The Second Command reads, “You shall not make for yourself any 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 nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
Before discussing the Second Word of the Decalogue, I wish to reiterate what I said in the previous post regarding the preface to the Decalogue. God’s right to command such and the rationale behind such a command is His covenantal right over us as His people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Prefaced thus, we avoid two errors, (a) over-estimating our own obedience; and (b) under-estimating our own wickedness and depravity. Separating God’s law from His covenantal grace to sinners is a return to the Covenant of Works: obeying God’s law as if our conformity to His commands commends us to Him and merits His favor, aka, self-righteousness.
Calvin notes in Book 2, Chapter 8, of his Institutes, this command consists of two parts. The first is to put a curb on our desire to subject God to our senses (which is primarily what images do). The second part forbids the usage of any image in a religious context.
I have always thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the wisdom shown by the Westminster Shorter Catechism, when handling the Decalogue, by asking both what is required and what is forbidden by each Command. It is rather easy to simply see the large “THOU SHALT NOT,” and failed to notice that this implied equally that something positive is required in the negative prohibition.
So, what does the Second Command require? If you’ve ever read one of the great catechisms of the Reformation, you might be surprised to see this command interpreted as requiring purity in God’s worship. If you have a background like mine, Pentecostal Arminian, this seems like a shocking way to understand the Command, especially since image-making is so explicitly denounced. However, the wisdom of Ursinus (the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism) and the Westminster Assembly can be seen in their grasp of the implications of this command. It is not simply about idolatry since that was already forbidden by the First Command. This is a question of syncretism: mixing foreign elements into the worship of God.
Granted there are various schools of thought among Christians of the Reformation in regard to this subject (regulative vs normative principle), yet we don’t even have to get within a country mile of that debate to make some very pertinent observations about worship. Worship is pure only so far as it pleases God. If the main objective of worship is to encourage audience participation by simple appeals to their cultural sensibilities and tastes, then the jig is up. God is no longer the object of worship, man is. I find it telling that much of the music which passes for Christian worship these days is characterized by the same egocentric, backslapping, self-congratulatory narcissism evident in contemporary pop music. There simply is no comparison between the lyrics written by Augustus Toplady and Darlene Zschech.
Lest you fear that I have forgotten this Command actually does prohibit images, let me reassure you, I haven’t. Again, this command is not so much concerned with idolatry as with divine worship. God’s people, fallen sinners that we are, are very prone to introducing false elements into the worship of God. When Israel made the Golden Calf, they declared a feast “to the LORD” (Ex. 32:5). 2 Kings 17:33 records a contradiction if ever there was one: So they feared the LORD but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away. The book of Judges is Exhibit A of this pitiful attempt at worshipping God yet doing it according to the dictates of one’s own imagination. It is not the plain and simply idolatry of having “other gods before Me” which is in view in the prohibition against images.
An image, mind you can be material or mental. A person can have a material image and a false mental image, representing God in a way not commanded in His Word. And I don’t simply mean picturing Jesus in your mind as Jim Caviezel, or picturing God as a white-bearded grandfather, though that is most definitely a violation of this command. I am referring to false ideas about God. Holding to a false belief about God, such as the Trinity-denying modalism of Oneness Pentecostalism, or the “God-is-my-bellhop” doctrines of the Word Faith perpetrators, is worship of God in a way contrary to His revealed will and is hence a violation of the Second Command.
Physical, material images are banned, as well. God cannot be represented by any image anyway, since He is spirit. Any physical representation is infinitely inferior, hence infinitely demeaning to the Divine Majesty. During the Middle Ages, it was common to refer to images of Christ and the saints as “books to the laity.” Illiteracy was rampant, so images were considered something like a book to the unlearned members of the congregation wherein there could learn of the Bible characters and emulate them. This is, of course, foolishness. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “We must not pretend to be wiser than God.” If the use of images was so beneficial to the Church, God would not have forbidden it. The Church should not be satisfied to have illiterate members, and happy to leave them in that condition. Christianity should educate men. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism continues by saying, “God will have His people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of His Word.” Faith comes by hearing the Word of God. This is why I do not see how any Christian can hold it to be anything but a violation of God’s Word to evangelize the lost with movies. An image of Christ is an image whether stationary or moving. I fail to see how an actor’s portrayal Christ makes it any less repugnant to God than a stone sculpture.
The Church in her best days has always known this. “But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone,—God, who alone is truly God.” Clement, Exhortation to the Heathen, ch 4 ANF vol. II., p. 186
“When I entered into the church of a village in Palestine called Anablatha, I found there a curtain hanging over the door whereon was painted an image like that of Jesus Christ or some saint – for I do not remember whose picture it was. But seeing in the church of Christ the image of a man, contrary to the authority of Holy Scripture, I tore it down and gave order to the church-warden to bury some dead body in this curtain…” Epiphanius, Letter to John of Jerusalem
“It is an impudent falsehood to deny that the thing which was thus anciently done is also done in our day. For why do men prostrate themselves before images? Why, when in the act of praying, do they turn towards them as to the ears of God? It is indeed true, as Augustine says (in Ps. 113), that no person thus prays or worships, looking at an image, without being impressed with the idea that he is heard by it, or without hoping that what he wishes will be performed by it. Why are such distinctions made between different images of the same God, that while one is passed by, or receives only common honour, another is worshipped with the highest solemnities? Why do they fatigue themselves with votive pilgrimages to images while they have many similar ones at home?” Calvin, Institutes, pg 74.
Let me return momentarily to something we stated earlier. Calvin argued that part of this command was to put a curb on our desire to subject God to our senses. Is this not what the whole Charismatic movement consists of: subjecting God to our senses? To hear men and women describe their physical feelings while undergoing these so-called “manifestations” of the Spirit, you’d think that they were describing something sexual. I have actually heard these exact comparisons made. I’m sure others have too. Nearly everything about Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement is aimed at man’s senses: “feeling the Spirit,” “sensing God’s presence,” etc. This is exactly what God wishes to prohibit in the Second Command. God relates to use through His own appointed means, namely the Word and the Sacraments. Stepping outside these confines is stepping into a violation of God’s revealed will.