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Art is a gift of God

From golden calves to icons, images have stirred controversy. But art rightly used enriches worship.

By P. Lynn Miller | Presbyterians Today

Presbyterians believe that painting, sculpture and other art forms are gifts of God, who inspires people with the ability to create artistic designs and to teach these skills. We read in the Bible of artisans who were called by God (see Exodus 31), and we know it still happens today. Throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), faithful artist-members gather together at conferences and retreats, celebrating God’s gifts of creativity and exploring together with heart and hands and voices what it means to be made in the image of a creating God.

Art in Exodus

Over the years controversies about the use of art and images have arisen in the church. The roots of these controversies can be found in the Exodus account of God’s covenant with the people at Mount Sinai. The second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4–5) forbids the making of an “idol” or “graven image.” This commandment has been interpreted to mean:

  1. We are not to make any images at all (through painting, sculpture, drawing, photography or any other media).
  2. We are not to make images of God.
  3. We are not to make an image of something else and call it God.

The second part of the commandment speaks against the worship of created images. The creation of the golden calf in Exodus 32 seems to confirm the fear that images lead to idolatry. This story often is used to justify a removal of the visual arts from the life of the church. The incident makes us wonder why people would prefer worshiping an unseeing, unfeeling, unresponsive piece of metal when they could have a relationship with the living God. But it does not diminish the role of the arts or the artist, even within the Exodus story.

Chapter 31 of Exodus attests to the use of artistic designs in worship. God calls Bezalel by name and fills him “with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs . . .” (verses 2-4). Bezalel and Oholiab are charged with creating the tent of meeting and its furnishings and other holy items used by the priests. Among the items these two craftsmen were instructed to make were the vestments worn by the priests. “On the lower hem of the robe they made pomegranates of blue, purple and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen,” says Exodus 39:24. This design directly contradicts the second commandment, if the commandment is read as prohibiting the creation of any images or likenesses of things on earth.  

John Calvin, the 16th-century father of Presbyterianism, interpreted the second commandment as prohibiting only the creation of images of God. He said that attempts to make a visible representation of God deface God’s glory. Thus Christians in the Reformed tradition have focused on verbal images of God rather than visual onesthough some verbal descriptions of God are no less idolatrous than visual images.

Controversy over icons

In the eighth and ninth centuries a churchwide theological struggle — the iconoclastic controversy — began over the use of icons. Icon is the Greek word for image or likeness. At the heart of the controversy was the accusation that Christians were worshiping paintings of Christ and other holy figures. Roman Emperor Leo III led those who publicly opposed icons, going so far as to destroy an image of Christ that had hung in Constantinople’s Imperial Palace. Leo may have been motivated by a desire for theological and Scriptural purity — or he may have seized on the controversy as an opportunity to increase the emperor’s power.

John of Damascus, an icon supporter, asserted that venerating an icon was not the same as worshiping it. An icon does not equal what it depicts, he said, but is a likeness that calls to mind the original.

Theodore of Studios centered his defense of icons in the doctrine of the incarnation. If Christ was, indeed, fully human, then his humanity was touchable, concrete and able to be pictured. Theodore also equated the verbal portraits of Christ in the Gospels with the visual portraits on icons: “Whatever is marked there with paper and ink, the same is marked on the icon with various pigments or some other material. For the great Basil says, ‘Whatever the words of the narrative offer, the picture silently shows by imitation.’ ”

The Seventh Ecumenical Council, meeting at Nicaea in 787, upheld the veneration of icons, denying that icons are idols or that believers worshiped them as God. Years of dueling councils followed. Leo’s successor as emperor, Constantine V, destroyed images and convened councils to support the position of the iconoclasts (those who opposed icons). The iconoclasts painted over and defaced images in churches, and replaced images of religious subjects with images of secular subjects.

Art and the Reformation

Seven hundred years later, in their break with the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformers echoed the ideas of the Roman emperors Leo Ill and Constantine V. They called for a return to “proper practice” of the second commandment.

In Zurich statues were pulled down and church walls whitewashed by the followers of Ulrich (Huldreich) Zwingli, one of the most zealous of the Reformers. In some churches in Holland stained glass was replaced with clear glass and walls were whitewashed to cover painted decorations, leaving only memorial plaques to break the monotony of the plain walls. This led to one critic’s characterization of Protestant churches as places of death.

The Reformers were not impressed with the argument that images painted on walls and formed of colored glass in windows were a way to teach the stories of faith to illiterate worshipers. Calvin insisted there would be no illiterate worshipers if the church were doing its job.

“And yet I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible,” Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion Q.XI.12). He roundly criticized the results of the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea. But at the same time he seemed to uphold Theodore of Studios’ incarnation argument, stating that the human form is an acceptable art subject.

A century later, artist Rembrandt van Rijn, who lived and worked in Calvinist Holland, painted a wide variety of subjects. His compositions included scenes from the Old and New Testaments (including images of Jesus), portraits, landscapes and historical events.

Art in today’s church

Today’s Presbyterians believe that because God exists in time and space and took human form, the things of this world matter. Throughout Scripture and church history, material things have been used to exhibit the power and grace of God.

However, the gifts of painting, sculpture and other art forms must be rightly used. Works of art used in worship should not call attention to themselves. They should, instead, direct worshipers to God. Creating or owning beautiful works of art and enjoying them in the places where we worship is no substitute for giving ourselves to God and doing the other work we are called to do as the people of God.

P. Lynn Miller is a Presbyterian minister and ecclesiastical artist living in Jackson, Miss. This article first appeared in the April 2006 issue of Presbyterians Today. 

Get Creative

How to incorporate the arts into your congregation’s life

  1. Arrange museum trips to teach Bible study groups to look theologically at art. For example, how would a study of the Exodus story inform and critique an exhibit of American art of the Old West?
  2. Set aside part of your church building as a gallery for changing exhibitions of work by artists in the congregation, community or a local college.
  3. Invite members and friends to bring a brown bag lunch to an “Art Lunch” and 30-minute program. Food, fellowship and half-an-hour on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is an unusual but meaningful workday break.
  4. Invite interested persons to gather each week to hear the text for the upcoming Sunday sermon and respond to it creatively, as a way of beginning their preparation for worship.
  5. Plan a year with the Bible — in art. How have the stories of our faith been painted, drawn, sculpted, built? Spend a year studying art through the Bible and the Bible through art.
  6. Establish a one-year Artist-in-Residence program, so that your congregation, or a group of congregations, experiences the gifts and creative opportunities of artists working in a variety of media.


Using art in worship

Guidelines from the Book of Order

 The Reformed heritage has called upon people to bring to worship material offerings which in their simplicity of form and function direct attention to what God has done and to the claim that God makes upon human life. The people of God have responded through creative expressions in architecture, furnishings, appointments, vestments, music, drama, language and movement. When these artistic creations awaken us to God’s presence, they are appropriate for worship. When they call attention to themselves, or are present for their beauty as an end in itself, they are idolatrous. Artistic expressions should evoke, edify, enhance and expand worshipers’ consciousness of the reality and grace of God.

All time, all space, all matter are created by God and have been hallowed by Jesus Christ. Christian worship, at particular times, in special places, with the use of God’s material gifts, should lead the church into the life of the world to participate in God’s purpose to redeem time, to sanctify space, and to transform material reality for the glory of God. — Directory for Worship 1.3034(2)–1.3040