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Are Images of Christ OK? No.

Writing against visual images of Christ is hindered without explaining some history.

Many prominent Christians rejected such images for about eight centuries until the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) ruled in favor of images, including their “veneration.” Though Eastern and Western Christians argued against worshiping images (for obvious reasons), the fact that Eastern Christians bowed on their faces before paraded icons, and Western Christians wove images of the Father and Spirit into artwork, should give us pause: Maybe making images—even if we’re not worshiping them—hasn’t worked out too well.

While the ultimate question is what Scripture says about the matter, the tendency to fall into errors like these has always been why the triune God prohibited making images of himself.

Here are three key arguments against images of Christ.

1. The Second Commandment

The second commandment (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8–10) prohibits images of Christ. A simple syllogism illustrates the point:

1. God forbade making images of himself.
2. Christ is God.
3. Therefore, God forbade making images of Christ.

Deuteronomy 4:15–24 is a commentary on the second commandment. Moses explains to Israel that even though God appeared to them, they must not make any kind of image of him (vv. 15–18) because their hearts were bent toward idolatry (v. 19) and because making such images violated his covenant with them (vv. 23–24).

Unfortunately, Israel broke the command to the letter by making a golden calf representing Yahweh (Ex. 32:1–6). As the NKJV reads, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (v. 4), resulting in “a feast to the LORD” (v. 5) before it. Jeroboam later one-upped Aaron by making two calves to represent Yahweh (1 Kings 12:28–29), which “became a sin” (v. 30).

In both cases, Israel broke covenant with God by imaging him. Since Jesus is God the Son, should we not hesitate before repeating the pattern?

2. Old Testament Theophanies

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God often appeared to his people in human form. Again, the argument is simple:

1. God appeared to his people in human form.
2. God prohibited his people from making human images of him.
3. Therefore, God appearing in human form doesn’t permit us to make images of him.

Deuteronomy 4 helps us again. Moses says Israel’s “eyes have seen” (v. 9) though they “saw no form” (vv. 12, 15). Israel “saw” God appear on Sinai, Isaiah “saw the Lord seated on his throne” (Isa. 6:1), Ezekiel “saw visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1), and Daniel “looked” on the “Ancient of Days” (Dan. 7:9). And yet Isaiah declares, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isa. 40:18).

God’s prohibition against images of himself stood alongside repeated divine appearances in human form. While Aaron rationalized making a divine image, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel didn’t see the inference. Christ’s incarnation was new, but God appearing in human form wasn’t. Nobody saw God as he is, and no image can capture his glory without diminishing its brightness.

Nobody saw God as he is, and no image can capture his glory without diminishing its brightness.

3. The Incarnation

Here’s one final syllogism:

1. Jesus is God the Son who took on a human nature.
2. The second commandment forbids making images of anyone in the category of God.
3. Therefore, we cannot make images of God the Son.

Making images of Christ creates thorny dilemmas. Either we depict the person of the Son and violate the second commandment, or we depict his humanity by divorcing it from his divine person.

In the first case we violate God’s law, and in the second we (unintentionally) commit heresy. Why we want images of Christ comes into play here too. Do images of Christ stir up devotion to him? If so, then we’re worshiping God by means of images. And don’t we use such images devotionally? If not, then why have them? Would we want to say we’re training ourselves to think about Jesus without worshiping him? Thus images of Christ are either idolatrous or in vain.

Images of Christ are either idolatrous or in vain.

Ultimately, we should reject images of Christ because we shouldn’t seek to be wiser than God. Respecting Scripture’s authority and sufficiency, we could have no warrant to make images of God the Son unless Scripture required it. We can psychologize about the fact that the disciples saw Jesus and remembered what he looked like, but we didn’t.

One day we’ll see the God-man as he is, and we’ll be like him (1 John 3:1–4). In heaven, we’ll walk by sight and not by faith, but now we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). Our rule is this: “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. 1:8). We do see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6)—but this light shines “in our hearts.” Seeing isn’t believing, but believing is seeing.

Are we pushing our eschatology forward too much by trying to “see” Christ through means other than Word and sacrament? Images have always led to idolatry—both in Old Testament history with golden calves and in church history by making images of Christ (and the Father and the Spirit). They become either focal points or funnels for our devotion.

But as Agur wisely wrote, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Prov. 30:5–6). Though advocates of images of Christ may love Christ and mean well, we love him best by living according to his Word and looking to his return in glory.

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