Do Protestant Views on the Eucharist and Religious Imagery Contradict?

There are a lot of Protestants, particularly Evangelicals within the Calvinist tradition, who hold (a) that symbolic depictions of Christ, like the Crucifix, are idolatrous and wrong, and (b) that the Eucharist is a religious symbol. As far as I can tell, these two views just can’t be reconciled; at least, not without declaring Christ an idolater. To see what I mean, let’s compare these two views side-by-side.

Position #1: Symbolic Representations of God are Idolatrous and Wrong

Cristo Negro de Esquipulas 
(Black Christ of Esquipulas), Esquipulas, Guatemala

Dr. Joe Mizzi, an ex-Catholic, runs a site called JustForCatholics.org, seeking to draw Catholics away from the Church. Another ex-Catholic wrote him to see whether it was wrong to throw Crucifixes into the trash:

Since I used to be Catholic, I have a couple of crucifixes that I no longer have up hanging on the walls. What do I do with them? I know it is not really Jesus there on the crucifix but it seems, I don’t know, disrespectful to throw it in the trash? But I think I shouldn’t hang onto those things anymore? 

Just for having to ask, Mizzi suggested that “you are still not yet completely freed from you[r] previous thought patterns.” A committed ex-Catholic would know that the Crucifix must be destroyed:

Keep in mind what God requires of us. He commands us not to make any grave images or to bow before then or serve them. Consequently, you would do well to remove all idols from your house.

I know that the crucifix is made to represent the Lord. But God Himself would not approve of such a practice. [….] When you begin thinking like this, you would do like God’s servant, Moses, and destroy the graven images because you respect and love the Lord enough to obey his Word.

According to Mizzi, Christians ought to destroy Crucifixes because any depiction of God (including scenes of Christ on the Cross) are idolatrous.

This radical iconoclasm has its roots in Calvinism. John Calvin conceded that religious images played an important catechetical role in the Church for the unread, but still held that any attempt to depict God was idolatrous and false:

Rafael Pi Belda, Christ Crucified (2009)

I am not ignorant, indeed, of the assertion, which is now more than threadbare, “that images are the books of the unlearned.” So said Gregory: but the Holy Spirit goes a very different decision; and had Gregory got his lesson in this matter in the Spirit’s school, he never would have spoken as he did. For when Jeremiah declares that “the stock is a doctrine of vanities,” (Jer. 10:8), and Habakkuk, “that the molten image” is “a teacher of lies,” the general doctrine to be inferred certainly is, that every thing respecting God which is learned from images is futile and false. 

If it is objected that the censure of the prophets is directed against those who perverted images to purposes of impious superstition, I admit it to be so; but I add (what must be obvious to all), that the prophets utterly condemn what the Papists hold to be an undoubted axiom — viz. that images are substitutes for books. For they contrast images with the true God, as if the two were of an opposite nature, and never could be made to agree. In the passages which I lately quoted, the conclusion drawn is, that seeing there is one true God whom the Jews worshipped, visible shapes made for the purpose of representing him are false and wicked fictions; and all, therefore, who have recourse to them for knowledge are miserably deceived. In short, were it not true that all such knowledge is fallacious and spurious, the prophets would not condemn it in such general terms. This at least I maintain, that when we teach that all human attempts to give a visible shape to God are vanity and lies, we do nothing more than state verbatim what the prophets taught.

Calvin views this as the Biblical view, because it is the view held prior to the Incarnation. The Catholic response is twofold: (1) the prohibition against religious imagery was never absolute, even in the Old Covenant (Numbers 21:8-9, Exodus 25:18, 1 Kings 6:29, 1 Samuel 6:5, etc.); and (2) God reveals Himself fully in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3), Who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:5).

But Protestants in this camp tend to ignore or reject these arguments, so you end up with things like Mizzi claiming that Christians need to dump their Crucifixes in the trash.

Position #2: The Eucharist is a Symbolic Representation of God 

John Snyder, The Lord’s Table (2013)

This iconoclasm becomes ironic when contrasted with the position of many of these same Protestants on the Eucharist. Here’s Dr. Mizzi explaining his views on the Eucharist:

Personally, it was through the study of the Bible that I became convinced that the bread and wine are sacred symbols of the body that was broken of the cross and the blood that was shed on Calvary for the remission of my sins, for there is no change in substance (bread remains bread, wine remains wine). It is explicitly stated that the supper is “a remembrance” and that there are now no more offering for sin, so the Eucharist could not be a sacrifice for sin.

Did you catch that? The bread and wine of the Eucharist, according to Mizzi, are “sacred symbols” depicting the Body and Blood of Christ… but aren’t really His Body and Blood. In other words, his view of the Eucharist is almost exactly the same as the Catholic view of the Crucifix that he denounced as idolatrous and unbiblical.

Recall the question that Dr. Mizzi was asked about the Crucifix. The reader said, “I know it is not really Jesus there on the crucifix but it seems, I don’t know, disrespectful to throw it in the trash?” The reader knew that the Crucifix was just a symbol, albeit a sacred one. But such symbolism, Mizzi explained, is evil and idolatrous. But then he turns around and endorses a view of the Eucharist that is the very sort of “sacred symbolism” that he denounced as idolatrous.

Conclusion

It seems to me that these two views are simply contradictory: either symbolic depictions of Christ on the Cross are evil (in which case, the Protestant view of the Eucharist is not just wrong, but evil), or symbolic depictions of Christ on the Cross aren’t evil (in which case, the suggestion that we need to trash our Crucifixes is disrespectful and wrong).

Of course, a third option is possible: that these Protestants are wrong on both of these positions. Sacred symbolism is great, which is why we love religious art and imagery, yet the Eucharist is more than just a sacred symbol. As Catholics, we’d endorse this third option. Our view takes faith, admittedly. The Eucharist looks like it’s just bread and wine, just as Christ looked like He was the ordinary Son of Mary and Joseph. But it’s also consistent and coherent. The pieces of Catholic theology fall into place like a puzzle, while the various distinctively-Protestant views tend to fall into contradiction, as we’ve seen here.

27 Comments

  1. This never even occurred to me–I suppose there was no real reason for it to, since I’ve never been Protestant and have had minimal contact with Protestants who believe both things.

    Thank you, and God bless!

  2. To my knowledge, most Protestants do not have a problem with pictures/paintings of Jesus or films with actors depicting Jesus. Why are these images of God acceptable, but a crucifix is viewed as idolatrous?

    1. Ali,

      Good question. I suppose I should let some of my Protestant readers respond to you here, but there are three answers that I know of:

      1) Some Protestants are against all religious depictions. In the first piece that I linked to, Dr. Mizzi denounced Evangelicals’ use of murals of Jesus. He claims it’s deceptive, since any mental image of Christ falls infinitely short (this would seem to be an argument against the Incarnation as well, but that’s an aside). A Calvinist friend of mine said that some of the people in his church were outrages over The Passion of the Christ, because they viewed it as idolatry. But this seems to be a fringe these days, even within conservative Protestantism.

      2) Other Protestants are okay with images, as long as they’re not a part of religious use. So they would object to a nativity scene in a church, but not in city hall. Actually, this comes pretty close to Calvin’s own view. But even this distinction wouldn’t save them from the contradiction in regards to their Eucharistic views.

      3) Plenty of Protestants just haven’t thought very deeply on this subject, They hold views that, upon closer examination, turn out to be contradictory, and which are probably motivated in some part by a fear of Catholicism (and a belief that we Catholics actually worship statues, our protestations notwithstanding).

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. My understanding is that there is nothing evil or morally wrong with a crucifix. In fact I knew a few non-Calvinists who wore them simply because they liked them. But I’ve asked why most Protestant denominations only have crosses and no crucifixes. The response was because they worship the risen Lord and that is the depiction of the cross. Of course I pointed out that the cross is meaningless without Christ’s sacrifice upon it. In other words, both are acceptable to use with Catholics because of those two very reasons. It’s not an either/or but a both/and thing. Protestants don’t get that second part.

    3. The response was because they worship the risen Lord and that is the depiction of the cross

      I’ll be honest, while I’ve seen that response made before as well, I’ve never understood the logic of it. How does a bare cross imply the resurrection? (After all, the crosses of the two criminals crucified with Christ were also bare soon enough after they were crucified, too). A bare cross is simply a bare cross. If one wishes to portray the risen Lord, it would seem they would need to choose a different symbol altogether.

      But, in any case, your reply (which I agree with) also reminds me of this passage from the Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton (1936):

      “The sort of Evangelical who demands what he calls a Living Christ must surely find it difficult to reconcile with his religion an indifference to a Dying Christ; but anyhow one would think he would prefer it to a Dead Cross…and the case is further complicated by the relation of the image to the other object. If a man were ready to wreck every statue of Julius Caesar, but also ready to kiss the sword that killed him, he would be liable to be misunderstood as an ardent admirer of Caesar. If a man hated to have a portrait of Charles the First, but rubbed his hands with joy at the sight of the axe that beheaded him, he would have himself to blame if he were regarded rather as a Roundhead than a Royalist. And to permit a picture of the engine of execution, while forbidding a picture of the victim, is just as strange and sinister in the case of Christ as in that of Caesar.”

    4. Ali, you have brought up a great point! If there is a consistent view of images of God, then those against such “graven” images should be against the depiction of Jesus in movies. There was the recent film called “Son of God,” which depicts Jesus and is being advertised now to Protestant ministers as an evangelism tool. This also happened with “The Bible” on the History Channel and “The Passion of Christ.” This trend will continue, even if it goes against their stated beliefs. I am a Protestant, but I am not in this stream of thought or belief. …so I cannot make a sincere argument for this group. Great question, Ali!

  3. “Despite the injunctions in the Sacred Scriptures against the making of images, it can be seen that in fact the Sacred Scriptures also point the way to the making of icons and images of our Lord Jesus. We see the prefigure of the Christian tradition of images in, for example, the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the accompanying pair of images of the Cherubim as well as the embroidery of the cloth of the Holy of Holies; and also in the bronze serpent which Moses raised up in the Wilderness and alluded to by our Lord Jesus; the manna that came from heaven, part of which was kept in the Ark of the Covenant together with the two stone tablets that had written on them the Word of God spoken to Moses; and of course the visions of the servants of God, Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah and John who saw the throne of the Most High God and the heavenly Host.
    .
    n all these images from the Old and the New Testaments we see the hand of God, the inspiration of God and the will of God. In short by the very fact of the incarnation of Jesus Christ (the Son of God and the second person of the Divine Holy Trinity, and the true reflection of the image and glory of God the Father) demonstrates clearly that the use of images by the Christian Churches from the earliest times is absolutely scriptural. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1 v 14)
    readmore: http://iconicjesus.org/home/category/iconic-jesus/

  4. Interesting article, as always, Joe! You have shown a very clear issue in this line of thinking. The only consistent way for a believer to be against graven images is to be as extreme as muslims are on this. We have seen several times in the last decade that our society does not have the stomach for such extreme. This group has to be inconsistent in order to still be accepted by our society.

    I knew where you were going with just the title. Either you are very descriptive or I have been reading this blog for too long? Either way, great post!

    1. Why? I think I know the reasoning in regards to icons of the Father (although I think Ratzinger addresses it well in Spirit of the Liturgy), but what’s the argument against depicting Christ as a Lamb?

    2. Trullo Canon 82:

      “In some pictures of the venerable icons, a lamb is painted to which the Precursor points his finger, which is received as a type of grace, indicating beforehand through the Law, our true Lamb, Christ our God. Embracing therefore the ancient types and shadows as symbols of the truth, and patterns given to the Church, we prefer grace and truth, receiving it as the fulfilment of the Law. In order therefore that that which is perfect may be delineated to the eyes of all, at least in coloured expression, we decree that the figure in human form of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, Christ our God, be henceforth exhibited in images, instead of the ancient lamb, so that all may understand by means of it the depths of the humiliation of the Word of God, and that we may recall to our memory his conversation in the flesh, his passion and salutary death, and his redemption which was wrought for the whole world.”

      Pope Hadrian I: “All the holy six synods I receive with all their canons, which rightly and divinely were promulgated by them, among which is contained that in which reference is made to a Lamb being pointed to by the Precursor as being found in certain of the venerable images.”

      Unless some other pope abrogated the Sixth Council’s incorporation of Trullo canon 82, I find it normative.

      As for the Father, there is no way to draw a symbol of His essence or hypostasis, so whatever you do is wrong. For Christ, you can draw a representation of his flesh so that is legitimate.

    3. Old Testament theophanies via angelic intermediaries are fair game, thus Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham icon. Painting the Father is not.

      Calling Christ the Lamb of God has no bearing on the proper spirit of iconography. An ecumenical council canon ratified by the Pope is authoritative. Whether we agree with it is irrelevant unless some other Pope unbeknownst to me has abrogated the prohibition–which is entirely possible.

    4. Daniel,

      To my knowledge, Trullo has never been ratified by any pope, and it’s not really a part of the Fifth or Sixth Ecumenical Council. The Catholic position has tended to be that, at best, it’s a regional council with pretenses of being an Ecumenical Council (and therefore, its disciplines are binding on the East); at worst, it’s an invalid Robber Council. I don’t know the backstory of Pope Hadrian’s letter to Tenasius of Constantinople (whether, e.g., he was simply mistaken about the Conciliar canons), but that’s not the sort of act that undoes the prior papal rejection of Trullo (e.g., Pope Sergius condemning it as invalid, and saying that it contained “novel errors”).

      If I’m right, and I might not be, that would mean that it’s false to say that it’s (a) an Ecumenical Council canon, or (b) ratified by the pope.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    5. Pope Sergius refused to sign the decrees when they were sent to him, rejected them as “lacking authority” (invalidi) and described them as containing “novel errors.”With the efforts to extort his signature we have no concern further than to state that they signally failed. Later on, in the time of Pope Constantine, a middle course seems to have been adopted, a course subsequently in the ninth century thus expressed by Pope John VIII., “he accepted all those canons which did not contradict the true faith, good morals, and the decrees of Rome,”a truly notable statement! Nearly a century later Pope Hadrian I. distinctly recognizes all the Trullan decrees in his letter to Tenasius of Constantinople and attributes them to the Sixth Synod. “All the holy six synods I receive with all their canons, which rightly and divinely were promulgated by them, among which is contained that in which reference is made to a Lamb being pointed to by the Precursor as being found in certain of the venerable images.” Here the reference is unmistakably to the Trullan Canon LXXXII.
      Hefele’s summing up of the whole matter is as follows:

      (Hefele, Hist. of the Councils, Vol. V., p. 242.)

      That the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nice ascribed the Trullan canons to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, and spoke of them entirely in the Greek spirit, cannot astonish us, as it was attended almost solely by Greeks. They specially pronounced the recognition of the canons in question in their own first canon; but their own canons have never received the ratification of the Holy See.

      358

      Thus far Hefele, but it seems that Gratian’s statement on the subject in the Decretum should not be omitted here. (Pars I. Dist. XVI., c. v.)

      “Canon V. The Sixth Synod is confirmed by the authority of Hadrian. “I receive the Sixth Synod with all its canons.

      “Gratian. There is a doubt whether it set forth canons but this is easily removed by examnining the fourth session of the VIIth [VIth by mistake, vide Roman Correctors’ note] Synod. “For Peter the Bp. of Nicomedia says: “C. VI. The Sixth Synod wrote canons.

      “I have a book containing the canons of the holy Sixth Synod. The Patriarch said: 1. Some are scandalized through their ignorance of these canons, saying: Did the Sixth Synod make any canons? Let them know then that the Sixth Holy Synod was gathered together under Constantine against those who said there is one operation and one will in Christ, in which the holy Fathers anathematized these as heretics and explained the orthodox faith.

      “II. Pars 2. And the synod was dissolved in the XIVth year of Constantine. After four or five years the same holy Fathers met together under Justinian, the son of Constantine, and promulgated the aforementioned canons, of which let no one have any doubt. For they who under Constantine were in synod, these same bishops under Justinian subscribed to all these canons. For it was fitting that a Universal Synod should promulgate ecclesiastical canons. Item: 3. The Holy Sixth Synod after it promulgated its definition against the Monothelites, the emperor Constantine who had summoned it, dying soon after, and Justinian his son reigning in his stead, the same holy synod divinely inspired again met at Constantinople four or five years afterwards, and promulgated one hundred and two canons for the correction of the Church.

      “Gratian. From this therefore it may be gathered that the Sixth Synod was twice assembled: the first time under Constantine and then passed no canons; the second time under Justinian his son, and promulgated the aforesaid canons.”

      Upon this passage of Gratian’s the Roman Correctors have a long and interesting note, with quotations from Anastasius, which should be read with care by the student but is too long to cite here.”

    6. “Old Testament theophanies via angelic intermediaries are fair game, thus Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham icon. Painting the Father is not.” — Good point. I hadn’t thought of that. And the Council itself recognizes ancient depictions of the Lamb of God, so the question is a disciplinary one, but I don’t know of any abrogation of this canon…

    7. And John the Baptist knew right away that Christ was the Lamb, but I wouldn’t wager that he figured that out *before* he figured out the full extant of what was going on in the Incarnation. That Christ is one essence with the Father and has taken on human flesh so that He is thereby consubstantial with us.

      That places the Incarnation as a higher truth than the truth that Christ is the Lamb. He’s the Divine Lamb. What theology of icons would justify an iconographic magnification of the smaller truth at the expense of the larger truth?

      Do an icon of Christ with a lamb or something. It’s more correct, plus it’s the tradition.

    8. Meant to say but I would wager that he figured…

      And the it in “it’s tradition” was the tradition of not depicting Christ as an animal lamb.

    9. Shouldn’t we leave the wrangling as to what is accepted, ratified or approved by the Church, to the Church? The Church seems to have no problem with depictions of the Father or with icons of the Son as the Lamb of God. Why should it trouble any Catholics?

      As for me, when the Church decrees that this is no longer acceptable, then I will obey the Church.

  5. Good article.

    One fascinating thing about images of Jesus: Everyone recognizes Jesus, but no one knows what he actually looked like.

    From an ancient Roman painting of the Healing of the Paralytic, dated to 235 AD

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dura-europos-paralytic.jpg

    To a mosaic in Ravenna from 500 AD

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RavArchBpChapelXt.jpg

    To numerous Italian Renaissance, and Baroque paintings

    To even being depicted as Chinese

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ChineseJesus.jpg

    Everyone, the world over, can look at all those pictures (and lots more) and say “That’s Jesus!”

    Jesus most likely looked like a Palestinian. Look up images of “Palestinian Christians” and unless human genetics have radically changed between the time of Jesus and today, that’s probably what the sort of people Jesus walked around, and mingled with on a daily basis looked like, and probably what Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and the rest all looked like as well. A small portion of them have been Christian since Pentecost.

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