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WHAT DID CHRIST LOOK LIKE?

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  May 30, 2012 — 10 Comments

Postmillennialism is an important element in a holistic theology and a full-orbed Christian worldview. In such a worldview that is seriously committed to Scripture, postmillennialism promotes cultural endeavors to the glory of God. Thus, postmillennialism has real world implications. It does not offer hope only in the spiritual realm or in eternity, but here and now.

In the past several articles I have broached the question of visible images of Christ. I have done this because of the debate that arises over the legitimacy of artistic presentations of Jesus. I am strongly Reformed, and as a Presbyterian am even strongly committed to the Westminster Standards. In those Standards and among many of my Reformed brethren, though, we see a strong rejection of any and all visual representations of Christ.

The Absurdity of Such Argumentation

Unfortunately, a side-effect of such a position is to prohibit all artistic representations of some of the most important historical elements of the Christian faith: those involved in the life of Christ. I have been arguing that we may produce pictures of Christ for educational and artistic use, though not for worship aids.

But when an argument is given in defense of visual images of Christ, an emotional reaction often arises, takes over, and desperately seeks some other reasons to reject artistic renderings of Jesus.  Many will drop the exegetical and theological arguments and go straight for the practical difficulty in visual portrayals of Christ: “How can we paint a picture of Christ when we do not know what he looked like?”

But this is really no objection whatsoever, and certainly not a logical one. We may easily subject this argument to a reductio ad absurdum. To ask this question is to undermine all artistic renderings of any person, place, or event that we have not seen with our own eyes. Or for which we have no photographs. Or for which we posses no paintings or statues or stone reliefs created by competent and artistically talented eyewitnesses.

On this logic, we should not allow any art representing ancient events unless we have an actual material record of the person or event which was created by someone who actually saw them. We should not produce pictures of Abraham, King David, or the Apostles. Nor should we have pictures of ancient battles, common people from 100 BC, famous discoveries, or anything else that lacks an objective visual record that has been preserved for us. This argument simply does not make good sense.

The Error of Such Argumentation

It is true, of course, that we do not know exactly what Christ looked like. But we do posses an enormous amount of information regarding his appearance. We know that he was a male, had two arms, two elbows, two hands, two legs, two knees, two feet, two eyes, two ears, a head, a nose, two eyebrows, hair, lips, teeth, tongue, a torso, skeletal frame, skin covering, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.

We also know that all of this was organized in the form of what we daily experience as a man. These bodily elements were not a haphazard heap of anatomical parts such as those left over after a Muslim worship service in the Middle East today. Therefore, we do know that he looked very much different than and could easily be distinguished from: blades of grass, molecules of iron, continents, barbed wire, bookends, rivers, lemmings, ham sandwiches, Glade air-fresheners, dried paint, computer keyboards (and other parts associated with a computer system),  tsunamis, Egypt, Oijua boards (including its moveable planchette), the aurora borealis, the alphabet (including Hebrew, Greek, and even English versions), Roman numerals,  the nebulous envelopes around long-period comets, atomic explosions, the electromagnetic waves of visible light, mathematical formulas (including those involving negative integers), bankruptcy (whether chapter 7 or chapter 11), Cleveland (or Detroit), and so forth.

That is, we know that he looked like a man. In fact, we know that he looked unremarkable — like an average, ordinary man. The biblical record does not indicate any surprise or confusion at Jesus’ appearance by people interacting with him (except in the case of his temporary transfiguration). People engaged him as if he were another ordinary man like themselves. The Samaritan woman at the well informed others about her meeting with Christ: “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done” (Jn 4:29). They did not even know he was the Son of God made flesh — unless he taught them so and they believed it. And even then, his outward visual appearance remained the same. In fact, the Jews rebuffed him when he did teach that he was God: answered “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (John 10:33).

Thus, in the big picture (no pun intended) we do know what he looked like. Even though we do not know exactly what he looked like. That is, we do know he was “in the likeness of men” and “found in appearance as a man” (Phil 2:7, 8). And this is the point of artistic portrayals of Christ. No artist or televangelist outside of the most extreme mystic and charismatic visionary argues that he is painting a picture of exactly what Jesus looked like.

The Desperation of Such Argumentation

Some have argued that after he was resurrected, even his own disciples and friends did not recognize him. But this is absolutely irrelevant to the argument. After all, his friends and disciples did recognize him before the resurrection. Does that mean we can paint pre-resurrection pictures of Christ? I am sure the objector does not intend that logical conclusion.

Furthermore, this problem of non-recognition seems to result from some sort of divine intervention which was intended to temporarily confuse them after the resurrection — probably in order to test them. For instance, regarding the Emmaus Road disciples (who did not recognize him after the resurrection), we read in Luke 24:31: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him.” This implied that their minds were closed to this prospect until God lifted the mental barrier.

In fact, the opponent of pictures of Christ needs to be careful pressing this argument. After all, historic orthodoxy teaches that Christ arose in the same body in which he died. Thus, he would have looked the same. In fact, his resurrected body even contained the wounds of his crucifixion (John 20:27).

And finally, the people who did not initially recognize the resurrected Christ did eventually recognize him. And thus the argument from non-recognition would serve to justify paintings of the subsequently recognized Jesus. The best this argument could do is to declare: “We should not have paintings made of the resurrected Christ in the first five minutes of his appearance to different people, but after that, it is okay.”

Of course, some artistic portrayals of Christ are more faithful to how he most likely would have appeared: as a ruddy-skinned, dark-haired, middle-Easterner. And if the fair-skinned, light-haired Sallmon’s “Head of Christ” offends for this reason, the offense is only an argument against that sort of representation.

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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.

10 responses to WHAT DID CHRIST LOOK LIKE?

  1. My question would be: why should we care? The scripture minimizes and downplays the appearance of Christ. The important thing is not what he looks like, but what he accomplished to secure our salvation. Shouldn’t that be true of ourselves? We are too enthralled with the external to the detriment of the internal. Jesus repeatedly emphasized the importance of the heart over and above the outward. Case in point: Mt. 15:1-9.

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

      You are correct that his appearance is of no consequence in Scripture. As I have pointed out in the series, the significance of the question lies elsewhere. It lies in whether we may allow Christian artists to present works of art focused on the greatest events of all of history — the life of Christ. The theoretical question matters to the artists. And should matter to us if we want to promote Christian culture in the arts. And especially if we love God’s Law and want to function in terms of its moral strictures.

      You are certainly correct also that what is “the important thing” is “what he accomplished in our salvation.” That truly is pre-eminent. However, Christianity is not limited to salvation matters — otherwise Scripture would have been a lot shorter. It promotes a God-glorifying holistic, world-and-life view — a world-and-life view that should impact all of life, including the arts.

      Consequently, the debate over pictures of Christ is not the most fundamental point of Scripture, to be sure. But it is a debate that has arisen and that we should attempt to resolve in terms of the Scriptures.

  2. Dr Gentry has taught that we may not make images of God, but we may make images of the bodily aspect of the human nature of Christ. Reformed and Presbyterian believers for hundreds of years have objected to such teaching for both exegetical and theological reasons. While 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. Similarly, Dr Gentry suggests that we may represent the bodily aspect of Christ’s human nature just as we may portray any human being, but this is contrary to standard Reformed theology regarding this matter.

    First, in relation to the exegesis of the second commandment and related passages, Dr Gentry holds forth two prohibitions: We may not visually represent the divine nature, and we may not worship idols. Reformed and Presbyterian exegetes have typically come to a different understanding of what is found in the relevant passages, namely, we must not make images of an object of worship, and we must not use such an image in worship. Both these are found in the explicit wording of the second command, but further clarified in related passages, Deuteronomy 5.8, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness…” and further at verse 9, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” Are all images of every sort forbidden? No, images of various creatures were used by God’s command in the Tabernacle (e.g., Exodus 26.1). So what images are forbidden? The preceding chapter of Deuteronomy sets the stage for understanding which images are forbidden. Deuteronomy 4.15-18 demonstrates that it is God Himself that must not be represented by some work of man’s hands. “Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb … lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure…” God gave the command at Horeb in such a way as to teach this prohibition by example. God did not reveal Himself to the congregation in any form at Mount Horeb so as to teach them that they must make no form representing Him. “You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice… Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire…” (Deuteronomy 4.12, 15).

    We must note here that the passage examined above holds forth an express command forbidding the making of an image of God in any form whatsoever. Dr Gentry suggests that this does not apply in relation to our Lord Christ, because Christ has a body that can be seen. According to Dr Gentry, this means we are free to make visible representations of Christ. 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. Dr Gentry suggests that the Incarnation changed all that. But this is shown to be false by the many theophanies God wrought in the Old Testament. We may note especially the visible representation God wrought before the 70 Elders in the immediate context of the events at Mount Horeb. “Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity… So they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24.9-11) So God formed a visible representation of the invisible God which these men saw, yet they were forbidden to make such a visible representation for themselves. God may make such a representation of Himself, but man may not. That seems plain enough from the text. And it also seems plain, as Dr Gentry rightly points out, that Christ’s body is an “image” of the invisible God prepared by God Himself. “He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God…” (Colossians 1.15). Now, given the remarkably clear prohibitions against manmade representations of God, even in the face of God’s own revealing of Himself visibly, why would Dr Gentry think that this prohibition ceases to apply in the case of the clearest and most permanent visible representation of the invisible God? Is there a single example from Scripture of any mere man making such an image of Christ? Is there any example from Scripture of a manmade image representing the invisible God that was not roundly condemned and cursed by God?

    Far from being an “extreme” position as Dr Gentry suggests, the principles described here are plain enough from Scripture. 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). It is puzzling to read Dr Gentry describe a standard Reformed and Presbyterian position on images as “extreme.” With much respect to the learned doctor, from a committed and confessional Reformed Presbyterian viewpoint, Dr Gentry’s position would appear to be the one in the extreme.

    Dr Gentry objects that if the traditional Reformed understanding were true, a first century person would be sinning by recollecting how God had revealed Himself visibly in Christ, but this is readily seen to be false. Such a person would not be sinning by recollecting what God had revealed precisely because God had revealed it to him. Of course, this would be true for those who experienced the various theophanies, as well. Dr Gentry further objects that we ought to be able to represent what God has represented, but as Turretin points out, this does not follow. Syllogistically, Dr Gentry’s argument clearly fails: God forbids images of God; God has made an image of Himself in Christ; Therefore, we may make images of Christ Who is the image of God. The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. Further, we may ask, where do the Scriptures teach that we may pretend to do whatever God has actually done relative to revealing Himself visibly? Clearly this is a false assumption and there are no biblical arguments supporting it. Indeed, we have explicit prohibitions against it.

    Finally, we may benefit from considering the reasoned theological and moral argument of Professor John Murray (d. 1975) on this matter. 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. “[P]ictures of Christ are in principle a violation of the second commandment. A picture of Christ, if it serves any useful purpose, must evoke some thought or feeling respecting him and, in view of what he is, this thought or feeling will be worshipful. We cannot avoid making the picture a medium of worship. But since the materials for this medium of worship are not derived from the only revelation we possess respecting Jesus, namely, Scripture, the worship is constrained by a creation of the human mind that has no revelatory warrant. This is will-worship. For the principle of the second commandment is that we are to worship God only in ways prescribed and authorized by him. It is a grievous sin to have worship constrained by a human figment, and that is what a picture of the Saviour involves.”

    We trust that it is clear from all of the foregoing that ours is not an “emotional reaction” as Dr Gentry suggests, but a reasoned exegetical and theological objection.

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 31, 2012 at 6:30

      I appreciate Mr. Vaughn’s thoughful response to my articles on images of Christ. Unfortunately, he makes a number of errors that cause his reply to miss their target. I will offer for one final, very last, never again time an article on the question in reply to Vaughn. I will post this tomorrow June 1, 6:31 am.

      See you bright and early tomorrow morning!

    • A J MacDonald Jr May 31, 2012 at 6:30

      Mr Vaughn, you might benefit from the Catholic distinction between worship (dulia) and reverence (latria), because no one is so naive as to think a mere image of Jesus is worthy of the worship that is due to God alone. We can revere an image without worshiping it.

      The word “worship” has undergone a change in meaning in English. It comes from the Old English weorthscipe, which means the condition of being worthy of honor, respect, or dignity. To worship in the older, larger sense is to ascribe honor, worth, or excellence to someone, whether a sage, a magistrate, or God.

      For many centuries, the term worship simply meant showing respect or honor, and an example of this usage survives in contemporary English. British subjects refer to their magistrates as “Your Worship,” although Americans would say “Your Honor.” This doesn’t mean that British subjects worship their magistrates as gods (in fact, they may even despise a particular magistrate they are addressing). It means they are giving them the honor appropriate to their office, not the honor appropriate to God.

      Outside of this example, however, the English term “worship” has been narrowed in scope to indicate only that supreme form of honor, reverence, and respect that is due to God. This change in usage is quite recent. In fact, one can still find books that use “worship” in the older, broader sense. This can lead to a significant degree of confusion, when people who are familiar only with the use of words in their own day and their own circles encounter material written in other times and other places.

      In Scripture, the term “worship” was similarly broad in meaning, but in the early Christian centuries, theologians began to differentiate between different types of honor in order to make more clear which is due to God and which is not.

      As the terminology of Christian theology developed, the Greek term latria came to be used to refer to the honor that is due to God alone, and the term dulia came to refer to the honor that is due to human beings, especially those who lived and died in God’s friendship—in other words, the saints. Scripture indicates that honor is due to these individuals (Matt. 10:41b). A special term was coined to refer to the special honor given to the Virgin Mary, who bore Jesus—God in the flesh—in her womb. This term, hyperdulia (huper [more than] + dulia = “beyond dulia”), indicates that the honor due to her as Christ’s own Mother is more than the dulia given to other saints. It is greater in degree, but still of the same kind. However, since Mary is a finite creature, the honor she is due is fundamentally different in kind from the latria owed to the infinite Creator.

      All of these terms—latria, dulia, hyperdulia—used to be lumped under the one English word “worship.” Sometimes when one reads old books discussing the subject of how particular persons are to be honored, they will qualify the word “worship” by referring to “the worship of latria” or “the worship of dulia.” To contemporaries and to those not familiar with the history of these terms, however, this is too confusing.

      • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 31, 2012 at 6:30

        I am sure Mr. Vaughn would hold to the same understanding of that distinction that I do, and that has long been held in Reformed circles (e.g., Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge, etc.). We do not see the distinction as legitimate. We see it as an attempt to get around the point of the Second Commandment.

  3. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” –John 4:20 – 24

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 31, 2012 at 6:30

      Good point. This is exactly what the second commandment defends: God is not to be worshiped through images.

  4. A J MacDonald Jr May 31, 2012 at 6:30

    I would take Dr Gentry’s position on step further by allowing for each culture to create an image of Christ to which they can relate as a culture. This would include images which do not literally represent Christ in his physical appearance (Semitic in appearance), such as a black Jesus or an Asian Jesus, not because Jesus must have looked this way but because these cultures have made Jesus their own. I used to really kick against this but I now see the wisdom in it. This is certainly not necessary and sometimes never happens, but when it does I think we should embrace it rather than disparaging it.

    • Michael P. Hays May 31, 2012 at 6:30

      This problem with a ‘black Jesus or an Asian Jesus’, or blonde haired and blue eyed for that matter, is that we know for a fact that Jesus was not black or Asian. It is what we do know that makes the difference. We are then remaking Jesus into our own image.

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