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IMAGES OF CHRIST IN WORSHIP AND IN ART

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  Leave a comment

Postmillennialists are strongly committed to the cultural mandate. We believe God calls his people to engage all areas of human culture in seeking to glorify God. This includes the visual arts. In the last three articles I gave a brief defense of artistic representations of Christ. In this second-to-last article I will interact with two practical issues which confuse some as they stray from the theological, biblical, and exegetical components of the question. I will deal with this first one in today’s article, and the second one tomorrow in the last article on this topic.

The first practical impediment to images of Christ is the question: How should we used images?

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 contexts 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.”

By “educational place holders” what I mean is that pictures of Christ may be used to illustrate biblical stories for educational purposes— especially for children. When we present pictures of famous biblical characters such as Abraham, Moses, Peter, or Paul, we are showing them interacting in the material world. Were we always to leave Christ out, we would be suggesting to the child that he really did not exist as a material being in history.

Those who condemn all visible representations of Christ often make two argumentative errors: First, they vaguely allude to the second commandment or cite only a portion of that commandment without understanding it as it was actually given. The second commandment is a prohibition against idol worship, not art. The second commandment says:

 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)

In fact, they often confuse the Westminster Standards with the Scripture itself, by citing the Larger Catechism as if that were an actual quotation of Scripture. (And I say this as one who is strongly committed to the Standards — though I do not believe they are infallible. In fact, they erred when they called the Pope the Antichrist. After all, the Antichrist is one who denies that Jesus has come in the flesh: “many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.” [2Jn 1:7]. This was corrected in the American edition of the Standards.)

Some will even go to such an extreme to claim that God reserves the prerogative of representing himself in some visible form but that he denies to man the right to record that form which he has himself presented. Of course, God could do that, but has he done that? Has he commanded us not to record any visible representations of himself that he has presented? Not in Scripture. At the incarnation God represented himself in Christ. And he did not prohibit anyone who saw him from reserving a mental image of him — as if that would be idolatrous. He freely presented himself to men and they clearly remembered his image in their minds.

Tomorrow I will consider the question: How shall we paint a picture of Christ if we do not know what he looked like. Be there or be a trapezoid (which is worse than being a square because of its unequal angles.)

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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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.

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