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)


series
Are pictures of Jesus idolatry? Part 2: what were ancient people thinking?

Thinking so is an understandably venerable Reformed tradition which strikes me as naive and legalistic on several levels. Here, I look at why ancient peoples created idols to worship, and how this radically affects our understanding of the second commandment.

Continued from part 1, exegeting the second commandment

Let me quickly summarize some key findings from my previous post, because they become important toward the end of this article:

This last point gives us a hint about the larger religious context of the second commandment. Often, people raised in the Christianized West are baffled at ancient religious practices. We wonder, for instance, why would God even need to give the second commandment? What the heck were ancient people thinking—why would they worship a piece of carved rock that they themselves had made?

It seems so irrational and nonsensical that it’s just weird. And here, I’d like to echo Semitic scholar Michael Heiser, whose key contention in his forthcoming book, Unseen Realm, is:

If it’s weird, it’s important.

Why would any sane person make, let alone worship, an idol?

Let me give you a couple of related generalizations about the underlying principles of ancient thinking:

  1. Monism: the ancients believed that the divine, human, and natural realms were, broadly speaking, identical with each other. They were all reflections or expressions of the same ultimate reality.
  2. Sympathetic representation: the ancients believed that because everything was ultimately one, representation was the key to influencing reality. By representing some element of the world in a controllable way, you could control that element itself.

Let me give you a concrete example that will illustrate why this is important for understanding the second commandment: in the land of Canaan, seasonal rains were critical for the cultivation of crops and thus the survival of the people living there. Controlling (or at least influencing) these rains was crucial for having some assurance that their communities would live to see another year.

But how to control storms and rain?

Well, the answer is simple: storms and rain can be personified in the deity who controls and represents them: Baʿal. And Baʿal can in turn be represented by a carving—of a bull, say, because bulls are powerful, virile beasts. Now, since everything is ultimately one, if you represent Baʿal using a statue of a bull, the statue actually becomes Baʿal in some sense. The statue and Baʿal are continuous; you could say Baʿal inhabits the statue, although this is probably a little crude to the ancient way of thinking. In any case, if you can perform the correct rituals with the statue, you will influence and control Baʿal himself. And since Baʿal and the rains are also ultimately one, by doing so you are actually controlling the rains as well.

You notice that this is not irrational, absurd or incomprehensible. Given the underlying assumption of monism, this concept of sympathetic representation is actually very logical. The ancients were not stupid; they were simply wrong about the fundamental nature of reality.

Of course, there is also an element of homage in creating a statue. While representation was the primary function of an idol, homage to the god it represented was also implicit in its existence.

As you are almost certainly aware, the Bible makes a big deal out of the distinction between creation and creator, and who is worthy of worship. It continually emphasizes the vast and categorical difference between God, and the things God has made. And now you know why: in the ancient world, this was an extremely strange and foreign concept.

How this affects our understanding of the prohibition on idols

Knowing why ancient peoples made idols gives us an accurate context for interpreting the second commandment. The function of an idol is integral to the reasons why God’s people were not to create them.

It is not that God was opposed to having aids to worship. Nor is it that God was opposed to depictions of deities. He may have been opposed to both, but that is not the point of the commandment. The point is that God does not want the Israelites trying to influence or pay homage to the natural or divine realms using sympathetic representation, based on this faulty, false idea of monism.

He does not want them trying to influence other deities; and he especially does not want them trying to influence him.

That is surely the exact reason that, in Deuteronomy 4, he emphasizes how they saw no form at Horeb. Not because he cannot be depicted in any sense—obviously he can, since he has even appeared in various forms—but because monism is false. He is not like the deities of the Canaanites and others, who can not only be depicted but are actually continuous with the storm clouds, the sun, the moon, the river, the air, the earth and so on. God is not one and the same thing as a natural object or phenomenon:

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, so 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, a replica of any animal that is upon the earth, a replica of any winged bird that flies in the air, a replica of any creeping thing on the ground, a replica of any fish that is in the water below the earth. And do this so that you do not lift your eyes toward heaven and observe the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of the heaven, and be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that Yahweh your God has allotted to all of the peoples under all of the heaven. But Yahweh has taken you and brought you out from the furnace of iron, from Egypt, to be a people of inheritance to him, as it is this day. Deuteronomy 4:15-20

Notice also the phrase “host of heaven” in this passage, and “allotted to all of the peoples”. God is not just emphasizing that monism is false; but also that the divine beings worshiped by other nations are at least sometimes real, and not to be worshiped by Israel. He has allotted them to the other nations as gods—but Israel is his (cf Deuteronomy 32:8; Genesis 11:8). Israel alone will worship the true God, because he has chosen them; and so they are certainly not to turn aside to created beings to worship them instead.

So the point of the commandment, as glossed by Deuteronomy 4, seems to be twofold:

  1. Israel is not to believe, or act as if, the divine and created realms are continuous with one another—which means no sympathetic representation, which means no idols;
  2. Israel is not to put their trust in, or treat as worthy of worship, created beings who are inferior to God—which means no depictions of created things as a form of homage, which means no idols.

Now, if the ten commandments are summaries of the larger law—as I think most people agree they are—then the second commandment is a summary or reminder of this twofold point. In other words:

Idolatry entails (1) treating God and his creation as continuous, as through sympathetic representation; and/or (2) putting one’s faith in a divine being other than God.*

But if that is so, deploying the second commandment against the question of pictures of Jesus is misguided at best, and hopelessly inept at worst. You have to fundamentally misunderstand what an idol was to think that a picture of Jesus would qualify:

  1. In terms of monism, a picture of Jesus is never—in evangelical circles—intended to “channel” or “center” Jesus or his power through something like sympathetic representation. (The same cannot be said for many Roman Catholic contexts.)
  2. In terms of misdirected worship, given that God has superseded Horeb where he had no form, with Bethlehem where he explicitly gave us the “exact imprint of his nature” in the form of the man Jesus, it is hard to see how a picture of Jesus could be idolatrous. It is not paying homage to a created being, and it is not representing God as a created being. It is paying homage to Jesus himself, and it is representing God in a way intended to depict the way he represented himself.

There is still more to be said. Especially with regards (ii), I think it is fruitful to examine the logic of the neo-Puritan view in a more principled, theoretical way. But doing so is almost redundant; it simply illustrates or confirms the exegetical and contextual groundwork we’ve now laid.

To be continued…

* Incidentally, this explains why the only time the Bible uses the word “idolatry” to refer to something other than worship of divine beings, it is to refer to the love of money. Trusting in money is functionally equivalent to casting aside faith in God; it effectively makes money a deity. This slightly attenuates my comments in “What is idolatry?” although not very much, since I would still contend that simply desiring money more than God is not itself idolatry; one must actually be, as it were, putting one’s faith in money.

31 comments

  1. Austin

    This is definitely the best treatment on the subject I’ve encountered on the Internet. I appreciate your approach to this topic. As a Neo-Calvinist trying to learn about the history of the Reformed faith, this is the one point that always pricks at my mind.

    What would you say to the objection (raised to me by some of my Neo-Puritan friends) that making images of Jesus is wrong because it leads to a Nestorian understanding of Christ? We can make images of Jesus pertaining to his human nature, fine, but if Jesus was both fully God and fully man, and if we can’t accurately depict the divinity of Jesus with a painting, then (so they say) we are making a Nestorian representation of Christ. I’m curious as to what you would say to that. Thanks for the great posts!

  2. Sarah Tennant

    Austin: I find the Nestorian argument akin to saying “If you draw a picture (or take a photo) of someone you’re endorsing materialism, because you can draw a human’s body but not his soul”.

    We’re a media-savvy race. We’re capable of recognising that images, by definition, only capture visually-discernable phenomena. Showing Jesus’ human body makes no comment one way or another on any non-human aspects that may or may not be present, assuming the artist hasn’t drawn crayon arrows with a scrawled “Only human, not divine” pointing to him. And this is not something I have observed in religious art. :p

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Austin, good question. This is one of the major objections I’ve seen as well, and I will be interacting with some of these classic Reformed comments in a future installment of this series.

    Aside from what my excellent wife has already said, briefly:

    (1)

    The objection is completely unresponsive to the position I’ve staked out. It assumes that the problem with idols is mere depiction of God, rather than representation (where I’m taking as given that representation is substantively monistic). So this objection simply begs the question against what the contextual and exegetical data seem to say.

    (2)

    The objection also proves far too much, since God depicts himself in all manner of ways in the Bible, from a rock to a spring to a pillar of cloud to an angel to a man. And that includes God the Father (eg Dan 7:9). So by this logic, God himself is guilty of Nestorianism—as is anyone who uses their imagination to visualize his descriptions in the Bible.

    (3)

    The objection seems to cut too far. If it is Nestorian to believe we can depict Jesus visually, surely it is Gnostic or Docetist to believe we cannot.

    (4)

    It’s hard to even make sense of the objection in the first place. Since God is infinite, how could we ever perceive him fully accurately? But in that case, aren’t we guilty of Nestorianism by nature, regardless of how God tries to reveal himself? If any revelation of God (depictions or otherwise) fail to capture his full essence, then God could never even try to reveal himself on pain of Nestorianism!

    HTH~

  4. David White

    Bnonn, where do you think this leaves us with the Second Commandment today? Do you view it as largely irrelevant in western culture? i.e. still helpful insofar as it restates and extends the first commandment, but otherwise mostly addressing issues that just don’t really apply to large portions of the world anymore?

  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I’d say it’s irrelevant inasmuch as Christians are not tempted to monistic worship. But I’d also say the fourth commandment is irrelevant inasmuch as we no longer have a Sabbath.

    That isn’t to say the commandments are irrelevant in toto. As you say, they are still instructive and cautionary.

    I’d actually push back against your “large portions of the world” comment, though. From my understanding, the majority of people in the world have views of reality which are broadly monistic. I need to do more reading on this, however.

  6. Kirk Skeptic

    Interesting comments, but perhaps proving too much. The Jewish Church was aniconic in its worship, comtenting itself with Word and Sacrament; after all, it was the voice of God heard on Horeb. Images were also not used for instructional or artistic reasons. Historically, iconic worship was introduced with the Gentilizing of the church, started out as mere “Christian wall paper, and reached a point where icons were used as sponsors at baptisms among the EO’s.

    Gos spoke through his prophets, gave a written Word, and the only visible manifestations he gave us were the sacraments; if the Word is sufficient, why this need to add thereto with images? As a Lutheran, whose church fathers follow your train of argument, I ‘m still not sure I’m getting a satisfactory answ, especially given the long aniconic tradition.

  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Kirk, a few thoughts:

    1. Just because the Jews did something doesn’t make it canon. The Jews also replaced the covenant name of God with “Adonai”, and continue to spell “God” as “G*d” to this day. Like any religious people, they are inclined to superstitious nonsense and traditional accretions that had no basis in Scripture. So this is really just a red herring; the question is not what the Jews did, but what God commanded.

    2. If it is true that images were not even used for instructional or artistic reasons, that is just further evidence of how off-base and unjustified the Jewish tradition was. Avoiding any kind of image whatsoever is simply absurd, as I have documented already.

    3. It’s simply false that the only visible manifestations of God were in the sacraments. As I already noted many times, God manifested himself visibly to a large number of people throughout history, in many different ways. He also depicts himself in prophetic visions, and invites us to do the same in our imaginations by recording those visions for us.

  8. Kirk Skeptic

    DBT, thanks for your thoughtful reply, to which I will reply using your enumeration:

    1) You are right about both Jewish and RC superstition, and appear to depict the two as opposite sides of the same coin. Nonetheless the Jewish Church was linguistically, culturally, geographically, and chronologically a lot closer to the source material than either of us, and should not be so quickly written off;

    2) you demonstrated only difference of interpretation rather than any absurdity. besides, God’s forbidding fo butterfly shrimp is absurd, but he is lord and I am vassal; among his crown and covenat rights are forbidding images of himself and butterfly shrimp, my opinions notwithstanding;

    3) there is no contradiction between Theophany and forbidding depiction of God – see #2. When faithful to her King, the Jewish Church eschewed all images of him and remained content with Eord and Sacrament. If you are privy to information to the contrary, please share it.

  9. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Kirk…

    (1)

    The Jewish church also rejected the Messiah. So it’s hard to imagine why, with an error that whopping, we should give it a special pass on other issues of tradition, unless there is good evidence that said tradition is based on sound understanding of the text.

    (2)

    The absurdity is not in forbidding images of any kind, but in forbidding them and then commanding their creation. Moreover, bear in mind that I’m specifically reacting to the Reformed iconoclast tradition. Reformed iconoclasts like the Puritans certainly didn’t think that any kind of image was forbidden. In any case, I reserve the right to regard any sufficiently implausible exegesis as absurd; and the exegesis of the second commandment as prohibiting images of any kind qualifies :)

    (3)

    The problem here is that you’ve merely asserted there is no contradiction, in the teeth of an obvious contradiction. If God cannot be depicted in principle then to imagine him as a white-haired old king on a throne is to violate that principle. You need to actually defuse the contradiction rather than just claiming it doesn’t exist.

  10. Sarah Tennant

    Regarding 2), if absolute prohibition of making *any* representational images were intended by the second commandment, God would have contradicted Himself by later commanding various tabernacle paraphernalia to be decorated with almond blossoms, cherubim and pomegranates. These are all things ‘in heaven above or the earth beneath’. Yet God commanded they be used, and in a worship context, too – not used *for* worship, but definitely used in a place where worship took place. Which brings to mind the conclusion that, biblically speaking, sometimes a pomegranate is just a pomegranate. :)

    Besides, as Bnonn pointed out, the Jews had better reasons than we do for being especially careful about images; they lived in an era of idolatry and sympathetic magic. We don’t. (The Christians immediately following the Reformation were perhaps wise to react against the abuse of images by the RCC, but again, that’s not such an issue for us these days, at least in non-Catholic countries; quite possibly it would be more of an issue for a Reformed church in Italy or Spain.)

    Images simply don’t have the same connotations and cultural temptations for us as they did for the ANE Jews. Just as a woman with short hair. no longer screams ‘prostitute’ to us.

  11. Kirk Skeptic

    @Sarah: as I understand the history of how this commandment was actually lived out, it was not the prohibiiton of images of any kind that were forbiden, but only those of God – that is how Jews and Genevans understood the commandment. That said, God never commanded images of himself to be made.

    The church is bigger than Europe or North America; not only in Catholic countries, but throughout the animist parts of Africa, the Hindu and Buddhist regions of Asia, and their expatriate communities, and certainly Haiti (said to be 98% Catholic and 100% voodoo), images are widely used for religious purposes, making the wisdom issue you mentioned global and current. Per Calvin, man’s heart is an idol factory, and nothing has changed.

    Per women and short hair, ther is still a general equity to that prohibition, wouldn’t you say?

    @Bnonn

    1). And the catholics teach works-righteousness, necromancy (their faux communion if saints), and human trafficking (Purgatory); yet you borrow from them. Your comment on the Jewish church becomes genetic fallacy;

    2) words have lexical and historical understanding, and jacking a text out of it’s historical matrix is artifice. Maybe a better way to approach a text is to assume said matrix is correct until shown so incredibly faulty that following the older interpretation is spiritually dangerous or just plain foolish. This you have not done;

    3). Here is a point well taken, and I believe where the Puritans have surpassed the Jews, in the imaginary idol, If I see or hear the work “king,” I am meant to visualize an image; the Puritan understanding would have me an idolator when reading how God is a king, hence God would be setting me up to sin by casting an unavoidable stumblingblock before me. This would meet the grounds for rejection I mentioned above.

  12. Sarah Tennant

    “as I understand the history of how this commandment was actually lived out, it was not the prohibiiton of images of any kind that were forbiden, but only those of God – that is how Jews and Genevans understood the commandment.”

    But that’s not what the commandment *says*. It’s strange exegesis to be dead literal about not making an image of God, even though that isn’t specifically mentioned in the commandment (it might be implied by ‘in heaven above’, but I suspect that’s referring to created heavenly beings, as that seems to fit the context better); yet to take a nuanced, shaded approach to making likenesses of ‘anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’, which *are* specifically mentioned.

    “making the wisdom issue you mentioned global and current. Per Calvin, man’s heart is an idol factory, and nothing has changed.”

    Widespread throughout the globe, sure; but not entirely and without exception global. We live in New Zealand; Bnonn’s writing from that perspective. There are plenty of cultures around in which monism is basically unheard of. What should *they* do about images?

    “Per women and short hair, ther is still a general equity to that prohibition, wouldn’t you say?”

    I think godly women should still abide by the principle of not looking like prostitutes, but in this day and age that has zero to do with short hair.

    Similarly, godly men and women should still abide by the principle of not attempting sympathetic magic by the representation of God; but that has zero to do with, say, cartoonist Adam 4D portraying Jesus, or a children’s Bible showing Jesus healing the paralytic. And yet I have heard Reformed Christians object to such portrayals on the basis of the second commandment. As Bnonn’s posts have pointed out, that just doesn’t follow.

  13. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Kirk…

    (1)

    I think you misunderstand my point. I am not arguing that we should think Jewish tradition is wrong as a matter of course. I am arguing that, in cases where it seems to misunderstand the text, there is no antecedent reason to think it is right as a matter of course.

    (2)

    I’m puzzled by this comment. The whole purpose of this post was to jack the text into its original historical and lexical matrix. That matrix is not the traditional interpretation that arose in Jewish thinking hundreds of years later, but the Exodus generation coming out of pagan Egypt and going toward pagan Canaan.

    Moreover, there are obvious parallels between how the Jews traditionally understood the third and fourth commandments, and how they understood the second. Indeed, if you look at their understanding of the third commandment—”Just never say ‘Yahweh’, to be safe”—you might even predict that they would overreact to the second also, and that this overreaction would look like, “Just never use images, to be safe.” The same for the fourth: “Just never do anything remotely work-like on the Sabbath, to be safe.” Yet Jesus says that they nullify the word of God for the sake of their traditions. So there is a pattern emerging here, and it makes the traditional Jewish interpretation look very implausible given the parallels with their false interpretations of the third and fourth commandments.

  14. steve hays

    For what it’s worth, I’ve discussed this issue on many occasions. Here’s a recent and fairly systematic discussion:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2014/03/filming-gospels.html

  15. Kirk Skeptic

    @DBT and Sarah

    Thanks again for sending me to the books, which is one of the advantages of your blog. A few rejoinders:

    1) Sarah, why would “in heaven above” exclude God? It may refer to those beings included in the Divine Counsel, but cannot exclude its Chairman. NZ may not be as extreme a melting pot but, if I were a betting man, I’d wager a large sum that, somewhere within 5 miles of my house, as I type, some Haitian, Asian, or Latino immigrant is practicing voodoo, santeria, or any other form of sympathetic magic from the Heimat; tomorrow morning (Sunday), they will be joined by scads of Papists who look askance at the former as idolaters. As for the hair thing, I guess you’ve seen very few “dyke spikes.”

    2) DBT, I am aware of no Scriptural example of artistic rendering of God of any sort for instructional or artistic reasons, and there was certainly no express permission to do so. The images in the tabernacle did not portray God. ISTM too much stock is being put in what modern scholars think ancient people thought, as if somehow their theories could be falsified by asking an ancient person if the guess was correct; one could say the same about the Jews leaving Egypt. The theories are plausible and well-reasoned, but nowhere near dogmatic certitude.

    As I understand the history of Christian iconography, the chief objection to the Jewish practice was not on the exegesis of the Hebrew, but on the abrogation of the prohibition by virtue of the Incarnation; ie God imaged himself in Christ while the Jews couldn’ image an invisible God. I am unaware of conservative scholarship espousing your position; could yiu share some references?

    Yes, the Jews built fences about Torah at every turn, adding to Scripture exactly as they were told not to. But even their understanding didn’t forbid all images, eg Dura Europos synagogue, but nowhere was God portrayed – in continuity with OT practice. ISTM the universal Jewish understanding was that the Second Commandment forbade icons of God. Just out of curiosity, since you seem to have a foot in the Reformed camp, what is your opinion of LCQ 109, and do you believe the other proof texts cited support aniconography? Also, if the Jews went overboard, how would your interpretation of keeping the Sabbath differ: can one legislate from Scripture as both Pharisees and Puritans did, or does every man get to do what’s right in his own eyes? The Law was given to be lived in a community of believers. My church errs in the direction of antinomianism, which is not better than legalism (although it is much less intrusive). Just askin’.

  16. Kirk Skeptic

    @Steve Hays: interesting article from a phenomenal blog. I’m curious of what you make of the post’s question: is the problem with exegesis of the Hebre text, a matter of the Incarnation, both, or are there any other factors?

  17. Sarah Tennant

    “Sarah, why would “in heaven above” exclude God? It may refer to those beings included in the Divine Counsel, but cannot exclude its Chairman.”

    Because of the context of the passage. “You shall have no other gods before me… you shall not make yourself a carved image or likeness of A, B or C… you shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God”. If God is included in A, it would read strangely, implying that God was jealous of Himself. It seems the commandment is clearly forbidding worship of beings other than God.

    “NZ may not be as extreme a melting pot but, if I were a betting man, I’d wager a large sum that, somewhere within 5 miles of my house, as I type, some Haitian, Asian, or Latino immigrant is practicing voodoo, santeria, or any other form of sympathetic magic from the Heimat; tomorrow morning (Sunday), they will be joined by scads of Papists who look askance at the former as idolaters.”

    And can you get from that to “therefore I am in grave danger of absorbing monistic, sympathetic-magic philosophy, such that if I read a children’s Bible or see a cartoon containing Jesus I am liable to try to use that image to control God by worshipping it”?

    “As for the hair thing, I guess you’ve seen very few “dyke spikes.””

    Lesbian is not a synonym for prostitute.

  18. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Kirk—

    I am aware of no Scriptural example of artistic rendering of God of any sort for instructional or artistic reasons, and there was certainly no express permission to do so.

    No, quite so. I was talking about religious iconography in general. The context of the second commandment in Exodus 20 clearly indicates that it is a prohibition against making images of things other than God. Now, even if you take God to be included in the gamut (which as Sarah points out is awkward, although certainly circumscribed within Deuteronomy 4), the point remains that no one thinks it is idolatry to create any kind of image, and the Bible itself explicitly commands the creation of such images, for a religious use (eg, the seraphim on the ark).

    ISTM too much stock is being put in what modern scholars think ancient people thought

    In fairness, the same objection can be leveled against the exegesis of basically any part of the Bible, since what ancient people thought is the historico-grammatical starting point for understanding the Bible in general.

    I am unaware of conservative scholarship espousing your position; could yiu share some references?

    I’m not aware of any scholars that take the position I do for the reasons I do. Obviously there are plenty of scholars who think that pictures of Jesus are a non-issue. But I’m not aware of any who do so because they understand the second commandment in the way I’ve suggested it should be understood.

    That isn’t to say my thought is unique; I doubt this is an original view. I’m just not well-read enough to know if anyone else has reasoned things out in a similar way. My sense from what I have read is that only a very few conservative scholars are even interested in relating the Bible to the larger ANE worldview—and that in a frustratingly piecemeal way. For example, Michael Heiser is very strong on the divine council element, but seems almost oblivious of the monistic element. Conversely, John Oswalt is very strong on the monistic element, but seems almost oblivious to the divine council angle. You get the impression that if only we could get about half a dozen scholars together in a room for a few days, they might develop some real, systematic insights.

    ISTM the universal Jewish understanding was that the Second Commandment forbade icons of God.

    You could be right. But again, that’s just not what Exodus 20 actually says. In fact, it appears to say precisely the opposite. Now, I have no problem with combining Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 4; indeed, I think the latter provides an explanatory gloss which isn’t available in Exodus 20, since it is essentially a summation. But the fact remains that it is bizarre to read Exodus 20 as prohibiting any kind of image of God whatsoever, but not by parity read it as prohibiting any kind of image of created things also. The only way out of that logic is if a “pesel” is more than a mere depiction—as I have argued.

    Just out of curiosity, since you seem to have a foot in the Reformed camp, what is your opinion of LCQ 109, and do you believe the other proof texts cited support aniconography?

    I confess I have no idea what the LCQ is. I thought perhaps you typoed LBC or LCF, but the 1689 only has 32 articles. Help me out?

    Also, if the Jews went overboard, how would your interpretation of keeping the Sabbath differ: can one legislate from Scripture as both Pharisees and Puritans did, or does every man get to do what’s right in his own eyes?

    Well, every man ultimately does what is right in his own eyes. I’m not a Sabbatarian, but for an Israelite I think the command is quite simple: don’t engage in normal week-work on the seventh day. That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything, like lifting a jar over your head. But menial work in general, like plowing or threshing or harvesting or gathering firewood etc, is to be avoided.

  19. Kirk Skeptic

    @Sarah: the context of the passage is the rest of Scripture; the Second Commandment, at least from a Reformed understanding, is a summary of right religious worship, and so The Westminster Larger Catechism Question(LCQ) 109 also draws from Deut 4:15-19, Acts 17:29, Rom 1:21-25 in it’s condemnation of representing God. as fo God’s jealousy in Exodus, that has historically been understood to be of his spirituality and hence disapprobation of being depicted. “It seems the commandment is clearly forbidding worship of beings other than God” is the First Commandment.

    “And can you get from that to “therefore I am in grave danger of absorbing monistic, sympathetic-magic philosophy, such that if I read a children’s Bible or see a cartoon containing Jesus I am liable to try to use that image to control God by worshipping it?” I don’t have to,given the above, since the commandment includes more than merely “thou shalt not engage in sympathetic magic per Reformed position.

    “Lesbian is not a synonym for prostitute” but both are included inder the rubric of the Seventh Commandment, which condemns all illicit sexual behavior. That includes prostitutes, sluts, and gender-benders. Again, the general equity of the short hair issue is gender-bending, given the similar prohibitions against cross-dressing; since an actual hair length is nowhere specified, and various cultures have various definitions of gender-appropriate attire (eg Scotsmen in kilts, Asian women in trousers), there is no problem applying the comandment today.

  20. Kirk Skeptic

    @Bnonn:

    A) see my reply to your better half re: God’s jealousy of his spirituality, which is the Jewish line and part and parcel of the historic Reformed line. Images per se were prohibited by only a certain party of rabinists, but all agreed with not depicting God; this same position is echoed in Poole’s commentary on the Second Commandment. Even in Christian circles depiction of Deity was not immediate, although it may have been a function of Gentile cultural norms and a nyah-nyah to the Jews; the Incarnational argument/excuse came later.

    B) the context of the Second Commandment is the First, which forbids worshiping any other God but God; the Second is concerned with the how rather than the who. The commandments, per LCQ (Westminster Larger Catechism Question) 98′, summarily comprehend the moral law; per LCQ 99.6, “That under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto.” that being said, and now you that you know what LCQ means (a universally understood abbreviation among Presbos), I’d appreciate your opinion on LCQ 109’s use of supporting texts.

    C) True enough, historical-grammatical exegesis functions by assuming that the human authors thought as they wrote such that vocab and grammar would be more important to establishing the meaning of a text than allegory and other spiritualizing. However, the Westminster divines interpreted texts within the context of the entire canon, as seen by my quote from LCQ 99, viewing the Decalog as a summary of the entire law. If they, following such guidelines, glean from their supporting texts that any imaging of God is forbidden, the question then shifts to whether or not 1) their presuppositions are sound, and 2) if they used their supporting texts aright. i suppose they would see pesel as a synecdoche for any imaging. Your focus seems much narrower.

    D) I’ve read similar rasoning to yours in a Lutheran website, but I can’t remember which one; should I find it, I’ll send you the link. Per Heiser, whose papers you turned me on to, I’ wonder if you ever came across a booklet by Hirsch Prinz (aka Tzvi Nassi) entitled “The Great Mystery, or How Can Three be One?”proposed that Talmud, Zohar, and esp Yetzira contain unity in plurality vis-a-vis the Godhead. It’s an old and controversial work, to be sure.

    E) per the Sabbath, it’s more than the wording of the Fourth Commandment; see Isaiah 58:13 in which recreation otherwise lawful during the week is to be eschewed on the Sabbath. This is a similar situation to the Second Commandment. Doing what is right in one’s own eyes is what we do when there is no King in Israel; since there is, this is not a good practice. Do you see any general equity to this commandment continuing today?

  21. Sarah Tennant

    “@Sarah: the context of the passage is the rest of Scripture; the Second Commandment, at least from a Reformed understanding, is a summary of right religious worship, and so The Westminster Larger Catechism Question(LCQ) 109 also draws from Deut 4:15-19, Acts 17:29, Rom 1:21-25 in it’s condemnation of representing God. as fo God’s jealousy in Exodus, that has historically been understood to be of his spirituality and hence disapprobation of being depicted.”

    I think it’s reading far too much into the second commandment to call it a ‘summary of right religious worship’. It’s far narrower and more specific in focus than that.

    The Deuteronomy passage can hardly be invoked to proscribe images of Jesus, given that the argument it gives completely fails in that context: the disciples *did* ‘see a form’ when Jesus walked among them. And again, the bulk of the passage is about creating and worshipping idolatrous images of *created things*; a prohibition utterly irrelevant to creating and *not* worshipping an image of uncreated Jesus.

    Acts 17:29 seems entirely irrelevant to the argument, unless you can make a case that the illustrator of a children’s Bible is “think[ing] the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by human skill and thought.”

    ““It seems the commandment is clearly forbidding worship of beings other than God” is the First Commandment.”

    The Jewish division of the Decalogue unites that portion of the first commandment with the second; the Jewish first commandment is simply the “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery” bit. That seems to be a much more logical division, as the first and second commandments are so clearly interlinked and logically progressive.

    “I don’t have to,given the above, since the commandment includes more than merely “thou shalt not engage in sympathetic magic per Reformed position.”

    You need to argue for that position.

    ““Lesbian is not a synonym for prostitute” but both are included inder the rubric of the Seventh Commandment, which condemns all illicit sexual behavior. That includes prostitutes, sluts, and gender-benders. Again, the general equity of the short hair issue is gender-bending, given the similar prohibitions against cross-dressing; since an actual hair length is nowhere specified, and various cultures have various definitions of gender-appropriate attire (eg Scotsmen in kilts, Asian women in trousers), there is no problem applying the comandment today.”

    OK? I don’t see how taking the seventh commandment as a synecdoche for sexual immorality in general leads to “don’t have a hairstyle that might make people think you’re a lesbian”; you’d have to go to other passages for that. In any case, my original point was that the biblical prohibition against short hair on women was tied to the cultural connotations of short hair being worn by prostitutes.

    As that is definitely not a societal connotation today (if Hollywood’s anything to go by, modern prostitutes tend to have long hair), it seems we should interpret the 1 Corinthians passage in light of that social change. (So, Christian women shouldn’t wear leather miniskirts, fishnet stockings and go-go boots.)

    By the same token, Christian women today need not refrain from wearing lipstick for fear people will mistake them for prostitutes, as was apparently a concern in Victorian England.

    Similarly, we are no longer steeped in a culture in which ‘picture of Jesus’ is strongly and universally associated with sympathetic magic. If you asked the average New Zealander about monistic representation you’d get a blank look, to say the least; even more so if you showed them a picture of Christ and said “Do you think looking at this means I’m attempting to control Christ by making sacrifices to the picture?”

    Neither the average Kiwi nor the average Christian would answer yes; they’d probably have no idea what you were talking about. And that changes the landscape of the issue of visual depictions of Christ; just as changes in women’s fashion have changed the landscape of the issue of short hair on women.

  22. Kirk Skeptic

    @Sarah:

    A) I have before me Hertz”s Pentateuch, a commentary byt he late JH Hertz, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire; he refers to the Second Commandment as “The Unity and Spirituality of God,” in which he identifies the commandment as a proscription of any visual representation fo God. While he does use the Jewish enumeration( no surprise)’ he includes the prohibition of the Protestant Second Commandment – in stark contrast with the Catholic burying of aniconism in the text. IOW the Jewish Second is akingto the Westminster First and Second. This does not refute my position.

    B) Hertz on Deut 4:15: “for ye saw. these words toll the end of the v are parenthetical. As no form of God was seen at the Revelation on Mt Sinai, it follows that representing Him under any image is forbidden, as He is a spiritual being who cannot be pictured under any image.”

    C) By definition, a synecdoche includes a part standing for the whole, so the Seventh Commandment does indeed forbid looking like a lesbian, for these other passages (including the one in 1 Cor) would be included in the synecdoche – that is, if you accept the Reformed hermeneutic as valid. As for the no dressing like a pro rather than worrying about short hair per se, then you are arguing for the general equity of the Seventh Commandment just as I am; ie we agree.

    D) the average Yank would’t know or care about sympathetic magic, but, as I mentioned earlier, I live in the proximity of many folks who do; I’m not sure either of our observations are relevant to a Reformed understanding of the commandment. I certainly don’t think a purported picture of Christ in a kiddie book manipulates God, but my neighbor very well may.

  23. Sarah Tennant

    A) So? What are Hertz’ *arguments* for such a reading? As Bnonn has already pointed out, the traditional Jewish understanding of the third commandment is obviously overblown, and not an interpretation we consider sensible or binding today. So we have no a priori reason for deferring to the Jewish understanding of the second commandment, especially when Bnonn has presented good arguments against that reading, which you have yet to refute.

    B) As a Jewish writer he’s presumably not talking about depictions of Christ, given that he wouldn’t believe Christ is divine; so that doesn’t address my point.

    C) Yes, we largely agree; but that’s not the point. The point is the parallel I was drawing. If you think it’s OK to consider the social context of women having short hair, do you not also think it’s OK to consider the social context of monism and sympathetic magic when considering the issue of depictions of Christ?

    D) Living in proximity to people who ‘very well may’ believe in sympathetic magic hardly puts us in the same position as ANE Jews. Monism is not part of our culture the way it was back then; don’t you agree?

  24. Kirk Skeptic

    A) Hertz’s reading of the commandment is the same as that of the early church (see Origen v Celsus) and the Reformed; ie the trine prohibition against making, bowing down, or serving an image of God, the intent of the of the maker notwithstanding. Monism may be at its perigee, but that is not the only reason the commandment was given, amd the human heart remains an idol factory. I reviewed the original post and comments and, while the appeal to chiasm and the perceived purpose of making an idol (I’m sure there are many) is moving, the opposing view is not KO’d and hence no win. BTW do you believe the Commandment to be wholly abrogated, or do you see a general equity applicable today?

    B) I too am sure that the late rabbi would have had no problems with pictures of Christ for the same reasons a JW doesn’t, but the early church did – and for the same reason that the Jewish Church. The point remains as it has stood for millennia: don’t protray God.

    C). The parallel is weak because it assumed that the only reason to make an idol is sympathetic magic, and that such was a thing of the past. While sympathetic magic is one reason to make an idol, there may be others (eg true piety). Frankly, much of our piety may well be described as sympathetic magic: if I have my quiet times, read my Bible regularly, and use enough superlatives and groveling in my grandiloquent prayers, I can get God to do my will. In that sense, sympathetic magic is alive and well in Protestant Christendom.

    D) With the steady dechristianization of the West cum influx of Third Worlders to its shores, we are living more like in the time of Augustine, and so I see no reason why monism might not revive. Thus our times differ form those of ANE Jews by degree rather than kind.

  25. Kirk Skeptic

    PS: I would appreciate your view on the idea expressed by a variety of Reformed theologians that a purported image of Christ, even of only used for instructional or illustrative purpose, induces worship in the soul of the believer, making it an aid to worship.

  26. Sarah Tennant

    “Hertz’s reading of the commandment is the same as that of the early church (see Origen v Celsus) and the Reformed; ie the trine prohibition against making, bowing down, or serving an image of God, the intent of the of the maker notwithstanding.”

    Again; so? What are their arguments?

    “Monism may be at its perigee, but that is not the only reason the commandment was given, amd the human heart remains an idol factory.”

    For what other reasons do you think the commandment was given? What is the scriptural or historical basis for such reasons?

    “I reviewed the original post and comments and, while the appeal to chiasm and the perceived purpose of making an idol (I’m sure there are many) is moving, the opposing view is not KO’d and hence no win.”

    The opposing view needs to argue for its position on the basis of more than ‘it’s the historical view’. I haven’t yet seen any compelling arguments put forward from that view.

    “BTW do you believe the Commandment to be wholly abrogated, or do you see a general equity applicable today?”

    I think today, as in the time of Moses, we are commanded not to make images of earthly or heavenly beings for the purposes of worship; just as the commandment states.

    “but the early church did – and for the same reason that the Jewish Church. The point remains as it has stood for millennia: don’t protray God.”

    So? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, ‘it’s always been that way’ simply isn’t good enough. What was their reasoning for interpreting the commandment (and related commandments) in that manner?

    “While sympathetic magic is one reason to make an idol, there may be others (eg true piety).”

    Firstly, you’re begging the question by assuming that any visual depiction of Christ is an idol.

    Secondly, ‘there may be other [reasons]’ is a considerable softening of your position earlier in the comment, where you positively state there ARE other reasons for the second commandment being given. Are there or aren’t there? And if ‘true piety’ is one of those reasons, what do you mean by that?

    “Frankly, much of our piety may well be described as sympathetic magic: if I have my quiet times, read my Bible regularly, and use enough superlatives and groveling in my grandiloquent prayers, I can get God to do my will. In that sense, sympathetic magic is alive and well in Protestant Christendom.”

    Firstly, that isn’t precisely sympathetic magic as per Bnonn’s description; it’s not attempting to control and channel a deity through offering worship to a visual depiction of an aspect of that deity. Secondly, operating on a ritualistic works-based righteousness theology is bad theology, but it has little to do with the permissibility of visual depictions of Christ. You’re obfuscating the issue.

    “D) With the steady dechristianization of the West cum influx of Third Worlders to its shores, we are living more like in the time of Augustine, and so I see no reason why monism might not revive. Thus our times differ form those of ANE Jews by degree rather than kind.”

    The fact that monism *may* revive in the future is hardly a compelling argument why Christians who have never heard of monism in their lives should refrain from having children’s Bibles in an overwhelmingly non-monistic culture *now*. I mean, with the rapid growth of Islam, there *may* come a time in the future where a woman having uncovered elbows signifies that she is of easy virtue; that’s no reason for Christian women to start wearing hijab now.

    I’m not sure how productive it can be to labour this point; you and I seem to have very differing views of reality here, which can perhaps be explained by our differences in location. By all means, if you feel monism has invaded the worldview of the larger culture around you to the point where an image of Christ would be likely to lead you to performing sympathetic magic, avoid images of Christ. For me, I don’t feel that is a live issue, to put it mildly.

    “PS: I would appreciate your view on the idea expressed by a variety of Reformed theologians that a purported image of Christ, even of only used for instructional or illustrative purpose, induces worship in the soul of the believer, making it an aid to worship.”

    For one thing, I think it’s simply untrue. A believer might spend his life cataloguing or restoring medieval religious art, as an occupation. He will likely view any image of Christ with the detached, technical eye of a professional wondering how to date or clean it; it’s unlikely he’ll spend his workdays in a permanent state of worship.

    According to some Reformed people I’ve encountered, this is impossible: seeing an image of Christ MUST necessarily invoke a spirit of worship in the believer. That I find absurd: ironically, it’s a viewpoint which borders on granting the image magical properties.

    Personally, I once spent several hours combing through religious art for research on an article I was writing about the history of maternity clothing (fun fact, a good deal of what we know about breastfeeding-friendly clothing throughout history comes from paintings of Mary and the infant Jesus). My reactions to the Christ-child figure were no more worshipful or idolatrous than “yep, that’s obviously meant to be Jesus”, combined with a touch of criticism of the artist’s skills (a lot of medieval baby Jesuses were staggeringly ugly, for some reason).

    I did not conflate the picture with the actual person of Christ; I did not find myself irresistibly praying to or adoring the picture; I did not think “Yes, that’s what Christ actually looked like”; I did not find myself veering towards Nestorianism; I had, in fact, none of the reactions certain Reformed theologians rather hysterically assume a believer faced with a picture of Christ will have. And I don’t believe I’m unique in this regard.

    But for the sake of argument, what if seeing one of the pictures *had* illuminated some aspect of Scripture in my mind – brought a deeper poignancy to the Incarnation, perhaps, or caused me to ponder on the concept of Christ being ‘veiled in flesh’ – and I had worshipped God? Would that have been a bad thing? Would it have been inherently more idolatrous than being moved to worship by the beauty of the stars – the ‘heavens declaring the glory of God’? Christian writers (including biblical writers!) frequently speak of being moved by the glories of nature (the Grand Canyon, a sunset, Mt Everest) to a greater appreciation of God as revealed in Scripture. That doesn’t make them nature-worshippers. So I think we must be careful to draw a distinction between worshipful thoughts inspired by an image, and worship *of* that image (or indeed, use of that image for sympathetic magic).

    To be clear, I think that deliberately using images as aids to worship is probably dangerous and unwise. But I don’t think a Christian being inspired to worship God by seeing a picture of Christ (or a Wordless Book, or the Milky Way) is *necessarily and inherently* breaking the second commandment.

  27. Kirk Skeptic

    1). The arguments, again, come down to how the Hebrew text was understood by those closer to it and its ramifications, and for an awfully long time. Does that ensure truth? Of course not. What interests me is that you put a lot of stock into what ancient people originally thought; those selfsame folks did not portray God, so they thought the text was sufficiently clear on that point. That practice continued into the early church, so they too bought the reasoning and reading of text. They were also surrounded by more idolatry than we are, but I am unaware of that being mentioned as part of their reasoning. Per your parallel, if indeed the commandment was only given to prevent sympathetic magic, then the parallel stands; if there were other reasons for the commandment, less so.

    2) Why did God give the commandment? Simple: because he’s God and has his own sovereign reasons. Some of his reasons appear logical (eg second table) while others are not so clear (eg dietary laws); they remain commands from Creator to creature, and ultimately must be obeyed.

    3) My observation re: true piety of an idolater for making an idol was just that – an observation rather than an argument. My point is that, ultimately, divining motives of long-dead persons and cultures is educated guesswork rather than neat mathematics; we differ not in which reality we inhabit (like it or not, we’re stuck in each others’ because there is only one), but whose guesswork we credit more. My observation about false manipulative piety was that it, too, is a form of magical thinking not wholly unrelated to idolatry; images of Christ would fit in as offering that which was never commanded (will-worship, foreign fire) and thus a form of idolatry per the Reformers.

    4) My remarks on monism were not arguments but rather answered your point about how little of it surrounds you. I did not intend for my obervation to argue against kiddie Bible story books with pictures of Christ, nor do I feel any threat to becoming a practicing monist because our church bulletins portray Christ almost weekly. It is not a live issue with me, either.

    5) The argument about being driven to worship a picture of Christ is a curious one which would appeal only to one thoroughly convinced of the position, and one I’ve only encountered in the writings of the Reformed; I was curious about your reaction.

    6) My involvement in this discussion comes from my having thought you folks were Reformed, which you now appear not to be. I also come from a background of quia subscription, which your brand of Baptists obviously are not. as I’ve posted earlier, mu church is iconic, although images are hung above slobbering height so as to avoid the sort of sympathetic magic of Catholics of various types, and are frequently used for instructional purposes. The reason given for it is, basically, “zat’s ze vay ve did sings in ze Vaterland” and it’s a part of Roman practice found acceptable to the composers of the Formula of Concord for all of the historic reasons. You would call that a lousy argument, to which they reply that catholicity is a good argument. Nobody seems to argue with or even address the Jewish and early church objections. Oh well…

  28. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Kirk, I’m afraid my time is very limited at the moment, and I think my excellent wife has interacted with most of your points more than satisfactorily. But let me quickly answer a couple of your questions:

    all agreed with not depicting God

    That’s fine, but it is quite unresponsive, and possibly even question-begging, toward the position I’ve argued for. As I’ve said, there seem to be extremely plausible reasons to distinguish between depiction and representation; and the second commandment is not forbidding the former, but the latter.

    In any case, I’ll be examining and testing some of this logic in the next installment. I think it’s relatively trivial to produce counterexamples and reductios that either eviscerate these standard arguments, or end up committing neo-Puritans to absurd and untenable beliefs about what constitutes sin.

    the context of the Second Commandment is the First, which forbids worshiping any other God but God; the Second is concerned with the how rather than the who.

    Well, at the risk of sounding like an ass, what is freely asserted can be freely denied. The second commandment plainly is concerned with the who; indeed, Deuteronomy 4 glosses it in terms of the other nations having been appointed to worship other “whos”, in contradistinction to Israel. At best, you’re placing an implausible restriction on the scope of the second commandment. Which, I’m afraid, ends up looking like an ad hoc effort to lend credibility to your view.

    Sarah has already commented on LCQ 109; I’d just add that the following is obviously absurd:

    the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever

    So according to LCQ 109, Peter sinned every time he remembered Jesus. Right.

    per the Sabbath, it’s more than the wording of the Fourth Commandment; see Isaiah 58:13 in which recreation otherwise lawful during the week is to be eschewed on the Sabbath.

    I don’t see Isaiah 58:13 saying anything contradictory to my summarization of what the fourth commandment entails. Indeed, the NET‘s’ dynamic rendering almost is the summary I gave:

    You must observe the Sabbath rather than doing anything you please on my holy day. You must look forward to the Sabbath and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect. You must treat it with respect by refraining from your normal activities, and by refraining from your selfish pursuits and from making business deals. Isa 58:13

    The one thing I didn’t strongly bring out was that the day was to be devoted to Yahweh. So it’s not a day of general recreation, but rather a day devoted to resting for God. An important point, but not one that really attenuates what I said very much.

    Btw, we are Reformed. Indeed, I would say we are quintessentially reformed since we believe in and practice semper reformanda—rather than slavishly binding ourselves to a particular confession and refusing to listen to anyone who thinks maybe there’s something wrong with it.

  29. Sarah Tennant

    “What interests me is that you put a lot of stock into what ancient people originally thought; those selfsame folks did not portray God, so they thought the text was sufficiently clear on that point.”

    Well, no; it would be foolish to put *too* much stock into ancient exegesis of the Commandments, as the Jews were soundly condemned by Jesus for their continuous accretions and misinterpretations of the law.

    Instead, what Bnonn is putting a lot of stock in (he can correct me if I’m wrong) are the plausible reasons God gave the commandments, given the culture and theology of the ANE culture in which the commands were given.

    Also, the text is quite clearly *not* sufficient to forbid depicting any member of the Godhead for non-worship purposes; because it doesn’t actually forbid it! So if the ancient Jews thought it was clear, they have some explaining to do. :p

    2) But there are compelling reasons to believe in a more concrete and specific reason behind the second commandment than just ‘God said so’. Bnonn has given them.

    6) I’m rather bemused by your conclusion that we’re not Reformed. Yes, we disagree with the majority of Reformed Christians on this point, but we disagree on the *extremely* Reformed basis of sola Scriptura – questioning the theological traditions of men to see how well they line up with the biblical data.

  30. Kirk Skeptic

    @Bnonn

    Out of respect for your time, I’ll be brief. Your final statements indicate that you find creeds and confessions advisory only; where, then, does the authority of the church fit into your scheme, if at all? I’ve read Frame on this and find him rather compelling, particularly given my setting. DV you will make this subject a future post.

  31. Kirk Skeptic

    @Sarah

    2) The Jews got a lot of condemnation for adding to Scripture (and are still at it), just as history has shown Gentiles to have done and continue to do. My question, though, concerns a weight upon what ancient Gentiles did being used exegetically. It’s a movel,approach, albeit not therefore wrong. I intend to into this further, as I remain firm although not unmoved by the posts and our exchanges.

    6) This what confuses me most about labels like Reformed or Lutheran – the modern separation of the label from its ecclesial symbols from which said labels came. .onfessions become dim sum menus, the gourmet/gourmand merely choosing according to taste and fancy. At what point does the semper ref ploy put one outside of the historical meaning of the label? Does the church ahve a say in what does and doesn’t meat the cdriteria of the label?Answer: I have no clue, and neither does anyone else. I’d love to see a post on confessionalism vs private judgment her.

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