Second Rejoinder on Images of the Incarnate Word

Decalogue parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer 1768Dr Gentry extended his series of articles in favour of visual portrayals of Christ to a third and fourth article. In his series on this subject, Dr Gentry has alluded to my critique as presenting an “extreme” position, and suggesting that responses to his argument are not exegetical and theological, but merely emotional. I hope that my second response will show that the traditional Reformed and Presbyterian view which I have defended and which is held forth in the Westminster Standards is not extreme, but plainly biblical, and that our disagreement with his error is not an emotional response, but the result of exegetical and theological reasoning. My second rejoinder was as follows.

Dr Gentry has taught that we may not make images of God, but we may make images of the bodily aspect of the human nature of Christ. Reformed and Presbyterian believers for hundreds of years have objected to such teaching for both exegetical and theological reasons. While Dr Gentry suggests that the second commandment is limited strictly in its scope to the use of images for worship, this is not the standard Reformed exegesis. Similarly, Dr Gentry suggests that we may represent the bodily aspect of Christ’s human nature just as we may portray any human being, but this is contrary to standard Reformed theology regarding this matter.

First, in relation to the exegesis of the second commandment and related passages, Dr Gentry holds forth two prohibitions: We may not visually represent the divine nature, and we may not worship idols. Reformed and Presbyterian exegetes have typically come to a different understanding of what is found in the relevant passages, namely, we must not make images of an object of worship, and we must not use such an image in worship. Both these are found in the explicit wording of the second command, but further clarified in related passages, Deuteronomy 5.8, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness…” and further at verse 9, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” Are all images of every sort forbidden? No, images of various creatures were used by God’s command in the Tabernacle (e.g., Exodus 26.1). So what images are forbidden? The preceding chapter of Deuteronomy sets the stage for understanding which images are forbidden. Deuteronomy 4.15-18 demonstrates that it is God Himself that must not be represented by some work of man’s hands. “Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb … lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure…” God gave the command at Horeb in such a way as to teach this prohibition by example. God did not reveal Himself to the congregation in any form at Mount Horeb so as to teach them that they must make no form representing Him. “You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice… Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire…” (Deuteronomy 4.12, 15).

We must note here that the passage examined above holds forth an express command forbidding the making of an image of God in any form whatsoever. Dr Gentry suggests that this does not apply in relation to our Lord Christ, because Christ has a body that can be seen. According to Dr Gentry, this means we are free to make visible representations of Christ. Dr Gentry would seem to be suggesting that the prohibition given in the Old Testament was partly due to a lack of original source material — that is, there was nothing to see, and so nothing to make. Dr Gentry suggests that the Incarnation changed all that. But this is shown to be false by the many theophanies God wrought in the Old Testament. We may note especially the visible representation God wrought before the 70 Elders in the immediate context of the events at Mount Horeb. “Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity… So they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24.9-11) So God formed a visible representation of the invisible God which these men saw, yet they were forbidden to make such a visible representation for themselves. God may make such a representation of Himself, but man may not. That seems plain enough from the text. And it also seems plain, as Dr Gentry rightly points out, that Christ’s body is an “image” of the invisible God prepared by God Himself. “He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God…” (Colossians 1.15). Now, given the remarkably clear prohibitions against manmade representations of God, even in the face of God’s own revealing of Himself visibly, why would Dr Gentry think that this prohibition ceases to apply in the case of the clearest and most permanent visible representation of the invisible God? Is there a single example from Scripture of any mere man making such an image of Christ? Is there any example from Scripture of a manmade image representing the invisible God that was not roundly condemned and cursed by God?

Far from being an “extreme” position as Dr Gentry suggests, the principles described here are plain enough from Scripture. It is a part of the traditional Reformed and Presbyterian view regarding the second commandment and images. For example, Francis Turretin (d. 1687) explains, “Although God sometimes manifested himself in a visible form and in such an appearance is described to us in Scripture…, it does not follow that it is lawful to represent him by an image. The same God who thus appeared nevertheless strongly forbade the Israelites to fabricate any representation of him…” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, p. 65). It is puzzling to read Dr Gentry describe a standard Reformed and Presbyterian position on images as “extreme.” With much respect to the learned doctor, from a committed and confessional Reformed Presbyterian viewpoint, Dr Gentry’s position would appear to be the one in the extreme.

Dr Gentry objects that if the traditional Reformed understanding were true, a first century person would be sinning by recollecting how God had revealed Himself visibly in Christ, but this is readily seen to be false. Such a person would not be sinning by recollecting what God had revealed precisely because God had revealed it to him. Of course, this would be true for those who experienced the various theophanies, as well. Dr Gentry further objects that we ought to be able to represent what God has represented, but as Turretin points out, this does not follow. Syllogistically, Dr Gentry’s argument clearly fails: God forbids images of God; God has made an image of Himself in Christ; Therefore, we may make images of Christ Who is the image of God. The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. Further, we may ask, where do the Scriptures teach that we may pretend to do whatever God has actually done relative to revealing Himself visibly? Clearly this is a false assumption and there are no biblical arguments supporting it. Indeed, we have explicit prohibitions against it.

Finally, we may benefit from considering the reasoned theological and moral argument of Professor John Murray (d. 1975) on this matter. He points out that anything truthful conveyed by pretended images of Christ must necessarily evoke an appropriately worshipful response within us since it relates to Christ. But this is precisely what the second commandment condemns, all worship evoked by manmade images. “[P]ictures of Christ are in principle a violation of the second commandment. A picture of Christ, if it serves any useful purpose, must evoke some thought or feeling respecting him and, in view of what he is, this thought or feeling will be worshipful. We cannot avoid making the picture a medium of worship. But since the materials for this medium of worship are not derived from the only revelation we possess respecting Jesus, namely, Scripture, the worship is constrained by a creation of the human mind that has no revelatory warrant. This is will-worship. For the principle of the second commandment is that we are to worship God only in ways prescribed and authorized by him. It is a grievous sin to have worship constrained by a human figment, and that is what a picture of the Saviour involves.”

We trust that it is clear from all of the foregoing that ours is not an “emotional reaction” as Dr Gentry suggests, but a reasoned exegetical and theological objection.