Saturday, August 07, 2010

Is God unpicturable?

I was glancing through a book by Virgil Dunbar entitled Why Christ Can’t Be Pictured. Here’s the underlying principle which seems to ground his overall position:

“Because the triune God is holy, no member of the triune Godhead can be pictured: God’s holy nature separates Him from artistic creation. The holiness of God’s nature reveals that He is a separate category of being, ontologically separate from the world, unpictureable by means of art” (111).

On the face of it, one obvious problem with this contention is the fact that Scripture contains picturesque descriptions of God. Take this example:

"As I looked,

thrones were placed,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
its wheels were burning fire.

(Dan 7:9)

That's not a graven image of God. It is, however, a verbal image of God: a word-picture. And it's only natural for the reader to visualize the divine self-imagery. This picturesque description appeals to the imagination of the reader.

It's also hard to tell the essential difference between the mental image which this picturesque description is designed to evoke in the mind of the reader, and an extramental (i.e. artistic) image of the same thing.

If God pictures himself, then God is picturable. Perhaps Dunbar would draw a distinction between divine self-portraits and human efforts to picture God without reference to revelatory exemplars.

Yet his metaphysical argument, which hinges on divine transcendence, seems to disallow that sort of distinction. So what are we to make of Dan 7:9 and analogous depictions in Scripture?

Keep in mind, too, that Dan 7:9 pictures God discarnate (the Father) rather than God incarnate (the Son). So the question of God’s picturability antedates the Incarnation.

38 comments:

  1. "no member of the triune Godhead can be pictured"

    Jesus as the risen Lord surely can be pictured.
    I was sharing with my grandsons this morning how our Lord fixed breakfast for Peter and John on the beach. And so in my mind's eye I see them all.

    If I was a artist, and could draw I would certainly try to paint images of Christ and His apostles.

    I wish there was better art; better painting of Christ. There are some that are stunning, but much of the art, though incredible as art itself, such as Davinci's Last Supper, Jesus was a Jew, and so He would have looked like a Jew.

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  2. Yes, if even God discarnate (the Father) is picturable (e.g. Dan 7:9), why not God Incarnate (the Son)?

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  3. This argument is similar to using John 3:16 to defeat Calvinism. If I say Christ died for the elect, and someone brings up John 3:16, or numerous other verses, this does not defeat the fact Christ died for the elect. Scripture does not contradict itself, therefore we must look closer at our interpretation of John 3:16. The same goes for the 10 commandments and how they relate to Dan 7:9.

    Creating a real image on paper does not equate to a word-picture. Having Jesus in the flesh as the apostles did does not equate to drawing a picture of Him.

    "Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man." Acts 17:29

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  4. "Having Jesus in the flesh as the apostles did does not equate to drawing a picture of Him."

    No. I at times wish I could have lived then, and seen our Savior in the flesh. What an awesome honor.
    But to see well done art of Christ, and His interactions with people, or art depicting His death and resurrection, lifts my heart at times, if it's done with quality, and humility.
    There is, as I said, a lot of cheesy art.

    Art is not for everyone however.

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  5. MikeB said:

    This argument is similar to using John 3:16 to defeat Calvinism. If I say Christ died for the elect, and someone brings up John 3:16, or numerous other verses, this does not defeat the fact Christ died for the elect. Scripture does not contradict itself, therefore we must look closer at our interpretation of John 3:16. The same goes for the 10 commandments and how they relate to Dan 7:9.

    1. Well, first things first. At the risk of stating the obvious, this post is in response to a specific argument. That's the context.

    2. So you're arguing we can't go around proof-texting, yeah? But Steve isn't proof-texting. He's said quite a bit on the topic including tackling the relevant passages (e.g. see the posts as well as their comboxes here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

    Creating a real image on paper does not equate to a word-picture. Having Jesus in the flesh as the apostles did does not equate to drawing a picture of Him.

    "Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man." Acts 17:29


    Wait a sec. Despite saying we shouldn't proof-text in this case, aren't you proof-texting here?

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  6. MIKEB SAID:

    "Scripture does not contradict itself, therefore we must look closer at our interpretation of John 3:16. The same goes for the 10 commandments and how they relate to Dan 7:9."

    Well that cuts both ways. Dan 7:9 (and similar passages) should be allowed to interpret the 2nd commandment.

    "Creating a real image on paper does not equate to a word-picture.''

    That's an assertion, not an argument. Were you planning to delineate the salient difference(s)?

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  7. Steve,

    Good thoughts on this issue. You said "It's also hard to tell the essential difference between the mental image which this picturesque description is designed to evoke in the mind of the reader, and an extramental (i.e. artistic) image of the same thing." It does seem strange indeed to say that it is permissible to have a mental image evoked by Scripture, but that it is not permissible to convey such an image to some artistic medium. One might say that such images are sinful because they do not properly represent God. But if such images are sinful because they do not properly represent God, then why is not the mental image also sinful, since it does not properly represent God? And if the mental image is sinful, then we should avoid reading Dan. 7:9, lest we sin by having an erroneous mental image of God evoked in our minds!

    Also, this claim of Dunbar's seems rather indefensible: "The holiness of God’s nature reveals that He is a separate category of being, ontologically separate from the world, unpictureable by means of art." If God is "ontologically separate" from the world, then it would seem that God would have no ontological connection with it (else there would be an ontological "connection", and no "separate"-ness). But if God has no ontological connection with the world, then there would be no providence, no miracles, no self-revelation, etc. I believe that it is Biblical to say that God is ontologically distinct from the world, and not a part of the world, but I don't see how saying that He is "ontologically separate" is anything other than an assertion of a form of deism. If God is merely distinct from the world, then there is no reason, in terms of ontological connections, why He cannot be pictured. Indeed, He can picture Himself, and reveal such a picture to us, as He has in Dan. 7:9.

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  8. Patrick Chan said:

    "Wait a sec. Despite saying we shouldn't proof-text in this case, aren't you proof-texting here?"

    That's not just a proof text. That's a defeater of the argument for drawing images of the Divine Nature.

    Why again should we be drawing/making images of Christ/God?

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  9. MIKEB SAID:

    "Why again should we be drawing/making images of Christ/God?"

    That's a prejudicial question. It presents a false dilemma between what we should do or shouldn't do. But some things are simply permissible.

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  10. That's a prejudicial question. It presents a false dilemma between what we should do or shouldn't do. But some things are simply permissible.

    Even if we assume it's permissable (lawful), that does not make it profitable.

    In light of your argument for picturing God, how do you deal with the Acts 17:29 text?

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  11. Mike,

    "In light of your argument for picturing God, how do you deal with the Acts 17:29 text?"

    Speaking for myself here, I'd say two things:

    1. The Acts 17:29 text can't easily be used to argue against pictures of Jesus, no divine nature is being pictured there. Jesus had created attributes---physical, human ones, even. Do you tell your kids not to trace their hand?

    2. Per your application of this text to "picturing God," whatever that means, for your appeal to Acts 17:29 to work you'd need to show that those who picture God "think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man." I think you'd have better luck with other passages.

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  12. "Even if we assume it's permissable (lawful), that does not make it profitable." -Mike

    I have a very good friend, and a missionary in Nepal, for the past 13 years, who came to Christ as quite the rebel.
    He said that one night he came home during the Easter season, and "Jesus of Nazareth", the film was on TV. He was watching the crucifixion portion of the film, and was greatly moved in his soul, and even wept about his sinful life.
    He wasn't saved then and there, but God the Father was drawing him to Christ.

    he is quite a missionary. he has taken the gospel to souls in Nepal who have never heard the name of Jesus; who have never heard the Gospel.

    Of course there is the other side to all this; the over emotional side.

    God saves a dead soul in an instant, and He quickens a dead heart the same for all sinners. Yet, how He brings us to Himself is endless in His ways He deems to in His sovereign love.

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  13. MIKEB SAID:

    "In light of your argument for picturing God, how do you deal with the Acts 17:29 text?"

    i) I didn't actually argue for picturing God. Rather, I presented a counterexample to an argument against picturing God.

    ii) In light of Dan 7:9 and other throne visions in Scripture, I'd suggest it's permissible to depict God's self-depictions.

    Pagan depictions of the divine are not divine self-depictions. They are not accurate analogues of the true God since they lack revelatory input. They have no basis beyond the imagination of the artist.

    By contrast, it is permissible for humans to represent God's self-representations. That's an obvious way to harmonize the 2nd commandment with divine self-portraits in Scripture.

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  14. mikeb said...

    "Even if we assume it's permissable (lawful), that does not make it profitable."

    Is Dan 7:9 profitable?

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  15. Paul Mantana,

    1. If you think the divine nature was not present when Christ was on the earth, I would suggest you hold a heretical view. A picture of Christ is a picture of both.

    2. You miss the point of Acts 17:29. Paul is saying we cannot conceive an accurate picture of God. At the time, they used stone, gold and metal to do so. The same applies to paint, flannelgraphs, etc. today.

    donsands,

    I'm glad you're friend was saved. I was saved at a mega-church that rarely preaches from the Word. God saves people during any number of sins but this does not condone the sinful action.

    Steve,

    Pagan depictions of the divine are not divine self-depictions. They are not accurate analogues of the true God since they lack revelatory input. They have no basis beyond the imagination of the artist.

    How do the two differ? How do you know the difference between a pagan depiction and an accurate one? Do Catholics have a pagan depiction or an accurate one?

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  16. MIKEB SAID:

    "How do the two differ? How do you know the difference between a pagan depiction and an accurate one?"

    I already explained that. Try to pay attention. An artistic depiction based on a divine self-depiction like Dan 7:9 or Rev 1:13-16 corresponds to a divine exemplar. A pagan depiction of the gods does not.

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  17. I already explained that. Try to pay attention. An artistic depiction based on a divine self-depiction like Dan 7:9 or Rev 1:13-16 corresponds to a divine exemplar. A pagan depiction of the gods does not.

    I apologize for not paying close enough attention to your excellent examples. Since I'm having such a hard time understanding you, do you have any examples you could link to online of what this "artistic depiction based on a divine self-depiction like Dan 7:9 or Rev 1:13-16" would look like? Surely someone out there has done it already and I could have clarification by looking at such art?

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  18. "I was saved at a mega-church that rarely preaches from the Word. God saves people during any number of sins but this does not condone the sinful action." mike

    It was not a sin to watch "Jesus of Nazareth", was it Mike?

    You are an enigma my friend.

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  19. An example of an artistic representation based on a Biblical representation:

    http://www.conncoll.edu/visual/Durer-prints/apocalypse.all/big/Box%2022-08.jpg

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  20. It was not a sin to watch "Jesus of Nazareth", was it Mike?

    You miss the point donsands. I'm not saying its sin. I'm saying that the fact your friend became a believer after watching the movie has no bearing on whether it is right to watch or make the movie. That's pragmatism. If someone becomes a believer under Joel Osteen's preaching, it does not justify what Osteen is doing.

    Steve, thanks for the example.

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  21. "That's pragmatism."

    No.

    He simply came home, and watched a movie that Franco Zeffirelli directed, and the scene of Robert Powell, who portrayed Jesus, being crucified moved his heart, and made him think about his sin, and Christ dying.

    I don't see pragmatism here.

    Just art. A superb work of filming really.

    Yet, it is the Gospel being heard that is the power of God that saves a dead sinner from hell and death.

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  22. Has anyone considered the analysis of the 2nd commandment in Waltke's An Old Testament Theology (pp.416-417)?

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  23. Steve / Patrick / Paul,

    Do any [or all] of you uphold the Westminster Standards and/or the Three Forms of Unity with respect to their confessional positions on the 2nd Commandment?

    In Christ,
    CD

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  24. We uphold the Westminster Standards respecting their position on sola Scriptura, and we hold the Puritan theory of worship to that same criterion.

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  25. You'll notice that Virgil has a chapter in his book concerning athropomorphisms: ch. 10, pp. 139-147 “Don’t Biblical Anthropomorphisms Legitimize Making Images of God?”

    He lists samples found in the OT of human body anthropomorphisms, human emotion anthropomorphisms, human action anthropomorphisms, human office anthropomorphisms all to represent God. In addition to describing God as being a man among men in the OT (!), the Bible compares God to organic and inorganic material from the created universe (e.g., lion, eagle, lamb, hen, sun, light, fire, fountain). God permits us to teach the word, but not to make images of these revelations. Anthropomorphisms do not negate or set aside the other dominant theme showing God vigorously opposed to permitting anyone to make an image of any such anthropomorphic revelation He may graciously condescend to state in words. And the Incarnation did not occur until God had prepared a people who would not make images if He would appear to them visibly.

    Thomas Watson:

    "The Church of Rome is reproved and condemned, which, from the Alpha of its religion to the Omega, is wholly idolatrous. Romanists make images of God the Father, painting him in their church windows as an old man; and an image of Christ on the crucifix; and, because it is against the letter of this commandment,they sacrilegiously blot it out of their catechism"

    ...

    "But is not God represented as having hands, and eyes, and ears? Why nay we not, then, make an image to represent him, and help our devotion?
    Though God is pleased to stoop to our weak capacities, and set himself out in Scripture by eyes, to signify his omniscience, and hands to signify his power, yet it is absurd, from such metaphors and figurative expressions, to bring an argument for images and pictures; for, by that rule, God may be pictured by the sun and the element of fire, and by a rock; for he is set forth by these metaphors in Scripture; and, sure, the Papists themselves would not like to have such images made of God."

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  26. Mikeb @ 8/07/2010 8:17 PM,

    1. (a) I didn't suggest that God's divine nature was not "present" on earth when Christ was, but (b) I deny that a pciture of Christ is a picture of both. That's to be proved, not asserted. Are you a body/person identity theorist?

    2. I don't think I missed anything. If you do, an argument would be helpful. God's nature is not *like* gold, stone, or images man just thinks up. Yeah, okay. Christ was a man too. He had a physical body. A created, human body. I think of bodies all the time. Christ's body *is* like other created things, made from the same "stuff" you and I are. Is that too "earthy" for you?

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  27. From what I can tell, Paul, no one is arguing that Christ wasn't a man, although there could be some Docetists still lurking about.

    The objection at hand is the violation of God's prohibition against human beings' efforts to image Him contra the 2nd Commandment.

    This crystal-clear position is also echoed by the voice of the Westminster divines, the Three Forms of Unity, the overwhelming consensus of the Reformers and Puritans, and most of the orthodox, confessional, creedal Reformed churches today.

    God has condescended to express Himself in His Word in many wonderful and glorious ways. His Word is His highest and fullest self-expression to mankind.

    Christ is the Word made flesh, having two natures in one Person.

    The Person of Christ is a divine Person, the God-man.

    Thus human efforts to image the 2nd Person of the Triune Godhead is prohibited by the 2nd Commandment.

    Any effort to image Christ's "divinity" fails miserably since the ineffable deity of the One True and Living God cannot be imaged.

    Any effort to image Christ's humanity fails miserably since He was a unique human being with unique features, and no one knows what He looked like during His humiliation. Furthermore any effort to image Christ's humanity apart from His divinity is to slip into functional Nestorianism since such would be to bifurcate the God-man.

    Therefore any and all representations of any of the Persons of the Godhead are pure speculation, the product of a sinful human being's sinfully corrupted imagination.

    With this in mind it becomes clear that all endeavors to defend or offer counterarguments against God's 2nd Commandment prohibition against human efforts to image Him are sinful, and sinfully motivated.

    Thus those who image God, and their erswhile apologists (or e-pologists), enablers, and defenders are partakers of the same bitter root of sin.

    With this in mind it becomes obvious that all involved in this type of sinful behavior are to be rebuked and called to repentance for their ungodly perversions.

    In Christ,
    CD

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  28. “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. 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, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments."

    The 2nd commandment is so that we don't worship other gods, mainly, don't you think?

    For God told Moses to make imagies for the tabernacle. Angels, calfs, and other golden images.

    Since Jesus was a Jew, and was born of Mary, and Jewish woman, Jesus would have looked like a Jewish man.

    We surely don't have a photograph of Him, nor even a drawing, though I would imagine some artists back then may have drew some pictures of our Lord.

    I have no problem with art depicting Jesus. I do not belive it is sinful, and I need to repent.

    If this is your conviction, then surely you need to live accordingly.

    I long for the Day when we see Christ face to face. And to see His scars, and His wounded side will be beyond any other possible joy that we have ever known.

    Until then I shall ponder these truths in my mind's eye. And sometimes in art, that is good art, and not cheesy.

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  29. The 2nd commandment is so that we don't worship other gods, mainly, don't you think?

    It is that, yes but I don't know why you would think it is "mainly" that. The making and the worshipping are both forbidden. Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy joyfully agree that having images around is just dandy so long as you don't "worship" them. Worshipping the One True and Living God through them as a "help" is fine though...so they say. But God rebuked Jeroboam for setting up idols to represent Yahweh, for worship to be directed to Yahweh, but God said to him: "but you have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back"

    OTHER GODS.

    The One who's name is Jealous didn't [and doesn't] accept being represented through images made by men's hands, nor does He accept worship through them. It's a neither/nor "Thou shalt not...

    It would seem that in they eyes of some here at Triablogue Jeroboam might have been commended as being somewhat of a reformer since before the kingdom was split Solomon's apostasy was rampant with many foreign gods filling Israel due to the influence of his many pagan wives.

    For God told Moses to make imagies for the tabernacle. Angels, calfs, and other golden images.

    Yes, God commanded that. What's your point? None of those things were representations of God. Furthermore, God is in charge and He gets to make the rules, and among the rules He has made is the 2nd Commandment forbidding men to image Him. Did God command men to make flannel-graph jesus, cartoon jesus, and crucifix jesus? Of course not, in fact He expressly forbids it.

    Since Jesus was a Jew, and was born of Mary, and Jewish woman, Jesus would have looked like a Jewish man.

    I don't object to this observation.

    We surely don't have a photograph of Him, nor even a drawing, though I would imagine some artists back then may have drew some pictures of our Lord.

    We don't have a photograph, correct, and as far as whether anyone drew a picture of Him during His incarnation, maybe, or maybe not, who knows? What we do know is that you and I don't know what He looked like. Nor does anyone else living today.

    I have no problem with art depicting Jesus. I do not belive it is sinful, and I need to repent.

    I guess that's between you and God, but I'd humbly suggest that you examine the scriptures and ask youself if you have any problem overturning the rest of the 10 Commandments in the same way you're willing to overturn the 2nd [apart from Sabbath observance due to the inspired NT commentary on that Commandment].

    If this is your conviction, then surely you need to live accordingly.

    I do.

    I long for the Day when we see Christ face to face. And to see His scars, and His wounded side will be beyond any other possible joy that we have ever known.

    Me too, and that's a promise to believers who endure and, though we have not seen Him, we love Him (1 Peter 1:8); because we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), being blessed as we believe, even though we have not seen (John 20:29).

    Until then I shall ponder these truths in my mind's eye. And sometimes in art, that is good art, and not cheesy.

    "Good art" that purports to image God in violation of His commands? That's quite a contradiction in terms.

    In Christ,
    CD

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  30. In response to this: "Creating a real image on paper does not equate to a word-picture.''

    Steve wrote this: "That's an assertion, not an argument. Were you planning to delineate the salient difference(s)?"

    But surely, Steve, you don't deny that there are differences. Does he really need an argument to persuade you of what he said?

    -TurretinFan

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  31. TF,

    There's a reason I used the adjective "salient."

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  32. Steve wrote: There's a reason I used the adjective "salient."

    Yes, I figured there was.

    Since you don't deny that the two cannot be equated entirely - what do you think are the salient similarities that permit them to be equated in the first place for the sake the argument presented here and in your "ungodly perversions" post?

    -TurretinFan

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  33. If it's permissible for a reader or listener to visualize an inspired picturesque description of God, then I don't see a principled difference between that permissible mental image of God and an extramental image of the same.

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  34. Steve:

    You wrote: "If it's permissible for a reader or listener to visualize an inspired picturesque description of God, then I don't see a principled difference between that permissible mental image of God and an extramental image of the same. "

    (a) Perhaps it's not permissible for a reader or listener to visualize an inspired picturesque description of God

    ... but assuming for the moment that it is ...

    (b) then what is the relevance of God's comment "for ye saw no manner of similitude" (Deuteronomy 4:15)? Could not an Israelite reply, "I didn't see one there, but Genesis tells me that God appeared in the form of a man to Abraham and Jacob"?

    (c) And one possible distinction is the difference between the spiritual world (the world of thoughts) and the material world (the world of things).

    - TurretinFan

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  35. TURRETINFAN SAID:

    "(b) then what is the relevance of God's comment "for ye saw no manner of similitude" (Deuteronomy 4:15)? Could not an Israelite reply, 'I didn't see one there, but Genesis tells me that God appeared in the form of a man to Abraham and Jacob'?"

    In Genesis, that's a narrative description, not a picturesque description.

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  36. 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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  37. It struck me after reading these comments that you could find a problem even with a photograph taken of Jesus when he was alive. If you took a photograph, you should probably destroy it since it wasn't as good as a digital picture. Oh, but wait, a digital picture wouldn't suffice, you need an HD still taken from a Red One camera. Oh, but that still wouldn't work, because you'd only get one side of Jesus. You need to put him in a 360 degree spectral imaging sphere and photograph him from every angle and only create statues of him. Ah, but then you couldn't take Jesus apart and see his internal organs. It still wouldn't represent his "full essence", and since you can't reproduce Jesus' internal organs, you'll have to give up. Oh well, you can't win for trying...

    But wait, didn't Jesus himself solve all these problems, including the internal organs part? Oh, but since you couldn't detect his God nature even if you could observe every physical aspect of him, then I guess Christ should never have let himself be seen at all either, right? Too bad someone didn't let him know.

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  38. P.A.:

    Of course, the fact that we *cannot* produce a reliable likeness of Jesus' physical appearance is only one problem. Even if we *could* produce such a likeness, there remains the question of whether we *ought* to do so.

    -TurretinFan

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