Don’t Build It or Build a Bigger One?

A giant violation of the second commandment (that’s the one forbidding visible representations of God) burned to the ground yesterday near Cincinnati, OH after being struck by lightening (HT: Brad Lindvall).

The Reformed consensus on the rejection of images of Jesus is strong and ecclesiastical. Heinrich Bullinger confessed (Second Helvetic Confession, 1561/1566, ch. 4):

IMAGES OF CHRIST. Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters. He denied that he had come “to abolish the law and the prophets” (Matt. 5:17). But images are forbidden by the law and the prophets” (Deut. 4:15; Isa. 44:9). He denied that his bodily presence would be profitable for the Church, and promised that he would be near us by his Spirit forever (John 16:7). Who, therefore, would believe that a shadow or likeness of his body would contribute any benefit to the pious? (II Cor. 5:5). Since he abides in us by his Spirit, we are therefore the temple of God (I Cor. 3:16). But “what agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (II Cor. 6:16).

Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God,1 nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.2

1 Deut 4:15-19. Isa 40:18, 25. Rom 1:22-24. Acts 17:29. 2 1 Sam 15:23. Deut 12:30-32. Matt 15:9. * Deut 4:23, 24. * John 4:24.

97. May we not make any image at all?

God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping any likeness of them, either to worship them, or to serve God by them.1

1 Exod 23:24, 25. Exod 34:13,14. Deut 7:5. Deut 12:3. Deut 16:22. 2 Kgs 18:4. * John 1:18.

98. But may not pictures be tolerated in churches as books for the people?

No, for we should not be wiser than God, who will not have His people taught by dumb idols,1 but by the lively preaching of His word.2

1 Jer 10:8. Hab 2:18,19. 2 2 Pet 1:19. 2 Tim 3:16,17. * Rom 10:17.

Westminster Larger Catechism (1647):

Q. 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?

A. 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.

For more on this see Danny Hyde’s summary of the Reformed case against images.

The second issue is that of interpreting providence. Some folk will be tempted (as I was) to appeal to this episode as a providential confirmation of our view. Others, however, may argue that this is a sign that the folk who built what we regard as an idol should have done a better job of it. As you can see, Interpreting providence is not as easy as looks.

We should not be skeptical about natural revelation. God has revealed his moral law in nature. This is the consensus Protestant view. That law reveals God’s righteousness and justice. It convicts sinners of their unbelief. The Apostle Paul teaches this explicitly in Romans 1-2 and by example in Acts 17. He mocked the Greeks for their paganism and their stupid attempts to represent God.

Nevertheless, there are limits to natural (general) revelation. Then there is sin. We sinners are busily suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1). We should be thankful, therefore for special revelation, God’s Word, which is quite clear about how God views any and all attempts to represent any of the triune persons. The Reformed churches addressed this question by studying God’s Word, coming to a consensus as to the teaching of God’s Word, and that agreement is summarized in the confessional statements quoted above.

The good news this morning (on the West Coast of N. America) is not that God struck down a silent idol but that Jesus, God the Son incarnate, is the “image of God” (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). The idol in Ohio is silent, but the Son of God is not silent. He is the “Word” (self-disclosure) who was in the beginning, who was with the Father, through whom the Spirit proceeded, and who is consubstantial with the Father and the Spirit (John 1; Nicene Creed). Where we have become image-making and image-worshiping idolaters, the Image of God worshiped his Father in true holiness and perfection. He did it in our place as our righteous substitute, surety, and mediator. Even as we contemplate the folly of giant statues of the ascended Lord of Glory let’s also give thanks for his pity and grace toward helpless idol makers.

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  1. How is a Jesus statue any different from “The passion of the Christ”? The early church frequently represented Christ, who was both man AND God in murals, carvings, and the like. A cross which adorn many Reformed churches is just a simplified crucifix.

    Iconoclasm is one of the shortcomings of the calvinists. Historically it traces back to 8th century Islam, not Christianity. The Calvinists failed to read the 2nd commandment in light of the descriptions of statue and symbols that God commanded for adorning the temple.

    Rev. Marcelo Souza at Christ Reformed Church has an academy lecture series on ancient church history that cleary reveals the shortcomings of Iconoclasm and its Muslim roots in light of church history.

    East Coast Calvinists already consider all you west-coasters to just be secret Lutherans, anyway because you spend all your time trying to prove Calvin was a Lutheran. German isn’t that hard to learn…:)

    • Benjii,

      1. See the comments policy.

      2. I can’t tell if you’re kidding completely, but in case you’re not: The church was opposed to icons long before Islam!

      3. Our case doesn’t rest ultimately on history but on the Word of God. Patristic practice isn’t definitive, Scriptural teaching is.

      4. How can we be Lutherans and iconoclasts? Something has to give there, doesn’t it? I know you’re kidding here but it’s a point worth making.

      • 1. Sry… Benji Nichols

        2. I mean Iconoclasm in its historic sense of smashing images, which was begun by Mohammed. The early church was uniform in its agreement not to depict God the Father, but encouraged depictions of the incarnation of Christ. (Clearly the sistine chapel is violation of the 2nd commanfment according to the church’s historic position on the 2nd commandment)
        8th century Byzantine Iconoclasm was inspired by Muslim military success and was not even based on the 2nd commandment, but rather on the idea that depictions of Christ violated the hypostatic union, by separating the two natures of Christ.

        3. But when it becomes clear that a particular faith tradition pegged one wrong in interpreting God’s word, it is better to drop that matter, than to persist in something which was incorrectly injected into Christianity from the sinister and satanic Islamic religion.
        When push comes to shove however, reformed churches are adorned with crosses instead of arabesque and OPC sunday school materials still have little felt and paper cutouts of Jesus on a cross, even though some people talk like we should be burning all of the Children edition ESVs.

        4. Good Question… but you west-coasters seem to be slowly coming aroung 😉

        5. Just to be clear… I’m not advocating Iconophilia, or anything that resembles the worship of of man-made artifact (or food item), or even the worship of Christ’s flesh and blood in, with, and under the elements of holy communion. However, it is common even in reformed circles to find artistic depictions of Christ in film, picture, painting and sculpture. These depictions are consistent with all of Christian history (even back to the earliest known church buildings which were decorated with a pictorial history of the life of Christ) with the exception of the Byzantine and Reformed Iconoclast periods. While we would all to well to remember not to worship depictions of Christ, there seems little motivation or rationale (even from Reformed) to burn them all.

        P.S. In case you’re wondering about my background, I’m a layperson who’s recently transitioned from OPC to LCMS, who fell into YRR-ness following a quarter of a century in the evangelical wasteland. I’m still wrestling with the differences between Calvinists and Lutherans that are substantial and not semantic. Your book is helping me. I’ve only really identified a handful so far:

        1) The two natures of Christ (depending on the Calvinist)
        2) Real Presence (depending on the Calvinist)
        3) Limited Atonement (depending on the Calvinist)
        4) Perseverance

        If you read Horton’s Lord and Servant, you will have difficulty finding a difference between Horton’s Calvinism and Lutheranism. When I quote Horton at WELS folks, they just say that he’s not a real Calvinist. Also, my own OPC pastor was drastically more Lutheran in approach than I have heard from most Presbyterians.

        The only substantive, non-semantic dfference I have truly found is perseverance, because of its theological implications. Lutherans teach that those who truly repent and trust in Christ can fall away into sin a la (2Pet2), Calvinists teach that the man never truly repentend and believed. This has important theological implication for calvinists because it would mean you could willfully reject Christ after he’d dragged you kicking and screaming into repentance and faith.

        Even so, it has zero impact on good calvinist preaching which still faithfully admonishes to work out your salvation with fear and trembling 🙂

        Grace and peace to you!

        • Benji,

          To say that Horton is not a real Calvinist is literally insane. It shows how wacky the definition of “Calvinist” has become. The WELS stuff I’ve read about the “Reformed” bears no relation to historic or confessional Reformed theology. I don’t have any time for WELS folks to be defining “Reformed” for me, not until they do their homework. Have you looked at their website?

          I’m not talking through my hat. The Lutheran caricature of Reformed theology/Calvin/Calvinism is embedded in the Lutheran self-identity. See this essay:

          “Calvin as Negative Boundary Marker in American Lutheran Self-Identity 1871–1934” in Johan de Niet, Herman Paul, and Bart Wallet, ed., Sober, Strict, and Scriptural: Collective Memories of John Calvin, 1800-2000 (Leiden: Brill, 2009).

          Why do you say, “depending?”

          I’m glad you’re reading RRC (!) but if the Reformed confessions define “Reformed” on those points (and they do) then what’s “depending” about it?

          On law and gospel, we might sound Lutheran, but that’s only because people haven’t actually read the Reformed tradition. Once more, listen to this lecture:

          • 1. I’m usually pushing against the WELS folks, but I have heard of the same mentality about Horton coming from profs at WTSPhil, from a former student there.

            The depending is based on “depending what they mean by the terms”

            For example, Limited Atonement:
            Classical Lutheran 1Jn2 is Christ did the work of propitiating the sins of the whole world, but this only results in forgiveness for those who are called to repent and believe.
            Classical Calvinist 1Jn2 is “Christ only proptiated the sins of some people out of the entire world (all nations and peoples), essentially that Christ’s work was not sufficient or effective for the non-elect.
            WTSCal Calvinism seems more focused on the idea that the results of the atonement do not apply to everyone (non-universalism) as opposed to the insufficiency of Christ’s work (and hence they get dubbed honorary Lutherans by everyone except WELS) 🙂

            At one level this is splitting hairs, but pastorally it is important because it is how Lutherans justify proclaiming that Christ died the forgiveness of YOUR sins even to those who don’t believe it, and who never are called to that grace and forgiveness. But good reformed/pres pastors do this ANYWAY, so what gives? Don’t they believe in the confessions? Shouldn’t they really say “maybe”?

            Or for another “depending” you can look at the fact that Horton’s real-presence affirming rebuttals to antique charges of Calvinist Nestorianism, evoke responses like “Why don’t you just stop trying to redifine Calvin as a Lutheran, and switch sides already?” But I’ll definitely check out your references.

            I’m very much interested in these matters, because I very much prefer the Reformed treatment of Lutherans, to the Lutheran treatment of the Reformed. Some of the old guys in the LCMS would bring a layman up on charges for praying before a meal with his calvinist mom (YOU MEAN HE ATE WITH HER?) I’ve really been trying to understand the source of all this anti-“syncretism”. Part of it comes from the fact that the LCMS was formed out of those who refused the German government’s attempt to merge them with the reformed, and rest of it is confessional, but I’d like to know where the jots and tittles are 🙂

            Also, if you haven’t read Chemnitz, there is a 14-week lecture by Dr. Rosenbladt on the Two Natures in Christ ( ), you can also get a downloadable course outline from 🙂

            • Benji

              Read the materials and listen to the lecture and then we’ll talk.

              This nonsense about WSC being “Lutheran” is just stupid. I mean that. It’s ignorant of the Reformed tradition and confession. At every confessional and traditional point where the Lutherans and Reformed have differed we all as one subscribe heartily and without reservation the Reformed faith. We subscribe the Canons of Dort which teach limited atonement. We subscribe the Westminster Standards. We subscribe the Belgic Confession /ex animo/.

              Mike Horton’s first book (Mission Accomplished) was on the limited atonement. I’ve written popularly on the atonement here:


              Benji, we’ve written plenty on all these topics for anyone to see.

              The truth is that most people who talk about WSC being “Lutheran” don’t have any idea what they are saying.

              You’re reading RRC. How “Lutheran” is it? It defends the Reformed view of the categorical distinction, the Reformed Christology, the Reformed view of worship. What’s Lutheran about it?

              Many of us agree with Calvin on the Supper. What’s Lutheran about that?

              We all affirm the confessions on perseverance. What’s Lutheran about that?

              We all teach double predestination. What’s Lutheran about that?

              We teach the three uses of the law (but so did Melanchthon and Luther). What’s distinctively Lutheran about that?

              Horton’s written a volume advocating historic Reformed covenant theology. I’ve written a book and several essays on the history of Reformed covenant theology. I’ve edited and contributed to a volume on covenant theology (in part to respond to ostensibly Reformed folk who want to take a Lutheran view of Baptism and election!). I’ve written a small book/booklet on covenant and baptism etc. Horton has written an entire series seeking to use covenant theology as a way of organizing and integrating Reformed theology. We teach the classic Reformed three-covenant view. What’s Lutheran about that?

              This is all prima facie evidence to suggest that who ever is talking to you needs his head examined.

              Please check out the resources I’ve listed. See this also:


      • 2) Not really. Icons depicting Christ have been found in early Christian catacombs. The only two major periods of iconoclasm prior to the Reformation were in the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. Also interesting to note is that iconoclastic sentiment was political in origin, not religious, sparked both times by emperors banning religious images in response to what they saw as judgment from God for the bad luck the empire was having at the time.

        3) History and patristics is how we understand the Bible. Without a patristic and historical understanding of the Bible it cannot be understood spiritually, ascetically, allegorically, poetically, etc., but only as wooden literalism. Scripture becomes bare words to be manipulated by the sensibilities and rationalizations of the reader. This is why the Bible can never be severed from that context. Patristics are the best and most important commentary on Christianity you could possibly have.

  2. From a news story:

    “It sent goosebumps through my whole body because I am a believer,” said Levi Walsh, 29. “Of all the things that could have been struck, I just think that that would be protected. … It’s something that’s not supposed to happen, Jesus burning,” he said. “I had to see it with my own eyes.”
    “I can’t believe Jesus was struck,” said his brother, who noted the giant Hustler Hollywood sign for the adult store across the street was untouched. “It’s the last thing I expected to happen.”


    • I am sadly reminded of the beautiful but defaced frescoed churches of Capadocia that I visited last summer in Turkey. Would you likewise deface Rembrandt’s crucifixion ? Why is it that I never encountered any of this Iconoclasm in Calvin Seerveld aesthetics classes at Toronto’s Dutch Reformed Institute for Christian Studies?

  3. What is your take on the art of the northern renaissance? I have often heard that this art described as reformation theology in paint ? I personally would have a hard parting with Rembrandts portrait of Christ What about the images of Christ that are frequently used to illustrate children’s bibles such as the excellent Jesus Storybook Bible? As an interesting aside I recently read in Rowan Williams little book on praying with icons of Christ “Dwelling in the light” that the large “O” Orthodox frown on religious statuary because they feel that it is insufficiently abstract and as a result does violate the Second commandment.

    • No so called “picture of Christ” is acceptable even if it was found in Calvin’s personal library. Identifying inconsistencies is useful in looking for consistent application, but does not invalidate a clear biblical principle e.g. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image …”

      • I am more concerned about the broader ecumenical discussion about reprentations of Christ in art but I understand why the readers of this blog so often fall back on the reformed confessions. But seems to me that the second commandment can legitimately (and perhaps even must be) reinterpreted in the wake to the incarnation. For the sake of argument what do you propose the correct repose to these images to be? Should we like Cromwell’s roundheads burn all the Arch books in our Sunday schools and Smash the stain glass images of the good Sheppard in our sanctuaries? It’s certainly not a slam dunk argument but the fact that this aspect of classical reformed orthodoxy (like exclusive psalmistry and the prohibition on celebrating Christmas) has passed into history with so little comment suggests it may not be as central to the tradition as it place in the confessions suggests.

        • Steve,

          We confess what we do because we believe that is what God teaches us to think. There’s no encouragement in the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures whatever to picture God. There is no encouragement in the Greek NT to picture God incarnate.

          This is why Bullinger said what he said: God the Son did not become incarnate to make work for carvers and artisans.

          Why not take a moment to read Danny Hyde’s book.

          If you want a more academic treatment see David VanDrunen’s excellent essay on this question:

          “Iconoclasm, Incarnation and Eschatology: Toward a Catholic Understanding of the Reformed Doctrine of the ‘Second’ Commandment” in the International Journal of Systematic Theology 6.2 (2004): 130 – 147.

          There are two divinely authorized pictures of Jesus:

          Holy communion

          Holy baptism.

          These have direct, positive sanction in God’s Word.

          The empty imaginations of sinful humans about how Jesus might have looked are exactly contrary to God’s revealed will. They are necessarily idolatrous. You don’t know how Jesus appeared. You don’t know what height he was. You don’t know how much he weighed. You can’t possibly represent him accurately. Thus any representation of him is mere symbol. So now we’re down to dueling symbols. You have man-made symbols and I offer two divinely authorized symbols, no, three: Word, baptism, and supper.

          Your symbols come out of your or some other artist’s imagination. Now, imagination is a good thing and a gift from God but in the history of redemption he took a pretty dim view of the use of the imagination in the representation of himself.

          Do we have a different God? Are we Marcionites? No.

          So the only real question left is this: how does gold taste? I don’t want to find out.

          • Thanks Dr. Clark I will certainly put Dr. Danny Hyde book in the cue (right after yours- I sadly note that RTRC (ding!) is not stocked at either University of Toronto’s Crux books or at the Anglican book center) but you still haven’t told me what I should do with my daughters favorite bedtime reader.

            • I would like to share my experience. We initially only read from the Scriptures. For a while we tried a children’s bible that depicted “Christ”. We did not want the children to embed an artists impression of God in their mind and so we blackened the picture or removed it from the book. Ultimately we have chosen to read the scriptures and spend time explaining the word picture the particular text conveys. Alternatively the BOTT edition of Catherine Vos’s Children’s Bible I would think does not have pictures of Christ.

              • Or the pictures can be removed easily with a one-sided razor blade. Convincing one’s children, however, that Vos’ Story Bible isn’t “the Bible” (when it’s time to switch to the grown up Bible) can be more difficult!

        • I am sadly reminded of the beautiful but defaced frescoed churches of Capadocia that I visited last summer in Turkey. Would you likewise deface Rembrandt’s crucifixion ? Why is it that I never encountered any of this Iconoclasm in Calvin Seerveld aesthetics classes at Toronto’s Dutch Reformed Institute for Christian Studies? (sorry about the double post)

          • I’m not advocating that works of art be destroyed but what did Seerveld do with the confessional material?

            If we can ignore our confession on the 2nd why not on the 1st or the 7th?

            • I don’t know (he was my ex-wife’s thesis advisor so I was only an infrequent visitor to his classroom) I will ask him the next time I see him. I just reread the second commandment and it seems to forbid any kind of repetitive art. How does this square with the instructions as to how to build the ark of the convenient? Doesn’t the very act of reading the gospels cause us to form a potentially blasphemous images of Christ in our minds? Why don’t you advocate defacing art when so many of the puritans had no such qualms?

  4. Sigh.

    And getting “Baby Jesus” stolen from manger scenes. “I can’t believe they’d steal baby Jesus.”

    Um. They didn’t.

  5. It strikes me (pardon the pun) that the responses of Levi Walsh and brother, as quoted by Brad above, prove exactly why imagery and statues ARE a breaking of the 2nd commandment – this plastic model WAS Jesus for them.

    “Of all the things that could have been struck, I just think that that would be protected. … It’s something that’s not supposed to happen, Jesus burning,” he said. “I had to see it with my own eyes”

  6. Lightening strike? Cue John Piper. Wait, images aren’t relevant to kulturkampfthe way homosexual ordination is. Nevermind.

  7. Got to give the French Catholics some credit here. They installed a lightning rod with the statue of Mary who presides atop a church at the papal palace at Avignon. No kidding.

      • Hi Dr. Clark,

        So true. I guess the papists realized that it might be a little bit embarrassing if the “Queen of Heaven” were dethroned by a lightning bolt from heaven. If Jezebel had planned as well and had better screens on her windows, she might not have been so easily defenestrated ;O)

  8. Assuming everyone here knows that the only cross left at Cathedral St. Pierre in Calvin’s day was on an inaccessible tower which was eventually struck by lightning and destroyedn 1556. The action of a brave few extinguished the fire with water and wine before it reached a nearby powder magazine. The more theologically astute Genevans attributed the strike to God’s anger with the last vestige of superstition… (See Baird’s “Eutaxia”, Google Books, p. 23.24)

  9. Here’s some insider info on the statue. Locals referred it as “Big Butter Jesus” because the statue looked as if it had been carved out of butter. There was even a song written about it, which was played on the Bob & Tom radio show.

  10. “The Reformed churches addressed this question by studying God’s Word, coming to a consensus as to the teaching of God’s Word, and that agreement is summarized in the confessional statements”

    One doesn’t reach truth by consensus. Synods and councils’s decisions/deliberations/conclusions are not to be made the rule of faith and life. “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions or ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” WCF1.10

  11. When I was younger I used to draw pictures of “Christ”. Through exposure to the Bible and the Reformed Confessions, I was convinced that what I did was wrong.

    It is sad that the Bishop in the news report said they were going to rebuild the $300,000 problem. Let us hope they’ll turn from these useless things to God.

    I see the waste of money, but man am I happy that thing’s gone. Still got to deal with the people’s heart which is the idol factory. 6 story T.D. Jesus is just the product. Looks like the idol factories are going to be working some overtime.

  12. Benjamin, it was more a ribbing then a pot shot. But you have to admit, assuming he’s not said anything here, Piper’s discerning of providence (!) in some places but not others does seem rather…selective.

    Rhett, is Bob and Tom’s “Big Butter Jesus” as funny as their “Orange Barrels (Orange Barrels)”?

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