Few topics are more incendiary in the church than that of public worship. Yet no topic is more important to the Christian faith and life than public worship. This is a recipe for a crisis, which is where we find ourselves. Feelings run deep. Each week Christians gather for public worship twice each Lord’s Day (Christian Sabbath) or at least they should, so we gather hundreds of times each year and some of us have been doing so for decades. We have become intimately familiar with forms of worship, songs, tunes, creedal statements, and practices that have become woven into the fabric of our lives, our experience, and our memories. When we hear a familiar tune memories may come flooding back. The whole experience is very personal.
Nevertheless, as important as our experience is and as much a part of the fabric of our lives as our favorite things about public worship may be, God’s law is still the norm for public worship. We must be prepared to measure even beloved practices and songs by God’s law. The first commandment speaks to whom we worship. The second commandment speaks to how we worship the true God:
You shall not make unto yourself 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. You shalt not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them; for I Yawheh your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of those that love me, and keep my commandments (Ex 20:4–6; ESV).
The Reformed churches confess a particular interpretation of the second commandment. In Heidelberg 96 we say:
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.
John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” The Apostle John says in 1 John 4:12, “No one has ever seen God….” No human being has ever seen God. This is the clear teaching of Jesus himself:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father ( John 14:6–9).
The Apostle Paul taught the same thing:
I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen (1 Tim 6:13–16).
Apart from the incarnation of God the Son, none of us mere mortals has ever seen God but we will come back to this in a moment. Because God is necessarily invisible, because none of us has ever seen him, as he is, in himself, any picture we might make of him is necessarily a guess. Any image we make of him is the product of our imagination, it’s a fabrication made up of created stuff. Making God in our own image is the definition of idolatry and that gets us back to the 1st commandment.
Again, Scripture is very clear about this:
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man (Acts 17:29; ESV).
Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal for their stupidity, for praying to inanimate objects:
And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”(1 Kings 18:26–27; ESV).
Most Protestants would probably agree that God may not be depicted and certainly not for the purposes of worship. Yet Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were frequently depicted in medieval churches, even though God was not depicted in the Ancient Christian church. The church does sometimes fall into corruption. That is one reason why we had a Reformation in the 16th century.
Sometimes the depiction of the persons of the Trinity is defended on the basis of the distinction between adoration and worship. They may be adored but not worshiped. The Reformed churches, however, have rejected that distinction because it has no biblical foundation.
The question becomes a little bit more difficult when we think about depictions of Jesus, God the Son incarnate. All the commandments are challenging for us sinners but this one seems to be particularly challenging because we live in a visual age. The assumption seems to be that if we cannot see it, then it must not be real.
Further, many of us grew up with pictures of Christ. Indeed, it’s not unusual to see otherwise faithful confessional Reformed congregations with sometimes large, sometimes stained glass representations of Christ. Films about Christ were once controversial. Until 1961 most films did not attempt to portray Jesus’ face. The 1959 film, Ben-Hur, portrayed his hands. It was not until 1961, when Jeffrey Hunter did it, that a film attempted to portray Christ’s face. It was controversial then but a little more than fifty years later evangelicals frequently portray Jesus in evangelistic films.
The argument is this: God the Son took on true humanity, therefore we may portray his humanity in paintings, statues, on stage, and in film. Further, the argument goes, if we say that we may not portray Christ then we’re in danger of denying his true humanity.
The problem with this argument is that the reverse is true. It is when we attempt to depict Jesus’ humanity that we deny it. In 1692, Thomas Watson asked,
Quest. 1. If it be 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?
He answered the question this way:
Resp. No. Epiphanius seeing an image of Christ hanging in a church, broke it in pieces; ’tis 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 hath joined, we leave out that which is the chief thing, which makes him to be Christ.— Thomas Watson, A Body of Practical Divinity (1692), 280. [spelling modernized]
Heinrich Bullinger, in the 2nd Helvetic Confession (1566) wrote that God the Son did not become incarnate to make work for carvers and artisans. Calvin agreed. In his 1559 Institutes he wrote:
God, indeed, from time to time showed the presence of his divine majesty by definite signs, so that he might be said to be looked upon face to face. But all the signs that he ever gave forth aptly conformed to his plan of teaching and at the same time clearly told men of his incomprehensible essence. For clouds and smoke and flame [Deuteronomy 4:11], although they were symbols of heavenly glory, restrained the minds of all, like a bridle placed on them, from attempting to penetrate too deeply. Therefore Moses, to whom, nevertheless, God revealed himself more intimately than to the others [Exodus 33:11], did not succeed by prayers in beholding that face; but he received the answer that man is not able to bear such great brightness [Exodus 33:20]. The Holy Spirit appeared under the likeness of a dove [Matthew 3:16]. Since, however, he vanished at once, who does not see that by one moment’s symbol the faithful were admonished to believe the Spirit to be invisible in order that, content with his power and grace, they might seek no outward representation for themselves? For the fact that God from time to time appeared in the form of a man was the prelude to his future revelation in Christ. Therefore the Jews were absolutely forbidden so to abuse this pretext as to set up for themselves a symbol of deity in human form. —Calvin, Institutes (1559; Battles edition), 1.11.3.
As a matter of history there are no images of Christ From 1st Cent. Jesus did not authorize one. The Apostles did not make or authorize any. The earliest Image of Christ c. 235. Ironically, it was the Gnostics who tended to venerate images of Christ, not the orthodox fathers. At the Council of Elvira (309 AD), in Canon 36 pictures of Christ were forbidden but there was popular resistance. The people wanted something visible, something tangible like the pagans around them. Eusebius of Caesarea received a request From Emperor’s Sister for an image and the church said no. There was no theological defense of images of Christ until 6th century and there was a heated and sometimes violent controversy over images of Christ in the 8th century.
There’s no question that historically the Reformed agreed with the Ancient Church. We agreed that images of God the Father, God the Son, even God the Son incarnate, even of Jesus, and of God the Holy Spirit (even doves) are forbidden. Our confessions are united on this. Our classic theologians are united on this.
The truth is that you and I don’t know what Jesus looked like. We’re just guessing. He does not look like Jeffrey Hunter or Jim Caviezel. That is why Jesus gets portrayed like a Northern European white man to those of Northern and British descent, like a Pacific Islander to Pacific Islanders and so on. Even if we made a more historically accurate portrayal it would still be a guess. It would not be Jesus’ humanity. It would be someone’s guess, someone’s imagination about how Jesus appeared.
So, really what we are discussing here is not a theological question but a political question. Just like the emperor’s sister in the 4th century, people today like images of Jesus. If it is so frequently done, even by some Reformed congregations, how can it be wrong? If so many do it, is it really wrong? Yes, it is still wrong. The number of people, even if some of those people are right about many other things, does not make them right about this. How can do many be so wrong? Well, sometimes it is because people have never considered what we confess, what we teach about the 2nd commandment. Sometimes it is because even though people like some aspects of the Reformed confession, perhaps many of them, they do not like this aspect of it.
The logic is simple:
- The commandment says: You shall not make representations of God.
- Jesus is God the Son incarnate.
- Therefore we cannot represent Jesus.
This is what we say in Heidelberg 97
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 to make, or have any resemblance of them, either in order to worship them or to serve God by them.
Here we reject the distinction between adoration and worship. We may not worship them, as Israel did with the golden calf and we may not use them to serve God as at Bethel and Dan, not even when it seems useful and practical. In Heidelberg 98 we say:
But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity?
No: for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dump images, but by the lively preaching of his word.
This really gets to the nub of the matter does it not? The issue is not what seems good to us but what has God authorized. We do not ask “what may we do?” in worship. Rather, we ask, “what has God commanded?”
God’s law is the objective measure for what we do and say in public worship. More about this in part 2.