John Calvin on the Second Commandment

‎”Seeing that this brutish stupidity has overspread the globe, men longing after visible forms of God, and so forming deities of wood and stone, silver and gold, or of any other dead and corruptible matter, we must hold it as a first principle, that as often as any form is assigned to God, his glory is corrupted by an impious lie. In the Law, accordingly, after God had claimed the glory of divinity for himself alone, when he comes to show what kind of worship he approves and rejects, he immediately adds, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or anylikeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth,” (Exod. 20:4). By these words he curbs any licentious attempt we might make to represent him by a visible shape, and briefly enumerates all the forms by which superstition had begun, even long before, to turn his truth into a lie.” —

John Calvin, Institutes Book 1, Ch. 11, Sect. 1

Images of the Godhead and the Second Commandment, Part 7

One more from the “experts” on the Pictorial imagery of the Godhead then I’ll post my thoughts. Article can be found here.

Pictures of Christ

By John Murray

The question of the propriety of pictorial representations of the Saviour is one that merits examination. It must be granted that the worship of Christ is central in our holy faith, and the thought of the Saviour must in every instance be accompanied with that reverence which belongs to his worship. We cannot think of him without the apprehension of the majesty that is his. If we do not entertain the sense of his majesty, then we are guilty of impiety and we dishonor him.

It will also be granted that the only purpose that could properly be served by a pictorial representation is that it would convey to us some thought or lesson representing him, consonant with truth and promotive of worship. Hence the question is inescapable: is a pictorial representation a legitimate way of conveying truth regarding him and of contributing to the worship which this truth should evoke?

We are all aware of the influence exerted on the mind and heart by pictures. Pictures are powerful media of communication. How suggestive they are for good or for evil and all the more so when accompanied by the comment of the spoken or written word! It is futile, therefore, to deny the influence exerted upon mind and heart by a picture of Christ. And if such is legitimate, the influence exerted should be one constraining to worship and adoration. To claim any lower aim as that served by a picture of the Saviour would be contradiction of the place which he must occupy in thought, affection, and honour.

The plea for the propriety of pictures of Christ is based on the fact that he was truly man, that he had a human body, that he was visible in his human nature to the physical senses, and that a picture assists us to take in the stupendous reality of his incarnation, in a word, that he was made in the likeness of men and was found in fashion as a man.

Our Lord had a true body. He could have been photographed. A portrait could have been made of him and, if a good portrait, it would have reproduced his likeness.

Without doubt the disciples in the days of his flesh had a vivid mental image of Jesus’ appearance and they could not but have retained that recollection to the end of their days. They could never have entertained the thought of him as he had sojourned with them without something of that mental image and they could not have entertained it without adoration and worship. The very features which they remembered would have been part and parcel of their conception of him and reminiscent of what he had been to them in his humiliation and in the glory of his resurrection appearance. Much more might be said regarding the significance for the disciples of Jesus’ physical features.

Jesus is also glorified in the body and that body is visible. It will also become visible to us at his glorious appearing “he will be seen the second time without sin by those who look for him unto salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).

What then are we to say of pictures of Christ? First of all, it must be said that we have no data whatsoever on the basis of which to make a pictorial representation; we have no descriptions of his physical features which would enable even the most accomplished artist to make an approximate portrait. In view of the profound influence exerted by a picture, especially on the minds of young people, we should perceive the peril involved in a portrayal for which there is no warrant, a portrayal which is the creation of pure imagination. It may help to point up the folly to ask: what would be the reaction of a disciple, who had actually seen the Lord in the days of his flesh, to a portrait which would be the work of imagination on the part of one who had never seen the Saviour? We can readily detect what his recoil would be.

No impression we have of Jesus should be created without the proper revelatory data, and every impression, every thought, should evoke worship. Hence, since we possess no revelatory data for a picture or portrait in the proper sense of the term, we are precluded from making one or using any that have been made.

Secondly, pictures of Christ are in principle a violation of the second commandment. A picture of Christ, if it serves any useful purpose, must evoke some thought or feeling respecting him and, in view of what he is, this thought or feeling will be worshipful. We cannot avoid making the picture a medium of worship. But since the materials for this medium of worship are not derived from the only revelation we possess respecting Jesus, namely, Scripture, the worship is constrained by a creation of the human mind that has no revelatory warrant. This is will worship. For the principle of the second commandment is that we are to worship God only in ways prescribed and authorized by him. It is a grievous sin to have worship constrained by a human figment, and that is what a picture of the Saviour involves.

Thirdly, the second commandment forbids bowing down to an image or likeness of anything in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. A picture of the Saviour purports to be a representation or likeness of him who is now in heaven or, at least, of him when he sojourned upon the earth. It is plainly forbidden, therefore, to bow down in worship before such a representation or likeness. This exposes the iniquity involved in the practice of exhibiting pictorial representations of the Saviour in places of worship. When we worship before a picture of our Lord, whether it be in the form of a mural, or on canvas, or in stained glass, we are doing what the second commandment expressly forbids. This is rendered all the more apparent when we bear in mind that the only reason why a picture of him should be exhibited in a place is the supposition that it contributes to the worship of him who is our Lord. The practice only demonstrates how insensitive we readily become to the commandments of God and to the inroads of idolatry. May the Churches of Christ be awake to the deceptive expedients by which the archenemy ever seeks to corrupt the worship of the Saviour.

In summary, what is at stake in this question is the unique place which Jesus Christ as the God-man occupies in our faith and worship and the unique place which the Scripture occupies as the only revelation, the only medium of communication, respecting him whom we worship as Lord and Saviour. The incarnate Word and the written Word are correlative. We dare not use other media of impression or of sentiment but those of his institution and prescription. Every thought and impression of him should evoke worship. We worship him with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God. To use a likeness of Christ as an aid to worship is forbidden by the second commandment as much in his case as in that of the Father and Spirit.

John Murray (1898-1975) is Former Professor of Systematic Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary.

Images of the Godhead and the Second Commandment, Part 6

(I had a much better and longer post but I somehow deleted it so this is the cliff notes version as I do not have time to rewrite the 1500 words I had finished)

We have moved from the 16th to 17th to the 19th centuries and have watched how the unanimous voices of Reformed orthodoxy in the past have spoken against the construction (or injection-molding, chipb) of images of the entire Godhead. In this part we will look at the modern effects on how we view not just the Decalogue but the Mosaic Law in general. How is it that now one cannot go 10 feet without seeing the Scandinavian-“Jesus” plastered on everything from T-shirts to Billboards? Well Greg Bahnsen in his work on Post-Millennialism entitled Victory in Jesus (published post-mortem) has a very good short section on the three things plaguing not just the rampant violation of the second commandment but other problems encroaching on orthodox Reformed Christianity in the West. While his focus is presenting a case for Post-Millennialism and why it has fallen out of favor he is correct in identifying the three major issues confronting orthodoxy in general. Two of these three movements would not even consider the Second commandments words on imagery binding today but it is their influence in the minds of those who may that bring them into this discussion.

Bahnsen begins by identifying firstly Liberalism. By Liberalism Bahnsen means to direct his words to the movement that began under the influence of men like Hermann Samuel Reimarus and Heinrich Paulus who were the forerunners of and greatly influenced 19th century Historical Jesus research. Also understood in this section is the work by Immanuel Kant whose philosophy continues to undergird nearly all persons in the West. Included in this is the work of higher critics like Julius Wellhausen and David Strauss. However for Americans the greatest influence was brought forth by Friedrich Schleiermacher whose thoughts and ideas are still taught in every mainline seminary. The effect these men had on the subject of this essay is in the way we now approach the Scriptures in the West. Out of all of their criticisms of the Biblical text the most divisive has been the hatchet job done on the Pentateuch especially on the Mosaic Law. If the law was not received by Moses in toto (as Scripture testifies it did, Ex. 20-23) then what bearing does it have on us today? How can a collection of separate instructions hold any weight for today’s Christian? These are serious questions that cannot be answered by simply dismissing these ungodly men and their followers away by wrote. They must be challenged and confronted in a manner that does not cause their descendants to shun orthodoxy.

The Second influence recognized by Bahnsen is the work of Evolutionary Progressivism. One may look at the title and wonder “How does that differ from Liberalism?” Well to answer the question a person needs to understand that their is a difference between what most people refer to in contemporary times as Liberalism and what academically should be referred to as Liberalism. This second part is what we would identify with the modern usage of the word. This movement led by men such as Charles Darwin and Walter Rauschenbusch delivered a focus that moved Christianity away from its foundation in the Older Testament to a purely New Testament focus, a recurrence of Marcionism. Also another thing that distinguishes it from Liberalism as defined above is its belief that man is is generally good and has evolved past the Mosaic prohibitions to a new era of life that looks not upon the strictures but upon the liberty brought by Christ. Hence the term “Evolutionary”. In other words Christianity no longer needs to worry about offending God by their actions as long as they do so with a kind heart and a loving mind. Therefore in regards to the Second Commandment the Evolutionary Progressivist has moved on from the old covenant completely and any attempt to use it in discussion is Pharisaical.

Thirdly in Bahnsen’s hypothesis is the effect of Dispensationalism on the mind of today’s Evangelical. Mostly brought to the forefront of Christianity in America by the work of Cyrus Scofield and his reference Bible and the writings of John Nelson Darby. The greatest effect Dispensationalism has had for this discussion is its emphasis on the distinctions between the New Testament Church and ancient Israel of the Old Testament. Scofield believed that between creation and the final judgment there were seven distinct eras of God’s dealing with man and that these eras were a framework around which the message of the Bible could be explained. Therefore the words of the second commandment can be properly explained as belonging to a prior dispensation and no longer applicable in there literal sense to today’s Christian.

Cumulatively these three positions have effected the way in which most in the Reformed camp come to the Decalogue and the Case Law of Moses imparticular. With a Hermeneutic of Suspicion the Second commandment (and its spiritual brother, the 4th commandment as we saw here in J.C. Ryle’s thought) is cast in a light of a “Canon within a Canon” as it passed over, with rest of the first table, in our times for all the reasons the three positions of Liberalism, Evolutionary Progressivism, and Dispensationalism have provided.

In the final part of this 7 part series on the Second Commandment I will present a Biblical and Systematic argument showing why it is not only unlawful according to the Older Testament but also in the New Covenant to picture the Godhead in physical form.

Images of the Godhead and the Second Commandment, Part 5

In parts 2-4 we have looked at the thoughts of the Magisterial Reformers and some of the contributors to the Westminster Confession as well as John Owen as to the question before the house. Today we will consider the thoughts of the theologians of the 19th century such as Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield (one wonders why they never hired C.C. Sabathia after B.B. retired…) and their Southern counterparts. R.L. Dabney and H.L. Thornwell. After this the thoughts of contemporary theologians will be taken into account and in the final part of this series I will speak of my own thoughts on the matter before us today.

R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology , Section Four, Chapter 31

Scope of Second Commandment.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, Ch, 19, Sect. 6

6. The Second Commandment

The two fundamental principles of the religion of the Bible are first, that there is one only the living and true God, the maker of heaven and earth, who has revealed Himself under the name Jehovah; secondly, that this God is a Spirit, and, therefore, incapable of being conceived of or represented under a visible form. The first commandment, therefore, forbids the worship of any other being than Jehovah; and the second, the worship of any visible object whatever. This includes the prohibition, not only of inward homage, but of all external acts which are the natural or conventional expression of such inward reverence.

That the second commandment does not forbid pictorial or sculptured representations of ideal or visible objects, is plain because the whole command has reference to religious worship, and because Moses, at the command of God himself, made many such images and representations. The curtains of the tabernacle and especially the veil separating between the Holy and Most Holy places, were adorned with embroidered figures representing cherubim; cherubim overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant with their wings; the Golden Candlestick was in the form of a tree “with branches, knops, and flowers;” the hem of the high priest’s robe was adorned with alternate bells and pomegranates. When Solomon built the temple, “he carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim, and palm-trees, and open flowers, within and without.” (1 Kings vi. 29.) The “molten sea” stood upon twelve oxen. Of this house thus adorned God said, “I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there forever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.” (1 Kings ix. 3.) There can therefore be no doubt that the second commandment was intended only to forbid the making or using the likeness of anything in heaven or earth as objects of worship.

The Worship of Images forbidden.

It is equally clear that the second commandment does forbid the use of images in divine worship. In other words, idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images. This is clear, —

1. From the literal meaning of the words. The precise thing forbidden is, bowing down to them, or serving them, i.e., rendering them any kind of external homage. This, however, is exactly what is done by all those who employ images as the objects, or aids of religious worship.

2. This is still further plain because the Hebrews were solemnly enjoined not to make any visible representation of the unseen God, or to adopt anything external as the symbol of the invisible and make such symbol the object of worship; i.e., they were not to bow down before these images or symbols or serve them. The Hebrew word צָבַר, rendered “to serve,” includes all kinds of external homage, burning incense, making oblations, and kissing in token of subjection. The Hebrews were surrounded by idolaters. The nations, having forgotten God, or refusing to acknowledge Him, had given themselves up to false gods. It was nature’s invisible force, of which they saw constant, and often fearful manifestations around them, that was the great object of their reverence and fear…3. A third argument on this subject is, that the worship of 293Jehovah by the use of images is denounced and punished as an act of apostasy from God. When the Hebrews in the wilderness said to Aaron, “Make us gods which shall go before us,” neither they nor Aaron intended to renounce Jehovah as their God; but they desired a visible symbol of God, as the heathen had of their gods. This is plain, because Aaron, when he fashioned the golden calf and built an altar before it, made proclamation, and said, “To-morrow is a feast to Jehovah.” “Their sin then lay, not in their adopting another god, but in their pretending to worship a visible symbol of Him whom no symbol could represent.”

Images of the Godhead and the Second Commandment, Part 4

We have taken a look at what the consensus of the Magisterial Reformers were concerning images of the Godhead and the Second Commandment now we will read some quotations from the Westminster Divines and of the Puritan writers to see how the ideology moved through time. After this our next look will be at Old Princeton.

John Owen, from: The Glory of Christ

In this way Roman Catholics are deceived. They delight outwardly in images of Christ depicting his sufferings, resurrection and glory. By these images they think their love for him grows more and more strong. But no man-made image can truly represent the person of Christ and his glory. Only the gospel can do that.

John writes not only of himself but of his fellow apostles also, ‘We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Now what was his glory of Christ which they saw, and how did they see it?

It was not the glory of Christ’s outward condition for he had no earthly glory or grandeur. He kept no court, nor did he entertain people to parties in a great house. He had nowhere to lay his head, even though he created all things. There was nothing about his outward appearance that would attract the eys of the world (Isa. 53:14; 53:2-3). He appeared to others as a ‘man or sorrows’.

Neither was it the eternal essential glory of his divine nature that is meant, for this no man can see while in this world. What we shall see in heaven we cannot conceive.

What the apostles witnessed was the glory of ‘grace and truth’. They saw the glory of Christ’s person and office in the administration of grace and truth. And how did they see this glory? It was by faith and in no other way, for this privilege was given only to those who ‘received him’ and believe on his name (John 1:12). This was the glory which the Baptist saw when he pointed to Christ and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29).

So, let no one decieve himself. He that has no sight of Christ’s glory here shall never see it hereafter. The beholding of Christ’s glory is too high, glorious and marvellous for us in our present condition. The splendour of Christ’s glory is too much for our physical eyes just as is the sun shining in all its strength. So while we are here on earth we can behold his glory only by faith.

Also from The Glory of Christ

No man ought to look for anything in heaven if he has not by faith first had some experience of it in this life. If men were convinced of this, they would spend more time in the exercise of faith and love about heavenly things than they usually do. At present they do not know what they enjoy, so they do not know what to expect. This is why men who are complete strangers to seeing the person and glory of Christ by faith have turned to images, pictures and music to help them in their worship.


Thomas Boston
, Of the Second Commandment

1. Graven images are forbidden particularly, that is, images cut or carved in wood, stone, or the like, called statues. These are particularly expressed, not only because they were the chief among idolaters, but because they do so lively represent men, beasts, &c. in all their parts and members, that nothing seems to be wanting in them but life; and so people are most ready to be deceived by them. But that we may see it is not these only that are abominable to our God.

2. Every similitude whatsoever for religious use and service is forbidden, whether it is done by casting in a mould, painting, weaving, or made any way whatsoever, though it be merely by the imagination, and not by the hand; for the words are universal, any likeness. How particular is this command in things themselves, whereof idolaters would have the images.

1st, No graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, must be made for religious worship. By the heavens above, is meant the air, and all to the starry heavens, and the seat of the blessed. In the visible heavens are the birds, sun, moon, and stars. No likeness of these is to be made; and therefore, to paint the Holy Spirit as a dove is idolatrous. In the seat of the blessed are God himself, angels, and saints, i.e. the spirits of just men made perfect, all invisible; so that it is impiety, yea, and madness, to frame images of them.

2dly, No graven image or likeness of any thing that is in the earth beneath is to be made for religious service, whether they be on the surface, or in the bowels of the earth. Now, in the earth are men, beasts, trees, plants, the dead bodies of men, &c. No likeness of these is to be made for religious worship.

3dly, No graven image, or likeness of any thing that is in the water under the earth, is to be made. Now, these are fishes whatsoever the rivers and seas do produce. But no likeness of these is to be made for religious service.

Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments


I. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

In the first commandment worshipping a false god is forbidden; in this, worshipping the true God in a false manner. ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.’ This forbids not making an image for civil use. ‘Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, It is Caesar’s.’ Matt 22: 20, 2I. But the commandment forbids setting up an image for religious use or worship. ‘Nor the likeness of any thing,’ &c. All ideas, portraitures, shapes, images of God, whether by effigies or pictures, are here forbidden. ‘Take heed lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make the similitude of any figure.’ Deut 4: 15, 16. God is to be adored in the heart, not painted to the eye. ‘Thou shalt not bow down to them.’ The intent of making images and pictures is to worship them. No sooner was Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image set up, but all the people fell down and worshiped it. Dan 3: 7. God forbids such prostrating ourselves before an idol. The thing prohibited in this commandment is image-worship. To set up an image to represent God, is debasing him. If any one should make images of snakes or spiders, saying he did it to represent his prince, would not the prince take it in disdain? What greater disparagement to the infinite God than to represent him by that which is unite; the living God, by that which is without life; and the Maker of all by a thing which is made?

[1] To make a true image of God is impossible. God is a spiritual essence and, being a Spirit, he is invisible. John 4: 24. ‘Ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake with you out of the midst of the fire.’ Deut 4: 15. How can any paint the Deity? Can they make an image of that which they never saw? Quod invisibile est, pingi non potest [There is no depicting the invisible]. Ambrose. ‘Ye saw no similitude.’ It is impossible to make a picture of the soul, or to paint the angels, because they are of a spiritual nature; much less can we paint God by an image, who is an infinite, untreated Spirit.

[2] To worship God by an image, is both absurd and unlawful.

(1) It is absurd and irrational; for, ‘the workman is better than the work,’ ‘He who has builded the house has more honour than the house.’ Heb 3: 3. If the workman be better than the work, and none bow to the workman, how absurd, then, is it to bow to the work of his hands! Is it not an absurd thing to bow down to the king’s picture, when the king himself is present? It is more so to bow down to an image of God, when God himself is everywhere present.

(2) It is unlawful to worship God by an image; for it is against the homily of the church, which runs thus: ‘The images of God, our Saviour, the Virgin Mary, are of all others the most dangerous; therefore the greatest care ought to be had that they stand not in temples and churches.’ So that image-worship is contrary to our own homilies, and affronts the authority of the Church of England. Image-worship is expressly against the letter of Scripture. ‘Ye shall make no graven image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone to bow down unto it.’ Lev 26: 1. ‘Neither shalt thou set up any image; which the Lord thy God hateth.’ Deut 16: 22. ‘Confounded be all they that serve graven images.’ Psa 97: 7. Do we think to please God by doing that which is contrary to his mind, and that which he has expressly forbidden?

(3) Image worship is against the practice of the saints of old.Josiah, that renowned king, destroyed the groves and images. 2 Kings 23: 6, 24. Constantine abrogated the images set up in temples. The Christians destroyed images at Baste, Zürich, and Bohemia. When the Roman emperors would have thrust images upon them, they chose rather to die than deflower their virgin profession by idolatry; they refused to admit any painter or carver into their society, because they would not have any carved state or image of God. When Seraphion bowed to an idol, the Christians excommunicated him, and delivered him up to Satan.