I want to begin with a little historical information, from the
time of the Reformation. Perhaps the best indication we have of
the attitude of the Reformers to pictures of Jesus, comes from
the Second Helvetic Confession. The Second Helvetic Confession
was written by Zwingli's successor, Heinrich Bullinger, and published
in 1566. It was ratified by all the Swiss Reformed churches and
used by Frederick III of the Palatinate. John Leith refers to
it as "the most universal of Reformed creeds." It was,
in fact, adopted or highly approved by nearly all Reformed Churches
in Europe, England and Scotland.
Chapter 4 of the Second Helvetic Confession is entitled, "Concerning
Idols or Images of God, Christ and the Saints." Bullinger
writes, "We reject not only the idols of the Gentiles, but
also the images of Christians. Although, in fact, Christ assumed
human nature, He did not, assume it for this reason, that he might
display a figure for the making of statues or even for the making
The teaching of the Second Helvetic Confession is noted by leading
church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, where he comments that this
chapter was directed against the Byzantine ("Eastern Orthodox")
defenders of such images, and also against the Lutherans. The
Lutherans had a tolerant attitude towards images, but the Reformed,
in general, did not.
Charles Hodge is another who cites this chapter of the Second
Helvetic Confession as typical of the Reformed position, over
against the Lutherans. He also quotes Luther, who writes against
the Reformed view-point, "When one reads of the passion of
Christ, whether he will or not, an image of a man suspended on
a cross is formed in his mind, just as certainly as his face is
reflected when he looks into the water. There is no sin in having
such an image in the mind; why then should it be sinful to have
it before the eyes?" Luther was not opposed to images of
Christ, but the Reformed were. The Reformed, observes Hodge, went
further than Luther.
Calvin's successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, is another opponent
of images cited by Pelikan. Beza spent much of his career interacting
with the Lutherans, so it is not surprising that the issue comes
up in his writings. Against the Lutherans, Beza argues: "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". Beza, it
should be noted, exercised a very strong influence upon the Puritans.
John Calvin also took a strong position against images (Institutes,
Book 1, chap. 11, sections 2-13 especially). Calvin also wrote
against the Eastern Orthodox, who favoured pictures of Jesus.
He stressed that the second commandment is not just against the
worship of images: it also forbids "making" or "having"
them (Inst. 1.11.13). It forbids using them as educational tools
to help the unlearned (Inst. 1.11.5). Nothing must replace or
supplement the Word of God for teaching us about God. Calvin approves
of books about the Bible, but not pictures of God. He says that
Christ must be depicted by true preaching of the Gospel; the cross
is to be depicted by preaching the cross - not by pictures (Inst.
1.11.7, citing Gal. 3:1).
Calvin is also aware that people will argue that God Himself gave
His people visible manifestations of Himself: cloud, flame and
smoke on Sinai; the Holy Spirit as a dove. But this does not justify
our making of images from such appearances (Inst. 1.11.3).
The views of Calvin and Beza found their way into English Puritanism.
Modern writers who have accepted this view include such well-known
figures as John Murray and Loraine Boettner.
Notice how the Reformers answer the common objections we hear today:
"I don't use images for worship" - but other uses are also forbidden, according to the Reformers. The Heidelberg calls it, "making or having" (Q. 97).
"The children need something like that to help them understand the stories about Jesus" - no, they are not even to be used for the unlearned (Q. 98). Jesus is to be taught entirely by "Word & Spirit" (2 Thess. 2:13).
"But Jesus had a human body" - Just because God manifested
His presence in visible ways, from time to time, does not mean
we can make such things into visible representations.
We must remember that the Person, Jesus Christ, is always eternal
God as well as man. The union of the two natures is indivisible
(see the Athanasian Creed, Articles 32-36). Pictures of Christ
do remove His divinity from the picture, because they simply cannot
represent it. What remains is only a picture of a human
body. Since the union with the divine nature is not represented,
it cannot be called a picture of the Person of the Lord Jesus.
Let us therefore be content to show our children a picture of
a human body, and tell them what the Word says: that Jesus
had a human body - though we don't know what it looked
like. Let us avoid telling our children, or creating the impression,
that "This is a picture of the Lord Jesus."
It must be admitted that the Reformed were particularly concerned
about superstitious abuses in the Roman and Eastern Churches.
But in opposing the abuses, they opposed all images of
It is also true that the Reformed were addressing particularly
the use of images in church, rather than in the home. But
note once again, the reasons they give for opposing images in
church lie in the wrongness of the very process of image-making
itself, not simply in the place the images are set up.
Calvin's view appears to be essentially the same as that of the
Second Helvetic Confession. Had the Geneva Reformer taken a different
line, it is highly unlikely that the Confession would have been
ratified by the Swiss churches so soon after Calvin's death (2
years) and while the Swiss churches were so much under the influence
of Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza.
The relevant section of the Institutes can be found in
1.11.1-15. Below is a summary of the main points.
a) "Every figurative representation of God contradicts His
being" (1.11.2) Calvin's argument against images in general
is the same that I would use against images of the Second or Third
Person of the Trinity: images lessen the glory of God.
b) "Even direct signs of the divine Presence give no justification
for images" (1..11.3) The fact that God showed His presence
in clouds and smoke and flame on Sinai; or that the Holy Spirit
appeared under the likeness of a dove; or that God appeared from
time-to-time in the form of a man - these visible appearances
which God graciously gave do not justify man in making
Note that the usual argument given in support of images of Christ
is just another form of the justification Calvin rejects: Jesus
was sent by God in the flesh, therefore we may make visible representations
of Him. But no, if that were true, Israel could have justified
a visible representation of God as a pillar of fire or a burning
bush, or the Holy Spirit as a dove. The Second Helvetic Confession,
Ch.4, is using the same argument as Calvin to deny images of Christ:
just because He assumed human flesh, that does not mean that man
may visibly portray Him in His human flesh.
c) "Images and pictures are contrary to Scripture" (1.11.4)
Calvin opposes the Eastern Church, which forbade statues, but
permitted pictures cf. Second Helvetic Confession, Ch.4, which
was also directed against the Eastern Church, especially their
pictures of Jesus. Calvin had the same opponent in mind in this
chapter of the Institutes.
d) It is not just the use of images for "impious superstition"
that is forbidden, but the use of pictures to educate the unlearned,
in place of books which tell about the Word of God (1.11.5). The
method of teaching is to be the Word of God, not pictures. Calvin
specifically applies this to the Second Person of the Trinity,
too: Christ is depicted before the eyes as crucified by the
true preaching of the Gospel (Gal.3:1; Inst.1.11.7). He then
goes on to criticize the use of crosses instead of the preaching
of the cross of Christ. Clearly, Calvin could not have said this
if he had no objection to pictures of Jesus. For that matter,
it would be just as inconsistent today to permit pictures of Jesus
in general, but deny the crucifix of the Roman Catholics in particular.
In fact, all of the arguments used to justify pictures of Jesus
- His human nature; the fact that these images are not being used
for worship - can be used to justify the crucifix as a representation
of an actual, biblical event involving Christ's body. You cannot
accept a drawing of Christ sitting with His disciples, then turn
around and reject a Roman Catholic statue of Christ, or wood-carving,
or crucifix. Calvin is opposed to all supplementation of the Word
in order to represent the Triune God, including the Person of
the Lord Jesus Christ. We must learn - and teach our children
- that we understand and know and relate to Jesus ONLY by Word
and Spirit. That is also the point of LD.35, Q.98. Both Calvin
and the Catechism deal very bluntly with the objection that "having"
pictures in your home is OK, as long as you don't worship them.
e) "Any use of images leads to idolatry" (1.11.9). This
also is a point not sufficiently appreciated by those who justify
pictures of Jesus. Calvin argues that when men "fashion"
God, they "fasten" Him to the representation. The Reformer
is aware, however, that many who make such representations deny
that the image is God. But he sees that as an excuse. The
commandment says not only that we are not to worship images;
also that we are not to make or have; we are not
to represent God visibly at all (Calvin cites I John 5:21
in this connection cf.Inst.1.11.13).
f) Calvin appeals to the Regulative Principle to rule out images:
"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
3) Theodore Beza:
4) The Heidelberg Catechism:
Ursinus, in his Commentary upon the Heidelberg Catechism, makes
no mention of the issue before us, either way. That is curious,
but not decisive for the argument - either way. What is decisive
is the absolutistic language of LD 35 when discussing images.
Note that the Catechism is talking about images of the Triune God, not just God the Father. It cites, for example, Dt.4:15-19, where Israel met with the triune God. Note the absolute prohibition of images of the Triune God, a prohibition which includes all types of representations:
"in no way"
"God can not and may not be visibly portrayed
in any way"
Note also the prohibition against different uses to which images might be put:
"we in no way make"
"God...may not be visibly portrayed"
Images may not "be permitted in the churches as teaching
aids for the unlearned".
Then there is the use of 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".
Following on from that, there is the reason given for these prohibitions:
The fact that "He wants His people instructed by the living
preaching of His Word".
Images of Christ violate these principles. An image of Christ
is some kind of visible representation of the Second Person
of the Trinity. He is "visibly portrayed", there
is a "making" and a "having". This is a making
and having that cannot be said to be "commanded in His Word".
Such images of Christ are used in our homes to supplement
instruction "by the living preaching of the Word". And
they are justified "as teaching aids for the unlearned"
- especially for children.
To put it another way, most of the arguments used to justify images
of Christ, could just as easily be used to justify images of the
Father, or the Holy Spirit, or the Triune God.
That applies even to the argument that Jesus had a human body.
The Second Helvetic Confession rightly rejects this argument.
Calvin and Beza rightly refrained from using it to justify the
use of crucifixes in place of the preaching of the cross - though
they could easily have done so. For if we are allowed to make
an image of Jesus Christ because men at one time saw His body,
we are surely allowed to represent the Holy Spirit by a dove,
or the Triune God by a burning bush, or a pillar or cloud of fire
and smoke, or perhaps even an angel. Any theophany then becomes
fair game for images, on that argument. Yet that was the very
point of Dt.4: Israel had seen a theophany, but they must not
conclude from that that they might make a visible representation
of God. They are not permitted to make a visible portrayal of
the Triune God with any form - including the human
3. The Modern Church:
Obviously, many modern Reformed Churches have departed from the
Reformational position on the matter of images of Christ. I would
argue that this change has come about gradually, without much
fuss, because the Church did not find it necessary to add to these
statements of the 16th century Reformers - it simply wasn't an
issue in the Continental Churches after the Reformation.
Some Reformed Churches today do, however, self-consciously reject
pictures of Jesus: for example, the Protestant Reformed (cf. Herman
Hoeksema's Triple Knowledge, pp166-167) and our sister-church,
Please pay careful attention to G.I.Williamson's arguments in his The Shorter Catechism Ch.6, and The Heidelberg Catechism on LD 35. These arguments really require a reply from those in favour of pictures of Jesus:
a) Since we do not know what Jesus looked like, any picture is
from the artist's imagination, not from the Word of God. J.I.Packer
agrees, and makes the additional point that the artist will therefore
always depict an idealization of human nature - he will
bring in his own concept ideal humanity to construct the image
of christ. That is the very essence of an idol: a human idealization
of God, drawn from human imagination, rather than from the pure
Word of God. If we do not grasp this point, then we do not properly
understand the problem with images of the Triune God either.
b) Representing the human nature of Christ separates His humanity
from His divinity. In my view, this argument is unanswerable.
It is also a serious matter. One simply cannot represent
Christ's divinity on paper, only an idealized humanity. Therefore
every picture of Jesus removes His divinity from the picture.
There is no other alternative.
There are two very serious implications of that. One is that it
de-Personalizes Christ. For in Reformed and orthodox theology,
the Person of Christ is two natures, in a "unity
of Person", "Who although He is God and man, yet He
is not two, but one Christ" (Athanasian Creed). An image
of Christ is a practical (not intentional) denial of the Athanasian
Creed: it effectively makes two Christs - a divine Christ which
cannot be depicted, and a human Christ which can be portrayed.
It is true that God Himself sent His Son to earth with a real,
visible human body. But the simple fact is, when Christ walked
on the earth, He did so in the unity of His two Natures. His presence
on earth was not a separating of the two Natures; a drawing
of Christ is such a separation.
That brings us back to the other main point about separating the
humanity and divinity of Christ on paper: it lessens His glory.
Every visible representation of Christ lessens His glory precisely
because it cannot include His divinity. And that is the essence
of an idol: it lessens the glory of God.
c) We are to know Christ, to understand Him, to relate to Him,
to be united to Him etc., entirely by Word and Spirit.
Enough has been said on this that I do not need to elaborate.
Brothers, I still maintain that this is a very serious matter,
and that pictures of Jesus are idols, violations of the second
commandment. I do not say that a person necessarily sins by having
such pictures in their house. But I have to say that having such
pictures and justifying them is a sin. Well, I sin just
as seriously against the second commandment myself. I do not say
this sin is worse than my violation of the second commandment.
But as particular instances of sin come to our attention, we must
point them out to each other. And we must not be afraid to call
sin, sin - even if others do not agree or cannot see it. If this
is a false judgement on my part, then may the Lord show me that
sin as well, and you will have my heartfelt apology. In the meantime,
rest assured of my highest regard and esteem for all of you, these
differences of opinion notwithstanding.
Yours in the Lord's Name,
THE SECOND PERSON & THE SECOND COMMANDMENT
Those of us who have children will be familiar with the difficulty
of finding good Bible-story 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 draw-back, 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 Irenaeus, 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 assunder, 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,
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
Dt. 4:15; Is. 44:9; 2 Cor. 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,
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
The Confession refers to Jn. 16:7 and 2 Cor. 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
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 NT
or OT - other than the general comment of Is. 52:14, 53:2. Like
the OT 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 OT theophanies. In the OT, 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 Dt. 4 (cf.,
verse 11). But, says verse 12, they saw no form ie., 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 OT 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 (Dt. 4:15;
Is. 44:9). The Second Helvetic Confession uses this as a proof
against pictures of Jesus, on the ground that the NT has not abrogated
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
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 man-made 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
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 mis-used 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 Gal. 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). Rom. 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.
Dr P.N. Archbald
Back to the Article Index
Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / email@example.com / revised January 1999 / Copyright 1999