Thursday, August 04, 2011
The Nehushtan Factor
Some of my recent comments have included a new term useful, I hope, for identifying a category of error. It is a potential danger inherent in the fallen state that flesh is heir to. It is the error of taking a good thing that is, beyond dispute, the work of God in its origin, and allowing it to become part of that condition in which men have "changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever." (Rom. 1:25) I call this category of error the Nehushtan Factor, a designation I believe to be a new label for an old reality. This name comes from the Bible.
And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. (Numbers 21:5-9)
This story was later used by the Lord Himself, foretelling His own death on the cross in terms of its explicitly soteriological meaning and power:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:14,15)
The image of the serpent should remind us of the story in Genesis, where the tempter and enemy of mankind took that form to deceive the human race into the fallen condition of sin and death. It ought to make us appreciate more fully certain important details about the cross of Christ in its actual Jewish context, where it fulfilled much of what we read in the Torah (or Law of Moses). St. Paul taught these things quite explicitly.
"We pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." (II Corinthians 5:20, 21)
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:13,14)
The first of these quotations, in saying that Christ became sin for us, and that He knew no sin, speaks directly of what is called in the Torah (in Leviticus, especially chapter 5) the "Sin Offering (חַטָּאת)." The second speaks of Him becoming a curse (Deuteronomy 21:23) that the blessing of Abraham, the father of all who believe, would come even on the Gentiles (Genesis 22:18, 26:4, 28:14, Acts 3:25). The image, in this sense the literary image, is rich in meaning. We behold that image of the curse, of sin, of the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief who bore our sins in His own body on the tree (Isaiah 53, II Peter 2:24), that saves us from sin and death, as those who looked on the serpent that Moses made were granted life.
The image of the serpent was ordered by the same God Who earlier forbade the making of graven images to serve as idols. This fact alone teaches in no vague terms that the commandment against graven images was aimed squarely at idolatry, not at images per say. The image that Moses made at God's command was both typology (as the above New Testament references and quotations prove) and, simply and obviously, iconography. After all, an icon is by definition an image; and a man made icon is also symbolic (as opposed to the one Divine act of iconography, the greatest of all revelations, the Incarnation). It is an image that is read, one that exists to signify rather than to depict. Here, what the icon signified was explained by Jesus Christ Himself, the nature of His atoning death, and the necessity of faith.
What can be more clear than the Divine initiative at work in conceiving of this image of a fiery serpent lifted up on a pole, its use, and its larger iconic and evangelical meaning? Also, the image was empowered by God Who supernaturally used it to heal people from the effects of venomous snake bites. The whole thing was a work of God, full of power and enriched with the deepest possible meaning about His larger will and purpose; to save all who look to Christ Who would come and die for the sins of the world.
This would all have seemed very wrong if the ancient Israelites had had any party among them who would have prefigured the old English Round Heads. By such a party Moses, and in a sense God Himself, would have been denounced for idolatry, and afterward treated with grave suspicion. And, those ancient pre-Round Heads would have had no remedy for their own snake bites after denouncing as superstition the healings wrought by God, using the the brass serpent (of course, no such group of people existed in ancient Israel). What I am saying is simple; people of strong convictions often need to pay closer attention to the actual Scriptures themselves to see if their convictions are properly rooted, or simply emotionally charged.
Brass serpent to Nehushtan
Hezekiah is spoken of in Scripture with only the highest kind of praise any king ever received. He was one of the most righteous of kings. His name stands with Jehoshaphat and Josiah. He was famous for his reforms, enforcing the Law of God as the law of the Land. Among his counselors was the prophet Isaiah, the son of Amoz. In his days the Lord overthrew the powerful Sennacherib king of Assyria after miraculously delivering Judah from his armies.
Among his righteous deeds we find this:
Hezekiah removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan (i.e. piece of brass. II Kings 18:4)
Burning incense to it was a means of worshiping it, the thing itself. How did it come to pass that the people turned an instrument of God into an idol? Did it resemble one of the gods of the peoples who surrounded them? Or, was their idolatry connected to the real history of the image, with the key ingredient, God's own work, missing? Did they begin to imagine that it possessed some power of its own to heal? How was the God who carried their fathers out of Egypt, who fed them in the wilderness, and who brought them into their land, removed from the picture? We cannot know for sure; but, we can understand human nature, and how such things might occur.
We need to understand that the original Greek New Testament itself uses the word "icon" (εἰκών). Though it has become an English word, it is really an ancient word from the Greek language The nature of an icon is morally neutral, like any tool that can be used for good or for evil. We find the word "icon" used for good in such passages as, "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image (εἰκών) of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren," (Rom. 8:29) and "But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image (εἰκών) from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord." (II Cor. 3:18)
Above all else, the word "icon" is attributed to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, speaking directly of the Incarnation: "Who is the image (εἰκών) of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature." (Col. 1:15) Therefore, the good that is associated with the word "icon" is the highest good we can possibly know, the Word made flesh, and that we beheld His glory. (see John 1:14)
But, we find the same word, "icon," used to speak about evil also: "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image (εἰκών) made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things." (Rom. 1:22,23) Or, "But what saith the answer of God unto him [i.e. Elijah]? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image (εἰκών) of Baal." (Rom. 11:24) "If any man worship the beast and his image (εἰκών), and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God." (Rev. 14:9,10)
The question about images is all about the source. Is the source of the image revelation, or human imagination, perhaps fueled by demons? The written nature of Eastern church icons, that they exist more to signify than to depict, is the form of church art most consistent and harmonious with revelation. When revelation is the source of what is created and seen, one looks through the icon like a window to truth, to God. This entire idea is consistent with the Incarnation, and one very important theological principle that we must always bear in mind is this: It is the devil who refuses to acknowledge the Incarnation.
Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. (I John 4:2,3)
Many years ago I was present in a seminary class of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), where I was the odd man out, an Anglican whose theology and practice made me suspect. But, I was treated with the utmost courtesy and good manners. The students were all adults, men who worked all day for a living and attended seminary classes at night. They once began a conversation that astonished me. Someone said that he had taught a Sunday School class in which he told the children that Christians never should have pictures of Jesus Christ, because that is an image of God. He taught them, he told us, that this violated the commandment of God. I watched as the men nodded their heads and began, one by one, to agree with this supposedly Biblical principle.
Then came this odd Anglican's turn to say something. I told them that the question had been settled at the Second Council of Nicea in 787 AD in the decision against the heresy of the Iconoclasts ("If anyone does not confess that Christ our God can be represented in his humanity, let him be anathema.") . Well, I knew better than to leave it there. I knew that I had to point out from Scripture why this was the correct judgment. I told the man, who had boasted of setting the children straight, that he had taught the doctrine of Antichrist to the children. He had denied the Incarnation. It is the spirit of Antichrist who denies that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, and who therefore teaches that He has no true human nature that can be drawn, painted or beheld. For, to say His human nature cannot be depicted is to say it is not real. My remarks were followed by a long and pregnant silence. The eyes of the seminarians were rather wide and their troubled faces revealed that they had been corrected - as well they needed to be.
What then is it that turns a work of God into a Nehushtan? On another posting, an Eastern Orthodox reader wrote this to us:
"As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, formerly an Anglo-Catholic, I would like to ask if Anglicans anywhere encourage the veneration of icons by kissing them and praying before them. Also, we have a long tradition of miracle-working icons, some of which (I was going to say 'whom' but forbore!) drip a sweet smelling oil (myrrh). I have myself encountered this phenomenon."
I cannot comment on this directly; but, we all know of such stories. And, I will give the reader benefit of the doubt, that by the words "miracle-working icons" he was attributing the power to God, not to the icons. In principle, for all the reasons I have stated above, I do not favor the Round Head knee jerk reaction. God is God, and He is free to act however He will.
I answered: "Some people recoil at such things, but I do not. The issue is whether signs bring people to faith in Christ, or merely attract attention to themselves. When the Nehushtan Factor (II Kings 18:4) comes into play is when we have a problem. Otherwise, whatever brings people to faith in Christ is at worst like the man who cast out demons in his Name; forbid him not."
What does become a problem is when such things are seen as possessing power in such a way that words like "magic" and "superstition" rightly apply. I did find it troubling, for example, when someone approached me in a supermarket, seeing my black shirt and collar and presuming (as they will) that I must have been a Roman Catholic priest, to ask me if she would have success selling her house by burying a blessed statue of St. Joseph in the backyard. Someone had taught her that, and, in her mind, it was a religious question for a priest to answer. I answered her that Christians are forbidden to practice magic. I suggested she might try praying to God for His help to meet her needs.
Let us suppose that there is an icon of a saint in a nearby church, and let us suppose that the saint is John the Apostle the Beloved Disciple. Let us say that someone very sick with a fatal condition, in sincere prayer, touched the icon in the same super rational manner of the woman who touched the hem of Christ's garment, and was healed of the persistent issue of her blood. Like her, his faith caused him to be healed, that is, God responded to his faith on that occasion, and chose for reasons known only to Himself, to demonstrate His power.
In this story (and I made it up; but, not entirely, as such stories exist, including one about the famous Shroud) the icon served as a sacramental (not a sacrament, but a sacramental) through which someone reached out to God. Like the woman, ("For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole." - Matt. 9:21) he is moved to touch a thing as a way of reaching out to Jesus Christ Himself. Can it happen? We may as well ask, can God work miracles as He chooses? or, Does He require our approval?
But, what do we make of something that might follow, in which the icon might be treated as the cause rather than the instrument; and if any glory is given it stops short of Christ, because the people are giving the credit to the saint, making him the object of their attention? To those of us who include in our catholic beliefs the necessary reforms that took place in the Church of England (and whose faith is layered with sensitivities consistent with the entire tradition), the problem is when anyone or anything, be it icons or saints, receive the kind of worship, the λατρεία (latreia) that ought to be reserved for God.
I remember once upon a time observing a very troubled woman who imagined herself to be a deacon (thanks to a well-meaning but misguided Continuing bishop who "ordained" her), and who thought she had a "healing ministry" as she laid her hands on a sick man, and prayed to Raphael for healing (saying to that angelic helper of Tobit, "We ask this in your name"). The whole picture is, of course, one of confusion and disorder. We see something not dissimilar however, in the Roman Catholic process of Canonization when people pray to a potential saint in order to find out if he or she can work miracles. That is when we run into the Nehushtan factor, when the incense of λατρεία goes up before something less than God Himself.
When people fell down at the feet of Jesus, He allowed them to worship Him, unlike Peter in the tenth chapter of Acts, and unlike the angel near the end of the Book of Revelation - both of whom forbade it. Christ was present as God in the flesh, the true image (εἰκών) of the invisible God. To Him we give worship, even at His incarnate, physical feet, because of Who He is. He is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ who has come in the flesh into His created world. In that understanding, we may give thanks to God for whatever works He chooses to do, as long as He receives all the glory, honor and worship.