Icons, Idols, and Holy Scripture

PantokratorFor someone questioning their Christian upbringing and background, there is perhaps no more important question than how to relate to the Bible. Some of us, myself included, take the leap away from believing in scriptural inerrancy and infallibility without having a completely intelligible explanation of why, other than that it grates against some deep-seated intuitions we have about what’s really going on. Admittedly, that’s a pretty scary jump, especially when so much of what we learned previously depends on those ideas.

I gave up on easy church answers, trading them for questions, instead. How would I relate to Holy Scripture? I didn’t know. In moments of weakness, it was easy to retreat back into old answers which I knew didn’t satisfy — mostly just to save face in front of people with expectations about what were and were not appropriate answers to that question. On my own, however, I sought to learn more.

Along the way, people have presented a number of different ways of thinking about Scripture. The view I liked best actually comes from one of the most famous and well-respected theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth. He argues that Scripture doesn’t become God’s Word until the Holy Spirit works in us. Or perhaps more accurately, Scripture points us to or leads us to God’s Word through the working of the Spirit, but Scripture is not God’s Word in and of itself.

I always found this view attractive but lacking. Who was to say that a beautiful tree or an emotional moment couldn’t do the very same thing? Scripture lacked a definite purpose. I could stare at the clouds or contemplate philosophy and learn about God’s truth. Why did I need Scripture?

The answer, for me, stems from a short passage I read two years ago during a course on Metaphysics. In this section, philosopher Jean-Luc Marion talks about the difference between icons and idols. In short, the difference between an icon and an idol is the way in which we use it for worship. When we treat something as an idol, we treat it as the thing that we should worship for its own sake. On the other hand, when we treat something as an icon, the icon points us beyond itself to something greater which demands our worship.

For example, we know an image of Christ is not Christ; rather, it points us beyond the image to Christ Himself. When we treat the image in that way, we treat it as an icon. If an ignorant or misled person were to come along and see this image, though, they might believe that the image itself demands worship, thereby treating it as an idol.

While it’s not my aim to offend people, I must say that the way people treat the Bible looks a lot like this sort of idolatry. This is largely how most of the Christians I know use Scripture: it is itself the object of reverence, not that toward which it points. It’s like a de facto fourth member of the Trinity.

A better approach would be to treat the Bible as an icon. While you may be able to come to know God through a beautiful landscape or an intimate moment, the Bible’s express purpose is to point you in that direction; however, it is not God Himself. It is not “God’s Word” as John 1:1 discusses.

A bit of a tangent, here: the “Word” or “logos” from John 1 is a reference to Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who used the concept of the “logos” as a way of describing the fundamental workings of the universe. For the Word to become flesh was not the Bible taking on human form, as I believed in my ignorance while growing up. Jesus is not the Bible in any way, shape, or form.

Anyhow, my point is that the Bible points us beyond itself to God. It is not the direct revelation of God, worthy of reverence in and of itself, but it is the collection of testaments from diverse people all interacting with God in unique ways. We should remain respectful of it, but we do not have to bow to it. To do so is idolatry, as we must instead worship God.

(P.S.: I apologize for the infrequent updates of late. Computer problems + life + distractions = no blogging.)
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About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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10 Responses to Icons, Idols, and Holy Scripture

  1. Jeremy says:

    I completely agree with your assessment.

    One minor point though. I would argue that even more than Philo, the idea of Logos harkens all the way back to Heraclitus. Meaning that it is much more deeply ingrained in ancient Greek thought. Thus, John can be seen to be making an appeal to the gentiles when he invokes Logos in John 1:1

    • While it’s true the idea of the “logos” goes pretty far back, I’d call it a safe bet that John (or rather the author of the book which we call John) is reacting to Philo more than he is reacting to Heraclitus. The early church actually made some official recognitions of Philo; there were no such things for Heraclitus.

  2. Ken Nichols says:

    Totally agree with you here. I’ve been thinking for the past few months that many evangelicals have gone from loving and respecting the Bible to straight up worshiping it. I’ve even heard it said that you CANNOT come to faith in Christ unless you believe the Bible FIRST. Nonsense! To shackle people with that kind of mental requirement is a slap in the face to God’s grace and the Spirit’s ability to speak to hearts. The Bible is AWESOME to be sure, but God is MUCH bigger than the book WE created (well, compiled and published, at least).

  3. Chris Thomas says:

    I think your post is very much in keeping with Barth, especially with respect to your discussion of idols versus icons. He said something to the effect that, for the Christian, there are no holy things,places, or objects of any sort. At best, they are vacuums into which Christ can be presented.

    I have enjoyed reading your posts thus far.

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  5. Zak Venturo says:

    Word and Law are synonymous, no where in scripture is the Word of God and The Law of God not one and the same.

    The Word made Flesh would mean the Law made Flesh. Christ, called our Passover, fulfilled the Law (in part) by being the perfect sacrifice.

    I definitely agree that mercy and grace mean much more than a comprehensive understand of every biblical passage, however, that same Law of God through salvation comes with entitlements. The notion that the Law is no longer relevant would mean Passover and Salvation is no longer relevant.

    With Passover comes Salvation, the right of Nationalization into the Israel, and the extension of the Priesthood beyond the Levites. Passover was the only sacrifice that moved outside the Levite Priesthood and put it into the hands of the people, which Peter eludes to in calling us a Royal Priesthood. It was also the one Feast of Israel required to be part of Israel.

    Passover derived its name from right before Exodus, when the Angel of Death passed over Israel… which is why Jesus as the Lamb of God and our Passover is significant. That makes literally the living fulfillment of the Word.

    The Law is still alive however. Those Feasts of Israel, like Passover, were both memorial and prophecy. Christ still has The Feast of Trumpets and Tabernacles to fulfill. That would be commonly referred to as the Second Coming and the Millennium, the reign of God on earth. Not to mention the The Great White thrown Judgment, Yom Kipur, or also known as the day of atonement.

    While its possible John had Philo in mind, choosing the word, “Word,” had a far deeper meaning inside Hebrew writings then anything Philo had to say. Especially since scripture itself was relegated only to the Priesthood or a sitting King as those who were authorized to copy it down. Hebrews (not just the Jews, which are a fraction of the entire nation) had such reverence for the written word of God that God’s given name was never completely written down, removing the vowels from the text. The Apostle John writing the Word become flesh would have a much greater meaning then anything coming out of Hellenistic Philosophy.

  6. Pingback: Is Jesus Worth Saving? | The Discerning Christian

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  8. londryfairy says:

    I “pressed” this. 🙂

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