Recently, I have felt the need to raise the topic of which images are acceptable to the faithful Christian. Some Christians, principally from a Romish background, will unashamedly adore depictions in the form of statues and paintings not only of Jesus Christ and the saints, but also of the Father! Many Protestants would be disgusted with the portrayal of the Father as an aged man, which completely denies the vastness of his glory, and many of these Protestants will scorn the Papists who adore images. However, to a large extent, the modern evangelical Christian community has tolerated images of Christ. I ask now, is this hypocritical of us?
If we are Reformed Christians, we are reformed according to scripture. Therefore, if any of our actions or beliefs are found to be contradictory to scripture, we must be prepared to change them and conform. Let us reflect on the first and second commandments:
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. 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. 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, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:1-6)
First, we must understand what this commandment tells us. Taken out of context, the Second Commandment may be perceived to forbid the creation of any image for any purpose whatsoever. We know this is not the case: in the Old Testament, depictions of heavenly creatures sometimes adorned even holy objects, but this was always done correctly under the instruction and inspiration of God. We are to understand the second commandment in the context of the first: ‘I am the Lord your God… You shall have no other gods before me.’ Thus, when we are instructed not to make images for ourselves, this refers to representations of God.
Now some Christians may defend images of Christ because Christ is indeed our Lord, because he was incarnate in the flesh and seen by man. Is it really unlawful to depict his human nature? An objection to this point is that the Apostles, who saw Christ first-hand, never saw fit to paint pictures of him. Indeed, none of the Evangelists or Apostles have even seen fit to describe his physical features! In the first four centuries of the Church during which Christianity spread most rapidly, there were no images of Christ. Our modern-day images of Christ are cultural, derived in most cases from medieval Romish tradition. There are no images or physical descriptions of Christ produced under the instruction or inspiration of God. They are certainly of neither necessity nor benefit!
Some Christians may argue that it is acceptable to produce representations of members of the Trinity as long as the representations themselves are not worshipped. But this is not what the commandment says! The commandment does not say, ‘You shall not make images in order to bow down to them.’ It does say, ‘You shall not make images… you shall not bow down to them…’ Therefore, we are neither to make images of God nor to bow down to them.
It must be questioned if it is really possible not to bow down to an image of Christ. When we see such an image which reminds us of him, it naturally evokes worshipful feelings. In this case, are we really worshipping the glorious risen Christ, our Lord, or are we worshipping a picture of a handsome European hippie who has been ingrained in our minds by culture? Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God. God has already graciously provided us with means of meeting him, through meditating on the inspired written Word and the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, which is spiritually edifying to him who believes in it. This is the faithful Christian’s encounter with the glorious Almighty God! We need no other.
I conclude with my belief that, in assemblies or private homes of obedient Christians, there should be no representations of any member of the Trinity. Even the use of lamb and dove imagery (standing for the Son and the Holy Spirit) found in many church buildings is questionable. Even large crosses which stand before the congregation. These objects should play no part at all in our worship – a plain building, the reading of God’s Word, and the sharing of bread and wine is perfectly sufficient for Christian worship.