Your Picture Of Jesus Is Inherently Idolatrous

Over the years as a pastor, I have been asked why making an image of Jesus is wrong. In fact, I have been frequently criticized for my position that making images of Jesus is forbidden in the second commandment. I have come to expect that such a view will be treated as “legalistic” and impractical, especially for use in children’s books. The fact remains, however, that we were never given an inspired image of Jesus, and that we were expressly commanded not to make one.

…“Well, ok, but what if we aren’t worshipping them? This all seems a bit too stretched” as I often hear. Just how dangerous can making images of Jesus really be?

There is another reason that might surprise you as to why we should avoid making images. Stephen Prothero in “American Jesus” shows how Jesus has been used for people’s cultural agendas for decades-these are some of the awful representations in the book. Read more»

Chris Gordon, “Making Jesus Into Your Own Image,” Abounding Grace Radio (May 13, 2021)

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5 comments

  1. I get the argument and that it’s safer to be careful than to toy with intentionally breaking a commandment under the auspices of reasoning such as “it’s for educational purposes.” But isn’t there a difference in creating a representation of the incarnate Jesus as a man than that of creating a depiction of Jesus as God? Everything Pastor Gordon said about depicting Jesus in our own ethnicity is correct, and in truth we have no idea of what he looked like, but we do know that he looked like a man, and very probably a Jewish man. The commandment, properly, forbids making a likeness of things in Heaven above, in Earth beneath. or in the water under the Earth. It doesn’t seem,literally, to preclude depicting Jesus as man on Earth. The debate will not likely end with this discussion, and as a matter of conscience we should be quite certain that our understanding is Biblically grounded, but is there room for disagreement among believers or are we to be dogmatic?

    • Hi Jerry,

      This is an important question because in order to get to that defense of images one has to indulge (unintentionally) in heresy against the ecumenical faith. Here is where the catholic/ecumenical/universal ancient creeds help us. The Definition of Chalcedon (AD 451) says:

      …to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons….

      Christ is God the Son incarnate. He is one person with two natures. As we confess, he is to be “acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably.” We must distinguish them but we may not separate them: “not parted or divided into two persons…”.

      I would rather say that we should neither intentionally or unintentionally violate God’s moral law under the auspices of “books for the people” (an early justification of images). To suggest that we can depict his humanity without intending to depict his deity is separating the two natures. That is the Nestorian heresy rejected at Chalcedon (among other councils).

      Chris’ point is that the Jesus we depict is nothing but someone’s imagination. That’s the definition of idolatry: “God as we imagine him.” The God of Scripture takes a very dim view indeed of our imagination of him. This is exactly what the 2nd commandment forbids: imagining him and then representing him by that imagination. If you look at Chris’ essay he illustrates some of the various ways Jesus has been imagined: Asian, caucasian, African etc. These are all nothing but idols.

      As Heinrich Bullinger said, in the Second Helvetic Confession, God the Son did not become incarnate to make work for carvers and artists. He came to be our Savior. Neither he nor his apostles left behind depictions. This was intentional. The ancient Christian church forbad images of Christ. Against the instruction of the church, some Christians did make them (e.g., in the catacombs) but one early father observed that it was the Gnostic heretics who first made images. The church resisted images until that resistance was overcome by the E. Empire.

      Jesus is the God-man. Your proposed justification separates the two natures by proposing to represent one without representing the other. That’s not possible. The Jesus you propose to depict is not only your imagination of what a 1st century Jew might have looked like, you’re proposing to separate the two natures in order to represent (fictionally) only one of them. That isn’t Jesus. The deity cannot be separated from the humanity.

      When God forbad images of God that includes God the Son incarnate. Who, do you think, issued the second commandment at Sinai? It was God the Son who thundered from Sinai. He is the Word, the revelation of God. He gave the moral law at Sinai and corrected the abuse of it in the Sermon on the Mount. God’s Word says:

      Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:21-24; ESV).

      Hebrews compares two mountains, Sinai and Zion. Jesus was at the top of Sinai. According to Hebrews 2, Moses was a worker in God’s house. Jesus is the Son. Yes, formally, Moses is the Mediator of the Sinai/Old Covenant but at whom did he tremble? Jesus! God the Son was there. It was he who walked with Adam “in the spirit of the day [of judgment]—usually translated “in the cool of the day.”

      The main reason there is a debate is because we’re ignorant of the Scriptures and the history of the church and because we are deeply infected with pragmatism.

      If images are no big deal why did the ancient church repudiate them so forcefully?

      Resources On Images Of Christ

      Hippolytus:

      (Now these heretics) have themselves been sent forth by Satan, for the purpose of slandering before the Gentiles the divine name of the Church. (And the devil’s object is,) that men hearing, now after one fashion and now after another, the doctrines of those (heretics), and thinking that all of us are people of the same stamp, may turn away their ears from the preaching of the truth, or that they also, looking, (without abjuring,) upon all the tenets of those (heretics), may speak hurtfully of us. (The followers of Carpocrates) allege that the souls are transferred from body to body, so far as that they may fill up (the measure of) all their sins. When, however, not one (of these sins) is left, (the Carpocratians affirm that the soul) is then emancipated, and departs unto that God above of the world-making angels, and that in this way all souls will be saved. If, however, some (souls), during the presence of the soul in the body for one life, may by anticipation become involved in the full measure of transgressions, they, (according to these heretics,) no longer undergo metempsychosis. (Souls of this sort,) however, on paying off at once all trespasses, will, (the Carpocratians say,) be emancipated from dwelling any more in a body. Certain, likewise, of these (heretics) brand their own disciples in the back parts of the lobe of the right ear. And they make counterfeit images of Christ, alleging that these were in existence at the time (during which our Lord was on earth, and that they were fashioned) by Pilate.

      Lactantius:

      Whoever, therefore, is anxious to observe the obligations to which man is liable, and to maintain a regard for his nature, let him raise himself from the ground, and, with mind lifted up, let him direct his eyes to heaven: let him not seek God under his feet, nor dig up from his footprints an object of veneration, for whatever lies beneath man must necessarily be inferior to man; but let him seek it aloft, let him seek it in the highest place: for nothing can be greater than man, except that which is above man. But God is greater than man: therefore He is above, and not below; nor is He to be sought in the lowest, but rather in the highest region. Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image.1 For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth. And this, indeed, may be plain to a wise man from the very name.2 For whatever is an imitation, that must of necessity be false; nor can anything receive the name of a true object which counterfeits the truth by deception and imitation. But if all imitation is not particularly a serious matter, but as it were a sport and jest, then there is no religion in images, but a mimicry of religion. That which is true is therefore to be preferred to all things which are false; earthly things are to be trampled upon, that we may obtain heavenly things. For this is the state of the case, that whosoever shall prostrate his soul, which has its origin from heaven, to the shades beneath, and the lowest things,3 must fall to that place to which he has cast himself. Therefore he ought to be mindful of his nature and condition, and always to strive and aim at things above. And whoever shall do this, he will be judged altogether wise, he just, he a man: he, in short, will be judged worthy of heaven whom his Parent will recognise not as abject, nor cast down to the earth after the manner of the beasts,4 but rather standing and upright as He made him.

      Epiphanius:

      They [the Gnostics] possess paintings—some, moreover, have images made of gold, silver and other materials—and say that such things are portraits in relief of Jesus, and made by Pontius Pilate! That is, the reliefs are portraits of the actual Jesus during his sojourn among men! (10) They possess images like these in secret, and of certain philosophers besides–Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and the rest—and also place other reliefs of Jesus with these philosophers. And having erected them, they worship them and celebrate heathen mysteries. For once they have set these images up, they then follow the customs of heathen–yet what are customs of the heathen but sacrifices and the rest? (11) they say that salvation is of the soul only, and not of bodies.

      The Heidelberg was with the ancient church:

      96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

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

      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.

      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.

      Calvin was right (in the preface to the Institutes):

      It was a father who termed it a dreadful abomination to see an image either of Christ or of some saint painted in the churches of Christians. “What is reverenced is not to be depicted upon walls” was not the mere declaration of one man but the decree of an ecclesiastical council. They are far from remaining within these limits when they leave not a corner free of images. Another father counseled that, after having exercised in burial the office of humanity toward the dead, we should let them rest. They break these limits when they stir up perpetual solicitude for the dead.

      Chris is right: every image people make of Jesus is not Jesus. It’s a vain imagination and an idol. Every image separates, were it possible, the two natures. Every image is Nestorian. The Athanasian Creed forbids it: “34. Who although he be God and man; yet he is not two, but one Christ.”

  2. Dr. Clark,
    Thanks for the post. I’ve found that for many this matter is predominantly driven by emotion and experience. Images of Jesus violate both the 2nd and 9th commandments. Images bear false witness necessarily. Insisting on images is also a denial of the sufficiency of scripture because it is insisting on the need for something outside of God’s word, that His word is not enough. Is not His word glorious and overwhelmingly adequate for our worship and life? Is not the command not to go beyond what is written more properly basic than a felt need to aid devotion or to teach? I have found success in pressing in on all three lines of reasoning (2CV, 9CV, sufficiency of scripture). I’ve found that many haven’t been challenged or thought through especially the two latter points. Taken together, they present a case against images that’s hard to overcome.
    Blessings!
    Tony Garbarino

  3. Thank you for taking the time to explain this in so much detail Scott……I knew you’d have a good answer to my questions. Now to try to convince the Elders of my church that da Vinci’s The Last Supper has to go. An uphill battle not likely quickly won…..your post and Pastor Gordon’s essay will help bolster my argument, but ultimately it will be the Holy Spirit’s convicting influence that will change hearts and minds. Pray for us.

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