The purpose of this study is to answer what constitutes a violation of the second commandment, especially in regards to pictures of Jesus Christ.
Exodus 20:4-6 (NASB) states “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving-kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
1. Pictures of Christ: A Theological Study:
a) God Revealed Himself:
Suppose that you are talking casually with a friend, when he pulls a photograph out of his pocket of a man who is five foot eight with broad shoulders and straight blonde hair, claiming that it is a picture of Jesus. The question that should naturally arise is ‘how do you know that is a picture of Jesus?’
The response will appeal to an authority: if the authority appealed to is other than God, the theocentric origin of the second commandment is completely overthrown. God is the Lord your God, God brought the Israelites out of slavery, God is the jealous God, God visits the iniquity of people and God shows loving-kindness. The 10 commandments are God’s commandments: God spoke them.
Because God has not revealed Himself through that picture, and Jesus Christ is fully God, that picture cannot but be a violation of the second commandment; there is no Divine evidence that God revealed himself through that picture. God revealed Himself in certainty; we are not to guess about God. Man is not permitted to represent God apart from how He has revealed Himself.
b) The Second Commandment:
The Hebrew word for ‘not’ in verse four is ‘lo’, which constitutes an absolute and unequivocal prohibition. Whatever is forbidden in the second commandment is absolutely forbidden. There are two related but different commands within the second commandment; the first prohibits man from making an image of God, the second prohibits worshipping or honouring that idol. The second clause is dependent on the first clause – God prohibits man from making an idol, and God prohibits man from worshipping any idol that man makes.
God reveals Himself, therefore man-made images cannot represent God, and man-made images are idols that cannot accurately depict or serve God. In the first clause, God prohibits humans from attempting to visibly represent Him. Numerous ancient cults (e.g. Egyptian) attempted to visibly represent God in various created and creaturely forms. Such idols are not God. God is “the LORD your God”; any attempt to visibly depict God in any way that He has not revealed Himself is to depict God as an idol.
In the second clause, God forbids men from worshiping Him through an idol. God forbids idolatry because He is Lord and God. God is to be worshipped and served: if an image of God does not bring you to worship Him, it is an idol. But if the image does being you to worship God, you are worshiping a man-made depiction of God, which is an idol. God must be worshipped as He commands and desires.
While Moses was in the mountains with God, the Israelites built a golden calf to symbolise God. Exodus 32:8 states, “They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.’” The verse lists two ways in which the Israelites violated the second commandment:
Firstly, they disobeyed the first clause of the second commandment by building the golden calf as an image of God (Exodus 20:4). Secondly, they disobeyed the second clause of the second commandment by worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 20:5). The Israelites sinned against God in both making and worshipping the Golden calf. Making an image of God is sinful; it is a violation of the second commandment in itself.
Pagan traditions that surrounded the Israelites made images of their gods and worshiped these images of their gods. In Deuteronomy 4:16 God commanded the Israelites not to “act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female…” To make a graven image is to act corruptly. To make a graven image of God is a violation of the second commandment.
2. Objections Answered:
The two common objections to this position are as follows:
(a) “There is no problem with making an image of Jesus, a problem only arises if that image is worshipped”.
The first clause of the second commandment which condemns making an image of God in itself refutes this argument. Moreover, this argument would prove too much: it would also therein permit making images of God the Father, as long as one does not worship that image.
(b) “Jesus was a man, therefore we may make an image of him.”
God is one in essence; therefore to make an image of Christ is to make an image of God. Therefore any image of Jesus Christ must depict him as only man, which is contradicted by the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity did not relinquish His deity: He added to it by taking on a full human nature. The Divine and human natures are united in one person, therefore any image of Christ cannot do justice to the doctrine that His two natures are united in one person, without positing that it is permissible to make an image of the pre Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity.
To be consistent, those who use ‘argument b’ must believe one of the following heresies in order to not make an image of God. The only options are to deny the unity of two natures in one person (Nestorianism), deny that God is one in essence (Tritheism), reject the deity of Christ altogether (Ebionism, Arianism), or assert that Christ no longer was fully God or fully man (Monophycitism).
Any image of Jesus Christ must represent both his divine and human natures. As Jesus Christ is fully God, any image of Him cannot represent His deity, and therefore does not represent the Jesus Christ revealed by God in Scripture.
3. Pictures of Christ: A Historical Study:
Below I have compiled thirty quotes from numerous Reformed confessions and theologians, spanning from the Reformation to the present day:
“Since God as Spirit is in essence invisible and immense, he cannot really be expressed by any art or image. For this reason we have no fear pronouncing with Scripture that images of God are mere lies. Therefore we reject not only the idols of the Gentiles, but also the images of Christians. Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters. Images are forbidden by the law and the prophets (Deut. 4:15; Isa. 44:9).” – Second Helvetic Confession.
“The sins forbidden in the second commandment are …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.” – Westminster Larger Catechism
“What does God require in the second commandment? That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word. Are images then not at all to be made? God neither can nor may be represented by any means; but as to creatures, though they may be represented, yet God forbids us to make, or have any resemblance of them, either in order to worship them, or to serve God by them.” – Heidelberg Catechism
“We declare, on the contrary, that the making of images of the Trinity is absolutely forbidden. We neither know the spiritual nature of the angels nor the true physical appearance of Christ and the apostles. Thus, the images made of them are without resemblance, and it is vanity to make an image and say: That is Christ, that is Mary, that is Peter, etc. … In the first place, one may make no images of God whatsoever; that is, of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” – Wilhelmus a Brakel
“The majesty of God is defiled by an absurd and indecorous fiction, when he who is incorporeal is assimilated to corporeal matter; he who is invisible to a visible image; he who is spirit to an inanimate object; and he who fills all space to a bit of paltry wood, or stone, or gold.... Hence it is manifest, that whatever statues are set up or pictures painted to represent God, are utterly displeasing to him, as a kind of insult to his majesty" – John Calvin
"Now we must remark, that there are two parts in the Commandment—the first forbids the erection of a graven image, or any likeness; the second prohibits the transferring of the worship which God claims for Himself alone, to any of these phantoms or delusive shows." – John Calvin
“The Reformed tradition has taught that Christians should not make or use any images of Christ, however sincere their motives and however careful they are not to worship such images. For example, the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. 109) includes the following among the things forbidden in the second commandment: "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." – David Van Drunen
"It is not lawful to have pictures of Jesus Christ … because, if it does not stir up devotion, it is in vain, if it does stir up devotion, it is a worshipping by an image or picture, and so a palpable breach of the second commandment.” - James Durham
“The preceptive or commanding part is expressed in two things, verse 4. and 5. at the beginning. 1. That no image be made: And 2. That it be not worshipped. … Men are forbidden to make either similitudes or likeness, that is, no sort of image, whether that which is engraven in, or hewn out of stone, wood, silver, &c. or that which is made by painting; all kinds are discharged.” – James Durham
“May we not have a picture of Christ, who has a true body? By no means; because, though he has a true body and a reasonable soul, John 1:14, yet his human nature subsists in his divine person, which no picture can represent, Psalm 45:2. Why ought all pictures of Christ to be abominated by Christians? Because they are downright lies, representing no more than the picture of a mere man: whereas, the true Christ is God-man” - James Fisher
“The prohibition: we are here forbidden to worship even the true God by images.… It is certain that it forbids making any image of God (for to whom can we liken him?) or the image of any creature for a religious use. It is called the changing of the truth of God into a lie, for an image is a teacher of lies; it insinuates to us that God has a body, whereas he is an infinite spirit. It also forbids us to make images of God in our fancies, as if he were a man as we are. … When they paid their devotion to the true God, they must not have any image before them, for the directing, exciting, or assisting of their devotion. Though the worship was designed to terminate in God, it would not please him if it came to him through an image.” – Matthew Henry
“God cannot be represented by an image. We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device. We wrong God, and put an affront upon him, if we think so. God honoured man in making his soul after his own likeness; but man dishonours God if he makes him after the likeness of his body. The Godhead is spiritual, infinite, immaterial, incomprehensible, and therefore it is a very false and unjust conception which an image gives us of God.” – Matthew Henry
“With Egypt fresh in their memories, Israel was aware that other gods’ were worshipped with the help of idols. The second commandment, however, does not refer to the worship of alternative gods – that had been dealt with in the first commandment – but to the worship of the true God in a false way, and it lays down an absolute prohibition of the use of visible representations as an adjunct to worship. God is not to be worshipped by any human contrivance (idol), nor identified with any aspect of the visible created orders.” – Alec Motyer
"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." – John Murray
“Many there are who, not comprehending, not being affected with, that divine, spiritual description of the person of Christ which is given us by the Holy Ghost in the Scripture, do feign unto themselves false representations of him by images and pictures, so as to excite carnal and corrupt affections in their minds. By the help of their outward senses, they reflect on their imaginations the shape of a human body, cast into postures and circumstances dolorous or triumphant; and so, by the working of their fancy, raise a commotion of mind in themselves, which they suppose to be love unto Christ.” – John Owen
“The beauty of the person of Christ, as represented in the Scripture, consists in things invisible unto the eyes of flesh. They are such as no hand of man can represent or shadow. It is the eye of faith alone that can see this King in his beauty. What else can contemplate on the untreated glories of his divine nature? Can the hand of man represent the union of his natures in the same person, wherein he is peculiarly amiable? What eye can discern the mutual communications of the properties of his different natures in the same person?” – John Owen
“Thou shalt not make any likeness of anything” for use in worship. This categorical statement rules out not simply the use of pictures and statues which depict God as an animal, but also the use of pictures and statues which depict him as the highest created thing we know as human. It also rules out the use of pictures and statues of Jesus Christ as a man, although Jesus himself was and remains man; for all pictures and statues are necessarily made after the “likeness” of ideal manhood as we conceive it, and therefore come under the ban which the commandment imposes.” - J.I. Packer
“The point here is not just that an image represents God as having body and parts, whereas in reality he has neither. … But the point really goes much deeper. The heart of the objection to pictures and images is that they inevitably conceal most, if not all, of the truth about the personal nature and character of the divine Being whom they represent.” – J.I. Packer
“God did not show them a visible symbol of himself, but spoke to them; therefore they are not now to seek visible symbols of God, but simply to obey his Word. If it be said that Moses was afraid of the Israelites borrowing designs for images from the idolatrous nations around them, our reply is that undoubtedly he was, and this is exactly the point: all manmade images of God, whether molten or mental, are really borrowings from the stock–in–trade of a sinful and ungodly world, and are bound therefore to be out of accord with God’s own holy Word. To make an image of God is to take one’s thoughts of him from a human source, rather than from God himself; and this is precisely what is wrong with image–making.” – J.I. Packer
“We are forbidden either to make or to worship any image representing God, or to give either inward or outward worship, either with heart or knee or body to any creature or image." – Samuel Rutherford (English modernised by myself).
“Those who make pictures of the Savior, who is God as well as man in one inseparable person, either limit the incomprehensible Godhead to the bounds of created flesh, or confound his two natures like Eutyches, or separate them, like Nestorius, or deny his Godhead, like Arius; and those who worship such a picture are guilty of the same heresy and blasphemy.” – Philip Schaff
“God is a spiritual, invisible, and incomprehensible being, and cannot, therefore, be represented by any corporeal likeness or figure. … The Israelites were expressly forbidden to make any image of God. In Deut. iv. 15, 16, Moses insists that "they saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake to them in Horeb, lest they should corrupt themselves, and make them a graven image." And, therefore, he charges them (ver. 23) "to take heed lest they should forget the covenant of the Lord their God, and make them a graven image." The Scripture forbids the worshipping of God by images, although they may not be intended as proper similitudes, but only as emblematic representations of God. Every visible form which is designed to recall God to our thoughts, and to excite our devotions, and before which we perform our religious offices, is expressly prohibited in the second commandment.” - Robert Shaw
"I cannot conceive of a greater wounding of the heart of Christ than to pay reverence to anything in the shape of a cross, or to bow before a crucifix!" – Charles Spurgeon
“This commandment forbids, on the other hand, every form of will-worship, or such as is false, requiring that we neither regard or worship images and creatures for God, nor represent the true God by any image or figure, nor worship him at or by images, or with any other kind of worship which he himself has not prescribed.” - Zacharias Ursinus
“We may here remark, that the words of the second commandment forbid two things. They first forbid us to make and to have images, saying: Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything, & then they forbid us to worship images and likenesses with divine honour, saying : Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them.” - Zacharias Ursinus
“The law does not, therefore, forbid the use of images, but their abuse, which takes place when images and pictures are made either for the purpose of representing or worshiping God, or creatures. That these are all positively forbidden in this commandment, may be argued, 1. From the design of this commandment, which is the preservation of the worship of God in its purity. 2. From the nature of God. God is incorporeal and infinite ; it is impossible, therefore, that he should be expressed, or represented by an image which is corporeal and finite, without detracting from his divine majesty … To whom then will ye liken God? 3. From the command of God. Take ye, therefore, good heed unto yourselves, (for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire,) lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female ; the likeness of any beast that is (Deut. 4 : 15, 16.) 4. From the cause of this prohibition, which is that these images do not only profit nothing, but also injure men greatly, being the occasion and cause of idolatry and punishment. In short, God ought not to be represented by any graven image, because he does not will it, nor can it be done, nor would it profit anything if it were done.” – Zacharius Ursinus
“Why may we not make use of images for a help in our worship of God? Because God has absolutely forbidden it. … Is it not lawful to have images or pictures of God by us, so we do not worship them, nor God by them? The images or pictures of God are an abomination, and utterly unlawful, because they do debase God, and may be a cause of idolatrous worship. Is it not lawful to have pictures of Jesus Christ, he being a man as well as God? 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 stir up devotion, it is a worshipping by an image or picture, and so a palpable breach of the second commandment." - Thomas Vincent
“Is it wrong to make paintings or pictures of our Saviour Jesus Christ? According to the Larger Catechism, this is certainly wrong, for the catechism interprets the second commandment as forbidding the making of any representation of any of the three persons of the Trinity, which would certainly include Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, God the Son. … As interpreted by the Westminster Assembly, the second commandment certainly forbids all representations of any of the persons of the Trinity, and this coupled with the truth taught in the Westminster Standards that Christ is a divine person with a human nature taken into union with himself, and not a human person, would imply that it is wrong to make pictures of Jesus Christ for any purpose whatever” – Geerhardus Vos
“The Bible presents no information whatever about the personal appearance of Jesus Christ, but it does teach that we are not to think of him as he may have appeared "in the days of his flesh," but as he is today in heavenly glory, in his estate of exaltation (2 Cor. 5:46). Inasmuch as the Bible presents no data about the personal appearance of our Saviour, all artists' pictures of him are wholly imaginary and constitute only the artists' ideas of his character and appearance. … [Liberals] inevitably think of Jesus as a human person, rather than thinking of him according to the biblical teaching as a divine person with a human nature. The inevitable effect of the popular acceptance of pictures of Jesus is to overemphasize his humanity and to forget or neglect his deity (which of course no picture can portray). In dealing with an evil so widespread and almost universally accepted, we should bear a clear testimony against what we believe to be wrong.” – Geerhardus Vos
“If it is not lawful to make the image of God the Father, yet may we not make an image of Christ, who took upon him the nature of man? No! Epiphanies, seeing an image of Christ hanging in a church, brake it in pieces. It is Christ's Godhead, united to his manhood, that makes him to be Christ; therefore to picture his manhood, when we cannot picture his Godhead, is a sin, because we make him to be but half Christ - we separate what God has joined, we leave out that which is the chief thing which makes him to be Christ.” – Thomas Watson
“The Second Commandment teaches us how we are to worship. We are to worship God only as He had commanded us to worship him. Anything that man devises, invents, or imagines corrupts the true reverence and worship of God. This commandment is frequently violated when Christians have pictures of Jesus. When it is said that they are legitimate because they are not used in worship, we reply that they are not legitimate because one cannot have a proper thought of feeling with respect to Christ other than that of reverenced and worship”. – G.I. Williamson
“The second commandment is broken when men attempt to make a graven image or a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches us that there is one God. It teaches us to worship the three persons, the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory. But Paul tells us that we "ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone graven by art and man's device" (Acts 17:29).” – G.I. Williamson
God revealed Himself by His own authority; men cannot and may not represent God by a man-made image. God is an infinite Spirit; because God is spiritual and invisible, He cannot be represented as a visible image. For an image to stir devotion is to worship God by an image.
Christ’s Divine nature cannot be pictured. An image of God cannot contemplate His divine nature, or the union of the two natures in one person. Christs deity united to His humanity constitutes the Person of Christ; but a picture of Christ cannot capture His deity. An image of Jesus Christ must depict Him as a mere man, whereas He is the God-man: God Incarnate.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving-kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
In the second commandment, God commanded man not to make a representation of God, or worship God by images. We are not to make or worship any images of God: That includes of Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, God the Son.
© Jonathan Williams, March 2012.