Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Second Commandment

Exod 20:4-5

4 "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me...

Deut 5:8-9

8"'You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me...

Deut 4:15-19

15 "Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.

Deut 4:15-19 presents a somewhat expansive version of the terse formulation in Exod 20:4-5 and Deut 5:8-9. By glossing the terse formulation, Deut 4:15-19 helps to explicate the underlying rationale for the commandment, and thereby helps to delimit the intended scope of the commandment.

There’s a prima facie contradiction between Exod 20:4 and the subsequent fact that God commanded representational art in the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle. An obvious way to harmonize this prima facie contradiction is to see Exod 20:4 as a shorthand statement, and also see 20:5 as an epexegetical statement which qualifies the apparently unrestricted scope of 20:4. In other words, this prohibition has reference, not to representational art, per se, but to artistic representations of God.

Deut 5:8-9 grounds the prohibition in two principles:

i) The invisibility of God (“You saw no form”)

ii) The categorical distinction between the Creator and the creature (given its literary allusions to the creation account in Gen 1).

On the other hand, God does employ mundane metaphors to depict himself (e.g. father, fire, farmer, king, shepherd, husband, potter, warrior, light, rock). So what the command apparently forbids is man-made representations of God, in distinction to divine self-representations.

And why would that be the case? The implicit reasoning may be as follows: since God is invisible (intangible, &c.), we don’t know what God is like unless he tells us.

In addition, any analogy also involves an element of disanalogy. Therefore, God must control any divine representations to avoid divine misrepresentations.

However, it’s hard to see how this twofold rationale is applicable to visual representations of Christ. After all, Christ was not invisible or intangible. And Christ assumed the nature of a creature (while also retaining his divine identity intact). Moreover, we do know what men look like.

Therefore, it’s not obvious how visual representations of Christ violate principle enunciated in the 2nd commandment. Not if you take the rationale into account.

And let’s remember that Jesus sometimes reprimanded the Jewish authorities for their rote enforcement of the law, when they failed to consider the underlying rationale for the law (e.g. the Sabbath). Fidelity to the law requires us to make allowance for the underlying rationale, which, in turn, conditions the intended scope of the law.

Of course, what is generally permissible may not always be prudent. Legitimate freedom must be tempered with judicious discretion, to avoid taking something innocuous to excess.

6 comments:

  1. Therefore, it’s not obvious how visual representations of Christ violate principle enunciated in the 2nd commandment. Not if you take the rationale into account.

    Not obvious? You just philosophized your way around what ought to be clear.

    Each of those Scripture passages tell of man's propensity for idol-making.

    Did He not communicate His Father in His Incarnation? If He did communicate Deity through His flesh then His flesh is a canvass of Divine expression, not merely the imago dei that we bear. So it should be obvious we cannot depict Him via physical representation.

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  2. Craig,

    So, if Peter had etched out a rough drawing of Jesus, would He be guilty of violating the 2nd Commandment?

    Can I be Jesus in an Easter play, in full costume? Doesn't that mean I have to try to represent Him?

    I'm legitimately trying to figure out where you can draw the line with a very important issue.

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  3. Chris H,

    I could discuss the theory of etchings, to time-travel and photographs of Jesus, but in the end: it's fruitless.

    As far as portraying Jesus by way of a play...well...that's animated popery.

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  4. Why is it fruitless to ask the question about whether a contemporary's drawing of Jesus is idolatry? Doesn't that go right to the issue?

    This isn't about time travel or anything crazy; according to your perspective, it would have been idolatry for Peter to draw a picture of Jesus. Is that correct?

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  5. Chris,
    it was, and is, irrelevant to discuss whether it would have been idolatry for Peter to make an etching of Christ. Why? It does not answer anything with regard to what our sin may, or may not be, seeing that none of us have seen Jesus…unless you have an etching with Peter’s initials on it that you’d like to hawk, I fail to see any relevance.

    If you’d like to discuss theoretically having an image of Jesus generated from His time of earthly ministry, that would be relevant. Let’s say we have a photograph of Jesus…not just an etching, a photo. Would it be idolatry to view it? It would definitely be a cause for idolatry…in the obvious way where men would venerate it. It is an image, not the reality. It would cause idolatry in less obvious ways, too. Men would study it, try to learn who Christ is by observing, and inference. A photograph presents no context. No words…so we come up with our own. A moment captured was preceded by many other uncaptured moments. Perhaps Peter could view such a photograph without idolatry since he was there. The moment captured would recall the moments preceding, a context none of us have. Peter could share the moments preceding that moment, describing inflection and facial expression, which then amounts to our attempts at further image-making…a never ending process. If more image-making becomes the answer to correcting our understanding of another image, have we actually escaped idol-making or are we demonstrating the folly that the very warnings given throughout Scripture hammer-out?

    Now would you care to discuss why it would not be idolatrous to make an image of the God-Man?

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  6. A compilation of most if not all our posts on the topic of graven images and the second commandment can be found here.

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