How Exactly is This Picture an Idol?
Fan of Turretin has offered a response to my post last week on the incarnation and idolatry. It’s a worthy attempt defending his stringent Reformed traditions, but I believe he labors with some difficulty to prove biblically that the second commandment strictly forbids artistic works of Jesus Christ, or that such works (like a Sunday school flannel graph of the feeding of the 5,000), constitutes the making of an idol.
For example. One argument he puts forth - and this one is typical in these discussions - is that the Bible does not provide a physical description of Jesus. But why should it and why does that then exclude a person making a painting depicting the Sermon on the Mount? Pretty much every person mentioned in the Bible isn’t presented with a physical description. Like Joshua, or Samuel, or Daniel, or Peter.
But I would say there is enough information historically about the times when Jesus lived that we can make a good educated guess what he probably looked like. In fact, we do know from the Bible that he wore sandals (Matthew 3:11), wore a tunic (John 19:23), has scars on his hands and body (John 20:20). Moreover, John gives a rather impressive description of the glorified Christ in Revelation 1:12-16, where he describes His clothes and appearance. It is similar to the descriptions by the prophets Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:26-28) and Daniel (Daniel 10:4-12).
Still, one can argue that’s not exactly a “physical” description telling us the color of his eyes and the shape of his nose, hence, we are forbidden to speculate based upon the second commandment. Really? Why exactly? I think such a claim misses the entire point of the second commandment, and I think this is where the Puritans who argue in this fashion run off the rails.
The text of Exodus 20:2-5 states,
2 "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 "You shall have no other gods before Me.
4 "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;
5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.
Allow me to make some expositional observations of these verses.
1) The preface (vs.2) helps to establish the context. God distinguishes Himself from the false gods of the pagans. He is distinct in that He exists (I am YHWH) and He has acted on behalf of His people, that is, He brought them out of Egypt. So in distinction to the pagan deities, YHWH has demonstrated His worthiness to be worshiped in the actions He has done.
2) And because He exists and demonstrates His worthiness for worship, He can demand that His people worship no other gods. He can demand this of His people because no other gods of those pagan nations have ever a) proven their existence, or b) demonstrated their power and worthiness to be worshiped by acting in time and space.
3) The second commandment, then, functions as a direct result of the preface and the first commandment. Idols represent the false gods that don’t exist to begin with and that are unworthy of any reverence.
4) But the second commandment goes on to forbid the “bowing down and serving” of that carved/graven image. It’s the “bowing down and serving” that makes the image sinful. This is a point my detractors tend to gloss over. The idol was more than just an artistic rendering of a god, but the people attributed power and authority to that idol. It functioned as a talisman, the dwelling place of that deity. That is why the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant and placed it in the temple of Dagon in 1 Samuel 5 and 6. They believed it was the dwelling place of the Israelite God and that their god had conquered their God.
“Bowing down and serving” an idol in reverence and ritual was believed to initiate the favor of that deity attached to the idol toward the worshippers.
In a manner of speaking, it’s a similar concept to the “health and wealth” cults of today in which the worshipper does certain things that supposedly stirs up “God” to bless and prosper him or her. And it definitely is the same as the Roman Catholic iconography with their statues, shrines, rosary beads, and the like.
5) It is also important to note, as I mentioned in my previous post, that I don’t believe God the Son is in view here with the second commandment’s prohibition. It is the God the Father to whom the second commandment is applied.
This point has caused much dismay with my detractors because it suggests I am denying the Trinity or I am saying the concept of the Trinity was a later development within a post-apostolic, Christian theology. Their objection is understandable, but I am merely attempting to be honest with the text of Exodus.
While it is certainly possible to place the fullest NT revelation we have been given about the Godhead back upon Exodus 20, I believe this causes a problem with the incarnation. As I stated in the last post, once the Son became flesh, He took on the image of a man. Anyone who interacted with Christ during His earthly life, and specifically His three year ministry, saw Him. They looked into His face, heard Him speak. Even more, hundreds of people witnessed Him in His resurrected glory. When He ascended, how could they have NOT thought of what He looked like when they worshiped? Did they make mental idols of Christ based upon what they knew for certain He looked like and knew from the sound of His voice?
Now, with those observations in mind, let’s consider some practical matters. Look at this picture.
It depicts Christ walking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus reproduced from an historical scene in the Gospel of Luke. We don’t know if the road was heavily wooded as the picture shows, or what was the true color of the clothes the two disciples were wearing. But we do know Jesus walked with them and taught them all that the OT revealed about who He was. How exactly, then, is this an idol as prohibited by the second commandment? In what way are people bowing down and serving this alleged idol?
Let’s consider a couple of the examples that Matthew fellow pointed out to accuse John MacArthur of idolatry.
First, from the book, The Murder of Jesus
The picture on the book represents the cruel beating and eventual crucifixion of our Lord. He was smitten, bruised, and had a crown of thorns placed on His head. Again, the picture depicts a real, historical event, the trial and murder of Jesus. An event thousands of people witnessed. How exactly is this an idol as prohibited by the second commandment? I know of no one who bows down and serves this so-called idol.
Again, look at the cover of John’s book, The Jesus You Can’t Ignore
One can argue this more contemporary looking image, that doesn’t even show the whole face of Jesus, isn’t of any particular historical event. Granted, but it is of an historical person, and it isn’t irreverent. It merely illustrates the fact that Jesus was a significant person who confronted sinners with God’s truth. In other words, He can’t be ignored. So again, how is this an idol as prohibited by the second commandment?
A violation of the second commandment would be a carved idol used in the worship of a group of people who bow down and “serve” it by participating in the religious rituals attached to the deity of that idol and living out that religious service in their lives.
I just don’t see how visual art work depicting a real, historical person merely drawn to illustrate scenes from the Gospels is “idolatry.” I think it is a real stretch for my Puritan friends.