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IMAGES OF CHRIST RE-VISITED

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  June 1, 2012 — 3 Comments

In a recent series on postmillennialism’s promotion of human culture and art, I noted that Christians may produce images of Jesus (though not for adoration or worship). I argued that such pictures are images of his human nature and form and not images of God himself.

One concerned reader, Vaughn Hamilton, has offered a lengthy reply to my postings on this matter. Although I intended to get back to more direct postmillennial studies, I will make this one very last statement regarding the issue. I do this reluctantly, but out of appreciation for Vaughn’s careful and studied reply. But I must make this the last one. (Please excuse the size of this post; I want to conclude the matter in one article rather than two or three.)

I appreciate Hamilton’s reading and interacting with my postings. However, I must point out several unfortunate errors in his presentation that cause his argument to fail. I will not deal with his three page article line-for-line, but will focus on the following issues and his errors regarding them. These errors are largely historical (regarding statements on the Reformed position), but are also exegetical and theological.

The Second Commandment and Worship

Hamilton states: “Dr Gentry suggests that the second commandment is limited strictly in its scope to the use of images for worship, this is not the standard Reformed exegesis.”

Gentry: But if we look at some key authorities in Reformed theology we will find that our theology does recognize that the second commandment was given to govern worship.

The second commandment reads: Exo 20:4-5: “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.” This is clearly dealing with worship. And historic Reformed theology recognizes this.

Regarding the second commandment as a law regarding worship, John Calvin (Harmony of the Four Last Books of the Pentateuch, 2:106) writes: “Exod. xx. 4. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. In the First Commandment, after He had taught who was the true God, He commanded that He alone should be worshipped; and now He defines what is His legitimate worship.” On p. 107 he observes: “It would not be sufficient for us to be instructed to worship Him alone [as per the first commandment], unless we also knew the manner in which He would be worshipped. The sum is, that the worship of God must be spiritual, in order that it may correspond with His nature [as per the second commandment].” (Emphases mine)

Regarding the second commandment as a law regarding worship, Robert L. Dabney (Lectures in Systematic Theology, 361) writes: “As the first commandment fixes the object, so the second fixes the mode of religious worship.”

Regarding the second commandment as a law regarding worship, Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology, 3:290) writes: “The first commandment, therefore, forbids the worship of any other being than Jehovah; and the second, the worship of any visible object whatever…. that the second commandment does not forbid pictorial or sculptured representations of ideal or visible objects, is plain because the whole command has reference to religious worship.” (Emphases mine)

On p. 291 Hodge adds: “There can therefore be no doubt that the second commandment was intended only to forbid the making or using the likeness of anything in heaven or earth as objects of worship.” On p. 292 he adds again: “The thing thus repeatedly and solemnly forbidden as a violation of the covenant between God and the people, was the bowing down to, or using anything visible, whether a natural object as the sun or moon, or a work of art and man’s device, as an object or mode of divine worship.”

Regarding the second commandment as a law regarding worship, Morton H. Smith (Systematic Theology, 2:628, 629) writes: “Since the Second Commandment forbids worship through idolatrous means, then the duty required is that of proper worship…. Observe that the second commandment deals with the manner of worship…. The specific sin forbidden by the commandment is that of making graven images, and seeking to worship God through them.” (Emphases mine)

Regarding the second commandment as a law regarding worship, all the Reformed statements above agree with the Westminster Standards. The Shorter Catechism summarizes the purpose and essence of the second commandment as follows:

Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 50: “What is required in the second commandment? A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word.” SC Q. 51: “What is forbidden in the second commandment? A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word.” (Emphases mine)

Gentry: All that each element of this catechetical answer has to do with worship.

Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 108: “What are the duties required in the second commandment? Answer: The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has instituted in his Word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the Word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him: as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.” (Emphases mine)

Gentry: Note that each element of these catechetical references to the second commandment have to do with the manner of worship.

But what about Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 109? It reads: “What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment? Answer: The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; 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; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed

Gentry: We must note that each one of the several elements in this prohibition statement deals with worship — unless the one in question deals with art as such. However, if we interpret this contextually, in its setting (using both the preceding question 108, and all the other elements in 109) we will see that this ultimately refers to images in worship. I am not saying that the Divines allowed artistic representations of Christ. I am saying that their specific expression interpreted contextually only applies the matter to worship.

I would add further than unless we consider Jesus Christ a “creature,” then this does not apply to images of him. After all, the catechism expressly states: “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….”

The Second Commandment and God’s Invisibility

Hamilton states: “Dr Gentry would seem to be suggesting that the prohibition given in the Old Testament was partly due to a lack of original source material — that is, there was nothing to see, and so nothing to make.”

Gentry: He is correct. And I argue such on both exegetical grounds as well as historical-theological grounds.

Regarding the second commandment and God’s nature, John Calvin (Harmony of the Last Four Books of the Pentateuch, 107) writes: “The words simply express that it is wrong for men to seek the presence of God in any visible image, because He cannot be represented to our eyes.” Calvin (Harmony, 116): “Foolish men think that they have God in some measure visible.” Calvin (Harmony, 117): “Whatsoever men introduce alien from His nature, is repudiated by Him.” (Emphases mine)

Gentry: But of course, Christ was represented to men’s eyes in visible form and therefore it is possible to present his corporeal form pictorially. His visible form was not “alien from His nature.” As the Apostle John states: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1).

Regarding the second commandment and God’s nature, Calvin (Harmony, 116) warns: “God is insulted when He is clothed in a corporeal image.”

Gentry: This is due to the fact that the spiritual, invisible, immense God cannot be reduced to any local, corporeal form. But Christ himself was corporeal and therefore can be represented by a corporeal image (though must not be so pictured for purposes of worship). John informs us that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Paul agrees: “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col 2:9).

Regarding the second commandment and God’s nature, Calvin (Harmony, p. 108) writes: “There are two parts in the [Second] Commandment — the first forbids the erection of a graven image, or any likeness; the second prohibits the transferring of the worship which God claims for Himself alone, to any of these phantoms or delusive shows. Therefore, to devise any image of God, is in itself impious; because by this corruption His Majesty is adulterated, and He is figured to be other than He is.”

Gentry: But images of Jesus (not used in worship) present him as he actually is in his humanity, as a man possessing a true human body. They do not corrupt his majesty and adulterate it by presenting him in a way “other than He is.” And if these two parts the second commandment are not properly linked (both regard worship) then the first part forbids all artistic representations of any creature for any reason.

Regarding the second commandment and God’s nature, Calvin (Harmony, 109): “God is insulted, not only when His worship is transferred to idols, but when we try to represent Him by any outward similitude.” On p. 121 he speaks of “the madness of those who make to themselves any image of God; because they thus turn truth into falsehood.”

Gentry: But Jesus can be represented by an “outward similitude,” because he was “made in the likeness of men” and was “found in appearance as a man” (Phil 2:8b-9a). His corporeal form is not a falsehood, but truth itself. John writes: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” (1 John 4:2-3a)

Regarding the second commandment and God’s nature, Dabney (Lectures 363) writes: “To worship the true God by an image is, then, the very thing forbidden, because such a representation is necessarily false. For, God being a spiritual, immense, and invisible Being, to represent Him as a limited material form, is a falsehood. To clothe Him with the form of any of His creatures, angelic, human, or animal, is the most heinous insult to His majesty. God is a Spirit, cognizable by no sense…. To represent Him by a material, visible and palpable image or picture is a false representation…. He declares Himself utterly unlike all creatures, and incomprehensible by them. To liken Him to any of them is both a misrepresentation and insult. Hence, a material image of the Godhead, or of any Person therefore, is an utter falsehood…. No image can correctly represent God. Deut. iv:15, 16; Is. xl:12–18; Acts xvii:29. ‘Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves, (for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb, out of the midst of the first).’” (Emphases mine)

Gentry: Clearly the reason given by Dabney against images of God per the second commandment is, in fact, due to their impossibility and their misrepresenting the “spiritual, immense, and invisible” God.

Regarding the second commandment and God’s nature, Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology, 3:290) writes: “The two fundamental principles of the religion of the Bible are first, that there is one only the living and true God, the maker of heaven and earth, who has revealed Himself under the name Jehovah; secondly, that this God is a Spirit, and, therefore, incapable of being conceived of or represented under a visible form.” On p. 291 he adds: “The Hebrews were solemnly enjoined not to make any visible representation of the unseen God, or to adopt anything external as the symbol of the invisible and make such symbol the object of worship.”  (Emphases mine)

So then, yes, Hamilton is correct: I do hold “that the prohibition given in the Old Testament was partly due to a lack of original source material — that is, there was nothing to see, and so nothing to make.” But I am not mistaken in this, either exegetically or in terms of Reformed tradition.

The Quotation from Turretin

Vaughn cites Francis Turretin in responding to my argument that the second commandment governs worship and forbids (1) making images of the invisible God and (2) employing those in worship. Mr. Vaughn states that my position is not according to Reformed tradition, and he responds to me: “It is a part of the traditional Reformed and Presbyterian view regarding the second commandment and images. For example, Francis Turretin (d. 1687) explains, ‘Although God sometimes manifested himself in a visible form and in such an appearance is described to us in Scripture…, it does not follow that it is lawful to represent him by an image. The same God who thus appeared nevertheless strongly forbade the Israelites to fabricate any representation of him…’ (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, p. 65).”

Gentry: I would note that Turretin’s statement comes from his discussion of the second commandment as it relates to Lutheranism. He notes that Lutherans allow images to be used “in sacred places as legitimate” (Institutes, 62), “which are supposed to contribute something to the excitation of religious feeling” (p. 63). On p. 64 Turretin reiterates: “Now images in sacred places do not belong to the worship of God.” Thus, once again we see the matter of images is tied to worship, which my position does not allow. But let’s provide more of Turretin’s argument.

Turretin is clearly concerned that we recognize the second commandment’s purpose in governing worship. In Institutes (p. 63) we read: “Thus we do not condemn historical representations of events or of great men, either symbolical (by which their virtues and vices are represented) or political (impressed upon coins). But we here treat of sacred and religious images which are supposed to contribute something to the excitation of religious feeling.”  (Emphases mine)

An important element of Turretin’s argument is given on p. 63, and supports my position that the second command is based on the impossibility of creating an image that reflects God for: “God being boundless (apeiros) and invisible (aoratos), can be represented by no image: ‘To whom will ye like God? or what likeness’ (or ‘image’ as the Vulgate has it) ‘will ye compare unto him’ (Is. 40:18).”

Turretin adds on the next page (64) a statement regarding the impossibility of representing the invisible: “God in promulgating the law wished to set forth no likeness of himself, that the people might understand that they must abstain from every image of him as a thing unlawful; yet even impossible: ‘Take ye therefore good heed unto yourself; (for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you … lest ye corrupt yourself, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female’ (Dt. 4:15, 16).”

Just one sentence (and following) after the quotation that Vaughn provides, Turretin states (p. 65): “(2) Those bodily appearances [of God in the Old Testament] were exhibited only in vision, shadowing forth not the essence of God, but in some measure his works and external glory; indeed extraordinary not ordinary, temporal not perpetual, not presented openly to all, but shown to individuals, especially in the spirit. Therefore they have nothing in common with images. (3) It is one thing to speak metaphorically concerning God in accommodation to our conceptions; another to form a visible representation of him as if true and proper and exhibit publicly to the eyes of all.”

Gentry: He states this because God is invisible and immense, and therefore images of him present false conceptions. But Christ was corporeal, visible, limited, and had the body of a man. Pictures of him (not for worship or adoration!) are therefore possible, and they picture his true humanity in possessing a body like we do.

Turretin even goes further (on the same page, p. 65): “The making of images is not absolutely interdicted, but with a twofold limitation — that images should not be made representing God (Dt. 4:16), nor be employed in worship. Therefore to make images and to worship them are not to be regarded in the second commandment only as means and end, but as two parts of the divine prohibition. Images are prohibited not only inasmuch as they are the object or the means of worship, but inasmuch as they are made simply for the sake of religion or are set up in sacred places.”

Interestingly, Turretin makes an observation that contradicts the statement in the Westminster Larger Catechism. The answer to Larger Catechism 109 reads: “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….” Turretin (p. 65) states: “From a mental image to a sculptured or painted image, the consequence does not hold good. The former is of necessity, since I cannot perceive anything without some species or idea of it formed in the mind.” This Larger Catechism statement is one that I consider to be “extreme” in the Westminster Standards, and for which Vaughn rebukes my observation that it is extreme. I agree with Turretin on this point.

One Final Illogical Statement

Vaughn cites John Murray approvingly, noting that “he points out that anything truthful conveyed by pretended images of Christ must necessarily evoke an appropriately worshipful response within us since it relates to Christ. But this is precisely what the second commandment condemns, all worship evoked by manmade images.”

This is manifestly wrong on the surface, as well as illogical as a moral argument. It is wrong, for I (and millions of other Christians) never have a “worshipful response” to a painting of Christ. The thought never occurs to me. I know that some Christians can do that; in fact, I believe this is epidemic in Roman Catholic circles. But this is not “necessarily” so.

Furthermore, it is illogical and collapses under a reductio ad absurdum. The same “worshipful response” problem can be associated with printed versions of the Bible. Some people can (and do!) treat a physical copy of the Bible as a venerated object. This is not the publisher’s fault, but the fault of weak theological understanding. Any given Bible is just a bound set of sheets with no sanctity at all. Therefore the reductio: If we must avoid pictures of Christ because of the tendency to venerate them, then we ought not to print copies of the Bible because some Christians venerate them.

Conclusion

I challenge readers to read the Scripture passages touching on making images of God. You will note that they forbid it because it reduces God’s glory (because he is invisible, immense, and so forth) and that they are precluded from worship. Many extend the application of the biblical references beyond that for which they were intended.

I also recommend that readers consult the “Report of the Special Committee of Synod on Pictures of Christ” in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (159th GA Minutes, May 22, 1981).  That report by a Reformed Presbyterian denomination ends: “synod warns against the violation of the Second Commandment (Ex. 20:4-6 and Deut. 5:8-10) by the worship of visual depictions of Jesus Christ, while at the same time recognizing the legitimacy of usual depictions for other purposes, such as instruction or artistic expression.”

You may see the report at:  http://www.pcahistory.org/findingaids/rpces/docsynod/332.html

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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.

3 responses to IMAGES OF CHRIST RE-VISITED

  1. Well said Dr Gentry. I agree with Dr Hodge and yourself.

  2. The following was my response to a dear friend over this particular issue in which he stated to have anything depicting Christ or imagining anything of the likeness of Christ is forbidden. Here is what I said to that:

    Me: The only verse in the Bible about Jesus’ physical form, before His death and resurrection, is found in Isaiah 53:2. It says: “For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is not beauty that we should desire Him.” In other words, the only biblical description of Jesus during His time on earth says that He was not physically attractive. I suppose we WCF followers had better strike this passage from the Bible because it causes us to imagine an ugly man. The Bible doesn’t much speak of his physical appearance because it is mostly unimportant. But since it does mention this one passage about being unattractive, we must ask why mention this? I personally have always imagined that the Jews looking for their new King David were looking for a majestic handsome looking man to lead them. When Jesus did not fit the proverbial bill, it was just another reason for them to reject Him. As these Satan worshiper’s would do, looking for their handsome king, the Bible describes Satan as handsome in Ezekiel 28: 17.

    I see, we are to have no images of Him in our minds right after reading God’s Word tell us He was unattractive. Makes perfect sense. Anyone who is honest will confess we have no exact idea what that ugliness entails EXACTLY thus leaving each of us to imagine just the very same way we all imagine what it looked like in all the stories that are told about Him. He came in the flesh and everyone who witnessed Him SAW HIM. I guarantee that after He ascended to the right hand of God, the people who knew Him could still picture in their minds what He looked like whenever they referenced Him. It is preposterous to say they were not to imagine Him in their minds. How absolutely stupid! It is further wrong for me to imagine how He was ugly after the Word tells me He was unattractive. Obviously my imagination will not be accurate, but that accuracy is not important. The reason in my mind it is not important is because many years after His disciples and apostles were with Him, I’m sure their memory of what He looked like became more and more fuzzy as time passed just the same as a person whom I knew twenty years ago but haven’t seen since my memory of what they looked like exactly has become fuzzy. Should we create a picture of Him and worship that image which wouldn’t be accurate, on that point I would agree. But painting a picture of Him in an historical event taught about in the Bible is not the same as worshiping the image as the REAL THING which is the point of the Second Commandment. You’ll have to come up with more Scriptural references to make your point that images of any kind, even those that enter our minds, is the equivalent of idolatry. I don’t see it that way. You have a man made document, the WCF, to make your point which is vague on this specific issue at best. I have a Bible verse that tells us what Jesus looked like. I don’t use what I imagine He looked like in any form of Worship. But to see a movie or a picture of a story told in the Bible does not constitute worship. I have no picture in my mind when I pray and worship. I do have a picture that I will admit honestly cannot be perfectly accurate when I meditate on the stories told in the Bible which some people got the privilege of ACTUALLY SEEING. For crying out loud, one of Jesus’ disciples had to actually see the scars to believe! I do not. I want to beat my head against a wall if I’m required to not envision how He might have been ugly after reading in the Bible that He was ugly.

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. June 1, 2012 at 6:30

      Lee: The Isa 53 passage probably is not talking about his daily appearance, but about how he looked during his crucifixion struggle. Isa 53:4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.

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