Chapter 2: Idols and the Word
1. God Speaks
God speaks.(I affirm the contradiction between word and image in the Bible, contrary to the present-day tendency to meld them into one. This is done, for example, by showing that the word includes the image [Jean-Luc Blaquart], that the word contains visions as well, etc. In X. Durand’s approach, "The body of Jacob became word.... The word of the unknown adversary is embodied.... The text makes the body a setting for the word,’’ etc. Having witnessed a time when scholars spiritualized the biblical text, we now see an insistence on materializing it at all costs. There is absolutely no way to justify statements like those above. They can be made only by slipping them into the argument, using a sequence of expressions whose very accumulation makes them seem correct.
The invariable tendency throughout the Bible is to place seeing and hearing in opposition to each other, as well as the Image or Idol and the Word. What is at stake here is not a single text, but the entire meaning of the whole revelation: the opposition between YHWH and "the" figurative representations of the gods, and the very definition of the God of Israel. A pseudo-interpretation of some texts cannot overrule the overall biblical teaching.
See the excellent little article by Alphonse Maillot, "L’Oreille et la liberté," Conscience et Liberté [Berne], no. 3 ). Jesus is the word:"The Word was with God, and the Word was God" (Jn. 1:1). From beginning to end, the Bible deals only with the word. Non-Christians, in their usual simplistic manner, lost no time in ridiculing this concept, calling it nothing but a gross anthropomorphism. They laughingly asked what mouth God speaks with; if he has a mouth, he must be only an overgrown animal.
It goes without saying that when we read that God speaks, it does not mean at all that he pronounces words and that he has a vocabulary and follows syntactical rules. This comparison is used of course to help us understand the action and person of God. Only a very obtuse and rankly materialistic person could fail to understand what the Bible says so clearly. He would have to refuse to accept this language for what it is: metaphorical, an analogy, not an anthropomorphism.
Neither will it do to reduce the expression "God speaks" to a simple "manner of speaking" which does not matter much. Let us not say that it shows a lack of analysis or the influence of Babylonian or other groups’ thinking, that theologians and philosophers have understood the nature of God much better, so that we should drop the idea of a "Word" with reference to God. All these ideas are only expressions of rationalistic objections.
If "God speaks" were just an expression, it would not remain constant throughout nine or ten centuries. There would be many other expressions, images, and comparisons. But there is only one. The issue is not to know whether someday we will be able to listen and hear divine words, but why the chosen people and then the prophets, apostles, and Jesus used this particular analogy. What does it mean and what does it imply to say God speaks? What are we taught by this statement and by the continually repeated description that shows us a speaking God? (We can ignore studies like Blaquart’s on the Word of God that claim to be scientific but confine themselves to imposing a classifying framework on biblical texts. This framework has no scientific value outside the circle of those who have previously approved of classification as a way of explaining. See "Parole de Dieu et prophètes," in Jean-Luc Blaquart et al., L’Ancien Testament, approches et lectures: Des procédures de travail à la théologie, Institut Catholique de Paris [Paris: Beauchesne, 1977]. In this way the Word as revelation is excluded, and Blaquart concludes that the Word is divine because of the integrity of its message!)
Finally, let’s dismiss another, more serious objection: in Hebrew, dabar certainly means "word," but it also means "action." Saying that God speaks does not necessarily allude to language or human speech. It may simply mean that he acts. Here we must answer in two ways:(See also the remarkable study by Paul Beauchamp, who demonstrates extremely well that even when charged with power, the word is still the word: Création et séparation: Etude exégétique du chapitre premier de la Genèse (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1970).
According to Gerhard Kittel, we must distinguish two series of passages: those that refer to creation by action and those that refer to creation by the word. The latter would be subsequent to the former. Gerhard von Rad initially adopted this view, favoring two sources. The version where the word is involved was added later in this view. However, such a division becomes impossible (for example, na’aseh [niphal participle of ‘as’ah], "be done, be made, manufactured, prepared," is attributed to the "word" version, and bara’, "create," to the "action,, version), so that after some discussion by P. Humbert, W. H. Schmidt, etc, it is concluded that the "tradition" Of silent and undiscernible action was finally incorporated into and given form by the predominant word. This sort of research, in my opinion, enlightens us not at all, since the word in itself also constitutes an action.) first, we find not only the expressions "God speaks" and "Word of God" being used, but also the "words" of God are given to us. In this case, the formulation of God’s language is alluded to; thus there is coherence in this set of expressions, so that we cannot dismiss the word "speak." We cannot translate it, for example, as "God acted: let there be light." We must of course have "God said, ‘Let there be light"’ (Gen. 1:3). The complexity of dabar shows us that God’s word is the equivalent of action; it is power and it acts; his word does not fail to have effect. The word is the divine working par excellence.
Our great difficulty in this connection is that God expresses himself, acts, and is found only in his Word. We would like it if he could logically be found elsewhere -- if we could make him conform to our opinions, and of course see him. We prefer concepts like spirit or energy, "God is dead so as to make room for humanity," the God who lives only in the poor person, God as image, as a kind, elderly gentleman, great judge, magnificent creator, etc. The Bible absolutely excludes all these approaches. We continually bump into the limitation which irritates us: we must understand the meaning of the Bible’s great affirmation that God is manifested only in his Word. We can never grasp God elsewhere or otherwise.
The Bible vigorously opposes mystics of all descriptions, including Christians, who ascend to heaven and contemplate God by means of ascetic practices. God can never be directly grasped or contemplated face to face (Moses is the only one who is said to have done so). The only channel of revelation is the Word. And if it is a word, then it is intelligible and addressed to us; it contains meaning as well as power. This Word that created the elements and the world is the same one which, when addressed to humanity, tells us something about God and ourselves. When the Word does this it is no less creative, since it creates the heart and ear of the one it addresses, so he can hear and receive the word. Left to himself, that person would be unable to grasp the word; or rather he would find in it only a reason for condemnation and terror. This is true because of the identity between what we can understand of God’s action, God himself, and his Word.
The unknowable God chooses this way to make himself known. It is not by accident that he uses the highest human faculty, entering this way, and only this way, into the circle of human intelligence. This Word spoken to us and for us thus testifies to the fact that God is no stranger; he is truly with us. This assurance was already included in the affirmation of the creative word. The God who speaks through the Word ("God says . . . ") is neither far off nor abstract. Rather, he is the creator by means of something that is primarily a means of relationship. The Word is the essential relationship. The God who creates through the Word is not outside his creation, but with it, and especially with Adam, who is made precisely in order to hear this very word and create this relationship with God. Having received the Word himself, Adam can respond to God in dialogue.
The relationship between God and Adam is not a silent, abstract, inactive contemplation, however glowing and spiritual that might be. On the contrary, it is dialogue and word. It is language, and nothing else. It is not a question of symbolic interpretation as in Faust. But since we are dealing with God’s language, it is of course special, so Karl Barth could say that this word was both act and mystery. This word is not only creative power, but power to command. It is a decision of God’s. It is first of all a decision, which is then inserted into history. This word is the peculiarity of the God who uses his divine freedom. Barth has demonstrated this wonderfully.
Here is the fundamental difference between the Word of God and the human word: God’s Word is not just a sound which flies away and disappears, a meaning grasped one instant by the listener’s mind only to fall into oblivion afterward. Rather, God’s Word leaves a sure, irrefutable trace of its passage, just as at the beginning of creation, when God said "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3). The Word resounded and light came into existence as a permanent witness of the Word spoken in the past.
God’s Word is not just a part of language, it is a person. When we say God speaks, we imply that God is a person. "The Word of God is not something that can be described, but neither is it a concept one can define. It is neither an objective content nor an idea. It is not an object; it is the only object, in the sense that it is the only subject -- God the subject" (Barth). The Word of God is the very person of God incarnate. There is no contradiction in the fact that the word is spoken by God and also incarnate in Jesus, since this word is what reveals God, and God has effectively revealed himself only in the Incarnation of his Son. The incarnate Word is in reality the Word fully given to humankind, so that an individual can finally be truly enlightened about God’s decision concerning him, and about love and justice.
The personality of the Word of God cannot contradict its literalness and intellectuality. The word spoken in ancient times by the prophets becomes fully the Word of God because it refers to the incarnate Word. And the word newly spoken by witnesses becomes in turn this Word when and because it refers to Jesus Christ.
Since all of Christianity depends on the incarnate Word, the Word made flesh, we must say that there is no Christian faith outside the Word; our description of the God who speaks points to what is specific and particular in Christian revelation. This leads us to give an astonishing and unique importance to the Word. If we devalue the Word even a little, we are rejecting all of Christianity and the Incarnation. Demanding that Christianity be acted rather than spoken, as the current formula has it, is thus not a way of taking Christianity more seriously. It is dilettantism.
Just as the Word is the way God reveals himself, it also reveals a person to himself. "If anyone is a hearer of the word . . . he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror" (Jas. 1:23). We discover our truth in this Word, which questions us on God’s behalf. In the mirror we see an image of ourselves, of our natural face: we see our reality. The parallel is striking when we understand that the Word instructs each one about himself, it teaches him not just everyday reality, but his own truth -- the most hidden, since it is hidden in God, and the most decisive, since one’s being depends on it. One learns the truth of his being, which only God knows in its ultimate objectivity, and which only God loves in its unique particularity. In the Word God speaks about someone; the person sees himself in his abject need and his utter vanity. But because of God’s Word to him, he now sees the new countenance that is given to him: the countenance of life.
This work of the Word in a person is also taught in the Bible through the importance given to the Name. The word or syllable that indicates a person is the person himself. Let not anyone speak to us in this connection of primitive ideas. A person’s name is not so much a magic way of getting hold of him as it is the profound meaning of his being. To name someone or something is to show one’s superiority over him or it. Adam is confirmed as the head of creation when God brings all the animals to him so that he can give each one a name (Gen. 2:19). In his sovereign power and perfect initiative Adam reveals himself to be free before God (God brings all the animals to him to see how he will name them).
A poet is lying when he throws off language: "I said ‘Apple’ to the apple, and it answered me ‘Liar.’ And ‘Vulture’ to the vulture, who did not respond." Human sovereignty is due more to our language than to our techniques and instruments of war. One can claim or believe himself to be free because of language. Naming something means asserting oneself as subject and designating the other as object. It is the greatest spiritual and personal venture.
Thus we understand why refusing the name given by God and making a name for himself was the very sign of revolt for humanity. This was the undertaking at Babel (Gen. 11): people ceased to accept God’s giving them a name, ceased being face to face with God, and thus having a spiritual purpose. Instead, they decided to name themselves; that is, to assume all mastery and direction in their own lives, including their spiritual destiny. Being master of the words about oneself is in reality claiming to be one’s own subject and completely autonomous.
Throughout the Bible, a person’s name always tells of his spiritual reality. This accounts for Jacob’s destiny as much as for the mystery of the act in which God reveals his name to Moses --YHWH: the one who is (Ex. 3:14). He causes to be, He is He. This Word’s meaning is unfathomable, yet through it God reveals himself to humanity. The pattern applies to the new name to be received at the end of time by the one who has conquered, the one who will be written in the book of life. These names are only words, but it is not possible that the word be any one taken at random, or that its meaning fluctuate with the wind. We cannot create an arbitrary language for ourselves that would not matter, so that we could after all replace the Word with a drawing and someone’s name with a picture or a registration number.
* * * * * *
God creates through his Word; creation is an act of separation. The word is creator in that it names things, thus specifying them by differentiating them. The Genesis passage that establishes creation on the basis of separation contains the germ of the most modern ideas about language: it tells us that difference both establishes the word and proceeds from it. The word bestows being on each reality, attributing truth to it; it gives dynamism to reality and prescribes a fixed trajectory for it. In this way the word disentangles confusion and nonbeing.
Individual being comes from the word, because it is distinguished from the whole and given meaning by the word. Everything is given birth by the word. Things are designated because they are lacking. Only desire speaks. Satisfaction is silence.
God creates through his Word. This simple word, which has become a commonplace, first indicates to us that for God creation involves absolutely no effort at all. This is no "difficult" birth. It is not a huge struggle against chaos; it is not laborious work, arduous modeling, or a sculpture that requires supreme effort, as is the case in so many other cosmogonies. No: God speaks. (Beauchamp shows the degree to which language is consistent with the very idea of creation: "The word is nearer to the notion of otherness inherent in the concept of creation: one thinks alone, but one speaks to a person. The word connotes destination, passage, or even breach and certainly decision.... The word chooses and sets in order.... Everything is given birth by the word; the word is the course of creation: things are designated only because they are lacking. Satisfaction is silent whereas desire speaks.... But in order to speak, one must identify a thing as what it is, both for me and for others, in the past and the future. The word creates a permanent status for things in a way that the hand’s gesture cannot ensure. Ascribing creation to the word is therefore stretching beyond the depiction of an initial moment of production which would establish a state of things, following which there would be transformations. But this ‘beyond’ is not a matter of thought: God ... could have created by thought.... But [in Genesis] we find nothing like the concept of a double in some mental space, followed by a transposition into another space: that is, into our space.") It is the simplest thing possible, and the least constrained: "God speaks and things come to be."
This leads us immediately to God’s absolutely infinite greatness and power. Astronomers probe pulsars and quasars, speaking of billions of light-years, billions of degrees centigrade, billions of megawatts, and unimaginable explosions of energy. All this, encompassed in reality within the "God says," gives us an idea of the distance between the creator and us. These astronomic numbers represent merely the effect of a word, from God’s point of view. The word creates with supreme ease, so that in this sense word and action can truly be considered identical.
The creative Word also situates God with respect to time. I was going to say "in time.", Creation through the Word involves entering into temporality. We established above the indissoluble link between word and time.(The relationship between word and time from the biblical point of view has been rigorously demonstrated in Beauchamp’s commentary on Genesis 1, Création et séparation. Creation through the Word is successive. Biblically space is neither first nor essential. All objects are created separately in succession. Living beings, situated by God, are directed by a function which is of the order of succession: the perpetuation of life. "The plurality of species thus crisscrosses the pages of the future."
"The parallelism between the time of discourse and the time in a week illustrates this intimate relationship of word and time. God does not make everything all at once because not everything can be said all at once. But after the entire creation has been repeated for Adam, God’s word ends. And the finishing point is simply the recognition and celebration of the finishing.") This is exactly what the use of the term "word" suggests in this context: the God who speaks is a God related to time, who is located in humanity’s temporality, and who does not try to be atemporal or eternal in the bad sense of the word. After all, when Genesis tells us that the first thing created was light, doesn’t that indicate clearly that time is created, since light and time are inseparable?
"God spoke, and there was light" involves the same truth: time comes first, and God places himself in this time. As a result, all the later revelations that show us God intervening in History, God accompanying humanity and Israel in its adventure -- all these are already included in the declaration "God speaks." Here we have the specificity, originality, and the unique character of this God. He is not a deity within time who is subject to the ups and downs of time (like the Greek and Roman gods): he originates time. He is not a god who intervenes in the course of history in an incoherent manner, depending on his moods (like the gods of the Iliad and the Odyssey). On the contrary, he accompanies the coherent history made by humanity. On the other hand, neither is he an abstract, philosophical, metaphysical, unfeeling, immortal, eternal God, as human reflection conceives him. He is a God who enters history through his inseparable relationship with his creation.
This relationship is created by his Word. He is a God of History, and this discovery about God is Judaism’s monumental invention, which has been completely adopted by Christianity. This is the origin of all historical thinking and of History. No one else has thought in this way.(Contrary to what Delouse and Guattari say in Anti-Oedipus. They have not understood this issue at all.) God, the World, Time, and History are connected through the Word.
Since he is God in relationship to Time, this excludes the possibility of his being a god of a space or locality. He is not a god of springs, of a mountain, or of a place (once he was called "God of the mountains," but this expression was used by an enemy of Israel who did not understand this God!). He is not the god of a given country. Jonah was sadly deluded when he fled far from the Holy Land, saying: "This god will not pursue me at the other end of the world." Contrary to all the gods of all peoples, this God, who speaks and is characterized by his Word, is not a local god. (Contrary to a period in the historical school when scholars tried to see the God of Israel as God of Sinai [as a place], or as a god connected to Jerusalem’ after which he became little by little more universal, until the birth of the idea of universalism. This is false because it considers only a spatial dimension of revelation). This is because he cannot be situated in a place, since his only "place" is the Word.(The place of God: the expression "Heavens of Heavens" [for example, 1 Kings 8:27, King James] does not indicate a given place -- certainly not the "Heaven", of the astronauts! This is a purely verbal expression, used to identify Elsewhere, the Inaccessible, the Beyond [or the Very Deep], rather than a place.) God as creator through the Word signifies that God inaugurates history with humanity. Humanity will not be without God.
God who speaks is also God the savior. This can also be expressed another way: the God who speaks to humanity is "God with humanity," Immanuel, and then God in a human being. We must not stretch this too far, and say in a metaphysical leap that God in a human being means "in every human being," implying that human beings are divine, and all that follows from that premise. In this idea the center has been displaced from God to humanity, and this goes explicitly contrary to Scripture. Only one person is called Immanuel; God became incarnate in just one. We must not leap to the generalization, even if every person is saved by this Incarnation and even if this Incarnation is in a sense a model.
A word is still what is incarnate. The Word was made flesh. Nothing else. What does this mean? As we have seen, the word is the manifestation of the most secret part of a person; it is also a proclamation. To say that the Word was incarnate means that God has manifested himself, and that a proclamation has been given. It amounts to the inalienable assurance that God is henceforth forever with us, on our side, by our side. Since judgment has taken place, it is the proclamation that Satan is excluded.
"The Word was made flesh" also means that since the Word of God was incarnate, what is visible is forever excluded. The invisible God came as word. He cannot be recognized by sight. Nothing about Jesus indicates divinity in a visual way. We will return to this matter.
During his ministry Jesus only speaks. He establishes and organizes nothing. He shows nothing. "The miracles?" you ask. They are signs, as the Greek word indicates: signs of the word. Miracles are always accomplished through the word. They are always situated in a verbal context, and come as a consequence of words. "Your sins are forgiven" (Mk. 2:5). Here the word is decisive. And then: "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Rise . . . and walk’?" (Mk. 2:5). And to show that the Son of man has the power to forgive sins, he says, "Paralytic, rise and walk" (Mk. 2:11, JE). Thus the miracle is much less than the Word.
Jesus only spoke; he wrote nothing. He wrote only once, we are told: the mysterious text he wrote on the sand in front of the accusers of the woman taken in adultery. And I think (but this is one of a hundred possibilities!) that this shows the inferiority of the written word as compared with speech. He wrote a useless, obscure, incommunicable text that was soon obliterated. But he spoke the sovereign word: "Let him who is without sin . . . " (Jn. 8:7). The word liberated the woman. It convinced the accusers and pardoned the sins. The written word remained sterile and ineffectual.
Jesus bears in himself the Word of God, so that he can say "I am the truth" (Jn. 14:6; "I am the life" means "I incarnate the creative word"; "I am the way" means that the word is a guide). "God speaks" means that the question of truth has been raised -- the question of truth and therefore, as we have said, of falsehood. The "anti-God" is named the Liar. The question of truth has been raised, and therefore the question of hypocrisy for those who alter the nature of this word. In the last analysis this is the only essential accusation against those who falsify and utilize this word. I am the truth; I am myself the totality of the Word which denotes, expresses, relates, and contains the ultimate truth, of which every human word is a reflection, stammering, and repetition.
The God who speaks is at the same time the God who reveals himself, since, as we have said, the use of this term designates a relationship in which the speaker reveals who he is. The word as revelation is the Holy Spirit, who manifests himself for the first time at Pentecost in the diversity of words, in the multiplicity of languages reduced to a single understanding. Again speaking is involved. And from this starting point there is an incessant coming and going, from the revelation by means of the word to the word concerning the revelation, from the word as inspiration to the word freely spoken as expression of this inspiration.
The idea of the Word throws a decisive light on the famous theopneustia debate. Inspiration (not a vague spirit, a spirituality, an impulse) comes through a Word expressly spoken and understood as coming from God. But as we have seen, like all language, this word is by no means dictated or recorded on a tape recorder (the tape recorder would correspond to our brain in this analogy). This word has several dimensions: its lights and shadows, its ambiguities and connotations, its different depths. It is thus heard, understood, interpreted, and retranslated by the careful listener, who will in turn speak by making use of the freedom of the word. For the word is free.
Thus the witness will speak with his own word to testfy to this word which was addressed to him. The God who reveals himself by his Word accepts entering into this game and its symbolisms, into this flexibility of human relationships, exactly as he accepts the limitations of the human condition in the Incarnation. He has given us an image, apparently visual, of the revealer, the Holy Spirit, who is represented as a dove: "He saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit descending . . . Like a dove’, (Mk. 1:10). He sees a void: an opening, a break, or a fault. "Like" is a comparison used to express something with no possible form. It is really a verbal image rather than a visual one. No dove appeared in the heavens. There was no vision of a dove, for the word "dove," since the story of the flood, is the consecrated and chosen word, simply because in Hebrew it means "messenger" as well. "Dove" means "bearer of a message." In this text there is complete identity between the dove and the proclamation of the message: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Mt. 3:17). We do not have something seen on the one hand and a word on the other. Rather, a word is borne, which implies a bearer of the word in verbal form. This bearer is traditionally a dove.
This revealer always expresses God’s glory to us. All we can "see" is his Shekinah glory, which is by nature invisible. God conceals himself in it at the same time that he reveals himself by it. It is not visual, since this glory "cannot be compared with any other," and cannot be described by its shape or colors. Nothing visual can show us the glory of the Lord! Only the Holy Spirit!
* * * * * *
The teaching involved in the statement that God speaks is not complete at this point. The word obligates us to follow it down three paths which lead to an understanding of who God is. The word is an expression of freedom. It presupposes freedom and invites the listener as well to assert his freedom by speaking. God is the liberator.(Among the countless works on Christian freedom, I refer the reader to Martin Luther’s, and to the following modern studies: Roland de Pury, Le Libérateur [Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1957]; Jacques Ellul, The Ethics of Freedom, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1976].) We must constantly remember that the God of Israel manifests himself historically for the first time in the Exodus as the one who liberates human beings from the slavery established by other human beings. God chooses his people from among slaves, in order to liberate them. The prophets continually return to this fundamental concept: this God, the only true God, frees people from all alienation.
The same spirit is at work in the New Testament. Paul’s whole theology is a theology of freedom: "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Gal. 5:1). James answers (and he certainly does not have Paul’s theology!): "You will be judged by the law of liberty" (2:12, JE). Freedom is the basic theme which ties everything else in the Bible together, from beginning to end. Freedom explains everything else in the Bible and gives meaning to the whole adventure of election, grace, and redemption, as the Bible describes it. It is certain that with the revelation at Horeb and the accomplishment of Jesus Christ, freedom entered the world.
Freedom has not been lived or proclaimed anywhere else. We must repeat this with conviction in our time, since it is fashionable to accuse Christianity of being a source of slavery and a means of spreading it throughout the world. Psychoanalysts, sociologists, ethnologists, and philosophers continually repeat this anti-Christian bromide, either from ignorance and in good faith or else with full knowledge and therefore in bad faith. They seize certain cases of oppression in given periods of Church history, a certain moralism and moral prohibitions dating from given periods and places, certain sermons (also localized) concerning sin or hell, and they make of these the sum total of Christianity. They do not even think about the fact that their being scandalized by alienation, oppression, and repression does not spring from the French revolution in 1789 and the eighteenth-century philosophers, nor from Greek thought (which is completely foreign to freedom, in spite of what has been said on the subject!), nor from Marx or Sigmund Freud. Their sense of scandal is a result of the Judeo-Christian roots of our civilization. The peoples of the Third World would never have thought of revolting against their destiny if the idea of, and the hope and the will for, freedom had not been spread by the West.
Everything comes from this first interchange: God speaks. Thus he manifests his freedom, just as a human speaker does. He invites his listener to the freedom involved in answering. God speaks; this statement contains the profound, central, supreme conviction that God is the liberator: that he never stops liberating, just as his Word never stops.
At the same time, the Word implies that this God is a God of love. We have already seen that the Word determines a relationship. God is not only creator; he is creator through the word, which means that he is never far from, never foreign to, his creation. God speaking means he is in relationship. But at the same time, this is a positive rather than a negative relationship. A relationship of love is established rather than a relationship of rejection or condemnation (in spite of what we have so often heard!) or commandment. Nevertheless, there certainly are words of condemnation. But they are much more sparse than is usually appreciated, and they are addressed much more often to the powers of alienation, error, hallucination, religion, falsehood, and accusation than they are to people. Money is damned rather than the rich person; more precisely, the rich person is condemned because of his money and not in himself. Political power is damned rather than the person who exercises it; more precisely, the person is also condemned because of his power over others, but not in himself.(For a detailed study of this important point, see Jacques Ellul, Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation, trans. George W. Schreiner [New York: Seabury, 1977]).
People are judged; that is, stripped of these powers of evil, but not damned. Thus the words of condemnation when correctly understood are words of liberation for everyone. They are words of hope which certify the love of God.
We are prevented from understanding these words of condemnation for what they are by two different things; our thirst for vengeance and our guilt feelings. We are not pleased that God loves everyone, that his Word is for all, without limit, and that he is gracious to all. On the one hand, sectarians jealously want to be the only ones saved from the ocean of the damned; on the other, nonChristians are spontaneously scandalized by the idea that Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin and their cohorts and devoted followers should also be saved. But there is no real difference between these two reactions. We want people to be damned because there are people we hate and we demand vengeance. It is terribly difficult to accept grace that has no limit because God’s love can know no place that is off-limits. Since God creates through his Word, it creates everyone.
Our second obstacle to understanding God’s Word also has its roots within us: the feeling of guilt. Here again we are up against the trite notion that guilt feelings come from Christianity. It is true that the Church has concentrated too much on prohibitions, has declared (sexual) taboos, and has sometimes, in preaching on sin, internalized guilt feelings. But let no one say that humanity was free from guilt; sacrifice, found in all religions, is propitiatory or else is a sacrifice for redemption or forgiveness. In any case, the sacrifice is substitutionary and proceeds from a deep sense of guilt.(Unfortunately, we must constantly remind people that prohibitions and taboos do not come from Christianity, and that as far as situations that create guilt are concerned, you can find nothing better than the tangles of prohibitions among so-called primitive peoples. Just look at the analyses of kinship in Claude Levi-Strauss’s work! We must also remember constantly that the idea of sin should not lead to guilt feelings, simply because biblically, and in truly Christian thought, sin is known and recognized for what it is only after the recognition, proclamation, and experience of forgiveness. Because I have been pardoned, I realize how much of a sinner I was. Sin is shown to be sin through grace, and not otherwise, just as the abruptly freed slave realizes, as he sees his chains, how great his misery was. Sin is never known alone and in itself. Sin is never proclaimed. But it is true that the Church has often betrayed the Bible in this area). This very generalized guilt feeling keeps us from understanding this Word of God with simplicity, and leads us to approve condemnations for ourselves that go through us and above us, affecting those behind us. This situation causes us to act and prevents us from understanding these words of condemnation as words of liberation. God speaks; biblically, this means that he is Love.
We still have to deal with the word of commandment, however! Surely we cannot deny that in the Bible there are words of Law, received like a heavy burden, these complex and numerous prohibitions the terrible Decalogue. "I am crushed under your law." First of all we should reflect on the fact that we never find the idea that the law crushes in the Bible. This is a modern idea. Biblically we always find amazement that God, the Creator, chooses to give us orientation in life (Ps. 119), and that God, the Wholly Other, wishes to let us know what justice is, when we are looking for it so eagerly. God is worshipped for this law or commandment, and Israel was able to preserve perfectly this source of amazement, joy, and radiance, as it considered the law not as a constraint but as a liberating word. This is the first way of looking at the problem.
The second is that the law is not so much in the imperative as in the future: "Thou shalt not kill" means that situated within God’s love, in constant dialogue with this God, you will at last find it possible not to kill. Outside this dialogue and this word, you are, like everybody, obligated to kill. Murder and series of murders, linked to one another, are the common lot. Beginning the moment the Word of God reechoes in your life, you are able to avoid killing. The fatality of murder disappears like the other fatalities. Thus the commandment is not a hard, negative constraint, but the promise of a new life filled with freedom and joy.
The third way of looking at this problem (I could of course never exhaust in these pages all that the law signifies!) is that the law’s commandments are the precise limits between life and death. Within these limits, you live fully and you are alive in all possible ways. But transgression brings with it the certainty of death --not death as a punishment willed by God and decided by him, but death as a natural destiny. If you slaughter, you will be slaughtered.
Whichever point of view one adopts, we see that the belief that the law and God’s commandment are based on rank imposition by an all-powerful Master on a terrorized slave is based on a misinterpretation. This is how the situation looks from the outside. Unfortunately, it is sometimes the view of those who have in effect been subjected to Christianity by coercion. And the mystery of iniquity in the Church is that such things have happened. Such things could happen precisely when the Church ceased to be related to the Word; it ceased being a Church that speaks; preferring to become a Church that acts, shows, and dominates (these three things being equivalent!). The law is never coercion for the person who believes in his heart and confesses with his mouth, the one who has encountered grace, lived this experience, and is living in freedom.
Whom should we believe? The person who knows this Word of, God in his life and exalts it with wonder, or the one who has not experienced this liberation, who has perhaps been crushed or coerced by a family or ecclesiastical structure, and who considers this law abominable because he has known nothing but the slavery imposed by other people?
This law is in no way comparable to our codes, which are written and fixed. As commandment, it has been the object of innumerable glosses and commentaries. It is an ever living word, always new and always newly addressed to its listener. It is not the objective declaration of an anonymous legislator. The law is a renewed word for each individual, and not a fixed inscription on the facade of a monument.
Not enough thinking has been done about the breaking of the tables of the Law. The story is well known: on descending from Sinai, in the presence of the incredible pretension of the Israelites to make themselves a god (which they could control since they had made it) to replace the mysterious Liberator, out of anger and despair, Moses breaks and destroys the miraculous talisman he was bringing: the stone tables on which God himself had written. He acted in anger, we say. It was an act of judgment against a people who were not worthy to receive such an extraordinary gift. But in my opinion, there is a hidden meaning: here the law is written. It has ceased being a word. It is about to become a talisman: a magic rock, an oracle. It will of necessity be identified with the Salians’ shield or any other statue. The law is dead -- graven, engraved, buried in this stone.
This gift of God’s Writing in material form suits the human desire to have an image of God. God knows our need to see, which is why he sends Moses down the mountain with these visible witnesses of his will (Fernand Ryser, Le Veau d’or [Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1954]) (which oppose and at the same time respond to the demand of the people, who want to see, and therefore make themselves a golden calf). For this reason the text emphasizes the fact that God himself made the stone tables to counter the vision of the bull. No direct vision of God is involved here. But his work is seen, and this vision leads one to a vision of the word. Everything is inevitably brought back to the word. This is the only concession YHWH can make to sight!
But the story goes even further: Moses breaks the stone tables. They were in themselves the image of God, the image of the Word of God. And now Moses destroys this image. Fernand Ryser says: "This nineteenth verse [Ex. 32:19] shows us then what must happen to the image of God when it enters into contact with the world: it must be broken and perish in order not to be fatal for humanity. When God comes into the world in his Son, there are only two possibilities: either the world will die, or God will die in his Son." This destruction of the divine image enables Moses to destroy the false divine image. This is the basis of iconoclastic inclination for both Jew and Christian.
Finally, the destruction of this single visible, material represen- tation of God ought to remind us continually that the Bible in its materiality is not the Word of God made visible through reading. God did not become Jeremiah’s secretary and write for him (Jer. 1:9). And he has not made his Word visible. Between the written word and speech there is the same distance we have discovered on the human plane. The phenomenon is exactly the same. The Bible is not a sort of visible representation of God.
Therefore it was absolutely necessary that the tables be broken. In reality, as he brings the tables of stone down from the mountain, Moses suddenly grasps the identity of this work of sculpture with the golden calf that the people have built. God’s Word must remain a fleeting spoken Word, inscribed only in the human heart. It must not be a prestigious stone, a frozen word which will be adored, replacing the ear attentive to the word. If the people adored their golden calf, which they had made, how much more would they have adored the absolute Stone which God’s hands had held and on which God’s finger had written!
The breaking of the tables of the Law takes place so that the commandment can remain a living word, addressed to each individual without existing objectively anywhere. The commandment remains a word, with all the unstable, direct, interpreted, and strictly personal qualities that the word involves. When people later begin to write the Law and even later the Gospels, that is their affair! But we must be clearly conscious that it is a human act. Only very rarely is it said to certain prophets: "You will write." And the proclamation "You shall write [this law] and wear it on your forehead, on your arm," etc., seems to me deliberately symbolic, and should not have produced texts actually placed in little bags, etc.
* * * * * *
"God speaks. We must answer him." God creates human beings as speaking beings. Perhaps this is one of the meanings of the image of God: one who responds and is responsible; a counterpart who will dialogue, who is both at a certain distance and has the ability to communicate. The human being is the only one, out of the entire creation, who is capable of language. Like God who speaks or God who is said to speak, humanity has this capacity which comes from its creator. Speech constitutes human specificity, just as it constitutes the specificity of God as compared with all other gods. God summons a person through the word, and induces him to speak in dialogue. If God is freedom, there is someone there to live out freedom. If God is love, there is someone to respond to love through the word. The human word exists only because it is a product of the Word of God: I would not speak if you had not previously called me. "Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether" (Ps. 139:4).
We do not declare that God speaks because of the model of human speech. Rather, it is because word and creation share a common nature that the speaking creator gives language to humanity, as his counterpart. All the natural, objective characteristics we observe in human speech (which we have noted in Chapter I) are such because they are the characteristics of the Word as expression of God the creator.(Here we return to Beauchamp’s magnificent study, from which I must quote an especially illuminating and powerful passage: "God did not so much create the things I am talking about as he spoke them . . . before speaking to me about them, so that the human word might be declared a response to his. God made humanity the depository of the relationship of difference instituted by the word: men and women will establish in the world the law of their own word, and the text [of Genesis] shows how in this sense they are born of God. Why then should we insist on speaking of the human mission of ‘completing, through our work the work finished on the sixth day, as if God had created nature in such a way as to leave to humanity the margin, the risk, and the honor of this artifice? God and humanity are called to encounter each other in the artifice of the word. By having God speak first, Genesis conceives of all human language as a response. A human being understands through his existence that he is in God’s image. And it is through his own speech that he declares that God has spoken. Giving the first word to God is the same as saying that the truth of human speech, on which all existence depends, cannot have any other depository than God himself. Every human experience of language grasps it as repetition: no one would speak if those who gave him birth did not speak to him first."
The following passage also speaks of the relationship of human language to God’s: "A human being speaks of the world which he cannot clasp to himself. Thus he transforms it into a network of relationships and movements: into a world.... The word connotes destination, passage, or even breach, and certainly decision. All language, even if it does not contain a commandment, as is the case in this passage, is volitional. It chooses and sets in order.... [Creation is the] conflict of energy and resistance, a struggle of life against death, from which the word takes its impetus.... Having created things through words, God finally speaks to a human being.... "
Beauchamp quotes the well-known Psalm 139 ("Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.... For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb," vv. 4 and 13), emphasizing the close relationship between the genesis of humanity in its corporeal being and of its language. This certainty that human language is a creation and a continuation of the Word of God is also found in a hymn at Qumtan. In Genesis 1 we do not see directly the creation of human language by God, but "we see something like the circulation of an underground river, before its appearance as a spring above ground. The words pronounced by God (at the moment of creation-separation) are the true genesis of human speech, the genesis of humanity.... The theme of the father-child relationship of humankind and God is interpreted here as transmission of the word which ‘commands."’) For human speech possesses eminent dignity. It is more decisive than action and reveals more. But most of all, human speech is invested with unlimited importance because God chose the word as his means. The fact that revelation was accomplished through the word attaches meaning and value to human language. God could have chosen any other means for his action and revelation, but he chose this particular one. Therefore human language possesses a dignity it would not otherwise have had.
Because God speaks, when a person speaks a mysterious power is attached to what he says. Every human word is called on, more or less clearly, to express the Word of God, and there is a misuse of power, an abuse of words when this is not the case. Henceforth human language has an eternal reference from which it cannot escape without destroying itself or without stripping itself of all meaning. The value of the human word depends on the Word of God, from which it receives its decisive and ultimate character. This quality is expressed in its critical value and in ethical decision. This is a result of human speech’s relationship with the Word of God: of God’s taking up this human word, so that there is continuity (as well as discontinuity) between them, and of human speech’s finality in relationship with the Word of God. For God’s Word, according to the author of the letter to the Hebrews (4:12), is "sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Thus the Word of God is the critical power par excellence, which of course only God can exercise; only he knows what its result will be.
The Word of God distinguishes and separates, and because it criticizes, it judges. This is because of its nature. Human language draws its function from this efficacy and power of the Word of God, except that human language does not have the same degree of efficacy and power: it can convey falsehood as well as truth.
The Word of God, since it criticizes, is also the expression of God’s commandment. His Word directs; it is a commanding power and thus it determines what is ethical. Human language finds its role at this point. There is an enormous difference, however: the human word cannot determine what is ethical. But based on the commandment of the Word of God, the human word enables an individual to choose and to make his personal decision, faced with the demands placed on him. This is accomplished by means of a difficult process of differentiation and in the context of the intolerable weight of his commitment.
But when Adam speaks for the first time, he does not answer God; he names animals. We need not linger over this frequently explained passage. An important remark, often forgotten, needs to be made, however: when it says that Adam names the animals, the passage underlines the gratuitousness and ease of language. Adam does not see names already prepared, registered in advance. There is no natural science of words. An animal passing before Adam does not have a name already established -- given by God, for example. Instead, Adam names; that is, he chooses the word that suits him to designate a given animal, and then all other things.
Biblically, there is no common nature shared by language and the name of a thing. It is after all rather important to emphasize that in a seventh-century text, predating all reflection on language, wherever that reflection may have occurred, we find this clear statement: the fact of human speech comes from God; but language is made up by the human race, which decides for itself -- arbitrarily -- the words, the rules, and the syntax. Human beings choose arbitrarily with respect to the thing designated, but not arbitrarily with respect to meanings and structures. I need not enter into a discussion of these latter issues.
The other theme is more frequently treated: the commandment and preeminence or domination. A name assigns a place and a spiritual value. By naming the animals Adam shows his power over them and puts them in their place within the order of Creation. Again in this situation, Adam takes initiative: there is no predetermined order which Adam would limit himself to recording as he names the animals. He establishes his own order, before the Fall: a "taxonomy" which is a free, invented expression of the supremacy God has given him. God leaves Adam free to make this choice ("to see what he would call them," says the passage, so that "whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name," Gen. 2:19).
But in this created world, in unity and unbroken communion with God, Adam does not give a name to his wife. It is only after the Fall, in the midst of the disorder of powers, that he names his wife also: "Eve, because ..." (Gen. 3:20). This is a reflection of the disorder of powers; for God’s power is a restrained power. He does not occupy all the space. The God who speaks also lets his creature speak. God does not speak continually, covering over all noises and all expression.
Each thing has its place with God in its nonassigned specificity. Even when God’s Word indicates a requirement, it leaves the other person his complete freedom of decision, choice, and expression. Thus no power is excessive. Every power has its limits in this Creation. This concept is also expressed in the image "God speaks." He only speaks. And his listener can take him seriously or not, can listen or not, can answer or not, as in the case of any word. Saying that God speaks is the equivalent of situating him at the level of everyday talkers. "God speaks" also foretells the coming of Jesus, who is an ordinary person and yet God. So within this order of power, human beings are also invested with a power; first of all, the power to speak.("We may be surprised that Creation should be closed and finished and that at the same time the act of creating should be crowned with the transmission of a transforming word. But the limit and the impetus do not contradict each other. Whatever the human trajectory may be, it can only have meaning in terms of its finitude. Humanity can escape from everything except from the fact of having been, which is necessary if it is to be able to speak and plan, on both an individual and a collective basis. It is not by accident that, in, the priestly document, the Creation narrative represents the past par excellence, at the same time as it formulates and establishes the human project. Language follows the laws of before and after; it progresses and makes a path for itself toward a goal, since indefinite discourse would be discourse without meaning" (Beauchamp).
God’s declaration in the first creation narrative (which is later than the second one), situating Adam as lord of creation, corresponds precisely to Adam’s naming of the animals in the second narrative. The first narrative says: "Subdue the earth; have dominion over all animals" (Gen. 1:28, JE). What a lot of nonsense has been written about this passage in recent decades. Scholars have frantically tried to find here the basis for technique and all the modern technological ventures. They have tried to make this text justify what humanity does, gloriously evoking a demurrage. But these writers forget the parallelism between the two narratives, and they particularly forget that God does not give the human race an incoherent, unlimited, totalitarian power. The passage does not say that we can use the world however we like. In particular, since we are the image of God, we must direct the earth, as God directs Creation. We must have dominion over the animals as God has dominion over the worlds. "As" means "imitating," "in the same manner," "with the same respect," "with the same restraint from doing all that could be done." It does not signify an unleashed, torrential, Dionysian power, a superpower, covering everything, making use of everything without order or restraint, devastating and depleting the earth.
Quite specifically, since God creates and governs through his Word, and the human being is the image of God, called by God to subdue (govern) and have dominion (command), he can only do it by the same means; that is, the word. Humanity must fulfill its royal function in the midst of the animals through the word, and not through the violence of implements. There is no allusion -- absolutely none -- to technique or technology in this passage; the only power is that of the word.
The word resolves the apparently insolvable contradiction in which humanity is placed in a world created perfect and therefore complete, and yet is given the power to act and transform. The word is the transforming power in a finished world where the human word is a liberating force.(On this theme, see Jacques Ellul, Technique and Theology, soon to be published.) You find that I force the text, or limit it? I beg to differ! A simple comparison of this passage (Gen. 1:28-29) with its exact parallel in the Noachian covenant (Gen. 9:1-7) shows I am right. Between the two passages, we have the Fall (human autonomy), the establishment of the disorder of powers, and the invention of technique, expressly attributed to Cain (Gen. 4:17-22). The new world emerges from the deluge. At this point a new covenant is formulated between God and the human race. It is almost the same as the original covenant. Almost. There are two slight differences: from now on human beings may kill animals for food. This was not said at creation. And next, the matter of terror: "The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth . . . into your hand they are delivered" (Gen. 9:2). It is no longer a question of word but of hands; there is no more ordering and commanding through the word, but by the power of material constraint, including killing.
Technique finds its legitimacy at this point and not in the first covenant, in which the word was the only power. Why did God not simply erase this tragic period of history and begin again at the beginning? Why does he record what humanity created to its misfortune and the misfortune of the world? Precisely because this God continues to direct and command through his Word alone; because he never constrains in an absolute manner, and because he takes into account everything humankind does, including evil. He never does anything but speak.(The evidence for these statements is found in Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City, trans. Dennis Pardee (Grand Rapids. William B. Eerdmans, 1970). But the powerful word, refused by a humanity that thought it could do so much better with its machines, has remained what distinguishes humanity and makes it human. This word is the gift of God par excellence; it is human mystery, endlessly leading to truth.
* * * * * *
We have tried to show that biblically everything leads back to the word: God and humankind, and their relationships, their powers, the unique expression of truth, of creation, and of the order of the world. The word is everything in this revelation. Nothing is left to sight, which is nevertheless essential.
As a transition to the study of sight in the Bible, I would like to refer here to the remarkable study by Paul Ricoeur that expresses this contradiction in philosophical terms: proclamation as opposed to manifestation.(Paul Ricoeur, "Manifestation et proclamation," in Le Sacré, ed. Enrico Castelli (Paris: Aubier, 1974). Proclamation, which implies interpretation, is an act of speech, with a historicity of transmission and hermeneutical activ- ity. Manifestation is a showing of the sacred; the sacred is manifested in the Greek mysteries, but always with power. Power and efficacy are related to this visual manifestation: "the numinous element is not language to begin with. Power signifies something besides the word.... Power does not go through the articulation of meaning; it is efficacious." This antithesis is decisive: the word, relating to meaning, produces proclamation. Manifestation addresses itself to the visual sense and relates to efficacy. "The sacred opens a space for manifestation that should be called imaginal" rather than Logos. The sacred is manifested in signs to look at and also in meaningful behavior, essentially rites. The rite combines the visual with the efficacious, in order to act powerfully.
Finally, the manifestation of the sacred is expressed in a symbolism of Nature which is also related to the visual, by figures. The Greek mysteries are carried out through symbols of a natural sort (earth, fire, water, stars, etc.). Ricocur shows very subtly how the (visual) rite is both associated with and contradictory to the (spoken) myth, and how the natural mystery is both associated with and contradictory to a symbolism of language. But he says this symbolism is "adherent,, rather than being a true act of language (a true act of language being, for example, the metaphor, which is a free invention of speech).
The symbol of the sacred in language is related to the configurations (and therefore to the visible images) of the cosmos. This adherence to symbolism implies that symbolism in language is valid only when it is borne by the sacred values of the elements themselves. It is a silent spectacle which is imposed on language rather than an effort of language and interpretation. These are the characteristics of the Greek mysteries. It is possible to speak of their phenomenology and to describe them, but not to identify a possible hermeneutic for them, since hermeneutics is restricted to proclamation.
Ricoeur reminds us that the entire theology of Israel is organized around discourse, narratives, instructions (Torah), and prophecy -- never on the basis of the numinous. Biblical myths are all polemical myths countering nature religions. In Israel "a theology of the Name of God opposes the mystery of idols." "Listening to the word has taken the place of looking at signs." Although rites certainly subsist in Israel, "the ritualization of life is no longer based on the correlation between myth and rite," but on a fundamentally historical vision of reality. And the result is a theology of history, as opposed to a theology of nature. Ricoeur summarizes admirably: "This difference is based entirely on the logic of meaning that I try to oppose to the logic of relationships in the sacred universe."
We have seen that paradox is the very key of language, and Ricoeur expresses this perfectly as it relates to the conflict between meaning and the sacred, between manifestation and proclamation. The symbol (in the visual world) belongs to a set of circular cosmic relationships. The "expressions at the extreme limits" show a paradoxical universe: the universe of the parables, the "proverbs," and eschatological language. It is a shattered universe, like the word itself, which brings about the breaking up of ordinary speech and refers to (or announces) what is not a visual image: the Kingdom of God. Thus speech is necessarily iconoclastic. But Ricoeur finally reminds us that it is not possible to maintain iconoclastic discourse in all its strictness, any more than sight can be eliminated, leaving us with only speech! We are in this world, not in another, and consequently we cannot avoid having images nor change the fact that images have a vital importance in our spirituality.
There are inevitably "symbolic resurgences of the sacred" throughout the history of Israel and of the Church. The sacred, the visual, and the cosmic are necessary if language is to be possible: "without the support and help of the vital and cosmic sacred, language itself becomes abstract and cerebral. Only by its incarnation in repeatedly reinterpreted ancient symbolism, by which the word is continually reduced to essentials, can the word speak to the heart as well as to the intelligence and the will -- in short, to the whole person."
Ricoeur reminds us that there is a continual alternation in the Church between iconoclastic proclamation and symbolic manifestation, in the dialectic of preaching and the sacrament. In preaching, the kerygmatic element prevails; in the sacrament, visual symbolism takes over. But there is also a continual temptation to find all the truth in image and symbolism, thus excluding the word, which is less concrete, less evident, more austere and demanding. In all periods of Church history we find a renewed triumph of the image in statues, stained-glass windows, monuments, crucifixes, and relics. Although we cannot separate sight and language, only the Incarnation of Jesus shows us the correct equilibrium or synthesis, as we wait in hope for the fullness of the Kingdom.
2. Visions and Idols
In spite of what we have said, the Bible often speaks of sight, in terms of theophanies, visions, idols, icons, and false gods. In reality, the biblical revelation is radically opposed to everything visual. Don’t let the reader react immediately by speaking of visions, which we will consider. The only possible relationship with God is based on the word, and nothing else. This is because the biblical God speaks, and does nothing else. The word includes with it all the connotations we have mentioned above: love, freedom, and making the other person conscious of his opportunity to become a subject also. In the sphere of truth, everything is related to the word, nothing to sight.
With regard to vision, we must remember the impossibility of seeing God, maintained throughout Scripture. Yahweh says to Moses: "You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live" (Ex. 33:20). As Jacques Guillet emphasizes,(Jacques Guillet, La Gloire du Sinaï (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1956) it is as if "God had a face and hands, but just when you think you could touch him, an infinite distance appears." And earlier in Exodus, "Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God" (3:6). All those who witness God have the same experience: Elijah at Mount Horeb, Isaiah, and the parents of Samson.
We must choose. Shall we consider all the passages where someone is said to "see God" as equal in weight to the above passages? Must we have a "flat," nonhierarchical-interpretation? I believe that in reality, concerning the impossibility of seeing God, there is a kind of constant. The other passages should be interpreted in the light of this constant. We must try to understand the meaning of each specific vision, noting what may be added in each case, and considering whether it is really said that God is seen. The passages that involve seeing God must be interpreted in the light of both the curse on images and the impossibility of seeing him.
Sight is of course not condemned in itself!(Sometimes, according to Antoine Vergote, in Dette et désir (Paris: Seuil, 1978), vision and word are united or merged by mystics. "Heating is seeing,,, says John of the Cross. An essential idea is underscored indirectly by Vergote: "The mystics believe that . . . by sight and by hearing, words are given to them which are not simply produced by human beings." Vergote shows that John of the Cross is therefore suspicious of words which could come only from human beings: "Many people talk to themselves as if somebody were really there,’, he says. But because these words come "from elsewhere," "they have the consistency of a vision.") It has its legitimate place in the sphere of reality and usefulness, as a means of gaining power over objects. It is infinitely precious, but only in its domain. As soon as sight tries to enter into the spiritual realm, or claims to have access to the order of truth, it is radically condemned. It is out of the question to try to grasp God through sight (which is the equivalent of reducing truth to reality), to claim that what one sees can be God (in this case one converts reality into truth), or to make a representation of something in the spiritual realm (which is the same as consecrating a religion, since religions always belong to the visual realm). This raises the issue of the conflict between the spiritual and the religious realms. The whole visual sphere begins to be suspect, biblically, through association, so to speak, when these things are done --but not before.
Vision is a means or instrument -- the basic element of power in action, of domination, utilization, and constraint. When the Assyrian kings wanted to eliminate their enemies’ power, they blinded them. After the Assyrians, many others did the same. There is no ambiguity in the power commanded by sight, just as there is no ambiguity in reality as perceived by sight. For this reason the triple desire -- to reduce God to reality, to convert reality into God, and to transform the love relationship into a religion -- is explicitly condemned, and sight along with it.
But there are two completely different issues here, both placed under the heading of sight: vision and theophany on the one hand, and idols and false gods on the other. In the first tendency, one asks whether it is possible to see God, the biblical God, Yahweh, the God of revelation who also reveals himself. In the second, individuals make gods for themselves, erect idols everywhere, and adore them: idols and icons. In this second case we are actually dealing with images: objects that can be seen and that always involve a visible representation.
* * * * * *
We are not, of course, going to examine in detail what is still called biblical theophany; that is, a visible, material appearance of the biblical God.(I reserve the word theophany, as is customary, for the visible appearance of God, and not in the larger sense used by Beauchamp, who speaks of a visible or spoken theophany. This usage amounts to confusing theophany with revelation.) My general thesis is that nowhere do we have true theophany, genuinely comparable to the theophanies found in all religions (at least all those that have one or several gods). The term theophany, from the history of religions, has been applied to the Bible as a result of a superficial textual analysis, a determination to find comparable and identical elements, and simplification. A few simple explanations that are in exact conformity with the texts will suffice to dispense with this hasty patchwork.
Let us begin with an introductory remark. "Seeing the glory of God" is an expression which really indicates that God is concealed and invisible. Paul Beauchamp reminds us of two basic truths in this connection: the first is that the biblical God is usually accompanied by a dark cloud. There is a screen between him and everyone else (especially in the passages in Job: 22:14; 38:9; 36:30; 37:21). When God reveals himself, "he sweeps the heavens with his breath [ruah]" Job: 37:21, JE).(Just this once, I disagree with Maillot’s explanation of Job’s "vision" of God. Maillot believes Job’s experience is narrated as a vision because it is a "pagan" text which relates to the pagan religious context. The result of the vision is not faith but the crushing of Job, who is reduced to silence. I prefer to see in Job’s experience an eschatological vision. This seems to me to be confirmed by the marvelous "reestablishment" of everything in the last chapter.) Obscurity precedes him, and his revelation of himself consists of his breath-spirit separating the cloud, but not so he can be seen!
Beauchamp’s second explanation is that a remarkable piece of work is accomplished in Genesis 1: "the originality of this ‘theophany’ lies in concealing God instead of revealing him. This mutilated theophany, which is almost an active theokrypty [God’s hiding of himself], retains only the breath-spirit (ruah) and the word. The other aspects disappear: shadows and light, the usual direct manifestation of God. And beyond this, the ruah is only present in order to suggest mystery: that God is something other than his word. Before creating there is a plan, which is not so much thought as already active and orienting itself, but we can know nothing about it.... Thus we have a narrative in which we do not see the principal agent; but this absence is given positive value." Within this framework, and in relation to this revelation, we must consider all the narratives concerning a "vision" of God.
Furthermore, working from this basis, we must proceed to establish several distinctions. In reality many things are covered by the word "theophany": dreams, signs, visions, etc. When dreams are at issue, we absolutely cannot speak of theophany. When we are dealing with a visible sign, the text is nearly always careful to speak of just a sign. Sometimes it reduces the matter even further, to a signal: God causes a flickering to appear, so that something is noticed. I find it unacceptable to consider the burning bush at Horeb to be a theophany: Moses sees nothing but the bush. The flame attracts Moses’ attention, and the fact that the bush is not consumed intrigues him; that is all. Deuteronomy 4:15-19 clarifies this point: "Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves.... And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon . . . you be drawn away and worship them and serve them, things which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven." Therefore everything one sees are just things, created by this God who is not a thing and not visible. What matters is not the burning bush, but the word which is spoken.
The same is true of Jacob’s "theophany" at the ford of Jabbok: he sees a man, nothing else, and later, tradition speaks of an angel (Gen. 32:22-32; just as in the case of Abraham’s "theophany" under the oaks of Mamre [Gen. 18], or Manoah’s vision Judg. 13]). Jacob did not see God in the form of a man, nor did Abraham see him in the three men by the oaks of Mamre. As for the theophany at Sinai, we must note that everything is surrounded by clouds and smoke. The people are forbidden to lift their eyes to look (Ex. 19:21). In the Exodus story, it is never said that Moses sees God, but only that God speaks to Moses. And in the famous "face to face" passage (Ex. 33:11), what Moses sees is never mentioned -- only that God spoke face to face, as with a friend. Finally, in the desert, what Israel sees before it is a pillar of smoke.
The essential thing is the significance of the fact that there is no real theophany in the Bible. The only possible image of God is a human being. But a human being is not God; and the visual representation of a human being cannot be taken for God -- only the living person is this image. Therefore in this matter the visual sphere has no importance whatever. Visible things are thus signs, as, for example, the burning bush; but these signs (just as in the case of miracles) have no meaning by themselves. It is remarkable to notice that the sign must always be explained. What matters is the word that gives meaning to what is seen. When Moses turns off from the path at Horeb, the fire is only a summons; it is not the image of God. The decisive issue is not to have seen something, but to hear a word which is utterly clear, distinct, and explicit, and contains a revelation, a promise, and a mission altogether. This is a denial of all possibility of knowledge through sight, which places sight and language in contradiction with each other.
We must distinguish visions from these theophanies. The theophanies are explosive and perceptible to the senses. They are expressed in an exterior object that can be verified and that is part of the world in which we live. Visions are completely different. They can be interior matters or "the heavens opening" (as in Mt. 3:16). They refer to images and are seen, but they deal with realities utterly different from the ones which make up the world perceived by our senses.
When we deal with visions, we are in the presence of another dimension of sight: one that does not refer to reality.(We must add to this the significant remark of Vergote (Dette et désir). He emphasizes that contrary to what people usually think, the great mystics absolutely do not confuse mystical experience with visions. Teresa of Avila explicitly states that she has never had tangible visions of the outside world, but only visions of the imagination. Furthermore, she is convinced theologically that Christ never again manifested himself on the earth after the Ascension. For John of the Cross, tangible visions, "even on the assumption that some of them come from God," are in any case "obstacles to faith." "Therefore it is best for the soul to consider them with eyes closed, without examining where they come from." Imaginary perception is obviously another matter entirely; but these are images that the mystic forms for himself after a long spiritual process. On the contrary, the danger is that visions will attract the person’s entire attention, and in reality lead him away from God! As Vergote remarks quite accurately "The religious content of mystical visions is not different from the content of faith; figurative representations are derived from natural perceptions., As far as revelation is concerned, visions add absolutely nothing. "Therefore the mystic does not place his confidence in the visions in themselves. Sometimes mystics suspect that a vision is deceiving them instead of manifesting something. Certain visible forms can conceal a diabolical content.’’) Therefore we must consider what vision means in the Bible. First it seems to me that we must remove from consideration all the passages that use the word vision, but contain nothing other than a word spoken by God -- where nothing "seen" or visible to the eye is indicated. Genesis 15:1 is an example: "The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision." The same is true of the "vision,, of young Samuel. Nothing like vision is described for us, and we can question whether the word used in these cases has anything at all to do with sight and image. This is all the more true since the Hebrew word used in these passages comes from the root meaning "to prophesy." This sort of language comes up frequently, and means simply "revelation." Consequently we can set these texts aside as we try to define "vision." The same is true of the passages in which "vision" means "dream." In this case we do not have real sight, but an illusion or an image created by the human brain. Night visions therefore do not relate to the problem of image and Word.
Having said this, we are left with several types of visions. First, we have the prophets’ visions: in each context we must consider that what is seen is "like a human form." This relates directly to the question of "image." But the prophet’s role is not to tell about his visions; it is to convey the Word of God.
The only nonapocalyptic passage in which God is seen (since the text in Ezekiel is clearly apocalyptic) is Isaiah 6. Unquestionably in this case we are in the presence of a vision of God: "In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings . . . " (Isa. 6:1-2). We need to make three remarks about this passage: first, the vision takes place in the Temple. The empty Temple! The vision is related to the invisible presence in the holy of holies. Consequently we can speak of a cultic vision here. Second, it is again a vision of God in human form (seated on a throne). It is not so much God who is seen as it is the image of a man (as in the book of Revelation). Yet Isaiah recognizes this vision immediately as God. Finally, Isaiah says nothing about what he has seen; he gives no description. He practices absolute restraint; this vision provides no knowledge about God. It is not a revelation. Nothing "results" from what he has seen, except for a terrible feeling of unworthiness and impurity. And again, the important and decisive thing is what this Lord will say (vv. 8ff.). The vision is only a sort of shock for Isaiah, so that he will respond positively to the question: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" In other words, this is certainly a vision of God, but it does not adduce anything specific. Sight is immediately absorbed and incorporated into the Word, which becomes decisive.
Furthermore, the vision itself refers immediately to the Word. Isaiah accuses himself: "I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips" (Isa. 6:5, JE). That is, he is a person who does not speak the Word of God but is occupied with human words. The Word is the criterion of the possibility or impossibility of remaining in God’s presence. When the seraph purifies his lips, he can become a person who speaks the Word.
We should also mention Exodus 24:10, where some scholars believe we should translate that Moses, Aaron, etc., saw the Elohim of Israel (replacing the usual translation: feared). But the exegete also makes it immediately clear that even if the God of Israel is seen in this passage, only the pedestal of his throne is involved. The language is completely inadequate for describing the sight of divine reality. Daniel Dore quotes Peter Lengsfeld’s excellent comment: "If someday a human expression were found to be directly and absolutely identical to the divine reality, such an expression would be the insurpassable and definitive manifestation of God as we expect to know him in heaven. Then the Logos of human language would not only communicate revelation, but would be the revelation itself."(Daniel Doré,"Un repas d’alliance," in Jean-Luc Blanquart et al., L’Ancien Testament, appreaches et lectures.)
Furthermore, we must note that this passage in Exodus speaks of Elohim, whereas God was earlier declared to be Yahweh. Doesn’t this mean precisely that we can see the setting or an objectification, but that God "in himself" remains utterly invisible? We are therefore twice removed from being able to see God. God shows what we can bear to see of him; and even of that, we can say or convey nothing. In this way vision or theophany is utterly sterilized. If there is a vision, in any case it is utterly impossible to depict it in any way whatever. This utter uncertainty agrees with Paul’s: "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven -- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows" (2 Cor. 12:2). Here as always the relationship with God takes place "in the body and out of the body," but we cannot tell which, because the relationship oversteps the bounds of sight.
We must also take into account the vision of God as A. Galy formulates it in connection with Genesis 22, in a fine study (in Jean-Luc Blaquart et al., L’Ancien Testament). Abraham’s faith is expressed in his certainty that God sees or will be able to see. And God says, when he sees that Abraham is ready for the sacrifice: "Now I know...." Abraham hears the Word of God, and affirms: "God sees" (therefore, he knows). The mountain is the tangible setting, not so much of the sacrifice as of the vision. The text can be translated in two ways: "On the mount the Lord shows" (instead of "is seen"), or "sees." But in all this the only affirmation concerns God: his reality and truth, rather than the vision a person could have of God, in spite of the later statement: "On the mount the Lord is seen" (Gen. 22:14). "The Lord sees and echoes Abraham, who affirms: the Lord is seen." But these words are included in the narrative as something occurring after God has come and acted. It is not exactly the Lord himself who is seen, but the result of his action; and one must back up from the action seen to the Lord to know that it was he.
Prophets are in no way authenticated by their visions. In fact, usually when a prophet has a vision it is not an ecstatic vision of God, but rather a completely different reality. Amos 7 and 8 are classic examples: the vision of the basket of summer fruit, the plumb line, etc. But Jeremiah’s and Zechariah’s visions are also typical: the prophet has an utterly common experience. What he sees is commonplace, but its explanation is not. Only the word of explanation is revelation -- nothing else. What is seen belongs to the order of reality, of created things, and never goes beyond that order. It is impossible to contain the creator within the order of visible things. Most certainly the word is also something created. But there is a kind of distance established between what is said and what is observed, so that there is play between the two. And within this play something else is introduced.
The prophets even have a strange tendency to be suspicious of visions. In any case, a vision cannot contradict the word. On rare occasions it accompanies the word as a guarantee, occasionally as a framework. But there is even a tendency to criticize visions and to make the opposition between word and vision the line of demarcation between true and false prophets. On the one side we have the prophets of the word, who announce the very power of God, with no ambiguity or ambivalence, and with hard objectivity. On the other, we have the visionaries whose prophecy is unreliable, ambiguous, abstruse, and requires deciphering.
We must consider how many texts involve a vision which is primarily a false prophecy in which the false prophet argues that his vision proves he is right. A vision is both argument and falsehood. The vision is inspired by a fraudulent power which tries to pass for God and seduces people away from the revelation through the Word. The prophets often insist on the falseness of visions as opposed to the certainty of the Word of God. Thus we can say that the antithesis between sight and word is confirmed. In this connection we are told of "visions of a person’s heart": what a person invents on his own, as if it were a truth from God.
Finally, the prophets also say "I saw . . . " when they refer to an understanding they have just had of reality. In this case we no longer have an abstract celestial "vision," but the sight of the real world as perceived by the senses, through which the meaning of the world becomes clear. This meaning is truth. The object of sight in the Bible is clearly the Word of God. Such an object is known only by the Word of God, as Wilhelm Vischer clearly shows. The potter’s finger seen by Jeremiah becomes the finger of God. The almond branch which blooms is the haste with which the Word will be fulfilled; the cauldron whose mouth faces north is the image of God’s judgment.
The prophet perceives the meaning of these material objects he sees. "Normal vision is designation. The prophetic vision is the giving of a sense. Out of the nomenclature according to human seeing . . . all of a sudden values arise."(André Neher, The Prophetic Existence, trans. William Wolf (South Brunswick and New York: A. S. Barnes and Co.; London: Thomas Yoseloff Ltd, 1969), p. 333.) The prophet’s vision is an understanding of the meaning of things and the world. Thus we might suppose that this vision has value in itself -- a quality of truth similar to that of the Word. In reality, this is not so, for if vision has this power to signify, it is only to the degree that there is meaning for the prophet in what is perceived, because this meaning was created by a Word. It is because the vision expresses an active, living, powerful Word. It is a rich manifestation of a creative word (Claude Tresmontant); reality means nothing without this word backing it up. The prophet grasps the meaning and the sign only because he is a prophet of the Word, and he expresses this meaning only through words. Thus reality as seen by the prophet is surrounded from beginning to end by the word, which gives it value. The prophets’ "I saw" in no way contradicts the unique truth of the Word.
In the New Testament three groups of passages evidently involve sight and vision. First, those where Jesus is concerned, in which the verb "see" is used intentionally. Next, the passages of apocalyptic character. Finally, the passages in the Acts of the Apostles.
The first group of passages is found mainly in the Gospel of John. In contrast with the initial statement, "No one has ever seen God" (Jn. 1:18), this entire Gospel emphasizes the importance of the vision that the apostles and their contemporaries had of Jesus. "You have seen me and yet do not believe" (Jn. 6:36); "every one who sees the Son and believes in him [has] eternal life" (Jn. 6:40). The word "see" in these contexts has a precise meaning: "he who sees me sees him who sent me" (Jn. 12:45); "[He] who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn. 14:9). This implies complete unity between Father and Son. Furthermore, the Son is the image of the Father -- the only image. There is no other vision of God apart from Jesus Christ; there is no other representation apart from the Son. It is impossible for a person to see God apart from the incarnation of Jesus. Again the mystics’ claims are denied. There are a few related passages in the synoptic Gospels and the Epistles of John.
Considering what we have said so far, what is the meaning of this importance given to seeing Jesus Christ? It reveals something about the Incarnation. The Word entered into the world of the senses. Furthermore, as we have already outlined, the Word is related to truth, whereas images are related to reality. The Incarnation is the only moment in world history when truth joins reality, when it completely penetrates reality and therefore changes it at its root. The Incarnation is the point where reality ceases being a diversion from truth and where truth ceases being the fatal judgment on reality. At this moment the Word can be seen. Sight can be believed (because in the Incarnation, but there only, sight is related to truth). The image, which normally does not have the force of truth, becomes true when the image is Jesus Christ, who is the image of the living God. For this reason John emphasizes sight -- because here reality is penetrated by truth.
But this is temporary; it is limited to the period of the Incarnation. Once the incarnate life of Jesus is over, the two orders become separate again. "A little while, and you will see me no more" (Jn. 16:16). At that point, we fall back into our frailty, back into the human condition, where reality is not truth. For this reason the Gospel of John ends with the story of Thomas, who needs to see in order to believe. When the incarnate life of Jesus is over, it is no longer possible to do so: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (Jn. 20:29). We return to the need for believing a person’s words -- only the word of those who have seen, who have been able to certify that truth penetrated reality, that it subsists, and that the word alone is again the expression of the truth. From now on sight will relate only to reality.
After the incarnate life of Jesus, as before it, faith and sight are in contradiction. And faith is born of the Word: "You believe, not because you saw miracles, but because you ate your fill of the bread [of heaven]" (Jn. 6:26, JE). Once again the miracle is a sign without meaning in itself. Its truth resides only in the word that accompanies it and in the experience of life that it gives. Sight always pulls us away from the relationship of faith, because it draws us toward a reality we want to grasp, and because it necessarily directs us toward evidence. Seeing something implies the possibility of proof. This is exactly what Thomas asks for and what Jesus answers. Thomas had proof: things that are visible, tangible, and experienced are closely related. But wherever you have proof, or a demand for proof, the relationship is different from the relationship that faith brings. In the faith relationship, one believes without need for demonstration and without seeing anything, because faith establishes a relationship of confidence in the person who speaks. The word has significance only if I have confidence in the person speaking to me. The truth of the word depends neither on its objective content nor on its logical coherence, but on the person who speaks it.
In this case I cannot follow the same reasoning process I used for sight. In order to be understood, the Word presupposes faith, but this faith is a result of the Word that is addressed to me. "Faith comes by hearing," says Paul (Rom. 10:17, JE). It comes by hearing exclusively, and absolutely never from what one sees. Evidence and what we see appear to pull us away from a relationship of confidence and faithfulness. There is utter contradiction between this relationship with God that can only be based on faith and a relationship that would be based on sight. Sight is utterly excluded from the faith relationship. The New Testament thus confirms the Old on the issue of covetousness. The First Epistle of John speaks expressly of the "lust of the eyes’, (2:16), and the most significant passage of all is the famous text in Philippians (2: 5-8) that shows Jesus’ anticovetousness. But we must return to the Incarnation itself: can we interpret it as the coming together of the Spirit of God and the world, the erasure of the breach, as reintegration in unity, and therefore the reconciliation of reality with truth and thus of image and word? Although the prohibition concerning making images and attaching truth to them is understandable under the old covenant, it would fall away with the Incarnation. This is true because Jesus is the image of God and he could be seen. He is the only possible way of seeing God, and at the same time he is the true image of humanity.
I must say that I am always dumbfounded when the real effect of the Incarnation is stated thus, in absolute terms. Is it possible that the modern world’s atrocity and the atrocity of world history are not sufficient to convince people that the Incarnation is in reality not universal and cannot be universalized? It is now an established fact that no Christian politics, economics, society, or philosophy are possible. Can it be that this fact is not sufficient to make it clear that the argument based on the Incarnation is only a sophisticated effort to justify and legitimize our modern ventures through Christianity?
Of course the Incarnation is the coming in human flesh of the absolute God and the truth of his love. But that happened once, in a given time and place. It is as fleeting an event as the Transfiguration. The Jews are right when they say that if he had truly been the Messiah, the Son of God incarnate, things would have changed in some concrete way. They are right, in contrast to the theologians who wish to use the Incarnation to justify our current actions, and to proclaim that all of humanity has already reached some sort of divine condition.
The Incarnation is the sure promise, the pledge, the first fruits and the premise of what God will accomplish. It is the source of truth, freedom, and hope. It is all this, but it is not something already universally accomplished. It is something accomplished once and for all (in the sense that neither God nor anyone else will render it void), but as an accomplishment it is only the beginning of a wider achievement: Christ the firstborn from among the dead. But the resurrection has not yet taken place. This theology of the Incarnation as a magical mutation of human beings seems to me indefensible. It is a theology of the "already accomplished" that fails to take into account the "not yet," and the fact that we live under the Promise. So far we have only the "earnest" of this Promise.
As far as I am concerned, in spite of the criticisms of some modern theologians, we must continue to emphasize the dialectic of the "already and not yet" of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God. There is an "already": Christ has already come; God is on humanity’s side; death has been vanquished once, and therefore once for all; evil has been vanquished once, and therefore once for all, and we can live in the certainty of love and hope. But nothing has yet been universally consummated. We have not yet been resurrected, we are not yet holy and blessed, and reconciliation is not visible, even though it is a reality as far as God is concerned. As a person outside the faith, an individual is neither assured of his salvation nor permeated by truth. He is not liberated or righteous in his undertakings.
In other words, there is no magic wand, for that is exactly what is involved in the triumphalist theology that I oppose. It says that "from now on everything is changed: God is now humanity’s partner, and whatever human beings undertake (even outside the faith, even if they are utterly unconscious of God’s love and will), they now do the works of God." Thus the Incarnation is taken for a magic wand. Everything has changed, whether or not a person knows, wishes, or believes it. And everything has changed concretely, in reality.
I believe this view is fundamentally antibiblical, since nothing has changed except for faith. Nothing has changed ontologically, but everything has changed at the level of meaning, of the sign, and of evolution. Nothing of humanity’s evil and misfortune has changed, except in hope and in truth. But this truth is hidden.
This theological position also depends on a substantialist attitude (things must be changed in substance, just as the eucharistic host changes substance). But humanity is antisubstantialist and antiontological. There is no change in human nature, which in no way became divine through the Incarnation. Jesus is one person and not humanity. The mutation produced is the entry of truth and love into the world which had always excluded them. But this entry is as unobtrusive as the word of truth. The Kingdom of Heaven is present in our midst and is at work. It is also within us: "The kingdom is in the midst of you and within you" (Lk. 17:21, JE). But it is not in everyone.
Let us quickly recall that this is not the same as discriminating between sinners and the saved; Christians acquire no superiority through knowing and recognizing the God of truth. On the contrary, they have a responsibility and a function: the Kingdom of Heaven is a power secretly at work within the world, to change it. This is accomplished not through a metaphysical mutation but through a slow work of mysterious and invisible insertion. It is not an obvious process. Being a Christian means taking part in this work which does not change "the essence of things" but causes a new dimension of love and hope to penetrate everywhere, because of and in the true Lord. This work takes place within visible and concrete reality, but it is not located there. And it is not yet the Kingdom of God which will come in power "at the end of time," when everything will be radically changed by the fulfillment of what is promised.
He will come "in the clouds" as the glorious Christ, and every- one will be obliged to recognize him. In the meantime, we are not yet at this stage. Christ is glorified and invisible in the heaven of heavens. And we remain on the earth, unchanged: human folly and tragedy remain what they have always been -- but with the gnawing of love, the leaven concealed in the dough (but it has not yet risen), the seed hidden in the ground (but it has not sprung up), and the salt put in the soup (but it has not dissolved). So sight has not joined the Word. Sight does not have a new status, and nothing can justify the Christian imagery and the idols of all sorts that we continually erect. The Incarnation has not introduced sight into the order of truth. Only the word belongs there!
Certainly we cannot dodge the question of Jesus’ being the image of God -- the only possible image. But we must be most cautious in this connection. The Gospels show us clearly that Jesus’ divinity was not obvious. It was in no way visible. According to the passage in Isaiah: "Nothing about him attracted attention -- neither beauty nor bearing" (Isa. 53:2, JE). Continual ambiguity surrounds Jesus; although he may declare himself to be the Messiah or even the Son of God, most of the time he uses the title "Son of man." He never declares that he is God himself. He is not a visible and recognizable God in his observable reality. He is not a Tibetan-style God incarnate. It was absolutely impossible to say when one saw Jesus: there is God. John the Baptist discerned this by a miracle and the voice he heard, but not by seeing him as a man.
Following the Gospel writers, Origen understood perfectly this "invisibility" of the truth of Jesus: "Not all those who observed Christ’s actions immediately understood their meaning. In the last days the Word came into the world born of Mary and clothed in flesh. But the eyes that saw him as a person saw one thing; their spirit understood something different. Everyone could observe his fleshly form, but very few -- only the elect -- received the grace to recognize his divinity", (Commentary on Matthew).
John’s Gospel continually emphasizes the misunderstandings about Jesus. He is the image of God, because a theological reinterpretation of the Word has been effected, but he is never rendered visible and distinguishable as God in our reality. And when Jesus has ascended to the Father, when he has "found" his divinity again after the resurrection, the disciples no longer recognize him: neither the disciples on the road to Emmaus nor those on the shore of the Lake of Tiberias. They no longer see him as the man Jesus. This is why Paul places little value on knowing Jesus "according to the flesh"; the flesh adds nothing. Again (just as when God reveals himself to Moses), Paul can say of him afterward: "He was God present in our midst; Jesus was the eternal Christ," "the glory of Christ who is the image of God," or "as the firstborn of creation, all things were created in him," etc. He is "the image of the invisible God." But these things are said precisely when he is no longer seen!
We still have no visible image of God, and in this realm sight continues to be useless! Seeing a photograph of Jesus would not prove anything more and would add nothing to his words.(This also means that, since Jesus is not recognizable as God by sight, it is certainly praiseworthy to make drawings, paintings, and sculptures showing what we imagine him to have been like. But this activity can be oriented in two directions. If it involves symbolic representations, then this is perfectly acceptable and consistent with revelation. Twelfth-century sculpture does not claim to represent the real Jesus as he was; rather it tries to show in a purely symbolic manner an incarnation of the glory of the invisible God. On the contrary, as soon as someone tries to show the "humanity,’ of Jesus, in a kind of photography, as in the religious art called saint-sulpicerie and in nineteenth-century painting, then the situation becomes both ridiculous and idolatrous. This is precisely what is forbidden.
This impossibility of representing Jesus prevents me from believing in the supposed shroud of Jesus. In no way does it aid God’s revelation. All it does is feed our curiosity. It does not allow us to understand the Word of God or to receive Truth. It contradicts directly Jesus’ "You will see me no more."’ It tends to perpetuate an image of Jesus in our midst, whereas the only presence promised to us is that of the Holy Spirit. As for the value of the "miracle," we have seen abundant evidence for the fact that miracles have no value in themselves. Their value comes only from the Word which accompanies them. And in this case we have only the silence of the tomb). And I believe that in our present situation, such a picture would, on the contrary, unleash a reaction of unbelief.
For this reason the pretension of certain contemporary theological tendencies that want to eliminate God in favor of Jesus of Nazareth (since he is all we can know and believe about God).seems to me to be closely connected with this preoccupation with reintroducing the visible. They say that no one has ever seen God, but people could see Jesus, since he was a historical personality.
The desire to return to what is visible amounts to a new introduction of religion, in another guise, which takes the place of the faith called forth by the Word. In other words, the image of Jesus confirms our certainty that we are in the presence of a breach (perhaps related to the breach of holiness) between religions of sight and vision on the one hand, and a proclamation of the Word on the other. The religions of sight are related to a representable reality and they consider evidence to consist of demonstrations. The proclamation of the Word addresses itself to hearing, which leads to a different knowledge, understanding, and obedience. The two approaches are mutually exclusive.
In the same way, if humanity was created as the image of God, and if the only perfect image is Jesus Christ, this means that the living God cannot tolerate sterile material images. He requires living images; this is the basis of the Incarnation. "The imperceptible God desires images that are not fleeting, but neither does he want fixed, determined images" (Alphonse Maillot).
* * * * * *
Following these thoughts on the Incarnation, we will very quickly consider the other aspects of visualization in the New Testament. In Chapter VII we will study the Gospel of John and the vision of the book of Revelation, both of which involve us in eschatology. They both attest that access to truth in visible form is related to the New Creation, the accomplished reconciliation between God and humanity, and the reintegration of humanity in its fullness.
This being the case, we can go straight to the early Christians’ visions as they are recorded for us in the book of Acts. Let’s eliminate Stephen’s vision, since it is apocalyptic in nature, and Saul’s, since he encounters the reality of the living Jesus, as the disciples saw him in the Transfiguration.
Let’s consider the genuine visions. They all have something in common: they are instrumental visions. The vision of Ananias, who is told to welcome Saul of Tarsus; the vision of Cornelius, who is told to send for Peter; Peter’s vision, in which he is told to eat the unclean animals; Paul’s vision of a Macedonian who asks him to come to Macedonia; Paul’s vision when he is told to evangelize Corinth, etc. This common denominator enables us to understand that all the visions in Acts have a special meaning: it is always a matter of engaging someone in an action, giving a concrete command, or causing something to be done.
All of this is in the domain of reality and practical matters. The visions in Acts belong to the order of reality which needs to be encountered or changed. The purpose is pragmatic, and as a result these visions are adequate instruments for the end in view, but they contain nothing from the domain of truth or of spiritual revelation. Thus the visions mentioned in Scripture all coincide with what we have said about the Word’s exclusiveness in relation to truth. Finally, it must be noted that such examples of vision are infrequent in the Bible. The Bible consists entirely of the Word, whereas visions are sporadic events.
Having made these cursory remarks concerning theophanies and biblical visions, we can say, with certain exceptions, that truly the biblical God does not offer anything to sight. There is no showing or demonstration of God. A certain historical movement once tended to visualize the biblical revelation, in order to restore sight to its former position, and searched on the intellectual level for proofs of the existence of God.
* * * * * *
Obviously visions have nothing in common with the "false gods" of which the Bible speaks -- nothing in common except for sight. False gods are always gods one can see (and touch), and that very quality demonstrates their falsity and their nonexistence as gods. Isaiah’s irony is well known: "You can take it and put it on a pedestal, but you can also throw it on the ground.... What is this god, except a piece of wood, since you can see it as it is?" From the viewpoint of our subtle ethnologists and historians of religions, Isaiah undoubtedly commits a grave error -- the same error committed by Christians who ridicule statues of gods. These pagan religions are much more refined than that. The pagan "never" identified the deity with the statue. He had an abstract, superior conception of an inaccessible and indefinable divine power. I know all that. But after all, what if Isaiah (who lived in the midst of that world and belonged to it, which is not true of us) was right after all? Sacrifices and oblations were indeed offered to the statue. Prayers were indeed addressed to it. Of course, wherever representation exists, there is necessarily something that is represented.
But if the statue is so important, it must represent something utterly transient and hazy (this is the impression I get when I read the complicated explanations of certain scholars; I always wonder if ethnologists’ presentations are not really poetry when they base their propositions on dubious notions grasped on the run). Belief needs to be fixed on something a bit more solid than this hazy concept.
Another possible explanation for the importance of the statue is that the representation coincides with what is represented. In this case everything Isaiah says is confirmed: such a god is nothing more than a table or a coat rack and has a certain verifiable and comfortable usefulness (isn’t this really the role of deities?). Otherwise the statue will be punished: it will be turned facing the wall, etc. Surely this will impress the god!
Idols are indispensable for mankind. We need to see things represented and make the powers enter our domain of reality. It is a sort of kidnapping. False gods (they are false, but they exist!) are powers of all sorts that human beings discern in the world. The Bible clearly distinguishes these from the idol, which is the visualization of these powers and mysterious forces. People give names to these powers and forces. But that is not sufficient. They must be transferred to reality in order for us to be reassured. For we are reassured only by reality. Things that can be seen and grasped are certain and at our disposition. It is fundamentally unacceptable for us to be at the disposition of these gods ourselves, and unable to have power over them. Prayer or offering cannot satisfy, since they provide no sure domination. If, on the contrary, a person makes his own image and can certify that it is truly the deity, he is no longer afraid. Idols quiet our fears.
Images are truly filled with spiritual meaning and power; they are integrated into the sacred world, but belong to reality, to this human world. They are not in an impossible relationship over which I am not the master. Even if the idol is not itself the deity it is nevertheless the same. It has an identity and is not just a pointer. It participates in the god’s existence, and is the means by which I lay hold on the deity and bring him down to my level.
Ryser shows clearly the relationship between sight and idolatry in his excellent study on the golden calf. In this narrative, Moses has disappeared. The issue is to "present to the people not just a fleeting word, related to the person speaking it, but something visible and accessible to everyone. It will be something one can be sure of and hold on to just as much as God, but more easily." Thus in this first step we have objectification and generalization: the visible object is permanent (unlike the word), and is at our disposition. The object allows anyone to see it, whereas the word is not for just anyone; it is addressed to someone in particular.
Based on this conclusion, three essential remarks from Ryser’s book must be considered. First, something visible is substituted for what is heard. Ryser sees clearly the subtle truth of the matter of the golden rings: the calf will be made with the gold from the "rings that adorn the ears"; that is, which honor the organ that allows us to hear the word! "Aaron dishonors the ear; it no longer counts; now just the eye matters. Hearing the Word of God no longer matters; now seeing and looking at an image are central. Sight replaces faith. The concept that arises from a person’s heart or mind is transformed into a work fashioned by human hands and takes the place of the invisible revelation that comes from above."
The second remark is that the deity represented, the visible Baal, is a god of power, possession, and domination (and fertility). What is visible is related to power. This means that humanity’s desire to have a visible deity that is near and actually known leads to the making of terrible, merciless, and tyrannical gods.
The third remark comes from Aaron’s proclamation as he unveils the bull: "This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt" (Ex. 32:4, JE). This is of crucial importance: what we have here is not a switch from one god to another, but a visible image which does not remain an image! It has now become God himself. The image brought Israel out of Egypt.
God and the idol are the same thing, the same reality; and the idol wins. This process contradicts the explanations that say "of course, statues and depictions are not God . . . everyone knows that." No! The confusion always takes place. What is visible always takes in everything else. But only God takes in everything. Only he can see the truth. The passage in Exodus says: "I have seen," says God (32:9). This "I have seen" is obviously in opposition to the "sight" which the people demand. God sees both the reality and the truth. He sees the true meaning of what the people have done.
Anything may become an idol. The Bible shows us that the brazen serpent, the Temple at Jerusalem, and sacrifices can become idols when sight restricts them to a single role or a limited function. Symbols are groups of fragments of a shattered truth. Symbols become idols when the elasticity between truth and its symbols is frozen into a stereotype that humanity can finally possess.
In this connection I concur with Jean-Paul Gabus in his excellent analysis of idols: "The idol remains in a sense a symbol, since it is a concept overloaded with meaning.... But the idol crystallizes attention on a single element of the symbol’s meaning: the serpent as healer, the Temple as a place of safety, sacrifice as a means of attracting divine favors. In practice the idol destroys the pluralism of symbolic meaning. It inhibits the circulation of meaning that normally takes place between several levels of meaning. The idol conceals the symbol.(Jean-Paul Gabus, Critique du discours théologique (Paris: Delachaux, 1977)
Thus there is a conflict, according to the Bible, not only with "false gods" (which do not concern us here), but also with all visible depiction of spiritual matters. The Bible attacks the security humanity draws from statues. Still we must, obviously, distinguish between the two kinds of divine statues or visualizations humanity can make for itself: the kind involving strange gods such as calves or bulls, for example, and the sort which concerns the God of Israel himself. However, the same condemnation, the same error, and the same impossibility are involved in both cases. People confuse truth with reality, and reduce what can belong only to the order of the word (where of necessity they are responsible) to the order of sight (where they reign as masters). Whether an image is called an idol or an icon changes absolutely nothing!
The paradox of idols is this: idols do not exist. In an apparently ambiguous passage, Paul speaks to us very strangely: "We know that ‘an idol has no real existence.’... For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth -- as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ -- yet for us there is one God, the Father . . and one Lord, Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 8:4-6). This passage has several levels of meaning: that of the spiritual dispute is always pointed out -- there is only one God and Lord; all the rest are false gods.
But we are attracted to this passage at another level: on the one hand there are gods and lords. They really exist. They are part of the powers that claim to be all-powerful or salvific, etc., and that attract people’s love and religious belief. They exist. And they pass themselves off as gods. But idols do not exist. That is to say that the visible portrayal of these powers, which is perceived by the senses, has no value, no consistency, and no existence. I could suggest a comparison: money certainly exists, but a banknote does not "exist." It is never anything but a piece of paper, and is not even a real sign anymore. And here is the paradox: since idols try to introduce a spiritual force into reality by bringing it into the sphere of the visible and the concrete, idols themselves do not exist. They exist neither as something visible and concrete (since in this sense they are really nothing) nor as something spiritual and "true-or-false" (since they cannot reach this level). They have no kind of existence precisely because they have tried to obtain indisputable existence beyond the uncertainty of the word.
The idol does not exist, but it alienates the person who makes it! Maillot shows admirably that in Deuteronomy "there is a coming together of the ‘sight’ one can have of other gods (their portrayal) and of religious alienation; making a god, drawing or sculpting a god means immediately bowing down to it and becoming a slave. The eye becomes not just the organ of laziness, but also of religious alienation.... Seeing is not only being assured of something’s presence; it is also possession.... But the Bible shows that this immediately signifies being possessed."
All images are harshly condemned. The Bible speaks of "graven images," but no other sort was known at that time. Painting was almost nonexistent. "The graven images . . . you shall burn with fire", (Deut. 7:25); "Cursed be the man who makes a graven or molten image" (Deut. 27:15); "Every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols" (Jer. 10:14); "All worshipers of images are put to shame" (Ps. 97:7). Of course, some will say that the image is not condemned in itself, but that idolatry is the problem: the image one adores, or the image made to inspire worship. Naturally. But we are still left with the strange opposition between word and image.
The God of the word cannot tolerate the gods of image. Why? The elementary, obvious answer is that these passages come from a society of images, where gods were thus portrayed, and that Israel’s monotheism could not tolerate it.(It is true that there was evolution in Israel with regard to images. Israel was probably also acquainted with images at the beginning: the brazen serpent, used under Moses’ high authority, and perhaps taken by David from the Jebusites and placed in the sanctuary; the golden calf, undoubtedly an image quite acceptable to the people at a late stage, in imitation of the Canaanite bull. Perhaps there was even an image of Yahweh in the Temple. All this is possible, and as a result it gives us a rather late date for the respect given to images. The essential matter is that, given the general context of the surrounding religions, and given the general popular tendency, there was a total reversal. This reversal makes something magical of the brazen serpent and a destroyed idol of the golden calf, affirming that the eternal God is the enemy of images, at least as early as Amos and Hosea.
This reversal comes about gradually as the people deepen their knowledge of the truth of the Word, and as they learn of the radical opposition between word and image. The essential matter is the point at which the people of God arrive in their recognition of the truth, as they follow the Word of God alone.) The most spiritual religion could not accept this gross materialism. This is apparently correct (except for the fact that religions with images are not all that materialistic), but it is certainly insufficient.
A passage of Paul’s clarifies the problem somewhat: people "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles" (Rom. 1:23). What is the serious error? That glory has been changed into image. Glory is what shows God for what he is as God. This glory is invisible and can only be grasped approximately by the word. This glory is the reflection of God himself and can never be transformed into a thing. God’s glory is a manifestation of the truth. It is the presence of a person.
The seriousness of making images lies not only in the fact of idolatry. The image relates not to God but to visible things (obviously it cannot exist otherwise!); it refers to reality. Thus there is an exchange of truth for reality, of the person for the object. It is therefore much more than a sort of competition between gods, between a true god and false ones: it is a fundamental, radical change. God really is not God any longer when he is represented. What people look at has nothing to do with truth. For this reason Paul says: "They have exchanged.... " The image is a change -- in itself and not only in terms of the feelings that it produces or that produced it.
Thus the Bible attacks not only adoration but also the image itself. This is because with the image we change not only from one religion to another but from one order to another. We leave the order of truth and move into that of reality. The prophets understand this when they show the absurdity of people who adore the creature instead of the creator. Thus the image is condemned as a denial of God himself.
This does not mean, of course, that every image, sculpture, or painting works this way! It is true only of images in the religious sphere. But just as every word draws its seriousness from the fact that God adopted speech, so every image draws its character from the place the Bible assigns to images. I repeat that of course not all images are idolatrous and demonic. But they are in effect opposed to the word, belong to another order, and are intrinsically contradictory and not complementary to the word. The contradiction situated at the level of adoration has repercussions at all levels. Images are incapable of expressing anything at all about God. In daily life as well, the word remains the expression God chooses. Images are in a completely different domain -- the domain that is not God and can never become God, on any grounds.
Let us return to the warning from Sinai: "You shall not make yourself a graven image . . . you shall not bow down to them" (Ex. 20:4-5). The usual error is to refer this command only to the worship of "false gods." But this matter is already dealt with in the previous command. Here the adoration of false gods is not at issue so much as the confusion that amounts to claiming to represent by an image what one is going to worship. Not only the idol is concerned.(Goux, in Les Iconoclastes, needs of course to find a psychoanalytical basis for the biblical prohibition against representing God and adoring images. He reasons thus: making images of gods involves making a material image (he of course avoids the problem of the visible, which is the explicit problem in the Bible). Given that materia comes from mater (an unfounded etymology!), this means making an image of the Mother. This can only mean adoring in a sensual way the mother figure. Therefore, "the prohibition against making images of the divinity is a radical form -- the Judaistic form -- of the prohibition against incest. And Moses’ terrific anger against the idolaters signifies that he threatens them with castration -- the punishment for loving one’s mother." QED! It is obvious that anything at all can be substantiated using such "reasoning."
Furthermore, this conclusion leads Goux in an amazing way to an astonishing conclusion: the golden calf is a cow. It does not matter that all the biblical texts speak of the calf in the masculine; that the Bible tells us clearly that a bull is called a "calf" in order to ridicule it, or that we know concretely that such worship was related to the masculine fertility cult and to the bulls of Canaan or Babylon. Everything the Bible says is erased by the great discovery of the prohibition against incest. The calf must therefore be a cow! And all these prohibitions must be concerned with the worship of feminine deities, who are never explicitly mentioned, with exception of Istar, who comes up much later!) Before there is any idol, the will to portray exists. And since it is a matter of representing something as an image, visible things are necessarily involved: things that are in the sky, on the earth, and in the sea.(Here we must refer to the very new and profound interpretation of the commandment against graven images as related by Fernando Belo in "Universalité et contextualité," in Parole et Société (Paris), no. 1 (1978). He believes that this passage involves two complementary orientations not to have images that resemble . . ., and the bowing down, which implies a gathering before (these images). The gathering is a closed one, excluding general participation, and it takes place around a scene of images "displaying the effects of resemblance in those who are thus assembled together because they have the same relationship of similarity with the images of the scene.", Thus we have the image of an imaginary closed scene, with a mirror-type action so that the people cease being active in their lives (or in their relationship with God) and become passive and prostrate. The people become like this image and at the same time they become like each other, through identification with their object of worship. They cease being individualized and become united by images (Belo says that we are individualized by social practices; I would say rather it is by God’s challenge to each person and one’s insertion into this universe of the word).
This image can also become an imaginary image based on a mythological narrative with closed and mirrored language (which goes back and forth from one mirror to another). This provides an image of the god related to past events and ancestors and allows for a repetitive liturgy involving images. Thus the image produces a self-mirroring enclosure. This is what the commandment shatters, since it comes from the historical and nonmythological God, and since he starts people off on an adventure rather than enclosing them. Revelation gives no image of Yahweh; God is not enclosed anywhere, not even in the Temple. He produces in people a drive toward life and action, as they become participants in "God’s story," and are sent out for an open-ended adventure rather than caught up in a repetitive liturgy. This is indeed the ultimate problem of the fixed, frozen, contemplated image.) Thus what is invisible is transferred to the domain of visible things. And this is exactly what Paul means when he opposes visible (transitory) things with invisible (Rom. 1:23; 2 Cor. 4). The God of Israel denies any possible expression of himself in visual form.
True, of course, other religions in the area also had a concept of a power or "deity" beyond all visible representation (certainly in Egypt, but probably also in Mesopotamia). However, no god was excluded, and the visible portrayals were considered in effect to be gods. The visual element was basic -- so basic that the nonvisualized deity was limited to an utterly hazy, uncertain, and unidentifiable existence. The visual element here is what enables people to become certain in their belief and to specify its content.
The God of Israel, however, is exclusive. He cannot tolerate a possible confusion of himself with other gods, but in particular he cannot tolerate people’s attempting any visualization of him whatever. The holy of holies is empty. It can contain a representation of things which suggest the glory of this God in a parabolic fashion, but nothing else. The glory itself is there, but it is invisible. God continually proclaims that he cannot be portrayed in any manner. And the condemnation of the golden calf, or of Jeroboam’s calves, is not aimed at the adoration of foreign deities, the gods of the surrounding peoples, the idols that imitate other people’s idols. The condemnation centers on the claim that the one who has revealed himself to Israel as invisible has been portrayed in a visible manner. Only secondarily could the form of a bull, which was indeed adopted in imitation of other religions, mean that they were adoring another god. The essential matter, which has not often been seen by historians, is that by claiming to represent the true God, in whom Israel believed, by pretending to visualize him, they signified by that very act that they had changed gods. Their god was no longer the Lord of Israel. This is exactly what Paul says when he recalls the sin of having changed the glory of God into an image.
God is fundamentally, essentially invisible. Over and over again it is proclaimed and stated that no one can see God and live. This is said even to Moses in Exodus 33:20 (we will return to this idea). When Moses asks God to let him see his glory, the basic answer is: "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name ‘the Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, but . . . you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live" (Ex. 33:19-20). What follows is the famous passage in which God says to Moses that he will hide him while he passes by, and that Moses will be able to see God from behind, but no one can see his face. This means that one can see God’s trace after he has passed: God’s work and God’s action after the fact. But one can never see God at work, nor God’s presence.
This passage rigorously opposes seeing and hearing. We find the same idea at the birth of Samson the judge, when his father states: "We shall surely die, for we have seen God" (Judg. 13:22). I am especially interested here in the fact that sight and hearing are treated differently. This God cannot be seen, but he can be heard. If we were dealing with a "spiritualization," it would be difficult to explain why it would deal only with visible portrayal. Later Israel formulates a prohibition which seems to specify in an astonishing manner the God of the earliest period. Rather than theological progress, this signifies an acceptance of the first revelation.
The prohibition against portraying God leads to a unique situation among all the peoples of antiquity: the "empty Temple." This is precisely "the site which systematically relegates all other religions to subjective fetishism" (Goux). The empty Temple amounts to a prohibition against attributing to tangible and visible matter what belongs only to the creator of heaven and earth, and who therefore does not belong to the earthly order. This prohibition thus attests the radical otherness of God. This is the exact meaning of the well-known passages in Psalms 115 and 135; Jeremiah 10:3-4; Isaiah 40:18-19; 46:6-7; etc. Idols, made by human beings, belong to the earth’s domain; they belong to "this side" (which is why people prefer them). They partake of visible reality, but this very fact demonstrates that they are not gods: there is nothing behind or beyond them; they are confined things, with no truth and no future.
The empty Temple, which is Israel’s specificity, and which corresponds precisely to the temptation of the golden calf, is the critical locus of all visualization. This signifies radically that this God is truly the incomparable Wholly Other, who cannot be directly approached except through the Word that this God speaks when he chooses. The empty Temple is a critical place, just as the Word is critical and the empty Tomb is absolutely critical of all our representations of the Resurrection.
Faced with this absolute prohibition against all representation, the attitude required of the Jew, but also of the Christian, is an iconoclastic attitude. We must shatter images and destroy the statues before which people bow down. They bow down as masters who have enclosed truth within their reality, and who prevent the emergence of the Wholly Other because they have circumscribed a sacred space. Breaking the image obliges people to discover themselves faced again with the gaping void that challenges them. In the midst of fear, scandal, anger, or stupor, they are obliged to see their god fallen down, and so must raise a question and listen to a word.
But even though iconoclasm in the material sphere was the characteristic act of Christian intransigence at the beginning of the Church’s history, at the time of the monks of the Egyptian desert in the fourth century, and in the Reformation, it no longer seems to concern us much. In reality, however, this is the spiritual question of our age, since it is the age of extreme visualization; but the issue no longer necessarily concerns statues! The conflict surrounding the representation of God in stone or painting no longer concerns us, because for our contemporaries, these works of art no longer represent anything. Since they are "just art," we have no reaction to them. On the contrary, iconoclasm is always essential to the degree that other gods and other representations are manifested. We no longer have to struggle against Dagon or Ishtar or Melkart, but against thrones, powers, and dominions. These are called Money, State, and Technique -- the new spiritual trinity that manifests itself in quite visible idols, belonging exclusively to the visible sphere. The process (of transforming material things into deities), however, is exactly the same.
In our era, iconoclasm attacks the spiritual trinity of Money, State, and Technique. The visual sphere has won overwhelmingly, but it passes itself off for something spiritual. Only the means used (to make visible things appear to be spiritual) are different. Formerly one discerned a spiritual truth that was materialized in order to grasp it through sight. Today reality triumphs, has swept everything away, and monopolizes all our energy and projects. The image is everywhere, but now we bestow dignity, authenticity, and spiritual truth on it. We enclose within the image everything that belongs to the order of truth. The word is thus localized, and becomes space and mediocre reality. First of all, then, iconoclasm is directed at all visible signs of invisible powers. Today, much more than formerly, when we attack visible signs, all divine and demonic power is at stake, since its essence lies in these visible signs.
But there is another iconoclasm: the one that attacks portrayals of God made by Christians, even apart from statues and paintings. We also visualize in our minds, in our concepts. Only with much difficulty can we escape from spatialization (and Bishop John A. T. Robinson was right when he said that it was ridiculous to talk about the God who is "up there" somewhere above us. But Robinson seemed not to realize, oddly enough, that he also spoke of God in spatial terms when he said God was "deep down" in the depths). Only with much difficulty can we escape from our ultimate desire to bring everything back to sight, even when it is a matter of internalized sight. We need an image of God in order for our thinking to grab hold of something.
So God the Father becomes God with a white beard. The God of justice becomes the stern God on his throne. The unportrayable deity becomes the Triangle surrounded by rays of light. The God who knows all things becomes a huge eye. And we have already seen that images of Jesus, unless they are symbolic, are no more legitimate than images of God. They have no value either as representations of Jesus or as an attempt to make God show through this pious and pitiful imagery.
We must fight all these false images. They are necessarily false, because they are all situated in space and related to sight. The process is always the same. And when Gabriel Vahanian proclaims that God is dead, he refers to all these images. He attacks them by considering iconoclasm as the first act of the Christian life: the first and continuous act, the breaking down of images through the Word.
* * * * * *
We must constantly return, however, to the Fall. Obviously, although the word is given absolute preeminence in Creation, sight is by no means excluded. In God a close association exists between sight and word, but this poses no contradiction. A constant movement is established from truth to reality and from reality to truth. At first even Adam is given the eminent role of being the meeting point between created reality and space, where sight dominates, on the one hand, and the creator, on the other. The true creator is this one who addresses Adam through the word. This produces a situation characterized by unity of being (that is, unity of reality and truth); unity of the creator with his creation (but this is through the mediation of humanity); noncontradiction and fullness: "and when they had everything, they desired nothing."
The association in God of sight and word is emphasized by the very text of Genesis: at each stage of creation, God speaks; God sees; God names. He says "let there be light"; he sees "that the light was good"; he "called the light day" (Gen. 1:3-5). There is perfect continuity, and each act reflects his authenticity of being.
The explosion takes place at the moment of separation, when rupture occurs between God and humanity -- and even before that. We can foresee the Fall as soon as sight is considered independently of the word; and this sight refers to the truth, appropriately enough! In Genesis 3 we read that "the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise" (Gen. 3:6). This is the first time sight is a separate issue. This sight refers to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil;(It is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and not, as some have insisted on saying, the tree simply of "knowledge"! As I have shown, this knowledge is the power to decide on one’s own what is good and what is evil. [See Jacques Ellul, To Will and To Do, trans. C. Edward Hopkin (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1969).--Trans.]) that is to say, the tree of discernment of the truth. She sees; she no longer hears a word to know what is good, bad, or true. She sees --reality. She sees the reality of this tree. What she sees has no relationship with the word -- neither with the serpent’s word nor later with her own word, and finally not with Adam’s word when he speaks to God.
"Evidently," she sees. Evidence becomes the sign of certainty and conviction. It is compared with fleeting words which are preserved only by the memory: words of God, who is not visible, and words which are difficult to interpret. They contain all the laxity of freedom. These words permit no solid certainty: it is so easy to manipulate words.
"Did God really say?" is the only real argument. After all, am I so sure of what I heard? "Really" -- that is, related to this reality. In place of all this vagueness, this open-endedness, and this memory whose uncertainty is pointed out to me, here I have the visual, indisputable evidence. It leaves no room for discussion.
I see. What I see is evident and certain. It gives evidence against the Word. This is the real "temptation," and the process by which we question truth. Rather than remaining in a fluid relationship based on listening, word, memory, choice, and response, the woman sees a possible way to take possession and to dominate at the level of this reality that she recognizes as the only stable one. She hears the true Word placed in doubt. These two facts are closely related, and based on them the opposition to images is made explicit, as the irreconcilable contradiction of image and word is ascertained (but this conclusion is a later theological construction!).
Evidence is absolute evil. We must accept nothing based on evidence, contrary to Descartes’s recommendation. The evidence of reality is quite useful for action, but can in no way help us to understand the meaning of our lives. As soon as we allow ourselves to be invaded by this obsession with evidence, the discretion of the word vanishes. We become insensitive to language, which, even if it is the Word of God, loses its meaning. Thus we no longer pay any attention to it.
The utterly remarkable construction of the text of Genesis tells us that immediately after Eve’s discovety of evidence for the tree’s excellence, "their eyes opened" (Gen. 3:7, JE). They had been closed up until then! How many philosophers and theologians have fallen into a trap here. They say, "You see how unkind this God is. Adam and Eve were blind. He kept them blind. The Fall, disobedience (a fine use of freedom), transgression, and insolence toward this God, the doubting of his word and the refusal of his command -- all this was necessary, so that their eyes could finally be opened. They are no longer foolish: they have become both clairvoyant and intelligent."
It is considered a blessed disobedience, a blessed "Fall," that gives birth to History and Science. Finally! "How stupid the Jewish theologians were who wrote this narrative and did not even understand what an explosive concept they included in their own representation of God. Their God is either wicked or absurd. And these theologians are certainly childish!" The historians, exegetes, hermeneutics experts, and philosophers who talk this way never realize that they themselves could be the stupid and absurd ones!
"Their eyes were opened." But it had already been said earlier that they saw light. Their eyes were opened with respect to what? Their nudity. That is the great first discovery. And that is all. All their new sight allows them to discover and learn is this nudity. And this discovery leads them to make clothing for themselves. But this has been explained as a moral matter: they are ashamed of being this way. What we have here is moral conscience and the discovery of "modesty," or the myth of the origin of clothing. But this is only a small part of the meaning of this sentence, which is much more profound.
Biblically, nudity is essentially the sign of fragility and weakness. We often find the expression "I am poor and naked" ("naked" not as an expression of this poverty, but in the sense of "weak"). And clothing is the sign of and search for protection. This is the essence of this marvelous discovery, thanks to their opened eyes: humanity is weak and without protection or defense.
Furthermore, Adam’s first reaction when he hears the voice of God (in the following verse) is fear. Thus the eyes being opened in no way constitutes a point of departure for the luminous ascent of humanity. In no way does it open the possibility for humanity to understand, to assert itself, and to begin history. Instead, this even amounts to the discovery of the terrible reality that humanity without God is nothing. Without him we are without protection, without strength, and we are fragile as a breath. Sight reveals our effective reality to us.
Thus we can certainly say that this event will be the point of departure for "science and technique," since these are essentially means for escaping from this weakness and acquiring protection and power. We can certainly say that this will be the point of departure for history, since it is composed of all humanity’s efforts to subsist and persist. But there is nothing grandiose and sublime in this.
On the contrary, we have here the beginning of the frightful adventure of humanity’s trouble, of its misery and weakness. This is what is inaugurated by this sight which suddenly discovers reality outside truth -- reality fending for itself, on its own, sight beyond light, which up until this moment had transfigured it.
This light was thought of as a light coming from God; that is, the Light of God. Human beings as limited creatures were fragile and weak, but placed in God’s love; this reality was seen within the context of eternal and perfect love. It was seen by God’s own sight. It was therefore a happy reality, and weakness was just one more joy, another perfection: that of the little child who buries himself in his father’s shoulder. He is glad to be weak, since his father is so strong. But now their eyes are opened. They see raw reality, with realism and accuracy: reality outside God’s love and therefore unpleasant, dangerous, and broken. This is the fruit of evidence. Their eyes are opened to this single and exclusive reality.
Contrary to this evidence of reality as seen, God continues to act toward human beings only through the word; that is, through proposal and discretion. God is never evident. This is another way of saying that he can never be seen. He erects and transmits signs, he calls and challenges. He speaks, and humanity must receive these signs in the adventure of listening and of the word. He speaks and his signs are never constraining; they are never as gripping as reality.
God is a God of signs, and, as we have seen, what are called theophanies on the one hand, and miracles on the other, are never anything but signs for the purpose of attracting our attention. The signs are meant to move us to lend our ear to God’s voice, which is never shattering or terrifying, because it is the voice of love. "I stand at the door and knock" (Rev. 3:20). He never breaks down doors; he is never a battering ram that breaks down obstacles. The battering ram is Baal, who is visible. God sends us only signs to receive -- imperceptible indications that must be disentangled from the trumpet blasts of reality; they are words mingled with all the other words broadcast around us.
Here again we have two clear and distinct universes: the universe of evidence, seen reality, humanity’s universe; and that other one, of discretion and the word, of signs -- God’s universe. The human race of course has claimed to complete its universe through truth. Not existing truth, but manufactured truth; not the truth of love, but of power, which permits us to get a hold on dangerous and humiliating reality. So men and women monopolized language and made up signs on their own.
Human beings function on the basis of signs. "Thy foes . . . set up their own signs for signs" (Ps. 74:4). This passage is a very strong and up-to-date description of autonomous human effort. Thus we have no longer God’s signs received by humanity, but agreed-on human signs addressed to human beings.
Of what are they signs? Here resides the great difficulty for linguistics and semiotics! The debate on this issue is continuous. Having destroyed the possibility of something signified and having retained only the notion of structures, scholars now realize that the signifier no longer has any value. We must liberate ourselves from the "dictatorship of the signifier," and therefore of structures, and counterbalance the signifier by giving all the weight to the utter uncertainty of "flow."
As a result, the status of signs set up by humankind is utterly uncertain, gratuitous, and vain. The sign no longer plays any definitive role whatever, and it refers only to itself. In this immense confusion, the signs addressed to us by God suffer, just as the Word of God is a victim of the confusion of languages. Was this confusion of languages at Babel God’s vengeance? Here we have another simplistic explanation. I have discussed an initial element of the explanation of this confusion as it related to the construction of the City.(See Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City.) Here is a second element: the word related to truth; the word as communication with God -- the unobtrusive word which is able to express what is deepest and most adored.
Here at Babel humanity continues along the road it began when its eyes were opened to reality and the apprehension and comprehension of this reality outside of God. The word and language play their role at Babel -- to say what? "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.... Come, let us build ourselves a city" (Gen. 11 :34). Here the word enters into reality and becomes the means of action and of reality. I do not mean, of course, to say anything so foolish as that language was not used for everyday things in the real world. It is quite legitimate to say "let’s make bricks," or "please pass the bread." Language is not restricted to metaphysics or liturgy! But I mean that in a myth the elements have meaning (and are not allegorical!). Therefore, since there is such heavy emphasis here on this use of language, this fact is filled with meaning. It tells us that this word, which comes from the Word of God and is designed for speaking with God; this word, which is related to truth and expresses the profoundest things, becomes a means of action at Babel.
Here language is inserted into reality and is used to communicate things and information about reality -- that is to say, something else entirely. And because the word has lost its basic truth, its essential root, since it no longer possesses its content, its weight and harmony, it explodes. Because human words are no longer in harmony with the Word of God, languages become separate and then diversity in accordance with their subordination to different realities. Since the word is made commonplace and instrumental, it no longer has any function except to make action possible. On the one hand it loses the unity of its origin, and on the other it acquires the diversity related to actions. Once inserted into reality, the word changed to the point where it became incomprehensible language.
Thus sight played an enormous role in the Fall and caused all of humanity and language to swing to its side. Under these circumstances, it is understandable that the Bible so often relates sight to sin. Sight is seen as a source of sin, and the eye becomes the link between reality and the flesh. The eye is seen as the focusing lens of the body (but only of the body). The Bible speaks of the lust of the eye and of the eye as the source and means of coveting. Now we know that covetousness is the crux of the whole affair, since sin always depends on it. "You shall not covet" (Ex. 20:17) is the last of the commandments because it summarizes everything -- all the other sins. Humanity searches for other gods because it covets power; it makes idols for itself because it covets religion. Murder, adultery, and theft are always expressions of covetousness. Covetousness is equivalent to the spirit of power or domination. It is not just a simple moral question, but utterly basic.
The Bible closely and explicitly links covetousness to sight. This connection is derived, of course, from the passage in Genesis we have been examining. Eve coveted equality with God. She coveted the knowledge of good and evil. She coveted autonomy of decision. And all this resulted from her looking at the fruit. This covetousness based on evidence is the same covetousness we have seen at Babel. She looked, and the fruit seemed worth coveting to her.
We have the exact antithesis of this attitude in the famous passage in Philippians that describes the decision of the Son to strip himself of divinity, to enter into the human condition, and to make himself a poor servant, and finally to accept death -- the death of the cross. The starting point of this process is: "He did not look at equality with God as a thing to be grasped " (Phil. 2:6, JE). That is, at the outset of every work of God or Jesus there is this denial of the covetousness that comes from sight. Here and only here can covetousness be vanquished, as a new beginning is made; and this is related to sight: he did not "look. ." (even though the meaning is figurative). The Son did not look at this reality -- neither at the power he held nor at the wretched condition he was assuming.
He was the Word. On earth he lived by the word. He lived in strict conformity with the Father, who does not look on appearances. But we always live in covetousness, which is related to evidence. Who can fail to understand this today? All human covetousness is related to the evidence of the excellence of what our society offers us: money, machines, knowledge. The evidence is clear. Therefore we must desire these things, and the current exaltation of "desire" results from this covetousness, which is unleashed by sight. Sight takes its place in the circle formed by sin, as origin and continual impetus to sin, because it is at the basis of the rupture with God as it roots itself in reality alone.
This is not to say, of course, that the word is not also an agent, means, etc., of evil! It is a fundamental aspect of evil, because it is the instrument of falsehood. But we must be careful: here the word is turned aside from its goal and (as we said in connection with Babel) is enclosed within reality; that is, it is the word subordinate to sight and an instrument of the covetousness of reality.
Let us also be clear that we must not make a realitry of this analysis of the myth. I am not saying that the word is good and that sight is evil! Nor that the word is pure and sight impure! To say that amounts to reentering the universe of realism -- the universe of this reality where sight is autonomous! I simply insist that the word belongs to the order of truth and sight to the order of reality. When the two were separated and their unity had disappeared, humanity, submitted to reality alone, entered into separation from truth. This rupture with God is called sin. Reality is thus submitted without limit to unfettered covetousness.
3. The Theology of the Icon
Everything we have just said utterly contradicts the theology of icons as we find it in Greek Orthodox thought. We will follow Paul Evdokimov(Paul Evdokimov, L’Art de l’icône: Théologie de la beauté [Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1970]. At the outset it is significant and basic to note that for the author, beauty relates only to the icon. He constructs his theology of beauty, in general, only on the basis of objects that are seen -- painted objects. Everything related to music, poetry, the beauty of language and rhetoric, of taste and odors, is forgotten. Only one of the senses is given special status sight, which grants a person access to the contemplation of the invisible.) in order to review this theology briefly. The icon of course is not worshipped for itself; in itself it has no value. It is not a work of art, and much emphasis is laid on the difference between the theology of the Orthodox icon and the less rigorous viewpoint of medieval Catholic theology. The object is not venerated; Beauty is, by means of the resemblance mysteriously conveyed by the icon. It irradiates "the ineffable reflections of divine Beauty." The image is clearly superior to the word: "the image shows what the word says."
Quite strangely the icon is ascribed to the Holy Spirit, who was supposed to lead us into all truth. The Holy Spirit embodies this truth. "The icon is a symbolical-hypostatic representation which invites us to transcend the symbol and to communicate with the hypostasis in order to participate in the indescribable. It is a path one must take in order to go beyond it. This is done not by eliminating it, but by discovering its transcendent dimension." The icon is an "image which leads us to something else," a prop in a mystical and transcendent quest.
The word is not sufficient. The icon is a symbol, but must be surpassed; though nothing in itself, it is indispensable in mystical contemplation. As a kind of sacrament that makes transcendent communion possible, in itself it is transcendent. The icon alone enables a person to participate in the indescribable.
The icon is thus light on the one hand (seen as the symbolic reflection of the original light), yet on the other hand it is opposed to anything that is "portrait." Icons are not portraits of the Virgin or of Jesus (thus no icon of a living person is ever possible). Icons are related only to the hypostasis: the heavenly body, the "person." The icon grasps the absolute resemblance: it takes on the very celestial figure of the hypostasis in its transfigured body -- this is the icon in itself.
All this is closely linked to a theology of the Incarnation understood as "sanctification of matter and transfiguration of the flesh." The Incarnation enables us to see both spiritual bodies and nature as transformed by Christ. In other words, the Incarnation of Jesus has transformed the entire human species and all of nature; it is a completely finished work, and this transformed nature enables us to contemplate the divine through "indirect thought." Human beings are (already) deified.
This symbolic knowledge needs a material vehicle. But, starting from the symbol, by means of contemplation and true imagination with its evocative power, such knowledge grasps the figurative presence as an epiphany of the transcendent. This presence is symbolized, but very real. The icon guides our gaze toward the Highest -- toward the Most High, toward the only necessity.
The icon is neither a sign nor a picture, but rather the symbol of a presence and the dazzling locus of the mystery in the form of an image. "The Word . . . offers itself to contemplation, as visual theology, in the form of the icon. It is [in itself.] one of the sacraments.... The icon shows us by its colors, and makes present: for us what the gospel tells us through the word" (obviously, the importance of considering all this work as the expression of the Holy Spirit comes from this belief). The icon (in itself!) participates in the Wholly Other, by means of its resemblance, which becomes a process of effulgence.
The icon is also a kind of theophany. Since it has no volume, it excludes all possible materialization. It is purely spiritual: it is exclusively spiritual although visual. "It conveys an energetic presence that is neither localized nor enclosed, but radiates from around its point of condensation." The icon accomplishes what the letter to the Hebrews says about contemplating invisible things (but should this contemplation be visual and depend on our physical eyes?).
The icon of Christ, of course, is certainly not Christ. It is only an image, not the prototype. But it bears witness to a well-defined presence, and permits prayerful communion (which is not eucharistic communion, because it permits spiritual communion with the Person of Christ). "The presence of the icon is a circle whose center is found in the icon, but whose circumference is nowhere.(We must remember that this is the definition Barth gives of the Church in its relation to Jesus Christ. This shows how idolatrous the icon is!) As a material point in the world, the icon opens a breach through which the Transcendent bursts" (no less!). Thanks to this relationship, the earthbound human being becomes homo caelestis. The hypostasis of Christ actually appears in icons. Coming back to the Incarnation, Evdokimov concludes: "A hypostasis in two natures signifies an image in two modes: visible and invisible. The divine is invisible, but it is reflected by the visible human object. The icon of Christ is possible, true and real, because his image in the human mode is identical to the invisible image in the divine mode."
Fundamentally the theology of icons involves first a switch from signs to symbols, because the icon is essentially symbolic. Then, the icon is inserted into an entire liturgy. It implies a theology of the concrete presence of the spiritual realm, and of divine light, which can be symbolically retranscribed and which is the image of glory itself.
We have said enough to show the degree to which this theology is diametrically opposed to everything that seems to me to be of key importance in biblical thinking. Furthermore we must note carefully that in the important work we have referred to, this theology is based on quotations from the Greek Church Fathers and councils -- but there is almost no biblical foundation. For example, in this three-hundred-page book, the biblical foundation amounts to only two pages and seven quotations!
Because of my Orthodox friends I am sorry to say so, but this theology of the icon seems to me to correspond exactly to what we are prohibited biblically from doing: it is idolatrous. It rests on a certain conception of the Incarnation that utterly fails to take into account its unfulfilled aspect: the waiting and the hope. "Having reestablished the sullied image in its former dignity, the Word unites it with divine Beauty." Everything is already accomplished.
Furthermore, this theology rests on a conception of the image of God in the Creation that makes of it a concrete resemblance: "the image of God" is the materiality of visible humanity. This concept tries to place humanity permanently on Tabor, the mount of Transfiguration (the expression is used repeatedly: the icon transmits the light from Tabor). That corresponds exactly to the error of the disciples who accompanied Jesus and who wanted to set up tents in order to remain permanently in the Transfiguration.
We must not try to find humanity’s deification in God’s humanization, as if God became human so that humanity might become God. Humanity goes from being a microcosm to being a micro-theos in this case. This is applied very concretely: to material, corporeal, visual humanity. The human being in himself, as we see him, is the face of God. One wonders then why the Gospels find it necessary to say of Jesus: "Behold the man." He is the only, the unique case of a human being as the image of God. But he is God’s image precisely in the visible image of the condemned, scourged individual.
Here we come back, of course, to the need of visualizing in a material way what may be an imaginary, purely spiritual vision.(See note 23 above, on mental images.) In the icon such a vision becomes an object, whether we like it or not, to be seen in the flesh. This cannot be avoided. And we should, after all, ask about the humble believers’ practice. Obviously, the theological principles we have summarized above are utterly foreign to these people. So are mystical experience and the hypostatic exaltation of which the icon is supposed to be the center or the vehicle. What alternative is left open to them, then? Whereas Catholic theology remained very reserved and careful, often negative, toward images (Thomas Aquinas is an example!), a whole idolatrous tendency toward statues developed on the popular level in Catholic societies. How can we help believing, then, that the Orthodox believer considers the icon to be a god, a magic object, a reservoir of miracles, etc.? The icon becomes in itself the presence of God, of the Virgin Mary, or of Jesus. Everything is ascribed to the image: worship and prayer. And the well-known deviation toward superstition, which is a corruption of the faith, proceeds exclusively from visualizing what we are supposed to worship, pray to, and believe in without seeing anything.
One more matter before we leave the controversy over iconoclasm in Orthodox belief. The iconoclasts, whose beliefs were judged in the seventh council, refused to admit the symbolic character of the icon. Consequently they did not believe in "a mysterious presence of the Model in the image." "They could not seem to understand that besides the visible representation of a visible reality (the portrait), there is a completely different art in which the image presents what is visible of the invisible." In reality, this was not a problem of "understanding,,; the iconoclasts simply did not believe this doctrine! They were accused of being docetics, of having a purely realistic view of art, since they refused to ascribe a sacred character to the icon. They denied that a representation of Christ or the Virgin Mary could be anything other than a representation. They denied that even symbolically the icon could have any sacramental value at all.
But the argument against the iconoclasts is utterly fallacious: it is denied that one can have an idolatrous attitude toward an icon, since an idol is the expression of something that does not exist -- a fiction, a semblance, a nothing. Treating an icon as an idol, worshipping it as a natural object, amounts to destroying it. And the seventh council states: "The more the believer looks at the icon, the more he remembers the one it represents.... Woe to the person who would worship images." This argument is false because in many of the religions condemned in the Bible, the idol was a visible representation of an invisible religious reality, to which it referred. Idols are usually symbolical. Furthermore, this argument is also false because it melds the first two commandments into just one. The second commandment is quite rigorous: no representation (even symbolical!) of what is (also) in the heavens. . . ! The iconoclasts were right. But they were defeated.
As for the argument that the iconoclasts were docetics who denied the reality of the Incarnation, this rests on a cosmic conception of a realized Incarnation. This concept eliminates both the period of promise and history itself, since Jesus as crucified is considered already to be fully the glorious Christ. This "heresy" is the exact counterpart of the real docetic heresy (of which the iconoclasts were falsely accused), but it is no better!
4. The Word of the Witness
God speaks. Myth is born from this word, but rarely is it heard directly and never conveyed just as it is received, because human beings cannot speak God’s words. Myth is the analogy that enables us to grasp the meaning of what God has said. As discourse constructed to paraphrase the revelation, it is a metaphor that should lead the listener beyond what he has heard. Myth is born of the revealed Word of God, but because it is figurative, it has no visible image. As the highest expression of the word, it reaches the edge and very limit of the inexpressible, the ineffable, and the unspeakable, as does the divine tetragrammaton.
Myth is the living word that soon will become a text. I only receive and know the text. And this text falls short of the myth just as the myth itself falls short of the word. Margins surround the myth as it relates to God’s revelation. Our effusions, prayers, and our direct relationship are written in these margins. Margins also encompass the text as it relates to myth. In these margins are written our thoughts, quests, and questions. Correspondence is not exact, so that we will not be directly conditioned or reduced to the status of robots -- saved but mechanized!
At each step I have the possibility of choice, freedom, and initiative. When I read the text, I reinsert meaning into it; I make it a word again. In a sense, the text avoids being too perfect, too absolute, too obviously identical with the very indescribable Word of God. This way I myself may speak as I make the text speak, just as God speaks (but without taking up all the available space) and then lets Adam speak.
The text that encloses the truth of the Word of God is never so exact that it only bears repeating. This text invites me to retell the myth, to recreate it. And the recreated myth calls me to listen to the ultimate, absolute Word. The Word obliges me to speak. This indivisible process implies that the text should never be fixed, reduced to structures, enclosed within itself, or understood as if it were an exact and precise mathematical formula. No valid semiotic diagram exists that can exhaust the text that is a metaphor for the Word of God. Such a text must be spoken rather than dissected.
According to the Bible, God’s revelation is conveyed by the human word -- by the word and nothing else. Action, miracles, and works only accompany and authenticate the word as demonstrations and accessories. Without the word they are nothing. Only the word can convey the Word of God, the sole means God used to reveal himself to us.
The importance of the human word becomes evident when we consider that a person speaking is God’s witness. In and by means of this word, God speaks about himself. Just as human flesh was necessary for the Incarnation, so the Word of God is conveyed by the vehicle of the human word. The witness is the person who speaks this word in such a way that God, in sovereign judgment, declares it "True, worthy of attention, really faithful" (Barth). In this situation language is still central. But we must not forget that biblically, God’s witness is the martyr (Greek martyros), who pays the price of this word he has spoken with his blood and life. This means that again in the Bible, word and authenticity are connected. The word commits unto death the one who has spoken it. This is an important lesson: not because of his action is the witness a martyr, but because of his word!
The nature of an action is not to signify, for it can always "signify, any number of things and suggest various interpretations.’ But precisely language can never be without meaning. This is not to say it cannot occasionally occur without meaning. Sometimes people even intentionally make it that way. But the true role of language is to clarify: to formulate clearly and to eliminate ambiguity. A person’s sound and fury? The gravity of the warning lies precisely in the fact that the word is the means God chooses to express himself. In this way and only in this way can we understand the extreme importance of deforming the word, of misusing it, of falsehood! Only in this way can we understand why our "yes" must be completely and only "yes," our "no" completely and only "no." "Anything more than this comes from Satan." That covers a lot of ground: everything that tends to make the word ambiguous, that would devaluate, corrupt, or deform it.
Thus the witness to the Word of God -- the one who testifies that God is the Word and speaks -- is in the full sense a witness, while at the same time he restores to the human word its fullness. We have observed that all human language draws its nature and value from the fact that it both comes from the Word of God and is chosen by God to manifest himself. But this relationship is secret and incomprehensible, beyond the bounds of reason and analysis. This relationship becomes luminous and unquestionable only when the word is spoken by a witness -- that is, by one who explicitly makes the connection between the divine and the human word. He must have the courage, audacity, enthusiasm, and presumption to declare, despite his deep humility: "What I say expresses the Word of God. My word projects the Word of God." This is inconceivable and must surely be paranoia. Yet only thus can all human language gather strength and find a new beginning. Such statements require the courage to look ridiculous ("Who am 1. . . ?"); it is crazy to think that I could express the truth of the Most High God, knowing what I know about myself. Isn’t this a potential source of pride? No, because in fact I am overwhelmed, broken, and crushed by the truth of this word I must speak. Kierkegaard lived this experience in its entirety, as did Martin Luther and Augustine. The witness cannot affirm great truths lightly.
Precisely for this reason preaching is the most frightful adventure. I have no right to make a mistake that makes God a liar. But who can guarantee that I won’t make a mistake? I walk on the razor’s edge. On the other hand, if my preaching is nothing but a pious, oratorical, Sunday-morning exercise, then better to keep silent. If through my words I do not proclaim the Word of God, what I say has no meaning but is the most absurd and odious of speeches. If, however, I try to proclaim God’s word, I am utterly called into question by my very pretension. If I make God a liar I risk being the absolute Liar. And what if I err, substituting my ideas and opinions for God’s Revelation -- if I proclaim my word as the Word of God, in order to give it weight and sparkle, in order to beguile my listeners? Then my word, unratified by God and disavowed by the Holy Spirit, becomes the cause for my condemnation.
Not just any word can cause my condemnation -- only the word related to the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Only in this context can I be the Liar. This is the absolute risk of the Witness, the only serious risk a person can run. But only on this condition can he return to language its original authenticity.
At the same time, this person who speaks is a true witness: one who introduces something new and unexpected into a given situation, (See Jacques Ellul, "Herméneutique du témoignage," in Le Témoin, ed. Enrico Castelli[Milan, 1975]) thus bringing about a rupture and reversal of the situation. In a trial, the witness furnishes the key fact that changes the certitudes or view of the reality held before his appearance. But the witness to the Word of God produces the greatest change, innovation, and rupture that can be imagined. He testifies to the Wholly Other, the Invisible, the imperceptible dimension we call Eternity, Absolute, Ultimate, or some other name. These words mean nothing, since we cannot imagine or understand what they designate. But we use them as our only means of referring to the "different" one whose word has taught us that we are his beloved children. The witness introduces this Wholly Other into our visible, concrete, measurable, and analyzable reality. The Wholly Other takes this reality upon himself, limits it, measures it, and gives it another dimension.
No work or action can bear witness like this, but only the word, referring to the Word. Only the human word brought by one who commits himself totally to it. The Holy Spirit is necessary, but so is the witness, without whom nothing will happen. This presence of the Wholly Other is one of the most basic necessities of our society and our time, because of the many totalitarianisms, the closing up of human relations, and the terrible coldness that characterize our technological, state-controlled world.
Since totalitarian society turns everything to its own ends, the only possible challenge to it is the proclamation of a radical Wholly Other and the intervention of the Wholly Other through this proclamation. The Wholly Other -- since he is incommensurable and cannot be assimilated or utilized -- can produce an opening, a breaking up of the iceberg. He can allow some unfilled space and provide elasticity and play within the mechanisms.
Such a result, however, cannot arise from any internal force intrinsic to the system, because immediately it would be reintegrated into the system. Such space for freedom can only be brought about through a word, since only the word is free. But it must be a living word and not a leaden word. And the word can remain living only as the echo, response, and question to the other Word. This Word by nature is essence and truth, independence and genesis, as well as self-producing, self-directing, and autonomous. The word continually must be begun again by the only one who creates through the Word. And the word must be continually taken up again by the Witness. Thus it must be closely connected with the person who pronounced it as his own direct and immediate expression. If such a person is absent, nothing is left.
The Word once spoken belongs to the past. But this past has no reality, so the word cannot return. Silent waves spirit it away into space. It is not language any longer. Language is heard and believed hic et nunc, but once spoken, it no longer exists. What remains then is what we have learned or believed through the word: our agreement (or refusal) with the other person. The word itself has disappeared, for the word is related to life, and is a part of life that can never be crystallized or preserved unaltered. Thus never can the word -- neither the Word of God nor the human word -- simply become an object.
Thus we return again to the word’s fundamental opposition to the image. The image is an object and never anything else. Never is it living, even when it is animated; never is it the experience of a person. When God chose the Word, he adopted the means of Revelation that forbids any human familiarity or possession. God’s Word can never be transformed into an object nor be at our disposition. Either God is present, in which case the Word is God’s Word; or God is absent, and there is nothing. By necessity, this word is either present and direct, or else it does not exist. And when written, when in a sense it can become an object, we know well what Christ says about it: the letter is dead.