Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Divinity in Media

Daniel R. Hyde. In Living Color: Images of Christ and the Means of Grace. Wyoming, Mich.: The Reformed Fellowship, 2009. 188pp.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

In this book, Daniel Hyde has taken an extremely unpopular and outdated stance upon a controversial area of Reformed Theology. For this I give hearty thanks to God, since the stand he has taken must be taken, and because the future strength and vitality of the Church hinges upon the matter that he has treated. As Hyde wrote, “The simple purpose of the book you hold in your hands, then, is to give a pastoral explanation from Scripture and our confessions for the classic Reformed prohibition of images of God and Jesus Christ from Scripture and our confessions. We will do this by looking at man’s desire for the visual in his relationship with God, but then we will show how God rejects man’s efforts to image him. Instead of images, God has given the new covenant church the Word and sacraments as manifestations of his presence among us until Christ comes again, visibly and corporeally – in living color” (27-28).

The importance of the question of images of Christ has often been downplayed or undermined in most modern discussions. However, what is viewed as a peripheral matter often proves to be a symptom of a firmly established and deadly disease. It is instructive to observe that the historic Reformed position on images of Christ is now being discarded almost as universally as it was once upheld. It is even more instructive to learn why the change has occurred. This does not insinuate that all who accept images of Christ are leading the Church into apostasy. However, Hyde has correctly identified the fact that the modern rejection of the historic position on this subject is closely connected to the modern emphasis upon films and artwork as means of grace. The “Reformed” authors Hyde interacts with are very bold. Some of them not only deny the prohibition of images, but they virtually require the use of images of Christ in place of preaching for the purposes of evangelism and of educating children. Hyde even cited one author who asserted that the Reformed prohibition of images of the Godhead was virtually a forgotten relic of the past (19). In light of such a purportedly universal shift away from the unanimous historic position of the Reformed confessions, the question arises: “What does it mean to be ‘Reformed?’”  Hyde answers, “To have a ‘Reformed theology’ means so much more than believing in the acronym TULIP. To be Reformed means to be confessional” (22).

The book begins with a gripping introduction presenting the significance of the problem, followed by three lengthy chapters, and a conclusion. The foreword by Joel Beeke is noteworthy, in which he states, “I . . . believe that this book has far-reaching implications for all of worship” (9). In Living Color is well organized, thoroughly conversant with both old and modern sources, and is well argued. For a small book written on a popular level, Hyde’s bibliography is impressive. The first chapter examines man’s media, which has always consisted of images. The last two chapters demonstrate that God’s chosen media consists of Preaching and Sacraments, respectively. The down side to this organization is the inordinate length of each chapter (sixty pages, forty-five pages, and twenty-five pages, respectively). However, clearly marked divisions with wide margins and small pages compensate for this feature. Hyde has treated his subject with tact and sympathy towards those who desire to use images as media without compromising his own position. The tone the book is predominantly positive, rather than polemic; and the author’s winsome manner adds to the value of the work.

Hyde begins by rejecting images of any or all three Persons of the Godhead (Westminster Larger Catechism 109), first from Scripture and then from the primary historic Reformed Confessions (this is the pattern followed in every chapter). His use of Scripture is thorough and profound. Hyde demonstrates by way of a biblical-theological tour of the Bible that Satan has most often led people into sin and idolatry by appealing to sight, in contrast to faith in God’s Word. Sight is a gift from God that is designed to culminate in the beatific vision of God Himself (31-32), but this vision must wait for the life to come. In the Old Testament, Hyde carefully highlighted the repeated manner in which Satan tempted man into sin. He examines Genesis 3 and 6, Exodus 32, Numbers 21, and 2 Kings 18 as prominent examples (33-39). By the time Hyde provides a thorough exposition of the Second Commandment (42-49) and many other Old Testament passages before moving on to the New Testament evidence, his biblical-theological progression has been so well constructed that his conclusion that images of the Godhead remain prohibited in the New Testament is quite natural. His inferences from Acts 17 are particularly valuable (53-56). The shift to an image-driven culture has not only been used by Satan to inflict harm upon the Church, but Hyde cites Neil Postman as implying that the shift from a word-centered to an image-centered culture has endangered people’s ability to think abstractly in general (41).

With regard to the historic Reformed position, Hyde noted the astonishing claim by Jeffrey Meyers that there is no “train of published works stretching back to the Reformation” against images of Christ (70). Hyde responded to this with an impressive array of citations from early Reformed authors and confessional statements, as well as several fathers of the early church (70-88). This section is highly valuable in many respects. It should be noted as well that Hyde thoroughly dispels the assertion (that many are currently making) that the Reformed Confessions prohibit worshiping images of Christ, but not making images of him (84-85). One thing that could have been expanded usefully in this chapter is the passing reference to the prohibition in the Westminster Larger Catechism against making images inwardly in the mind. This is a continually recurring obstacle to the entire teaching in the minds of many. The sum of the chapter is that we must walk by faith and not by sight, until we are blessed with the beatific vision in glory.

Chapter Two demonstrates the fact that popular culture and philosophy has gradually become the modern philosophy of ministry (91). By contrast, the Church must return to the philosophy of ministry established by the New Testament, which centers upon the Christ-centered preaching of the Word of God. This chapter on the preaching of the Word is the longest chapter in the book and may stand as a useful summary of the heart of Reformed preaching in its own right. When the Word is preached truly, the people hear Christ speaking through His Word (Rom. 10). When Christ is lifted up in preaching, He is more clearly represented to the faith of those who hear than any image can achieve (Gal. 3). Seeing Christ’s death in actuality could not have been more efficacious than receiving Him through the preached Word (110). Of course, this demands that all true preaching be Christ-centered (99). If this method is unpopular, the Church must imitate Christ in being willing to lose followers (as He did in John 6) for the sake of obedience to the truth (96). In other words, the question of the primacy of preaching is not determined pragmatically, but dogmatically; not by experience, but by Scripture.

One thing that highlights the importance of obedience to the command to preach is that drama was also popular in the days of the Apostle Paul (101-102). Based primarily upon 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, Hyde demonstrates that the rejection of art as a medium for communicating the gospel has never been a pragmatic consideration. Through a careful exegesis of this passage, he concludes that the method, messenger, manner, and message of art and films are contrary to the gospel (106). The question is not what God may or may not use for the good of souls, since God uses all things, including evil, to produce good. The confidence of the Church must rest only upon what God has commanded. According to Hyde, Christ speaking through the preaching of the Word is what ought to truly “move” souls (102). With regard to the manner of preaching, this implies that preaching is not merely a doctrinally sound theological lecture, but that preaching must be lively (120, 110). There is a “real presence” of the Spirit of God in biblical preaching (121).

Towards the end of Chapter Two, Hyde has included an interesting discussion of catechetical preaching (122-125). This section demonstrates the historical reasons behind catechetical preaching as well as the practical value of such preaching. Hyde noted, “The practice of Heidelberg in holding a second service on the Lord’s Day in which public catechesis was conducted was a feature of all Reformed churches” (123). This may be overstating the case. I am not aware, for example, of Reformed churches in England or Scotland that required catechetical preaching at that time. If Reformed refers exclusively to denominations with “Reformed” in their name, then this might be true, but if so, then this should be clarified. That being said, Hyde has done an excellent job in this chapter of returning preaching to its rightful place in Scripture, history, and the Church. He has argued decisively that communicating the gospel through visual media cannot stand alongside of the preached Word as an additional or alternate means of grace.

The last chapter expounds the biblical and Reformed view of receiving the sacraments as the only “visible word” instituted and permitted by God. Hyde’s exposition of the sacraments is useful in itself, but it is less profoundly tied to the primary thesis of his book. His full exposition of the sacraments goes somewhat beyond the thesis of rejecting images of Christ for the sake of using God’s means of grace. However, Hyde’s citations of confessional documents and various Reformed authors is very illuminating and useful. The sacraments are the only visual media permitted by God to communicate the gospel because they are the only visual media that have been prescribed by God to communicate the gospel. Even in the case of the sacraments, however, the Word of God is always the root of their efficacy.

The book concludes with the assertion that by resting in the prescribed means of Word and sacraments in the face of our image-driven culture, “we are led to becoming a contented people. As pilgrims in the wilderness without an ultimate resting place in this life, we must not covet that which God has not given us nor what the world tells us that we need. Instead, as children of our heavenly Father, we are to be content with his means of creating faith in us and confirming us in faith” (161). Finally Hyde adds, “If this sounds foolish to you, then you are right. God has determined to work in foolish ways. Accordingly, no one can say our religion is about us, is about great crowds, or is about money. It is about Christ, who, though we have not seen him, will reveal himself in glory from heaven and take us to his side for eternity. Let us not attempt a sneak peek on canvas, in clay, on paper, or on the silver screen, but let us with great anticipation await the day when we will see him as he truly is, in living color” (163).

In Living Color is much more thorough than most other works on images of Christ. It is profoundly scriptural, rooted in historic Reformed Christianity, and thoroughly conversant with a broad range of scholarship. Hyde has accomplished all of this without sacrificing readability. From now on, this shall be the first book to which I direct people who have questions regarding images of Christ. If you have questions regarding images of Christ, you must read this book. If you are connected to the Reformed or Presbyterian Standards in some manner, then read this book to foster the conviction that the teaching of these standards is rooted in Scripture. And above all, read this book if you desire to have a greater appreciation for the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments.


This review was previously published in The Confessional Presbyterian, 2009, issue 5, pp. 276-278.