry a copy of Jesus in his heart, neither on a stick in a procession, nor does he nail Christ again to a wall.

We do not need to see a representation of Jesus with our eyes to see Jesus. Indeed, we are told, “A little while, and ye shall not see me.”23 We need no images of Jesus. We’ve distorted Him enough already with the ones we have, even when made for so-called teaching or artistic purposes. White Jesus is rightly viewed with suspicion now, but Jesus of any hue will share the same fate. Any attempt to represent Him as a generic Mediterranean man will founder on the same shoals as the quest for the historical Jesus. “What did Jesus really look like?” is a question that has no answer, but attempts to answer it will only benefit those who already look like the results they want. I’ll admit that I am a fan of The Chosen, of cherubs that look like English choristers, and of a Christus Rex that could be Charlemagne. All three have a certain glory, but then so did the “ministration of death, written and engraven in stones.”24 They are distortions not only of supernature, but of nature as well. “It doth not yet appear what we shall be.”25

Let each Christian be the tabernacle of God. The believer is, by virtue of the new creation, a living image. Our Lord gives us to each other so “That ye love one another; as I have loved you.”26 We are to be icons, one to another. No other images are needed.

  1. Exodus 3:14. ↩︎
  2. Psalm 24:1; Haggai 2:8; Psalm 50:10-12; Genesis 14:19; Malachi 3:8-12; Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:21; Numbers 33:53; Job 41:11; Exodus 19:5; Exodus 20:15; Leviticus 25:23; Deuteronomy 10:14; Proverbs 3:9-10. ↩︎
  3. Malachi 3:8. ↩︎
  4. Gerhart B. Ladner, “Origin and Significance of the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy,” Mediaeval Studies 2 (1940), 128, note 30. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 128ff. ↩︎
  6. Ibid., 134. ↩︎
  7. Ibid., 135. ↩︎
  8. Ibid., 149. ↩︎
  9. Genesis 3:15. ↩︎
  10. Romans 8:22. ↩︎
  11. 1 Corinthians 15:26-28. ↩︎
  12. Exodus 20:4-5; Deuteronomy 5:8-9. ↩︎
  13. Herman Hoeksema, “The Christian and Culture,” Covenant Protestant Reformed Church website. ↩︎
  14. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006): 12-13. ↩︎
  15. Ladner, 146. ↩︎
  16. Ibid. ↩︎
  17. Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 141. ↩︎
  18. Isaiah 40:15. ↩︎
  19. Revelation 21:24, 26. ↩︎
  20. Hoeksema, 6. ↩︎
  21. Revelation 21:22. ↩︎
  22. John 1:18. ↩︎
  23. John 16:16. ↩︎
  24. 2 Corinthians 3:7. ↩︎
  25. 1 John 3:2. ↩︎
  26. John 15:12. ↩︎


  • The Rev. Jake Dell is the Priest-in-Charge of St. Peter’s Lithgow in Millbrook, New York. He is a member of the board of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion-USA.

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