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Icons, Graven Images, and the Church - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

The Tract Series

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A look at what defiles us in the second commandment.

Notation: Here are quotes, on a separate page, through the history of the church on idolatry and the second commandment – “Seeing Jesus”.

Christendom has a bad habit of continually reenacting historical mistakes. There are a number reasons for why this is the case. Citing them could take quite some time in a paper dedicated all its own to the task. But the mere fact that heresy and error plague the church in light of the “age of information” is astounding. Any Christian can set themselves for one hour in front of their computer and access millions of pages of text, treatises, sermons, books, and tracts on various religious subjects by CD-Rom or the Internet. With such a wealth of information at our fingertips you would think that the church at large would learn from its mistakes, or at least become aware of why they believe what they do in light of the history of the church. Yet, even with such information at our beck and call, modern Christendom continues to believe repackaged lies that contribute to its degradation and deter it from its needed reformation.

One of the more “touchy” issues in the contemporary church today is the controversy over images or pictures of Jesus Christ. Those who hold to the position of accepting images and pictures of Christ as “harmless” do so with little effort. (Now, I am making a huge distinction between Roman Catholics and Protestants here. Roman Catholicism is in a class all its own since the detrimental acceptance of relics and icon worship given in the 8th century. This we will revisit later.) When I refer to the “church” here, I am speaking about Protestant Churches who hold to this position, even those that hold steadfastly to the confessions of the Reformation (or at least give them lip service.) Their argument is very simple and it stands upon two maxims: 1) The pictures used are not being worshipped, and, 2) Jesus Christ was also a man, and there is no harm whatsoever of depicting him in that nature since he was, as the creeds say, “very man.”

The contemporary church has almost no idea about the controversies that engulfed the position they hold concerning the acceptance of images or pictures of Christ. Ignorantly, they have set themselves above and beyond the practices of the early church, have scorned the Reformation, and have aligned themselves with some of the most deviant heretics in the history of the church when they ascribe to the practice of allowing images of Christ to adorn their homes and churches. I believe they also fail in their attempt at proving this practice as acceptable both from clever arguments, as well as reinterpreting the second commandment to fit their inventions. Certainly they do not go as far as the Roman Catholics who remove the second commandment from the Bible altogether. But it should strike Protestants who hold this view of “seeing Jesus” as interesting that the Roman Catholics have done this in order to justify the existence of such pictures and idols in the Popish churches. This, in and of itself, should cause the Protestant eyebrow to rise in contemplation of such an act of hermeneutical error towards the Bible. Again, let me be as clear as I am able – the Roman Catholic Church removed the second commandment from the Bible in Exodus and Deuteronomy in order to substantiate the practice and use of icons and pictures of Jesus in their church. Certainly they include the worship and veneration of the saint, but the pictures of Christ are right along side of these, and in most cases far surpass them in number. This should be a cause for alarm for the Protestant who believes that similar icons or pictures are acceptable in any Christian church.

I certainly would not want anyone to believe something simply because another church group abused the practice (as some Baptists do with the issue of Infant Baptism, ascribing the practice as inherently Popish). I do, however, desire the “Reformed” Protestant to understand where images and pictures of Jesus Christ emerged out of, and what the Bible says about such things. Let us take a look at both the Biblical record and the historical record in order to understand why the practice is allowed, and why the practice ought to be forbidden.

Did God have a solid position on the prohibition of idols and images in the Old Testament narratives, and did He clearly state this position to His chosen people? The answer to this is a resounding “yes” in both points.[1] The command given continually through the Law and the Prophets condemn two aspects of images or pictorial representation of God in the Old Testament: 1) They condemn the making of any image or representation of God,[2] and 2) they condemn the worship of that image or representation. Scriptural passages dealing with these abound all through the Old Testament, but a few suffice to prove the point. The Moral Law[3] stated in Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10 commands, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” God has given His church the moral Law to promote holiness. Holiness is the sum of the Law, and if we were to follow it perfectly, we would be perfectly holy as God is (Lev. 19:2).[4]

The commandment is divided into two sections with a curse and blessing upon the latter half. The first section comprises of making an image, the second comprises bowing down to the image made, as previously stated, but should be emphasized. Oftentimes through the prophets, the command is simply not to make the image. In this case, the Law encompasses both aspects of making and worshipping, though they are treated separately. The words “You shall not make” means just that – men ought never make a visible representation or image of God in any way, shape or form. We are not to make or fashion anything that may in any way resemble God that can be found in heaven above, on the earth, or in the waters. The first half of the commandment does not say that we should not make or worship the image, it just forbids us to make it, or literally “fashion the object.”

The phrase ^l.-hf,[]t; al is in the imperfect tense accompanied with the negative, (2nd person masculine singular) meaning that men are not to “do, work, make, or produce” any image or picture which represents God. This has nothing to do with worshipping the image. Worshipping the image comes later. This simply addresses the “making” of the image. Imagining the form of the image, and fashioning it into that shape, is the first step in disobedience to the command. Sin always begins in the mind, and the commandment is given so that the imaginations of the mind are not excited and cultivated by the creation of the image.

What are men “not to make” specifically? The translation is often “graven images,” but this is more of a dynamic equivalent than a translation. The actual Hebrew word is a common noun, and can be masculine or feminine depending upon the context, but meaning the same thing; hn”WmT – form, image, likeness, representation, or semblance. The word “form or image” derives from the idea of “hewing out something into a shape.” When a wood-worker carves a statue out of a piece of oak it takes on a specific shape and is an image of something – a bird, fox, cat, dog, fish, etc. God commands that men do not fashion, or make an image that, in any way, represents Him. Men are not to make any image of anything representing Him from heaven, from the earth, or from anything in the waters. (Does that cover just about everything? Yes it does, including the likeness of human beings.) “No images!” is God’s moral rule for all time. God specifically condemns the act of forming or fashioning an image that attempts to represent any member of the Triune God.

The second half of the second commandment adds another clause to the prohibition. Not only are men not to make an image or representation of God, but also they should never bow down and worship one. If they take heed not to create it, they will have a far greater “chance” not to bow down to something that is not there! God is an orderly God and the order here in clauses is very purposeful. If we have no image, we will not bow down to it.

It is imperative that we define “worship” at this point. Those who lobby to “see Jesus” in pictures do so with the notion that they are not “worshipping Him” with those images. So addressing the notion of “worship” is important before moving onto the repetition of the command not to make images through the Old Testament. In its root form the word “worship” comes from a variety of Hebrew words and denotes a number of ideas. One is the idea of “kissing.”[5] When men worship God they are bowing down to kiss the Son, lest he become angry. (Psalm 2) Its further definition construes just that – “bowing down” – as in Genesis 2:5, “And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” Psalm 95:6 also joins worship and bowing down as “bowing and bending the knee before God.” Some complete phrases also determine ideas concerning “worship,” as in Genesis 4:3 where Cain and Able “brought” the fruit of the flock and ground to worship God in sacrifice. A more complete idea of worship, though still shadowy, is given when the Levitical priesthood is instituted. The theme of the book of Leviticus is “holiness.” Here worship also encompasses the sacrifices of the heart with holiness that reveres God in His utter holiness. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” All of these ideas certainly encompass the idea of worship. But what is worship at its core? Is there a boiling down or starting point at which worship begins?

One of the best treatises on worship ever written outside of the Bible is Jeremiah Burroughs’ work, “Gospel Worship.” It is actually a collection of sermons on Leviticus 10:3, “I will be sanctified by those that draw near to me.” Burroughs gives us a good definition of worship as he construes as “high thoughts of God” all through those sermons. Drawing near to God begins with the mind. It is to have high thoughts of Him. Vain thoughts, Burroughs says, draw us away from God, where high thoughts of Him, or those thoughts which honor Him, draw us closer to Him. Worship begins with having honorable, or high thoughts, about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How then would we apply this to worship? I think the Bible is clear in that worship begins and advances from the mind speaking to the heart. It is that which the mind knows and understands in truth about the Creator and about Jesus Christ. Those thoughts, then dictate the manner in which we worship. Worship then is centered in our thoughts about God, and the elevated thoughts we then continually have about Him. We do not have to be in a formal “worship” service to worship God. Romans 12:1-2 says that our whole lives are to reflect the consciousness of being a “living sacrifice” before God in worship. This would argue that everything we do is for His glory and it is done before Him in some form of worship. Everything, then that the Christian engages in including eating and drinking, is a form of worship on some level because we are guided in this life by what we know about God. God knew the Israelites could not disengage their minds when they looked at an idol or image of Him. He knew that the image was a representation of what they had already construed in their own mind – again, that is the place where all sin begins. It is impossible for an Israelite man or woman to have gazed on the idol, without thinking it had anything to do with God whatsoever. In doing this and thinking thoughts about God the Israelites began to worship, just like when people look at stained glass windows, or Christian movies which help them to think about God and the manner in which god works in Biblical stories. It is impossible to not engage in some form, no matter how small, of worship in those images because worship in spirit and truth begins in the mind of the worshipper (Ezek. 20:24). After this, external acts of worship evolve from that seed point – things like raising the hands, singing, prayer and the like. Yet, in all cases, worship begins with thinking about God – it begins with our thought life.

Having given a simple definition for worship, we traverse back to the verses concerning images of God even after the giving of the moral Law. Some examples help us to see the same type of structure in the commandment. Leviticus 26:1 says, “Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the LORD your God.” The command here begins with the creation of the image, and the reinforcement of not doing this, and then prohibits the bowing down to it. Isaiah 40:18-20 depicts God’s question of creating an image when He says, “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him? The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains. He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree that will not rot; he seeketh unto him a cunning workman to prepare a graven image, that shall not be moved.” Hosea 13:2 also shows the abomination of making and worshipping the molten images, “And now they sin more and more, and have made them molten images of their silver, and idols according to their own understanding, all of it the work of the craftsmen: they say of them, Let the men that sacrifice kiss the calves.” Isaiah 31:7 joins the making of the idol with sin, not the worshipping of it, thought hat inevitably leads there, “For in that day every man shall cast away his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which your own hands have made unto you for a sin.” (The same can be said of Isaiah 45:13, Hosea 8:4 and other passages.) Pagan idolatry was a temptation for the Israelites because they came out of a severely pagan country-Egypt. They worshipped everything from the River Nile to the Pharaoh himself. Dogs, mules, frogs, insects, fish and the sun were among their “gods.” God commands the Israelites to abstain from making anything in heaven, on the earth, or in the waters for any kind of worship because none of them can accurately represent God as He is in Himself. To attempt to make an image of God is to debase Him – this God hates. We see His hatred for this in the phrase “for I am a jealous God” in the commandment itself. Men cannot have high thoughts of God when He is debased in images of things in heaven, the earth, or in the sea. The idolatry of the second commandment, then, begins in the head, travels down to the heart and ultimately winds up in the hands (in the form of an idol).

You may be saying, all seems good so far. You agree that we should not worship graven images. You say that the Old Testament Scriptures ring true and we should follow this command since it is God’s holy Word. God gave these commandments and statues to keep us from committing such heinous crimes against His holy character. Does the New Testament ring true with this as well? The answer to that question is “most assuredly.” Paul says in 1 Tim. 1:17 that God is invisible. One of God’s attributes is that of invisibility. He cannot be seen. To form an image of something that represents part of an idea of God (like a golden calf representing strength and power) would be to diminish God. Stephen picks this up in Acts 7 where he reproves Israel for worshipping the golden calf and idols. Paul in Acts 17 comments on worship and the nature of God when he says, “Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.”[6] Paul was also taken back when he visited Athens and saw the abominations where this speech is given. The text prefaces his statements by saying, “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” His correspondence to the churches also includes the prohibition of idolatry: 1 Corinthians 10:14, “Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.” 2 Corinthians 6:16-17, “And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord.” The Apostle John also is of the same mind when he says in 1 John 5:21, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.”[7]

What was Jesus’ reaction to those who wanted to “see” him? The question is put to the apostles in John 12:20-21, “Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast. Then they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This is interesting that the Greeks wanted to see Christ. The word see here is used in a number of ways in the Gospel of John. Here, I believe, there is a play on words. The Greeks what to “see him,” to “perceive with the eyes.” But Jesus reaction to this is that they should really “see” Him by faith. He answers the Apostles who approach Him in John 12:23ff, “And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour. Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, an angel spake to him. Jesus answered and said, this voice came not because of me, but for your sakes. Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die.” It is interesting to me to note that when the Greeks wanted to see him, He turned the question of seeing to the historical account of His coming death and the need to serve Him in that capacity. So we see that both the Old Testament and New Testament condemn and rebuke the creation and service to idols or images of God, and even Jesus responds in an interesting manner when the Greeks wanted to “see” Him.

We should also be aware of the regulatory principle of worship. This obviously has strong implications on utilizing pictures of Jesus for any kind of “high thoughtfulness.” The Regulative Principle is very well defined in the Westminster Confession of Faith,[8] “The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.[9] But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.[10]” So the question is posed, “If this principle of Scripture condemns the addition or subtraction to what God has instituted or prohibited in “high thoughts” about Him, would it be acceptable to introduce images or pictures of God or Christ for the purpose of the edification of the body in any manner?” I believe the answer to this is a resounding “No.” The Westminster Confession’s Larger Catechism helps us see this issue clearly. In question 109 it states, “What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?” The answer is, “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 hath appointed.”[11] At this point, those who claim the Reformed Faith ought to immediately be persuaded that the Reformation stood in stark contrast to images and pictures – even those in the mind.

Let us now consider images and pictures of Jesus Christ. We do not have one instance of Christ being portrayed physically anywhere in the Gospels, or through the testaments. There are instances of Him as “despised,” in Isaiah, as one not to behold, and His age is hinted at in John 8 – He was not yet 50 years old. Otherwise, the Holy Spirit did not give us one instance of Christ’s appearance anywhere in the Bible. With so different pretended portraits of the Lord we cannot begin to wonder at the variations of the pictures of Christ, which the Iconoclasts used as an argument against images. In truth, every nation formed a likeness of its own, according to its existing ideals of art and virtue.[12] Not only this, but I find it interesting that when Christ is portrayed in pictures or in movies, that he is given long hair – like a woman (1 Corinthians 11:15). Not only is this inaccurate from a Semitic standpoint, but it also ascribes to Christ something that is the glory of a woman, not a man. It ascribes to Him actions of having long hair which is sinful according to 1 Corinthians 11:14, “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” Is this the Jesus Christian was to “see?”

There is no doubt that some Christians with very “good intentions” (see the WCF above) will challenge the theological statement made by the Confession and alluded to in the preceding paragraph with the fact that Jesus Christ was also man, and that the images or pictures of Him as man are acceptable. This is easily remedied. Biblically speaking, those who hold the view that pictures are acceptable, and can be used in Sunday School literature, in children’s books, in movies, in pictures, in stained glass and the like, may be challenged by defining the nature of the Christ, the Son of God. For orthodox Christians Jesus Christ is God. No one disputes this. The dispute arises from whether we are allowed to display His humanity at the expense of His deity. The answer to this is theological. Let us ask the question this way: Can anyone portray Jesus Christ in a picture or image of Him accurately with the information we have in the Bible? The answer to this is “No we cannot.” First, we have no evidence to assimilate as to the nature of his physical characteristics. But even aside from this, we could not possibly portray Him accurately since, as the creed states, He is very God and very man. Throughout the history of the church heretics have attempted to divide the natures of Christ in one manner or another. Calvin affirms this in his treatise on relics when he says, “I could multiply proofs of this kind without end, but I shall only observe, that even in the fourth century the orthodox Christians considered the worship of every created being as idolatry, because the opponents of the Arians, who considered Jesus Christ as created and not co-essential with God the Father, employed the following argument to combat this dogma: — “If you consider Jesus Christ a created being, you commit idolatry by worshipping him.”[13] Though the Arians saw Christ as “a created being” the point to be made is that the same arguments Christian are using today that Christ was a “man” is the same arguments used by the Arians for the same reason in worship. No image can capture the essence of God. None of them can truly represent His nature or being. Jesus Christ as the God-man (that which is inseparably so) is debased when he is portrayed in an inaccurate light either by false interpretations of his physical stature, or by not exemplifying the reality of His deity as fully God. Christians then may acquiesce to the point and say, “well of course Jesus Christ cannot be portrayed as “fully God”, it is impossible to capture this in something finite like human flesh.” This is part of the argument at hand. But they continue, “What we want to do is try to capture something of His humanity.” Again, two important points must be established, you cannot capture something you have no substantiated proof for (no descriptions or pictures of Him exist) and secondly, you cannot capture Him as He really is, the God-man. Any attempt to do so is always going to be a debasing of the nature of Jesus Christ as the God-man.

So far in summary, we see that the Old Testament and New Testament abhor images representing God; we see that anything added in worship that is not expressly commanded by God is sin (regulative principle); we see that any removal of anything commanded for worship by God is sin (regulative principle); we see that worship is “high thoughts” and that worship first begins in the mind; we see that we have no pictures or images of Jesus Christ anywhere recorded, either in the Old Testament or New Testament; we see that when Christ is portrayed in pictures He is portrayed Semitically inaccurate and sinfully feminine; and we see that none can capture the true nature of Jesus Christ the Son of God as both the God-man.

Let us turn to the practical picture of all this before we look at why Christians believe this historically. Practically, what do pictures of Jesus Christ do for the Christian? How is their faith increased or helped by pictures or images? Many Christians have said something similar to the following, “It makes Jesus Christ more real or vivid to me.” Seeing someone portray Christ in a play or movie is much more helpful to a person, so they say, than trying to think through His life by the Gospel accounts. It seems that when all of the senses are involved in this act of “seeing Jesus” then it makes for a much more emotional and intellectual grasp of how He would have really been 2000 years ago. Francis Turretin, an Italian Theologian living during the Great Reformation quoted a man by the name of Ennaratio. Ennaratio said, “I worship not this visible thing (the image), but the divinity dwelling nearby.” In other words, He was saying, “These things (pictures and stained glass windows of Jesus praying on that big rock) aids us to worship because it helps us to visually see God. In this way we can worship Him all the more.” In essence, the Christian is attempting to capture now, what God has promised in the life to come. They are blatantly disobeying the manner in which the Christian is to walk in this life (by faith) and they desire to live by sight, at least in some measure. 2 Corinthians 5:7 makes this plain, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” Yes, we will see Him when we go to heaven, and our faith will be made sight. And I understand that emotionally, Christians long for Christ, and should long to see Him. But they should not long to see Him in a manner that God condemns in images, trying to capture “something” of Jesus.

Seeing Jesus is not the manner in which the Bible expresses or demonstrates Him to us. If Christians desire to be reminded of Him in earthly shadowy terms, then they should turn to the Lord’s Supper, something commanded by Christ; not the movies. Christians are not to be sensuous Christians. That does not mean they are not emotional, certainly they are. However, it does mean that they are not feeling based. Their intellect should dictate the manner of their walk through the Word. When Christians acquiesce to the pictorial representations of Christ for aid in having high thoughts of God, they are calling into question the manner of divine revelation. God has given us His Word, not Hollywood versions of “Jesus” as our guide; nor did He inspire marble statues to be carved out by talented men like Michelangelo. In looking to these things, God’s wisdom in revealing His Son through the Word is immediately brought into question. Is God wise enough to give us “everything” that pertains to life and godliness in His Word? Using images of Christ for any purpose, then, calls this into question.

Historically, how did all these images come into play in mainstream worship? Why do Christians today want to “see Jesus” in this manner? Though images go as far back as Israel and Egypt, this all came to fruition through the watershed era of the iconoclastic controversy. What is an icon (eijkw>n)? The word is Greek, and means an “image or representation.” Historically this name designates what they would consider sacred representations of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, his “immaculate Mother,” and His “saints.” The Seventh Ecumenical Council was famous for bringing all this to fruition. The restoration of image-worship by the Seventh Ecumenical council was finalized in 787. Their position was the following, “Is the use of holy icons agreeable to the second commandment? It would then, and then only, be otherwise, if any one were to make gods of them; but it is not in the least contrary to this commandment to honor icons as sacred representations, and to use them for the religious remembrance of God’s works and of his saints; for when thus used icons are books, written with the forms of persons and things instead of letters. (See Greg. Magn. lib. ix. Ep. 9, ad Seren. Epis.). “What disposition of mind should we have when we reverence icons? “While we look on them with our eyes, we should mentally look to God and to the saints, who are represented on them.” This was a mock council of Constantinople and it stated that the sacred icons of Jesus Christ are to be had and retained, inasmuch as he was very man; also those which set forth what is historically narrated in the Gospels. This is the exact same argument Christians use today for the use of icons; and it should be remembered that this idea is what the Roman Catholic Church ultimately adopted later on in determining the use of icons in their church, as well as the Eastern Orthodox Church at this time. (For a full account of a defense of icon worship and adoration, see John of Damascus and Theodore Studius’ works on the subject.)

The Roman Catholic Church could not escape this kind of iconoclastic worship. Even Thomas Aquinas erred greatly in this area. But he helps define what this all means, even if today’s Christian who is involved in the same is not as precise. He says, “The worship of religion is paid to images, not as considered in themselves, nor as things, but as images leading us to God incarnate. Now movement to an image as image does not stop at the image, but goes on to the thing it represents. Hence neither “latria” nor the virtue of religion is differentiated by the fact that religious worship is paid to the images of Christ.”[14] This is inescapable.

Phillip Schaff explains quite well how all this historically occurred. “The first representations of Christ are of heretical and pagan origin. The Gnostic sect of the Carpocratians worshipped crowned pictures of Christ, together with images of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and other sages, and asserted that Pilate had caused a portrait of Christ to be made. In the same spirit of pantheistic hero-worship the emperor Alexander Severus (A.D. 222–235) set up in his domestic chapel for his adoration the images of Abraham, Orpheus, Apollonius, and Christ.[15] The iconoclastic Synod of 754 denounced image-worship as a relapse into heathen idolatry, which the devil had smuggled into the church in the place of the worship of God alone in spirit and in truth. The iconoclastic party, however, was not consistent; for it adhered to saint-worship which is the root of image-worship, and instead of sweeping away all religious symbols, it retained the sign of the cross with all its superstitious uses, and justified this exception by the Scripture passages on the efficacy of the cross, though these refer to the sacrifice of the cross, and not to the sign.[16] The same theories and parties reappeared again in the age of the Reformation: the Roman as well as the Greek church adhered to image-worship with an occasional feeble protest against its abuses, and encouraged the development of fine arts, especially in Italy; the radical Reformers (Carlstadt, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox) renewed the iconoclastic theory and removed, in an orderly way, the pictures from the churches, as favoring a refined species of idolatry and hindering a spiritual worship.”[17] The history of the image-controversy embraces three periods: 1) The war upon images and the abolition of image-worship by the Council of Constantinople, A.D. 726–754. 2) The reaction in favor of image-worship, and its solemn sanction by the second Council of Nicaea, A.D. 754–787. 3) The renewed conflict of the two parties and the final triumph of image-worship, A.D. 842.[18] This alone, however, did not warrant images of Christ. For, in the first place, authentic accounts of the personal appearance of Jesus were lacking; and furthermore it seemed incompetent to human art duly to set forth Him in whom the whole fullness of the Godhead and of perfect sinless humanity dwelt in unity. The church historian Eusebius declared himself in the strongest manner against images of Christ in a letter to the empress Constantia (the widow of Licinius and sister of Constantine), who had asked him for such an image. Christ, says he, has laid aside His earthly servant-form, and Paul exhorts us to cleave no longer to the sensible; and the transcendent glory of His heavenly body cannot be conceived nor represented by man; besides, the second commandment forbids the making to ourselves any likeness of anything in heaven or in earth. He had taken away from a lady an image of Christ and of Paul, lest it should seem as if Christians, like the idolaters, carried their God about in images. Believers ought rather to fix their mental eye, above all, upon the divinity of Christ, and, for this purpose, to purify their hearts; since only the pure in heart shall see God.[19] The prevalent spirit of the age already very decidedly favored this material representation as a powerful help to virtue and devotion, especially for the uneducated classes, whence the use of images, in fact, mainly proceeded.[20]

It is without a doubt that history proves the use of images and pictures of Jesus Christ for any purpose was of pagan origins and then later approved by the Roman Catholic Church. If Christians today desire to use these pictures and images of Jesus Christ for any purpose, they are aligning themselves with the Roman Church, and the seventh Ecumenical Council, as well as breaking fellowship with the foundations of Reformation theology. Historically speaking, generational children beginning with the early church through Augustine, and then from the Reformation to the Puritans, to colonial America with Edwards and Whitefield later on, never at any time utilized images or pictures of Christ.[21] As a matter of fact, they vehemently opposed their use.[22] The following is a very brief and limited group of quotes:

Augustine of Hippo (4th c.)

“Thus, they erred, who sought Christ and his apostles not in the sacred writings, but on painted walls.”

Council of Elibertine

“Pictures ought not to be in churches, nor any object of adoration or praise be painted on the walls.”

John Calvin (16th c.)

Treatise on Relics

“As soon as anyone has devised an image of God, they have instituted false worship. The object of Moses is to restrain the rashness of men, lest they should travesty God’s glory by their imaginations.”

The church in the beginning tolerated these abuses, as a temporary evil, but was afterwards unable to remove them; and they became so strong, particularly during the prevailing ignorance of the middle ages, that the church ended by legalizing, through her decrees, that at which she did nothing but wink at first. I shall endeavor to give my readers a rapid sketch of the rise, progress, and final

establishment of the Pagan practices which not only continue to prevail in the Western as well as in the Eastern church, but have been of late, notwithstanding the boasted progress of intellect in our days, manifested in as bold as successful a manner. (Page 8)

It appears, however, that the use of pictures was creeping into the church

already in the third century, because the council of Elvira in Spain, held in

305, especially forbids to have any picture in the Christian churches. (Page 11)

Such a practice was, however, fraught with the greatest danger, as experience has but too much proved. It was replacing intellect by sight. Instead of elevating man towards God, it was bringing down the Deity to the level of his finite intellect, and it could not but powerfully contribute to the rapid spread of a pagan anthropomorphism in the church. (Page 11)

Now, the origin and root of this evil, has been, that, instead of discerning Jesus Christ in his Word, his Sacraments, and his Spiritual Graces, the world has, according to its ‘custom, amused itself with his clothes, shirts, and sheets, leaving thus the principal to follow the accessory. (Page 133)

I know well that there is a certain appearance of real devotion and zeal in the allegation, that the relics of Jesus Christ are preserved on account of the honor that is rendered to him, and in order the better to preserve his memory. But it is necessary to consider what St Paul says, that every service of God invented by man, whatever appearance of wisdom it may have, is nothing better than vanity and foolishness, if it has no other foundation than our own devising. (Page 133)

John Owen

Works of Owen, Volume 14

“And these fine discourses of the “actuosity of the eye above the ear,” and

its faculty of administering to the fancy, are but pitiful, weak attempts, for

men that have no less work in hand than to set up their own wisdom in the

room of and above the wisdom of God.” (Page 149)

“Besides, who appointed them to be made? As I take it, it was God himself, who did therein no more contradict himself than he did when he commanded his people to spoil the Egyptians, having yet forbid all men to steal. His own special

dispensation of a law constitutes no general rule; so that (whoever are blind or fools) it is certain that the making of images for religious veneration is expressly forbidden of God unto the sons of men. But, alas! “They were foreign images, the ugly faces of Moloch, Dagon, Ashtaroth; he forbade not his own.” Yea, but they are images or likenesses of himself that, in the first place and principally, he forbids them to make; and he en-forceth his command upon them from hence, that when he spake unto them in Horeb they “saw no manner of similitude,” (Page 150)

Works of Owen, Volume 1

“So do the Papists delude themselves. Their carnal affections are excited by their outward senses to delight in images of Christ, — in his sufferings, his resurrection, and glory above. Hereon they satisfy themselves that they behold the glory of Christ himself and that with love and great delight. But whereas there is not the least true representation made of the Lord Christ or his glory in these things, — that being confined absolutely unto the gospel alone, and this way of attempting it being laid under a severe interdict, — they do but sport themselves with their own deceivings.” (Page 372)

Works of Owen, Volume 8, Sermon 15

“This, therefore, is evident, that the introduction of this abomination, in principle and practice destructive unto the souls of men, took its rise from the loss of an experience of the representation of Christ in the gospel, and the transforming power in the minds of men which it is accompanied with, in them that believe.” (Page 649) (cf. Owen, Volume 1, Page 244)

Thomas Watson (17th c.)

The Ten Commandments

“Nor the likeness of any thing” means, “All ideas, portraits, shapes, images of God, whether by effigies or pictures, is hereby forbidden to be made.” God is to be adored in the heart, not painted to the eye. To set up an image to represent God is to debase him. Idolatry is devil worship.”

Francis Turretin (17th c.)

“Any religious worship should not be paid to images; thinking piously before an image is forbidden. We condemn here the treatment of sacred or religious images that are supposed to contribute something to the excitement of religious feeling. God forbids the making of them and the worship of them.”

Matthew Henry (17th c.)

“Our religious worship must be governed by the power of faith, not by the power of imagination. Idolatry is spiritual adultery.”

John Gill (18th c.)

“No image of God was to be made at all, since no similitude was ever seen of Him, or any likeness could be conceived; and it must be a piece of gross ignorance, madness and impudence to pretend to make one; and great impiety to worship it.”

Charles Hodge (18th c.)

“Idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images.”

J.I. Packer (20th c.)

“We are not to make use of visual or pictorial representations of the Triune God, or of any person of the Trinity, for the purposes of Christian worship.”

God is to be worshipped rightly. We even break the second commandment when we imagine pictures of Christ in our minds. Those thoughts are just as much an image as if we were to draw the image out on paper, or carve it into a piece of wood. Those thoughts must be taken captive to the true Christ, not our sinful idea of what we think He is. People have, for centuries, thought of God as the big, white haired, grandfather with the long white robe, as the model for God. You see it in cartoons, commercials and magazines constantly. God cannot be represented in such a lowly way. We demean the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by trying to depict them in ways that they specifically have commanded that we do not. It is for our good.

“If such things are sinful, how are we to worship God?” Jesus tells us this plainly in John 4:24, “God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” God is not a God we can box and sell in an action figure. He is a God who is eternal Spirit and unified in infinite attributes that can never be captured by a paintbrush. No sculptor can carve Him out, and no filmmaker can accurately portray Him in a movie (these are nothing more than “moving pictures”). All attempts at doing so is a violation of the second commandment.

So what do we do now? We clean house. We remove everything from our midst that would cause us to break the second commandment. Let me even further illustrate what graven images can do. A relative of a Christian friend has a “picture of Jesus” hanging on their wall (an Americanized picture of the blue-eyed “Jesus”). Each time this person buys a lottery ticket, they place the ticket in the frame of the picture thinking that “Jesus” is going to bless it somehow. Or what about the man who drives by a church, stops, gets out of his car, and genuflects before the big cross in the front yard. He then sets a few dollars on the ground near the base of the cross, gets back in his car and drives away. What do we do? We must rid ourselves of everything that imposes on us a manner or means of reflecting on Christ not commanded or given to us by God in the Bible. We must ask the Lord to forgive us for the ignorance we have showed in violating the second commandment. Even David prayed, “Cleanse me from my secret faults, (Psalm 19:12).” We do not even realize one tenth of the sins we commit. We need to be faithful to God in upholding His righteous Law. It is the basis by which the Holy Spirit measures us. We cannot miss the mark of God’s perfect holiness, and when we begin to make or worship graven images, we have fallen into the same trap as the “stiff-necked” people of Israel. We end up committing the same sin that Israel committed in Exodus 32. So often we have said, “How could they have been so foolish?!!” The question we must ask is, “How could I have been so foolish?”

Every Christian needs to take a long hard look at the way they worship throughout every minute of every day; both in their daily walk and in formal worship. God requires His worship to be pure, and that we worship Him and Him alone. And we should never, ever think that God could be adequately portrayed in graven images. We should never consent to buy them, use them, look at them, make them, draw them, paint them, color them, sculpt them, or think about them. We should strive to keep our worship pure from adulterating it with graven images. We should be appalled at the local Christian bookstore for marketing such things. They remind me of the devil’s “vendors” we see in Scriptures, those who fashion idols with their hands and sold them to the Israelites (Deut. 12; 1 Kings 18). God condemns them at every turn. We are to live by faith in the Son of God, not idols made with hands that cause us to ponder Christ with high thoughts. In the long run, images and pictures do not aid us in worship at all – they negate high thoughts of God to lowly and debased thoughts. They are impediments, not helps. Why would we turn to the images in movies, or in painted pictures, instead of the Bible? In my estimation the answer is easy – the work needed to see Christ in the Bible is harder and more difficult than quickly getting a fix from a movie or from an image with a quaint saying or Scripture verse attached to it.[23] God does command that we have certain kinds of thoughts about Him, and nowhere does the Bible allow us to have high thoughts of Him based on misrepresentation and idols made with hands. To do so is in violation of His holy Law and the second commandment that prohibits the making, or worship, of such things before Him.

[1] I am fully aware that the purpose of this paper is to discuss “images of Jesus”, but in order to understand the Biblical record, we ought to survey the Old Testament as well as the New Testament to find some kind of teaching which allows the practice.

[2] It is to be understood that in relation to the Old Testament, when the phrase “images or representation of God” is used in this paper, it is referring to the Triune Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[3] The Moral Law is binding on all men for all time. It is otherwise known as the Decalogue or 10 Commandments.

[4] No one except Christ has done this, but God still commands we all keep His Law. Keeping the law does not save us; rather, we are saved by grace. But the Law teaches us to walk down the path of holiness.

[5] The Hebrew here also connotes the idea of “handling gently” which adds a kind of reverence to the clause.

[6] The word “worship” here is interesting, it means “to serve” (qerapeu,w therapeuo {ther-ap-yoo’-o}) Serving God in any capacity is seen as worship – this would include self edification and the advancement of religion in one’s life.

[7] The word keep here would be better translated “guard.”

[8] Chapter 21, Paragraph 3.

[9] Rom. 1:20; Psa. 19:1-4a; 50:6; 86:8-10; 89:5-7; 95:1-6; 97:6; 104:1-35; 145:9-12; Acts 14:17; Deut. 6:4-5.

[10] Deut. 4:15-20; 12:32; Matt. 4:9-10; 15:9; Acts 17:23-25; Exod. 20:4-6, John 4:23-24; Col. 2:18-23 states

[11] Num. 15:39; Deut. 13:6-8; Hosea 5:11; Micah 6:16; I Kings 11:33; 12:33; Deut. 12:30-32; Deut. 13:6-12; Zech. 13:2-3; Rev. 2:2, 14-15, 20, Rev. 17:12, 16-17; Deut. 4:15-19; Acts 17:29; Rom. 1:21-23, 25; Dan. 3:18; Gal. 4:8; Exod. 32:5; Exod. 32:8; I Kings 18:26, 28; Isa. 65:11; Acts 17:22; Col. 2:21-23; Mal. 1:7-8, 14; Deut. 4:2; Psa. 106:39; Matt. 15:9; I Peter 1:18; Jer. 44:17; Isa. 65:3-5; Gal. 1:13-14; I Sam. 13:11-12; 15:21; Acts 8:18; 22. Rom. 2:22; Mal. 3:8; Exod. 4:24-26; Matt. 22:5; Mal. 1:7, 13; Matt. 23:13; Acts 13:44-45; I Thess. 2:15-16 – these are the proof texts the WCF gives for this statement. Emphasis mine.

[12] Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Ages Library, Page 437.

[13] John Calvin, On Relics, Page 10, Ages Software Volume 8.

[14] Thomas Aquinas, Summa, P(2b)-Q(81)-A(3)-RO(3)

[15] Ibid, Page 432.

[16] Phillip Schaff – History of the Christian Church, Ages Library, Page 369.

[17] Ibid, Page 370.

[18] Ibid, Page 372.

[19] Ibid, Page 433.

[20] Ibid, Page 434.

[21] Though some may point out Martin Luther, one must travel through his life to see that he did oppose such usage later on, though not in his early conversion. This is understandable since he was a stalwart for justification which was by far more important in the grand scope of things at that time.

[22] I have never come across a reformer or Puritan who allowed the use of images of Christ in any manner; early Luther and Aquinas as exceptions.

[23] Children grow up with comics, video games, movies, TV and the like, and are turned away from thoughtfulness and thinking through the Scriptures. It is easier for a parent to point at a picture for family devotions than to take the time necessary to have a proper family devotion with the Bible. That takes preparation. I agree – it is hard to teach children and to teach your family about Jesus! No one said it was going to be easy.

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Reformed Theology at A Puritan's Mind