The tension between word and image in the Judeo-Christian story is long and complicated. As we enter the time of the reformation, we discover that like the Egyptians before them, the Catholic Church reserved writing for the elite members of society. To make matters worse, the Catholic Church didn’t even preach the word of God in the common language. To compensate they used images, which they called “the books of the unlearned.” As Pope Nicholas V explains: “Only the learned who have studied the origin and development of the authority of the Roman Church can really understand its greatness. Thus, to create solid and stable convictions in the minds of the uncultured masses, there must be something which appeals to the eye; a popular faith, sustained only on doctrines, will never be anything but feeble and vacillating.” [1]John D. Woodbridge, Church History : The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (2013), 56.

Statue-2The Reformation rejected visual representations of God, including statues, stain glass windows, and other symbols. They replaced images with those things that emphasize God’s voice, like teaching, preaching, and printing. In this sense, Catholics privileged the eye and Protestants valued the ear.

“The Protestant reformers privileged the ear over the eye, hearing over seeing, the word over the image, and the book over the statue…The Reformers trusted words to connect the faithful to God instead of images that were easily confused with the reality behind them.” [2]C. McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (Yale University Press, 1998), 13.

The Church as a Mouth House:

Every student of history knows the Reformation wouldn’t have taken place without the written word; but correlation does not equal causation. It is a confusion of categories to argue that the Reformation happened because of the written word. Rather, the Reformers wrote because they believed God had spoken. This is why Luther said: “The church is not a pen-house but a mouth house.‘” [3]Quoted in Theodore S. Liefeld, “Scripture and Tradition, in Luther and in Our Day,” in Interpreting Luther’s Legacy, ed. Fred W. Meuser and Stanley D. Schneider (Minneapolis: … Continue reading Furthermore, the main title for Reformation church leaders was not “Pastor” like it is today, but “Preacher,” which emphasizes the all-important task of speaking God’s word. [4]Pauck, “Ministry in the Time of the Continental Reformation,” 116. Available on-line from: … Continue reading. In this way, the Reformation was “a recovery of the biblical centrality of words.” [5]C.R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Criticial Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus Publications, 2004), Kindle Location, 666.

Those who stand in the reformed tradition look back to the reformation as a golden period of renewal for Christ’s church. But the reformers were not trying to start something new, instead their goal was to revive New Testament Christianity. The story we tell about the reformation is that the gospel “faded, in part because the word faded.” For this reason, those who want to see a modern reformation argue that “If the spirit of the Apostles were to revive again it would have to revive under a return to the Book.[6]Arthur W. Hunt, Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-Made Environments (2013), Kindle Location, 914.

[Tweet “If the gospel “were to revive again it would have to revive under a return to the Book.””]

Remixing the Reformation:

As I have argued elsewhere, God loves combining word and image (think “living epistles” or Jesus as both the image and word of God). Although the reformation resists images, perhaps there can be a way forward that maintains the necessary tension between word and image.

This post is part 4 of a multi-part series on the history and differences between a word-based culture and an image-based culture, and how this affects discipleship and preaching. See top of page for links to other posts in the series.

Recommended Books:

[amazon template=thumbnail align left&asin=1857929942,1620327147,0310257433]
The Reformation: Closing Eyes and Opening Ears


Tagged on:         

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *