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The 3rd Commandment and Images of Christ

In the Reformed tradition, both English/Puritan[1] and Continental[2], the second commandment is understood as prohibiting all images of Christ regardless of their intended use. However, a common objection is made that this goes beyond the boundaries of Scriptural prohibition, which only excludes the use of images for the purpose of worship. While this is exegetically unsound, for the sake of this post let’s grant the point.

The Westminster Larger Catechism provides an expanded explanation of not only the sins forbidden in the 3rd commandment, but also of the duties required.

Q. 111. Which is the third commandment?
A. The third commandment is, Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Q. 112. What is required in the third commandment?
A. The third commandment requires, that the name of God, his titles, attributes, ordinances, the word, sacraments, prayer, oaths, vows, lots, his works, and whatsoever else there is whereby he makes himself known, be holily and reverently used in thought, meditation, word, and writing; by an holy profession, and answerable conversation, to the glory of God, and the good of ourselves, and others.

According to the English/Puritan tradition, as related in the Westminster Larger Catechism, the third commandment obliges us to only use the things regarding God in a holy and reverent way. This applies not only to his name but to any other way he has revealed himself. Thus, if we have an image of Christ which we purport to be accurate in any way, we are to meditate on that image to the glory of God. In short, we are required to use that image in worship. However, as the objection states, there is a prohibition of the utilization of any image in worship. This is uncontroversial among those claiming to be Reformed.

Q. 113. What are the sins forbidden in the third commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the third commandment are, the not using of God’s name as is required; and the abuse of it in an ignorant, vain, irreverent, profane, superstitious, or wicked mentioning or otherwise using his titles, attributes, ordinances, or works, by blasphemy, perjury; all sinful cursings, oaths, vows, and lots; violating of our oaths and vows, if lawful; and fulfilling them, if of things unlawful; murmuring and quarreling at, curious prying into, and misapplying of God’s decrees and providences; misinterpreting, misapplying, or any way perverting the word, or any part of it, to profane jests, curious or unprofitable questions, vain janglings, or the maintaining of false doctrines; abusing it, the creatures, or anything contained under the name of God, to charms, or sinful lusts and practices; the maligning, scorning, reviling, or any wise opposing of God’s truth, grace, and ways; making profession of religion in hypocrisy, or for sinister ends; being ashamed of it, or a shame to it, by unconformable, unwise, unfruitful, and offensive walking, or backsliding from it.

The sins forbidden in the second commandment are the flip side of the duties required. If the duties compel us to use what God has revealed in a holy and reverent way, to the glory of God —that is to use what God has revealed to worship him— then we are obligated to worship using any accurate image of God we have. We are forbidden to use such an image in a vain or irreverent way. This excludes any image that is not attempting to portray Christ in an accurate biblical way. It excludes any art which defames or demeans Christ. But it also prohibits any images which are not used to worship and glorify Christ. As stated above, it is uncontroversial among the Reformed that we are not to use images of Christ in worship, and according to this understanding… we are unable to not use images of Christ in worship if they existed.

The question sometimes comes up: What about images of Christ that are used for instructional reasons?

This is a reasonable question. Indeed instructing in the faith is an activity which glorifies God, but strictly speaking may not be worship. The Heidelberg Catechism addresses this in Q&A 98

Q. But may not images be permitted in churches
in place of books for the unlearned?

A. No, we should not try to be wiser than God.
God wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of his Word—
not by idols that cannot even talk.

This, to me, seems to be a conclusive argument against the production and use of images of Christ in any fashion. Let me summarize the four main points.

  1. If we have an accurate image of Christ, we are obligated to use that image in worship, to fail to do so would violate the 3rd commandment.
  2. We are forbidden to use any images in worship, to do so would constitute a violation of the 2nd commandment.
  3. If we have an inaccurate image which we purport to be of Christ, we are obligated to use it in worship, to fail to do so would violate the 3rd commandment.
  4. If we use an inaccurate image which we purport to be of Christ, we are worshiping a false idol, to do so would violate both the 2nd and 3rd commandments.

  1. WLC Q&A 109
  2. HC Q&A 96-98