Blogging the Institutes–1.11.6–Theologians Against Images

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.

Theologians Against Images

Moreover, you should read Lactantius and Eusebius on this subject of images. These writes assume it was an indisputable fact that the things images were originally pattern were human beings. In a similar way, Augustine declares that it is not only sinful to worship images but also to dedicate. When he Augustine said that, he was merely restating something  Libertine Council said years earlier: “There must be no pictures used in churches: Let nothing which is adored or worshipped be painted on the walls” (Thirty-sixth Canon).  Augustine also quote Varro in another place: “Those who first introduced images of the gods both took away fear and brought in error.” Were this merely Varro’s opinion, then it might not count for much. But it should give us pause that a pagan unbeliever like him would come to the conclusion that corporeal images are unworthy of the majesty of God. The reason why they are unworthy, in his estimation, is that they diminish reverential fear of God and introduce error to people. This sentiment shows that it was spoken with wisdom and truth.

Augustine, although he quote Varro, comes to his own conclusions on the matter too. At the beginning, he shows that humanity did not fall into their erroneous knowledge of God through images. But images certainly exacerbated their situation. Afterwards, he explains how the fear of God was either impaired or extinguished by foolish, childish, and absurd representations. I wish this were not so, but we certainly experience it, even today! Therefore, if you want to gain knowledge of God, then go to other teachers than images to get it.

Blogging the Institutes–1.11.5–Images Don’t Substitute for Scripture

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.

Images Don’t Substitute for Scripture

Gregory the Great has said that, “Images are the books of the unlearned.” But the Holy Spirit goes in a very different direction. If Gregory had been taught by the Holy Spirit in this matter, he too would have gone in a different direction. When Jeremiah claims that idols are a delusion (10:8) and when Habakkuk claims that an idols is a “teacher of falsehood” (2:18), we can infer this truth from these verses: Everything learned from images about God is futile and false.

Now some may respond and claim that the prophets were only criticizing pagan idols. I admit this. But I add (which should be obvious to all), that the prophets condemn what the Catholic Church advocates: images can replace books. The prophets contrast images with the true God, as if the two were opposites in their nature, and could never be made to fit together or agree. In the passage which I quote above, the conclusion is drawn that since there is one true God whom the Jews worshipped, all visible shapes made to represent Him are false and evil lies. Therefore, anyone who looks to images of God for knowledge of God is miserably deceived.

In sum, if any knowledge could be gained from images of God, then the prophets would not have criticized images in such broad language. Therefore, the position I hold is this: Whenever pastors teach against the use of images of God, they are merely restating what the prophets have already said.

Blogging the Institutes–1.11.4–Idols are Self-Defeating

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

Idols are Self-Defeating

The Psalms show that idols are nothing: “Their idols are silver and gold; the work of man’s hands” (Psalm 115:4; 135:15). Because of these idols are made out of physical materials, the Psalmist shows that they are not gods. The author takes for granted that any human attempt to depict God is a lie. He specifically mentions silver and gold, rather than clay and rock, to show that even the noblest materials can cause true worship. He then draws a general conclusion: that nothing is more unlikely than a “god” being made from inanimate matter. Human beings are forced to confess that they but creatures of the day, yet would want metal to be made into an idol. Where do idols come from except human will?

A heathen poet had good grounds for mocking idols: “I was once the trunk of a fig-tree, a useless log, when the tradesman, uncertain of whether he should make me a stool, chose rather that I should be a god.” In other words, a human being, who breathes out his life almost every moment, is able by his own reason and will to confer the name and honour of deity upon a lifeless tree-branch. While the heathen poet had no regard for religion when he mocked idolatry, let us hear the stinging rebuke of the prophet. May it cut us to the heart when he talks about the infatuation of those who take a piece of firewood to warm themselves, bake bread, roast meat, and out of the leftovers, make a “god” before whom they bow down and worship (Isaiah 44:16). Isaiah continues and in another place not only charges idolaters with guilt before God’s law, but also a failure to learn from creation that it is incomprehensible to try to make the infinite deity fit into the finite.

Yet experience shows that the abomination of idolatry is natural to people. The Bible also shows that every mode of idolatry is denounced. Being the works of people, idols have no authority from God (Isaiah 2:8; 31:7; Hosea 14:3; Micah 5:13). Therefore, this is an absolute truth: all modes of worship devised by people are detestable. The Psalmist places the infatuation with idolatry in even stronger light when he shows how helped is asked from dead and useless objects by people who have the intelligence to know that the universe is run by God alone. But while the corruption of humankind leads all people into this madness, the Holy Spirit thunders, “Those who make them will become like them; everyone who trusts in them” (Psalm 115:8). What you should notice from the text is that the very likeness of God is forbidden, whether sculpted or otherwise. This dismissed the frivolity of the Greek Church. They think they’re ok because they have no sculpted shape of God. But no one uses images and pictures more than they do! The Lord, however, not only forbids any image of Himself to be set up in the church but any picture whatsoever because such an image is sinful and insulting to His majesty.

Blogging the Institutes–1.11.3–Angels Ain’t Images

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

Angels Ain’t Images

It’s true that the Lord sometimes would reveal Himself in certain signs so that He was said to be seen face-to-face. But all the signs He employed were in perfect accordance to true doctrine and at the same time gave some indication of His incomprehensible essence. For example, the cloud, smoke and flame were symbols of heavenly glory (Deuteronomy 4:11). Yet, these symbols curbed people’s mind from trying to penetrate into the mysteries of God’s essence. Even though Moses prayed to see God’s face, he wasn’t allow to because God’s glory is too great (Exodus 33:20). The Holy Spirit also appeared as a dove. The symbol of the dove, however, vanished instantly. Who can’t understand then that this symbol was a call for us to regard the Spirit as invisible and be content with His power and grace? It was not a call for us to worship an external form.

God sometimes would appear in the form of a man. But such appearances were an anticipation of the revelation of the God-Man, Jesus. Therefore, these appearances did not give the Jews any reason for creating a symbol of God in the form of a man. The mercy-seat was also a symbol of God’s invisible presence (Exodus 25:17, 18, 21). The mercy-seat was made in such a way that it points us to contemplate God’s invisible glory: the Cherubim with outstretched wings shaded it, and veil covered it, and its remote location in the Holy of Holies concealed it. Therefore, it is mere fantasy to try to defend the use of images by appealing to the Cherubim which adorn the ark of the covenant.

Because what did these figures means except that images are unfit to represent the mysteries of God? The Cherubim’s wings concealed a view of God not only from our eyes but from every human sense. Furthermore, the prophets add that the Seraphim covered their eyes from looking at the glory of God because it is too great to see. Even angels cannot look at it directly! Meanwhile, the minutes beams of glory which come angels are shield from our eyes. Moreover, everyone acknowledges that the Cherubim were made under the era of the Law; they are not for our new covenant time. That old age in which things of that era were adapted has passed away.

Surely, it is disgraceful that pagan writers should be more skillful interpreters than Roman Catholics. Juvenal ridicules the Jews for supposedly worshipping thin clouds and the earth. He did this perversely and blasphemously, but he still acknowledged that the Jews were worshipping no visible form of God. He speaks more accurately than the Roman Catholics who argue that the Jews used some real images for worship.

Let’s learn something here: The fact that the Jews occasionally were drawn away and tempted by idols shows us how prone our human nature is toward idolatry. Do not use the Jews as a scapegoat for your own idolatry and be lead away into death-like sleep.

Blogging the Institutes–1.11.2–Images Condemned in Moses and Isaiah

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.

Images Condemned in Moses and Isaiah

Moses not only condemns the making of images but also includes the reason why. He writes, “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16). God plainly speaks against making any kind of image so that we’re aware that making such images is rebellion against Him.

Now, the prophets also speaks against making images– most notably–Isaiah. Isaiah demonstrates how God’s majesty is defiled by such absurd and ugly images (Isaiah 40:18; 41:7, 29; 45:9; 46:5). It is vain to capture God who is spirit through tangible images; He who is invisible to visible idols; He who fills all space into a little bit of wood, metal or stone. Paul also reasons the same ways: “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill” (Acts 17:29). Therefore, it’s abundantly clear that any statues or pictures, which are said to represent God, are totally displeasing to the Lord and are insults to His majesty. 

Is it strange that the Holy Spirit thunders such responses from heaven when He compels blind and miserable idolaters to confess the same things while they live on the earth? Seneca’s complaint as recorded by St. Augustine is well known: “The sacred immortal and invisible gods–when they are dressed up human clothing and exhibited through images and pictures, when they have a mash-up of different bodies and some are ‘gender-neutral,’–they ‘gods’ would be considered monsters.” Thus, those who support the use of images resort to evasion. They pretend that the Jews were forbidden from using images on account of their susceptibility of having their worship devolve into superstition. But such an argument is nonsense because the Lord’s prohibition against images is founded upon His own eternal essence and the uniform predictability of nature.  Besides, when Paul refuted the error that God could have a bodily shape, he wasn’t talking to Jews but to Greeks in Athens.

In Defense of Youth Ministry

I never wanted to do youth ministry. I never had any experience doing youth ministry. Yet, I now find myself three years in with leading my church’s youth ministry.

While I was in seminary, much discussion centered on the need to “rethink” youth ministry. I got the sense that there was a lot of angst surrounding youth ministry. Even now, while doing youth ministry, I still feel a palatable sense of foreboding about youth ministry from many church leaders. For example, many youth pastors feel the burden of the high dropout-rate statistic which get cited frequently: almost 80% of our youth leave the church during college.  Timothy Paul Jones shows that this statistic is not true.

But despite having no basis in reality, the dropout-rate statistic has caused many youth pastors to rethink their model of youth ministry. In recent years there has been the rise of “family-integrated” ministry which does not have any ministries based on age. Youth, teens, and adults are all in the same studies together. Even if not going that far, many churches, including my own, have adopted such lingo as seeing parents as “the primary disciplemakers in their homes.”

Reinvigorating parents to see their vital role in the home is extremely important. But neither the importance of parents nor a faulty statistic should be enough to change the way we do youth ministry substantially.

Furthermore, caricatures of youth ministry do not help. I was surprised to see Peter Leithart commenting on youth ministry, since I figured he was writing some large theology book.  In reality, all he was doing was summarizing James K.A. Smith book, You Are What You LoveHere is Smith’s description of youth ministry in his book:

“We have turned youth ministry into an almost entirely expressivist affair, surmising that what will ‘keep’ young people in the church is a series of opportunities for them to sincerely exhibit their faith. Instead of embodied worship that is formative, we have settled for a dichotomy: an emotive experience as a prelude to the dispensation of information, thirty minutes of stirring music followed by a thirty-minute ‘message'” (145).

I gotta be honest: nothing that Smith describes in this paragraph applies to my (or most) youth groups. I find it odd that Smith would criticize the church for providing “opportunities for them to sincerely exhibit their faith” through youth group. Maybe I am misreading Smith at this point, but isn’t the whole “faith without works is dead” thing about sincerely exhibiting your faith? Sure, we don’t want to elicit a merely emotional reaction in our students. But don’t we want to provide some opportunities to put their faith into action?

The flow of our youth group is like this. We play an hour of games. Then we teach the Bible for 30 minutes, then we break up into smaller groups to discuss and apply the biblical passage for 30 minutes. We pray in our smaller groups. Then we eat snacks.

The “rap” against youth ministry typically seems to be two-fold. First, youth group is light on substance and heavy on fun. Second, youth group is about creating an emotional experience rather than having the students anchored in liturgy and substance.

Let’s answer these each in turn. It’s true that youth group could be seen as purely fun. But it’s also important to remember that students learn and bond through play. Early childhood education makes this case persuasively. Teenagers aren’t too different. Playing games and having fun creates a shared common experience, especially with adult leaders. Furthermore, males usually learn by sharing a common challenge or experience. It can be very difficult to have most teenage boys open up about their lives when sitting in small groups. But when coupling that small group time with games and fun, it is a powerful way to get to know them and connect on a deeper level.

It’s also important not to place too much emphasis on youth ministry. Youth Groups are one piece of a much larger pie. Don’t expect youth group to save your teenager. Don’t look to youth group to be the primary place where students learn biblical truth–the Sunday morning worship services should be that place. Don’t see Youth Group as exempting you from your biblical role as the primary disciplemaker.

Here’s why “traditional” youth ministry is still important and effective:

1. Students need Christian friends their age

You need people going through the same things you are who also believe the same things you do.  Even as adult Christians, we recognize the importance of deep friendships with people our own age. Why are students any different? Youth Group gives them a space to connect with their friends also in the context of learning Scripture.

2. Youth Group helps students bond to other Christian adults who aren’t their parents

Christian Smith, in his study called The National Study of Youth and Religion, found six factors which contributed to a student “staying Christian” through the transition to adulthood. One of the six factors was that the teen has many adults in a congregation to turn to for help and support (found in It’s Not Too Late by Dan Dupee). Let’s be honest: teenagers aren’t known for being super open with their parents. Even if you’re the world’s best parent, there still will be times when your kids clam up. They need other Christian adults to turn to. Youth leaders can help fill this gap.

So what is our Youth Group all about?

Two things: relationships and God’s Word. That’s it. We try to velcro students in deep friendship to each other and the leaders. We try to teach them the Bible and let them read it for themselves. That’s the hole that youth ministry fills. Your role as a parent indeed is to be the “primary disciplemaker” in your teenager’s life. Youth ministry cannot replace that. But Youth Group can do other things really well: foster friendships with other Christians and promote Bible study.



Blogging the Institutes–1.11.1–God Opposes Idols

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.

God Opposes Idols

The Bible regularly speaks of God using common, everyday terms so that we can understand who God is, even with our limited intellects. Whenever the Bible wants to contrast the one, true God with idols, it will usually speak of particular, tangible idols that God is opposed to. Scripture still opposes ungodly philosophical systems and other sophisticated worldviews, but it usually doesn’t speak to such systems of thoughts because its goal is to show the foolishness of rejecting God. Scripture eliminates any possibility for there to be other so-called “gods” in the world. There is only one God, who is the only proper witness to Himself.

Idolatry has spread across the whole world. People constantly long for a visible representation of God so they often make idols of wood, stone, silver, gold, or any other kind of material. Therefore, we can draw this conclusion: If any visible form is said to represent God, then His glory has been corrupted by a lie! In the Law, after He claimed the glory of being God for Himself alone, God instructs the Israelites about what true worship looks like. Such regulations for true worship include instruction about images: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4). Using these words, God curbs any attempt on our part to represent Him through a visible image. He also briefly adds the kind of images which would be out of bounds. For example, we know that the Persians worshipped the sun. They imagined that each star in the sky was a “god.” For the Egyptians, every animal was a form of God. The Greeks prided themselves on worshipping God in human forms. But God makes no exceptions with images–as if some are better than others for representing Him. He rejects all images.