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The Problem With J. I. Packer’s Opposition To Iconography

In Knowing God, J. I. Packer delivers a harsh criticism of the use of icons in worship. While Packer does not specifically target icons, he follows theologian Charles Hodge in denouncing any use of images in worship as idolatrous. Packer’s position is inspired by his reading of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” (Ex. 20:4-5). When discussing the current application of this commandment, Packer claims,

“In its Christian application, this means that we are not to make use of visual or pictorial representations of the triune God, or of any person of the Trinity, for the purposes of Christian worship. The commandment thus deals not with the object of our worship, but with the manner of it; what it tells us is that statues and pictures of the One whom we worship are not to be used as an aid to worshiping him.”1

Packer goes on to note the dangers of using images in worship: they are an inadequate representation of God, a single picture cannot encapsulate the gospel narrative, images revert the believer’s attention to creation as opposed to the Creator, and so on. He even ups the ante by declaring, “The mind that takes up with images is a mind that has not yet learned to love and attend to God’s Word.”2 Needless to say, you won’t finish the chapter wondering whether Packer has an opinion on the issue.

Packer’s Ethnocentrism

I believe that Packer’s argument is flawed on multiple levels, theologically and philosophically. However, I want to focus on one problem that particularly plagues his position: ethnocentrism.

Packer’s argument hinges entirely on a strict word/image binary. This binary is easy to assume for those of us who speak English and are familiar with languages such as French, German, and Spanish. But Packer’s argument falls apart when you consider a language like Japanese. I first learned this while listening to an interview with the Christian artist Makoto Fujimura, in which he recounts his response to a person who once asked him about the dichotomy between word and image in Western Christianity, “When I read the Bible in Japanese, actually there is no separation [between word and image], because I’m reading these pictographs, or kanjis, which are visual symbols which have both the Word of God, expressed fully, but it’s a visual expression. So, to me, there is no dichotomy.”3 Fujimura points to the fact that Japanese writing adopts a logographic system, which uses written signs to represent a word or a phrase. In logographic writing systems, such as Japanese and Chinese, Packer’s opposition between images and God’s Word is untenable.

Logographic writing systems are not only counterexamples to Packer’s position, but they also highlight its ethnocentric bias. By assuming the dichotomy between word and image, and subsequently elevating word above image, Packer privileges languages with word/image dichotomies. If, as Packer insists, the use of images in worship is idolatrous, then a written Japanese Bible is inherently idolatrous whereas a written English Bible is not.

While Packer insists that believers can only avoid idolatry by “attending to God’s Word,” his theology implies that millions of believers necessarily commit idolatry because they attend to God’s Word. As far as I can tell, Packer has two options: he can abandon his argument against images, or bite the bullet and insist that certain written languages are theologically superior to others. I think the choice is clear: only by abandoning his position on images can Packer avoid the inconsistency and ethnocentrism that come along with it.

I would like to thank Benjamin Cabe and Jacob Prahlow for discussing this topic with me.


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Jacob Quick

Jacob Quick

Jacob is a displaced Texan who lives in Belgium, where he and his wife, Annie, are students. Jacob recently completed an MPhil in continental philosophy at KU Leuven. Jacob earned an MA in analytic philosophy from Northern Illinois University in 2015 and a BA in theology from Moody Bible Institute in 2012. Jacob enjoys travelling, reading, and discussing theology and philosophy with friends. His particular interests center around the intersection of philosophy, Christianity, and animal ethics.

  • The other problem with this logic is it seems to assume that words are incapable of becoming idols in their own way. Packer is saying that words are idolatry-proof, but images are prone to idolatry. However, I think words have the capacity to become idols (or, in a good sense, icons). For example, recently I told an Orthodox priest that Protestant hymns were my icons– they were tangible means by which I encountered the holy mystery of God. I assume Packer approves of using hymns in worship, but a hymn is nothing more than an artistic representation of God. The hymn writer uses the art of words, the icon painter the art of colors and shapes. As we know, some hymns are better than others. Poorly written hymns can conjure up false images of God (idols). Given the power of music to move the human body, mind, and spirit, our worship music may be the most impactful medium of spiritual formation. Before pointing the finger outward, Protestants would do well to examine the words they are singing in worship. Are those words a false idol or a true icon?

  • TJ Humphrey

    This is a great article! Thanks for writing it!

  • Excellent points!

  • jsehrett

    Thank you for this excellent and fascinating article. I wish many, many others would read this, particularly your point about Japanese.

  • John Clare

    Packer like Hodge before him comes from the Calvinist tradition which of course exalts the word over the image, a tradition rooted in Hebrew religion and which is most fiercely present in Islam. His argument has validity when applied to the Father and the Spirit but falls down when applied to the Son, because the Son became Incarnate as Jesus Christ and was therefore visible in human form and remains so in Heaven. Icons are not graven images but pictorial gateways to the world beyond so the eye passes through them unlike western statues where the vision comes to a stop. The accusation that Packer is ethnocentric is interesting, but it focuses too much on Chinese and Japanese characters which do in a way combine word and image, but the argument does not hold in other cultures where word and image are clearly differentiated. So I would not use Jacob Quick’s thesis as the principal argument against Packer.

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