This article is part 4 of 4 in the series Three Views on Images of Christ

 

In responding to this situation we must, in the first instance, give thought to the basis upon which the issue for or against pictures of Christ is to be decided. Is this one of those questions which Scripture allows us to settle in terms of expediency? That is to say, have we simply to ask how far pictures of Christ can be judged to be useful and helpful? Or are we faced at the outset with a relevant biblical principle that excludes any justification for considerations based upon expediency? There is good reason to believe that the Bible does present us with a clear principle which is most relevant to the question we are discussing. It is to be found in the second commandment which declares: ‘You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments’ (Exodus 20:4-6; see Deuteronomy 5:8-10).

The whole Bible thunders out the same message-not only are false gods not to be worshipped, but the true God is not to be worshipped by means of images (e.g. Leviticus 26:1; Psalm 115:1-8; Isaiah 2:8; 40:18-20; 41:21-29; 46:5-7; Hosea 13:2; Amos 5:26-27;  Acts 17:24-25, 29; Romans 1:22-25; 1 John 5:21). Some of the severest strictures of the prophets are reserved to describe the folly of those who cut down trees, and use part of the timber to cook a meal and keep warm, while the other part is carved into the shape of a god and worshipped (lsaiah 44:9-20). Images are useless ­ they have to be fastened so they will not topple over; they cannot speak, hear or move; and they are incapable of doing either good or evil (Jeremiah 10:1-5). The true and living God, by contrast, cannot be represented in pictorial form.

Since God is Spirit (John 4:24) and hence invisible (1 Timothy 1:17), a physical representation of Him is impossible. The pure in heart shall see God (Matthew5:8), and did so, in a shadowy way, even in the Old Testament. When the covenant was confirmed with Moses and seventy of the elders of Israel on Mount Sinai, we read that ‘they saw God, and they ate and drank’ (Exodus 24:11). No one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20), so this was only possible because blood had been sprinkled on the altar and on the people to signify that atonement for their sins had been made, and God would not destroy them (Exodus 24:6, 8). Yet God is not described. All we read is that ‘there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity’ (Exodus 24:10). It is not unlike the vision given to Ezekiel many centuries later in the first chapter of his book. Words abound, but there is no actual description of God, only ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD’ (Ezekiel 1:28).

The Christian of Reformed convictions need have no hesitation in singing Horatius’ Bonar’s communion hymn:

Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face;

Here would I touch and handle things unseen,

Here grasp with firmer hand the eternal grace,

And all my weariness upon Thee lean.

Christ has ordained the Lord’s Supper here on earth whereby we may ‘see’ Him, and look to the marriage supper of the Lamb where indeed we shall see Him (Revelation 19:7-9).

To return to Moses’ day, we are therefore not surprising that Moses warns the Israelites: ‘Take careful heed to yourselves; for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth’ (Deuteronomy 4:15-18).

Since God is triune, this logically means that we are not to portray the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. Christians who do not accept the relevance of the second commandment to this issue, tend only to portray the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. They do so on the grounds that it was He who took on manhood and became flesh, and that it is only as man that He is being represented. To this argument we shall return in a moment. It shall be contended that it is a misguided argument, but the sincerity of those who propound it is not in question. We accept that the portrayal of Christ in visible form is often done with good motives, at times even with evangelistic zeal. We are not called upon to judge the motives of fellow Christians, but we are required to judge all arguments from Scripture.

Therefore, I will push three reasons as to why we should not even consider having pictures of Christ. Each successive point builds on its predecessor, and are principles I believe are fundamentally distilled from a systematic treatment of the Word of God.

 

Why Not Have Pictures of Christ?

  1. ALL PICTURES OF CHRIST ARE NECESSARILY INACCURATE AND DEPENDENT UPON IMAGINATION.

One of the most extraordinary features of the Bible is that both Testaments testify of Christ (John 5:39), yet they give no description of Him. Only two very slender hints are given as to the physical appearance of Christ. The first one is found in the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him there is no beauty that we should desire Him’ (Isaiah 53:2). All that can be derived from this is that there seems to have been nothing majestic or striking in the physical appearance of the incarnate Word.[1]It is perhaps also instructive that the apostle Paul was apparently not an imposing figure physically (see 2 Corinthians 10:10).

The second hint is found in an exchange between Jesus and the Jews. Our Lord declared to the Jews, ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad’ (John 8:56). The Jews were astounded at this and replied, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ (John 8:57). In His humanity, Christ was only a little over thirty years of age (Luke 3:23), but apparently His lifestyle ­ having no place to rest His head (Matthew 8:20) and labouring hard to proclaim the kingdom of God amidst much misunderstanding and opposition (Mark 3:20-21; 6:31-34) – had aged Him prematurely.

In any case, these two hints – they are hardly descriptions – are the only glimpses we have of the physical appearance of Christ. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles simply did not see fit to describe the Lord for us. This is in keeping with Jesus’ declaration to Thomas, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ (John 20:29; it is significant that the motto of the JESUS Film project reverses this: ‘Because seeing is believing’). The  apostle Peter  also takes it for granted  that  most Christians, even in the first century, had not seen Christ (1 Peter 1:8). The point remains: Christ has come in the flesh, but we have no real idea what He looked like. Almost invariably, Christ is portrayed as a man with long hair. The text of 1 Corinthians 11:14 has been much debated – and one needs to remember that many English-speaking evangelists of the eighteenth century wore long hair, and even wigs – but Paul does appeal to ‘nature’, not ‘custom’ in arguing that it is dishonour for a man to have long hair. The Holy Spirit has not told us whether Christ was short or tall, solid or slender, with blue eyes or brown, dark hair or fair; such things are not numbered amongst those needed to make us ‘wise unto salvation’.

It is thus incontestable that all pictures of Christ are inaccurate and that we have no way of knowing how inaccurate. A master like El Greco has painted Christ’s cleansing of the temple in a way that brilliantly portrays the Lord’s intensity, singleness of purpose, and holy power. Yet how authentic is it? We have no way of knowing. It is difficult enough to portray modern characters in a visible way. Recently, Kathryn Lindskoog has complained that the film Shadowlands turned C. S. Lewis into a soft, blue-eyed, grandfatherly figure with a tentative faith, and Joy Davidman into a luminously beautiful and refined woman of irresistible and radiant sensitivity.[2]K. Lindskoog,  The C. S. Lewis Hoax, Multnomah, Oregon, 1988, p. 94.  Yet Shadowlands was shown on American television in 1986, just twenty-three years after the death of C. S. Lewis! With Christ, a task that is always difficult becomes impossible.

Many Christians argue that it does not matter; we can picture Christ irrespective of whether the result is accurate or not. But it would be strange if a wife, when her husband was away, were to look continually at the photograph of another man, and then contend that it did not matter because she was thinking of her husband.

Pope Gregory the Great (c.540-604) and John of Damascus (c.675-749) both defended images on the grounds that they are the books of the unlearned. In John’s words: ‘What a book is to the literate, that an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to the sight, as words to the ear: it brings us understanding.'[3]Cited in N. Baynes, ‘Idolatry and the Early Church’ in Byzantine Studies and Other Essays, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1955, p. 136. A variation of this argument is often heard today in order to defend the use of pictures and films of Jesus. Great hopes were entertained, even in evangelical circles, for Mel Gibson’s film of 2004, The Passion of the Christ. These hopes proved an illusion, and in any case, it is surely valid to ask whether the cause of truth can be served by what is not sanctioned by God.

 

  1. PICTURES OF CHRIST ARE NOT ONLY INACCURATE BUT THEY ARE A MEANS OF INTRODUCING MUCH ERROR CONCERNING HIM.

When men begin to portray Christ there is the almost unavoidable tendency to recreate Him in one’s own image. When Adolf von Harnack sought to remove the supernatural element from Christ’s life, leaving what became known as liberal Protestantism, the Roman Catholic George Tyrrell made the telling criticism that ‘The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well’.[4]Cited in I.  H. Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1977, p. 113. Tyrrell himself hardly avoided the same error- an indication of the truth that being aware of a danger is not the same as avoiding it. Every picture of Christ reflects this tendency to recreate Christ in the image of the artist and his culture.  Hence we find the Byzantine Christ, the Anglo-Saxon Christ, the African Christ,  the hippy Christ, and so on – but none of them the authentic Christ. Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ is no exception. Indeed, it is so sentimental and mawkish that it is almost proof on its own that pictures of Christ are inherently distorting – despite the fact that so ardent an evangelical as Lord Shaftesbury would use a magic lantern to show Christ standing at the door and knocking.[5]John Pollock, Shaftesbury: The Poor Man’s Earl, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1985, pp. 137-138.

Frank White was a missionary to China from 1939 to 1949 when the Communist revolution forced him to leave. He records that a young asked him for a Jesus picture. White’s record of the incident and his evaluation of it is as follows:

‘Little Brother, please come to Sunday School, and we will teach you to worship Jesus in the proper way, because we have no true pictures of Jesus,’ was all I could suggest. How easy it would have been to get a supposed likeness of our Lord placed on the altar shelf of that home, along with the ancestral tablet and other objects of worship, but to our mind rank heathenism is preferable to such a compromise with idolatry.’[6]Marion  Andrews,  My  China  Mystery,  Capalaba: Even Before Publishing,  2012,  pp.30-31.

Later, a woman who was ill sought a Jesus picture in the hope that it would cure her, but instead White urged her to repent. It appears that she did so, and also recovered.[7]ibid. pp.102-103. Once the notion of a holy picture of Jesus is embraced, it is very difficult to separate it from the notion of Jesus as the Holy One. Attachment to the one is tied to attachment to the other.

 

  1. PICTURES OF CHRIST NECESSARILY DISHONOUR HIM.

We come now to the most serious point of all and to the one which answers the argument that it is justifiable to represent the human nature of Christ. Pictures of Christ necessarily dishonour Him. Think again of the second commandment. Lest anyone should say, ‘We make likenesses of God not in order to worship them but only as aids to devotions, or help our understanding, for use in teaching and not in worship’- the commandment forbids not only the worshipping of images but also the making of them. This sweeping prohibition is based on the truth that all representations of God dishonour  Him. This is equally true of the person of Christ. Artists cannot portray Christ in the full glory of His deity so they are generally forced to attempt to portray Him only in the humility of His manhood. They cannot attempt to paint heaven so they confine themselves to earth. They leave aside the exalted Christ whose glory blinded Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, and at whose feet the apostle John fell ‘as dead’ (Acts 9:3-9; Revelation 1:17), and they restrict themselves to conjectures as to His human  form.  But Scripture allows no such separation between the two natures of Christ. Even in the period of His humiliation, now forever past, it was the fact that He is God that made  Him the Saviour. Those who portray Christ in visible form must, as Thomas Watson said, portray a ‘half Christ’.[8]T. Watson, The Ten Commandments, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, reprinted 1976, p. 62. And if we only see Christ as a man we have missed the stupendous truth at the heart of the gospel,

‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!

Hail the incarnate Deity!’

According to Scripture, there is a sight of Christ which is necessary to salvation. It is not of His manhood alone but of the glory of His divine person; ‘This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son, and believes in Him may have everlasting life’ (John 6:40). This saving sight of Christ enabled His disciples to say, ‘We beheld His glory,’ and it is the same sight, hidden from the world, which is given to true believers today (John 14:19).

By leaving out the divine nature of the Lord Jesus Christ, artists portray Him as infinitely less than He was in the days of His flesh and as He is now in His exaltation. They therefore condition us to think of Him in the very manner which the second commandment is intended to exclude. Pictures necessarily detract from His divine glory. They represent God the Son as far less than He actually is. Amy Carmichael once told her orphan children at Dohnavur how she came to learn this and how the orphanage gave up a practice which was then ‘almost universal’ among fellow missionaries in India: ‘When converts were given, we found that unless they were taught to do so, they did not want pictures of the Lord Jesus Christ. And you, who have been brought up without them, know when you do happen to see them how much less beautiful such pictures are than the one the Holy Spirit had shown you. I shall never forget the disappointment of one of you when someone sent you a lovely little picture of our Lord as a Child in the Temple. I remember the tears of disappointment when the string was untied, and the wrappings taken off, and the picture taken out of its box – “I thought He was far more beautiful than that!” We may safely leave the blessed Spirit to show to the people to whom we speak, something “far more beautiful than that”.’[9]F. Houghton, Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur, S.P.C.K., I959, p. 61. Carmichael says that her doubts about the use of pictures of Christ began in Japan when she heard a Japanese girl describe them as showing their God. Later her host, pointing to a famous picture of Jesus crowned with thorns, ‘said that he was feeling that “to the Father, pictures of His Son are not good”‘. In Charles  Spurgeon’s view, too, any visual portrayal of Christ is necessarily lacking: ‘we mar the beauty which we attempt to portray.’[10]Cited in Jay Adams, Studies in Preaching: Sense Appeal in Spurgeon, volume 1, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1975, Phillipsburg, p. 46n7.

John Owen has made the same point in more theological language. After speaking at length on the glory of Christ – ‘glory absolutely of another kind and nature than that of any other creature whatever’ – he adds: ‘We may see hence the vanity as well as the idolatry of them who would represent Christ in glory as the object of our adoration in pictures and images. They fashion wood or stone into the likeness of a man. They adorn it with colours and flourishes of art, to set it forth unto the senses and fancies of superstitious persons as having a resemblance of glory. And when they have done, “they lavish gold out of the bag”, as the prophet speaks … and so propose it as an image or resemblance of Christ in glory. But what is there in it that hath the least respect thereunto,- the least likeness of it? nay, is it not the most effectual means that can be derived to divert the minds of men from true and real apprehensions of it? Doth it teach anything of the subsistence of the human nature of Christ in the person of the Son of God? nay, doth it not obliterate all thoughts of it! What is represented thereby of the union of it unto God, and the immediate communications of God unto it? Doth it declare the manifestation of all the glorious properties of the divine nature in him? Persons who know not what it is to live by faith may be pleased for a time, and ruined for ever, by these delusions. Those who have real faith in Christ, and love unto him, have a more glorious object for their exercise.’[11]J. Owen, Works, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, reprinted  1981, vol 1, p. 244.

As was said at the outset, the testimony of the second commandment ought to be enough on this issue. But let us not underestimate the seriousness of the distortion brought about by the use of pictures as a teaching method. Rather surprisingly, the Reformed theologian, John Frame, has argued that the rejection of pictures of Jesus encourages Docetism, the belief that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh.[12]John Frame,  The Doctrine of the Christian Life, P & R, Phillipsburg, 2008, pp. 484-486. That is not entirely convincing. One does not need to know what a person looks like to believe in the reality of the person. More than that, error can be very tenacious. A believer who has a picture of Christ in his house or in his place of worship can find that he is unable to think of Christ except in terms of that picture. In such a case, the picture has not become an aid to devotion or understanding, but a bondage. It ought to be destroyed.


Posts in the ‘Reformata Fides Orthodoxa: Three Views on Images of Christ’ Series:

  • Reformata Fides Orthodoxa: Images of Christ – Editorial
  • Three Views on Images of Christ: Lawful and Helpful
  • Three Views on Images of Christ: Lawful? Yes Helpful? No
  • Three Views on Images of Christ: Neither Lawful nor Helpful

  • References   [ + ]

    1.It is perhaps also instructive that the apostle Paul was apparently not an imposing figure physically (see 2 Corinthians 10:10).
    2.K. Lindskoog,  The C. S. Lewis Hoax, Multnomah, Oregon, 1988, p. 94.
    3.Cited in N. Baynes, ‘Idolatry and the Early Church’ in Byzantine Studies and Other Essays, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1955, p. 136.
    4.Cited in I.  H. Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1977, p. 113.
    5.John Pollock, Shaftesbury: The Poor Man’s Earl, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1985, pp. 137-138.
    6.Marion  Andrews,  My  China  Mystery,  Capalaba: Even Before Publishing,  2012,  pp.30-31.
    7.ibid. pp.102-103.
    8.T. Watson, The Ten Commandments, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, reprinted 1976, p. 62.
    9.F. Houghton, Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur, S.P.C.K., I959, p. 61. Carmichael says that her doubts about the use of pictures of Christ began in Japan when she heard a Japanese girl describe them as showing their God. Later her host, pointing to a famous picture of Jesus crowned with thorns, ‘said that he was feeling that “to the Father, pictures of His Son are not good”‘.
    10.Cited in Jay Adams, Studies in Preaching: Sense Appeal in Spurgeon, volume 1, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1975, Phillipsburg, p. 46n7.
    11.J. Owen, Works, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, reprinted  1981, vol 1, p. 244.
    12.John Frame,  The Doctrine of the Christian Life, P & R, Phillipsburg, 2008, pp. 484-486.