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Volume 8, Issue 5: Stauron

The Image of the Cross

Jim Nance

Just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God . . . to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence. . . .
The Seventh Ecumenical Council
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
Galatians 3:1-2

The veneration of images of Christ has long been an accepted, indeed required practice in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Such was determined following centuries of disagreement in A.D. 787 at the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, quoted above in part, and such was defended in the thirteenth century by the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas. He wrote "the same reverence should be shown to Christ's image as to Christ Himself."[*] Aquinas anticipated the appeal to the second commandment, "You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them. . . . " (Ex. 20:4-5) He explains that this commandment applies only to the making of images of false gods for the purpose of worship, and to the true God who is incorporeal. Then he adds, "But because in the New Testament God was made man, He can be adored in His corporeal image."

Aquinas follows this with a defense of worshipping the cross itself and effigies of it, first insofar as the cross represents Christ Himself as an image, and second as it came in contact with Him and was saturated by His blood. He writes that, "In the first way men are accustomed to venerate the king's image; in the second way his robe. And both are venerated by men with the same veneration as they show to the king."
The arguments of Aquinas were quite ably refuted by the Reformers. John Calvin, in chapter eleven of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, demonstrates that "God's glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him." He notes that it is unfitting and an `absurd fiction' when He who is by nature invisible is made into a visible likeness. He also shows that God appeared in the Old Testament as a man many times (cf. Gen. 18:2-33; 32:24-30; Ex. 24:9-11; Judges 13:21-22, etc.), yet still the Jews were forbidden to represent Him as such. Thus the argument from Christ's incarnation falls to the ground. Neither is the true God to be worshipped through the use of images, as the Jews attempted when Aaron made the golden calf, not to represent a different god, but the Lord Himself (Ex. 32:4-6). Indeed even the pagans recognized that they worshipped not the idols themselves, but rather through the idols they worshipped the gods represented therein.
Let us then beware lest we think ourselves immune to similar idolatrous temptations. For though our churches do not contain statues of Mary or paintings of Christ, yet when crosses of wood or metal, often very large and imposing, are prominently placed before us in the sanctuaries of evangelical churches, are we not tempted to fall into looking at them as we worship in song, or picturing Christ on the cross as we pray before it? Do not the worshippers in some Protestant churches make a quick bow before the cross when they are serving in the front of the church? Why then do those who do such things look askance at others who bow before statues of the Lord, or kiss His image in a painting?
Some may answer, "We do not worship the cross, rather we place this symbol before us as a reminder of the work of Christ for our salvation." But Paul makes the point to the Galatian church in the verse above that Christ is to be set before us as crucified in the preaching of the cross, not in the making of visible images. Calvin asks, "What purpose did it serve for so many crosses--of wood, stone, silver, and gold--to be erected here and there in churches, if this fact had been duly and faithfully taught: that Christ died on the cross to bear our curse (Gal. 3:13), to expiate our sins by the sacrifice of His body (Heb. 10:10), to wash them by His blood (Rev. 1:5), in short, to reconcile us to God the Father (Rom. 5:10)? From this one fact they could have learned more than from a thousand crosses of wood or stone."
Note that I do not condemn all uses of the symbol of the cross, any more than I would object to the use of a capital T in this column. But if a cross is placed in a church as an aid to worship, that the congregants may more readily grasp the work of Christ in it, then that church is on the road to idolatry, and the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox may reasonably question our condemnation of their traditions.
God forbids the use of any images in the worship of Him, even the image of the cross, for He is a jealous God. Let us be careful when we think we stand, lest we fall.

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