Dr. Kenneth Gentry has recently written a series for Postmillennialism on whether artists should create art that contain images of Christ. I highly recommend the series to you, especially if you consider yourself theologically “reformed” or “calvinistic.” Even if you don’t, it’s a good read as Dr. Gentry tackles the role of the second commandment in our art. He argues that artists are not scripturally or confessionally prohibited from including images of Christ in visual media. Here are the posts:
- Visible Representations of God
- Images of Christ
- Westminster and Images of Deity
- Images of Christ in Worship and in Art
- What did Christ Look Like?
- Images of Christ Revisited
Again, I highly recommend this series to you. Gentry has persuasively argued for the lawful use of images of Christ in art. However, there were some arguments he made with regards to images in worship that I found uncharacteristically lacking. It’s those arguments I want to take a look at in this post. It must be stressed that the purpose of this post is not to argue for or against the use of images in worship, but rather simply to engage two specific arguments against their use that fail to convince.
Gentry’s Arguments for the Prohibition of Images in Worship
Dr. Gentry begins his argument for the prohibition of images in worship by quoting Deuteronomy 4:15-16, which I will quote from the NIV and go through verse 18:
15You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.
These verses, says Gentry, prohibit any use of images in worship. Fair enough. The list is certainly fairly exhaustive, so we’ll assume this is correct. Though, as a side-note, if anyone has any resources as to how we make the jump from carved idols (p̱esel) to being inclusive of all visual art, let me know!
Gentry then makes two arguments: First,
Our worship of God is to be direct — that is, to God himself. Whereas in producing an image for the purpose of worship, the image itself becomes an object of veneration and adoration.
Finally, we do not see in Scripture the use of images in the worship of God. We do not see this manner of worship in either of the testaments. We do not see worship through images in either precept or practice. God is the one who directs the manner of our worship — and jealously so.
My Response to these Arguments
Gentry’s first of the two conisdered arguments is that worship is to be direct—”to God Himself.” To this argument I say, “Amen!” Because of the work of Christ, the temple veil has been torn in two, and through the inhabitation of the Holy Spirit we have a direct communion with God. Our worship is able to be direct to God, through the mediation of the Son (that’s not a contradiction), by the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
It seems, however, that from this point Gentry makes a bit of a logical jump in that liturgical images are only used mediatorially—an assumption that is unfortunately true in some theological traditions. But is this a false dichotomy? Are our only choices images as mediators of worship, or no images at all? Can we not categorize them, rather, as aids in our worship? We find the other arts in just this role: music in our songs, word-craft and story-telling in our liturgies, drama and theater in our sacraments. It would seem that this argument—that worship is to be direct and unaided—would make us have to reject other normative areas of worship, including the use of instruments, liturgy, corporate recitations of the creeds, and even our preaching.
Of course, we would rightfully consider such an argument nonsense. We do not view instruments, liturgy, or creeds as mediators of worship (though there is danger that they, and images, might become such), but rather facilitators of worship. We still worship God directly, but we do so through the aid of these tools. Could not images be used in the same way? It appears so. Thus, as an argument for the prohibition of images the biblical concept of direct worship doesn’t seem to hold much weight, except against those certain traditions that explicitly venerate the image itself and proclaim their mediatorial role, unless we want to reconsider other staples of our corporate worship as well.1
Images in Scriptural Worship
In the second argument to be considered in this post, Gentry argues from the “regulative principle of worship,”2 a conviction we both share, that nowhere in Scripture do we find the use of images in worship. This is demonstrably false, however. Consider the use of imagery in both the tabernacle and the temple.3
These two worship sites—one movable, one permanent—were incredibly visually ornate. They included metal and wood sculptures, embroidery, images of cherubim, palm trees, pomegranates, and flowers. Both the tabernacle and the temple employed all kinds of visual art, and did so for the purpose of facilitating worship.
The point of the tabernacle/temple imagery was theological. It is there that we find heaven on earth. It is in the place of God’s special presence that we are taken back to Eden. The cherubim and pomegranates were not themselves adored, but rather they were used to direct our worship towards God by reminding the Israelites of God’s “otherness” and holiness, to harken back to a point where heaven and earth were not disjunctive, and to point forward to a time that they will be disjunctive no more. In these places of worship, visual art played the voiceless role of the harp and lyre to the psalm.
Perhaps the foundation of the prohibition of images of Christ has been made in light of Deuteronomy, but we cannot say that images were not used in worship in either Testament. Nor can we say that images remove the direct worship of God. Together, these do not provide a positive argument for the use of images in worship, but it does seem that Dr. Gentry’s arguments against their use fall uncharacteristically flat. However, if you find yourself in agreement with me, please do not let it detract from the rest of Gentry’s series which is otherwise excellent!
Just because I think that these particular arguments are lacking, does not mean that images should be used in worship. Do you think images can be used as an aid to our worship, or do you think the Bible prohibits the use of any images? Why?
- John Calvin saw this connection, in that he denied both the use of images and musical instruments in worship. See Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship. ↩
- For an overview of the regulative principle, see the wikipedia article. ↩
- For more on the use and purpose of the visual arts in the construction of the tabernacle and temple, see Immanuel in Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship by Tremper Longman, III, and Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts by Philip Ryken. ↩