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VISIBLE REPRESENTATIONS OF GOD

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  6 Comments

Postmillennialists not only believe in the advance of the gospel and of the Christian faith in the world, but also in the elevation of human cultural pursuits under the gospel. God created us as dominion creatures and gave us the cultural mandate. We are to develop human culture to the glory of God. This includes even in the visual arts. And quite naturally, this includes religious art.

Reformed Christians have generally been opposed to any artistic representations of Christ, due to their reverential concern over breaching the Second Commandment. Unfortunately though, the fear is theologically unbalanced in some respects. Over the next few articles I will engage a brief, careful contemplation of the theological and exegetical implications of the Second Commandment. This study has important implications for Christian art and even Christian education, which publishes educational materials about Christ.

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.

However, what impact does this have on the question of images of Christ? Is there a difference? In the next article I will continue developing a biblical understanding of art and its use of images of Christ.

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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.

6 responses to VISIBLE REPRESENTATIONS OF GOD

  1. I was actually going to ask you about this since you use pictures of Jesus in some of your posts. As an artist this is something I struggle with, so I look forward to your discussion on this subject.

  2. A J MacDonald Jr May 25, 2012 at 6:30

    Well said. I think because Christ has been incarnated he can certainly be represented in his human incarnation as a human person, although his divinity would not be represented, except with a halo or something like that. I am also of the opinion that many (most?) Christian have failed to properly understand what “the image of God” is . . . the “image” we are said to be created in. As Scripture tells us: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The “image of God” is “male and female together”. In reality, the best and most basic “image of God” is: “the godly Christian family”.

  3. Great article. Art is one of the things the Catholic church actually got right (for the most part) by communicating God’s beauty and truth in images and architecture. Protestants (in general) over reacted to anything that remotely resembled Catholic idolatry by shunning Christian art. I believe art is especially important to younger kids and to those who are mentally disabled, I believe it can communicate the gospel without words. Some of my earliest memories of learning about Jesus were not with words, but with paintings at the Catholic church, my grandmothers house, and in the family Bibles.

    Now a days most Christian churches (even the good ones) we see nothing but music equipment and amplifiers littering up the “stage.” I often feel like I’m at an Earth Wind and Fire concert rather than a place of worship.

  4. The “halo” would be a pagan idea representing “energy” or some other such thing. I think we should leave the haloes off of pictures of Christ.

    A popular, classic painting that violates the Second Commandment would be Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in the Sistene Chapel. There’s definitely a depiction of God, imaged as an old man with a beard.

  5. It seems logical to conclude, based upon the ministry of Jesus that Matt. 5:17, 18 with regard to “the Law” (including the Ten Commandments) has been fulfilled. However, the issue of using an “image” or “carved image” (Exod. 20:4), remains a valid question. The answer, I believe, goes to “purpose” for which the “image” is being used. The prohibition was in reference to idolatry on the part of God’s Old Covenant people from within the context of the “gods” of all of the other ancient nations and cultures around them at the time. While some may be tempted to fall down and render an act of worship before a “carved image” of Jesus today, the vast majority of people certainly understand that a PhotoShop produced drawing is nothing more, nothing less, nothing else than a visual aid and has zero to do with worship or idolatry. Even the temple in Jerusalem and the Most Holy with the Ark of the Covenant contained representations of angelic beings–thus proving that SOME “carved images” were approved even by God Himself. I do not believe the use of such is either a violation of the Ten Commandments, or of any other New Covenant principle related to idolatry.

    • Jerritte Couture May 26, 2012 at 6:30

      @Larry: You stated, “It seems logical to conclude, based upon the ministry of Jesus that Matt. 5:17, 18 with regard to “the Law” (including the Ten Commandments) has been fulfilled.” Those verses state:

      [17] “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. [18] For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

      Whatever Jesus means by saying that He “fulfill[ed]” the Law or the Prophets, it cannot mean what you seem to imply by that statement. If I understand you correctly, you seem to say that Christ meant that the Law was now nullified or abrogated. Taking it to mean that makes nonsense out of those verses. In verse 17, He specifically states that He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. He found it to be such an important point to understand that He repeated it twice within the same verse. Clearly, the terms “abolish” and “fulfill” mean different things in that passage. If not, than Jesus does not understand what those words even mean, which wouldn’t bode well as a testament to His omniscience.

      Did I misunderstand your point? If so, could you clarify?

      Soli Deo Gloria!
      Jerritte Couture

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