The Use of Pictorial Representations of Christ in the Work of Christian Education

Adopted as a policy of operation by the Board of Trustees of Great Commission Publications on March 6, 1981 and re-adopted on March 30, 1989. Originally prepared by the Committee on Christian Education for a report to the 1957 General Assembly.

"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

Quite evidently the issue as to pictorial representations of Christ is basically theological. It has been maintained that such representations are simply and explicitly forbidden by the second commandment. To make a likeness of the Son of God in his human nature is held to be as fully a transgression of this commandment as the making of a likeness of the first person of the Trinity. On the other hand, it is argued, also on theological grounds, that the full and true humanity of our Lord justifies such pictorial representations. Indeed, it is urged that the doctrine of incarnation demands such representations in our pedagogy, since without them it is alleged that a certain nebulous unreality must attach to our concept of Christ's humanity.

In seeking to come to a resolution of this problem it will be helpful first to consider certain aspects of the doctrine of revelation.

We must never leave out of account the absolute sovereignty of God in revelation. God makes himself known as he wills, and in our knowledge of God we are completely bound by his revelation. Speculation as to the nature of God which seeks to imagine attributes apart from his revelation is worse than vain.

There is of course no remotest justification for such fantasy, for God's revelation to us is a measureless expanse enfolding vast galaxies of truth; it is a blazing glory which dazzles our minds. In considering its riches we distinguish between God's general revelation in his works of creation and providence and God's special revelation of his saving grace. It is also useful to distinguish between immediate and mediate revelation. If all revelation before the fall be viewed as general revelation, this second distinction would serve to mark the difference between the immediate or supernatural revelation of God's walking in the garden in the cool of the day and speaking with Adam and the mediate or natural revelation of the garden itself and the universe in which it was placed. As over against natural revelation, all special revelation is direct and immediate. However, within special revelation there are degrees of directness. The revelation mediated through Moses was the word of God in the same sense as the sentences which thundered directly to the ears of the people from the top of Sinai, but the form of revelation was more direct in the latter case. All of the appointments of the tabernacle were specially revealed, but the glory of the Lord between the cherubim on the mercy seat was a more direct symbol of the Lord's presence than the posts of the outer court. God's revelation of his own name to Moses (Ex. 3:14–15; 34:6–7) is more direct than his appointments of railings for roofs (Deut. 22:8) although in that commandment, too, God is revealed.

In the theophanies of the Old Testament, in the Angel of the Lord and the Glory of the Lord, there is revelation in a peculiar sense; revelation of the very presence of God. Such peculiarly direct revelation demands instant and utter reverence in the form of worship. This worship is directed toward God as he is immediately revealed. Moses took off his shoes and hid his face before the presence of God in the burning bush (Ex. 3:5, 6). Worship is again Moses' immediate reaction when the Lord proclaims his Name from the cloud (Ex. 34:8). Throughout the Old Testament theophanous revelation requires such worship.

It is true that all revelation summons us to worship God. The heathen are without excuse because they do not heed this summons of general revelation (Rom. 1:20). Special revelation brings upon us the demand to hear and live. Because our sin has blinded our eyes to the general revelation of God, and because only God's great work of redemption, of which that revelation does not speak, can restore us to fellowship with God, our worship is totally dependent upon special revelation.

Yet special revelation itself teaches us to distinguish between the revealed presence of God to which worship must be directed and special revelation in which God is not thus immediately present. For example, God himself instituted the tabernacle and, later, the temple. The worship of God's people must be directed toward the Most Holy Place, for there God's presence was revealed. There he had set his Name. On the other hand, Moses made the brazen serpent at God's command (Num. 21:9). The people were delivered from death by looking to this symbol of faith. Yet this artifact was not a revelation of God's immediate presence. When the people later directed worship toward the serpent they were guilty of idolatry (2 Kings 18:4).

Theophanic revelation, the revelation of God's immediate presence, in the Old Testament is always directly supernatural. The sovereignty of God which is the heart of true religion is thus jealously preserved. Man cannot control God. If an apostatizing people seeks to compel God's presence by bearing the ark into battle, God vindicates his holy Name upon them and upon their adversaries.

Another great principle of what we have called theophanic revelation in the Old Testament points beyond theophanies themselves. It is the principle of the spirituality of God. This is emphatically expressed in the very constitution of the covenant: "Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of form on the day that Jehovah spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire; lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female...and lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, thou be drawn away and worship them, and serve them..." (Deut. 4:15–16, 19). In the symbolism of the tabernacle, the mercy seat of the ark is empty. Only the brightness of God's glory supernaturally represents his presence.

The theophanies themselves, while at times anthropomorphic, do not deny this principle: God may choose to appear in visible form, but he is in essence spiritual. The very variety of theophanic revelation points to an inadequacy in the form.

The whole thrust of the Old Testament is therefore against idolatry. The second commandment is the great guide to a true and spiritual worship. God has created this world and all must be received as revealing God and dedicated to God in the service of worship and obedience. But the distinction between the direct revelation of the presence of God by his supernatural power and the indirect revelation of the works of God must be preserved. The abominations of the heathen who worship the creature rather than the Creator must be avoided. God's works are occasions for worshiping him, but he may not be worshiped in them or by them (Larger Catechism Q. 109).

This emphasis is perhaps most pointedly seen in connection with the created character of man himself. We are forbidden in the Law to make any image or likeness of God, or, for purposes of worship, of any created thing. However, God himself has made man in his own image, and after his likeness. The term which is used in Genesis 1:26–27; 5:3 and 9:6 for the image of God in man is also used in Numbers 33:52 of the idols of the Canaanites to be destroyed by invading Israel, and in other Old Testament passages in reference to idols (2 Kings 11–13; 2 Chron. 23:17; Ezek. 7:20; 16:17; 23:14; Amos 5:26). God has made the only image of himself that he will permit. Man may not make another, and even the image which God has made may not be worshiped (cf. Rev. 22:9). God's presence is not directly revealed in any man or in all men. No divine King may be worshiped in Israel after the custom of the nations.

With the incarnation the worship of God is transformed, but in harmony with the abiding principles of Old Testament revelation. God, who was present symbolically in the glory of the Holy Place, has come in truth in Jesus Christ. "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us." The incarnation does not hide the glory of God; rather the glory of God is revealed: "(and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth." Man in his own constitution as man is made in the image of God, and therefore in a special sense reveals God. Apart from man's existence in the image of God the incarnation would have been impossible. But the incarnation, while it fulfills the image of God in man in Christ's perfect humanity, far transcends it. God is not only indirectly revealed in Christ's humanity, he is directly revealed. "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; how sayest thou, Show us the Father?" (John 14:9). "No man hath seen God at any time; God only begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him!" (John 1:13). "For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9). "Who is the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15, cf. also Heb. 1:3).

Of course from the standpoint of the deity of the second person of the Trinity, the incarnation is an unspeakable humiliation. Human nature, even the perfect human nature of Christ, is no adequate form for divine existence. To be made in the likeness of men is to take the form of the creature, not the Creator; the servant, not the Lord. He must therefore "humble himself" (Phil. 2:6–8). Yet this divine humiliation absolutely requires the divine exaltation of the God-man. His deity is not surrendered for mere humanity. He is not a mere man, nor even God "incognito" as a man. He is God Incarnate. Therefore his name is above every name. He is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9–11).

Our Lord Jesus Christ is therefore worshiped in his human nature. The great mystery of Old Testament prophecy is revealed. David's Son is David's Lord. Thomas falls at the feet of the Son of Mary and worships: "My Lord and my God!" Mary of Bethany anoints his feet in worshiping adoration and Jesus commends her.

The incarnation is no fleeting theophany. It is an abiding revelation of the presence of God. His body is the new temple. He is the Way. Where he is, there God must be worshiped. Where he sits, there is the throne of God's judgment. Because he is in heaven, enthroned in glory, and because he is the true tabernacle, there is no earthly holy place. Men need not worship in Jerusalem, for the shadow has given place to reality. Worship "in truth" is worship in Christ. Yet the worship of Christ is not unspiritual. Worship "in truth" is no antithesis to worship "in spirit," for the object of our worship is no mere creature, but God Incarnate, and in Christ Jesus God is not concealed, or half-hidden and half-revealed, but revealed: in him dwells the fulness of the Godhead bodily.

It is impossible therefore to question the revelatory character of the physical appearance of Christ. This is not to say that his human nature, taken in isolation, reveals God in a sense that the unfallen human nature of Adam did not. But his human nature may not be taken in isolation.[1] In the union of the incarnation the human nature manifests the divine person. It must be recognized that there is in pictorial representation a reflection of the dynamic character of life. To see our Lord was not to see a merely human face: two eyes, a nose, a mouth. It was to see an expression in a context; not merely a face but a look. At every moment Jesus directly revealed God. In every gesture he evoked worship.

It is in Scripture that Christ is presented to us. We do not possess the fulness of revelation that came through him (John 21:25), but we have in Scripture an inspired selection of all that we need to know for salvation. Now it is striking that we have no inscripturated descriptions of our Lord, except in the figurative language of the book of Revelation. Scripture does tell us that Christ had a true and apparently normal human body. But we look in vain for physical details.

What are the requirements of the inscripturated record of Christ? The response of worship is emphatically demanded. No response to the revelation of God in Christ may be devoid of this element. Any concern with Christ as he is revealed to us by his word and Spirit which is not fundamentally worship is sinful. Speculative curiosity going beyond the indications of Scripture as to the appearance of Christ is to be avoided.

Further, our worship must be informed by what Scripture does reveal about Christ as well as limited by what Scripture does not reveal.

The problem of visualizations arises particularly in connection with the last mentioned principle. Since we know from Scripture that Christ had a true human nature and that he, for example, overthrew the tables of the money-changers in the temple, may we paint a picture of a man engaged in that action? But how can we utilize the data of Scripture without more data? How can we depict Christ overthrowing the tables when we do not know what he looked like? This question applies to imagination no less than to painting. How can we conceive of a man of indeterminate height and proportion, a human face of indeterminate features? Yet may we dare to imagine the expressions and gestures of the Lord when we know that these were direct revelations of God, revelations which must command our immediate worship, but which have not been transmitted to us?

It may appear that our situation is impossible. But the problem is a false one. It is perfectly possible for us to conceptualize in general terms. We can imagine a scene without considering details. Often we become aware of this when seeking to draw a scene which we have imagined. We discover that new details must be developed to actualize the scene. The "Gestalt" psychology has emphasized this "wholeness" of vision. But more basically, we must here again recognize the validity of word-revelation. God has not conveyed the truth to us through pictures but through words. Conceptualization does not require visualization. We may understand aspects of a scene without visualizing it. We may know that Christ is truly man without imagining what he looks like.

With respect to painting we must then conclude, first, that portraits of Christ are necessarily character studies and disregard the limitations of the silence of Scripture. To recognize that this is the case we have only to consider a similar procedure of inventing what Jesus said on a certain occasion rather than how he looked. Yet both are directly revelatory of God. Drawing or painting in a photographic fashion or using actors for pictures necessarily goes beyond the biblical data for any scene of sacred history.[2] Without entering into the propriety of this procedure with respect to sacred history in general, it must be recognized that it is excluded with respect to the direct revelation of God in Christ.

Second, that symbolic representation must be distinguished from realistic representation. It must not be overlooked that there are many possibilities of symbolic statement in art. Even "portraits" may be symbolic and not refer to actual data or imply representational statement. Further, the principle of suggestion is operative in the arts. For example, in a large scene a face or a figure may be suggested by a line or a blob of color. "Representations" of Christ of such a character would not necessarily go beyond the biblical evidence. Such a suggestion would only state that in some such scene Jesus took part as a true man. There are also artistic conventions which might not go beyond the statement that Christ was a man. If this thought be pushed to an extreme, one might observe that in a hieroglyphic writing or in a Chinese character a symbol for "man" might be used which is more or less clearly a conventionalized drawing of the human figure. Such a drawing would be entirely proper with respect to Christ, for it does not go beyond scriptural evidence.

The following conclusions will serve to summarize our study of the question:

  1. Because of the revelatory character of Christ's physical appearance, speculation in this area is as vain as speculation as to unrecorded words or deeds of the Savior.
  2. Because of the immediacy of the presence of God in Christ, his appearance commands worship; any representation of his appearance, any portrait of him, is a statement as to the revelation of God in Christ and therefore also inescapably presumes to command worship. When his words and deeds are reported to us in the preaching of the gospel we worship him in this revelation. A presumed portrait cannot escape this claim, and its pretense must be rejected. Through such pretended portraits idolatry has been introduced into the church of the new covenant.
  3. Conceptualization in verbal form is the God-ordained means for transmitting to us the revelation of God in Christ.
  4. Non-verbal conceptualized statement is, however, not illegitimate if bounded by the limitations of Scripture.

The Committee considers that it is part of its continuing responsibility to judge on the merits of symbolic or conventionalized representations which may be used in its produced materials. Psychological characteristics of the groups for which materials are designed enter into the determination of this question and must be considered by the Committee as it exercises its responsibility.


[1] The dead body of Jesus might be regarded as "in isolation" a mere physical object. Yet God does not suffer that a bone of it should be broken or that it should be defiled. Of course the temporary separation of Jesus' human body from his human spirit was not a division between the divine and human natures.

[2] It should be noted that there is far less flexibility in photographic visualization than in verbal "visualization." The latter can make specific only those details concerning which information is available. The former must invent many others to fill in the picture. Verbal "visualization" in preaching, for example, may suggest possible concreteness in a hypothetical fashion rather than incorporating new content in affirmative statement.


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