Popular Reformed Baptist pastor and blogger Tim Challies fired off an article that articulated the traditional Reformed interpretation regarding images in worship. More so, his article reflects the standard Reformed stance on the 2nd commandment (part of the first commandment in the Lutheran and Roman numbering) of the Decalogue. His blog post, titled Why You Should Not Wear a Crucifix, has been making the rounds in the online community quite a bit the last couple days.
I think that much of Challies' reasoning is this post, mainly drawn from Anglican J.I. Packer and less so from Reformer John Calvin, is all wrong. Here is why.
Packer says, "But the very wording of the [second] commandment rules out such a limiting exposition. God says quite categorically, “you shall not make an idol in the form of anything” for use in worship."
This statement is misconstrued. Exodus 20:4-5a says the following: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them..."
The prohibition here is not against images in general, nor is it against images of Christ or other saints from the Scriptures. Or images of anything else for that matter. Nor is the prohibition against images in worship. Here is where Packer makes the passage say something that it doesn't say. The passage states that we should not *worship* images, not that we cannot have them *in worship.* That is quite a big difference.
He then proceeds to give two reasons as to why images are disallowed, building on his (faulty) interpretation of Exodus 20.
1. Images dishonour God, for they obscure His glory.
He quotes Calvin in support, "A true image of God is not to be found in all the world; and hence...His glory is defiled, and His truth corrupted by the lie, whenever He is set before our eyes in a visible form...Therefore, to devise any image of God is itself impious; because by this corruption His majesty is adulterated, and He is figured to be other than He is."
Ultimately, this objection is weak at best, nor is it supported by the Scriptures. As far as I can see, the Reformed theologians would have us believe that it would have been idolatry for anyone to draw a picture of Jesus, paint one, or snap a photograph of Him while He was alive on Earth during His thirty something years leading up to Calvary. Or perhaps that might be OK, because it might actually look like Jesus. I don't know, but either way, the prohibition on images of Christ on the cross is certainly nonsensical.
Packer continues, "The pathos of the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, for it hides the fact of his deity, his victory on the cross, and his present kingdom. It displays his human weakness, but it conceals his divine strength; it depicts the reality of his pain, but keeps out of our sight the reality of his joy and his power. In both these cases, the symbol is unworthy most of all because of what it fails to display. And so are all other visible representations of deity."
This statement is confusing to me. Was it idolatry to look at Christ when He was on the cross because His deity was obscured? I'm not sure what Packer and Challies would have us believe here. Not to mention, the objections rooted within this statement don't fly.
First, it was precisely Christ on the cross that died for the sins of the world. And that same Christ on the cross was fully man as well as fully God. St. Luke records for us in Acts 20:28, Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Notice what he says: God obtained the church of God with His own blood. What? God died on the cross? Yep, that is precisely what is being said here. In fact, I will go even further. Christ on the cross and His subsequent rising from the tomb is in fact God's greatest place of glory. And we should seek God nowhere else but on that cross and up from that grace.
To put it simply, the standard objection that boils down to "but Jesus got off that cross" is sloppy. It was that Christ on that cross that died for your sins. An empty cross is nothing more than a Roman instrument of death. Jesus on the cross is the event that saved the world.
Secondly, I have a hard time seeing how Packer is not guilty of separating the natures of Christ here to a level that is unbiblical. In other words, it's Nestorian. How in the world is it an obscuring of the glory of God to depict the human Christ? I mean, Christ is fully God, right? He says that an image of Christ is unworthy because of what it fails to display - the deity of God.
But Christ, even on the cross dying, is God. Period.
2. Images mislead us. They convey false ideas about God.
Granted. They can. I get this objection. On the other hand, how in the world does a crucifix do this? It reminds us of the single most important event (along with the resurrection) in human history. In fact, all history hinges on this event. Not to mention, a crucifix reminds us of the lengths God went to in order to save us, because we are sinners.
Secondly, a crucifix is to remind us of the event that took place that saved us, not to look precisely down to the last detail like Jesus when He was Incarnate. Nobody thinks that.
My conclusion is that the standard Reformed reading of this text is either legalistic or simply a drastic misinterpretation of the Scriptures on this topic.
Not to mention, after the commandment was given in Exodus 20, just a few chapters later, God tells the Israelites to put images on the Ark of the Covenant, in which the Law would be held.
Exodus 25:18-20: And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.
It just doesn't make sense that God would completely forbid images, then tell the Israelites to make them and put them on the Ark, the holiest of objects for the Israelites.
Scripture does not forbid images. Nor does Scripture forbid us to have images in worship. It forbids us to actually worship them as the real thing.