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 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.”