I had the privilege this past Sunday of attending the dedication of new stained-glass windows at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Chesterton, Indiana, and I was truly impressed with the beautiful depictions of various stories from the Old Testament and from the life of our Lord. Such things are of powerful assistance to the confession of Christ Jesus and the catechesis of His people, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to view the wide variety of stained-glass windows and other artistic adornments featured in the churches of our Indiana District.
To be sure, Lutherans are not iconoclastic but have always recognized and appreciated the benefit of artistic expressions of the faith, whether for teaching and emphasizing the Scriptures or simply to honor the things of Christ Jesus and the place where He causes His Name and His Glory to dwell in the midst of His people through the Ministry of the Gospel. For example, Doctor Luther returned from the safety of the Wartburg Castle to Wittenberg, in no small part because of Karlstadt’s iconoclastic behaviors. In this respect, as in so many others, Luther’s Reformation – with its salutary emphasis on the Incarnation of our Lord, the goodness of God’s Creation, the means of grace, and the bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar – stands in striking contrast to the stripped churches and whitewashed walls of the enthusiasts.
We recognize both the power and the appropriateness of visual depictions of the Lord Jesus and His Word and work within the life of the Church, including the manifestations of His grace in the faith and life of His servants. “He is the Image of the invisible God” in the Flesh (Col. 1:15), “the Radiance of the Glory of God and the exact Imprint of His Nature” (Heb. 1:3), and “in Him the whole fullness of Deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). Thus, we see the one true God revealed in the Lord Jesus, in His Life and Ministry, in His Cross and Resurrection, and so also in His people, since we are crucified and raised to new life in Him, conformed to His Image and Likeness, and it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20).
Certainly, we do not condone any sort of idolatry; we do not worship images or icons, nor put our trust in outward beauty. But idolatry is located, not in images and artwork, but in the sinful heart, which is prone to make false gods out of all the best of God’s good gifts in this body and life. We do not resist such idolatry by going to the opposite extreme of despising and demonizing the things of this creation, but by receiving them in faith and with thanksgiving, and sanctifying them with the Word of God and prayer. Such was precisely the case in the dedication of the new stained-glass windows at St. Paul in Chesterton, and such is the “art” of the entire Christian life.
In considering such things this week, I was reminded that St. Luke the Evangelist – celebrated this Wednesday, the 18th of October – is often depicted painting a picture or icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Infant Christ Child. Where this long-standing tradition first began, I do not know, but it resonates with the fact that St. Luke’s Holy Gospel does draw for us a verbal image of the Madonna and Child, to which the whole Christian Church on earth is returned each year at Christmas. Indeed, as surely as images are able to convey the stories of the Gospels, so are words able to elicit images of Christ Jesus in our minds – to our imaginations; all of which is possible because the very Word of God became Flesh, the almighty and eternal Son of God became true Man, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And His Life in the Flesh, His Death on the Cross, and His bodily Resurrection from the dead are the substance of the Christian faith. And so it is that, with St. Paul, we also preach and teach – and adorn our churches – in such a way that Jesus Christ is publicly portrayed before our very eyes as crucified for our sins and raised for our justification (Galatians 3:1; 1 Corinthians 2:2; 15:3-4; Romans 4:25).