Icons and Idols: A Semiotic Theology

So today I want to discuss with yall the topic of Idols and Icons. Firstly though, if you haven’t watched my beginner’s guide to semiotics, I’d suggest watching that first. Don’t worry, I can wait.

To give a quick primer, remember that signs acts as referents. They signifiy a specific signified thing. Signs, by their very definition, cannot signify themselves, otherwise they become unintelligible. Such as saying Tirble to merely mean Tirble itself poses no referent and thus no intelligibility. If tirble means this object we call a ‘table’ then we find intelligibility.

So let us discuss Idols and Icons now. I first would like to say a portion of my thoughts come from Jean-Luc Marion’s “God Without Being,” especially this portion.

Idols and Icons both serve a similar function, that is, they act as signs. The idol as well as the icon both attempt to signify some thing. However, much as to how Catholicism understands idols and icons, namely, that one is a grievance and the other is a benefit, is similar to how we can understand the two opposing types of signs in a semiotic way.

Idols are often spoken about in the Bible. They are opposing gods who vie for worship against the one true God. St. Augustine stated that idols are either vain images or demons. In another view, most Protestants view Catholic statues as a form of idolatry—that is, vain images.

Now an image is a kind of sign, for the image depicts something else. A painting or statue of someone, which is an image, depicts a real person. Thus images act as signifiers for the signified object. However idols, which are considered gods in-themselves, are images that signify themselves. That is to say: the idol represents itself.

However, insofar as a signifier signifies the signified object, then the signified object is not limited by the signifier. This is seen with the use of synonyms or various languages to describe a particular object. Thus when the signified object is both signified and signifier, the signified is limited by its own signifier. That is to say, the object Table is not limited by the word ‘table’ or its other variants; but the word “Tirble” limits itself to the word “Tirble” since it does not signify anything outside of it.

Now as the idol represents itself, that is, it acts as both signifier and signified, the idol is therefore limited by itself through itself. Thus are they known as being ‘vain’ which is another way of saying: they are empty. They are empty as they do not signify any thing outside of itself. The idol simply is.

Now those who understand idols as idols will understand that the idol is unintelligible; for the idol can only represent itself and nothing more. As it can only represent itself, the idol is not concerned with anything beyond itself. It cannot truly signify. It bears no meaning, and thus cannot bear any comprehensibility.

In a metaphysical way, though still relating in a semiotic fashion, we may say that the idol states: I am thus, but this thus-ly contains no trace of intelligibility; that is, the idol states it is a one-of-a-kind, though it is made from composite material, making it not one-of-a-kind. This inherent contradiction betrays the idol. Theologically, the idol says: I am your god. But recognizing the idol as an idol, one may say to it: You are no god, but a creature as I.

The icon, however, is the opposite of the idol; for the icon acts as a true sign. The icon signifies some thing that is beyond it in some measure. The icon is the visible image of the invisible. In this fashion, which many Protestants ignore but Catholics do not, the icon, as a signifier, does not place restraint on the signified object, Who is God; likewise, God can be signified by many signifiers because there is no restraint—As shown in how the object “Table” is not restrained by the word “Table” or its other variants.

In a more casual approach, the icon states: I point to Him, I refer you to Him, the true God. Through me you can see Him darkly.

And rightly so, for the icon, as a signifier, can only signify in some measure and not in totality. For the word “Table” signifies the object table, but it does not tell us much else, such as height, color, etc.. The icon, likewise, shows us something about God—Love, Mercy, Justice, Forgiveness, Pure Act, etc..

However, as the Catholic Faith teaches, God took on flesh and dwelt among us. The Logos became the visible image of the invisible.

Herein we may see, then, that Christ acts as a sign: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you had known Me, you would know My Father as well. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him “ John 14:6 and “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. “ Colossians 1:15

We see that Christ acts as a signifier of God.

But does he not act as an idol? For an idol signifies itself, and Christ, who is God, thus signifies Himself.

The question is not without warrant, but for which it is answered by way of the Trinity. For Christ refers men to His Father, of which The Father, The Son, and the Holy Ghost are God in one essence, but are three Persons. That is, Christ really is God, but He is also really distinct from His Father, who is also God; yet, it is not multiple gods, but One Triune God. And so we do not cross into the issue of the idol, wherein the idol merely points to itself as a pseudo-sign. Whereas with Christ, we possess a true signifying relationship, as we do with true signs.

Thusly, Christ points to His Father, and being the greatest of signs, Christ signifies in a measure the greatest attribute of God: His Love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.”

From this point on there are three divergent things I would like to discuss, the first two of similar relation. The first I would like you to recall that signs are always involved in a triadic formula. It is never reducible, thus being Signifier, Signified, and Interpreter.

Now if I may borrow the didactic way of arguing from Aquinas…

Since Christ acts as Signifier, and His Father as the Signified, it would not appear that the Interpreter is the Holy Spirit; for Christ acts as signifier for us, and not for Himself, that is, for the Holy Spirit, as Christ was sent into the world to save Man and not the Holy Spirit.

On the contrary, “we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words” (Romans 8:27).

Signs can only be understood if one understands what the sign designates. This is seen in how the word “Table” may be understood in English but not in a foreign language, though they signify the same object. Now man possesses no clear knowledge of God due to sin. Man is unable to rise to God on his own. Therefore it is necessary that Man receives help from God in some way, and this is by grace. Now grace is distributed by the Holy Spirit, and since Faith is a kind of grace, Faith is distributed by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the interpreter is not Man, but the movement of the Holy Spirit within Man to assent; for it is through the Holy Spirit that one has Faith and can understand; that is, the Interpreter, who is the Holy Spirit, gives us the gift of understanding Christ for who He really is.

Now the second thing, because Signs place Man as a being-in-the-world, that is, as actually participating within it, Man is then drawn directly into the Divine Life by this very same way, as he participates in the Divine Life in a semiotic manner through grace given by the Holy Spirit. Man becomes a “being-in-the-Divine-Life” as it were. Or more formally known by the phrase: Man participates in the Divine Life.

Now for the third thing I would like to discuss: Recall how I had said that the idol points to itself, it says I am thus or I am one-of-a-kind. But understanding the idol as an idol, we come to know that this is an inherent contradiction. Indeed, idols attempt to replace the one true god: They vie for His throne. It is no wonder then that they are mockeries or attempted substitutes of God.

As when Moses asked for the name of His God, God said to him: “I am Who I Am.” Which is none other than saying, I Am Myself, there are no other gods before Me. I Am no composite as idols; I Am Simple; I Am Pure Act. Now, as all of creation are in some way composites, contingent, and partially in potency in one sense and partially in act in another sense, God however is categorically different. He Is One-of-a-kind. “I Am Who I Am.”


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