Does God Forbid Images Of Christ?

Are images of Christ allowable in non-worship contexts?

I have defended the right of artistic representations of Christ. I have not defended – and in fact, stand against – images of Christ being used in worship. In Deuteronomy 4:15 God expressly warns Israel: “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure.” This statement directly prohibits the use of images in worship.

 

Recently I posted a statement on the allowance of images of Christ in non-worship contexts. My interest in this matter is not because I like pictures of Christ. In fact, I don’t have any hanging in my house, I prefer hanging my wife’s cross-stitched, framed Bible verses in my house.

Rather, I engage the debate because I am interested in theologically and exegetically-sound reasoning. And the debate over pictures of Christ expose erroneous exegetical and theological reasoning. What do I mean?

Exegetically, it is impossible to derive a condemnation of pictures of Christ from the Second Commandment (unless, of course, someone reverentially worships them). The Commandment is speaking of worship of images.

Theologically, it is impossible to properly distinguish the two natures of Christ in the arguments presented against pictures of Jesus. And it is impossible to forbid mental representations of Christ without condemning the apostles who would have remembered what he looked like — and even spoke about it (1 John 1:1–2)!

GOD’S LAW AND REPRESENTATIONS OF CHRIST

Reformed Christians have generally been opposed to any artistic representations of Christ. This is due to their reverential concern over breaching God’s Law, particularly the Second Commandment. Unfortunately though, the fear is theologically unbalanced in some respects. Let me present a brief study of the theological and exegetical implications of the Second Commandment.

God and Visible Representations

The Second Commandment reads: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exo.  20:4-5). Here God expressly prohibits the making of images. But what exactly is being forbidden?

The Amish are fundamentally mistaken when they forbid all visible representations on the basis of their understanding of the Second Commandment. For instance, they forbid the use of mirrors because they reflect their own images. They also forbid art because such creates “images.” However, the Bible does not forbid all images. In Numbers 21:8 Moses is commanded to “make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole.” In Exodus 25:18 the Lord directs Israel to “make two cherubim of gold and place them on the mercy seat in the tabernacle.” So Scripture itself justifies making of images, though not for purposes of adoration and worship (which is the point of the Second Commandment).

What, then, does the Second Commandment forbid? John Calvin correctly explains in his Institutes (2:8:17) that it prohibits “daring to subject God, who is incomprehensible to our sense perceptions or to represent him by any form,” and that it “forbids us to worship any images in the name of religion.”

But why does God forbid making images of him? Calvin continues: “Visible forms are diametrically opposed to his nature. Every figurative representation of God contradicts his being.” God is invisible (Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17), non-localized (i.e., omnipresent, Jer. 23:24), and glorious beyond description. Consequently, we read in Deuteronomy 4:12 that “the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words but saw no form.” Even in heaven the seraphim cover their faces from the majesty of God (Isa. 6:2).

Therefore we read in Deuteronomy 4:15-19: “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. And beware, lest you lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.”

Calvin is surely correct when he notes that “every statue man erects or every image he paints to represent God simply displeases God as something dishonorable to his majesty.” Clearly, then, we must not produce pictures of God or use images as tools for worship.

Christ and Visible Representations

Despite the divine condemnation of making images of God, we are making a theological mistake if we claim that we may not under any circumstance paint a picture of Christ. How is this so, since Christ is God the Son, the incarnation of God (Col. 2:9; Heb. 1:3)?

Simply put, pictures of Christ are not pictures of God. This argument needs to be carefully understood because ultimately the very integrity of orthodox Christianity is at stake.

In A.D. 451 the Fourth Ecumenical Council of the Church meeting at Chalcedon declared the orthodox, biblical view of Christ a great mystery. For Christ really has two natures, unlike us. And his two natures are contained in one person “without confusion, change, division, separation.” Consequently, Christ has both a divine nature and a human nature – without any mixing or dilution of the one in the other.

Thus, a picture of Christ is a picture of his humanity, for he does, in fact, possess a truly human body (as well as a truly human soul). A picture of Christ is not a picture of his inner, divine essence, nor even of his soul. Rather it is a picture of his external bodily form. Thus, a picture of Christ’s human form is a picture of his humanity, not his deity; it is a picture of man (the God-man), not a picture of God.

Some will object that you cannot separate the human and divine, for they are forever united in one person in Christ. It is true that you cannot separate them, but you can distinguish them. In fact, the orthodox view of Christ demands that the two natures be distinguished, for they are without mixture or dilution.

We must remember that the whole point of the incarnation is because the eternal God could not die for the sins of his elect people in order to provide redemption (Heb. 2:9-15). Consequently, the Second Person of the Trinity took upon himself a true human body and soul to accomplish redemption:

  • Galatians 4:4-5: “But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”
  • Hebrews 10:5: “Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, `Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, but a body Thou hast prepared for Me.”

Thus, when we produce artistic representations of Christ, we ourselves are not making images of God, who is invisible and impossible of representation. Rather, God himself prepared this “image,” the body of Christ. Our picturing Christ’s human form is not our attempt at reducing the divine nature to an image. And the body that Christ took was truly human: it was a body susceptible to thirst (John 4:7; 19:28), weariness (Matt. 8:24), hunger (Matt. 21:18), and death (Rom. 5:6).

We must be careful that we not suggest that his body was divine. When he trimmed his hair, deity did not lay upon the ground to waste away. When his body laid in the tomb in the coldness of death, deity was not dead. Rather, Christ’s mortal body was the real and tangible manifestation of his true incarnate condition. And as such, was capable of artistic reproduction.

We must remember the biblical rationale forbidding Israel from making an image of God: “Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form- only a voice.. So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure” (Deut. 4:12, 15-16).

John 1:18 informs us that “no man has seen God at any time.” Yet many men saw Christ. John also informs us in that very context that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory” (John 1:14). In fact, when he walked the earth no one could tell by his appearance that in him dwelled the divine nature (except perhaps at the transfiguration, Matt. 17:1-2). As John explains this elsewhere: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1).

When we partake the Lord’s Supper, we partake tangible elements representing the Lord’s corporeal human body. And Christ himself gave us this “image” of him.

We must wonder: If photography had existed in the first century, would God forbid pictures of Christ? Undoubtedly not, for he did not forbid people looking upon him. And surely the disciples themselves (especially) would fondly remember him in his earthly appearance.

CATECHISM AND ART

I will briefly consider the Westminster Larger Catechism specifically, then the general question of whether Christian artist should portray the life of Christ in their art.

Visible Representations and Our Catechism

Our Westminster Standards’ Larger Catechism answer to Question 109 states: “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are . . . the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it..”

This Catechetical answer is theologically accurate, I believe. But I sense that many Reformed Christians misunderstand the theological implications of it when they deny all artistic representations of Christ.

The Catechism forbids “any representation of God.” But we must remember that according to historic, evangelical, Bible-believing orthodoxy, Christ possessed a true human body and that the divine is not co-mingled in the human. Thus, a picture of Christ is a picture of his human form, not of his hidden, inner deity. At the Transfiguration Christ allowed his inner divine nature to shine through, but otherwise it remained veiled from human eyes.

If we interpret this Catechism answer to mean that no pictures of Christ’s body may be made (which it does not say), then the Catechism would condemn the Apostles themselves. Note that the Catechism not only forbids “any representation of God” but also projecting images “inwardly in our mind.” Consequently, when the disciples would remember (in their minds) the human form of Christ, they would be guilty of breaching the Second Commandment.

Furthermore, you yourselves would be guilty of idolatry from time to time. For how can a minister preach on the cruel crucifixion of Christ and your mind not form a mental image of what he must have looked like hanging on the cross. Yet you would be doing nothing more than mentally conceiving what first century witnesses to the crucifixion actually saw with their own eyes.

The Christian Faith Encourages Art

While dealing with the Second Commandment, John Calvin writes (Institutes 1:11:12): “Yet I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images are permissible. Only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing: let not God’s majesty which is far above the perception of the eye be debased through unseemly representations.”

I believe a great, though subtle, danger lurks in this widespread Reformed misconception. What are children led to believe when they never see a picture of Christ? They are shown pictures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in their Sunday school literature. They see pictures of the disciples. But every time Jesus should be present with the disciples, he is strangely absent. Are they not being inadvertently taught that he lacked a real, bodily presence?

And what shall become of the influence of Christianity in the arts? Shall we forbid Christian artists from representing for posterity some of the greatest historical occurrences of all times? Shall we forbid them to portray the nativity? Christ’s baptism? His death and resurrection?

We must remember that God created a real body for Christ. That he really dwelled in history in a mortal body. Obviously we should forbid use of pictures in worship, as objects of veneration (just as we should discourage people from venerating their physical Bibles, as if the physical book is somehow a holy object). But I believe we err when we go beyond the Second Commandment and deny all representations of the Incarnate Christ.

PRACTICAL CONCERNS AND PICTURES OF CHRIST

Below I will answer two concerns regarding pictures of Christ.

Images in Worship

I have defended the right of artistic representations of Christ. I have not defended – and in fact, stand against – images of Christ being used in worship. In Deuteronomy 4:15 God expressly warns Israel: “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure.” This statement directly prohibits the use of images in worship.

Our worship of God is to be direct – that is, to God himself. Whereas in producing an image for the purpose of worship, the image itself becomes an object of veneration and adoration.

Finally, we do not see in Scripture the use of images in the worship of God. We do not see this manner of worship in either of the testaments. We do not see worship through images in either precept or practice. God is the one who directs the manner of our worship – and jealously so. We see this dramatically demonstrated in Leviticus 10:1-3:

“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. hen Moses said to Aaron, `It is what the LORD spoke, saying, “By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, / And before all the people I will be honored.”‘”

As Jesus teaches in the New Testament: “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). Here we learn that God must be worshiped according to the dictates of truth, that is, according to the express teaching of Scripture.

Images in Art

Pictures of Christ are not to be used as aids in worship. Yet they may be used in other context for other purposes. For example, they may be used in art in representing great historical events and they may be employed as educational “place holders.”

Artistic representations of Jesus present him operating in the material world in the flow of objective history. God is the source of our creativity and talents. We even call artistic abilities “gifts” and say of one who has such a talent that he is “gifted.” Shall those who are gifted in the visual arts avoid making artistic representations of the greatest events of history? Shall art omit – prohibit! – portraying the birth of Jesus, his death on the cross, his resurrection from the tomb, his ascension to glory? These are among the greatest and most glorious events of history, which is very really “his story.”

WHAT DID CHRIST LOOK LIKE?

Now I will consider two practical issues relative to pictures of Christ.

In the past several articles I have broached the question of visible images of Christ because of the debate that arises over the legitimacy of artistic presentations of Jesus. I am strongly Reformed, strongly committed to the Westminster Standards. In those Standards and among many of my Reformed brethren, we see a strong rejection of any and all visual representations of Christ.

The Absurdity of Such Argumentation

Unfortunately, a side-effect of such a position is to prohibit all artistic representations of some of the most important historical elements of the Christian faith: those involved in the life of Christ. I have been arguing that we may produce pictures of Christ for educational and artistic use, though not for worship aids.

But when an argument is given in defense of visual images of Christ, an emotional reaction often arises, takes over, and desperately seeks some other reasons to reject such artistic expressions.  Many will drop the exegetical and theological arguments and go straight for the practical difficulty in visual portrays of Christ: “How can we paint a picture of Christ when we do not know what he looked like?”

But this is really no objection whatsoever, and certainly not a logical one. We may easily subject this argument to a reductio ad absurdum. To ask this question is to undermine all artistic renderings of any person, place, or event that we have not seen with our own eyes. Or for which we have no photographs. Or for which we posses no paintings or statues or stone reliefs created by competent and artistically talented eyewitnesses.

On this logic, we should not allow any art representing ancient events unless we have an actual artistic record of the person or event which was created by someone who actually saw them. We should not produce pictures of Abraham, King David, or the Apostles. Nor should we have pictures of ancient battles, common people from 100 BC, famous discoveries, or anything else without an objective visual record preserved for us. This argument simply does not make good sense.

The Error of Such Argumentation

It is true, of course, that we do not know exactly what Christ looked like. But we do posses an enormous amount of information regarding his appearance. We know that he was a male, had two arms, two elbows, two hands, two legs, two knees, two feet, two eyes, two ears, a head, a nose, two eyebrows, hair, lips, teeth, tongue, a torso, skeletal frame, skin covering, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.

We also know that all of this was organized in the form of what we daily experience as a man. These bodily elements were not a haphazard heap of anatomical parts such as those left over after a Muslim worship service in the Middle East today. Therefore, we do know that he looked very much different than and could easily be distinguished from blades of grass, molecules of iron, continents, barbed wire, bookends, rivers, lemmings, ham sandwiches, Glade air-fresheners, dried paint, computer keyboards (and other parts associated with a computer system), mathematical formulas, the aurora borealis, the alphabet, Roman numerals, comet nebula, atomic explosions, tsunamis, Egypt, and so forth.

That is, we know that he looked like a man. In fact, we know that he looked unremarkable — like an average, ordinary man. The biblical record does not indicate any surprise or confusion at Jesus’ appearance by people interacting with him (except in the case of his temporary transfiguration). People engaged him as if he were another ordinary man like themselves. They did not even know he was the Son of God made flesh — unless he taught them so and they believed it. And even then, his outward visual appearance remained the same.

Thus, in the big picture (no pun intended) we do know what he looked like. Even though we do not know exactly what he looked like. That is, we do know he was “in the likeness of men” and “found in appearance as a man” (Phil 2:7, 8). And this is the point of artistic portrayals of Christ. No artist outside of the most extreme mystic or charismatic visionary argues that he is painting a picture of exactly what Jesus looked like.

The Desperation of Such Argumentation

Some have argued that after he was resurrected, even his own disciples and friends did not recognize him. But this is absolutely irrelevant to the argument. After all, his friends and disciples did recognize him before the resurrection. Does that mean we can paint pre-resurrection pictures of Christ? I am sure the objector does not intend that logical conclusion.

Furthermore, this problem seems to result from some sort of divine intervention which was designed to intentionally confuse them after the resurrection — probably in order to test them. For instance, regarding the Emmaus Road disciples who did not recognize him, we read in Luke 24:31: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him.” This implied that their minds were closed to this prospect until God lifted the mental barrier.

In fact, the opponent of pictures of Christ needs to be careful pressing this argument. After all, historic orthodoxy teaches that Christ arose in the same body in which he died. Thus, he would have looked the same. In fact, his resurrected body even contained the wounds of his crucifixion (John 20:27).

And finally, the people who did not initially recognize the resurrected Christ did finally recognize him. And thus the argument from non-recognition would serve to justify paintings of the now recognized Jesus. The best the argument could do is to declare: we should not have paintings made of the resurrected Christ in the first five minutes of his appearance to different people, but after that, it is okay.

Of course, some artistic portrayals of Christ are more faithful to how he most likely would have appeared: as a ruddy-skinned, dark-haired, middle-Easterner. And if the fair-skinned, light-haired Sallmon’s “Head of Christ” offends for this reason, the offense is only an argument against that sort of representation.

Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly and lives in Greer, S. C.