Imago et Cogitatio: How Images Direct Us to the Contemplation of Divine Things

As I look up from my cup of coffee, I see the logo of the coffee shop I’m visiting painted on the wall. What does this image do? It does what all images do. It brings to mind a certain reality. In this case, it brings to my mind the existence of Radford Coffee Company, and the wonderful coffee and people that frequent there. Images like this are all around us. It is an inescapable fact of our existence. Consider even these words that I am writing. As you read “coffee shop” earlier, I’d wager a certain thought came to your mind perhaps of a coffee shop that you frequent. Images bring things to our minds. They serve as signs pointing away from themselves to something greater. This is part of why the Church has enjoyed the use of images both privately and publicly in her places of worship.

If you’re familiar with my personal history you know that there was a time when I was avidly against images of Christ. I was thoroughly iconoclastic, both disposing of images of Christ that were in my possession and going so far as to use a Sharpie to black out any depictions of our Lord on the covers of the books I owned. I even had a friend who, whenever visiting his Grandmother, would place Post-It notes over the face of Jesus in the copy of The Last Supper she had on display in her house. Many of us can likely recall J. I. Packer’s exhortations in his book, Knowing God, to avoid at great lengths even mental images of our Lord. I would like to take some time in this article to discuss the nature of images, and why I now believe images of our Lord and of His saints to be good and lawful for a Christian to make and own.

The Eternal Son and The Divine Mind

When beginning this discussion, we must first begin long before any craftsman ever picked up a tool to begin carving or painting. We must press back into eternity, to the first image. Here we will see the Word of God, the eternally begotten Son of God, who exists as a perfect image of His Father. Since the Son is eternally begotten of the Father he is, as Saint John of Damascus says, “a living, natural, and undeviating image of the Father, bearing in himself the whole Father, equal to him in every respect…”[1] That the Son is eternally begotten of the Father can, and has been, a confusing doctrine. Yet, it must be maintained properly that this begetting is not in the course of physical generation, but principally in the similitude between the one begotten and the one begetting. As Saint Thomas Aquinas elucidates,[2] the Son is not begotten of the Father by way of a physical process, but insofar as the Son bears the image of his Father. My children are “images” of me. Likewise, the eternal Son of God bears “in himself” the very and exact image of His Father without any deviation. This is why the Apostle Paul speaks of Christ as the “image of the invisible God,” and why Jesus says that “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” In this light, every created image, therefore, reflects and bears some semblance to the divine imaging that the Son does of the Father. This relation between how the Son images the Father, and the forms of created beings within the mind of God may provide us with further insight into what it means that the Father made all things through the eternal Logos. That perfect and divine image of the Father gives shape and form to all that is made. All things were “created through him,” and “in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:16–17)

Both St. John of Damascus and St. Maximus the Confessor reference Pseudo-Dionysius’ work on the Divine Names, particularly his concept of “predeterminations.” For the Confessor, these predeterminations are the logoi which give order and set the boundaries by which all created things take their shape, form, and particular ends. For the Damascene, these predeterminations are images of created things within the divine mind. At first glance, we may not see how these two concepts are connected, let alone how they connect to images of Christ and of His Saints. It is my aim to bring these all together, and I ask that you would bear with me as we traverse this path together.

The Damascene notes that when God sets out to create there exist certain forms or images of that which will be created.[3] Just as a builder has in his mind an image of the table or house he sets to make, so too God has these images or forms in mind. Turning to the thoughts of St. Maximus, we see a lengthy treatment of the logoi which establishes that every created thing has its participation in the one Logos, which gives it its own being, shape, form, order, and end for which it is made.[4] We could say that these inherent logoi set the boundaries for each created thing. To transgress those boundaries is to act contrary to how God created them. To act in harmony and within these boundaries is to join in the cosmic return to God, which is our proper end. This sounds, at least to me, quite similar to how one would see the concept of Natural Law expounded by the likes of Richard Hooker. God has created mankind with its own inherent “law” by which his existence is to be ordered rightly unto God.

So how does this connect with the Damascene’s “images” in the mind of God? In both cases, God is establishing the boundaries or form of a given thing. In the creation of man, this “image” sets the boundaries by which we distinguish man from something other than man. That we can differentiate between different things (and different kinds of things) is evidence of this. Reality is not a modernist cacophony of colors, but is a beautiful harmony of distinct colors and shapes. Reality has definition, and therefore distinction and order. So when an artist lays down layers of paint resulting in an image of our Lord, he is participating in a very real way the “creativity” of God. He joins with the Divine Wisdom through whom all creation has its proper order and harmony. The artist, like the Divine Artist, sets the boundaries of a given thing by which our minds can examine and extract truth from the lines set. We see a depiction of a man on a cross, perhaps even with the words “King of the Jews” accompanying it, and our minds recognize that this is pointing to the reality of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

The Psalmist proclaims that creation “declares the glory of God,” and that day and night it “reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19). The Apostle Paul also declares that we have a knowledge of God by way of creation. He states that it is “in the things that have been made” where we perceive these truths about God (Romans 1:19-20). However, this knowledge is not perfect, nor does it give us a knowledge of God as he is in himself. Rather, God uses creation to “speak” to us by way of analogy. In short, we are creaturely and finite, and God is the infinite creator. He is the pure Spirit, and we are mere mud-men. When God seeks to reveal Himself to us, He does so by “condescending” to our level. He speaks to us in a way we can understand, and He does this by reference to created things. This is because we cannot have an exhaustive or complete knowledge of God as He is in Himself in this life. With this limitation in mind, all creation serves as an image pointing us back to the Creator, teaching us that which can be known of God, and that as in a mirror dimly lit.

Even beyond this, the works of man’s hands are also used to teach and instruct us about God. Consider the Tabernacle and all the accouterments of the Old Law. All of these things also acted as types and shadows prefiguring Christ who was to come. As I alluded to in the introduction, even our written words act as images of both visible and invisible realities. I’ve belabored this point up til now, but it’s important to get it across. Visible, material creation provides us with images whereby we gain a knowledge of invisible realities, including God. That these visible things cannot deliver us a complete or full knowledge of God is not a failure on the part of the creature. As such we should not disparage these images lest we think ourselves wiser than God, who by wisdom fashioned all things visible and invisible.

To go a bit further, these realities that are communicated to our minds are the proper use of images in the sense we typically use the term. Whenever I snap a picture of my children, or of my wife, the picture itself is not to be enjoyed as an end in itself. Its purpose is to call to mind the persons of my wife or children, and even the particular joyful moments captured therein. I am to delight in the persons depicted therein, and through this give glory to God, whom my true joy is to be found. So too, when we consider the images of the Saints. What is supposed to be brought to our minds? The very things St. Paul seeks to put before the readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews: The lives of faith and examples of piety. When we see an image of St. Boniface, we call to mind the heroic act of taking a bold stand against idolatry, advancing the dominion of Christ; or when we see an image of St. Polycarp, we call to mind his immense piety in the face of death. We see these things, and see the work of God in their lives, and pray “Lord, give us but a portion of the faith of these men, that we may serve you as they did!”

How about images of our Lord? Images of His nativity, ministry, and passion, serve to instruct us in reverence for the great work of redemption that the Son of God undertook on our behalf. They also serve to instruct us to follow in the example of a truly godly life. They set before our eyes, the love of our crucified savior. As such, honor is shown to these images the same way we honor images of our loved ones. We would not suffer someone to deface an image of our spouse or children; nor should we permit one to deface an image of our Lord or of His Saints.

Conclusion

There is much that can be said on this subject, and I’ve only scratched the surface. There is also much that has not been addressed, such as the particulars of the 2nd commandment, or the greater details of Nicea II and the veneration of images. Nevertheless, I hope what I’ve written here has been helpful, if only for further contemplation of the wisdom of God displayed in creation. Whereas I formerly viewed images of our Lord to be the grossest form of Idolatry, I now see them as a good aid to piety when used rightly. Images are an inescapable fact of our existence, and when used rightly they can help us, who are made in the image of God, be conformed more and more into the glorious image of the Son of God, the eternal image who gives shape and form to all creation.

Notes

  1. Three Treatises on the Divine Images. United States: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003. pg. 25
  2. Aquinas, Thomas., Institute, The Aquinas; Aquinas. Summa Theologiae: Complete Set. N.p.: Aquinas Institute, 2012. 1.27.2
  3. ibid, pg. 26
  4. On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor. United States: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003. pg. 54-65

 


Cory Byrum

Cory is a native of the great state of Arkansas who is currently in exile in Virginia, and is a layman in the APA. He is interested in the ecumenical dialogue amongst Protestant denominations, as well as between Protestants and Roman Catholics. With a background particularly in Presbyterian theology, Cory enjoys discussing the theological differences between Presbyterian and traditional Anglican doctrine with a pursuit of a Reformed Catholicity. He is a husband to his delightful wife Emily, and father to three wonderful children: Calvin, Elias, and Ella.


'Imago et Cogitatio: How Images Direct Us to the Contemplation of Divine Things' have 3 comments

  1. April 10, 2023 @ 7:44 pm Linda Handley

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  2. April 11, 2023 @ 9:48 am Bruce

    I kept waiting for the engagement with the scriptures and the Anglican formularies, but I guess that’s for another article. However, until the objections arising from the scriptures and the Anglican tradition are dealt with, it will be hard to persuade someone of the rightness of using images, regardless of the value one may perceive in their use. A Christian in the Protestant tradition whose first commitment is to the scriptures must be fully convinced in his own mind that he is first and foremost being faithful to the scriptures. The use of reason to guide our practices with respect to images or anything else must occur within that context.

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  3. April 20, 2023 @ 7:49 am Jake Dell

    Confessing Anglicans did a point / counter point on images and Anglicanism last year. I wrote the “contra” piece. You can read it here: https://confessinganglicans.com/the-problem-of-images-in-anglican-worship/.

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