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:
- The prohibition on creating carved images of anything over, on, or under the earth (verse 4)
- 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.