The Marriage of Word & Image


And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
—John 1:14

When I think about many of the battles that rage in Christianity today, I can’t help but think that most result from a kind of theological blindness. We have beheld Him...We easily fall into oversights that see our position clearly, but cannot see what our opponents believe is obvious.

The Holy Spirit leads into all truth if we do not actively oppose Him. Living lifestyles given to blinders will never let us embrace the fullness of God’s truth. Most of all, we will fail to see Jesus clearly.

How is it that we treat Jesus—as the blind men in the famous story treated the elephant—as pieces?

Any student of Church history can tell us about the rise of Roman Catholicism, the splinter with Eastern Orthodoxy, and the the coming of the Protestant Reformation. What we won’t hear, though, is how those churches chose which pieces of Jesus they wished to uphold.

The Catholics and Orthodox looked at Jesus and based their Christology on this idea:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
—Colossians 1:15

They chose to see Jesus through the lens of Image. Theirs is the theology of the incarnation, the Word becoming Image, God in human form for us to see and touch. He became like us so that He could perfectly redeem us. Image rules.

Protestants, as a reactionary move against excesses seen in the RCC, attempted the one-eighty and based their Christology on another perspective:

He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.
—Revelation 19:13

They chose to see Jesus through the lens of Word. Theirs is the theology of the power of the word spoken, the Word that was from the beginning, the expression of God revealed in the pages of Scripture. We become like Him by learning His word. Word rules.

Both sides will defend their positions to the death. Both sides will refute, debate, and cry, “Heretic!” should the other side question the hallowedness of their piece of Jesus and His Church.

And both sides are missing the point because Jesus was and is the perfect marriage of Word and Image. His Church, then, needs to reflect that whole.

Since most people here are Protestants, we’re highly familiar with a Christianity brimming with words. We make the sermon the pinnacle of our meetings. We place great emphasis on Bible study and biblical knowledge. Christians who focus on Word in our faith comprise the largest whole in the Godblogosphere. We’re soaked in Word.

I wonder, though, if our elevation of Word had brought the unintended consequence of nullifying Image altogether. If so, I believe it explains so many shortcomings in Protestantism today, especially the Evangelical strain of it.

I believe we Protestants must recapture the profundity of Image if we’re to understand Christ in His fullness, make Him known, and live out the fullness of the Faith He entrusted to us.

Why must we not neglect Image?

1. Christ was incarnate

Check the opening verse again. The Word became flesh! We should be careful to accept that truth as is. Some have said the Word became flesh and we Protestants have attempted to revert Him solely to Word again. A jest yes, but an astute one.

2. God uses Image to convey authority

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me.
—1 Corinthians 9:1-3

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us– that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
—1 John 1:1-3

And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.
—1 John 4:14

And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.
—Acts 10:39a

Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
—John 3:11-12

3. God conveys His power through Image

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.
—Exodus 13:21-22

But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
—Exodus 33:20-23
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
—2 Kings 6:15-17

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
—Isaiah 6:1-5

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.
—Matthew 17:1-6

4. God communicates with us through Image

a. Through Christ

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
—John 14:6-9

If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
—John 12:26

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
—Ephesians 5:1-2

b. Through visions and dreams

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
—Genesis 15:1-3

At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.”
—1 Kings 3:5

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
—Matthew 1:20

But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. 6Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.
—Acts 11:4-15

5. Image reflects our impact as the Church in the world

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
—John 13:34-35

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works….”
—James 2:18

6. God intends Word and Image to go together

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
—John 1:14

And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
—John 1:32-34

7. We Christian are to reflect the image of our Saviour

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:17-18

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
—Colossians 3:9-10

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
—Ephesians 4:15-16

Recently, I pointed out one of the best blog postings I’ve ever read on the Web. “The Primacy of the Imagination” over at adversaria. Please read the whole thing. I guarantee you’ll have your preconceptions about the practice of the Faith challenged.

Yes, Catholics and Orthodox have spent too much time focusing on Image. Unfortunately, the Protestant response virtually ignores it. This despite the fact that 1,461 verses in the ESV include some variant of the word see. For this reason, I believe that to downplay Image is as big a mistake as ignoring Word.

We can’t divorce Word and Image. They are both powerful. We can hear God speak and live, but the power in the image of His appearance is so great that we would die if we beheld Him in His fullness. Yet His words give life.

We need to consider these truths when we live out the truth of the Faith:

1. Unbelievers will no longer take us on our word alone, but must see we manifest the faith we speak. They have heard with their ears, but now must see with their eyes. Why? Because our image didn’t match our word.

2. We have turned the Image of our faithfulness into nothing more than a systematic theology. By focusing so much on the written aspect of our Faith, we’ve lost the visual entirely. We also face losing sight of Jesus.

3. When we ignore the interplay of Word and Image, we negate the miraculous in our lives, especially charismatic gifts (an image of Christ in us) and God communicating to us through dreams and visions.

Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word, the very Image of God. Behold Him, and heed His words.

21 thoughts on “The Marriage of Word & Image

  1. Normandie

    Powerful words, Dan. I think it is the combination of image and word that so attracts me to the charismatic movement within the Episcopal church, where I first met the fullness of the Lord in His baptism 30+ years ago, first knew the power of the sacraments, first heard an intellectual treatise that touched my heart because it was so full of the image of God in the Word of God . Of course, most of the Episcopal churches that follow the Word are being tossed out of the American church, but there is a mighty movement of faith and power in the worldwide Anglican expression. I believe the same thing is happening in parts of the Orthodox church and also among Catholics. One Church, combining the Image and the Word, showing forth the power of God: how awesome and awe-inspiring that would be.

    Again, thank you for touching on something this relevant and powerful, reminding us to look more deeply.

    • Thanks, Normandie. This was a post that sat in my drafts folder for four months. I finally finished it, and it seemed appropriate for this incarnational time of year.

      I’m actually surprised so few people commented because I thought this would be a contentious issue. I guess not. A well-known Christian blogger blogged about this earlier this year and everyone who commented on his blog pretty much savaged the Image side of things. So color me surprised.

      • Dave Block


        I’m not surprised because you have a reasonable group of readers on this blog and there’s not much here that could be reasonably debated. When I agree and don’t have new things to add that would be helpful, I’m usually silent.

        Having said that…While I’m not, strictly speaking, a cessationist, I think “especially charismatic gifts” in point 3 is a bit of a stretch.

        Hey, somebody had to do it. :*)

        • Dave,

          It has been my experience that churches and denominations that routinely dismiss Image are also the same churches who are wary of the miraculous—and that includes the charismata.

          Of course, your mileage may vary.

  2. Bravo! Very nicely done

    I think you underestimate the Catholic appreciation for the Word, but your comments are otherwise pretty much on the money. Also, and for what it’s worth, there are Catholic charismatics.

    If I may echo Normandie – “One Church, combining the Image and the Word, showing forth the power of God: how awesome and awe-inspiring that would be.” Indeed. Then the unbelievers will “see with their eyes.”

    This is my first visit to your blog; it won’t be the last. I’m beginning to like this Church Directory.

    Peace to you!

  3. David Riggins

    I guess I’ve never considered a focus on one or the other. But I do know that people tend to worship the bible, rather than worshipping God. In this comes the pharisitical error, resulting in a mutiplicity of rules and regulations, with no understanding of the Creator. So I suppose I would caution that we remember that our bible is the revelation of the Word, and not the Word Himself. We learn about Christ and therefore God through study of the word, but that study should not be an end in itself.

    On the other hand, I can understand that we tend to become too literarary in our understanding of the incarnation of God as flesh. “No angel in the sky/ Can fully bear that sight/ But downward bend their burning eyes/ At mysteries so bright” I believe gets lost on most Christians, accepting the Christ with a shrug, not truly understanding the concept of God, let alone God incarnate.

    So we need to accept the wonder with the knowledge, the unknowable with the joy of belief. For protestants it is perhaps as Michael Card wrote “So surrender the hunger to say you must know, have the courage to say I believe” And for those who indulge in the Image, perhaps we need the words of Christ Himself: “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and are right to do so, for that is what I AM. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”

  4. Beautiful, thoughtful analysis.

    Your thoughts helped me understand something new about my experience as a charismatic who has been planted mostly in evangelical zip codes over the last 30-something years. That charismatic experience wasn’t my gateway into Prosperity, emotional goosebumps, crazy-weird spirituality or an addiction to television preachers. What it has been is an invitation out of the neighborhood (ghetto?) of words, words, words alone – giving me a peek of a spiritual life shaped by image.

      • Dan: “Image has always been a powerful force in my life”

        Same here. I started out as an artist. Although I don’t make any money off it now, I still do ink and graphite drawings. Lunar Skeletons recently featured a small drawing I scanned for illustrating the Tower of Humanist Autonomy.

        For years it’s always bugged me that churches never seem to get very far beyond a Warner Sallman level of aesthetics, especially since my knowledge of art history shows me that in the past xtians were capable of producing beautiful and inspiring works of art.

        But the trend may be finally reversing itself among evangelical churches. Lately I’ve noticed a modest reappearance of art in the churches where I’ve been. And it so happens that my church’s senior pastor is a fairly good painter who’s done some commissioned works.

        (Notice, Dan, that I don’t always criticize everything you write.)

  5. Parsonsipe

    Well said, Dan. After reading this post and also Alastair’s post on the imagination, I had a minor but disconcerting epiphany. It seems many of us have a misconstrued definition of imagination. You hear the phrase, “you are only imagining that”, and there is an almost automatic negative sense ascribed to it. The idea of imagining in our culture seems to entail a lack of truth and substance along with a lack of reality. The fact is that how I perceive ANYTHING that is not solidly tangible and obtainable to my five physical senses is perceived by my imagination, at least at some level. This adds a bounty of color to the word that I honestly had not bothered to look at before. (I think possibly an intrinsic fear of applying the eastern methodologies of imagination and visualization has done some significant violence to my understanding and application of these concepts). Delightful stuff.

    • Parsonsipe,

      Some brains researchers have concluded that our entire perception of reality stems from our imaginations.

      God’s command to Adam in the garden was to name the animals. If that’s not imagination at work, I don’t know what is. And yes, some imaginings are “vain,” but in our effort to prevent vain imaginings, we cannot throw out imagination altogether. As always, discernment is called for.

  6. One of the contributions of Aristotle was the insight that the “stuff” of this world could contain and manifest ultimate reality. As one has said, Aristotle taught us that the smallest fact can lead to the greatest truth. The Roman Catholic tradition has perhaps protected this truth like evangelical Protestantism has not. (I speak as an evangelical Protestant). My tradition’s unconcious dependence upon Platonism has diminished the sacredness of the image bearing nature of this world. God becomes thought, mind, book, concept. But through this world (image) we also experience God’s nearness. There was a time in my life that a Roman Catholic sanctuary looked like an idol factory. Now it surrounds me with Presence – I can smell God, taste God, feel God. “Things” come alive. Idolatry? No. A recovery of the sacred and moving beyond God as merely thought.

  7. George

    Well said, Dan — and David Riggins as well. I’m sure neither David nor I attack or diminish the bible when we say that, while the Word became flesh, that flesh did not become scripture.

    Certainly the bible is authoritative and has its value, but it does not, or should not and must not, replace Jesus. Jesus is our savior, and our allegiance, deference, and relationship is to Him.

    While studying the manual is useful, the manual does not have the efficacy of that which is described by the manual. So it is with the bible.

    Again, I say this not to disparage the bible, but to exhort us to Christ Himself.

    Similarly to Orthodox and Catholics who may have focused on image without intimacy, we evangelicals are vulnerable to a focus on intellect without intimacy. Or so it seems to me.

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  9. David


    I would recommend the following books in relations to your post:

    Jacques Ellul – The Humiliation of the Word
    Ioan Couliano – Eros & Magic in the Renaissance

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