The Art of Worship
The place of the visual within Protestant worship is, for some congregations, a highly contentious matter. While music has enjoyed an important place in the history of reformed worship, liturgical art is often viewed with a residual distrust that can be difficult to pinpoint. Some of this wariness is rooted in well-intentioned but misguided convictions about the place of the visual in worship that can be traced back to the Reformation. During the 16th century, many of the early
reformers marshalled Old Testament texts to prohibit the use of images considered idolatrous. While the reformers rightly acknowledged some of the abuses of imagery in the late medieval period, the lingering mistrust of art within reformed circles seems extended beyond these initial charges to a belief that art is little more than an unnecessary distraction from the core of worship. The reformers offered a competing concept of worship that was distinct from their Catholic counterparts, and abdicated, either by obstinate piety or stoic indifference, a great gift and responsibility.
Following the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church made efforts to correct internal abuses and reaffirm its role as a patron of the arts, calling upon artists to create direct but emotionally persuasive religious paintings. Art, they argued, could inspire the spiritual imagination and serve as an important pedagogical tool for propagating the faith to the masses. The reformers countered with the argument that the faithful should get their teaching straight from the word and encouraged new worship practices that placed a heightened emphasis on hearing God’s proclamation to his people.
This new form of worship required a rearrangement of church furniture, and the pulpit, from which the word could be preached and heard, symbolically replaced the Eucharist table as the primary of focus of worship. In the reformed tradition, where the Bible as written word became the domain of the Protestant Imagination, worship was translated into a rich literary tradition, which, in the words of John Calvin, formed mental images far superior to the "perception of oureyes".1 It is telling, and of no coincidence, that the invention of the printing press and the first stirrings of the Protestant Reformation
occurred at the same historical points. With this new technology, Reformers were not only able to foster their ideas through a distribution of the story into the vernacular of the people, but were able to re-scope the horizons of theology within the hearing, structuring mind. For many Protestants the idea of a corporeal Christ was replaced by concepts or dogmatic principals in which Jesus is referenced in the abstract as a keystone in a theological formulation.
One can speak, for example, of the iconoclastic prohibitions in the Westminster Confession where Protestants are forbidden from even imagining the incarnate Christ, let alone bringing these mental pictures to the canvas. Images, Calvin argued, derived from “human ingenuity” do little more than distract our attention away from the
biblically ordained means of worship.2 Pictures for the reformers implied more than a violation of God’s commands – they suggested the inadequacy of words in God’s self-revelation. This emphasis on words led to an abdication of the visual dimension of worship and stark worship spaces were promoted that would allow the congregant to focus on the essentials, hearing God’s word and the sermon.
While the Reformed tradition has historically been restrictive in its use of visual art, the practice of many churches today is changing. There is a growing recognition that something valuable and important is lost when we restrict the practice of worship to speaking and hearing alone. Art, as many are learning, invites us to engage the worship experience as fully embodied and multi-sensory beings, and can offer an important counter to our impulse towards intellectualism
in the worship experience. By affirming that matter matters, the presence of art is a reminder that the sum of who we are, body, mind and soul, is being reconciled to God. It can affirm the physical fleshiness of our experience by creating a space, or setting, for the social practice of liturgy where we, the corporate body of believers, reflect on what it means to serve a God incarnate. Rather than distracting us from words, visual art can add a new dimension to the worship experience that serves the fullness of liturgy and promotes the sanctification of all of our faculties -- imaginative, emotional and
rational. Art has its own special place in what Jeremy Begbie calls the “ecology of theology."3 It has much to teach us when we emphasize its possibilities to glorify God over the dangers of pulling attention away from Him. The promise of the gospel is restoring right relationships. As churches learn to nurture and celebrate the visual within the diverse spectrum of worship, they can invite God’s healing to this old wound.
Dr. Christopher Cuthill, 2017
1. John Calvin, Institutes, xi, 12.
2. John Calvin, Institutes, i, 13.
3. Jeremy Begbie,ed. Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts. (Baker, 1999) xii.
For further reading:
David O. Taylor, ed. For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. (Baker Books, 2001) A collection of theologically astute articles for pastors and artists navigating the restoration of the arts within worship.
J Scott McElroy. Creative Church Handbook: Releasing the Power of the Arts in your Congregation. (IVP, 2015) A practical guide to starting up and organizing arts ministries and integrating the arts into worship.