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Pictorial Representations of Christ

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


Adopt ed as a policy of operat ion by t he Board of Trust ees of Great Com m ission Publicat ions on March 6, 1981 and re- adopt ed on March 30, 1989. Originally prepared by t he Com m it t ee on Christ ian Educat ion for a report t o t he 1957 General Assem bly. "And t he Word was m ade flesh, and dwelt am ong us, ( and we beheld his glory, t he glory as of t he only begot t en of t he Fat her,) full of grace and t rut h." ( John 1: 14) Quit e evident ly t he issue as t o pict orial represent at ions of Christ is basically t heological. I t has been m aint ained t hat such represent at ions are sim ply and explicit ly forbidden by t he second com m andm ent . To m ak e a lik eness of t he Son of God in his hum an nat ure is held t o be as fully a t ransgression of t his com m andm ent as t he m aking of a likeness of t he first person of t he Trinit y . On t he ot her hand, it is argued, also on t heological grounds, t hat t he full and t rue hum anit y of our Lord j ust ifies such pict orial represent at ions. I ndeed, it is urged t hat t he doct rine of incarnat ion dem ands such represent at ions in our pedagogy, since w it hout t hem it is alleged t hat a cert ain nebulous unrealit y m ust at t ach t o our concept of Christ 's hum anit y. I n seeking t o com e t o a resolut ion of t his problem it will be helpful first t o consider cert ain aspect s of t he doct rine of rev elat ion. We m ust never leave out of account t he absolut e sovereignt y of God in revelat ion. God m akes him self k nown as he wills, and in our know ledge of God we are com plet ely bound by his revelat ion. Speculat ion as t o t he nat ure of God which seeks t o im agine at t ribut es apart from his revelat ion is w orse t han vain. There is of course no rem ot est j ust ificat ion for such fant asy, for God's revelat ion t o us is a m easureless expanse enfolding vast galaxies of t rut h; it is a blazing glory which dazzles our m inds. I n considering it s riches we dist inguish bet ween God's general revelat ion in his works of creat ion and providence and God's special rev elat ion of his saving grace. I t is also useful t o dist inguish bet w een im m ediat e and m ediat e revelat ion. I f all revelat ion before t he fall be viewed as general revelat ion, t his second dist inct ion would serve t o m ark t he difference bet w een t he im m ediat e or supernat ural rev elat ion of God's walking in t he garden in t he cool of t he day and speaking wit h Adam and t he m ediat e or nat ural revelat ion of t he garden it self and t he universe in w hich it w as placed. As over against nat ural rev elat ion, all special revelat ion is direct and im m ediat e. How ever, w it hin special rev elat ion t here are degrees of direct ness. The revelat ion m ediat ed t hrough Moses w as t he word of God in t he sam e sense as t he sent ences which t hundered direct ly t o t he ears of t he people from t he t op of Sinai, but t he form of revelat ion w as m ore direct in t he lat t er case. All of t he appoint m ent s of t he t abernacle w ere specially revealed, but t he glory of t he Lord bet w een t he cherubim on t he m ercy seat was a m ore direct sym bol of t he Lord's presence t han t he post s of t he out er court . God's revelat ion of his ow n nam e t o Moses ( Ex. 3: 14 - 15; 34: 6- 7) is m ore direct t han his appoint m ent s of railings for roofs ( Deut . 22: 8) alt hough in t hat com m andm ent , t oo, God is revealed. I n t he t heophanies of t he Old Test am ent , in t he Angel of t he Lord and t he Glory of t he Lord, t here is revelat ion in a peculiar sense; rev elat ion of t he very pr esence of God. Such peculiarly direct revelat ion dem ands inst ant and ut t er reverence in t he form of w orship. This w orship is direct ed

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t ow ard God as he is im m ediat ely rev ealed. Moses t ook off his shoes and hid his face before t he presence of God in t he burning bush ( Ex. 3: 5, 6) . Worship is again Moses' im m ediat e react ion when t he Lord proclaim s his Nam e from t he cloud ( Ex. 34: 8) . Throughout t he Old Test am ent t heophanous revelat ion requir es such worship. I t is t rue t hat all revelat ion sum m ons us t o w orship God. The heat hen are wit hout excuse because t hey do not heed t his sum m ons of general revelat ion ( Rom . 1: 20) . Special revelat ion brings upon us t he dem and t o hear and live. Because our sin has blinded our eyes t o t he general revelat ion of God, and because only God's great work of redem pt ion, of w hich t hat revelat ion does not speak , can rest ore us t o fellowship wit h God, our w orship is t ot ally dependent upon special revelat ion. Yet special revelat ion it self t eaches us t o dist inguish bet ween t he revealed pr esence of God t o which w orship m ust be direct ed and special revelat ion in which God is not t hus im m ediat ely present . For exam ple, God him self inst it ut ed t he t abernacle and, lat er, t he t em ple. The worship of God's people m ust be direct ed t oward t he Most Holy Place, for t here God's presence w as revealed. There he had set his Nam e. On t he ot her hand, Moses m ade t he brazen serpent at God's com m and ( Num . 21: 9) . The people w ere delivered from deat h by looking t o t his sym bol of fait h. Yet t his art ifact was not a revelat ion of God's im m ediat e presence. When t he people lat er direct ed worship t oward t he serpent t hey were guilt y of idolat ry ( 2 Kings 18: 4) . Theophanic rev elat ion, t he revelat ion of God's im m ediat e presence, in t he Old Test am ent is always dir ect ly supernat ural. The sov ereignt y of God which is t he heart of t rue religion is t hus j ealously preserv ed. Man cannot cont rol God. I f an apost at izing people seeks t o com pel God's presence by bearing t he ark int o bat t le, God vindicat es his holy Nam e upon t hem and upon t heir adversaries. Anot her great principle of what we have called t heophanic revelat ion in t he Old Test am ent point s beyond t heophanies t hem selves. I t is t he principle of t he spirit ualit y of God. This is em phat ically expressed in t he very const it ut ion of t he covenant : "Take ye t herefore good heed unt o yourselv es; for y e saw no m anner of form on t he day t hat Jehovah spake unt o you in Horeb out of t he m idst of t he fire; lest ye corrupt yourselv es, and m ake you a graven im age in t he form of any figure, t he lik eness of m ale or fem ale...and lest t hou lift up t hine eyes unt o heaven, and when t hou seest t he sun and t he m oon and t he st ars, even all t he host of heaven, t hou be drawn away and worship t hem , and serve t hem ..." ( Deut . 4: 15 - 16, 19) . I n t he sym bolism of t he t abernacle, t he m ercy seat of t he ark is em pt y . Only t he bright ness of God's glory supernat urally represent s his presence. The t heophanies t hem selv es, w hile at t im es ant hropom orphic, do not deny t his principle: God m ay choose t o appear in v isible form , but he is in essence spirit ual. The very variet y of t heophanic revelat ion point s t o an inadequacy in t he form . The whole t hrust of t he Old Test am ent is t herefore against idolat ry. The second com m andm ent is t he great guide t o a t rue and spirit ual worship. God has creat ed t his world and all m ust be received as rev ealing God and dedicat ed t o God in t he service of w orship and obedience. But t he dist inct ion bet w een t he direct rev elat ion of t he presence of God by his supernat ural pow er and t he indirect revelat ion of t he w ork s of God m ust be preserved. The abom inat ions of t he heat hen who w orship t he creat ure rat her t han t he Creat or m ust be avoided. God's w orks are occasions for worshiping him , but he m ay not be worshiped in t hem or by t hem ( Larger Cat echism Q. 109) . This em phasis is perhaps m ost point edly seen in connect ion w it h t he creat ed charact er of m an him self. We are forbidden in t he Law t o m ake any im age or likeness of God, or, for purposes of

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w orship, of any creat ed t hing. However, God him self has m ade m an in his own im age, and aft er his lik eness. The t erm which is used in Genesis 1: 26 - 27; 5: 3 and 9: 6 for t he im age of God in m an is also used in Num bers 33: 52 of t he idols of t he Canaanit es t o be dest royed by invading I srael, and in ot her Old Test am ent passages in reference t o idols ( 2 Kings 11 - 13; 2 Chron. 23: 17; Ezek. 7: 20; 16: 17; 23: 14; Am os 5: 26) . God has m ade t he only im age of him self t hat he will perm it . Man m ay not m ake anot her, and ev en t he im age w hich God has m ade m ay not be worshiped ( cf. Rev. 22: 9) . God's presence is not direct ly rev ealed in any m an or in all m en. No divine King m ay be w orshiped in I srael aft er t he cust om of t he nat ions. Wit h t he incarnat ion t he worship of God is t ransform ed, but in harm ony w it h t he abiding principles of Old Test am ent rev elat ion. God, who was present sym bolically in t he glory of t he Holy Place, has com e in t rut h in Jesus Christ . " The Word becam e flesh and t abernacled am ong us." The incarnat ion does not hide t he glory of God; rat her t he glory of God is revealed: "( and we beheld his glory, t he glory as of t he only begot t en of t he Fat her) full of grace and t rut h." Man in his ow n const it ut ion as m an is m ade in t he im age of God, and t herefore in a special sense reveals God. Apart from m an's exist ence in t he im age of God t he incarnat ion would have been im possible. But t he incarnat ion, w hile it fulfills t he im age of God in m an in Christ 's perfect hum anit y, far t ranscends it . God is not only indirect ly rev ealed in Christ 's hum anit y, he is direct ly revealed. " He t hat hat h seen m e hat h seen t he Fat her; how sayest t hou, Show us t he Fat her?" ( John 14: 9) . "No m an hat h seen God at any t im e; God only begot t en, w ho is in t he bosom of t he Fat her, he hat h declared him ! " ( John 1: 13) . "For in him dwellet h all t he fulness of t he Godhead bodily" ( Col. 2: 9) . " Who is t he im age of t he inv isible God" ( Col. 1: 15, cf. also Heb. 1: 3) . Of course from t he st andpoint of t he deit y of t he second person of t he Trinit y, t he incarnat ion is an unspeakable hum iliat ion. Hum an nat ure, even t he perfect hum an nat ure of Christ , is no adequat e form for divine ex ist ence. To be m ade in t he likeness of m en is t o t ake t he form of t he creat ure, not t he Creat or; t he servant , not t he Lord. He m ust t herefore "hum ble him self" ( Phil. 2: 6 - 8) . Yet t his div ine hum iliat ion absolut ely requires t he divine exalt at ion of t he God- m an. His deit y is not surrendered for m ere hum anit y. He is not a m ere m an, nor even God "incognit o" as a m an. He is God I ncarnat e. Therefore his nam e is above every nam e. He is Lord t o t he glory of God t he Fat her ( Phil. 2: 9- 11) . Our Lord Jesus Christ is t herefore worshiped in his hum an nat ure. The great m yst ery of Old Test am ent prophecy is rev ealed. David's Son is David's Lord. Thom as falls at t he feet of t he Son of Mary and worships: "My Lord and m y God! " Mary of Bet hany anoint s his feet in worshiping adorat ion and Jesus com m ends her. The incarnat ion is no fleet ing t heophany. I t is an abiding revelat ion of t he presence of God. His body is t he new t em ple. He is t he Way . Where he is, t here God m ust be w orshiped. Where he sit s, t here is t he t hrone of God's j udgm ent . Because he is in heaven, ent hroned in glory, and because he is t he t rue t abernacle, t here is no eart hly holy place. Men need not worship in Jerusalem , for t he shadow has given place t o realit y . Worship " in t rut h" is worship in Christ . Yet t he worship of Christ is not unspirit ual. Worship " in t rut h" is no ant it hesis t o worship " in spirit ," for t he obj ect of our w orship is no m ere creat ure, but God I ncarnat e, and in Christ Jesus God is not concealed, or halfhidden and half- revealed, but revealed: in him dwells t he fulness of t he Godhead bodily. I t is im possible t herefore t o quest ion t he revelat ory charact er of t he physical appearance of Christ . This is not t o say t hat his hum an nat ure, t aken in isolat ion, reveals God in a sense t hat t he unfallen hum an nat ure of Adam did not . But his hum an nat ure m ay not be t aken in isolat ion. [ 1] I n t he union of t he incarnat ion t he hum an nat ure m anifest s t he divine person. I t m ust be recognized t hat t here

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is in pict orial represent at ion a reflect ion of t he dynam ic charact er of life. To see our Lord w as not t o see a m erely hum an face: t wo eyes, a nose, a m out h. I t was t o see an expression in a cont ext ; not m erely a face but a look. At every m om ent Jesus direct ly revealed God. I n every gest ure he evoked w orship. I t is in Script ure t hat Christ is present ed t o us. We do not possess t he fulness of revelat ion t hat cam e t hrough him ( John 21: 25) , but we have in Script ure an inspired select ion of all t hat we need t o know for salvat ion. Now it is st riking t hat we have no inscript urat ed descript ions of our Lord, except in t he figurat iv e language of t he book of Revelat ion. Script ure does t ell us t hat Christ had a t rue and apparent ly norm al hum an body. But we look in vain for physical det ails. What are t he requirem ent s of t he inscript urat ed record of Christ ? The response of worship is em phat ically dem anded. No response t o t he revelat ion of God in Christ m ay be devoid of t his elem ent . Any concern wit h Christ as he is revealed t o us by his word and Spirit w hich is not fundam ent ally worship is sinful. Speculat ive curiosit y going beyond t he indicat ions of Script ure as t o t he appearance of Christ is t o be avoided. Furt her, our w orship m ust be inform ed by what Script ure does reveal about Christ as well as lim it ed by what Script ure does not rev eal. The problem of visualizat ions arises part icularly in connect ion wit h t he last m ent ioned principle. Since we know from Script ure t hat Christ had a t rue hum an nat ure and t hat he, for exam ple, overt hrew t he t ables of t he m oney - changers in t he t em ple, m ay we paint a pict ure of a m an engaged in t hat act ion? But how can we ut ilize t he dat a of Script ure w it hout m ore dat a? How can w e depict Christ ov ert hrowing t he t ables w hen we do not know what he looked like? This quest ion applies t o im aginat ion no less t han t o paint ing. How can we conceive of a m an of indet erm inat e height and proport ion, a hum an face of indet erm inat e feat ures? Yet m ay we dare t o im agine t he expressions and gest ures of t he Lord when we know t hat t hese w ere direct revelat ions of God, revelat ions which m ust com m and our im m ediat e w orship, but which have not been t ransm it t ed t o us? I t m ay appear t hat our sit uat ion is im possible. But t he problem is a false one. I t is perfect ly possible for us t o concept ualize in general t erm s. We can im agine a scene w it hout considering det ails. Oft en w e becom e aware of t his w hen seek ing t o draw a scene w hich we have im agined. We discover t hat new det ails m ust be dev eloped t o act ualize t he scene. The "Gest alt " psychology has em phasized t his " wholeness" of vision. But m ore basically, we m ust here again recognize t he validit y of w ord revelat ion. God has not conveyed t he t rut h t o us t hrough pict ures but t hrough words. Concept ualizat ion does not require visualizat ion. We m ay underst and aspect s of a scene wit hout v isualizing it . We m ay k now t hat Christ is t ruly m an wit hout im agining w hat he looks like. Wit h respect t o paint ing w e m ust t hen conclude, first , t hat port rait s of Christ are necessarily charact er st udies and disregard t he lim it at ions of t he silence of Script ure. To recognize t hat t his is t he case w e hav e only t o consider a sim ilar procedure of invent ing w hat Jesus said on a cert ain occasion rat her t han how he looked. Yet bot h are direct ly revelat ory of God. Drawing or paint ing in a phot ographic fashion or using act ors for pict ures necessarily goes beyond t he biblical dat a for any scene of sacred hist ory. [ 2] Wit hout ent ering int o t he propriet y of t his procedure wit h respect t o sacred hist ory in general, it m ust be recognized t hat it is excluded w it h respect t o t he direct revelat ion of God in Christ .

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Second, t hat sym bolic represent at ion m ust be dist inguished from realist ic represent at ion. I t m ust not be ov erlooked t hat t here are m any possibilit ies of sym bolic st at em ent in art . Even " port rait s" m ay be sym bolic and not refer t o act ual dat a or im ply represent at ional st at em ent . Furt her, t he principle of suggest ion is operat ive in t he art s. For exam ple, in a large scene a face or a figure m ay be suggest ed by a line or a blob of color. " Represent at ions" of Christ of such a charact er would not necessarily go bey ond t he biblical evidence. Such a suggest ion w ould only st at e t hat in som e such scene Jesus t ook part as a t rue m an. There are also art ist ic convent ions w hich m ight not go beyond t he st at em ent t hat Christ was a m an. I f t his t hought be pushed t o an ext rem e, one m ight observe t hat in a hieroglyphic w rit ing or in a Chinese charact er a sym bol for "m an" m ight be used w hich is m ore or less clearly a convent ionalized draw ing of t he hum an figure. Such a draw ing would be ent irely proper wit h respect t o Christ , for it does not go beyond script ural evidence. The follow ing conclusions w ill serv e t o sum m arize our st udy of t he quest ion: 1. Because of t he rev elat ory charact er of Christ 's physical appearance, speculat ion in t his area is as v ain as speculat ion as t o unrecorded w ords or deeds of t he Savior. 2. Because of t he im m ediacy of t he presence of God in Christ , his appearance com m ands worship; any represent at ion of his appearance, any port rait of him , is a st at em ent as t o t he revelat ion of God in Christ and t herefore also inescapably presum es t o com m and worship. When his words and deeds are report ed t o us in t he preaching of t he gospel we w orship him in t his revelat ion. A presum ed port rait cannot escape t his claim , and it s pret ense m ust be rej ect ed. Through such pret ended port rait s idolat ry has been int roduced int o t he church of t he new covenant . 3. Concept ualizat ion in verbal form is t he God- ordained m eans for t ransm it t ing t o us t he rev elat ion of God in Christ . 4. Non- verbal concept ualized st at em ent is, however, not illegit im at e if bounded by t he lim it at ions of Script ure.

The Com m it t ee considers t hat it is part of it s cont inuing responsibilit y t o j udge on t he m erit s of sy m bolic or conv ent ionalized represent at ions which m ay be used in it s produced m at erials. Psy chological charact erist ics of t he groups for which m at erials are designed ent er int o t he det erm inat ion of t his quest ion and m ust be considered by t he Com m it t ee as it exercises it s responsibilit y . EN D N OTES [ 1] The dead body of Jesus m ight be regarded as " in isolat ion" a m ere physical obj ect . Yet God does not suffer t hat a bone of it should be broken or t hat it should be defiled. Of course t he t em porary separat ion of Jesus' hum an body from his hum an spirit w as not a division bet ween t he divine and hum an nat ures. [ 2] I t should be not ed t hat t here is far less flexibilit y in phot ographic visualizat ion t han in verbal " visualizat ion." The lat t er can m ak e specific only t hose det ails concerning w hich inform at ion is av ailable. The form er m ust invent m any ot hers t o fill in t he pict ure. Verbal "visualizat ion" in preaching, for exam ple, m ay suggest possible concret eness in a hypot het ical fashion rat her t han incorporat ing new cont ent in affirm at iv e st at em ent .

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