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.