Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Bare Cross or Crucifix?

Catholics, Orthodox, many Lutherans, and some Anglicans display and sometimes wear crucifixes.  Some Lutherans and Anglicans don't, and virtually no Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Evangelicals more generally wear or display crucifixes.  Instead they typically display or wear an empty cross.

Why do we in this latter group reject crucifixes?

From what I can tell, Luther was down with crucifixes but Calvin and Zwingli were not (though Calvin and Zwingli held that certain religious symbols--perhaps crucifixes, I don't know--were OK if in one's house).

Four reasons against crucifixes that I can glean are:

1. Exodus 20:4's prohibition against graven images
2. Having images in church tends toward idolatry
3. An empty cross better symbolizes Christ's resurrection
4. Galatians 6:14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Regarding 1:
Now, Exodus 20:4, taken at face value, rings of Islam: you shall not make any images of any thing period.   But Christians have long been against this extreme type of iconoclasm and have held a more nuanced view in interpreting Exodus 20:4-5 in light of the New Testament.  If Exodus 20:4 rules out crucifixes, it would seem to rule out any statues of Jesus, paintings of Jesus, and the light-bulb-glowing-Christmas-baby-Jesus.

Regarding 2:
This is hard to prove.  Catholics, Lutherans, etc. certainly argue that they are not worshiping crucifixes and don't treat them as idols.  Perhaps in practice this does not always hold but that's definitely their view.  Of course, the threat on the other side is a tendency towards Gnosticism, thinking of God as completely transcendent and forgetting the Incarnational God.  There's also a tendency towards idolatry with respect to the Bible and militant, individualistic Biblicism.  I don't know how many times I've heard pastors and other Christians in the last few years say that "the Bible IS TRUTH" as if Jesus is the Bible!  At any rate, even if crucifixes are sometimes idolized, that's not a good argument against them in principle.

Regarding 3:
The Biblical symbol of the Resurrection is not the cross but the empty tomb.  An empty cross is no better symbol of the Resurrection than a crucifix since the cross was empty before the crucifixion.

Regarding 4:
We should probably take "cross" as a metaphor for the crucifixion or a synecdoche for Christ on the cross.  A cross without Christ is pointless, just as His death without the resurrection is pointless (as Paul was well aware).

Now for some Biblical passages that might be taken to favor crucifixes:

1 Cor. 1  23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Cor. 2   For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Gal. 3:1  You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.

Col. 1 15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

Hebrews 1 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his beingsustaining all things by his powerful word.

John 20 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. [Gross!  Gross?] Stop doubting and believe.”

Rev. 5:6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.

Obviously there's no knock down argument here for displaying or wearing crucifixes, but if we're going to allow some physical representations or symbols of Jesus (beyond symbols in a natural language like "Jesus"), it's hard to see why a three dimensional representation of Jesus dying on the cross is particularly problematic.  We're not Muslims after all!

One last argument (I'm sure there are others) against crucifixes is that the crucifix for Catholics might also be symbolic of Christ's perpetual sacrifice in the Eucharist (which some Protestants reject appealing to Hebrews 10:10 as a proof text among other things).  I don't know if that's true of Catholics, but there's nothing inherent in a crucifix suggestive of a perpetual sacrifice, just as there's nothing inherent in the baby Jesus in a manger scene suggesting that Jesus is perpetually a baby.

Unfortunately, there seems to me a general lack of theological reflection on art in Evangelical circles more generally (and an ignorant rejection of all things Roman Catholic as well).  Here  is a great place to start.  Here is a very introductory work on iconography (which Evangelicals should find appealing; I know my brother-the-pastor found it helpful as did I).

As always, thoughts and objections are welcome.


  1. This will come as no surprise to you, Tully, but I have no problem with crucifixes or the veneration of images more generally. I was interested that you said many Lutherans wear crucifixes. I don't doubt you, but I've never seen anyone wear one in my church, nor are there any crucifixes anywhere in the church. Lutherans are certainly more "image-lite" than Catholics or Orthodox. Our church frequently uses a bare cross and the Shepherd's crook. I often see people wearing a bare cross.

    I think that your readers might find it interesting to investigate the Iconoclast persecutions that took place a few centuries before the Great Schism. Briefly, there was quite a bit of iconoclasm in the Eastern Church. The iconoclasts were quite violent and persecuted the image venerators, and there was a lot of politicking. The Byzantine Emperor leaned heavily on church officials, in order to change church policy, and they had some short lived success with this. However, the Second Council of Nicaea promulgated the teaching that iconoclasm is heretical. I get the sense that this was very much in keeping with orthodox Christian teaching before the Council.

    This takes us to the role of tradition in the Church. I've never heard a convincing argument that tradition has no place in the church. So, if you think that tradition at least has some role (you don't think it has to have as much of a role as Catholics think, just some), then you have good reason to be okay with crucifixes and the veneration of images, since these practices date to very early in the church and seem to have been well within the teachings of orthodox Christianity, which got codified in the Second Council of Nicaea. Furthermore, you might think that this council has some authority. This was the last of the first seven ecumenical councils, which both the Eastern and Western Churches accepted.

    I'll finish my comment by sharing personal experience. I grew up thinking that Catholics engaged in idolatry. I obviously don't think this anymore. I didn't really encounter icons and crucifixes much until college when I spent a semester in the Middle East. While abroad, I interacted some with Eastern Christianity, which gave me a different perspective. I got to see Byzantine artwork in Istanbul and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Christian artwork and icons are beautiful and were made, I think, as acts of worship and to help others worship. I found that they helped me in this respect. Being around these images sort of directed my attention heavenward and gave me physical reminders that there is a very real spiritual realm, and we live in a world where the spiritual and the physical meet.

  2. JS,

    From what I gather, Lutherans in the U.S. typically shun the crucifix but that's because they tend to follow other U.S. Protestants in this regard.

    This issue definitely has bearing on tradition and vice versa. Someday I'll post some of my views on the role of tradition.

    What I most appreciate about iconography is how the artist tries to keep himself out of the artwork and follow strict rules about how to traditionally represent whoever is being represented. There's very minimal allowance for the artist to insert himself into the art--which is exactly opposite of contemporary way of thinking about the artist's relationship with the art.