Are we allowed to make or use images of Jesus? This article looks at historical perspectives on this issue, drawing conclusions for the church today based on the second commandment.

Source: Faith in Focus, 1999. 5 pages.

The Second Person and the Second Commandment


Those of us who have children will be familiar with the difficulty of finding good Biblestory books for the young. We want something that is sound, but also some­thing that will hold their attention. Books with lots of vivid pictures, in bright and bold colours, seem to be most effective.

Unfortunately, such books often con­tain pictures of the Lord Jesus. For some of our members, this is a serious draw­back, maybe even prohibiting the use of such books. Others apparently have no problem with pictures of Jesus – not, at least, so long as they are only used for educational purposes, rather than for worship.

Strangely enough, the view that pic­tures of Jesus may be used for educa­tional purposes represents quite a de­parture from the position of the Reform­ers. Somewhere along the line – I am not sure when – attitudes have relaxed. The result is that many Reformed folk have drifted back to what was originally more typical of the Lutheran approach, though several well-known Reformed/Presbyte­rian writers have maintained the original Reformed view eg., Charles Hodge, John Murray, Loraine Boettner and G.I. Williamson.

A Brief History of Pictures of Jesus:🔗

It appears that it was some time be­fore pictures of Jesus came into use in the Ancient Church, perhaps as long as four centuries. When they were intro­duced, they were at first opposed. The Church Father lrenaeus, writing towards the end of the second century, comments on pictures of Jesus as being a peculiarity of the Gnostics at that time (Against Heresies 1.25.6). Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315-403) de­scribes how he came across a curtain with an image of Christ or one of the saints, hanging on the doors of a cer­tain church. Epiphanius tore the curtain asunder, lest an image of man be hung up in the church, "contrary to the teach­ing of the Scriptures." Eusebius, the fourth-century historian, likewise, op­posed pictures of Jesus.

Some time later, the Synod of Con­stantinople (Hieria, 753 AD) condemned images of Christ. Indeed, the Synod ex­plicitly rejected the argument – one we often hear today – that such images rep­resented only the flesh of Christ. It was argued that such a separation of the Christ's human nature from His divine nature is the heresy of Nestorianism.

Nestorianism did not deny the two na­tures of Christ, but it failed to see them as a unity, constituting a single Person. Over against Nestorianism – and pictures of Jesus – the human nature of Christ cannot be separated and represented apart from His divine nature. According to the Synod, the only admissible figure of Christ's humanity is the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper. For more de­tails of this significant decision, see John H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches (At­lanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 54-55.

Early evidence for the Reformed atti­tude comes from John Calvin's Insti­tutes. Calvin opposed the Eastern Or­thodox and Roman Catholic Churches, who by this stage not only allowed pic­tures and icons of Jesus, Mary and the saints, repre­sentations of the Trinity, etc., but also encouraged their venera­tion. There were, at that time, essentially three ap­proaches to representations of God and the three Persons of the Godhead: Edu­cational use and worship (veneration) were permissible; educational use was permissible, worship was not; and nei­ther educational use nor worship were permissible. Calvin took the last of these views, while the Lutherans tended to take the second. Luther said that imag­es may be used like the words of Scrip­ture: To bring things before our mind, and cause us to remember them. Calvin, however, opposed the making and hav­ing of such images, the educational use (Institutes, 1.11.15), as well as the worship (1.11.13).

In his lengthy discussion of images (1.11.2-13), Calvin indicates that the pro­hibition against images applies not only to the divine Being, but also to each of the three Persons of the Trinity: Calvin is opposed to representations of the Holy Spirit, for example as a dove (1.11.13); and to the crucifix. Christ, he argues, must be depicted by the true preaching of the Gospel. The cross is to be depicted by the preaching of the Gospel – not by pictures and crucifixes (1.11.7). Calvin's successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, took the same line. Beza states, "Our hope reposes in the true cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, not in that image. Therefore I must admit that I thoroughly detest the image of the crucifix... (and) cannot endure it" (from Beza's colloquy with the Lutherans at Montbéliard, pub­lished in 1588).

The Heidelberg Catechism, published in 1563, uses absolutistic language in prohibiting images (LD 35): "In no way make any image ... nor worship Him in any other way"; "God can not and may not be visibly portrayed in any way." It also bans the whole range of uses: making, worshipping, portraying, using as educa­tional aids. What it does not do is specify whether pictures of Jesus are included. This silence may be due simply to Heidelberg's awkward situation, sur­rounded by Lutherans who were some­what hostile to Reformed distinctives. Ursinus' commentary on the Catechism does not throw any light on the matter, either way.

Of far more significance, however, is Heinrich Bullinger's Second Helvetic Confession (1566). Chapter 4, "Of Idols or Images of God, Christ and the Saints," openly opposes the "images of Chris­tians." Bullinger specifically deals with images of Christ, as forbidden under the general prohibition (eg., in Deuteronomy 4:15; Isaiah 44:9; 2 Corinthians 6:16). Leading church his­torian, Jaroslav Pelikan, observes that this chapter was directed against the Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) defenders of images, and against the tolerant atti­tude of the Lutherans. It should be noted that the Second Helvetic Confession was ratified by all the Swiss Reformed churches. It was also used by Frederick III of the Palatinate, who had commis­sioned the Heidelberg Catechism just a few years before. It was, moreover, adopted or highly approved by nearly all Reformed Churches in Europe, England and Scotland. John Leith calls it "the most universal of Reformed Creeds" – at that time. The implication is that there was, at that time, a consensus amongst Reformed Churches regarding pictures of Jesus.

That there was then a consensus is reinforced by the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. 109), approved by the English House of Commons in 1648, which asks, "What are the sins forbid­den in the Second Commandment?" The answer includes the "making any repre­sentation of God, of all or of any of the three Persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever." The same view can be found in John Owen's lengthy discussion of images, in his Works, Vol. 14.

One may also refer to Francis Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology, written toward the end of the sev­enteenth century. Turretin maintains the same position as the earlier Reformers. Turretin is opposed to the image of the cross, to any representation of God, or of the Persons of the Trinity (Vol. 2, p. 62 ff.). He is not only against the use of such images for worship in sacred places, but also for educational purposes – "for history and as the reminders of events." He affirms this view against the Lutherans. The prohibition of pictures of Jesus was thus not an oddity. It was a standard Reformed opinion that even reached the confessional level – both in Continental and English Calvinism – and held sway for a long period of time.

The Debate about Pictures of Jesus:🔗

Lutherans, along with Romanists and Byzantines, employed a number of argu­ments to justify their use of pictures of Jesus for educational purposes. The striking thing is that these are essen­tially the same arguments now being used in Reformed circles to justify pic­tures of Jesus in Sunday School mate­rial, children's Bibles, and so on. Some­how, the Lutheran view has replaced the Reformed view in many Reformed circles. Below, I shall list some of these histori­cal arguments, along with the Reformed reply given at that time.

Probably the most common argument is that the Lord Jesus had a human body, therefore it is OK for us to make and have pictures of it. It is argued that if God were so concerned about us adopt­ing images of Jesus, why would He have sent His Son in human flesh, which surely tempts us to form such images – at least mentally, if not on paper.

The Second Helvetic Confession, how­ever, speaks directly to this issue, where it comments, "Although Christ assumed human nature, yet He did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters." Just because God acts in a certain way, that does not automatically mean that we can do so.

The Confession refers to John 16:7 and 2 Corinthians 5:5, noting that Jesus denied that His bodily presence would be profitable for the church, promising His Spirit in­stead. The question is asked, "Who, therefore would believe that a shadow or likeness of His body would contribute any benefit to the pious?"

Even more seriously, pictures of Je­sus – however harmlessly the users in­tend – constitute an on paper Christological heresy (Nestorianism, ac­cording to some of the Church Fathers)! The Lord Jesus Christ is always both eter­nal God and man, the two natures in­separably united in the one Person. This is something we confess, particularly in the Athanasian Creed: "That our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man... Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ." There is an indivisible union of the two. Yet dividing Christ is precisely what the pic­ture of Jesus does. It removes His divin­ity from the picture, since the divine na­ture cannot be represented. That leaves only a picture of a human body. It is not, in fact, a picture of the divine-human Person, Jesus Christ. No picture of a mere human body should ever be called a "picture of Jesus." No child should ever be shown a picture of a human body, and be told, "This is a picture of Jesus." The divine nature is invisible, boundless and infinite; and the human nature is absent from us, so we cannot even use His body for artistic purposes.

This is reinforced by the observation that any picture of Jesus could represent any man! That is why there are so many different pictures of "Jesus". Because every artist portrays his own personal image of Jesus, from his own imagina­tion – he does not portray the Jesus Christ. John Murray, "Pictures of Christ," Reformed Herald 16, No. 9 (1961), asks how the Jesus' disciples, having seen the real Christ, would react to one of our modern pictures. Murray expects that they would recoil.

This is also why the Second Helvetic Confession said that images of God are "mere lies." Because God is, in essence, invisible and immense. Ursinus said He is "incorporeal and infinite: It is impossible, therefore, that He should be ex­pressed, or represented by an image which is corporeal and finite, without detracting from His divine majesty..." (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 526). Calvin, likewise, states, "Every figurative representation of God contradicts His Being" (Institutes, 1.11.2). But this is just as true of Christ's divine nature – and therefore His Person.

Now of course the Lord Jesus did at one time walk upon the earth, and peo­ple saw a human body. But that human body they saw was actually united to the divine nature. What we see in picture-books now is not, and never will be, united to a divine nature. The essence of images is that they lessen the glory of God, by fixing on some attribute(s) of God, to the exclusion of others. That is exactly what happens with pictures of Jesus: They radically lessen His glory, because they leave off His divine nature!

The Lord Jesus, human and divine, walked this earth, it is true. But only for a short time. Then the body ascended. It is striking that despite the immense importance of Jesus' human nature, there is no description of his physical appearance anywhere in the New Testament or Old Testament – other than the general comment of Isaiah 52:14, 53:2. Like the Old Testament theophanies (manifestations of God's presence by means of a visible, physical form), the body of Christ was not left long in man's sight. It was removed, and no authorized picture was left. Word and Spirit were left instead. As the Second Helvetic Con­fession said, His bodily presence is no longer profitable for us on earth. Pictures of Jesus are not profitable for us.

The argument from Jesus' human body is, in the end, a variation on the argument from Old Testament theophanies. In the Old Testament, God gave the people something to see – cloud, flame and smoke on Sinai. There is no denying that something was there to be seen, even in Deuteronomy 4 (cf., verse 11). But, says verse 12, they saw no form i.e., of the divine Being, as such. Rather, they heard a Voice. That is how God wants His people to know Him. By His Voice, His Word, His covenant (verse 13). Therefore, the people are com­manded not to make any images of God at all, not even the likeness of a man (verses 15-16), let alone anything else in creation. Just because God puts some­thing visible in front of man, that does not at all mean that man is allowed to make images to supplement the Word of God.

This is why Calvin argues that even direct signs of the divine presence – he mentions the signs on Sinai, and the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove – give no justi­fication for images. Turretin adds that the Old Testament appearances are shadowy, ex­traordinary, temporary, and not open to all. Ursinus (Commentary Heidelberg catechism, pp. 527-528) makes the point we have already made with Jesus' human body: That God was present in these forms, while He is not present in images, which do not reveal God, and lead only to idolatry.

A further argument from Ursinus con­cerns the "regulative principle:" "That we in no way make any image of God nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word." Irrespective of what God may do – for example, appearing in human flesh - we can only do what God commands. What God has commanded is that images are forbid­den (Deuteronomy 4:15; Isaiah 44:9). The Second Helvetic Confession uses this as a proof against pictures of Jesus, on the ground that the New Testament has not abrogated this law.

Some have also argued that if God used figures in the Temple, it is OK for the church to use images for educational purposes today. But again, Turretin uses the "regulative principle" to say that we need a command of God for us to do something similar today.

Others have pointed out that the Lord has given physical symbols in the sacra­ments, a visible appeal to our senses concerning the Word of Christ, to teach and assure us. The Second Helvetic Confession deals briefly with this argu­ment, alongside the argument from the image of God in man. Without explain­ing why, it distinguishes these things from manmade images. Turretin, how­ever, explains that the sacraments are unique, as the only God-given signs. John Owen (Works 14:426-457), likewise, views the sacraments as a unique com­munication and exhibition of Christ by outward symbols. He points out that we can no more use the argument that im­ages are OK, because God used them, than we can set up an altar of our own design, just because God commanded an altar; or invent five more sacraments, just because God gave us two! Calvin had said much the same: "It seems to me unworthy of their (the churches') holiness ... to take on images other than those living and symbolical ones which the Lord has consecrated by His Word ... Baptism and the Lord's Supper" (Institutes 1.11.13). All these men were operating with the Puritan-Reformed "regulative principle."

Martin Luther has another argument, to the effect that if it is OK to describe things in words, why not in pictures? Af­ter all, when we read the Bible, images form in our minds anyway. For example, we read of Christ's Passion, and we get an image of a man on a cross. This im­age is not sinful, so why is an image on paper wrong?

The answer is along the lines already indicated. Both the Second Helvetic Con­fession and the Heidelberg Catechism answer it: Though God used speech, bodies and symbols to testify to His spe­cial presence, this does not imply that we are allowed to make an image. True, we always have mental images, but these are always open to the spirit of discernment, so that our idolatry of the mind can be fought. In this fallen state, even the words of Scripture will be mis­used to form wrong images. But words are far less prone to that danger than visible representations, which tend to become etched upon our minds. As Calvin warned, when men "fashion" God, they "fasten" Him to the representation (Institutes 1.11.9). So, too, with the Second Person of the Trinity. A child sees a picture of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," and grows up more impressed by that than, for instance, by the Jesus who overturned the money-lenders' tables. Some of the greatest truths about Je­sus Christ cannot be depicted on paper. They can, however, be stated in words. And that is just what the Bible does.

By way of contrast, the Reformational teaching is that Christ is set before us only in the Bible. The Second Helvetic Confession says that the preaching of the Gospel – not art – is commanded for our instruction, and for the reminding of divine things. Christ is taught only by Word and Spirit. Ursinus observes that God wants His people taught by lively preaching of the Word, not by dumb im­ages (Commentary Heidelberg Cat­echism, p. 532). Calvin claimed that nothing must replace or supplement the Word of God for teaching us about God – though he approves of books about the Bible. Both Christ, and the cross, must be depicted by true preaching of the Gospel (Institutes 1.11.7). Again and again the Reformers cite Galatians 3:1 in that connection. The Galatians had Christ publicly portrayed as crucified. Not through pictures, however, but by preach­ing – by "hearing with faith" (verse 2). Romans 10:6-8 is also used: "The right­eousness based on faith speaks thus, 'Do not say in your heart, Who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down), or 'Who will descend into the abyss?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? 'The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart'that is, the Word of faith which we are preaching." Owen charges that those who make images are not satisfied with this method, and try to use images to do the work God designed the Gospel to do.

This may raise some questions about how far we go in avoiding supplementa­tion of the Scriptures. May we use no visual aids at all in Sunday School, no picture Bibles at all? No maps of Pales­tine or the Ancient Near East? I do not claim to know exactly where the line has to be drawn on this. But this much I do know: Any supplementation which de­picts God, or any of the three Persons of the Trinity, goes contrary to the second commandment. Christ is simply to be preached and taught from the Word. The greatest concern of the Reformers was to remove all images from the place of worship: "But may not images be per­mitted in the churches as teaching aids for the unlearned? No..." (LD 35, Q/A 98). For images are not aids to piety. Not even for the children, and the unlearned. They are vanity and "mere lies" (Second Helvetic Confession, chapter 4).

Pictures of Jesus are vanity and lies because they teach and signify what is not true about God, what is not true about Christ – they conceal most, if not all, of the truth about the personal na­ture and character of the divine Being. As with Israel's golden calf, the problem with pictures of Jesus is partly a matter of what they fail to display; and partly a matter of the false ideas they do convey – the danger that such pictures will evoke respectful thoughts or feelings in those who view them, which may come dan­gerously close to a worshipful feeling. Their removal from places of worship, following Ursinus' counsel about images in general, therefore avoids offence, pre­vents superstition and idolatry, and gives the enemies of Christ no excuse to re­ject Him. Advice that I trust we will con­tinue to uphold by allowing such pictures no place in our churches.

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