Thursday, 10 October 2013

Protestants and images of Christ

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)

When God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai the application of the second commandment was clear to all. Having come out of the land of Egypt, the Israelites had been surrounded by idol worship, the many Egyptian gods depicted in the form of statues and hieroglyphics. The children of Israel had been living among the Egyptians for many years and had been influenced greatly by that idolatry. Evidence of this was clearly seen by Moses as he descended from the mount to find the people worshipping a gold calf which they had instructed Aaron to build. This was not to be the last time that the people would turn to idol worship, indeed not until they had endured seventy years of Babylonian captivity did they finally turn from it.
As we survey the world today we still see idol worship at the heart of many religions. In countries where Buddhism holds sway there are countless statues of Buddha where the followers of that religion will bring offerings. Likewise in Hinduism statues of Shiva have a prominent place in their religion. In Roman Catholicism the veneration of images and idols is clear to any who have been inside a chapel, or even visited a predominantly Roman Catholic country. Images of Christ and of Mary are central to their worship. But what of evangelical Protestantism? Since we are strong in our denunciation of such idol worship and use of images, are we then free of the charge of breaking this commandment?

To answer that question we must ask how far the commandment extends. What does it mean to worship a graven image? What is a graven image? Is the application of this commandment merely limited to those who physically bow down before a statue of metal or stone? To limit it in such a manner is surely to rob the commandment of its full scope. We are not just to refrain from the worship of images, but we are also to refrain from the use of images as an aid to worshipping God. In the use of images our esteem of God is lessened, indeed far from being an aid to worship they are a hindrance. That these images may depict Christ rather than a heathen deity does not make any difference, for in giving us a man made image of Christ they create a false god. Puritan preacher Thomas Vincent said 'It is not lawful to have pictures of Jesus Christ, because his divine nature cannot be pictured at all; and because his body, as it is now glorified, cannot be pictured as it is; and because, if it do not stir up devotion, it is in vain, if it do stir up devotion, it is a worshipping by an image or picture, and so a palpable breach of the second commandment'.

Are we guilty of using images as a means of stirring up emotion? We may not have them in our churches but what about other occasions? What about online? Does the scripture verse we post seem more effective when it is part of an image of the suffering saviour? Do we use images of Christ in any sense, even in visual aids for a Sunday School lesson? If we are honest we must admit that these things little noticed by many believers today. Yet the fact that technology has changed and our images are now digital more often than physical does not detract from the error of their use. An image of Christ as a Facebook cover is no different than the picture found on the mantlepiece of a Roman Catholic home. We would not advocate using images in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church uses them, so then use them at all? The use of images of Christ in any form only tends to superstition. The only image of Christ that we ought to display is the image of Him displayed in our every day life. May that be the image which people see!


  1. Hi Andrew, thanks for taking the time to write this.

    It's good to keep in mind that this isn't a debate that commenced with the Reformation. Reading the early Iconoclast debates of the eighth and ninth centuries is instructive. Thomas Vincent wasn't the first to insist on the un-argued assumption that the divine nature of Jesus Christ cannot be depicted by any earthly medium – the Council of Constantinople (754) also took this for granted, ignoring significant passages such as Romans 1:18–20 (the θειότης, or divine nature, is clearly seen through the creation), Colossians 2:9 and 1 Timothy 3:16 (Jesus is the fullness of Deity perfectly expressed in matter).

    It's perhaps also worth remembering the point made in Hebrews 9:23–25 that the tabernacle was a divinely ordained, detailed and specific presentation of both heavens and the earth – all of reality, including symbolic presentations of the Three Divine Persons ...

  2. What is your view of the use of images of Christ in Free Presbyterian children's meetings?

  3. I believe that the use of any image of Christ should be avoided, even in childrens meetings. It is possible to teach childrens lessons from scripture without using them - I covered the crucifixion a few weeks ago in my own children's meeting using visual aids, but avoiding the use of any image of Christ.