Images of Christ

Question
I've heard Reformed people say that they do not believe in any visual depictions of Christ, since it violates the commandment against graven images. This would preclude, for instance, viewing Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of Christ.

Do all Reformed people believe this?  It does not seem to be consistent with the meaning of that commandment, although perhaps Reformed people view that commandment differently.
Answer
Many Reformed theologians have been and are of the opinion that the second commandment forbids any visual depictions of Christ, including those found in paintings, sculptures, movies, etc. A great many names might be assembled to demonstrate that this view has enjoyed widespread Reformed support. Mine is not one of them.

In my circles, the most commonly known argument against such images can be found in answer 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, which states in part:

"The sins forbidden in the second commandment are à 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."

In the context of answer 109, the Larger Catechism indicates that such images are sinful, regardless of how they are used. That is to say, even if we don't bow down to these images as objects of our worship, it is sinful to make them, or even just to have them in mind. On this point, I don't think the Catechism properly represents the teaching of Scripture.

This is what the second commandment itself 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" (Exod. 20:4-5 // Deut. 5:8-9).

As I understand the passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy, they prohibit the making and worshiping of false gods. They do not specifically prohibit the use of images in the worship God, let alone the making of images for purposes other than worship. For example, if I were to paint a picture of a flower, my action would not violate this commandment — even though the commandment specifically forbids making any likeness of what is on the earth. The purpose and function of the image is critical to determining the propriety of the image.

But if we interpret the commandment as prohibiting all images regardless of their use, then we can paint nothing in creation. We cannot take photographs of our children. We cannot put pictures of products in advertisements. We cannot watch television or movies of any type, or take x-rays, or use an electron microscope.

In point of fact, however, Scripture itself commanded and/or approved the making of certain images of created things, even for use in worship. For instance, the tabernacle and the temple were filled with images: lampstands that looked like flowering almond trees (Exod. 25:31ff.); a huge basin resting on the backs of oxen (Jer. 52:20); pomegranates on the clothes of the priests (Exod. 28:33); angels on the Ark of the Covenant (Exod. 25:18ff.) and the curtains (Exod. 26:1,31), and spanning the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 6:23ff.); all kinds of things on the doors to the doors sanctuary (1 Kings 6:32,36).

Now, in all fairness, most arguments against using images in worship and making images of God do not appeal only to the wording of the second commandment. They also appeal to the ways we see God respond to images throughout Scripture. For instance, we can look at God's displeasure at the Israelites' use of the golden calf in Exodus 32. Some commentators argue that this image was supposed to represent YHWH, the true God. Perhaps it was, or perhaps it was not. It looks to me like Aaron intended it to represent YHWH, but that the people were not so clear in their intent. At any rate, regardless of what it represented, the people then worshipped the image (v. 8).

I readily agree that we ought not to worship any image, regardless of what name we give it or what God/god we think it represents. But just because there are many improper ways to use images does not, in and of itself, prove that there are no proper ways. On the contrary, we have already looked at a number of legitimate uses of images of angels, animals, plants and fruit in worship.

I should also point out that many Reformed people distinguish between making images of things in creation and making images specifically of God, and I think this is a valid distinction. Although they permit the making of images such as those used in the tabernacle, they do not allow that we may make images of God himself. This argument usually depends less on the second commandment and more on other passages that speak about God not having a form, and being distinct in this respect from false gods made of wood or silver (e.g., Deut. 4:28; Isa. 45:20; Jer. 10:8ff.; Acts 17:29). Out of respect for God, we do not portray him as other gods are portrayed, but hold him in higher esteem. The only snag in this argument is that the tabernacle and temple bore some strong similarities to temples of Baal.

Nevertheless, it is still true that nowhere in Scripture do we see anyone praised for making an image of God, or instructed to make such an image, or even permitted to make one. And when such an image is arguably presented (Exod. 32), the results bring about his wrath. Moreover, in God's own temple, where we would expect to find any such image if one could rightly exist, there is only a footstool (the ark) for the real God, and no crafted image of him.

At the same time, it is important to remember that God is not opposed to all images of himself. Even in Scripture we find verbal descriptions of God's appearance, which are intended to create mental images for us (e.g., Exod. 13:21; Dan. 7:9). Then, too, human beings are all images of God (Gen. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 11:7). And we are not only allowed to make more, but we are exhorted to do so (cf. Gen. 5:3)! But again, we should not confuse a crafted image for one of flesh and blood (cf. Rom. 1:23, where an image of man is an evil thing when used as an idol). And of course, we are not to worship any image, including one of flesh and blood, unless of course that image happens to be God incarnate (2 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 1:3), and not just a portrayal of him.

So, then, I feel safe in saying that we should not haphazardly make images of God that he has not indicated are appropriate representations of him. But it should not be wrong to an image of a pillar of fire, for example, if we do not use it as an object of worship. This seems reasonable to me on the same basis on which the Larger Catechism argues that mental images are largely parallel to graven images (see argument on images of Jesus below).

With regard to images of Jesus in particular, certainly we ought not to make and worship an image Jesus, because we ought never to worship any image. But worshiping images and using images in worship are two different things, as we have seen. And we ought not to make images of God that God has not sanctioned, but Jesus' visible form was sanctioned by God. And of course, Jesus is also man, and there is no prohibition against making images of human beings so long as they are not used in idolatry. The question is sometimes asked this way: May we make an image of Christ's human nature? Although I think there is a better way to ask that (I prefer to think of making an image of a person who has a body, without having to distinguish that we are talking about his human nature), I think the answer is yes.

One reason I believe it is fine to make images of Jesus goes back to the Westminster Larger Catechism's thought that the same aspect of God's character that prohibits a graven image also prohibits a mental one. We see this type of dynamic in many places of Scripture, such as in the idea that looking at a woman lustfully violates the same principle that adultery does (Matt. 5:28). Just as we may not bow down to an idol in worship, we also may not worship the idol in our hearts even while we do not bow with our bodies.

If thoughts and realities are connected in principle, then if it is acceptable to have a mental image of Jesus, it should also be acceptable to make a physical representation of him, provided it is for proper use. Certainly no one would argue that it was wrong for Mary to have remembered Jesus' face, or for his disciples to have recalled his features in his absence. And if these mental images were not wrong for them, then they should not be wrong for us. And if the mental images were not wrong for them, then neither would a painting have been wrong. And if that was acceptable for them, then it is acceptable for us.

Granted, we don't know what he looked like. But that is not a valid reason to object to the existence of an image. After all, images never look precisely like the things they represent. Sometimes they are very different indeed. In practice, many images of Jesus don't even show the features of his face, so the objection would not even really apply.

When it comes to movies, there is nothing unbiblical about portraying Jesus in action — we all know that the actor doesn't look just the way Jesus did. Besides, symbolic activities and plays existed in the Bible (some of which were elements in the sacrificial system), and they were approved. And who in the world would think of complaining if his or her pastor used hand gestures in a sermon that mimicked an action taken by Jesus? That's also a form of visual representation in performance. Of course, a visual portrayal that did not honor him (e.g., corrupting the gospel account, showing him as sinful, etc.) would be wrong, but that is another issue.

Another reason I think it is fine to make an image of Christ is that in Jesus God sanctioned Jesus' visible human nature as a valid representation of himself. That is to say, in the incarnation, God demonstrated that it was okay to look upon him in human form and to ponder him visibly in human form. By becoming incarnate, God demonstrated that the commandment against graven images was not intended to prevent us from associating God with a visible form. This is very similar to the idea that God sanctioned our associating him with a visible form when he pointed out that we are images of him.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.