As we come into the season which is commonly known as Advent, which leads up to the day when millions of Christians around the world celebrate the incarnation of the Son, we are often faced with various images which purport to be more or less faithful representations of Jesus Christ. The historic Reformed position since has always been that any image of any person of the Godhead, including the Son according to humanity, is inherently a violation of the 2nd commandment, regardless of its use. Additionally, I have made the argument that even if the 2nd commandment was only forbidding the use of such images in worship, that to possess an image that you believe to faithfully represent God (Jesus particularly), and not use that in reverent devotion is a violation of the 3rd commandment.
Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that the Reformed are wrong. That it is not sinful to possess or use images of Jesus according to humanity. Are there still good reasons to forsake the use of such images? I think that there are. I think you’ll see a theme present itself.
The Image is a Cheap Substitute
One of the hopes of the Christian faith is that we will someday see Christ. This event is often called the beatific vision and refers to that time when we will see the risen and glorified Christ in the final eschatological glorification. The Apostle John writes:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
-1 John 3:2 (ESV)
When we make images of Christ now, we are in some sense trying to propel ourselves forward to this time. Rather than wait in patient and hopeful expectation, we make cheap knock-offs to satisfy our desire. We often hear saints, especially as they approach death, say that they long to see Jesus. This is a good and godly desire that we all have, but it is not one that we fulfill on our own terms. The fact that Jesus is hidden from our sight until a time that God chooses points to his sovereignty. When we make images of Christ, we seek to rob him in a small way of that sovereignty by giving ourselves something that is pleasant to the eye, and useful for making one wise.
The Image is a False One
No matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, the image that we create and put in front of us is necessarily a false one. The Gospels give us no visual detail related to what the Son looked like as an incarnate man. Even if we attempt to extrapolate the basic features of a 1st-century Jewish man, we are still guessing. It is notoriously difficult to accurately portray any given population group from antiquity, so to try to produce an average or particular person absent specific visual data (paintings, sculptures, etc) or visual descriptions is a fool’s errand. This may not be entirely problematic when painting an image of someone, but we are talking about God. Falsely representing God is a grave sin and one that is directly connected to idolatry in the Old Testament. Even well-meaning attempts that fall short should be avoided, and by definition, any image we make of Jesus falls short.
The Image Leads to Christological Error
This is a bit technical, but there was a heresy in the Early Church which taught that Jesus was not a single person who was a union of two natures, but a union of two persons. This error, which was called Nestorianism, was guilty of dividing the Son up such that he was practically two Sons. Throughout the ages, the moniker Nestorianism has been applied to any Christological position which inappropriately divides up the natures of Christ such that the unity is lost. Fundamentally, Nestorius and his followers taught that Jesus was a person who was specially graced by a radical and unprecedented union with the Logos.
Fundamentally the error of Nestorianism confuses the miracle that took place in the incarnation. Christianity affirms that the miracle of Christ’s birth was that God became a man. However, when we paint an image of Christ, we only paint a picture of a man. The fact that the imaged man is also God cannot be portrayed visually. This subtle division of Christ’s humanity from his divinity leads to the destruction of the unity of natures. Rather than imaging the God-man, we are often somehow imaging a man who is especially graced by God. A man who is empowered to do mighty deeds. A man who is serving God’s people as God’s representative. A man who dies on a cross, and is raised again. While all of these statements are true, they are incomplete. Unless we keep in our minds that that man is also fully God, we have lost the true biblical Christ, and thus lost the true biblical Gospel. Images of a man that we claim to be Christ lead us to unintentionally miss this point.
Now, this point is often dismissed by those claiming to be Reformed who wish to use images (RC Sproul for example). However, it is not as though this is a new argument. In a sermon delivered on May 23, 1555, John Calvin says this:
Behold, they paint and portray Jesus Christ, who (as we know) is not only man, but also God manifested in the flesh: and what a representation is that? He is God’s eternal Son in whom dwells the fullness of the God head, yea even substantially. Seeing it is said, substantially, should we have portraitures and images whereby only the flesh may be represented? Is it not a wiping away of that which is chiefest in our Lord Jesus Christ, that is to wit, of his divine Majesty? Yes: and therefore whensoever a Crucifix stands mopping & mowing in the Church, it is all one as if the Devil had defaced the son of God. 1
Images Incline Us to Worship Using Images
All of the above arguments in some sense flow from the fact that the image created, no matter how accurate it may or may not be, is false. It is a construct of human imagination. The human mind is a powerful thing, and of all animals, we are in many senses uniquely visual. That is not to say we have the best vision, but our memories and thinking are often inexorably tied to visual information.
I can recall with great accuracy, and sometimes involuntarily, visual events of significant importance. I can remember the color and texture of the shirt my wife was wearing the first time I saw her, despite not having seen that shirt for several years. I can recall the look on my mother’s face as I stepped behind the podium to deliver the funeral sermon and eulogy for my father.
Even more than that, we are able to take images that we have retained in our minds, and fuse them together to create entirely new images. If I tell you to imagine an elephant wearing blue jeans and a bow tie, you are probably able to do that and were you to somehow compare the images we’ve created in our mind’s eye, they would probably be very similar.
However, we are forbidden to worship using images of any kind. So what happens when you are at Church on Sunday morning worshiping God, and suddenly an image from a movie you saw which included an actor pretending to be Jesus comes to the front of your consciousness? You are worshiping using that image, and most likely the harder you try to banish it from your thoughts the more present it will be. What happens when you are praying with your son or daughter, and the cartoon Jesus from whatever visual children’s bible you read from is the default image they have? Your kids are now praying to cartoon Jesus.
Images Undermine the Sufficiency of Scripture
We live in a day and age in which we are often told that sermons are an outdated mode of communication, and some people are visual learners. Some people just don’t learn from books, so the argument goes. However, we as Reformed Christians believe that the written word of God is a sufficient rule to direct us how to glorify and enjoy God.
I’ve said it in a kind of flippant way in the past, but I’m being 100% serious now. God did not inspire a picture book. He did not give us images to accompany his written revelation. If we really believe that the Bible is sufficient, then why do we need images? If the verbal revelation given in Scripture, accompanied by the verbal exposition of that revelation, is enough, then why do we hear arguments from all quarters of evangelicals (Reformed included) that say that we must have picture books for the children? The reason is that those people don’t actually believe that the word of God is sufficient. I know that they SAY that it is, but the arguments used to support the use of images say something different.
The Heidelberg Catechism puts it this way:
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
Now, I’m convinced that the use of images of any person of the Godhead is a violation of both the 2nd and the 3rd commandments. However, I recognize that many are not. My hope is that the above arguments will give those who are not convinced pause. Even if it is not sinful, consider the prudence in the act. Is it wise to use such an image? My contention is that even if it is not sinful, it is unprofitable and unwise.