This We Believe: Second Helvetic Confession, part II


Sorry this is late…the book sale got the better of my time management system! better late than never, right? (btw: there are still books. you should buy them. 🙂 )

Today we consider chapters 3, 4, and 5, which are about God and the worship of God. These chapters cover things like the Trinity, images, and worship.

First and most importantly, God Is One. Sometimes we talk about God’s “nature”–God is “one in essence or nature, subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself, invisible, incorporeal, immense, eternal, Creator of all things both visible and invisible, the greatest good, living, quickening and preserving all things, omnipotent and supremely wise, kind and merciful, just and true.” phew! that’s a long list (though not as long as in the Westminster Confession!). It’s fairly exhaustive, too–this is who God is and what God is like.

But God is also Three–we know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We say “there are not three gods, but three persons, consubstantial, coeternal, and coequal.” That just means that they’re the same stuff, the same One, but known in three ways. There’s no inequality–God the Father is not better or bigger or more than the Son, and the Spirit is not the extra thrown in for good measure–they are “so joined together that they are one God, and the divine nature is common to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

This of course makes no sense, but is true nonetheless. It’s one of those mysteries where as soon as you explain it it’s gone, flitting around the edges of your vision. As a great teacher once said, “if you can explain it, it isn’t God.” But why is this important? Because there have been people who have said that Jesus was just a human teacher, not God. And there have been people who have said that the Trinity is like a heierarchy, with one person more important than another, or coming before the others. And there have been people who said the Spirit is the only real God in the bunch. And there are plenty of people who think we’re polytheist–that we worship many gods–because of this doctrine. But we don’t–we have One God, known in Three Persons. It’s confusing, we know, but expresses something profoundly True even though we can’t explain it.

“Since God is in essence invisible and immense, he cannot really be expressed by any art or image.” Drawing on the commandment that says “you shall not make any graven images,” this confession rejects the iconography of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, insisting that they are idols. This confession is for a church oriented to the ear, not the eye–we are people of the Word. In response to the problem of illiteracy, the confession says “in order to instruct men in religion and to remind them of divine things and of their salvation, the Lord commanded the preaching of the Gospel — not to paint and teach the laity by means of pictures. Moreover, he instituted Sacraments, but nowhere did he set up images.” I don’t think this is a rejection of all art–there is good and wonderful use of visual arts in our world! The issue seems to be with using art as the primary means of instruction and worship, rather than the Word. Though it does make one wonder–if, in a time where many could not read, and where the art was so amazing (16th century Europe was practically awash in masterpieces), this was the teaching…how does it relate to us today, where we live in a world where most can read but our world is so intensely visual? How do we regain the art of listening, of encountering the living Word through the spoken word, while also appreciating the inspiring artwork all around us?

Part of the issue seems to come in the next section, where the confession says that “God alone is to be adored and worshipped.” Not an image, not an icon, not a saint, but God alone. And we worship God through Christ, “our only mediator and intercessor.” We don’t need priests or popes to talk to God on our behalf, we can go straight to the top, thanks to Christ who is the bridge for us. Not the saints, as the Roman Catholic church of the time did–we don’t pray to our favorite saint, we pray through Jesus only. The saints are good, and provide good examples, and are people to be honored. “We acknowledge them to be living members of Christ and friends of God who have gloriously overcome the flesh and the world. Hence we love them as brothers, and also honor them; yet not with any kind of worship but by an honorable opinion of them and just praises of them. We also imitate them.” Only God is to be worshipped and prayed to. This means that icons, images, and relics are not The Way, though they may be beautiful, inspiring, and even may cause us to desire to know God more. God can use all these things, but none of them is to be set up in the place of God.

What do you think of these teachings? How do you experience God? How do you worship? What do you think of the idea that our primary worship/teaching method should be through the spoken word as a way to encounter the Living Word?



2 responses »

  1. I hope we can stay with this for the week of January 30th. I don’t have the time right now to respond. But I would like to. And I am hopeful that a certain someone, named David (his last name is the same as our very talented organist and choir director), will be joining the decision.

  2. The part that engages me most in these chapters is the counsel against using images and the idea of not venerating the saints. These issues seem to relate to the essential unity of the One God. Having many images of God and many saints by which to approach God encourages diversification and disunity. It could even encourage competition – my relic is better than yours – how could Saint Paul’s little finger bone compare to having one of the nails that was used in the crucifixion. Enough, says the confession. Put away tour baubles and beads. Listen for the word of God and attend to the elegantly simple and timeless sacraments. There is only one problem. I love images… I didn’t say worship… but images can leave a powerful and positive imprint on my mind. Besides, isn’t a picture worth 1,000 words? So, I think you are right, Teri. Art has its place.

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