Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Idol Questions

A Facebook friend wrote:  

If being moved to worship by an image of Christ is not a violation of the 2nd commandment, what is? . . . This is precisely what idolatry is, being moved to worship by an image of a god. It is not worshipping statues. No one does that. 

His question and answer flooded my mind with thought.

First, "Being moved to worship by an image of Christ" may be a bit broad. For instance, suppose one sees "Christ the Redeemer" in Brazil. One may feel a sense of awe and then one may turn one's attention to the living Christ in worship. I would differentiate this experience from the practice of being "moved to worship" by the knick-knack on one's coffee-table. But many—whether right or wrong—make no such distinction. 

Second, the notion that “no one” worships statues per se: Granted, no one is supposed to do this but sometimes I wonder... 

I had this very discussion with a Roman Catholic priest (a friend of mine) several years ago. He explained his position on the matter of icons and the like and insisted that he doesn’t “worship statues.”  

However, I couldn't help but wonder about his parishioners. You see, in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the families within his church pass from house-to-house a statue of Virgin Mary. (It's a really big deal, especially to the Hispanic families of his parish.)  

I can't help but think that some of them attribute a kind of "power" to the image itself. Do they believe the statue is literally Mary? No. But they do seem to think that there is a power or essence connected to the plaster. 

Also, consider Isaiah’s words: 

And the rest of it he makes into a god,
His carved image.
He falls down before it and worships it,
Prays to it and says,
“Deliver me, for you are my god!” (44:17). 

Is the prophet suggesting that idolaters are, in some sense, attributing deity to the image? It seems so. Or, I suppose we could read this mocking passage as a reductio argument, if you will, not to be taken with “wooden” literalism. (Sorry...couldn't resist.) 

At any rate, it is far from certain that “no one” worships statues. 

Third, while I don't find myself doing this, what should one do who has mental images of God (most likely this would be a mental picture of Jesus)? 

Would such a mental conception be a form of idolatry (idolatry of the mind or imagination)? Is it idolatrous to "see" Jesus walking on water as one reads the story in scripture?  

Should we deem the following lyrics of the hymn "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" to be inappropriate (idolatrous)? 

Beneath the Cross of Jesus
Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One
Who suffered there for me . . .  

Finally, what of the Apostles? Would they have been guilty of breaking the Second Commandment if they formed mental images of Christ through their faculty of memory? 

These are my idol questions. What say you? 


  1. Good question. I am of the camp that agrees with the teaching of the Westminster Larger Catechism and Heidelberg Catechism on the 2nd Commandment, but the internal workings of man are substantially different than external created images. However, I cannot answer (meaning that I am not able to answer intelligibly and not that I will not answer) the primary question.

    With regard to the Apostles, they knew the Savior intimately and saw His human body. They were in a unique position, and though they saw a lot, they too were expected to walk by faith and not sight. Furthermore, their memory of Christ's physical form is much different than the imagination of man (and his presuppositions, “artistic license," etc.) 100-2000 years after His ascension. I think the logical follow-up question here is: “Why didn't any of the NT authors include drawings of Christ with their writings about Him?" Perhaps they did and they're no longer in existence—but I highly doubt it.

    1. We are agreed that we can distinguish "memory" from "imagination;" but I am not sure to what degree such a distinction can be made. (I understand eye witnesses can and often do vary greatly when recreating images from memory.)

      Had the Apostles and/or their associates provided us with visual representations of Christ from memory...I'd imagine the dissimilarities would be many.

      But, as you point out, apostolic "drawings" or paintings of Jesus (or of anything else for that matter) no longer exist (or have yet to be discovered) and likely never did.

      Why is there no evidence of apostolic drawings or paintings?

      The answers vary from: The evidence has yet to be found (but may be found at some point); to There is no evidence to be found because it has been destroyed; to There is no evidence to be found because the apostles and their associates never created visual art.

      Now...if we suppose that they never created visual art (which seems likely) the answers as to why this is range anywhere from the theological to the practical (they felt their time was better spent elsewhere or quite simply, none of them were sketch artists or painters).

      Thank you for reading and thinking.