“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” [Exodus 20: 4-5].
I have always read the Second Commandment as a strong admonition to not bow down to gods other than Jehovah, you know, a god like Baal, some golden calf, some statue in a Hindu temple or some pagan god in a Greek or Roman temple.
That is not what J.I. Packer* thinks.
Packer writes “idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images. In its Christian application, this means that we are not to make use of visual or pictorial representations of the triune God, or of any person in the Trinity, for the purposes of Christian worship” [Packer, 43].
He means pictures of Christ or God, crucifixes, statues, ornaments that represent God, stained glass representations of God or Jesus…we could go on and on.
Some readers may not like this. The attitude is “what harm is it if I think of God or Jesus as a man?” “I can pray better if I think I am praying to someone.” “When I see God as a kind, white-haired, bearded man looking down on me, I can feel more religious.” “A crucifix makes me think of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross.”
I have to admit that my early thoughts about God were shaped by pictures on the wall of the First Christian Church in Marion, Kentucky. Every Sunday I went to Sunday school and there He was, His head was cocked to the side. He had a pleasant look on His face and He was admiring the work He had done; the trees, the animals and the humans were down below his outstretched arms. It was comforting.
Then why such a hardline stand? “There is no room for doubting that the Commandment [the Second] obliges us to dissociate our worship, both in public and in private, from all pictures and statues of Christ, no less than from pictures and statues of His Father” [Packer, 45].
To add fuel to the fire, Packer says a close reading of the Second Commandment highlights that God is a jealous God and anyone who has studied the Bible knows that God can be very severe in punishing transgressors. Do we really want to suffer His wrath?
Some Christians want to see pictures of God and Jesus, and they use the book of Genesis as their support. Genesis Chapters 1-11: “And God said let us make man in our image….And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them [from 26-28]. Further along in Chapter 5, the Bible says “In the likeness of God He made him” [Adam]. In Genesis 9:6 the writer of Genesis relates “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”
Aren’t these all references which tie man’s human image to the image of God? If so, why can’t we assume that a humanlike picture of God is appropriate?
But Packer would respond, let’s look at this part of the Second Commandment and read it slowly: “Thou shalt not make any likeness of anything for use in worship.” Any and anything are pretty definitive words. Any refers to even a reverent picture of God. Any refers to a crucifix that represents Jesus’ sacrifice. Yes “any” refers to that benevolent God hanging on my childhood Sunday school wall.
I have never really considered the down side of imagining our earthly father as heavenly Father until recently. In the approach to Father’s Day, I had an opportunity to hear three women tell me about how human fathers got in the way of surrendering their lives to Christ. One woman [my best friend] said that she had problems with accepting God as benevolent and forgiving because her father was not that way in her home. She never felt that her earthly father loved her, or at least he never showed her love.
Two other women told more extreme tales. Both were physically abused in their homes by fathers who had to have control. In one case, the father suffered from alcoholism; he was the one who used a belt to minister frequent, underserved punishment.
It was not hard to see that earthly representations of a Godly father were problematic for all three women. Does the same apply to images that we all see?
Here is what Packer says: 1. images dishonor God, for they obscure His glory; 2. images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God.
In upcoming posts we will explore both assertions.
At that point we will hopefully be able to know how we feel about Packer’s view of images of God.
Extreme position or reasonable position…
*from his book Knowing God