"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Reformed Perspective on Icons

When I was in Washington, D.C. in late June at the fantastic Orientale Lumen conference, I went to the Icon and Book Service, a charming and amazing shop full of all kinds of books, music, icons, incense and much else besides. If you are ever in the DC area, you simply must go. It is one of the most impressive bookstores devoted to Eastern Christianity I have ever seen.

While there, I found a new book on iconography that had hitherto escaped my attention: John de Gruchy, Icons as a Means of Grace (Lux Verbi, 2008, 2011), 143pp.

The author is an emeritus professor of Christian studies at the University of Cape Town, where he taught for more than thirty years. He holds doctorates in both theology and social science, and has written a number of books. This current one reflects his Reformed perspective, but not in a way that distorts the fundamentals of iconography. It puts me in mind of another book, by another Western Christian author, that is also a fine introduction to icons: John Baggley, Doors of Perception: Icons and Their Spiritual Significance.

About de Gruchy's book, the publisher tells us:
Icons as a Means of Grace is a timely book that guides the reader through the history of Christian icons and explains their theological and spiritual significance. It has a strong ecumenical flavor, and the author, whilst true to his Western, Protestant and Reformed roots, explores connections and differences between various Christian traditions in a way that is both informative and encouraging to the reader.

This book is divided into three parts.

In the first the growing interest in icons beyond the boundaries of Orthodoxy is located in contemporary interests in spirituality. Then a series of short chapters deal with a range of issues that are intended to help Protestant and especially Reformed Christians understand and appreciate icons better, hence the occasional reference to Calvin and other Reformed theologians and convictions.

In the second part the story of Orthodox icons is told, beginning with the emergence and triumph of Orthodoxy and then exploring the classical icons of Byzantine Christianity and those of the Coptic and Ethiopian traditions in Africa. In this section connections and differences between the experience of the Western Church and that of the East are discussed.
The final section, based on the articles of the Nicene Creed common to most Christians including the Reformed discusses the way in which icons tell the story of Christian faith.
I will have more to say about this when I'm finished with it, but already it looks very promising as a good introductory text to icons for those coming with little or no background.

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