What Is A “Carved Idol” In The 21st Century?

Too often, believers skim over the ten commandments, moving onto other more niche theological issues to study and pick apart, thinking, “I haven’t murdered anyone, check! I haven’t cheated on my spouse, check! I was pretty nice to my mom this week, check!” so on and so forth. We think, even if not consciously, that the ten commandments are fairly easy to keep if you are by the world’s standards a “good person.”

In my experience, however, very few people in wider evangelical circles consider how the second commandment should practically play out in their lives. For many, a cursory reading seems like a simple enough command to follow, “Well I haven’t carved an idol of God (or anything else ever for that matter), check!” But what does carving mean in our modern context? What is making a ‘likeness of anything that is in heaven above’ and why does it matter?

…Even though carved is the explicit word used, we should understand that at the time of the commandments being written it was the way in which images were created. Rather, we should understand the spirit of what God said, knowing that even though it doesn’t say “don’t draw a picture of Jesus on your iPad” or “don’t paint a giant mural of Jesus’ face on the side of a building,” we understand that the commandment applies to modern ways of carving as well.

…When I first started to become convicted of what the second commandment entails, I wasn’t thinking about it as a loving thing but how much of an obstacle it was in my life. How would I remove images of God? I love and studied art history and now there was a lot of art I could no longer view in good conscience, how would I teach young children about God, and could I never see another nativity play in my life? It seemed almost impossible to live in Christian culture without being confronted with images of God or Jesus in some way. Nonetheless, I realized that my concerns were entirely inwardly focused. What was God trying to teach me about Himself through making this commandment? Read More»

Sarah Perkins | “The Second Commandment and the Christian Life” | December 3, 2022


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6 comments

  1. One of the hardest things for us has been to convince the grandparents (both sets from Baptistic roots) that kiddy picture books with images of Jesus would go into the trash. The other has been to explain to our neighbors (we live in a rural area) why we will neither participate in nor attend viewings of live nativity scenes. If imaging Jesus is sinful, I can’t imagine someone pretending their infant, or a plastic baby doll, is Jesus.

    It’s hard, but it’s paying off. My 12-year-old daughter was given a book as a prize at a local Christian youth event, and she gave it back immediately and told the leader “I can’t accept this – it has pictures of Jesus and that’s idolatry.”

  2. One of the last hurdles I had to get over was recognizing that a family heirloom porcelain nativity set acquired by Lutheran ancestors and passed down is idolatry. Please pray that I will convince my family that the porcelain baby needs to be smashed.

  3. I’ve just finished reading a book by Daniel Sih (Aussie corporate head and erstwhile church planter!) called “Spacemakers” In the book he gives an interesting update on how our “carved images” may now appear:

    “Our idols are lithium, cobalt, glass, made by human hands. They have cameras but cannot see; Siri, but cannot speak; touch screens but cannot feel. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” [See Psalm 115:2-5, BH]

    A very valuable book. Recommended.

  4. I understand the Second Commandment issues. I spent most of my adult life in the theological tradition of Oliver Cromwell and the New England Puritans, iconoclasts if there ever were any. I understand the smashing of the stained glass windows of England, burning the crucifixes, etc. I’ve spent years advocating for whitewashed “sanctuaries” (I hate the word), maintaining central pulpits, and avoiding all ecclesiastical art and imagery in churches (better called “meetinghouses”) on the grounds that even when not biblically forbidden, it is not helpful and can quickly lead to art that actually is forbidden by the Second Commandment.

    I do, however, think there’s a difference — not necessarily one of principle but of prudence — between smashing an heirloom nativity set handed down from Lutheran ancestors and dealing with medieval Roman Catholic statuary and iconography. Luther was many things, but he was not a compromiser with Roman Catholicism. He had Scripture-based reasons for maintaining things we in the Reformed world would not. We disagree with those reasons, and we believe Luther misread the Bible on those points, and I certainly would strongly oppose the desire of Lutherans from earlier centuries to force Reformed churches to have images of Christ in their churches. But our disagreements are not on the same level as our disagreement with Roman Catholics on use of images.

    Perhaps a better way for Sierra Gray to handle the Lutheran nativity set would be to give it to a Lutheran relative who is confessionally Lutheran. I would not say that in the 1600s or 1700s, and I would not say it today in the context of modern Latin American folk Catholicism, where there is clear idolatry happening. However, I do think it’s patently obvious that most confessional Lutherans today are not compromising with Catholics. Their decision to have images of Christ, while an error and clearly contrary to Reformed understanding of biblical principles, is not in the same category as medieval folk piety or modern manifestations of Roman Catholic folk piety that, in an American context of the 2020s, we are most likely to see in the Hispanic community.

    I’m a lot less patient with Baptists who have images of Christ since they are (usually without realizing it) violating their own tradition. But Lutherans and Anglicans have centuries-old arguments for their practice, and with regard to confessional Lutherans, there isn’t a history of images and liturgy leading them back to Rome. I can’t say that for the Anglicans because of their Anglo-Catholic movement from the 1800s, and if I see an Anglican with a preference for high church liturgy, I need to ask questions I don’t usually need to ask to a Missouri Synod or a Wisconsin Synod or other confessional Lutheran.

    In an ideal world, yes, I’d like to see all the images gone.

    We don’t live in an ideal world, not all battles are equally urgent at all times and places, and fighting some battles with the tactics of the 1500s and 1600s may create problems that are better solved with other tactics.

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