6 Reasons Why Images of Christ are Unbiblical

This is gleaned from a long paper I wrote in 2004, “Are Images of Christ Biblical?”

Most evangelicals assume that using images of Christ in Sunday schools, pageants, books and movies is not only beneficial, but is warranted from Scriptures. But the case against using images of Christ and God is very strong. I summarize the arguments against it in 6 reasons below.

Golden Calf by Poussin (click image to enlarge)
Golden Calf by Poussin (click image to enlarge)

1. Images of Christ are a violation of the Second Commandment. The Second Commandment consists of two prohibitions: first, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything”; and second, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” The two parts of the Second Commandment cannot be separated, for the worship of false gods takes root in the sinful mind, then sprouts as the fashioning of that mental image into a tangible image, and finally matures into worship of that corporeal image.

So it is extremely difficult, if not utterly unattainable to separate the worship of God from the worship of the idol representing God. Since God’s law is hardwired into the human soul (Rom 2:14-15), he has a natural inclination to idolatry, which is what Paul explains:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (Rom 1:21-23).

2. They are a watering down of the Chalcedonian doctrine of the two natures of Christ. The full humanity of Christ is not a warrant to make images of him without violating the Second Commandment. Is it possible not to separate, divide, change, or confuse the two natures in portraying Christ in a picture? What picture can depict Christ’s glory, majesty, and almighty power as God the Son? The apostle John says in that Jesus has “the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). As well, Paul says that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19). Is it possible for a picture of Christ to show the glory and fullness of an almighty, perfectly holy, and infinite God?

3. The Scriptures nowhere describe the physical appearance of Jesus. Therefore, the manner in which he is portrayed in images is left completely on the impulse and agenda of the artist. How often do visual representations distort what we think the Bible says! Images have influenced our image of Jesus as a tall, handsome, white man with long hair. How did people come about thinking that Adam and Eve ate an apple in the Garden of Eden? Where did people get the idea that the shepherds and the wise men were all together on the night of Jesus’ birth? Did Jesus not get immersed in the Jordan River in his baptism? Because of the absence of any physical description or any authentic image of Jesus, all visual representations of Jesus in images are unavoidably false, and therefore our mental images of him are also a false testimony.

4. They diminish the sufficiency of Scriptures. By disclosing the Second Commandment, God does not want to be worshipped through images. Moreover, the written and preached word, and the Lord’s Supper as a visual manifestation of Christ’s sacrifice, are sufficient means for believers’ nurture and worship. Just as the Word and God-ordained, visible signs such as circumcision and Passover were sufficient in the Old Testament, so also are the Word and the signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper sufficient for the New Testament Church. Instead of relying on visual icons, worship must be focused on the singing, reading, teaching, and preaching of Scriptures .

5. This present age is an age of walking by faith and not by sight. The eschatological age to come is the age in which the Christian will see Jesus. For now, the believer possesses only the eschatological hope of the “beatific vision”—seeing the glorified Jesus in the age to come. This present age is an age of Christ’s invisible presence in the Spirit, to be followed by an age of his visible presence which will commence when he reappears in glory (John 16:16). Furthermore, this present age is an age of walking by faith and not by sight (Rom 8:24-25; 2 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:8), of the indwelling of the Spirit, life in the church, and word and sacraments. Because this present age is a temporary age of Word-centered spirituality of hope and faith, Christians have to wait patiently for the eternal age to come, an age when they will finally have visual and audible fellowship with Christ.[ref]VanDrunen, David. “Iconoclasm, Incarnation and Eschatology: Toward a Catholic Understanding of the Reformed Doctrine of the ‘Second’ Commandment.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6:2 (April 2004), 130-47.[/ref]

6. Historically, no authentic picture of Jesus was made by those who were with Christ while he walked on earth. Perhaps the deity of Christ is the primary reason for this absence, and not just because of the Jewish prohibition on making images. Until the 4th century, images of Christ were not used in the churches. In the 16th century, Protestant Reformers, except for Martin Luther, banned the use of images. Again, by the 18th century, images of Jesus in Protestant churches were already making a comeback.

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