The God Who Is Visible

Christ Pantocrator, Saint Catherine's Monastery

Christ Pantocrator. 6th Century. Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai.

Lets begin with one of the world’s greatest understatements: the incarnation has profound implications for the Christian faith.  We could, of course, say this more forcefully.  Without the incarnation, would there even be a Christian faith? The Christian faith centers on the incredible claim that that the Word became flesh.

This much should be obvious.  What is not obvious (has never been obvious) is how one can make sense of a human person who is also God.  Some of the earliest, and most heated, theological debates revolved around the question, “Who is Jesus?”  Many of our readers with know the gist of these theological debates, so I won’t rehearse them here.  But did you know that these debates crystallized in an 8th century controversy over aesthetics and worship?  The 8th century iconoclastic controversy is remarkable because theoretical debates come to bear upon a practical issue like making paintings of Jesus.  More important than this, however, is the theological rationale that wins the day, and what it says about a God who is visible.

The early church wrestled with a dual inheritance.  On the one hand, they inherited the view that God is unrepresentable.  Although not completely aniconic, the Old Testament surely emphasizes that God cannot be completely circumscribed by reason or the senses.  Also, the best of Greek philosophy (such as Plato and his followers) emphasized that God is beyond and very different from the material world.  On the other hand, they had to reckon with a God who becomes visible in the person of Jesus.  How can these two claims — that God is unrepresentable and visible — be compatible?

The iconoclasts believed that they were not.  In 754, the iconoclasts met in a council at Constantinople to condemn the making of icons.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but their primary argument centered around the incarnation.  Borrowing the language of the ecumenical council of Chalcedon (451), the iconoclasts argued that Jesus must be thought of as having two separate natures (human and divine) that are unified in one person.  Icons, they said, inevitably err in one of two ways.  First, they separate the two natures too much if they only image the humanity of Jesus.  Second, they unify the two natures too much if they represent Jesus, who is both God and human.  God, who is unrepresentable, cannot be “mingled” with a representation.

In 787, the iconodules had their say.   A council met in Nicea that condemned iconoclasm and opened the way to the proper veneration of icons.  The primary theological arguments in favor of the veneration of icons, however, come down to us in the writings of theologians of St John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite.  It is important to note that, like the iconoclasts, their primary arguments centered around the incarnation.  According to these thinkers, the incarnation is like divine permission to represent God.  If God reveals Himself as a person, then we are free to represent God as that person.  If God shows Himself to our senses, then it cannot be wrong to “see” God.

The arguments of the icondules won the day, and regardless of what one may think about the veneration of icons, they make an important point that we should not miss.  The iconodules insist that our theology cannot be done “before” the incarnation.  We cannot bring our metaphysical speculations about God to bear upon the incarnation if we do not first bring the incarnation to bear upon those metaphysical speculations.  The reality that God makes Himself visible in the incarnation is prior to whatever we may think about God.  This is the mystery and the challenge of the God who is visible.

Jim Watkins is a regular contributor to Transpositions. In 2012, he completed PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and he currently teaches humanities and bible at Veritas School in Richmond, VA.  His  forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.  Fair Use Justification: Public Domain.

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4 Comments

  • Ben says:

    your last paragraph brought a question to my mind.A quick caveat though, what I am asking may be of little relevance to the main thrust of your post. The question however is this, if the incarnation is the only way we can reasonably talk about the unrepresentable God who is visible, then what does that do for the Old Testament and the rabbinic traditions that were formulated before the incarnation. The reason I ask is that there seems to be a formed theology before the incarnation, and in fact Jesus actually reminds his followers that the theology of the Old Testament is about him. Additionally the author of Hebrews reminds us that God did reveal himself to the prophets and the fathers, he was just finally revealed in Jesus the Son.

    You last paragraph seems to discount the theology that predates the incarnation. Could you please help me understand?

    Ben

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Hi Ben, thanks for this great question. I don’t think that the incarnation discounts the theology of the Old Testament, but it may challenge that theology at different points. For example, the Israelites seem to take for granted that being in God’s presence is potentially deadly (especially if one has committed a sin). How then can God be present on earth as a human person, and eat with sinners? I don’t think that the incarnation discounts what Israel believed previously, but it should challenge and question what we think that God can or cannot do.

    I suppose that I focused pretty narrowly on the incarnation, but I would also want to state my point in the final paragraph more generally: The historical events in which God acts and shows Himself are prior to whatever we may think about God. My main point is that we need to be aware of the ways that we define and categorize God before we allow God to show Himself in history.

  • Andrew Kaethler says:

    Hey Jim,

    I agree with your response to Ben about the theological priority of the incarnation, but I think we could add something to what you said concerning God’s ‘potentially deadly presence.’ That is, in a certain way God’s ‘deadly presence’ continues in Christ. This ‘deadly presence’ is revealed in baptism. In baptism the candidate dies with Christ to the world and then rises with Christ (emphasis on baptism as death for the sake of this post). We must first die with Christ before we can truly live. So yes, the Son of God carries forth the deadliness of holiness, and yet in a radically new and redemptive way. Those who partake of the chalice of eternity and in the life of God have first died through the ‘deadly presence’ of Christ, i.e., baptism.

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Hey Andrew! Good to hear from you. I hope that things are well with you and your family. I like your point about the “deadliness of God’s holiness” being carried forward by Christ in baptism. This is an important dimension to add to the conversation because Jesus is not a complete break with the Jewish tradition, but the fulfillment of it. I would still want to contend that this is very different from the ancient Israelite’s experience of God’s presence (for example, at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19-20). And I wonder if we took a time machine back to that day when God’s presence descended like a cloud on Mt. Sinai, would Israel be able to grasp a God that they can they could touch, see and eat with, and yet not die in the process?

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