Monday, November 15, 2010

What does the 2nd Commandment Forbid?

Provoked by someone's blog post this morning, I want to take a few minutes to try to explain the traditional Reformed view of the 2nd Commandment, and the prohibition of pictures of Jesus. This first thing to note is that there are two facets to the prohibition. The first facet prohibits making (Ex 20: 4). The second facet prohibits worshiping (Ex 20:5). Regarding the prohibition of making, it is usually argued (and the particular blog post in view did argue) that if the command is taken literally, it prohibits all representational art. In other words, statues, paintings, photographs, etc. of anything are prohibited by this command. This is the view that Islam takes, and explains why all Muslim art is abstract. This seems to be a plain reading of the command: "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Ex 20:4, ESV).

However, this is where it is necessary to consult the Hebrew text. Two terms are used here, represented in the ESV by "carved image" and "likeness." Neither term refers to what we might call representational art. So, for example, the term "likeness" in Ex 20:4 is not the same word as "likeness" in Gen 1:26. Both words in Ex 20:4 refer specifically to images that are intended to represent deity. In other words, the command says, "Do not make a representation of God using anything in the created order as the foundation for that representation."

So how does this affect the "images of Christ"? First, granted that Christ is one person in two natures--human and divine. Any attempt to represent him visually can represent only his human nature. So it does not represent the "full Christ." Further, there are no descriptions given in the New Testament of what Jesus looked like. Since the death of the apostles, no one knows what Jesus looked like. Hence, any representation of his human appearance is a false representation. Thus, visual representations of Jesus fail the test of two commandments. First, they fail the 2nd Commandment test, in that they attempt to represent deity using part of the created order to do so. Second, they fail the 9th Commandment in two ways. They represent Jesus as if he were human only, which he is not. Second, they lie about his appearance.

Given this, it does not appear to me that "pictures" of Jesus can be justified, unless the 2nd and 9th Commandments are eliminated as laws for Christian behavior.


SaanenMolkerei said...

Good points, Ben. Growing up as a pre-Vatican II conservative New England Congregationalist, I recall my shock after moving South and seeing prints of "our Lord" hanging in many Reformed church buildings. We were taught from an early age that such images were Romanist and had no place in Protestant church buildings, let alone sanctuaries.

Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary said...
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Garry J. Moes said...

I will not presume to match wits with a Hebrew scholar, but your post raised some questions in my mind, particularly your position that there are two prohibitions in the second commandment and your implication that these two are prohibitions are distinct. Though my knowledge of the Hebrew text is limited to what I can glean form lexicons and Strong's, I am somewhat of an expert on English syntax, having written/edited six grammar texts. I note that in the King James Version, verses 4 and 5 are separated by a colon. Colons have a number of uses in the English language, but the one that seems pertinent here is what is known as the "syntactical-deductive" purpose of a colon. With this usage, the colon introduces the logical consequence, or effect, of a fact stated before. Some other uses of the colon also establish a strong nexus between the language before and following the colon. The use of the colon in the KJV seems to indicate that the two prohibitions ought not to be considered separately and distinctly, but that they are intimately related; namely, that representations from nature may not be used as objects of worship, not merely that they ought not be made at all. We know, for example, that God commanded representations from nature and even the spirit world to be used in the making of the tabernacle curtains and priestly garments and on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. This indicates, does it not, that there is no bare or bald prohibition of representations, even in the context of worship. The wind, a dove, and representations of tongues of fire are all named in Scripture as natural representations or descriptors of the Holy Spirit. We also have a number of very vivid verbal descriptions of angels, and since words are linguistic symbols, they can easily be transformed into artistic symbols. But I digress from my main question: I'm wondering if there is anything in the structure of the Hebrew text which prompted the KJV translators to insert the colon between verses 4 and 5.

Bruce said...

Hello Dr.Shaw,
Beside the fundamental agreement we share on the 2nd Commandment's moral and perpetual restraint on images of deity, including that of Christ; and the "Nestorian" error of attempting to divide for our purposes what in Christ are forever joined (for our salvation); I propose a third, strong argument against images allegedly depicting the Son: such an image is a "reversal" of the revelation of Jesus Christ, as he is presented to us in the four Gospels.

The apostolic witness to their personal, bodily engagement with Christ is the message the Gospels preserve for us. When at first the disciples meet Christ, they are impressed with the man from Nazareth. Even Nathanael. As their familiarity grows, and their dullness is chipped away, they are drawn inexorably to the conclusion that he is more than they were aware. Until Thomas cannot contain his famous words, "My Lord and my God."

The argument follows, that we are to trace the apostles' progress with our own, who profess to believe their witness to our Lord. They are taking us from their "merely human" acquaintance with Jesus (what we might term, the default setting), to one that understands him as theanthropos. Therefore, to seek to "know Christ after the flesh," is NOT to finish along with Paul "we regard him thus no longer" (2Cor.5:16).

Furthermore, Paul had more reason than any other Apostle to pursue such a course if it were needful, since he had no other recorded encounters with Jesus, except as the risen Lord. Did he need any further acquaintance with the body of Jesus to be assured of his humanity? No. In other words, Paul's familiarity with Jesus prior to the resurrection is practically--if not strictly--limited to the verbal testimony of the other apostles and living witnesses. Even as ours is.

Not even the need to address problems of Docetism can justify images of the Savior. Because Docetism isn't a problem of having the "right God" but the "wrong human." Docetism doesn't have the right God, really incarnated, who brings us to back to God, 1Pet.3:18, Heb.10:19-20. And a picture only reinforces the errors he begins with.

Rom.10:6-8 "But the righteousness based on faith says, "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 that we proclaim)."