Images of Christ



The early church, the Reformation church and the contemporary church of Jesus Christ have all wrestled with the issue of images, or physical representation of deity, whether in pictures (icons) or in statues.

The early Christian Church forbade all use of images of any person of the Trinity. However, after Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire there was tremendous pressure from the recently and barely converted pagan masses coming into the church to accommodate their traditional use of images. This split the early church into three camps: those who persevered in the traditional rejection of all images of deity as practiced by the Apostolic and early Christian Church; those who argued that God could be worshipped by means of an image (no one, not even the pagans, ever argued for worship of the image, the worship always beings seen as directed to the being the image represented); and those who argued that while all worship to or by means of an image was forbidden, images could nonetheless be used in the church for instruction of the simple. This debate continued for centuries, being dealt with by numerous church councils, until eventually the use of worship by means of images was eventually approved.

These battles were repeated at the time of the Great Protestant Reformation. At that time Roman Catholics zealously defended their use of images with the traditional arguments used by the church and the papacy to defend that practice. The Reformed, adhering to the policy of the Apostolic and early Christian Churches, as they sought to do in so many other issues, forbade all use of images of any person of the Trinity, whatsoever. The Lutherans held the middle ground allowing for some use of images.

Among the Reformed, and among Protestants in general, except for Episcopalians and Lutherans, the rejection of all images of deity, formulated at the time of the Reformation was maintained for centuries, until it started to be eroded in the twentieth century.

Christ is God:
Images of God are clearly forbidden by the scriptures. The second commandment forbids both the making of any physical representation of God ("Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven imageÖ"), and the worshipping of God by the means of any such image (Thou shalt not bow down to them nor worship themÖ). Every time the children of Israel made an image of their God, Jahweh, and every time that they sought to worship God by means of such an image they were severely punished. As the commandment says, God will visit the iniquity of those who hate him to the third and fourth generation, and implies that the way that their hatred of God is expressed is by their violating of this commandment. When they made a golden calf as an image of their God, Jahweh, (as the context in Exodus 32 clearly shows,) God was so angry he threatened to destroy the entire nation. Later he condemned the image of Micah (Judges 17 & 18), which was another attempt to make a physical representation of their God Jahweh. And much later, God consistently condemned the use of the golden calves in Bethel and Dan, by which the Northern ten tribes sought to worship him, and it is given as a prime reason for God eventually casting them out of the land of promise and sending them into captivity.

God is a spirit and it is thus impossible to make any physical representation of him. The image of God that God wants us to meditate on and worship is the spiritual image that we begin to apprehend as we study his revelation of himself in his word. It is the revelation of the true God, in all his glorious attributes, that leads us to worship him, as we are commanded, "in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). As Moses reminded the children of Israel, lest they be tempted to transgress this command and make any image of GodÖ

14And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it. 15Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude (Ed. Note: or likeness) on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: 16Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17The likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, 18The likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earthÖ23Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee. 24For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God. Deuteronomy 4:14-24

Moses is telling them that there is no physical image of God that can be represented in an image and that any attempt to do so is a breach of their covenant with God, a covenant that was summarized by the ten commandments. Now Jesus is God. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. Jesus is both God and manÖand therefore any image of Jesus Christ falls under this prohibition. To make an image of God is both morally forbidden and logically impossible. All that men can do is to attempt to make a representation of Christís humanity. And to make such a representation, as if he were mere man, and not the God-man Jesus Christ, would be to deny his deity, the very essence of anti-Christianity as defined by the Apostle John in his epistles.

That this particular form of idolatry was not only forbidden to Israel under the Old Covenant is an excuse that the Bible does not tolerate for minute. Paul, the Apostle, writing to the Romans condemns this type of idolatry in the most extreme terms. He saysÖ

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; 19Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. 20For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: 21Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. 24Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: 25Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. Romans 1:18-25

First of all Paul tells the Romans that Godís wrath is revealed from heaven against menís wickedness. And what form does this wickedness take? It takes two forms. One is that they wickedly suppress the invisible (seeing God is a spirit and has no visible body that can be represented by an image) things of God, particularly his spiritual attributes, such as his power, deity, etc, that are revealed to them even in the creation. And secondly, that for this true spiritual image of God revealed even in the creation, they substitute a physical image that materially represents God as some creature, such as man or an animal. Paul says that this is a lie that has corrupted Godís truth and reduced God to a creature. And Paul says that Godís wrath continues to burn against such gross sin and idolatry. A more explicit and emphatic condemnation of representing God by any image is hard to conceive of.

Christ is the Express Image of the Father:
Many attempt to circumvent the Scriptural prohibition on making images of God by saying that since Christ was incarnated we can make an image of him. As we have already seen that argument fails since Christ is God. But let us examine this issue more deeply. It is true that Christ took on a human nature and that he appeared to men in the "likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3). However, that does not mean that we can so picture him, much less make human images of him. Although Christ came "in the flesh" he continued to be God and this is what he projected to men. Paul tells the Corinthians that Christ "is the image of God" (2 Corinthians 4:4). He reiterates this to the Christians in Colosse when he says, speaking of Christ, "Who is the image of the invisible God" Colossians 1:15. And to the Hebrews he states this truth even more emphatically, when again speaking of Christ he says, "Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person" Hebrews 1:3 Jesus was God incarnate; He was God come in the flesh; He was Immanuel, God with us. To portray him as mere man is not only to deny his divinity as noted above, it is to deny all the scriptural testimony that he was God in the flesh, the express image of God the Father. And in what did this image consist? In his physical attributes. Absolutely not! God the Father has no physical attributes that the Christ could portray, and to infer that the Father has a corporal existence has always been considered a gross heresy in the Christian Church. No this image of God that Christ projected in his earthly life was in his display of the spiritual attributes of divinity. The Apostle John captures the essence of this in his testimony concerning Christ when he saysÖ "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14) What does John say? He says that the Word, the second person of the Trinity, became flesh. And when that happened what did John see? Just another human formÖjust a man? No! He sees the glory of the only begotten, eternal Son of God. He sees the glory of God displayed through the divine attributes of grace and truth. And this is what no image of Christ made by man can begin to convey. Any such pretended image is a lie and an imposture. Such images are so disrespectful of God, so disparaging to his glory, so reducing him to a mere creature, that Paul thunders to the Romans that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all who do so! The only image of God we are allowed; the only image of God that begins to do him justice; the only image of God that is not a perverted lie; is the spiritual image of God that is revealed all through the Scriptures and was particularly revealed on earth in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And having begun to apprehend the glorious truth of Godís image as revealed in Scripture how can we then turn to a carnal image of God as a mere creature, without forsaking the faith and committing idolatry?

There is no Description of Christ in the Bible:
It is true that God frequently manifested his presence by physical signs in the Old Testament theophanies. On Mount Sinai God appeared in the fire and the smoke as the Mount quaked. God went before the Children of Israel in the cloud by day and in the pillar of fire by night. But it would be a gross error to fantasize that these represented some image of God. The fullest theophany of all time was the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. If ever there was an occasion that we might expect to get a glimpse of the true image of God that would be the circumstance. And as we have seen the image of God that Christ projected was a spiritual one. And as we have also seen to reduce that image to one of a mere creature is an idolatrous offense unto God.

But those who would do so have as well an additional practical problem. Neither history nor revelation give us any physical description of Christís human body. We literally have no idea. We a few details, that are totally insufficient to make a physical image of Christ even if that were authorized by the word of God. We know from Isaiah 53:2 that he was not handsome. In that he reflected Godís priorities. Saul, the first King of Israel was tall and handsome, but rejected of God. David, was selected to replace him because he was a man after Godís own heart. As Samuel said, "But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7). Secondly, we know from Isaiah 50:6 that the Lord Jesus Christ had a beard. And we can infer from Paulís statement in 1 Corinthians 11:14 that Christ did not have the long hair that he is generally depicted with. Such long hair is simply another way that images of Christ dishonor him as they teach that Christ was in violation of one of Godís creation ordinances and had something of which to be ashamed.

Now in the light of all this, all images of Jesus Christ have to be false, and are exactly what many have called them, lies and violations of the ninth commandment, as they bear false witness to the appearance of the Lord of Glory, the incarnate Son of God. If I wrote a biography of a famous man and lacking a picture of him, took a picture of someone else and placed it in the book as a picture of that man would I not be telling a lie. Would I not be guilty of fraud. But what are such crimes compared to the infinite travesty of portraying the eternal Son of God by a corrupt human being whether in a picture or in a film.

Christís Sufferings Cannot be Depicted:
Christ has long been pictured by Roman Catholics in a crucifix, and the recent film, "The Passion of the Christ" concentrates on portraying Christís crucifixion. In both cases the question arises can Christís sufferings be actually and honestly portrayed by such devices? On the cross Christ provided an atonement for the sins of the elect, for the sins of all of Godís people. We know from the Abrahamic Covenant that Godís people will be an innumerable multitude, greater than the sand of the seashore or the stars of the heavens for number. And we know that the penalty for the sin of the least sinner redeemed by Christ, is an eternity under the wrath of God in that place where "the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched." No normal crucifixion could begin to pay for the sins of even one of Godís children. Yet Christ bore for us, in those few short hours, the penalty for all of our sins. He bore the full weight of the wrath of God on our sins as it was poured out on him. The Scriptures give no record of his crying out in physical pain. What he did cry out was, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" That is what he cried out as he suffered the full wrath of God on sinners for our sakes. It was the spiritual suffering under the wrath and rejection of God that was the epitome of what he endured. And as theologians have not neglected to point out, no mere human nature could have borne that burden of Godís wrath. Only as he was the Son of God, only as he was sustained by his divine nature, could he bear that cup that could not pass from him, the full cup of the wrath of Almighty God.

But all that crucifixes and films can portray is just another Roman crucifixion. The Romans crucified thousands of people, sometimes many thousands at one time. These crucifixions have little significance in the cosmic scale of things. Christís crucifixion was different. While he hung on the cross he bore the full weight of Godís wrath poured out on the sins of his people. On the cross he bore that which would have utterly crushed any mere mortal. To portray that as just another Roman crucifixion is a lie. It is just as impossible to portray Christís sufferings as it is to portray his deity.

The Fallacy That Images of God Can Be Separated From Worship:
Finally we have to deal with those twin excuses for idolatry that we have been on the lips of idolaters since the days of Constantine if not longer. They are that since the images are not being worshipped therefore their use is acceptable. That is the worship, if any, that is involved is directed not to the image, but to that person that it represents. The other argument is that the image is not used for any worship at all, but is merely used for instructional purposes. Both arguments have been used historically by Romanists and Lutherans and have been consistently rejected and countered by the Reformed.

Let us start with the argument that the images are not worshipped. If by that is meant that any adoration, and devotion, etc directed to it is for the being it represents, and not for the image itself, then the person so arguing is admitting idolatry. For it is the worshipping of the true God by means of an image that is forbidden in the second commandment and is repeatedly condemned as idolatry in the Scriptures. The only argument left is to maintain that the use of the image, although it pretends to be an image of God, and is used for religious purposes, does not involve any worship at all. This fiction can easily be exposed for the fallacy that it is. As Francis Turretin, the great reformed theologian stated itÖ

Second objection: that only worship makes images unlawful, from which Lutherans profess that they shrink. We answer that although they are not expressly worshipped by them (as by the papists) by bowing the knee and burning incense to them or offering prayers, still they cannot be said to be free from all worship; if not direct, at least indirect and participative because they hold that by images and the sight of them they conceive holy thoughts concerning God and Christ (which cannot but belong to the worship of God, so that thus they really worship God by images). Finally, if they are not worshipped by them, they can be worshipped by others (namely by papists if they enter their churches) and so render the use of them in churches unlawful (exposed to the danger of idolatry) by which idolaters are confirmed in their error and innumerable personsónot only unbelieving Jews and Mohammedans, but believing Christiansóare scandalized.

Turretin correctly points out the fallacy of believing a firewall can be maintained between our use of images of God and our religious worship. These images enter our consciousness and become part of our worship experience. Imagine a little girl who in Sunday School is given a picture of Jesus. The picture is presented by the teacher for instructional purposes only. At best the little girl will keep a mental image of Jesus based on the picture in her mind. And the next time she is asked to pray to Jesus at mealtime or at bedtime will she not address her prayer to this mental image of Jesus that has been presented to her in the picture of Jesus? And that is the best case. It is also quite likely that she will gaze fondly and reverently at this picture. She has been told how wonderful Jesus is and that he is God. And her religious devotion will naturally devolve upon this picture as she meditates in her own simple way on what she has been taught about Jesus. The use of this image of Jesus and her devotional thoughts and prayers have become inextricably intertwined. She is being inexorably drawn into the very thing that is forbidden, the worship of the true God by means of images. Now extrapolate that to an adult who goes to see a film such as "The Passion of the Christ." This is a very dramatic film as all who have gone to see it have testified. It has a deep emotional impact on people. They leave the theatre visibly shaken or in tears, etc. Now are we to believe that these images of Christ, as acted out so powerfully in this film, will never intrude into the persons consciousness as they engage in the private and public worship of God? When they read the gospel accounts of Christís ministry and his atoning death will these images not come flooding back to become the targets of their devotions? When they attend the Lordís Supper and are called to meditate on the atoning death of Jesus Christ will these images not come to mind and will the Christ in whom they trust for salvation not naturally be represented by the Christ portrayed in the film? Will not they as well be inexorably drawn into the trap of involving these images in their worship of God. And will this not at the least be a serious, and idolatrous, distraction from that worship of the spiritual image of God that is revealed to us in the Scriptures? The very notion that we can use images of God in our religion without involving them in our worship processes is a fallacy and an illusion. Our forefathers were wiser and more Biblical than that. They banned all use of images of God and destroyed all the existing images at the time of the Reformation.

Secondly, let us deal with the argument that images can be used as long as it is for instructional purposes only and not for worship. This was the argument of various popes that defended the use of images in the Roman Church. Illiterate and uneducated persons we were told could not understand the Scriptures or comprehend a sermon. But they could understand a picture. They could relate to an image. Christ sufferings did not have to be reached from the gospel accounts, but could be more effectively and dramatically portrayed by a crucifix. The folly of this is of course manifest. The pictures and images are lies. The Scriptures are the word of God; they are truth. To substitute the one for the other for instructional purposes is to replace the truth with lies. And as Paul stated it, it is all to no purpose, for "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." As Turretin stated itÖ 

XIII. So far from images being rightly called "books of the common people" and aids to piety and religious devotion, the Holy Spirit testifies that they are "teachers of vanity and lies" (Jer. 10:8; Hab. 2:18). There is another book to be consulted by all (learned as well as unlearned) which makes us wise and t

leamed (to wit, Scripture, which is to be continually read and meditated upon by believers that they may be made wise unto salvation). But the pope takes this away from the people that they may be involved in inextricable error and that he may not be convicted by it. He substitutes other dumb books by which ignorance is not removed but nourished because he does not fear that they will mutter anything against it. So while for teachers he gives stones, the people are turned into stones and become no wiser than their teachers. Hence Augustine treats of the images of Peter and Paul (by occasion of which certain persons fell into error): "Thus forsooth they deserved to err, who sought Christ and his apostles not in the sacred writings, but on painted walls" (The Harmony of the Gospels 1.10 [NPNFl, 6:83; PL 34.1049]). (2).

The testimony of Scripture, the historic testimony of the Reformed faith, and the testimony of logic, all concur in condemning any and all uses of images of God by the Lordís people. Their use is a sinful snare that brought great spiritual harm to the Children of Israel, and for which they were consistently punished for by God. Their use in the churches after the time of Constantine led to the worst of Roman Catholic idolatry and superstition. At the time of the Reformation the restoration of the true gospel and the institution of the pure worship of God was necessarily accompanied by the rejection of, the prohibition of, and the total destruction of, any and all images of deity. We compromise that standard at our own spiritual peril. Let us be faithful to the Scriptures and not provoke God to jealousy by the use of unlawful images, and continue to worship him, who is a spirit, in spirit and in truth.

See also   The Passion and the Christ

Home Images of Christ Turretin on the 2cd