Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

Are pictures of Jesus idolatry? Part 1: exegesis

Thinking so is an understandably venerable Reformed tradition which strikes me as naive and legalistic on several levels. Here, I look at the context of the second commandment to exegete the limitations of its meaning.

Calvinists are notoriously opposed to the use of images in worship. A little while ago I watched a debate unfold in a Calvinist Facebook group, on whether pictures of Jesus violate the second commandment. It was, in all frankness, cringeworthy.

This seems to be something that separates “new” Calvinists from “old” ones. Since, on the issue of pictures of Jesus, “Old Calvinists” side with the Puritans, I’m going to call them neo-Puritans in contrast to neo-Calvinists. I don’t mean it as a slight; it’s just a useful label.

Having said that, I do mean it as somewhat slightish when I say that neo-Puritans have a bad habit of credulously accepting Reformed tradition without consideration of its origin; without critical examination of its logic; and without reference to the vast amount of contextual knowledge we have gained since the sixteenth century.

In this series I’m going to work backward through these three issues, starting in the logical place—with the second commandment itself. This is my own translation, based primarily on the LEB and NET, which I think both bring out certain nuances of the passage:

And God spoke all these words, saying, 2“I, Yahweh, am your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. 3There shall be for you no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol with any form that is in the heavens above or that is in the earth below or that is in the water below the earth. 5You will not bow down to them, and you will not serve them, because I, Yahweh, am your God—a jealous God, punishing the guilt of the parents upon their children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those hating me; 6and showing covenant love to thousands of generations of those loving me, and of those keeping my commandments. Exodus 20:1-6

I’ve quoted from verse 1 because the text is not strictly demarcated in the way our numbering of the commandments suggests. Indeed, it should be obvious that you could read verse 3—“there shall be for you no other gods before me”—as an introductory summary of the commandment, with the additional verses simply explaining what it means. This is why the commandments are numbered differently between theological traditions. For instance, the Talmud takes the first commandment to be verse 2, and the second to be verses 3–5. Roman Catholics, following Augustine, take the first commandment to run right up to verse 5, with the prohibition against blasphemy being the second. I’m sympathetic to either tradition since the text is not clearly divided along the lines we tend to construct, but reflects a logical train of thought around a single idea: loyalty to Yahweh.

That said, assuming the second commandment is the prohibition against idols, we need to ask:

What precisely is being forbidden?

There are three serious considerations here which limit how broadly we can interpret the commandment—historical and linguistic boundaries the Bible places around what a “graven image” refers to…

1. The Hebrew term limits what a graven image can be

Neo-Puritans for some reason seem to quote almost exclusively from the KJV when they talk about the second commandment. They almost always refer to “graven images”, despite the fact that this translation is idiosyncratic. There’s nothing wrong with it per se—I’m just intrigued that they use it so exclusively; especially since it seems obviously to highlight the first problem they have in applying the second commandment to pictures of Jesus.

The ESV, NET and NKJV are closest in following the KJV; they say “carved image”—the term graven simply means carved or sculpted. The NASB, with the WEB and HCSB, more correctly say “idol”. The term in Hebrew is pesel. It can legitimately be rendered “carved image”—this accurately captures its verbal root, pacal, meaning to hew; but it misses the connotation of the image as an object of worship rather than art. Alternatively, it can be translated “divine image” as per the LEB—this captures the connotation of worship, but misses the connotation of handwork, sculpting, chiseling; and thus implies a mere picture rather than a three-dimensional object. Hence I prefer “idol”, as per the LXX and other modern renderings I’ve mentioned.

The obvious problem for neo-Puritans is that, barring statues or carved depictions of Jesus on the crucifix (which you may find in some Reformed Anglican churches), most images of Jesus are simply not graven. An image in a children’s picture Bible is not carved. Neither is a cartoon, a painting, or that picture on the ubiquitous “things Jesus never said” meme.

This is not to say the commandment cannot be referring to two-dimensional images. But it is undeniably referring specifically to three-dimensional ones. This is important because neo-Puritans tend to interpret the commandment very woodenly in other ways, as we’ll see. This ends up putting them in a bind: if they are consistently wooden, they cut their own legs off because they can’t condemn non-graven images (plus see the points below).

In other words, anyone who wants to say the commandment prohibits us from creating 2D pictures of Jesus needs to actually argue for that position. It is not a given. It isn’t as if the Hebrews couldn’t draw. The only given in the commandment itself, on the face of it, is that we cannot create carved or sculpted images.

2. God represents himself physically in Scripture

Neo-Puritans tend to argue that images of God are forbidden because God is essentially invisible. Any image would therefore misrepresent him; it is impossible to accurately represent the infinite, invisible God with any kind of physical description. To do so would effectively eliminate the distinction between creature and creator which Paul is at pains to emphasize in Romans 1 when he speaks of idolatry. Doing this fundamentally misrepresents God, and of course to misrepresent God is to bear false witness about him and fail to give him the glory he deserves.

To bolster this argument they point out that Moses himself explains the reason for the second commandment in his sermon to the Israelites:

12And Yahweh spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard a sound of words, but you did not see a form—only a voice. 13And he declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he charged you to observe, and he wrote them on the two tablets of stone. 14And Yahweh charged me at that time to teach you rules and regulations for your observation of them in the land that you are about to cross into to take possession of it. 15“So you must be very careful for yourselves, because you did not see any form on the day Yahweh spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, 16so that you do not ruin yourselves and make for yourselves a divine image in a form of any image, a replica of male or female, 17a replica of any animal that is upon the earth, a replica of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18a replica of any creeping thing on the ground, a replica of any fish that is in the water below the earth. Deuteronomy 4:12-18

Now, there are two problems that scuttle the neo-Puritan position here:

a. God did appear in several visible forms

Not only did he appear to the Israelites in the form of fire and of cloud, but most significantly he appeared in the form of a man to Moses, Aaron, Nahab, Abihu and 70 elders (Exodus 24:10). Moreover, he would speak to Moses “face to face” (Exodus 33:11) outside the tent of meeting, which suggests a human form, albeit one obscured by the cloud.

Prior to this, he had already appeared to the patriarchs in human form (Genesis 15-18; 32), and would appear again to Joshua in the same way (Joshua 5:13-15). And these are hardly isolated cases; the Bible is replete with theophanies and visions (eg, Judges 6; 13; 1 Kings 22; Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 1; 1 Samuel 3; Ezekiel 1; Daniel 7 etc).

The obvious problem here for neo-Puritans is that this puts a heck of a damper on their argument that it is impossible to represent the infinite and invisible God with anything physical. If God himself is happy to represent himself physically in various ways, there can’t be anything intrinsically problematic about that. And although this is getting more into the logical issues I’ll discuss in another post, it is inconsistent to say that a picture of a burning bush is okay, but a picture of Jesus in a children’s Bible is idolatry. Either they both are, or neither is; but suggesting that drawing a burning bush is akin to idolatry just seems absurd.

Btw, if you’re wondering why, then, God makes this point about not taking any form at Sinai, you’ll find the next post in this series very interesting.

b. The historical context of this explanation has been made redundant

In any case, if we take Deuteronomy 4 as a touchstone for understanding the second commandment, it seems to blow any objection to images of Jesus out of the water. The whole covenantal, historical, revelational context of the second commandment is that God has not revealed himself in a created form—therefore, do not create an image of any created form to worship.

But this is simply no longer true! If this is the argument that justifies the second commandment, it is invalid under the new covenant, because God has now revealed himself in a created form: Jesus.

That being the case, why should we not represent this created form in art? Appealing to the second commandment in reply is self-defeating if the second commandment is intended to prevent us from representing God in a way in which he hasn’t represented himself. More can be said, but I’ll leave that to the discussion of logical problems with the neo-Puritan position. Let’s move on to the third major constraint the Bible puts on understanding the second commandment…

3. Directives to create graven images show what God didn’t mean

I’ve seen many people claim that the second commandment is broken into two particular prohibitions:

  1. The prohibition on creating carved images of anything over, on, or under the earth (verse 4)
  2. The prohibition on worshiping these carved images (verse 5)

But this can’t be right. Exodus 25:18-20 commands that carved images of cherubim be fashioned to adorn the ark of the covenant. In Numbers 21:8, God commands Moses to fashion a bronze serpent. If the second commandment includes a prohibition against any carved images, God would be contradicting himself.

This lends serious weight to the translation of pesel as “idol”. It should not be interpreted to mean a carved image of any kind, but rather an object specifically designed to be worshiped. The first part of the commandment (v 4) is a prohibition against creating such idols; the second half (v 5) reiterates it. The complete prohibition is a palistrophe—a passage structured chiastically to emphasize its point through parallel statements. We could rephrase its structure as follows:

Don’t make images to worship; don’t worship images you make.

This explains why it was permissible for Moses to craft the brazen serpent in Numbers 21, yet why it also later had to be destroyed in 2 Kings 18:4 after people started naming it and making offerings to it.

The difficulty for neo-Puritans, however, is that if an idol is only an image that is worshiped, then how can a picture of Jesus be an idol if it is created by a Christian who explicitly does not intend to worship it?

But this brings us to a much deeper problem with the neo-Puritan position, and requires us to dig into the very concept of an idol in the ancient near-east. What were people thinking when they created and worshiped idols? Answering that question will reveal how fundamentally misguided the neo-Puritan position is.

Continued in part 2, on what ancient people were thinking when they created idols


  1. Dr P

    You sound like a (gasp!) Lutheran, and have no support for your position in the Reformed symbols. Those folks also knew their Hebrew at least as well as you do. Does this cause you to hesitate?

    My own Hebrew has become atrophic from years of disuse, but I dusted off my Tanakh and reviewed the 2nd Commandment (I’ll use Reformed numbering) and agree with the KJV. In my corner are also the following Jewish translations: JPS (1917), B and S Publishing (1947), and Koren Publishers (1977). The late Rabbi Hertz, using the JPS translation as the basis of his commentary on the Torah and Haftoroth, concurs.

    While the context is worship, it is still important to note that at no time in the history of the Jewish Church were images of God permitted. There were theophanies, but these were never the subject of religious art. Frescoes and mosaics adorned later synagogues, and one can still see lions on the curtains of arks in the most orthodox of synagogues, but this is merely what one blogger referred to as “religious wallpaper.” Observant Jewish homes also contain religious art, but continue to avoid any imaging of God.

    As for pesel, the word certainly means graven, but could it not be a synechdoche for any type of art in the way that na’af (adultery) also stands for fornication in the 4th Commandment, and Peter for the entire apostolate in the “Petrine Privilege?” The Decalog, after all, is a summary of God’s Law rather than an exhaustive list, and is unpacked in the rest of Scripture.

    There is also a difference between what God may do and what He permits us to do. He ordained various images and accoutrements to be made, and even sent the Holy Ghost upon Bezalel and Aholiab to have the job done correctly; the same can’t be said of such latter-day icons as Sallman’s atrocious “Head of Christ,” the dolorous and DG anonymous “No Handle on the Outside,” and Anderson’s thoroughly nauseating “Prince of Peace (aka “Christ at the United Nations”).” We don’t read of any other religious images authorized by God, nor passing comments on their use in Scripture.

    Perhaps one can say that the 2nd Commandment was understood as forbidding both making and serving, given how it was lived out in the OT Church, where Word and Sacrament were sufficient and authorized images of God. St John of Damascus or no, I don’t think we’re any different now, or how the iconoclast fails to appreciate the Incarnation. The again, images were a great way to pack the churches full of Gentiles and dissociate from Jews and Judaism (eg Easter divorced from Passover); add this to the pageantry of St Cyril of Jerusalem, and you have the harbinger of “seeker-sensitive” church growth. I find myself siding with the Reformed on this one.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Those folks also knew their Hebrew at least as well as you do. Does this cause you to hesitate?

    There’s always someone who knows something better than me, and yet disagrees with me. I would hesitate a lot more if I were staking out a position that no one considered respectable. But as I post the next parts of the series, you will see why I think the neo-Puritan position is simply untenable to the point of silliness.

    As for pesel, the word certainly means graven, but could it not be a synechdoche for any type of art in the way that na’af (adultery) also stands for fornication in the 4th Commandment

    Sure. My point was not that it can not refer to other types of art, but simply that in Exodus and Deuteronomy it does not refer to other types of art—so anyone who wants to read it that way needs to make an argument that draws in other scriptural premises. But I’ve never seen a neo-Puritan make such an argument. All I’ve seen is them do is assume that the very opposite of a “graven” image (like this) is, in fact, a graven image and thus a violation of the second commandment.

    We don’t read of any other religious images authorized by God, nor passing comments on their use in Scripture.

    My point was merely to show that there is nothing wrong with religious iconography in principle, since I take it that God would not command sin.

    Btw, I am not advocating for creating images of Jesus. I am simply asking the question, “Are images of Jesus idolatrous?” Do they violate the second commandment? And I think the answer must be no.

  3. Dr P

    The cartoon you referenced, as well as any other purported picture of Jesus, is no pesel, but the phrase “v’khal t’munah” as understood by Jews and thr Reformed would include it. To exegete the passage as forbidding sculpture or bas-reliefs but permitting painting or drawing seems a trifle rabbinic, sort of like how they okay using electric clippers or chemical depilatory on a beard but not shaving with a razor. The clear intent of the passage seems to forbid picturing God; subsequent passages strengthen this, hence the consistent Jewish and Reformed opposition to any depiction of God.

    Religious iconography, providing that such objects not become physical aids or even essentials (eg EO position on icons) to worship, seems adiaphoric, although a complete ban a la FPC of Scotland is not unknown in Reformed circles, and was at one time the norm. The “sanctification of the churches,” in which statuary and stained glass were smashed by mobs, was the logical conclusion of Reformed exegesis.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    The clear intent of the passage seems to forbid picturing God

    On the contrary, the clear intent of the passage is to forbid representing gods other than Yahweh. Now, Deuteronomy 4 shows that this includes using human or animal forms to represent Yahweh himself—but v 19 strongly implies that the issue here is not so much (or not exclusively) that Yahweh, being invisible, cannot be represented physically, but rather that Yahweh has allotted that kind of worship to everyone else.

    Which makes sense when you consider the purpose of idols in the first place. In ancient thought, the physical world and the divine realm were continuous. Representing the divine with a physical form therefore caused it to manifest at that physical location, and this allowed for safe interaction and control of the divine.

    Naturally, Yawheh is opposed to that kind of worship, because it is not only presumptuous, but based on a fundamentally wrong view of the distinction between him and his creation. (I’ll go more into this in the next post.)

    The problem is, once you understand the purpose of idols in the ancient world, it’s very hard to extrapolate from that kind of idolatry to any sort of prohibition on icons which don’t serve the fundamental purpose of controlling or channeling the divine. I think Catholicism in many parts of the world definitely has made a return to that kind of thinking because it is so syncretistic—many worshipers really do think that Mary is somehow present in the statue or that her power is channeled through the statue. But for a genuine Christian who would be appalled at the very notion of controlling or channeling God (were he even aware of such a concept—it is very alien to us precisely because of the influence of the Bible!) it’s hard to imagine that something like a crucifix comes anywhere near close to the kind of thing the second commandment is prohibiting. But if it’s nothing like an idol, how can we say the second commandment prohibits it?

  5. Dr P

    Part of the difficulty lies in what you mean by “like an idol,” as any image in any medium is similar to an idol in that all are images meant to depict the Divine; the difference comes down to usage. As I understand the Reformed position, a crucifix is an idol in that it triggers devotion in the wearer and viewer, becoming an aid to worship other than Word and Sacrament. This brings it under the regulative principle, which forbids that which is not commanded by God. Again, the Commandment is but a summary which is explained in other parts of Scripture. Part of the presumption you mentioned is what is called “will worship” in Col 2:23, in not doing what God commands and doing what He forbids. Do I understand the Reformed correctly?

    I concur with you that iconophobia based upon charges of Nestorianism are contrived, as that would make Christ a Nestorian for having become incarnate. It is the appeal to the incarnation, though, which is the key argument for the iconodule; even they grant the Jewish and Reormed position on the 2nd Commandment, but see it as no longer binding.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Part of the difficulty lies in what you mean by “like an idol,” as any image in any medium is similar to an idol in that all are images meant to depict the Divine

    The problem is, idols in the ancient world weren’t just meant to depict the divine. They were meant to represent the divine in a substantive way via sympathetic magic or some similar mechanism. But it is obvious that “any image in any medium” does not necessarily serve such a purpose. But if the second commandment is directed against this kind of representation, rather than mere depiction, the entire case against icons collapses.

  7. Dr P

    You are assuming that an idol is only a channel rather than both a channel and a depiction…or any other reason given by the craftsman or worshiper. If the Commandment read “thou shalt not make an image for the purpose of worship” there could be no argument; since it was always understood to be “don’t make, bow down, or serve,” you’ve got an uphill battle. Had the NT recorded any use of images (e.g. a discussion of such in Acts 15), your opposition would be blowing smoke, but there are no such references. The hermeneutic of maintained-unless-modified would require continuing non depiction, whereas the less reliable repealed-unless-repeated would accommodate your argument.

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I’m not sure I’m following. I’m not assuming that an idol is only a channel, rather than both a channel and a depiction; quite the opposite. An idol could not function if it did not depict something, since depiction is a requirement of representation to the ancient mindset. You “harness” a thing by representing that thing through a depiction of it.

    If the Commandment read “thou shalt not make an image for the purpose of worship” there could be no argument

    But that is precisely what I am arguing it does read; the chiastic structure requires us to read it as something like, “Don’t make images to worship; don’t worship images you make.”

    since it was always understood to be “don’t make, bow down, or serve,” you’ve got an uphill battle.

    The way you’re phrasing it seems to be saying that the second commandment has “always” been understood as a prohibition against three broad sets of actions:

    1. Making images
    2. Bowing down to them
    3. Serving them

    But that would entail that doodling an image of, say, a hawk or a turtle or a bull is a violation of the second commandment. Do you think I am violating the second commandment by photographing my chickens? If that has been how the second commandment was “always” understood, so much the worse for the traditional understanding—it isn’t just exegetically untenable, but is literally laughable.

  9. Dr P

    Sorry for my lack of clarity. I’m saying that my understanding of the 2nd Commandment is the historic understanding of the OT and Reformed Churches; ie no depiction of God for any purpose whatsoever. Chiasms are helpful in many areas, but the church which wrote them still forbade any depiction of God irrespective of reason. Religious art avoided theophanies or other depictions. Your chicken photography would not fall under the prohibition, but your above-referenced cartoon would.

    You have and continue to send me back to the books, htough, and that’s a good thing. Your position is much more Lutheran, and I will need to more thoroughly research why we have images (albeit not to be abused like the Catholics do). My understanding was along the lines of the reasons given by St John of Damascus, but I could be wrong.

    From a Reformed perspective, though – which you seem to come from in other areas – yours is the uphill battle of a boxer challenging the reigning champion. You must win by knockout rather than by mere points, and the champ is still standing.

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    The problem with that historic understanding (it seems to me) is it doesn’t come from the second commandment itself. The wording of Exodus 20 is explicitly concerned not with depiction, but representation; and not with depicting God specifically, but representing any deity. Anyway, I have more posts to write :)

  11. Dr P

    I’m not understanding the difference between depiction and representation as being anything other than hair-splitting, especially in light of the plain text and how it has been lived out (ie, common law understanding). A depiction is but one type of representation. Had mere service to an image been prohibited, the “thou shalt not make” would be superfluous. Pesel, as you agreed, could be synechdoche for any medium of representation. If you accept the Westminster premise that all reference to false worship can be subsumed under the rubric of the actual 2nd Commandment, there is really no problem with the Reformed understanding thereof; indeed, we Lutherans are the ones with some “‘splainin'” to do.

    My own search of Lutheran sources on images can be summed up as conservatism, moderate acceptance of Damascene’s postion, and your own understanding that the commandment is restricted to the worship of the image; ie “Catholicism Lite.”I am looking forward to your subsequent postings on this topic for further clarification.

  12. Andrew

    Hi DBT,
    I found your article really helpful having been uncertain about this issue and kind of having a pragmatic use of pictures at times.
    Are you still planning to finish this series? I’d been keen to read the next installments.

  13. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I am indeed. But I have a nasty habit of starting more things than I can easily finish. I hope to get to this soon :)

  14. Dr P

    Good, as then you’ll finally write something I can disagree with ;-)

  15. David White

    Thorny Problems With Bnonn #37: Starting Series’ and Not Finishing Them.

    But I have a nasty habit of starting more things than I can easily finish. I hope to get to this soon

    Write part 2! Do it now! ;-)

    (and then after that, make a Preview button for the comments on this blog. So I don’t have to cross my fingers and hope all this HTML works.)

  16. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I promise to do it this week. By which I mean within 7 days. And yes, a new blog theme with some improvements (taking things back to basics) is in the works. Because you know how I like to start new things!

  17. David White

    As long as it’s 7 YEC days. Do not try to pull a 2 Peter 3:8.

  18. Kirk Skeptic

    You, I hope, mean literal days rather than ages or upper register time…

  19. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Haha, I reserve the right to reinterpret my statement as seven ages despite the plain meaning of my words!

  20. Ben

    To start, I appreciate this site’s layout a lot. The formatting is very aesthetically pleasant, and the humor you inject makes material much more digestible.

    I’m with you on images of Christ, but I do have an independent number of questions concerning the second commandment. How would you distinguish it in a morally substantial way from the first commandment? Traditionally I know that the Reformed have held that the first commandment regards the object of worship and the second the mode/means of worship, but if the second commandment fundamentally forbids these particular pagan-monistic intentions in worship, then there doesn’t seem to be anything objectively sinful about the utilization of an image for worship.

    For example, so long as one did not have monistic intentions, on your view (which I’m inclined to accept), it still seems possible that one could worship the true God instrumentally through an image, where one bows before the image and, as it were, the worship “passes through” the image to God. This is just as one can kiss a picture of a loved one to show affection for him. But if such image-facilitated worship is not objectively outlawed by the second commandment — since the second commandment forbids only monistic image-worship — then the second commandment does not seem to have a very substantial prohibition in itself. It would be very reasonable to then tie Ex. 20:3-6 into a singular commandment concerning false objects of worship (i.e. against the worship of false gods and idols for those gods).

    Maybe you would maintain that all image-facilitated worship, regardless of the object of worship, is forbidden by the second commandment, and this is precisely the sense in which the first commandment is to be substantially distinguished from the second. For then the first commandment would forbid worship whose object is a false god, while the second commandment would forbid the instrumental utilization of any images/idols in worship, regardless of one’s worship-object. But in that case I would ask you why a prohibition on monistic image-worship would lead to or entail a full prohibition on all image-facilitated worship, even for non-monistically-motivated worshipers.

    Interested in hearing your thoughts on all this.

  21. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Ben, good question. I thought it was worthy of a higher-profile answer:

  22. Chris Nelson

    If you worship an image of Christ you are an idolator, if you do not worship the same said image you are in unbelief. Don’t be stupid and make an image of God, you sin either way.

  23. Robert Arakaki

    Dear Sir:

    Fine article! I used it for my blog the Reformed-OrthodoxBridge in the article “Cracks in Reformed Iconoclasm?” (21 January 2017).

    Robert Arakaki

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