How Protestant Nativity Scenes Proclaim Catholic Doctrine

Protestants would do well to ponder what their nativity scenes mean, and how they are scarcely different from Catholic veneration.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

[Warning: sarcasm/tongue-in-cheek humor alert]

Christmas is a wonderful time of year when Protestants by the millions have statues (aka, “idols”) of the Blessed Virgin Mary (not to mention, St. Joseph, angels, etc.) displayed prominently in their living rooms or lawns, and gaze at and meditate on them reverently, in a manner hardly distinguishable from Catholic veneration.

Does anyone else find that a bit odd and humorous, or is just my overactive sense of the ironic and the anomalous?

Let me delve into a bit of historical background, if I may. A totally consistent Calvinist (who follows the example of Calvin and the early purists/Puritans) could have, at best, only the baby Jesus in a manger scene. But even that is questionable, since some Calvinists to this day (following Calvin himself) hold that even an image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is essentially idolatrous in nature. John Calvin (the most influential early Protestant leader after Martin Luther) attacked that, and also crosses:

The Lord, however, not only forbids any image of himself to be erected by a statuary, but to be formed by any artist whatever, because every such image is sinful and insulting to his majesty. (Institutes of the Christian Church, I, 11:4)

Of what use, then, were the erection in churches of so many crosses of wood and stone, silver and gold,... (Ibid., I, 11:7)

We think it unlawful to give a visible shape to God, because God himself has forbidden it, and because it cannot be done without, in some degree, tarnishing his glory. (I, 11:12) 

In his sermon on Deuteronomy 4:15-20, Calvin specifically rejects all images of Christ, including crucifixes:

[W]hensoever a crucifix stands moping and mowing in the church – it is all one as if the Devil had defaced the Son of God. You see, then, that the Papists are destitute of all excuse... They abuse their puppets and pictures, after that fashion.

Yet one can observe the famous statues of Calvin and three other “Reformers” at the “Reformation Wall” in Geneva. Calvin himself would have taken a sledgehammer to them.

When I was Protestant, I rejected iconoclasm altogether, and would have said it is remembering and thanking God for the extreme honor that Mary (the greatest and most holy woman who ever lived) had in bearing Jesus, the incarnate God.

I would have thought that any notion of a person worshiping plaster or wood as an idol is ridiculous, and I would have denied that what Catholics do is idolizing material substances, as well. In other words, I would have argued that that particular objection to Catholicism was largely specious.

This was another indication, I suppose, of my future conversion, because I thought in such a Catholic manner in many ways, while in other ways (sola Scriptura, non-sacerdotal, non-sacramental, un-liturgical, vehemently anti-infallibility), I was thoroughly Protestant.

I accept my Protestant brethren, while respectfully, amiably disagreeing with them in the predictable ways (being Catholic). Don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying that every Protestant is a rank hypocrite or illogical, inconsistent thinker if he or she puts up a manger scene.

I’m absolutely delighted that Protestants have manger scenes and put up statues of Mary and Joseph (doesn’t “bother” me in the slightest, and I love the Christian unity aspects of that); at the same time it is internally inconsistent for many (especially those who falsely accuse us of worshiping statues of plaster), and that is the point.

The force of the argument from pointing out the somewhat anomalous practice, works against specifically those Protestants (often, Calvinists or fundamentalists) who blast Catholics for statuary and veneration. Then it would be arguably hypocritical or at least inconsistent for them to put up the statue of Mary in the manger scene at Christmas (and to gaze at it in reverent fashion), because of their own presuppositions.

For almost all Protestants, it is, no doubt, an unconscious inconsistency (or “Catholic remnant”) that never crosses their minds. It’s simply unquestioned (and fondly regarded) tradition and custom. And for some it isn’t inconsistent at all, if they view it in a certain way in accordance with their overall worldview.

In the final analysis, it makes no sense for Protestants to criticize Catholics for venerating Mary and the saints through statues, when the same thing is done every Christmas by scores of millions of these same Protestants. If statues of saints are wrong, they’re wrong, period, and this would take out manger scenes as well.

I can imagine a pious, sincere Protestant (not of the extreme iconoclastic type) replying, “well, obviously, we are not viewing the statues in the same way that Catholics are. We’re not worshiping Mary, or praying to her.”

That’s true as far as it goes, but we point out that we don’t worship Mary in the first place (which would be blasphemy and idolatry). We venerate her, and other saints. And veneration is essentially the same as honoring. Honoring is, in turn, fostered and expressed by statues and paintings and icons of various saints.

What’s so curious to me is that Protestants basically “stumble into” what is essentially our practice and outlook every Christmas.  Is it not “honoring” and “remembering” in gratefulness, Joseph and Mary and Jesus, in putting up statues or wooden figurines of them? It’s not idolatry at all. To a large degree, the Protestant with a manger scene is doing what Catholics do all year long.

No one can go through life completely “image-free.” If all images are “graven” and idolatrous, then we can’t watch television or movies. We can’t go to art museums, and we can’t have any photographs of our loved ones. This is the reductio ad absurdum of iconoclastic fanaticism.

Thankfully, virtually no one holds that view. I think Protestants would do well to ponder what a nativity scene means, what it signifies, and how it is scarcely different from Catholic veneration.