by Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

Reformed Christians have generally been opposed to any artistic representations of Christ, due to their reverential concern over breaching the Second Commandment. Unfortunately though, the fear is theologically unbalanced in some respects. Let us engage a brief, careful contemplation of the theological and exegetical implications of the Second Commandment.

God and Visible Representations

The Second Commandment reads: “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; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exo. 20:4-5). Here God expressly prohibits the making of images. But what exactly is being forbidden?

The Amish are fundamentally mistaken when they forbid all visible representations on the basis of their understanding of the Second Commandment. For instance, they forbid the use of mirrors because they reflect their own images. They also forbid art because such creates “images.” However, the Bible does not forbid all images. In Numbers 21:8 Moses is commanded to “make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole.” In Exodus 25:18 the Lord directs Israel to “make two cherubim of gold and place them on the mercy seat in the tabernacle.” So Scripture itself justifies making of images, though not for purposes of adoration and worship (which is the point of the Second Commandment).

What, then, does the Second Commandment forbid? John Calvin correctly explains in his Institutes (2:8:17) that it prohibits “daring to subject God, who is incomprehensible to our sense perceptions or to represent him by any form,” and that it “forbids us to worship any images in the name of religion.”

But why does God forbid making images of him? Calvin continues: “Visible forms are diametrically opposed to his nature. Every figurative representation of God contradicts his being.” God is invisible (Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17), non-localized (i.e., omnipresent, Jer. 23:24), and glorious beyond description. Consequently, we read in Deuteronomy 4:12 that “the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words but saw no form.” Even in heaven the seraphim cover their faces from the majesty of God (Isa. 6:2).

Therefore we read in Deuteronomy 4:15-19: “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. And beware, lest you lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.”

Calvin is surely correct when he notes that “every statue man erects or every image he paints to represent God simply displeases God as something dishonorable to his majesty.” Clearly, then, we must not produce pictures of God or use images as tools for worship.

Christ and Visible Representations

Despite the divine condemnation of making images of God, we are making a theological miskake if we claim that we may not under any circumstance paint a picture of Christ. How is this so, since Christ is God the Son, the incarnation of God (Col. 2:9; Heb. 1:3)?

First, pictures of Christ are not pictures of God. This argument needs to be carefully understood because ultimately the very integrity of orthodox Christianity is at stake.

In A.D. 451 the Fourth Ecumenical Council of the Church meeting at Chalcedon declared the orthodox, biblical view of Christ a great mystery. For Christ really has two natures, unlike us. And his two natures are contained in one person “without confusion, change, division, separation.” Consequently, Christ has both a divine nature and a human nature — without any mixing or dilution of the one in the other.

Thus, a picture of Christ is a picture of his humanity, for he does, in fact, possess a truly human body (as well as a truly human soul). A picture of Christ is not a picture of his inner, divine essence, nor even of his soul. Rather it is a picture of his external bodily form. Thus, a picture of Christ’s human form is a picture of his humanity, not his deity; it is a picture of man (the God-man), not a picture of God.

Some will object that you cannot separate the human and divine, for they are forever united in one person in Christ. It is true that you cannot separate them, but you can distinguish them. In fact, the orthodox view of Christ demands that the two natures be distinguished, for they are without mixture or dilution.

We must remember that the whole point of the incarnation is because the eternal God could not die for the sins of his elect people in order to provide redemption (Heb. 2:9-15). Consequently, the Second Person of the Trinity took upon himself a true human body and soul to accomplish redemption:

Galatians 4:4-5: “But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”
Hebrews 10:5: “Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, but a body Thou hast prepared for Me.”

Thus, when we produce artistic representations of Christ, we ourselves are not making images of God, who is invisible and impossible of representation. Rather, God himself prepared this “image,” the body of Christ. Our picturing Christ’s human form is not our attempt at reducing the divine nature to an image. And the body that Christ took was truly human: it was a body susceptible to thirst (John 4:7; 19:28), weariness (Matt. 8:24), hunger (Matt. 21:18), and death (Rom. 5:6).

We must be careful that we not suggest that his body was divine. When he trimmed his hair, deity did not lay upon the ground to waste away. When his body laid in the tomb in the coldness of death, deity was not dead. Rather, Christ’s mortal body was the real and tangible manifestation of his true incarnate condition. And as such, was capable of artistic reproduction.

We must remember the biblical rationale forbidding Israel from making an image of God: “Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form– only a voice…. So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure” (Deut. 4:12, 15-16).

John 1:18 informs us that “no man has seen God at any time.” Yet many men saw Christ. John also informs us in that very context that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory” (John 1:14). In fact, when he walked the earth no one could tell by his appearance that in him dwelled the divine nature (except perhaps at the transfiguration, Matt. 17:1-2). As John explains this elsewhere: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1).

When we partake the Lord’s Supper, we partake tangible elements representing the Lord’s corporeal human body. And Christ himself gave us this “image” of him.

We must wonder: If photography had existed in the first century, would God forbid pictures of Christ? Undoubtedly not, for he did not forbid people looking upon him. And surely the disciples themselves (especially) would fondly remember him in his earthly appearance.

Visible Representations and the Catechism

The Westminster Standards’ Larger Catechism answer to Question 109 states: “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are . . . 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….”

This Catechetical answer is theologically accurate, I believe. But I sense that many Reformed Christians misunderstand the theological implications of it when they deny all artistic representations of Christ.

The Catechism forbids “any representation of God.” But we must remember that according to historic, evangelical, Bible-believing orthodoxy, Christ possessed a true human body and that the divine is not co-mingled in the human. Thus, a picture of Christ is a picture of his human form, not of his hidden, inner deity. At the Transfiguration Christ allowed his inner divine nature to shine through, but otherwise it remained veiled from human eyes.

If we interpret this Catechism answer to mean that no pictures of Christ’s body may be made (which it does not say), then the Catechism would condemn the Apostles themselves. Note that the Catechism not only forbids “any representation of God” but also projecting images “inwardly in our mind.” Consequently, when the disciples would remember (in their minds) the human form of Christ, they would be guilty of breaching the Second Commandment.

Furthermore, you yourselves would be guilty of idolatry from time to time. For how can a minister preach on the cruel crucifixion of Christ and your mind not form a mental image of what he must have looked like hanging on the cross. Yet you would be doing nothing more than mentally conceiving what first century witnesses to the crucifixion actually saw with their own eyes.

The Christian Faith Encourages Art

While dealing with the Second Commandment, John Calvin writes (Institutes 1:11:12): “Yet I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images are permissible. Only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing: let not God’s majesty which is far above the perception of the eye be debased through unseemly representations.”

I believe a great, though subtle, danger lurks in this widespread Reformed misconception. What are children led to believe when they never see a picture of Christ? They are shown pictures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in their Sunday school literature. They see pictures of the disciples. But every time Jesus should be present with the disciples, he is strangely absent. Are they not being inadvertently taught that he lacked a real, bodily presence?

And what shall become of the influence of Christianity in the arts? Shall we forbid Christian artists from representing for posterity some of the greatest historical occurrences of all times? Shall we forbid them to portray the nativity? Christ’s baptism? His death and resurrection?

We must remember that God created a real body for Christ. That he really dwelled in history in a mortal body. Obviously we should forbid use of pictures in worship, as objects of veneration (just as we should discourage people from venerating their physical Bibles, as if the physical book is somehow a holy object). But I believe we err when we go beyond the Second Commandment and deny all representations of the Incarnate Christ.