Are Pictures of Jesus Legitimate?
While studying in the Netherlands in the spring of 1992 I took a course in Dutch art and architecture. Each student was given a museumkaart (museum card) entitling us to visit, free of charge, all of the great museums in Amsterdam, including the renowned Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum. In the seven visits I made to the Rijksmuseum I quickly fell in love with the so-called Dutch masters of the 17th century Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jan Steen. It was especially Rembrandt van Rijn, however, who captivated my attention.
Was Rembrandt Reformed?
As I labored in, and preached through, the book of Samuel not so long ago I found my interest in Rembrandt renewed. I recalled and reexamined Rembrandt's fascinating painting of David presenting the head of Goliath to Saul and his warm depiction of David playing the harp before Saul. Clearly these are the works of genius.
What is especially interesting to me is that Rembrandt was born, raised, married and died a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. Moreover, according to W.A. Visser't Hooft in his Rembrandt and the Gospel, the Bible was the “backbone of his life, his comfort in his grief and loneliness, his only hope when everything turned against him, his sheet-anchor, his vindication.”
Yet there's something about Rembrandt's career which has been difficult for some Reformed folk to stomach. Among the various biblical and apocryphal characters Rembrandt depicted we find the Lord Jesus Christ. Did Rembrandt violate the second commandment which forbids the construction of graven images?
There have been some in the Reformed church who would answer the question affirmatively. I think, for example, of Peter Barnes's book, Seeing Jesus: The Case Against Pictures of Our Lord Jesus Christ, published by the Banner of Truth Trust. Peter Barnes is categorical in his thesis that all pictures of Jesus, regardless of their intended use, involve a breach of the second commandment.
Liturgical uses Forbidden
At the outset I must express a measure of sympathy for the argument. I'm thoroughly convinced that we must regard any picture or image of anything used as a medium through which to communicate with or worship God as strictly forbidden by the second commandment. In my mind this rules out Eastern Orthodox icons which, according to Ouspensky and Lossky in The Meaning of Icons, attempt to mediate the divine presence and invite men and women to worship God through such mediating icons. Similarly, I object to the Roman Catholic veneration of images as links between heaven and earth. To bring this closer to home, I find the portraits of Jesus, for sale at evangelical bookstores, to be extraordinarily dangerous. Often these portraits – there's a very famous one by Warner Sallman – hang in the living rooms of Christian homes and become an aid to private devotion. In a moment of angst, one turns to the portrait of Jesus and prays. It's exactly this kind of thing against which the second commandment warns.
Artistic uses Permitted
Yet I'm of the mind that Peter Barnes's argument that all pictures of Jesus, regardless of their intended use, involve a breach of the second commandment is ultimately untenable. In making his case Barnes ignores the fact that images and representations are forbidden by the second commandment only in the context of worship.
Were the Israelites forbidden to make images of things in heaven? But they had to carve cherubim on the golden interior walls of the Most Holy Place (1 Kings 6:29). Were the Israelites forbidden to make images of things on earth? But they had to carve pomegranate trees on the walls of the tabernacle and temple (1 Kings 6:29), for example, and twelve oxen holding up the brazen sea (1 Kings 7:23-25). These carvings were not wrong, though bowing before them would have involved a breach of the second commandment.
It's biblically essential therefore that we distinguish an artistic use of visual representations from a liturgical and devotional use. The Bible does not forbid art; the Bible does forbid icons. The Bible does not forbid depicting Jesus; the Bible does forbid using depictions of Jesus for devotional and liturgical purposes.
After acknowledging that Christians differ as to whether the second commandment forbids the use of pictures of Jesus for teaching purposes, Reformed theologian J.I. Packer in Knowing God writes, “but there is no room for doubting that the commandment obliges us to disassociate our worship, both in public and private, from all pictures and statues of Christ, no less than pictures and statues of His Father.”
In a similar vein, Dutch Reformed ethicist Jochem Douma, in his The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, writes,
Artists like Durer and Rembrandt, as well as those who illustrate (children's) Bibles, transgress no boundaries established by the second commandment when they convey their impressions of the evidences of God's presence that believers in biblical times were permitted to see. Appreciating this kind of art is different than worshipping the image it produces.
The opinions expressed by Packer and Douma find endorsement in the Heidelberg Catechism which teaches in answer 97 that God forbids us to make images of creatures “in order to worship them or serve God by them.”
The Westminster Larger Catechism seems less clear. The sins forbidden by the second commandment include “making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in mind or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatever” (answer 109). It is apparent, however, from The Biblical Doctrine of Worship, a 1974 symposium on worship published by the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, that some in the Presbyterian tradition question whether the Larger Catechism in fact forbids all physical and mental images of the humanity of Christ.
Are pictures of Jesus legitimate? If used for liturgical and devotional purposes, the answer is a categorical “No”! But we need not rule out mere artistic depictions, cautiously and modestly rendered.
Rembrandt is a good guide. Initially and incorrectly Rembrandt presented a Christ resplendent in human glory, but over time he ceased from doing so. In the words of Visser't Hooft,
He now knew what was known to Luther, Calvin and Pascal, that the Revelation is not a demonstration of God's power and glory which is at once evident to everybody, but a descent of God which is only intelligible to faith.