Pictures of Jesus: “Yay” or Nay?

Biblical Theology for Wednesday, 7 January 2015


Patriarch-Kirill-Orthodox-PaschaI had intended to write about the propriety—or lack thereof—of visual portrayals of Jesus. They are something we are surrounded by in movies, TV, Christian bookstores, and in far too many churches. But stumbling upon this defense of the veneration of icons (pictures meant for religious use) in Eastern Orthodoxy, I thought I would interact with it and use it as a jumping-off point. It’s a short essay by Joseph Gleason, an Orthodox priest in Illinois. Gleason’s essay struck me because he goes beyond the expected defense of icons to argue that in fact those who do not use icons (myself and all self-conscious Protestants) are guilty of idolatry. Striking, because idolatry is precisely the problem Protestants see with icon veneration. Gleason says this:

When Protestants refuse to bow to icons of Christ, and they choose to bow down before nothing instead, their worship suggests that God has no body, and that the Incarnation hasn’t happened yet. Their worship misrepresents God. They are bowing down before a faceless idol.

The argument here is, first, that our worship must accurately manifest who God is and what he is like (true enough). Second, since God has become incarnate in Christ, our worship must give expression to that (true enough). So third, therefore, we must venerate and bow before pictures of Christ (eh?). That’s the logic, and if you don’t see it, join the club. Now, you can read the whole article yourself. I don’t think I’m misrepresenting Mr. Gleason. He does make some good and true points at the beginning, as in his concise statement about what idolatry is:

There are two types of idolatry:

1) Worshiping false gods
2) Worshiping the true God in a way which misrepresents Him

molech1Gleason illustrates these two types of idolatry from the Old Testament. It was obviously idolatry to worship Baal or Molech (the first kind of idolatry), but it was also idolatry to worship the true God falsely, as with the golden calf (second type of idolatry). In worshiping the calf, the Israelites intended to worship Yahweh who brought them out of Egypt. They weren’t thinking of a different god. It was still idolatry though, because it was a misrepresentation of God and a contradiction of his commandment. But Gleason goes on to make this leap:

Similarly [to the calf incident], when Protestants worship with bare walls and an absence of icons, they are correct that God’s name is ‘Jesus’. They are correct that Jesus came to deliver them from sin. And they are correct to praise Jesus.  But their worship is turned into idolatry, because they misrepresent Him.  God is no longer a faceless spirit.

Furthermore, Gleason points out, God knows that we need to bow to something, and so in the Old Testament God called his people to bow toward the temple, which is where his presence dwelt. But, says Gleason, “After Christ came, He referred to His own body as the true temple. Therefore, instead of continuing to bow down toward a temple building, we now bow down toward images of Jesus.” Pictures of Jesus thus serve as the necessary reminder of the incarnate Christ, as the manifestation that he was made true man, while being the Second Person of the Trinity, worshiped together with the Father and Holy Spirit.

Now, I don’t claim that this is the strongest or fullest defense of Orthodox icon veneration that can be offered, so I don’t mean to burn a straw-man.¹ I do think there is, in Gleason’s argument, a manifest gap of logic: That because Jesus is God incarnate, our worship of him must reflect that by bowing to, and venerating, pictorial representations of him. Again, I don’t see it. With such a claim in mind though, let me offer an account of why (at least) the Reformed wing of Protestantism has rejected the use of images in our worship of God, and why pictorial representations of Jesus (and that would include film) are, at best, dangerous and a bad idea, and, at worst, gross idolatry of the golden-calf sort.

In 1 Peter 1:3-7, the apostle encourages the saints who are beginning to suffer persecution and fiery trials. He reminds them that the genuineness of their faith—more precious than gold that perishes—is being tested, and its genuineness will be manifest in that “it will be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ,” who, he reminds them in v.8, “having not seen, you love. Though you have not seen him, you rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory.” Peter takes it as an expression of genuine and proven faith that believers are loyal to, and love, Christ whom they have not seen, because, obviously, he is seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father. So is making an image of Jesus—and it can only be what you imagine him to look like—really a necessary form of worship and a legitimate expression of devotion, or is it an act of impatient and presumptuous unbelief?

SinaiHow, in fact, might an image of Jesus, made in order to assist in our worship, differ at all from the sin of the golden calf? The Israelites didn’t want to wait for Moses to come back down from Sinai, and didn’t know what had become of him. They had no patience to wait for God’s word, for his own revelation, in his own way and time (Exodus 32:1). So they made an image of him for, to their mind, pious purposes. It’s difficult to see how their action differs from the use of icons, except that a generic man who looks like Jesus may have looked, or not, is a bit closer to the mark than a cow. But both are works of imagination. Both are images of man’s devising, and given religious reverence.

In any case, Romans 1:23 places images of “mortal man” in the same category as images of “birds and animals and creeping things”, and lumps it all under idolatry. Gleason wants to argue that since the Son became man, we may and must visually portray him as such. Well, one can portray Yahweh as a golden calf or as a bearded man on a cross, and while one may be closer to the reality, it doesn’t seem to be a distinction that Scripture is interested in when it comes to images of the deity and our bowing to them.

This is because the central issue is: Who is doing the revealing? Who is making the representation of God? God himself, or us? In Romans 8:3, we’re told that for our deliverance God “sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” So in Romans 1:23, to portray God in the likeness of sinful flesh is idolatry. In Romans 8:3, it’s our salvation. Why? Because in Romans 8:3, it’s God doing the revealing. Only God has the right to determine how he will be known and portrayed. Jesus of Nazareth himself was not a work of human imagination, and for people to bow to him was right and proper. Pictures and statues of a man who is meant to be Jesus are works of human imagination, and to bow to them as if to a god is idolatry. And isn’t it strange that the fullest physical description of Christ that we are actually given in the Bible (Revelation 1:13-16) is almost never how he is actually drawn?

In Deuteronomy 4:15-18, God warned the Israelites:

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth.

After the incarnation, when God the Son has been manifested in “the likeness of male”, are we to think it’s now acceptable to fashion an image for ourselves and use it for worship, to focus our thoughts, to direct our prayers, or even more superstitiously to think that what we’ve made with our hands has special divine power or is some kind of locus of God’s presence? Are we not rather to think that in light of so many and repeated warnings in Scripture, that with the incarnate Christ ascended to heaven, we are rather to wait in faith and hope, loving him whom we have not seen, and be content to know him by way of his word? It was the word of Christ that the apostles were sent to preach. If pictures and statues are so good and necessary, why did Jesus commission no sculptors or painters to capture what he really looked like? In fact, I would suggest that far from being a practical denial of the incarnation like Mr. Gleason argues, man-made images of Jesus tend to obscure the real incarnation, in Judea in the days of Augustus. This is because the culture doing the portraying always ends up picturing Christ in its own cultural trappings, or at least according to its own sensibilities. I’ve seen a Japanese icon of Jesus in which he featured oriental eyes. Our Western movies use American and European actors.

Of course we want our thoughts and devotion focused on Christ. But Christ is present to us first of all by his word and Spirit. He is present with us also in his ordinances: baptism, in which we are sealed with the name of the Triune God and consecrated as priests who draw near into his presence, and his Supper where we commune with his body and blood. And he is present to us in the persons of other believers, in whom he dwells. But of images and statues, Scripture doesn’t breathe a word, except to condemn them. At the end of the day, those who promote image and icon veneration can’t make as good a case even as the Devil: they can’t even say “it is written.” Because it is not.

And granted, for believers, the word, ordinances, and the body of believers are not enough. We want to see Jesus face to face, and we will. But when we do, it will be him that we see, not a blind, deaf, and mute statue that is the product of our own head and made with our own hands. On such things, the consistent witness of Scripture is plainly and clearly that God abominates them.

What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols!” – Habakkuk 2:18

Someone will ask about pictures of Jesus that are not meant for worship: picture Bibles, movies like The Passion, etc. I wonder though, are such things really not meant for worship? What motivation could a Christian possibly have for an image of Jesus, in any media, if not to stir or shape devotion? But at that point, the line of idolatry is dangerously close if not already crossed. Movies and other media powerfully shape our perceptions and mental images of who Jesus is and what he is and was like. That is human nature. It is far safer and wiser to seek to have our conceptions of God, of Christ, shaped in the ways in which he has appointed by his own will and revelation. Or do we want these pictures in order to teach? Look again above at Habakkuk 2:18: man-made images of God teach lies. Contrary to Mr. Gleason, the incarnation does not make image-worship necessary, it simply makes it more tempting and potentially misleading, and makes for idolatry in a subtler form.

Bible_and_Lord's_Cup_and_BreadMany churches (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, pop-Evangelical that jump on every new Jesus-movie train) positively encourage icon and image veneration, and have for a long time. It’s a practice that for the good of our souls ought to be stopped. In the long run, true faith will find infinitely more fruit and real spiritual good in a single line of God’s own word, and in the means of worship that God has appointed, than it will in a thousand statues, portraits, and crucifixes which he has not, and which he explicitly condemns.

If you are someone who is drawn to images of Jesus, if you have a picture of “him” in your house or car that you stare at, that you believe centers or intensifies your devotion, or that you think holds some kind of spiritual power, I would suggest you are in the grip of superstition and playing with idolatry. Get rid of it. Seek God in his word, in his ordinances, and in his people. You’ll see his face in the flesh in his time, and if you have been seeking him rightly you’ll recognize it too. It won’t be Jim Caviezal or a hammered piece of gold. And he won’t be mute, blind, or deaf.

Little Children, keep yourselves from idols.” – 1 John 5:21


¹That would be the 8th century classic Orthodox treatise by St. John of Damascus. I read it in seminary as research for a Church History paper, and confess that I don’t remember much in the way of John’s specific argumentation. I do remember that while impressed with his thoroughness, his conclusion—that pictures of Jesus should be bowed to and venerated—seemed to me then and now so contrary to and out of line with biblical religion that I remain unconvinced.

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12 thoughts on “Pictures of Jesus: “Yay” or Nay?

  1. “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24) Those are the words of the Savior Himself. Nope…no mention of icons of any kind. Simply truth and spirit. No special mountain, no special building, no special closet…just spirit and truth. Our “hearts” are spirit and the Bible is truth.

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    • Thanks for the comment gw.

      As far as your last statement though, I think “Spirit” and “Truth” there in John 4:24 refers the the Holy Spirit and Christ. The “place” of worship is no longer the temple in Jerusalem, but the body of Christ, the church, where believers are gathered. And “Truth” refers to the Christ as the Truth, the substance of God’s revelation, in distinction from OT shadows.

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  2. According to Reformed accepted theology you are technically correct, daniel. And I have no problem with that. But God has grown bigger to me than my accepted theology over the years.

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  3. In 1 Peter 1:3-7, you incorrectly assume that seeing a person in-person (what St. Peter was talking about) is the same as seeing an image of a person. I have seen pictures of Elvis Presley. Am I therefore lying if I tell people, “I never got to see Elvis”? Obviously, the distinction is important. The disciples of St. Peter could easily have seen icons of Jesus, and it still be true for Peter to say that they “haven’t seen Jesus”, because they never saw Him in-person.

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    • Mr. Gleason, thanks for taking the time to reply, and sorry it’s taken me a few days to get back to you. In the future it might be easier if you put all your replies in one post 😉

      I’m not sure how you get that I’m assuming an in-person and image equation here. My point in bringing up this passage was to highlight the fact that the saints who Peter was writing to loved him whom they had *not seen*, and they were awaiting his return. I used it as a jumping-off point to ask the question of why, therefore, we should think it’s an exercise of faith to paint pictures or make statues of Jesus according to our own imagination, rather than being content to wait until he comes. I’m not saying their not seeing Jesus implies that they had no icons. I’m saying that the quality of their faith as Peter describes it seems to me to run contrary to the image-making impulse; at least in light of the fuller biblical context. Hope that is clearer, even if you still disagree.

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  4. You complain that icons are “images of man’s devising, and given religious reverence.” So was the temple in Jerusalem. It was built by the hands of men, and it was given religious reverence. “I will bow down toward your holy temple” (Psalm 5:7)

    You complain that icons are “works of imagination”. But how do you know this? Why do you believe the historical Jesus didn’t look like the icons we have of Him? Icon-painting was the photography of the day. And for more recent icons of Saints, we have evidence that the icon of a person can look very much like a photograph of a person. Is there some reason you believe icons of Jesus are necessarily inaccurate depictions of Him? Luke was the first iconographer. His icons of Jesus were made during a time when many people had seen Jesus face to face, and would have been able to vouch for the accuracy of the depiction. There is no reason to believe that icons of Jesus are mere works of imagination.

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    • The reference to the temple is irrelevant. It was specifically commanded by God. Images of the deity are explicitly prohibited.

      As for your second point, granted it is an assumption on my part. But in any case, why shouldn’t the uncertainty run the other way? How can you be sure the icons DO look like him? I mentioned in my post an Asian icon I had seen where Jesus is depicted as a Japanese. Do you think that’s appropriate? Why or why not?

      I’ve heard the claim about Luke as well. Any way you could get me the source(s) of that tradition and what the evidence for it is?

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  5. Romans 1:23 refers to the Godhead, including the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This passage is not a reference solely to the Son. Indeed, it is wrong to make depictions of the Godhead. It would be idolatrous to make an image of the Father, because the Father did not become incarnate. The Father did not become a man. Same goes for the Holy Spirit.

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    • But the Son did become man, and Romans 1:23 specifically references images made in “the likeness of mortal man.” The Son became man, yes, but all images of man as images of the deity are prohibited as well as animals or anything else. My whole point was that “images” of God are God’s sole prerogative. God the Son can and did become man. I don’t see where he lifted the prohibition on us making statues or pictures of our own of God (the whole Trinity or simply the Son) to revere.

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      • I would add, “no matter how accurate.” Plus, the idea that Luke was a painter or artisit and created pictures that are accurate, thus, we can trust them, begs the question on the underpinnig presuppositions, beyond the historical impossibility of verifiability.

        Last, even if Luke made perfect pictures, that doesn’t mean he was right to do so. The command against images of the divine were never lifted, and an argument from the incarnation is an awfully big typological leap.

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  6. Your quotation from Deuteronomy 4:15-18 is moot, because when Deuteronomy was written, the Incarnation had not yet taken place. God had not yet become man.

    In Reformed Protestant artwork, the absence of Christ is conspicuous. It implies that God never became man, and that Jesus never had a human body. When Reformed Protestants bow towards a God without pictures, they imply that God is merely a faceless spirit. Thus they violate the command given to us by the apostle John:
    “Little Children, keep yourselves from idols.” – 1 John 5:21

    The only way to keep yourself from idols, is to venerate icons of Jesus. Christian iconography is the antidote for idolatry.

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    • I think the point from Deuteronomy still stands, for similar reasons to what I’ve said above.

      “In Reformed Protestant artwork, the absence of Christ is conspicuous.”

      That may be. I’m really not up on what Reformed art is like in distinction from other traditions.

      “It implies that God never became man, and that Jesus never had a human body. When Reformed Protestants bow towards a God without pictures, they imply that God is merely a faceless spirit. Thus they violate the command given to us by the apostle John:
      “Little Children, keep yourselves from idols.” – 1 John 5:21”

      I don’t buy that. For one thing, Reformed Protestant worship involves little if any bowing at all that I’ve ever experienced (a good or bad thing, I’m not sure). Anyway, this criticism proves far too much. It would seem to imply that all worship (prayer, etc) *must* have a picture of Jesus nearby in order to avoid idolatry. That would be absurd. The antidote to idolatry is not statues or icons of Jesus. The antidote is to know God as he is, which is known to us for now by way of his word and Spirit. Reformed Protestants at their best cling tightly to the word, which teach us clearly that Christ was and is incarnate, is at the right hand of the Father, and is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We don’t need pictures and trinkets to remind us of that.

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