Thursday, December 23, 2010

Protestant Iconicity and the Catholic Calvin

It's unfortunate, but understandable, to see fellow Protestants repelled by the word "iconicity," that is, repelled by the idea that the universe is an image of God.  However, to refute this misconception one needs only appeal to Calvin. Randall Zachman concludes his exemplary and ecumenically loaded achievement, Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin, in this way:
Calvin describes the self-manifestation of God in a vast array of mirrors, living images, signs, and symbols, not only in the works of God in the universe, but also in the works of God in Israel and the Christian Church....  Far from replacing images with words, Calvin combines image and word in all aspects of our lives with God and with others.  We must hear the Word of God if we are rightly to behold the symbols in which the invisible God becomes somewhat visible; but we must also behold with our eyes the goodness of God that the Word declares to us.  Calvin will accentuate the visibility of divine self-revelation by describing the Word of God itself as a living image of God, in which the hidden thoughts of God might be beheld, even as human thoughts are represented in the language we use...  Unlike Luther, Calvin will exhibit no unease with the self-revelation of God in visions and dreams, not only to the prophets, but also to the apostles.

Calvin's concern to see the self-revelation of God in terms of the combination of the Word of God that we hear and the living images of God that we behold places him squarely within the broader catholic tradition from the time of the orthodox theologians of the early Church to his own day.  Calvin combines proclamation and manifestation in an exemplary way, providing us with one model of how to fulfill David Tracy's call that we learn to combine the two in our own day.  Calvin also holds together the revelation of God in the truth of the Word with the manifestation of the goodness of God in the beauty of God's works, in a way that anticipates Hans Urs von Balthasar's attempt to do the same in our own day.  We are led to union with the fountain of every good thing in God only when we hold together the proclamation of that goodness in the Word of God with the manifestation of that goodness in the beauty of the living images of God.
Yes, that's right folks, that there's a Calvinist analogia entis.  But it gets better:
Moreover, one can discern what one might call an increasing catholicity in the development of Calvin's theology.... The image of God in humanity, which Calvin initially describes as "obliterated and deleted" in Adam, is increasingly described as yet remaining in the "lineaments" of the image in the reason, understanding, and sense of divinity in all people.  The laying on of hands, which Calvin caustically dismissed in 1536 as Rome's "aping" of the apostles, is described as a sacrament with regard to ordination, and a useful rite with regard to confirmation, by the third edition of the Institutes in 1543.  The gestures of prayer, such as the uplifting of hands and eyes and the bending of the knee, are increasingly seen as both expressing and stimulating piety in ourselves and others. Calvin even recognizes the legitimacy of the pious use of the sign of the cross, though he thought that too much superstition was attached to it to restore it in his day.  His willingness to adopt and endorse sacraments and rites that he initially rejected has not been fully appreciated, and can serve as an important resource for ecumenical understanding.
John Williamson Nevin, the great nineteenth century high church Calvinist, would be pleased.  Yes, Calvin prohibited images in worship, and Zachman explains that "he can at times so insist on the essential invisibility of God that he appears to undermine his whole understanding of divine manifestation in symbols and living images.  [But] he creates this tension in order to maintain the dialectical relationship between the visibility and invisibility of God."  A dialectic which, I never tire of rehearsing (but you may tire of hearing), is at the heart of the Orthodox understanding of icons. 

Turns out then, that when typologist-in-chief Jonathan Edwards wrote Images of Divine Things, in which he unfolded the iconic nature of the cosmos (and which he planned to expand in his unwritten magnum opus) he was not displaying a Neo-Platonic quirk, but unpacking a basic Calvinist insight, no wait, a basic Christian insight, that Calvin was wise enough to have somewhat recovered as he matured.  

Protestant iconoclasts, as I've said elsewhere, hurling Dyrness and Finney at your crumbling defenses, knowing your ammunition is old and rusting, surrender now. It will be honorable, and no punitive measures will be taken.  If you choose to desist, you will be both wrong and boring, and your descendants will find themselves converting to Orthodoxy or Catholicism, or - it must be said - unbelief.  Protestants without icons?  Impossible. As strange as a Protestant who - contra nearly all the Reformers - doesn't believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary!