Monday, March 21, 2011


Last week I was reading Isaiah 46:1-7 where God is speaking about the idols of Babylon and how powerless they are.  Along with the passage, I was also reading John N. Oswalt's commentary The Book of Isaiah.  His note on verses 5-7 caught my eye:

...Isaiah is not denying that the deity could be more than the idol.  He is simply saying that once a deity is associated with an idol, then it is impossible for that deity to be genuinely independent of creation.  The continuity with creation defines the deity's identity and forges its limitations.  It cannot be independent from history and cannot, therefore, deliver from history (p. 231).

I found this interesting because I've read that pagan idols are not considered to be gods themselves, but rather a "dwelling place" for the spirit of the god.  Therefore, the Bible seems to be missing that point when it speaks against idol worship by focusing on the idols themselves.  Here Oswalt contends that God (through Isaiah) not only recognizes this fact but in so doing implies another reason to turn away from idols: if the god that indwells them must rely on human beings to create a dwelling place for them, then they are ultimately powerless anyway.  I had never thought about idols in this way before.  Perhaps that is why in other passages God questions the whole idea of erecting a temple for him, such as in Isaiah 66:1-3 where he tells us that “ 'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.  Where is the house you will build for me?  Where will my resting place be?  Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?' declares the LORD."

In the Incarnation, God did appear among us in physical form, by creating a body for himself without the help of human artists.  In doing so, he offers yet another proof that he stands outside of human limitations and is limitless in power.  In terms of contextualizing visual arts, then, one must be careful when it comes to the idea of creating 2D or 3D representations of the Godhead (Father, Son, Spirit) for use in worship.  I don't know enough about the use of divine images in the worship practices of other religions, but my initial thoughts would be that any visual representations of God should be reserved for teaching purposes or discipleship, not as an object of worship.  This is in contrast to the use of icons in Orthodox and Catholic churches, where icons (in the Orthodox church, I've read) are anointed with oil and then the Holy Spirit is asked to "descend" upon the icon so that God is literally present with the worshiper.  Inside the Tabernacle and Temple, multiple images of both plants and cherubim were used extensively, but nothing was used to represent God himself-- only his throne, the Ark of the Covenant.

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