The Incarnation and Idolatry
I was recently alerted to a video by a fellow named Matthew Lankford. You only need to concern yourself with the first 7 or 8 minutes:
Oh my. You gotta love these Puritan lynch mobs.
It’s hard to figure out where to begin.
I will say that I can sympathize a bit with Matthew’s consternation with regards to pictures of Jesus. As I have argued elsewhere, I don’t believe pictures of Jesus are even close to being the idolatry Matthew condemns in his video and that he is misapplying the second commandment.
That stated, however, I am not particularly fond of all the modern displays of Jesus, because I don’t believe they capture accurately what He looked like. IOW, I don’t think Jesus looked anything like Kenny Loggins or Dan Haggerty. Nor do I like sacrilegious Precious Moments-like figurines that cheapen who Jesus truly is and what He did.
Before offering a response, it may be helpful to read what John has actually said about images of Jesus in Christian artwork. The more comprehensive comment linked by Matthew is from a Q&A session done, from what I can gather, in 1980:
The text, "thou shalt not make any carved image" is based upon the prior verse: "thou shalt have no other gods before Me." "Thou shalt not make thee any carved image or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above or in the earth beneath." The assumption is that you're not to worship the stars, the sun, the birds, the animals, man, any other thing. But once God invaded the world in a human form, He gave substance or image, didn't He? And that's exactly what Hebrews 1 says, that He is the express, what?...image of God. God...God gave us an icon. And I hate to use that sense, but God gave us an image. God gave us a model and a pattern. So I don't think that it is outside...I don't think it violates this intent to make an image which is constituted as another god. You could never make an image of a spirit being. Right? So He couldn't be talking about an image of Himself. I mean, not essentially. But there was a case where they did this. You know, in the golden calf incident, I don't know if you've thought this through, but if you read the text, in the wilderness when the people made the golden calf, you remember Moses was up on the mountain getting the law and the people were down with Aaron making the golden calf. They made the golden calf as a representative of the true God. It was not a pagan idol. It was...it was the representation of their own God. They were still, in some sense, monotheistic. They were trying to represent God, and that's what the text indicates, in that calf. And at that point, God judged them. The only proper manifestation that God has ever permitted of His Person is in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Now, there's one other thing that I might just mention. God has used a lot of symbols of His Person. In the Old Testament I can think of one major thing was a serpent on the rod, which, in a sense, pictured Christ. And there's much language imagery as well. Every lamb that was slain was, in a sense, prefiguring Christ. But I think you're safe in saying that since God has revealed Himself, this is the bottom line, God has revealed Himself in the image of man, the man Christ Jesus, that God allows us that one representation. I don't have a problem with that. He allows us that one representation so that we see God in human dimension.
Now, having said that, let me say this. We do not have in our house a picture of Jesus of any kind because I don't think any of them look like Him, probably, and I would rather have Him be who He really is than me to assume that He is someone He's not. That's just a personal thing. So what we do is, without having a picture of Jesus, we still encourage our children to read many, many Christian books and all of them have pictures of Jesus, but all of them have pictured Him differently. And I think you're pretty safe if you approach it that way. If you get some great big head of Christ slammed in the middle of your house, I'm not against that. That's okay if you like that but I perceive Christ in my own mind and I'm very comfortable with that and I've never yet seen the picture that looks like what I believe He is. So that's just a personal preference. But I really don't think the spirit of Deuteronomy 5:8 is broken when we have representation of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, the word imagery of the New Testament paints for us marvelous pictures of Christ. And you can never, I don't know about you, you can never, I can say for myself, I can never really read an account in the Gospels of Christ without vivid imagery of His Person; can you? I mean, when I see Him, for example, reach down and touch a leper, if that was just God doing that, I don't know that I could even focus on that. When you think of God, do you think of something? Do you think of a form or a shape? I don't. I don't think of...I don't know that I think of anything. But when I think of Christ, immediately I have this image of the robe and His hands and you know... So I really think that the spirit of the person who simply has in his mind or perceives Christ in human form is not in violation of that.
Now. Returning to the video, I believe there are a couple of glaring problems I see with what Matthew thinks is idolatry.
First, the second commandment prohibits idolatry as it relates to the worship of God the Father, the only true God. As John pointed out in his response, the prohibition builds upon the first commandment that forbids the worship of any other gods. Idols were considered the home of the so-called deity, or it had attributed to it some supernatural power that governed the people in a superstitious manner. Thus, an idol represents a god that is worshiped at the center of a pagan, socio-religious worldview.
So at the outset, his objection to John’s views of images in artwork is misplaced and exegetically unsound.
Second. The main problem with Matthew’s view of idolatry, is that if we work his conclusion to its logical end, he would be setting up God to be violating His own commandment when God the Son became incarnate.
Think about it: Jesus was a man – God becoming flesh. He was seen by thousands of people. He spoke and taught. As the apostle John says in the opening of his first epistle, “That which was from the beginning, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hand have handled, concerning the Word of life.” I believe John is speaking literally here. This isn’t his flowery words describing a really strong spiritual experience. He truly saw, heard, and touched the Lord of Glory, because He was in the “image of a man.”
Now generally, one of the arguments thrown out is that God did not inspire the NT writers to describe Christ’s physical appearance. Perhaps God did; but Jesus was still a real, historical man who lived in space and time, just like Justin Martyr, John Calvin, and Abraham Lincoln. He was “veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,” as the classic Christmas carol goes.
Additionally, Jesus received worship on numerous occasions, the most notable example is Thomas in John 20:28 who exclaimed, “My Lord and My God.” These people were worshiping a visible, flesh and blood person. Obviously it was not idolatry, because Jesus was God in the flesh, but He was still real, sinewy, sweaty flesh.
Matthew takes a cheap shot at John by saying he naively embraces a Roman Catholic view of images that allows them to worship Mary and the saints. Honestly, is that what John is advocating? Even though no physical description of Jesus exists that is not a violation of the second commandment nor does it forbid Christians from representing Jesus in artwork or passion plays because, once again, He was a real, historical man and those representations do not have anything supernatural attributed to them.
Now. Where I would say the second commandment is violated is with some art work like “The Creation of Man” as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Not only do you have the image of God the Father, but He reclines on what looks to be a flying sea shell with a topless woman and a bunch of corpulent children. And, I don’t think God look anything like John Brown.