The Puritan Way of Seeing Christ

The Puritan Way of Seeing Christ May 5, 2016

Several years ago, my co-blogger Philip Jenkins penned a thoughtful post on Protestant iconoclasm, its centrality to the Reformation, and its resemblance to Muslim iconoclasm. The “stripping of the altars,” to borrow Eamon Duffy’s phrase, was — per Jenkins — “one of the greatest catastrophes that ever befell Europe.”

No argument here. Still, in Deborah Shuger’s anthology of Religion in Early Stuart England, I recently came across a discussion of religious imagery in John Dod’s 1603 A Plain and Familiar Exposition of the Ten Commandments (co-authored with Robert Cleaver). Dod  was a beloved Puritan pastor and author. Born in 1550, “Decalogue Dod” lived through the English Civil War before dying at the age of 95. His writings appealed to a broad range of English Puritans, including those separatists who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620 (William Brewster reprinted his commentary on the Ten Commandments in Leiden, and the wills of several Plymouth settlers itemize copies of Dod’s commentary on the Decalogue).

by Thomas Cross,print,published 1661
by Thomas Cross,print,published 1661

For Dod, the Second Commandment forbade “mak[ing] any image to represent God or to help us in his worship.” And the prohibition on graven images included not only God the Father, but also God the Son. Yes, in Jesus Christ God “took upon him the nature of man.” “But can we make an image of Christ unless we leave out the chief part of him, which is his divinity?” asked Dod, and answered no. Image of Christ are images of God.

As Shuger notes and other studies of Reformation-era iconoclasm have observed, Protestants cared greatly about the presence of religious images in church, where they might function as idols during worship. Many, however, regarded illustrations in books and pamphlets as permissible or even desirable. At least some editions of Dod’s Plain and Familiar Exposition had a frontispiece of Christ as the Good Shepherd.

In any event, Dod then reflects on the proper ways that Christians might see their savior in this world:

If we would see an image of Christ, look upon poor Christians that walk up and down amongst us, for they be flesh of his flesh & bone of his bone, and in them is a lively resemblance of him, and they have a body and a reasonable soul, as he hath, and the graces of his spirit in them.

When we look upon fellow followers of Jesus Christ, we see the one we all strive to imitate. We are his body, his ongoing incarnation in the world.

Also, we see Christ crucified, not in a statue or on a crucifix, but by the means God has instituted, namely in scripture and in sacraments:

But would we see Christ crucified before our eyes, & withal be made partakers of the merit and efficacy of his death and passion? Look upon him in the ministry of word and sacraments, and there we shall not only behold him, but also enjoy a blessed communion with him.

Indeed, Dod articulates what Shuger describes as a “sacramental, almost mystical, value attached to Bible-reading.” The Bible does far more than instruct. It transforms:

This often meditating and thinking upon God’s word is the next way to make us like God and to renew and repair the image of God in us. For by seeing Christ in the Gospel, we are changed from glory to glory; & the more we know him, the more we increase in being like to him.

Note that it is insufficient to simply read the Bible. Such transformation requires meditation and reflection, the ability to “see Christ in the Gospel.” Dod and his fellow Puritans envisioned that sort of encounter between individuals, congregations, and scripture.

These are beautiful passages. I don’t agree with Dod at all on the question of religious images, because artistic depictions of Christ in particular serve as a powerful, visible reminder of the incarnation. But whatever one’s stance on such depictions, Dod is surely correct that we should seek to see the image of Christ in his present-day followers (and the image of God in all human beings, I would add). And Bible-reading is not meant to be a task, an attempt to get through a certain number of chapters, to acquire mere knowledge. Instead, we might follow Dod’s example, of carefully working our way through a passage and asking God to reveal Christ in it to us and thereby to reveal Christ in us to ourselves and others.


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