The Reformed Tradition and Suspicion of Visual Beauty

Within the Christian tradition, there’s an uneasiness with the things of the world, particularly beautiful things. At the beginning of the Scriptures, we’re told that the fruit that tempted Eve was “pleasing to the eye.” The fruit’s beauty, combined with the deceptive words of the serpent, draws Eve in.

But, unlike the calculated words of the serpent, the fruit of the tree was not pleasing in order to be tempting. The fruit’s beauty was consonant with its nature and with the rest of the garden—all of the things that God created were beautiful. The writer’s attention to its beauty isn’t a note about the untrustworthiness of beauty, but of the human desire to take and eat apart from the gift-giving God.

Still, beauty is powerful, and there is always the possibility with the beauty around us that our desires will fix on that thing, rather than understand that thing to be a means of pointing us beyond it. Our hearts are idol factories, as John Calvin observed. In response to this, many have thought it better to ignore or reduce the physical thing altogether than risk the temptation.

Suspicion of beautiful things pervades the Reformed tradition today, particularly when it comes to faith and worship. Reacting against the Catholic Church, the Reformers moved away from visual primacy to auditory primacy in worship—hearing the word was the most important part of religious life. They were known as iconoclasts, refusing to decorate their churches with the icons and statues that characterised Catholic Churches. Concerned with idolatry, Reformation piety was suspicious of images in worship.

In his book Visual Faith, William Dyrness explores Reformation thought around vision and sight in worship. Calvin in particular, Dyrness shows, valued the way that God shows himself to us in the beauty of creation, and yet, “when it comes to worship it seems, there is no place for the visual. In worship it is the preached Word of God that gives entrance to God’s grace” (1). Dyrness goes on to argue that Calvin’s theology does not support forbidding all use of images in worship, and yet, this extreme position has certainly become the norm in Reformed practice.

Rather than looking on what is seen to cultivate and stir up piety, the Reformation shifts piety to the personal, inward sphere. It priorities an “application of the mind” and does “not require visual meditation” (2). Citing cultural changes and innovations as contributing factors, Dyrness argues that during the period of the Reformation a “particular form of piety and an accompanying worship experience [develops], which included sitting in pews, closing one’s eyes during prayers, and so on. In such a setting, images necessarily played no role; in fact, the were usually perceived as a distraction from the inward focus on the preached (and sung) Word” (3).

Modern Reformed theologian TF Torrance expresses an extreme form of this perception of images as distractions. He argues,
“In the biblical tradition image and word belong together, and it is through word that images are made to signify or indicate that to which they point. It is this powerful element of word that makes us look through the images and hear past them to what God has to say, and so to apprehend Him in such a way that we do not have and are not allowed to have any imaginative or pictorial representation of Him in our thought”(4)

Although he brings the image and word together, what he describes is a competition of word and image: the image must be subordinated and left behind in order to reach a pure apprehension that is image-less. Concerned that the image not obstruct that which it points to, Torrance seems to reduce the image almost to insignificance.

If, when considering images and their function as signs, pointing beyond themselves to a transcendent reality, we think of two dynamics of opacity and transparency (5), the Reformed tradition tends to be very concerned about and suspicious of opacity. It’s concerned about the tendency for an image to become an idol, because instead of looking beyond it, our gaze and worship stays with that image. The reaction then, in my experience, is an encouragement of transparency that is in effect invisibility (6), in which we are encouraged to reduce the significance of the image in favour of the concept which is signified.

One general example of transparency, given by Junius Johnson, is the swastika. This image has become so transparent—pointing beyond itself to Nazi Germany—that the image itself, with its other connections and its physical attributes of angles and lines, is rendered invisible. Recent proposed legislation in Victoria demonstrates this.

I’m interested in what all of this has to do with creation, and the ways in which we see/experience creation. What renders creation opaque? transparent? If the abuse of idolatry is associated with opacity, what abuse or sin is associated with transparency? Might we miss the depths of the significance of the “concept” (using Torrance’s language…I’m not convinced it’s the best) if we rush on past the image? Might we fail in our responsibility to creation if we see it only as a means? Might we miss a good gift if we view the visual, in general, and the beautiful, in particular, as suspect?

(1) Dyrness, William. Visual Faith. p 40.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid, p 41.
(4) Qtd in Hart, Trevor. Between the Image and the Word. ch. 1
(5) Junius Johnson has a helpful exploration of these two, which he argues are not two ends of a scale, but in an intricate, complex relationship in his theology of beauty, The Father of Lights.
(6) This is Trevor Hart’s characterisation of TF Torrance’s argument.