In recent years a New York Museum was sued for displaying “racist whitewashed” paintings of Christ. Justin Renel Joseph claimed that the paintings are offensive. They “depict the historical and public figure of Hebrew descent, Jesus Christ, as a blonde haired, fair-skinned, Aryan adult male”. But a Hebrew born then would not be “genetically disposed” to have those features. To Joseph, it was cultural theft, racism and an “extreme case of discrimination”. It was a matter of accuracy to him. Yet what would an accurate picture of Christ look like? The only genuine standard of accuracy is God’s Word. How can we make use of that?
Joseph described himself as a 33-year-old biracial male who is of Hebrew and African descent and a Christian. He claimed that Jesus had “black hair like wool and skin of bronze color” just like he himself. The paintings caused him to feel “lowered self-esteem, discomfort, personal stress, emotional distress”. He also felt “rejected and unaccepted by society”. His lawsuit asked that the pieces of art be removed from public display.
Joseph referred to “historical accounts” as confirming the features that Christ would have possessed. It is not clear which historical accounts are meant. Clearly, they do not include the primary sources of the Gospels or anything of that time. Would a picture of Christ with “black hair like wool and skin of bronze color” be accurate? No, because Scripture does not affirm this. More importantly, it does not tell us anything about any features whatsoever. Would it be accurate to paint a picture of Justin Renel Joseph and display it as though it was a picture of Christ? Not if accuracy means anything at all.
There is a yet more important consideration. The Lord Jesus Christ was not merely a man “genetically disposed” to have certain physical characteristics. As God, He took a true human nature into union with his own Divine Person. Images of Christ depict (inaccurately) a physical appearance. But they cannot depict the Person Christ, He is Divine. The Divine nature cannot and must not be depicted. Thus, it is impossible to depict the Person Christ accurately.
A picture of you represents you, your person. We only have one nature and what represents that nature represents us. It is different with Christ, He has more than one nature and besides that His Person is divine. This may seem complicated but it is of the utmost importance.
Yet in only presenting one of the natures of Christ an image presents a false Christ. As John Calvin put it, such images are guilty of “wiping away” what is most important about Christ: His Divine Majesty. This was realised in the Early Church also. The Synod of Constantinople (Hieria, 753 AD) condemned images of Christ. They involve separating the two natures rather than seeing them united in one person. This is the heresy of Nestorianism. (Read Westminster Confession Chapter 8:2. This gives a brief biblical explanation of the true doctrine of Christ’s person). When people try to justify making images of Christ they fall into the heresy of Nestorianism.
The only possible accuracy in relation to pictures of Christ is to have no pictures at all. This is in fact also the only faithful accuracy (in the sense of obedient). Suppose someone was to leave in their will express, detailed instructions about a portrait of themselves. Suppose this was disregarded and the exact opposite done with it. No one would regard this as faithfully carrying out the wishes of the deceased relative. It would seem greater disrespect than in anything else because it related to something of personal concern to them, a picture of them. How much more is this the case in relation to God? He has commanded that no representation of Himself whatsoever should be made.
How much more is this the case in relation to God? He has commanded that no representation should be made whatsoever of Himself. No likeness of anything, anywhere is to be used in depicting God. He has specified this carefully, describing the types of representations men may wish to make. They must not make them “unto” themselves – after their own imagination and ideas. This includes pictures of Christ as well as the Father and the Spirit.
God describes Himself in the Second Commandment as “a jealous God” (Exodus 20:3-5). He is jealous for His glory and for our loving faithfulness in this matter. He also asserts that He is the Lord our God. This tells us that He is Lord. He alone can declare and decide how He should be represented and made known. Anything else is idolatry. We have no commandment from God to make images of any divine person.
Justin Renel Joseph has declared his personal offence and distress at images of an “Aryan Jesus”. But who has considered how Christ Himself views and responds to any attempt to portray His person? This is not cultural theft but robbing God of His glory. Can anyone quantify the infinite offence committed against Him? Joseph believes that the “Aryan Jesus” paintings contravene civil law. But any picture of Christ is illegal, it contravenes God’s law and that is what really matters.
James Durham wrote a helpful exposition of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps no one has ever given fuller treatment to the Second Commandment. The following is an updated excerpt. It is helpful that he shows the impossibility of truly depicting God and the Lord Jesus Christ. He begins by noting that the Second Commandment does not forbid making any kind of image. Yet every representation of God (who is the object to be worshipped) is condemned. Every image which is used in a religious way in worship is also condemned.
- Such images cannot avoid producing unspiritual thoughts of God (see Acts 17:29). This is contrary to the Second Commandment.
- God has never revealed Himself by means of any likeness (Deuteronomy 4:15-16). He only revealed Himself by his Word so that they might have no basis for producing a likeness of anything to represent Him.
- It is impossible to get a bodily likeness to portray He who is a Spirit and an infinite Spirit. Every such image must be derogatory to God. It turns the glory of the invisible God into the shape of some visible and corruptible creature. This is condemned in Romans 1:22-23. Every image presupposes some likeness. Yet there can be no conceivable or imaginable likeness between God and anything that we can invent (Isaiah 40:8&25). These verses show that their purpose of representing God by their images was condemned. We cannot comprehend God, and the mysteries of the trinity and incarnation as we ought. If we cannot comprehend them what presumption is it to paint them?
- We condemn any depiction of God, the Godhead, or the Trinity. Sometimes these have been put on buildings or books e.g. the sun shining with beams, and the Lord’s Name, Jehovah within it or any other way. This is most abominable to see and a heinous wronging of God’s majesty.
- We condemn any representation of the Persons of the Godhead. For instance, portraying the Father as an old man, as if He were a creature. Or portraying the Son under the image of a lamb or a young man. Depicting the Holy Ghost as a dove. All this does extreme wrong to the Godhead.
Objection: But the Son was and is man. He has taken that nature on Him and united it to his Godhead.
Answer: But He is not a mere man. Thus, that image which only represents one nature, and looks like any man in the world, cannot be represent that Person, which is God and man.
Objection: A man’s soul cannot be painted but his body can. That picture still represents a man.
Answer: Yes, because he only has one nature. What represents that nature represents the person. But it is not the same with Christ. Christ’s Godhead is not a distinct part of the human nature in the way that the soul of man is. It is rather a distinct nature and united with His manhood in one person. Christ is a unique Person, no one else is like Him. Anything that represents Him, must not represent only His human nature as though He was but a man. It must represent Christ, Immanuel, the God-man. If not, it cannot be a true image of Him.
There is no authority given from God to represent Christ in His humanity. It is not even remotely possible to do so unless men entirely invent it from their imagination. But can this be called Christ’s portrait? Would a completely invented portrait be regarded as a true portrait of anyone else?
It is impossible to make any use of a portrait of Christ. If it was esteemed no different or better to any image of anything else, this would wrong Christ. If special respect and reverence is given to it, we sin against this commandment which forbids all religious reverence to images. But Christ is God and the object of our worship. We must either separate His natures, or else say that the image or picture does not represent Christ.
Objection: But in the Old Testament the Lord appeared at times in human likeness. Other times the Spirit appeared as a dove or cloven tongues of fire.
- There is a significant difference between a symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit and representing the Spirit.
- There is a significant difference between what represents the Spirit as one of the Persons of the blessed Trinity, and what resembles one of His gifts.The likeness of a dove descending on Christ was to show that He was taking up His residence in Him. That He was equipping Him with gifts and graces, particularly holy humility and meekness without measure. His appearing in cloven tongues was to show His communicating the gift of tongues to the Apostles.
- There is no biblical authority for drawing Him in these shapes any more than to look on every living dove as representing Him. The same may be said of God’s appearing sometimes in human likeness. It was only so that men might have some visible help to discern something of God’s presence. It was not to give any representation of Him. These bodies were assumed only for a short time as a prelude and advance evidence that the Son would become man.