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.