I’ve been working through the Ten Commandments for my course on Exodus. The second commandment (according to the enumeration used by most Protestants)—the one about not making carved images and not bowing down to them—brings up the controversial topic of making images of God.
Well, I should say it brings up the historical controversy of making these images because while it once caused much dispute, it no longer does, at least not that I’m aware of.
Here’s my lesson on that topic.
Q: If you had a real photograph of Jesus what would you do with it?
Images are powerful temptations. Someone said, if you don’t think you value images then find a picture of your mother and cut out the eyes. Why does that sound crazy to us? Because we value and honor the image. Think of how people who are in love treat pictures of each other. There’s a mysterious connection between the real thing and the image.
(If you’re interested in reading more on this topic read The Image Culture by Christine Rosen in The New Atlantis.)
Images can be dangerous because we can easily fall into giving too much reverence to the image when, in fact, that reverence should be given to the real thing. The question regarding whether it’s okay to make pictures of Jesus (and angels and saints) created intense controversy in Christian history. And that controversy erupted into warfare.
Specifically, the controversy surrounded the making of icons. Icons = paintings on small wooden boards of God, Christ, angels, and the saints. The two sides in the controversy were the iconodules and the iconoclasts.
- Iconodules = those who made and venerated icons
- Iconoclasts = those who believed icons should be destroyed because they had become idols. Some iconoclasts acted on their belief.
Here’s the iconodules’ defense:
We are not worshiping the images we make. The images are merely:
- educational – many illiterate people learned Bible stories through artwork
- an aid in worship – visible pictures help us think of the invisible God
To those arguments an iconoclast would ask:
- Can we and should we depict God or Jesus?
- When does an image become an idol?
- What should we do with an image that has become an idol?
Here are the iconoclastic arguments:
- The second commandment bans the making of an image to be used as an object of worship.
- The image you make can easily become too important for you or for someone else and therefore lead to a clear violation of the second commandment.
- No one can depict God accurately therefore images detract from God’s glory. How can a static man-made image ever capture a holy, living, active, and eternal God?
Since Jesus is the Son of God, the problems with depicting him are the same as the problems with depicting God. In addition, we can list the following problems with depicting Jesus:
- The Bible doesn’t give details of Jesus’ appearance so we don’t know what Jesus looked like.
- We don’t know exactly what Jesus looks like now. He has been glorified.
- Jesus is both human and divine and that’s impossible to capture in a picture.
We’ll end the arguments with a pushback against the iconoclasts from St. John of Damascus (c. 8th century a.d.): Since Jesus took on human nature we have the right to depict him as a human being.
What was the ultimate result of this controversy? Christianity is often divided into three main branches—Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants—and each branch takes a different view on the matter.
- The Roman Catholic Church supports the use of two-dimensional and three-dimensional (statues) representations of Christ and other holy figures.
- The Eastern Orthodox Church only supports the use of two-dimensional representations (icons) and employs them in their worship. But how are icons used in worship without them becoming idols? Eastern Orthodoxy (and Catholicism) makes a distinction between the reverence given to an icon (dulia) and the reverence given to God (latria). Only God can be given latria. The icons are not viewed as objects of worship, rather they serve as windows to the divine.
- The Protestant Church is a mixed bunch as you’ve probably learned from the many Protestant denominations. Some Protestants don’t believe any images of Christ or the saints should be made and used in a worship setting. If you visit one of their church buildings you’ll find the building to be plain and simple with almost no artwork. However, most Protestant churches that I’ve visited have a cross. And some also use an image of a dove, or a cup, or certain Greek letters. Of course, churches with stained glass windows use them to depict biblical scenes and characters. In general, Protestant churches avoid three-dimensional representations and use two-dimensional works of art on a limited basis.
Q: What’s your opinion of this controversy?