During the final weeks of every year, visual images of our Lord Jesus Christ seem to be everywhere.
From Christmas cards to commercial advertisements, it is nearly impossible to avoid seeing a barrage of pictures of Jesus in the manger during the holiday season.
Of course, many such images are simply the product of a crass commercialism or unthinking sentimentality. But other images are produced and distributed out of sincere, pious motives. What should Reformed Christians think of this?
The Reformed tradition has taught that Christians should not make or use any images of Christ, however sincere their motives and however careful they are not to worship such images.
For example, the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. 109) includes the following among the things forbidden in the second commandment: “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.”
In our own day, there are many people, even in Reformed circles, who ignore this prohibition. Is it a part of our tradition that may be set aside, or is there good biblical and theological support for the view of the Larger Catechism?
In this article, I will present several brief arguments as to why Christians should not make or use images of Christ as they celebrate his incarnation.
Images of Christ and the Second Commandment
As the above quotation from the Larger Catechism suggests, most Reformed reflection on the question of visual images of Christ has revolved around fidelity to the second commandment.
This commandment begins with these words: “You shall not make for yourself a 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 or serve them” (Ex. 20:4-5).
The logic underlying traditional Reformed teaching is quite straightforward: if no visual images of God are to be produced or worshiped, and if the Lord Jesus Christ is God incarnate, then no images of Jesus should be produced or worshiped.
Reformed theologians have added a number of reflections to this basic point, and it may be helpful to consider some of them.
One point that Reformed theologians have made is that creating images of Christ, however innocent that may seem in itself, tends to lead down a path toward full-fledged idolatry.
Images created simply to stir memory or to instruct children or unlearned people can easily become the thing worshiped. Sinful human beings desire to substitute the product of their imaginations for what God has revealed in Scripture, and creating images of Christ can easily become an outlet for this sinful tendency.
A second point that many Reformed theologians have made is similar to, but perhaps more subtle than, the first one. Sinful people want a God who answers to them. They desire a God who is there when they need him, but who can be kept a safe distance away when they do not want him around.
Pagans themselves did not believe that their images of wood or stone were identical to their gods. Instead, they wanted gods that they could control, and communing with them through visible representations of their own making was an ideal means for doing so.
Making our own images of God, then, to be used according to our own will, can be a way of making gods of ourselves.
A third point offered by Reformed theologians is that God, in Scripture, has appointed for us everything that we need to live in fellowship with him. He has ordained the reading and the preaching of the Word, as well as the visible ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
We should not try to be wiser than God and feel the need to create new means of expressing our love and devotion to him, such as the creation of religious images.
Another point often made by Reformed theologians comes in a variety of forms, but it might be summarized in this way: no image of Christ can be authentic.
Sometimes theologians make this point by stressing that the visual representations that we produce can never capture the mystery of the Incarnation, the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in one person.
At other times, though not as frequently, theologians make this point by arguing that because we cannot know how Jesus looked—that is, what his physical features were and are—we can never produce a picture of him that really represents him.
In my judgment, this is a more important argument than has often been appreciated. We must not forget that in the Incarnation the invisible God did in fact become visible! Jesus spoke these profound words to Philip as this disciple sat looking at him: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
This statement ought to give pause to anyone who would presume to create an image of Jesus. God became visible in Jesus—and in no other. God revealed himself visibly in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, with particular facial and physical features.
Any other body, any other face, is not the incarnate revelation of God. But since we do not know how Jesus looked, any representations of him that we might make would necessarily be of someone other than God incarnate.
Images of Christ and the Eschatological Hope
The points above are a sampling of arguments that Reformed theologians have raised through the years in order to explain why they understand the second commandment to prohibit the making of images of Christ.
Not all Reformed people have found all of these arguments of equal persuasiveness, but surely they offer considerable wisdom and provide warning for those who would align themselves unthinkingly with the culture of images that flourishes especially during this time of year.
I would like to suggest now an additional argument in support of the traditional Reformed view regarding images of Christ. It is meant to augment, not to replace, the considerations discussed in the previous section. It also presents the issue positively.
Our refusal to make and use images of Christ is not simply something negative—it also reminds us of something breathtakingly wonderful that we indeed will do one day. That breathtakingly wonderful thing that we will do one day is to see Jesus face-to-face.
Already in the Old Testament, which often states that no one can see God and live, believers express hope that one day, somehow, they will in fact see God. Job comments: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).
David sings: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (Ps. 17:15). This Old Testament hope became a New Testament reality with the incarnation of Christ, who, as noted above, could tell his disciples that to see him is indeed to see the Father (John 14:9).
Where does that leave us? Surely we, no less than the Old Testament saints and the disciples of Christ, should long to see our God. Yet God’s ordained means for seeing him, his incarnate Son, has left us and ascended into heaven in his visible, human nature.
In many places, the New Testament teaches us what our attitude ought to be in light of this fact. We should indeed long to see Christ, and we should expect to see him on the day when he returns. But until then we must be patient, recognizing that this is not the time for seeing him.
That Christians may look forward eagerly to seeing Christ on the day he returns is taught, for example, in 1 John 3:2: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” But for the time being we recognize that now is not the time for seeing Christ.
Paul explains that while we are in our present bodies, being “away from the Lord,” we “walk by faith, not by sight.” Yet the hope that Paul holds out is that one day soon we will be “at home with the Lord,” and then we will enjoy Christ by sight as well as by faith (2 Cor. 5:6-8).
Likewise, Peter notes that we rejoice in Christ, “though now for a little while, as was necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.” Peter goes on to speak of our not having seen Christ as part of this present suffering—yet he also speaks of this reality, like our other suffering in the present time, as only temporary: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Pet. 1:6-8).
It is not wrong for Christians to want to see Christ—not at all. But for now we wait patiently, receiving with gratitude the invisible presence of Christ by his Word and Spirit and his gracious visible presence in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
We resist the temptation to make Christ visible in ways that he has not ordained and look eagerly for that day when we will see him face-to-face.
By Dr. David VanDrunen and reprinted from New Horizons (December 2006) with permission.