Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

Are the first and second commandments morally distinguishable?

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5 minutes to read 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…

Comments are on holiday for a short while.