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 the first and second commandments morally distinguishable?

It’s a bit of a trick question when I ask it.

In part 1 of ‘Are pictures of Jesus idolatry?’ a commenter named Ben asked a question which seems worthy of its own post:

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.

Hey Ben, a couple of thoughts by way of response:

1. Numbering the Decalogue is trickier than you might think

So much of your question rides on how we actually number the Decalogue. And I use the term “Decalogue” very specifically, because the Bible itself never uses the term ten commandments. It says the ten words; or better translated for modern English, the ten sayings. Moreover, it never enumerates these sayings, and I’m not aware that it attaches any special theological significance to the number. Having ten of them could very well be a memory aid (ten fingers), rather than a reflection of ten theologically discrete issues.

Indeed, as I mentioned near the beginning of ‘Are pictures of Jesus idolatry #1’, I think the “first commandment” could just as easily be taken as an introductory summary than as a separate command. And in fact, the “third” is inextricably related to the “second” as well, being, I believe, primarily a prohibition on invoking Yahweh’s name in spells. As I said, the text is not clearly divided along the lines we tend to construct, but reflects a logical train of thought around a single idea.

This makes me very sympathetic to the notion that the number ten is a memory aid, and that to call them the ten commandments rather than the ten sayings is genuinely misguided. Wikipedia has a good rundown of how different traditions number the sayings, which helps to highlight the importance of this issue to how your question cashes out.

Two reasons to avoid idols anyway

All that said, I think there are a couple of very obvious reasons to prohibit the use of idols in worship of God:


The first is straight out of Deuteronomy, and may generally apply only under the old covenant given that God has made himself known in Jesus; but it is still important to exegeting the Decalogue in context: God does not have a visible form. Moses says as much explicitly—the Hebrews saw no form at Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15). This emphasizes that although God can take a form, no form can be exhaustive enough to accurately represent him. Thus, to use any form to represent him is really to diminish his attributes to the point of nothing. And indeed, even in Jesus this is true. Philippians 2:7-8 describes Jesus as emptying himself in order to take on the form of a man. I’m not advocating kenosis; rather, I’m pointing out that Jesus’ divinity was not distinguishable in his physical appearance. So there is a seemingly rather important sense in which making an idol intended to represent Yahweh is utterly unlike keeping a photo of a loved one—there is no actual analogy in the analogy, because the idol cannot represent Yahweh in the way that the photo represents a person.


The second reason to avoid idols is simply that you are likely to end up with monism. You start out using the idol as an arguably legitimate representation of God—understanding that God does not inhabit it, nor can be he controlled through it—but in a couple of generations, human nature being what it is, you find it has a name and people are bowing down to it as a god (viz Nehushtan in 2 Kings 18:4). So from a purely pragmatic point of view, understanding the idolatrous inclinations of our hearts, it’s just not sensible to go down that road.

Of course, none of this has any bearing on pictures of Jesus in storybooks or memes, as neo-Puritans often shrilly claim. No Christian uses such pictures as aids to worship (that I know of!) Even in quite “Catholic” theological traditions, like the Lutherans and Anglicans, stained glass windows are nothing like idols. They exist to stimulate the mind to worship—I don’t think anyone worships through them in the way that they might kiss a photo of a relative. Mind you, kissing a photo is a bit weird too, in my opinion…


  1. Ben

    This is helpful. Two different issues appear to be present: (1) whether all image-worship is morally illicit, rather than only monistic image-worship; and (2) whether, even if image-worship is intrinsically morally permissible, Ex. 20:3-6 ought to remain divided into two distinct commandments/sayings. And (1) can be subdivided into your appeals (a) to Deuteronomy 4 and (b) to pragmatic reasons.

    One reason I appreciate your anti-monistic interpretation of Deuteronomy 4:15 is that it allows us to reject the essential-invisibility interpretation, i.e. “You saw no form at Sinai because I am essentially invisible.” Among other problems with this interpretation, it frankly does not seem true that divine invisibility is a moral reason making the construction of images (or worship of images) to be immoral. And that is because it is not immoral to visually represent invisible beings or entities in other contexts, e.g. angels or souls. Divine invisibility would then be insufficient to generate a moral prohibition on all image-worship.

    Moreover, if we do accept your anti-monistic interpretation of Deuteronomy 4:15 (“You saw no form at Sinai, for I then demonstrated that I am not essentially continuous with any created thing”), it is unclear how we would then have “room” to see divine invisibility as an additional motivating rationale for vv. 16-19 from the text. Even if divine invisibility is a moral reason outlawing the construction of any Yahweh-images, an anti-monistic interpretation of Deut. 4:15 would appear to preclude Deut. 4:15 from providing this moral reason.

    On a different note, other Scriptures discussing the evils of idol-worship/image-worship (e.g. Isa. 44:9ff.; Hab. 2:18-19) are related not to the essential invisibility of God, but to the monistic beliefs attributing divinity to the idols themselves.

    (b) I definitely understand the pragmatic reasons not to bow before idols representing Yahweh, but even if it’s always a bad idea, that still would not make image-worship as such to be objectively immoral. Perhaps if image-worship is always a bad idea, or generally unwise to do, then that would provide evidence that image-worship is objectively immoral in some way, but as such pragmatic reasons don’t pinpoint any sinful feature of the act of image-worship in itself.

    (2) This is more difficult to argue. My understanding of the Decalogue is that, since it is designed to be a summary of the moral law (cf. Matt. 19:18-19), each of the different commandments covers its own segment of the natural/moral law, even if there is some overlap. This is the main reason I would see a prohibition only on monistic image-worship to be a good reason to see Ex. 20:4-6 as combined with verse 3. But if the third commandment is difficult to distinguish from the earlier commandments, then that would count against this.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I agree that divine invisibility is not the rationale behind the prohibition of images. I think the invisibility view is an understandable traditional interpretation which arose as the best explanation available in a Christian culture that was too far removed from the ANE to grok what was going on here.

    That said, I’m not so sure we can jump from the anti-monistic motivation of the commandments to the conclusion that non-monistic idols are therefore okay. Even if anti-monism lies behind the commands, the commands themselves are not that specific. I would certainly want to be very cautious about construing them as permitting other kinds of images given that a straightforward reading says the opposite.

    Re (2), I don’t think your understanding is incompatible with what I’ve said. The first few commandments range along a spectrum of similar ideas, so even if we can’t draw hard and fast distinctions between them, that doesn’t mean we can’t draw useful divisions, nor that they don’t therefore summarize the whole law. Indeed, summaries of holistic things like the Torah will tend to evidence a kind of “smudging” between ideas precisely because they are trying to briefly capture nuanced, interrelated concepts in short, individual statements.

  3. Ben

    Fair enough.

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