Friday, May 24, 2013

Insight on Calvin from Zachman

I have written elsewhere of the way Calvin emptied the church of all concessions to materiality, leading to a hyper spiritualized liturgical theology. In fairness to Calvin, he did this because he was keen to emphasize that human beings themselves, not inanimate objects, are the ultimate image of the Creator. 

However, to the extent that these living icons are visible, a consistent application of his argument against inanimate images excludes even human beings from being able to represent God in any meaningful way. For example, Calvin’s comment in his Exodus commentary that “It is wrong for men to seek the presence of God in any visible image, because he cannot be represented to our eyes”, seems to dampen the prospect of the congregation of living saints being able to image God in any meaningful way.

It also throws into question the legitimacy of Calvin's notion that nature functions as the theatre of God’s glory. Zachman explored this tension in Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin, suggesting that one of the reasons why the theme of manifestation has been neglected in Calvin scholarship is because it has been overshadowed by Calvin’s appeal to the incomprehensible essence of God.
“According to this argument, the essence of God is invisible, and is unlike anything else in all creation. It is therefore impossible for God to be represented in any visible way whatsoever….Far from seeing countless images of God whever our eyes may turn, we now seem to find ourselves in a universe in which there neither are nor can be any images of God whatsoever. If this second argument from the essence of God is taken to its logical conclusion, then it would be impossible for the invisible God to become somewhat visible before our eyes in any way whatsoever, not only in images made by human artistry, but also in the works that God does in the universe.

“…an unresolvable tension lies at the heart of Calvin’s discussion of the living images of God….This tension is compounded by the various reasons Calvin gives for the rejection of images of human institution in the worship of God. On the one hand, Calvin contrasts the ‘dead images’ that humans create, which h are only the image of absent things, with the ‘living images’ instituted by God, which truly present the reality they represent. On the other hand, Calvin rejects the use of images in worship on the basis of the invisible nature of God, which cannot be represented in any symbol or image. He can at times so insist on the essential invisibility of God that he appears to undermine his whole understanding of divine self-manifestation in symbols and living images.”

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