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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  20 Comments

In the Bible God reveals his law to man. The basic fundamentals of his law are contained in the Ten Commandments. As postmillennialists we believe that God calls upon us to develop human culture under God’s law and to his glory. But then the question arises as to the role of specifically religious art: May Christians make images of Christ? This is an important issue for Bible-based postmillennalism as it promotes human artistic achievement.

In yesterday’s article I began considering the Second Commandment and its application to artistic representations of deity.  In today’s study we will narrowly focus on the question on the issue of images of Christ.

Despite the divine condemnation of making images of God, we are making a theological miskake 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)?

As we engage the question theologically and biblical we must understand that 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.

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.


Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

20 responses to IMAGES OF CHRIST

  1. I aways wonder about that , the last PCA church I went to seem to teach that it was wrong to have pictures of Jesus and the one I am going to now teaches that it is ok .

  2. Richard Bacon May 26, 2012 at 6:30

    Yes, many men saw him. Yet after his resurrection not one of them recognized him apart from his word telling them who he was. Not Mary in the garden; not the disciples on the road to Emmaus; and even the disciples as they were fishing were only certain it was Christ after he commanded them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. While I have heard your arguments from many men over the past 30 to 35 years, I have never found them compelling. It requires a virtual separation of the inseparable. Also, I would like to know how we know that Christ had long hair or wore a bedouin robe. Does it not make a lot more sense if we’re going to picture Christ at all that we do so as he looked: sans halo, long hair and robe? Oh, that’s right. We don’t know what he looked like, do we?

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 26, 2012 at 6:30

      Stay tuned. I will deal with this issue.

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 26, 2012 at 6:30

      I will answer this before I am done.

    • I do agree – we do not know what Christ looked like. Besides – Christ/Holy Spirit is not to be seen …left nothing material behind him either – he lives within us in spirit and in truth. Too many pray to a picture or a statue when we should be in the Spirit when we “talkl” to HIM!

  3. Jerry Tritle May 26, 2012 at 6:30

    Agree regarding your premise, and also agree with the Catechism of the Catholic Church that Christ, being the displayed image of God changed the rule for images, and subsequently statues and icons that point to the heavenly and veneratable realities…yes, I’m Roman Catholic. For your consideration direct from the Catechism (most of my Protestant friends still think nothing has occured in the Church since Trent)

    Par. 2129: The divine injunction included the prohibition of every representation of God by the hand of man. Deuteronomy explains: “Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure. . . . ” It is the absolutely transcendent God who revealed himself to Israel. “He is the all,” but at the same time “he is greater than all his works.” He is “the author of beauty.”

    2130 Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.

    2131 Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons – of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new “economy” of images.

    2132 The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, “the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,” and “whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.” The honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone:

    Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.

    FYI, Jerry

  4. IMHO much of this trouble comes from viewing God’s Word as less than Divine and less than Divine Law. The simpler argument is that of legal interpretation, as the Jews did. If our Ten Commandments were summarized as our Roman brethren summarize them in their Latin catechism (and as summarized similarly to Jewish tradition), this would really be a moot point.

    Exodus 20:3-6 should be one topical commandment. It makes more sense when read this way: the heading, topical sentence being verse 3: “you shall have no other God’s before me.” It addresses the SCOPE of what is to follow. It sets the scope and application of how we are to apply the following sentence, verse 4: ” You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” With the set scope of having no other God’s before the one true God, we are to not make images or ANY likeness of ANYthing (ie we are not to make any likeness of anything for the purpose of worshiping it). But if we are drawing an image for the purpose of helping a friend get from point A to point B (ie, a road map), then it is certainly lawful to do so (heck, now we can even include nice sketches of landmarks such as trees).

    Now, as Protestants like to say, we can’t pick and choose…. If we want to read exodus 20:4 divorced from 3 and 5, then technically speaking, we could not even make pictures of dirt, for (again) Exodus states, “you shall not make for yourself any carved image, or ANY LIKENESS OF ANYTHING that is in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth.” So, if one wants to be consistent with this protestant summary/enumeration of the Decalogue then that person could not take pictures of anything, or paint an image of anything. Perhaps it is too strong of a statement to say that we read verse 4 as divorced from verse 5, but some protestants make it sound at least like they believe verse 5 is some sort of addendum, with the whole of the commandment and its scope being rooted in verse 4.

    My inflated 2 cents.

    P.S. Another plus for the Roman way of summarizing the Decalogue is that the prohibition on adultery gets another listing:
    #9 do not covet your neighbors wife;
    #10 do not covet your neighbors property.

  5. John Forster May 26, 2012 at 6:30

    If we are studying a famous man from history, and we had no photograph, drawing, painting, or any representation of what he looked like…..if we were writing a Wiki-, an Encyclopedia article, or a biography of the man — would we make up a picture of what he looked like? Why? What is the point? We don’t know what he looked like. If we make up something, how does that enhance our history or interpretation of the meaning of his life? In the beginning was the word, not the picture. In the beginning God said…not God drew.

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 26, 2012 at 6:30

      Keep reading. This will be answered. I am just glad to see folks have no theological or exegetical objections to pictures of Christ. That’s half the battle!

      • That’s sort of the way it works on blogs most of the time I think. They are not the best venue for real scholarly debate. The really substantive exegetical and theological arguments have been exchanged on issues like this one in thick books over the years, and for many folks who are not of a highly analytical disposition, it is the random “what ifs” and such that often end up tipping the scales in their minds, since those illustrations serve as the lens through which they understand the exegetical arguments rather than vice-versa.

      • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 29, 2012 at 6:30

        You are certainly correct regaring the constraints of a blog. And of my time! I hope you will keep reading though.

  6. 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.

    And what can we conclude from that surmising concerning the use of images today? God sent his Son in the fullness of time when there was no photography, those disciples themselves who fondly remembered his appearance in God’s providence never recorded anything in His Word describing that actual appearance (with the possible exceptions of those images in Revelation which appear to be more stylized symbols of his person than actual descriptions of his human physical appearance) and indicated that Christ was clearly set forth before the eyes of the Galatians through preaching?

    Hope your future explanations of your position will address this sort of question.

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 29, 2012 at 6:30

      I hope you are kidding about the suggestion that God sent Jesus in a time before photography so that we would not have photographs of him!

  7. There is a fundamental flaw in Dr Gentry’s argument defending images and other visible representations of Christ. Dr Gentry explains that it is only images of the divine persons in their divine essence which are forbidden. Indeed, Dr Gentry explains that because God is a spirit, He is incapable of being represented visibly and thus this is the point of the second commandment in relation to images of God. Dr Gentry goes on to explain that the body of Christ is not essentially divine but human and thus visible and capable of visible representation. This is the crux of Dr Gentry’s argument in defence of visible representations of Christ.

    While this distinction between the human nature and the divine nature of the Theanthropic Person is accurate and essential to biblical confessional orthodoxy, it fails as a defence for making images of Christ. First, we should note that the premise framed by Dr Gentry is demonstrably false. While it is true that God is a spirit, and thus invisible in His essence, Dr Gentry’s suggestion — that this in and of itself makes it immoral to represent visibly any or all of the divine persons — is not true. We know this is not true because God Himself, the invisible God, repeatedly represented Himself visibly throughout redemptive history before and after the incarnation of Christ. As it is impossible for God to sin, this visible representation of the Divine cannot be sinful in and of itself because God Himself did it.

    And now we begin to see the real issue at hand. God alone may represent Himself visibly. This is part of what is forbidden to man in the second commandment, namely, 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” (from WLC 109). This has never been forbidden to God — it is indeed a prerogative which God reserves exclusively to Himself. God has, throughout redemptive history, represented Himself outwardly in various images and likenesses. This prerogative of God has always been forbidden to man.

    The Incarnation of Christ is certainly the superlative epitome of Divine visible self representation, but the Incarnation does nothing to change the fundamental prohibition expressed in the second commandment. This visible representation is a prerogative that belongs to God exclusively. Dr Gentry’s own comments highlight this fact when he notes, ‘God himself prepared this “image,” the body of Christ.’ Exactly. This is a prerogative that is strictly reserved to God Himself and forbidden to man. The incarnation does not change that moral fact, it demonstrates it.

  8. Paul M. Mrozinsky May 26, 2012 at 6:30

    “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).

    This warning is in other places in the Old Testament. It is truly a warning about not performing the pagan practice of making graven image statues that they worshiped. The crosses that many people wear and those on rosaries would otherwise be prohibited. These we do not worship but keep as a remembrance.

  9. 1 Cor 11:14 “Does not even nature teach that it is a SHAME for men to have long hair?”

    CHRIST is always pictured with long hair and it is a shame not only to him but a shame
    to those who have created those pictures. We know from Scripture he did have beard
    for his tormenters plucked out his beard.

  10. Patricia Clayborn May 26, 2012 at 6:30

    I have always thought that the Shroud of Turin must be a fake because if God said to not make any graven images, it made sense to me that HE would NOT leave behind a graven image of Himself, by Himself. Am I wrong in my thinking???

  11. what is meant by “moderation”?

  12. It’s important to honor the Divinity in the idol, and not view the idol as Divinity.

  13. Noa Napoleon June 9, 2012 at 6:30

    Lots of imagery in the old testament, especially the temple where you see Eagles, Lions, Angels, and basically a temple (building) that attempts to assist us with understanding God. The idea of behind these images wit seems was to get believers to see the substance, the form and meaning of what God was trying to do with the Nation. The temple or house that David and Soloman built for God was not Gods first choice just as it was not his first choice that Israel become a Monarchy. In the end God allowed the Monarchy and temple to be built but this proved to be problematic. The imagery and legacy of the temple for example became a stumbling block to Israel who rejected the Chief Corner stone while holding to the form. The point is God rejects style over substance and requires worship from the heart. This seems to be the reason God forbade the creation of idols among other reasons. Thus it is not what Jesus looked like but the meaning of his life that is important.

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