Heidelcast 52: Images Of Christ Don’t Affirm His Humanity, They Deny It

In some Reformed quarters to it is considered clever to argue that to reject images is to deny the humanity of Christ. That Reformed writers should make such an argument would shock our Reformed forefathers, who were convinced that images of Christ are contrary to the catholic doctrine of two natures of Christ and to the moral law of God. Recently, I had a query from a faithful Reformed pastor about whether it is proper to make images of Christ. So, in episode 52 we look at the history of and the biblical/confessional teaching concerning images of Christ.

Here’s the episode (there was a glitch in the original file. It’s been updated):

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  1. I wouldn’t say it’s just considered “clever”. I’d say it’s an attempt to be ecumenical/Roman/Constantinopolitan; either that or an attempt to be gentle with sheep who were raised in Protestant traditions which didn’t give that much thought to the issue and went with the flow of the idolatrous human heart. Love art and the Scandinavian pietists as I may, I’m not that fond of Sallman’s Head of Christ, either.

    Of course, I often wonder what these well-meaning artists will say when they reach Heaven, and find that Jesus didn’t look anything at all like what the traditions of iconography made him out to be. That, for me, would be a very inhibiting factor were I a decent artist and sought to capture Jesus’ humanity on paper.

    Granted, the Bible does give us a physical description of Jesus in Revelation 1. Yet the beloved disciple who had leaned on Jesus’ breast at the last supper fell before the risen and glorified Jesus “as if dead”. I defy any artist to capture that in an image. Albrecht Duerer tried manfully in one of his woodcuts, but even he didn’t quite make it.

    • Of course, I often wonder what these well-meaning artists will say when they reach Heaven, and find that Jesus didn’t look anything at all like what the traditions of iconography made him out to be. That, for me, would be a very inhibiting factor were I a decent artist and sought to capture Jesus’ humanity on paper.

      “capturing Jesus’ humanity” and “what Jesus looked like” are two very different things. I’m sure even the stupidest artist has no illusion that what he is painting is at all related to Jesus’ actual appearance.

    • Hi Bob,

      Not aware of one but there should have been. We found the patient use of a single-sided razor blade very useful for removing violations of the 2nd commandment.

    • AFAIK the original edition was picture-free (or at least didn’t have a hippie on the cover), and the one many of us are now familiar with is a later edition.

  2. I have found that Children’s material (illustrated bibles/bible stories, sunday school material) is where the 2nd Commandment is most challenged. One of my kiddos has a language delay, so appropriate material is especially challenging. Any reccomendations from HB readers would be greatly appreciated. We have used the Jesus storybook Bible for OT material, but I am very hesitent for delving into the NT for obvious reasons.

    • The New Children’s Bible by Anne De Vries has no pictures of Christ, but the pictures it does have are very good. I am also in the process of collecting the three volumes of Catherine Vos’ Children’s Bible put out by Banner of Truth way back. You can sometimes find them used on Amazon. No pictures of Christ in those either, as far as I can tell.

    • I love love love the Jesus storybook bible. I don’t know whether you will find this suggestion a help or a stumbling-block, but consider this from the OPC CCE:

      symbolic representation must be distinguished from realistic representation. It must not be overlooked that there are many possibilities of symbolic statement in art. Even “portraits” may be symbolic and not refer to actual data or imply representational statement. Further, the principle of suggestion is operative in the arts. For example, in a large scene a face or a figure may be suggested by a line or a blob of color. “Representations” of Christ of such a character would not necessarily go beyond the biblical evidence. Such a suggestion would only state that in some such scene Jesus took part as a true man. There are also artistic conventions which might not go beyond the statement that Christ was a man. If this thought be pushed to an extreme, one might observe that in a hieroglyphic writing or in a Chinese character a symbol for “man” might be used which is more or less clearly a conventionalized drawing of the human figure. Such a drawing would be entirely proper with respect to Christ, for it does not go beyond scriptural evidence.

      I think cartoons in childrens books easily fall within this “symbolic/non-representational” scope. (Of course many others disagree strongly).

      • Rube,

        Cartoons aren’t symbols. They are crude, childish realism or hyper-realistic caricature. An symbolic evocation is one thing, a cartoon of a person with eyes, hair, skin color, etc, is another.

  3. The difference in numbering the commandments by Luther and Calvin is quite baffling to this non-theologian/non-historian.

    • I’m dredging my memory here, but I think it may be something like: Luther (and Lutherans) kept the Roman Catholic numbering while Calvin (and the Reformed) reverted to the rabbinical numbering. I think it illustrates one of the dividing lines of method among the Reformers, where Luther was willing to keep the Roman Catholic position unless it was contrary to the gospel, while Calvin was far happier to throw the RC position over in favour of a more ancient source. Or something like that.

    • Close, but not quite. The Catholics (and Lutherans) fuse our 1&2, and separate coveting into 9&10 (for everything in the middle the numbering is off by one). Calvin (Inst II.8.12) judged 1&2 to be separate, and “fused” 9&10 into a single coveting commandment.

      Meanwhile, the traditional Jewish understanding (which requires a more literal name of “Ten Words” rather than “Ten Commandments”) sees our Prologue (“I am the Lord thy God…”) as Word 1, and then our #1+2 (or Cat/Lut #1) as Word 2, and the rest numbered like Calvin.

      I don’t see it written up at tdgordon.net/theology, but T. David Gordon advocates the Jewish numbering.

  4. I recently enjoyed W. Robert Godfrey’s “Images of Christ” sermon, available as an mp3 at Monergism.com.

    It was very helpful concerning this topic.

  5. A few thoughts/questions from this intriguing episode:
    1. Suppose a photographer went back in time and captured a photo of Jesus, would that act be a denial of the humanity of Christ, or the photo, or both? Why and in what sense?
    2. When contemporaries of Jesus looked at him, an image was cast in two ways: as light upon their retina and as a memory in their minds. Both are not true images for not everyone’s vision nor memory are perfected. How then are these images sinful?
    3. When John describes his visions of Jesus with such detail, would he have forbade his readers to picture it in their minds? If not, why describe it?

    These are my honest questions, I’m not trying to be contentious. I perfectly understand confessing the rejection of images outright, but I’ve been unsatisfied with the arguments for it. Thanks

    • Dennis,

      The photo argument comes up frequently. It’s a hypothetical. Further, the assumption behind the question is that photography is on a different order than drawing and painting. We should doubt that assumption. There is a considerable degree of subjectivity to photography—even more now with iPhoto and photoshop! Someone has to take the photo. There is perspective, there is focus, there is depth, there is context. In those ways a photo is more like a painting/drawing than is often recognized. Certainly a photographer can (and they frequently do) make things appear to be other than they were (e.g., by cropping, by changing the tint, via eliminating color). So, even with a photograph we are still only dealing with the photographer’s perception of Jesus. So, we may extend the argument of the Second Helvetic Confession: God the Son did not take on humanity in order to provide work for photographers.

      Jesus’ humanity is true humanity and subject to ordinary providence. That is why the Reformed say that he is locally present at the right hand, even though we understand that the “right hand” is a metaphor. We think that, if anything changed, it was the door not the true humanity of our Lord (John 20:19). Our Lord did not leave us any photographs. A photograph would still not capture his deity and as such it necessarily separates his deity from his humanity (Nestorianism) and thus denies his true humanity. The Lord Jesus Christ IS true God and true man. It is not possible to separate his humanity from his deity and have Christ. It’s not as if we have Jesus AND deity. So, yes, even a photo denies his true humanity.

      What is there about “you shall not make any graven images” that is ambiguous? How does a photograph change the logic of the 2nd commandment:

      1. No images of God
      2. Christ is true God
      3. Therefore no images of Christ.

      Yes, in the providence of God, as far as we know now (always subject to revision of course!) this is how we understand vision. Jesus’ humanity was perceived. It will be visually perceived when he returns? So what? Who is talking about “images” in that sense? This is equivocation. Yes, the disciples had memories of Jesus. A memory generated by sense perception is not, of course, what the Westminster Divines had in mind. They were rejecting the medieval piety of imagining Jesus face etc and meditating upon that mental imagination. That form of piety had been revived by the Jesuits in the 16th century.

      We are entitled to think of Jesus as described but biblical descriptions are intentionally vague and evocative rather than realistic. Thus, the divines were not speaking to those evocations when they prohibited mental images. He is not described as 5′ 7″ with brown eyes, and brown hair etc. Again, we must recognize the nature of the biblical imagery and description. These accounts are suggestive, there are a way of thinking of the glorified Christ. They are fairly generic, i.e., they lack personal detail. Remember too the genre of the Revelation. There is not a literal but a figurative sword come from his mouth (etc).

    • A photograph would still not capture his deity and as such it necessarily separates his deity from his humanity

      I disagree; deity (and God) is invisible, thus a photograph would perfectly capture all of the visible aspects of the incarnate Christ’s deity. If Christ’s deity was visible, then Is 53 (“he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”) would be false, not to mention he would have had a lot more earthly followers!

      • Rube,

        I think you’re argument is naive about the degree to which photography is subjective. “Perfect” is not the word. Photography is not so different from painting/drawing/carving that it is exempt from the law of God.

    • I agree; paintings and drawings also ‘perfectly’ represent all of the visible aspects of deity (in the same sense that you are allowed to drive all of my Lamborghinis any time you want).

  6. Anybody interested in pursuing this topic further (after listening to the Heidelcast of course!) can also go here for audio of a Hoagies & Stogies debate on the topic, as well as links to additional resources on both sides.

  7. From what I have perceived, the use of images is something younger evangelicals have embraced. I have noticed older dispensationalists reject the use of images of Christ and the celebration of “holy days” like Christmas. I think Baptists of former generations would probably be closer to the Reformed tradition on this matter, or at least older Baptists I have heard.

    Even the Pentecostals I grew up with were, at the very least, not enthusiastic of images of Christ. It does seem that it’s acceptance was gradual, at least in my childhood. I’m guessing that even today, there is probably some rejection of images in the denomination I grew up in, which basically only consisted of Latinos.

    I think it can also be said that the use of images is not completely outside the bounds of Protestantism. Yes, a significant portion of Protestants have rejected the use of images; I do wonder whether there were some exceptions among the Reformed in the 17th and 18th centuries. The people I know who use images without any guilt are Lutherans, and specifically confessional Lutherans. If anything, they seem to perhaps be, at least historically speaking among Protestants, the most notable users of images. I think it can be said that Lutherans have kept this alive and well.

  8. The images of Christ are purporting to be images of the One who is Himself the Image of God. They are purporting to be images of the Image. Since that Image is ministered to His people by God’s Word and Spirit (e.g. II Corinthians 3:18) they are bound to obscure that ministry if they are taken at all seriously.

  9. First, are the images of Christ which are found in art museums a form of idolatry? If so, then it would seem that Christians should not visit/support such institutions.
    Second, there is a qualitative difference between a photograph and a portrait. A photographer may of course ask his subject to assume a particular expression, angle, etc. However, the task of the portrait artist is to communicate the character traits, personality, etc. of his subject. Leaving aside the whole question of images of Christ: is portrait art capable of doing this?
    An art critic would certainly say so -and so would I.

  10. “The human nature of Christ is the object of faith, in so far as the invisible God is to be seen in the marvellous and preternatural conception and birth of it. And so it is proposed to our faith, Luke i. 35. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: Therefore also that holy thing that shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God. Faith looks to the testimony of God in his promise of this wonderful birth, Gen. iii. 15. Isa. vii. 14. and in his word declaring the accomplishment of that promise, as he does in the gospels writ by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; and the glory of God’s faithfulness, power and pity, manifested therein. In these respects it is the object of faith, and not at all the object of sense and fancy. The imaginary idea of a natural birth cannot help us to believe so much as the truth of the fact, That to us a child is born, whose name is, The Mighty God: Nay it cannot help to believe, that in such a place a woman brought forth a child. It is true, as the imaginary doctrine says, none can believe it without the imaginary idea of a woman and a child: Yet one’s having the idea of both these can no more help him to believe any remarkable story of a woman that brought forth a child, than a man’s having the idea both of a mountain and a moon, would help him to believe that a mountain brought forth a moon. Nay such ideas help eople only to know the materials that are the objects of sense. And this knowledge all mankind have, that are in their wits, and have common sense. But this ideal and imaginary knowledge cannot help them to believe any proposition relating to these materials to be a truth or falsehood, a thing credible or incredible. The formal object of the human faith of this, That a woman brought forth a child, is some human testimony asserting it as a truth. And the object of divine faith relating to this mystery, the incarnation of Christ, or his human nature, its conception and birth, is the divine testimony, asserting this truth, That a virgin did conceive and bring forth a son, whose name is called Immanuel, God with us. Of this blessed wonderful incarnation of the Son of God, and the design of it, some of the ancient fathers write very sweetly; whose words quoted by Davenant in Col. p. 250 may be thus translated from the Latin. Irenaeus says, “How can the Ebionites be saved, if he be not God who wrought their salvation on the earth? And how shall man come to God, if God do not come to man?” Athanasius says, “If Christ had not been the true Son of God, man had not firmly been united to God: for what a mere man has got, may be lost, as it fell out in Adam. But, that the grace and gift might remain firm, God put on our flesh, that through this might be given to us all spiritual good things in sure possession.” Cyrillus speaks thus: “The Word is made flesh, that in him, and in him alone, the nature of man, being crowned with the praise and glory of innocency, might be enriched with the Holy Spirit, never to depart thence now, as it fell out with Adam, but to abide therein for ever.” The Son of God was incarnate, that human nature, being pulled away from God by sin, and alienated from the life and fellowship of God, might this way be most fitly restored to communion with God, and most firmly preserved therein; and that, as Athanasius said, our flesh, being of earth, might not go to earth, but being joined to heaven by the Word that was made flesh, might by him be brought to heaven. This mysterious birth and incarnation of Christ, and the glorious rays of divine power, wisdom, and grace thus shining therein, is indeed a sweet object of faith: But there is no footing for fancy here, nor for imaginary ideas.”~Ralph Erskine, Faith No Fancy

    • Much of this is fine. But it leaves an important question unanswered: Is there any relationship between art and truth? Can the Biblical art which fills art museums all over the world in fact communicate truth about the persons and scenes which it depicts? That is, truth which can’t be communicated in words?
      If not, the art is a waste of time. Superfluous. And not only should it be eliminated from worship spaces -it shouldn’t even be found in museums.
      Doubtless this would be fine with some Christians. But not with the mainstream of those who constitute Christ’s Holy Church.

    • ​​“Our Saviour Christ saith: “l am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” If no man cometh unto the Father but by Christ, what help then images in this behalf? What make they unto the furtherance of true godliness and true religion? How move they unto devotion? Again, he saith: “No man can come unto me, except my Father draw him.” If no man can come unto Christ, except the heavenly Father draweth him by his holy Spirit, what profiteth then in this behalf the beholding of images? Are they of such inward working in the hearts of men, that they are able to convert them unto God, and to bring them unto Christ? Yea, they lead away men from Christ unto vain spectacles, from the living God unto dumb idols, from true religion unto wicked superstition; so far is it off, that they move any man unto godly devotion or devout godliness. It is the office of the Holy Ghost to bring us unto Christ, and not the part of dumb idols. The Holy Ghost is appointed of God to be our schoolmaster for to lead us into all truth, and not idle images and monstrous mawmets. To place images therefore in the temples of the Christians to this end, that they should be the books of the lewd people, or that they should move us unto devotion, is nothing else than to make the Holy Ghost, as they use to say, Jack out of office, and to place a rabblement of vile and abominable idols in the stead of God’s Spirit to be the teachers and schoolmasters of the faithful. Perish mought all those vain mawmets from the face of the earth, with all such as glory and rejoice in them, that all the honour may be given to our Lord, that living God alone, whose name be praised for ever!”~​​Thomas Beccon

      • >If no man can come unto Christ, except the heavenly Father draweth him by his holy Spirit, what profiteth then in this behalf the beholding of images?

        They are profitable only insofar as the Holy Spirit uses them -together with sermons, prayers, liturgies and other man-made constructs- to draw people to Christ.

        >so far is it off, that they move any man unto godly devotion or devout godliness.

        To know that this is true implies a degree of intimacy with 2000 years of church history which is humanly impossible.

        >It is the office of the Holy Ghost to bring us unto Christ, and not the part of dumb idols.

        Nor the part of sinful human beings, even if they be priests or ministers.

        > The Holy Ghost is appointed of God to be our schoolmaster for to lead us into all truth, and not idle images and monstrous mawmets.

        So why are you using the man-made literary device of alliteration to communicate truth?

        >To place images therefore in the temples of the Christians to this end, that they should be the books of the lewd people,

        This sounds like some kind of guilt by association. When this passage was written, “lewd” presumably had nothing to do with sex. Is a reader today to conclude that people who can’t read or write are more inclined to sexual impurity than those who can?

  11. After reading these, I have an observation in response to Alberto.

    Perhaps the long shadow of Reformed theology left an imprint in the Dispensationalist and early Pentecostal rejection of images. And, since Alberto mentions that he was from a largely Latin American group, could it be that this was also part of a strong reaction against Roman Catholicism? Of course, I will defer to and accept correction on this point from anyone who knows the Latin American culture and ecclesiastical history better than I do.

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