Since today we are at the place in the Jordan where the children of Israel made a bronze serpent — seemingly in contradiction to the command of God to make no images — I thought it good to share this letter I sent to a Protestant friend a while back.
Dear Protestant Friend:
You display a bare cross in your homes; we display the cross and the crucifix. What is the difference and why? The cross is an upright post with a crossbeam in the shape of a “T”. A crucifix is the same, but it has Christ’s body (corpus) attached to the cross. As an Evangelical Protestant, I rejected the crucifix—Christ was no longer on the cross but had ascended to heaven.
So why do I now tremble in love at the site of a crucifix? Let’s examine the history and issues surrounding the two.
I will start with the Old Testament and the Jews’ use of images and prohibition of idols. I know in advance that it is not a thorough study, but it will give a general overview of the issues. I will try to provide a brief overview of the Cross and the Crucifix, the origin, the history, and the differing perspectives of Catholics and Protestants. It will try to catch the historical flow and include the pertinent points. The outline is as follows:
1. The Three Main Protestant Objections to the Crucifix
2. Images and Gods in the Old Testament
3. Images and Images of Christ in the New Testament
4. The Cross in the First Centuries
5. The Crucifix Enters the Picture
6. The “Reformation” and Iconoclasm
7. Modern Anti-Catholics and the Crucifix
8. Ecumenical Considerations
The Three Main Protestant Objections to the Crucifix
Let me begin by defining “Protestant” as used in this article. First, it is used to describe the first Reformers who tore down crucifixes and crosses in the first years of the Reformation; and second, it refers to general American Evangelical-type Protestants. Granted there are many Anglican and “high” Luthers and others that do not object to the crucifix or other Christian symbolism. With that behind us, let’s begin.
The first major objection of the Protestant regarding the crucifix (an image of Christ on the cross) is that Christ is no longer on the cross—He has risen. I was raised with this observation and my friend would ridicule the Catholic traditions. My friend also challenged us when we first became Catholics, commenting, “We serve a risen Christ, not one that is still on the cross.” Unfortunately for them, since childhood my mother had valued her beautiful Christmas crèche scene. I asked the obvious: “Do you serve the risen Christ or one still in the manger?” (I also had to comment on the cute little statue of Our Lady standing over the plastic baby Jesus, along with the animals.)
Second, Protestants see the image of Christ on the cross as a violation of the command to make no graven image. The Reformers were big on this. Protestants now utilize plain crosses in their “churches,” on their walls, and around their necks, just as they have pictures of Jesus (always with soft skin and melodrama) on their walls. (I was raised with this feminine Jesus presiding, ever so romantically, over our dinner table.
After spending time in the Holy Land, driving through the Judean wilderness, and ascending Mount Tabor, which he and his disciples frequented, I doubt he was so dainty and delicate; he probably had calves like a bear and smelled a bit like one as well.) However, at the turn of this century, the Protestant churches (excluding Lutheran) were still pretty much opposed to the display of the cross, even the bare cross. The bare cross was not in wide use until recently, though current Protestants don’t know their own history on the matter and that their predecessors opposed it as much as they did the Crucifix.
Third, they object to the Crucifix because it is Catholic and to condone or display the Crucifix is to make a statement in favor of Catholicism. No one of the “Reformed” persuasion would want to be identified as a Catholic. A bare cross seems to be generic, which is what most Protestants like–generic Christianity–with no history to criticize or Church to obey.
Images and Gods in the Old Testament
Since the people in the olden ages worshiped idols made of earthly materials [Endnote 1], God forbade the children of Israel to possess such “gods”. “Then God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God’” (Ex 20:1-3).
Even while God was inscribing these Words on the tablets of stone, the Israelites were violating His command. “Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it into a molten calf; and they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt’” (Ex. 32:34). We know that it was not the image itself, which was the problem. It was the making of an image that was considered to be a god and the subsequent worship of the image as a god.