Icons and the Possibility of a Tropological Theology

Worship using icons, images and multimedia is being discussed right now, especially in relation to Calvary Church’s stance on iconic worship and the emerging church. It might be helpful to look at the idea of tropological theology.

Tropological theology is found all the way through church history. “Augustine suggested a four-fold sense which would later be adopted by medieval theologians: (1) literal; (2) allegorical; (3) tropological or moral; and (4) analogical.” Theology Adrift, Bible.org

According to Viggo Mortensen Snr, some scholars believe Martin Luther gave the tropological (relating to the soul) interpretation priority over the allegorical (relating to the church) in his interpretation of the psalms. (Link) Dr John Barber says “Luther’s mature exegetical approach, which was the tropological method of Bible interpretation (it emphasized the spiritual and existential side of Christian living), came to fruition between 1516-1519”. [Luther and Calvin on Worship and Music, PDF]

Paul Hiebert speaks of the doxological or tropological theology that “is done in the context of worship, and stresses the mystical, sacramental and iconic nature of truth. The key question it addresses is, “How can we comprehend complex, transcendent truths about God and reality that lie beyond words, logic and human reason?” It uses nondiscursive signs and tropes such as icons, metaphors, types and parables to communicate transcendent truth.” (Paul Hiebert, Spritual Warfare and Worldview, p. 167, Global Missiology for the 21st Century, ed. William Taylor)

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Hiebert says more about Tropological theology as an addition to systematic, biblical, and missiological theology.

“Tropological theology is doxological. It is not an abstract reflection on the nature of truth for truth’s sake. It sees theological reflection as an essential element of worship. Christopher Hall (1998, p. 67) writes, “For the [early church] fathers, the Bible was to be studied, pondered, and exegeted in the context of prayer, worship, reverence, and holiness”. Tropological theology is also tied to the character of the exegete. . . . one cannot trust a brilliant scholar if he or she is arrogant, unfaithful, impatient or deceitful.” (Spritual Warfare and Worldview, Global Missiology for the 21st Century, ed. William Taylor)

[Parts of this post were originally posted as The DeWaay Debate: Has Emergent Gone Troppo? a response to the debate between Doug Pagitt and Bob Dewaay – [listen to the 3 podcasts here]


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • richard says:

    Interesting Andrew – wish I was as clever as you 🙂
    btw How’s about the emering church, when we have our new global network with its flashy name and elite spokespeople issues a ban on any emerging church leaders using ‘icons’ drawn by Jay Chick (e.g. http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0945/0945_01.asp)

  • Truth Seeker says:

    Interesting topic…
    One question I do have on the topic of icons is how do they relate to Acts 17:29? Would having an icon of Christ actually diminish the value to a worshipper as he/she has now just tried to encapusulate one part of God into an image? Maybe I can explain that better. If God is an infinite being with characteristics beyond our grasp and we make an image of Him we than only capture one part of Him therefore limiting our view on His character. Would it be better than to not have an image and not trap ourselves into one mode? Your thoughts?
    These are thoughts that are running through my mind right now. I am still working out my view on icons and such. So far I lean more towards that they are not nessicary, and are commanded against, but I am still working all this out and doing a ton of research on this topic.

  • TS – please come back and let us know what you come up with
    Food for thought:
    – Christ as ‘eikon’ – the greek word used for ‘express image of God'(Hebrews)
    – icons such as baptism, table – Lord’s Supper. Are they ‘mystical’ events or are they ordinary events with only a reference to what they point to.
    love to hear your thoughts

  • and Richard – i would feel like a hypocrite banning Jack Chick’s booklets, after buying and passing on so many of them in the early 80’s, when i was a fundamentalist street preacher. My only complaint back then was the cost – 10 cents for one Jack Chick tract against only one or two cents for other tracts.
    btw – jack chick wrote to me once to answer a question. i felt very important and honored that he would send it me. even signed by him! God bless the guy!

  • Truth Seeker says:

    Thanks for the food for thought. It is interesting that you brought up the Christ as ‘eikon’, I was researching that just last night. I wish I could go through everything I have read so far but a summary I will try to do.
    It is interesting that in Judaism there is actually three kinds of image usage. The first being the blatant idolatry that we know towards pagan gods. The second being the creation of an image of God Himself, which the Old Testament clearly denounced. The third, and one that the Jews were more lax on towards the 1st centry BC and AD, had to do with the drawing of people and material things. We see where God condemned the people for doing (namely the sun, moon, etc.) that in Jeremiah 44:17.
    So not only was pagan gods not to be made into an image but neither was God himself or man. The reasoning behind the man had to do with that we are created in the image of God and therefore we are reflecting His image.
    When it comes to idolatry there is actually two forms of it. The first is the having of other gods besides Jehovah. We see this numerous times in the Old Testament especially in reference to Baal and Asheroth. The second form being worshipping God under the form of an image or symbolic likeness where we represent his attributes.
    The second was what Paul was referring to in Acts 17:29 where he says that we ought not represent God in stone, gold, art, or man’s devices. Paul was a Rabbi and knew the Judaic prohibitation’s on idolatry, which I explained above, and also knew that trying to encompass the image (eikon) of God would lead to idolatry. John 1 shows us that Jesus was the “express image”, meaning He alone is the appointed revealer of the unseen God. Images and icons cannot convey the full meaning of who He is. One quote I ran across, and I forget where I found it (have to look it up), says: “once that the first visible representation of God is made, or adopted, it entails another and another endlessly, no one or more idols or symbols ever adequately representing all the countless attributes of God.” Another in the same place says: “Again no outward form can image God, it debases instead of helping the worshipper.”
    I guess what Paul and others have said was that we have the truest form of the Image of God to look towards and that is Jesus Christ. All the rest is rubbish compared to that and focusing on those things diminishes the true value of the Incarnate one. One example I can use is a person has looked at a work of art in countless books, depictions, articles, etc. But none of those compares to actually standing in the Louvre, or whereever it may be, and seeing it first hand. That’s a poor example but it encompasses the same message. Why gaze at an image when we can look at the word and see the true thing?
    That’s just a glimpse of what I have researched. I cant do justice to it all, but I hoep that I can shed some light on some things or spur yout thoughts.

  • great, TS, keep on going.
    On the Jews, i would have to add a fourth category of icon – those physical objects that God instructed them to make or find in order for worship to happen (temple, tabernacle, etc)
    the other thing – the icon is different than the idol – it depends what it does with the gaze – does it pass it on (icon) or keep it to itself (idol) . . see Jean Juc Marion for more on that.
    glad you are doing some research.

  • Truth Seeker says:

    Interestingly enough in all my findings so far in reference to the physical objects that God instructed the people to make or find, the ones that were to be used as a direct object (i.e. the Ark) in the worship process were kept from view, such as behind the veil. The other objects (table of shewbread, lamps, altars, etc.) were not gazed upon but were there to facilitate the operations of the temple. The altars and water pots were there to assist in the sacrifices of the animals, whilst the table of shewbread was there to facilitate in the holding of the bread. These objects were not gazed upon. The only object that was ‘directly’ involved in the ‘direct’ worship and where God actually met the people was the Ark. The High priests would go into the Holies of Holy and pour blood on the altar as their worship.
    So to make this short (I tend to ramble sometimes, just ask my wife) I find it interesting that those objects that God Himself said that He would reside upon and would meet his people (ie. worship) were hidden behind this huge veil and only the high priest go into once a year. But when the veil was torn down we no longer needed that Ark or Holy place, and in connection with Christ we dont need those physical objects of worship.
    I understand what you are saying about icons, but throughout my research I have seen numerous examples of how icons were first used as items to aid worship but than quickly over time became the objects of worship themselves. Even today we see that, where people say they cannot worship or get before God without that one type of song or without an object. They have made those things the objects to be worshipped. In relation to the gazing I also wonder what the purpose of that is. All the scripture references of gazing and adoration or worship have it going directly to Christ and not through another man or object. Just a thought.
    I tend to lean on the conservative side on this one and say to reduce the chance of it becoming an object of worship I wont even use in my worship to begin with.
    Just some thoughts! I will try and look up Jean Juc Marion the next time I go an do more research. Thanks for the name.

  • andrew says:

    great – you will find Marion uses the word “gaze” differently.
    good article on marion here
    “The icon, however, does not result from a vision of the divine, but instead provokes one. Rather than resulting from the gaze aimed at it, the icon summons sight by allowing the invisible to saturate the visible, but without any attempt or claim of reducing the invisible to the visible icon. The icon attempts to render visible the invisible as such, and thus, strictly speaking, shows nothing. It teaches the gaze to proceed beyond the visible into an infinity whereby something new of the invisible is encountered. Thus the iconic gaze never rests or settles on the icon, but instead rebounds upon the visible into a gaze of the infinite.”
    makes me think about crosses, fish, church buildings, wedding rings, banners on blogs, doves on record albums and other religious icons that seem familiar to us in the church world but may also come under your scrutiny.
    Some Christians outside of USA frown on wedding rings. What do you think?
    and what about the bread and wine – are these not icons that can be used correctly, biblically and without idolatry?

  • Truth Seeker says:

    Thanks for the quote. I do understand what you mean by crosses, fishes, doves, and other things. I know what they represent but I am not a big fan of them per se. Sometimes I get a bad feeling in my stomach when I walk into a store and there are doves and crosses everywhere, almost makes me feel like we have made it into a marketing logo.
    As far as the wedding ring goes I do have to say that I have one, been married almost nine months now, and I would not consider it an idol or icon. I see it as a symbol of the convenant between my wife and I. Now If you were to see me gazing and praying to it everyday I would hope you slapped me back into reality! 🙂
    The bread and wine I see what you are asking. But the one thing that keeps me from saying that these items are icons is that Jesus used these items to commune with His disciples and is therefore biblical. I am still weighing it all out, but since Jesus Himself dictated that it was okay as opposed to other items I would not classify them in the same catagory. Your thoughts?
    I guess the way I see it, and I am still hammering this out, is that if God, demanded it or allows it through his word than we can use it. But if it is stuff external to the text than we must proceed with caution, extreme caution sometimes. For the things God prescribed we must always be on the caution to not let those things interfere with coming before God. Even Jesus said that prayer can be vain and repetitious and that giving of tithes can be abused. I think a lot of it deals with where is our focus. Is it on the Lord, or is on the physical things of this world. The physical things are here and we can use them to serve Him, but I guess we cant allow them to replace the image of God or get in our way of Him. Thoughts?
    Great dialogue though. I really enjoy it. I must say, in honesty, that you are one of the few on the emergent side that actually engages with me and dialogues. I may not always agree with you and you with me, but I think we can learn from each other. I understand your point of view and I will check that Marion person out when time permits. Thanks again for pointing me in that direction.

  • no – thank YOU for the conversation. i hope you will not place me again on the “emergent side” – i do not take sides – i am part of the one church, the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27) and i refuse to divide what Christ wants united (Jn 17)
    As for my thoughts . . . I believe it is not the object that is the problem but how we use them. Any object can be an icon [symbol, picture, etc] to point us to or remind us of God but that same object can also be an idol if we ascribe to it what can only and must only be given to the One God who alone is worthy of our adoration.
    The stones of remembrance (Josh 4:4-7) are a good example of a iconic station or display that was used as a remembrance tool, and never as a idol.
    btw – there is a Christian band who had a serious accident in their van and now carries 4 stones with them on tour – stones from the accident site with blood on them – to remind them of God’s faithfulness. Here is what i read . . . i am interested to know how you deal with it . . .
    “Since that fateful day, the song “I Remember,” has taken on a whole new meaning for the band. The song’s chorus speaks of “Stones of mercy, stones of grace” in reference to the biblical story of the children of Israel building a monument of stones to remind them of God’s faithful deliverance. Grand Prize now has its own stones of remembrance; after the wreck, one of the band members returned to the scene of the accident and picked up four stones covered in Luke’s blood. The stones now accompany the band members when they travel as a constant reminder of God’s faithfulness and protection.”
    The band, Grand Prize, btw, is based at Calvary Chapel Boise.
    Now, with Calvary Chapel’s statement on icons in mind, do you think Grand Prize should keep their stones or not?

  • Truth Seeker says:

    Good morning or afternoon! I got to thinking last night that we may be crossing at different angles here simply because we have different meanings of icon. That’s okay, but I think that are two different backgrounds have caused us to think in different ways about that word.
    I agree with you on the whole object versus intent idea. We can make anything (my toothbrush, my great aunt’s wig) into an object to gaze upon and worship. I agree with you. I guess what I see as icons and have an unsettling feeling, and this is why I am researching it, are the kinds that you see especially in old churches. When I was in Europe last year I do a tour of Catholic, Hussite, and other churches in the Czech, Poland, Hungary region. I had heard about icons before I went there and I got to see lots of them in my travels.
    The one thing that intrigued me was when I was talking with the locals about it. Many saw no problem with praying to the person vernerated in the painting and in the object. For example they would pray to Saint Shishkabob or Saint whatdoyouknow. But none of them gave me the answer that they were praying to God.
    Since we are now priests in the body of Christ and no longer have to have an intermediary (person or object) I thought that they were focusing on the wrong things. The reason I am concerned about this is simply the fact that many in the Catholic church started using icons as like you said to gaze upon and focus towards God. But it has, in many churches, not all, become another way to God instead of going directly to him.
    The stones in that bus are reminders of God’s faithfullness. I have a few things around my house that when I look at them I am reminded of something God did. But I do not use them as a way to get to God.
    I guess this all goes back to what do we mean by an icon. I for one do not sit well with having pictures of saints or Christ, or having ‘sacred’ relics, etc.. in my church because people may focus on those things as a way to get to God when we need no. To have a symbolic reminder that will jar our memory is one thing but to have an object that we pray to, or over, or through, is another.
    But I agree that the intent is everything, but I am leary when I see people focusing on the object or person venerated and not the Lord.

  • nice chatting to you – i guess we are on the same page then – there is only one God and one mediator between God and us.
    and for the record – i cant stand christian bookstores because the jesus junk and trinkets drive me crazy. i am more of a minimalist and i prefer the house church form of worship – a meal with believers and food and justice and the presence of God and wisdom from the Bible to address realities of living.
    low-church, they call it over here in UK.
    thanks again for the conversation.
    i was asked yesterday to do a kids talk at the local baptist church. my previous encounter was unusual – i was the first teacher in a long time to get up at church and give the childrens talk WITHOUT any icons – no objects, no conversation pieces, no projection, no tricks, no pictures, no flannel board [of course] – and i was asked to come back and do another.
    which goes to show that teaching and worship is possible without icons – however, it is often useful (as i started out this conversation regarding “tropological” theology – to say, as Jesus did, “see that women” or deal with a fig tree or ask people to find a coin for the purpose of illustrating truth.
    peace out

  • Truth Seeker says:

    Thats awesome what you did with the kids. I teach a kids class every Sunday night and it is blessing. In a lot of ways it keeps me grounded in truth. Many times it is easy to get wrapped in the theological implications and the epistemology and so on. Those things are great and all and have their place, but I always think back to an old pastor of mine who once said before I headed to college: “Son, you are going to learn a lot and get into the deep end of the pool, but just remember that you cant cannonball into the kiddie pool.” And I think that is so true. Many times when I am studying I try to think through a subject matter by trying to think how I would present it to a child. Its in those moments that I am able to really express what the truth and the word is.
    I think it is awesome that you got to do that. I hope that it goes well in the future.

  • Steve Hayes says:

    Well I’ve learnt a new word today, but I’m still not sure what it means.
    Litcritspeak sometimes baffles me.

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