Images of Christ: Reconsidering a Common Exception

When men being examined for ministry take an exception to any portion of the Westminster standards we always require that they explain their rationale. A man ought to be able to explain and defend why he believes what he does. In my experience, the justifications given when men take exceptions to Larger Catechism 109 are usually along the same lines. So I want to respond to two of the most common explanations that I hear at presbytery.

Larger Catechism question 109 states

What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?

 The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; 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; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.”

Common Rationale #1

The common objection to this portion of the catechism usually concerns images of Christ. Specifically, men taking this exception will acknowledge that images of Christ should not be used for worship, but they see no problem with images being used for didactic purposes, by which they mean that they see no problem using images of Christ to teach children. This is so common an exception it’s often called the “Jesus Storybook Bible exception.” However, the problem is that images of God will be connected to worship and that education should be connected to worship.

As always, we should begin by considering scripture itself. Exodus 20:4-6 says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

What’s frequently overlooked when considering the second commandment is the fact that it contains two imperatives, not one. In forbidding idols this commandment does not simply say “You shall not worship them.” It says much more than that. It first says in verse four that you shall not make them. Significantly, the language does not say “You shall not make them in order to worship them.” The Hebrew conjunction ‎ לְמַעַן generally translated “in order that” is conspicuously absent. Verse four is a separate sentence in Hebrew as well as English. The second commandment has always been “you shall not make any idols” and “you shall not worship them.” No Israelite could ever make an image of God or any other gods and plead its acceptability on account of its not being used for worship, but only didactic purposes.

Attention must be drawn to this fact because compression of the second commandment often underlies this common exception. God gave this commandment the way he did because he understands our hearts, even better than we do ourselves. John Murray writes, “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.”[1]

 If we say something is a depiction of God we will naturally desire to worship through it, or have that image be a means of stirring up devotion and piety. Consider the man who keeps an image of Christ on his wall. When he sees the picture of Jesus, if it evokes feelings of love or a desire to pray or be more faithful, then at that moment it has now become a medium of worship. The image is what stirs his heart to devotion. This is why the second commandment does not simply say images are not to be made in order to worship them, but begins with the prohibition against making any images of God at all. As the author of our hearts, God knows the power images have and that we will be drawn toward worship, even if that was never our intent.

So why is this important when it comes to things like children’s story Bibles or Sunday school material? We should never forget that training up children in the faith is not the same thing as teaching children reading or math. The goal of Christian education is not merely an accumulation of knowledge, but so that children come to know and worship Jesus Christ.

The goal of Christian education must always be doxology. Yet this presents an impasse when using images of Christ because worship cannot be the goal of images, but it is the goal of Christian education. It should be every teacher’s desire that as we teach God’s people about Christ that their hearts are stirred to more love, devotion, and worship. But with the use of images of Christ that education must become purely intellectual and not worshipful. Shouldn’t all learning of Christ lead to the worship of Christ? If it doesn’t, then what’s the point? If one is using images of Christ, then there must be a separation between the didactic and the doxological when one ought to lead directly to the other.

Whenever we study God’s law it’s always important to begin at the source. If one only reads an abbreviated version of the second commandment it can be easy to miss that God actually says more and what he prohibits in the second commandment is not only worshiping through idols but even their creation because God knows exactly where our hearts will be tempted to go when we call something an image of God, no matter how simple. When it comes to teaching children our faith, the goal must always be worship, but since an image of God cannot be a medium for worship it ought never to be a tool for education in the faith.

Common Rationale #2

Another frequently stated justification for why images of Christ should be considered acceptable in certain situations is that the second commandment now applies differently with Christ because, unlike God’s people before the incarnation, people in Israel actually saw Jesus and that if cameras had existed they could have even taken a picture of him. It is argued that because the Son took on a human nature, which is necessarily visible, then visible depictions of Jesus are acceptable for didactic purposes.

However, this argumentation runs up against Deuteronomy 4:15-16, which states, “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female.”

As with Exodus 20:4-6, this prohibition against idolatry is not limited only to worshiping images of God, but even declares that making images is acting corruptly, yet importantly this commandment includes a prohibition against making idols in the likeness of man. The reasoning God gives is that they did not see any form when God spoke to them. However, what is significant is that their ancestor, Abraham, actually did see a visible form. In Genesis 18 the LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre to tell him that his wife Sarah would conceive and bear a son. Like many, I take the position that this visit was a Christophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. During that encounter Abraham had a meal prepared and stood by while the LORD ate it. We could even say that if he had a camera, he could have taken a picture of him.

The fact that Abraham saw God in the visible form of a man is very relevant because, although Abraham saw and spoke with the pre-incarnate Christ, subsequent generations are not afterward permitted to make depictions. Rather, God prohibits making any images of God in the likeness of man because they saw no form when the LORD spoke to them. The self-revelation God gave to that generation was not a picture or a physical description, but his word. The LORD is very emphatic on the point that they only draw near to God in accordance with the revelation he has given. God is the one who chooses how his people will know him and draw near to him and how he wanted to be known in that and future generations was by his word.

Although Abraham saw Christ, this did not give Israel permission to make any images of him and the same is true for us. Surely it would have been a blessing to have been one of those thousands of men and women who saw Jesus with their own eyes during the incarnation. But the Holy Spirit has chosen not to preserve any description of Christ for us because we are called to be a people of the word who walk by faith, not by sight. Just because some people saw Christ does not mean that we may now make images of God for didactic or any other purpose. Soon a day will come when our faith gives way to say, but until then, we are to know and draw near to God in how he has chosen to reveal himself to us: by his word.