Monday, March 14, 2011

Michael S. Horton on the Second Commandment

Not only the worship but even the making of images is strictly forbidden in the Decalogue. The "god" who is made present for the human gaze and manipulation is never the true God, Yahweh. Hence, the close connection between the first and second commandments: worshiping the right God (i.e. Yahweh) is dependent on worshiping God in the right manner (i.e., giving ear to his word). In fashioning images, the worshiper is the judge; as a hearer of God's voice, the worshiper is judged—and in this judgment, is saved by the Good Shepherd. "The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out, ...and the sheep follow him because they know his voice" (John 10:3-4).
Torah smashes idols. "A theology of Name is opposed to any hierophany of an idol. Hearing the word has taken the place of a vision of signs." [Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred, 56.] The idol, as the prophets routinely point out, is the expression of the inner self's felt needs. Idols do not come to us from the outside and address us; rather, they come into existence from our own experience, longings, representations, and delusions.
Barth expresses well part of the rationale for the Reformed rejection of all visible representations of deity: "It is almost inevitable that such static works should constantly attract the eye and therefore the conscious or unconscious attention of the listening community, fixing them upon the particular conception of Jesus Christ entertained in all good faith no doubt by the artist." This draws attention away from the proclamation of Christ, directing our gaze to the artist's conception of Christ rather than to "the ongoing proclamation of His history as His history with us, so that it moves from one provisional Amen to another, in the wake of His living self-attestation pressing on from insight to insight."
Supremely, however, even the most excellent of plastic arts does not have means to display Jesus Christ in His truth, i.e., in His unity as the true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted. [Karl Barth, CD IV/3.2:868.]
It is significant that pictures and images of Christ were not permitted in the church until the sixth century. [Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 2, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 99-133; Ernst Kitzinger, The cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 7 (Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC: Trustees for Harvard University, 1954), 85-150; Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity AD 200-1000 (Oxford: Blackwell; 1997), chap. 14.] They arose as part of a general trajectory of looking away from the historical Jesus, as detailed in chapter 1 (above), precisely as the church increasingly lost its sense of precariousness in being lodged between the two ages.

Idols of vision certainly do not have to be material artifacts; they can be intellectual concepts. Edward T. Oakes notes concerning Balthasar's view that "the subordination of sight to hearing automatically closes off certain avenues to human speculation (and how telling is that word: speculation!)." [Edward T. Oakes, SJ, Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthsasar (New York: Continuum, 1994), 140.] Preaching not only subverts idols of the outer eye, but also idols of the inner eye of speculation, forbidding us from domesticating or mastering the Stranger who has met and claimed us along the way.
—Michael Horton, People and place: a covenant ecclesiology

God had barely finished inscribing the Ten Commandments on the tablets before the children of Israel were dancing around a golden calf. Israel had become impatient with Moses, and therefore, with God. Why was he loitering on top of the mountain for so many days?

We must remember that God's infant nation was only recently liberated from slavery in Egypt, where the worship of foreign gods was omnipresent. And, even while the second commandment was being entrusted to Moses, the people below were breaking it. As R. Alan Coe put it, "As later Israel wanted a human king, not the invisible divine king (1 In actual fact, they were Sam. 8: 4-8), so now they want a god 'with a face,' like everybody else. The last thing that they want is to be different, by their new relationship to God: yet this is God's aim (Ex. 19:5, 6)."

In actual fact, they were not worshipping a false god (a violation of the first commandment); rather, they were worshipping Yahweh falsely. Those who suggest that it does not matter how we worship God, just so long as we worship the correct God, seem to forget the second commandment: "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" (Ex. 20:4).
—Michael Horton, In the Face of God

The Image of God

I am convinced that the principal reason for the second commandment- that is, the prohibition of any physical representation of God-is because only Christ is "the image [icon] of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). Just as the Israelites were bored by "dead orthodoxy," while Moses was having all the fun being in the presence of God, we are often bored without immediate encounters and experiences with God in his glory. So, like the Israelites, we create a physical representation of God. Out of our imaginations, we mold golden calves.

Through mysticism, speculative ideas, and the works of our own hands, we carve idols of the true God so that we can experience him here and now. But when God became physical, he was not a golden calf. He was not like the idols of the nations. He was so fully human, in fact, that his own brothers by blood, raised together in the same family, did not believe in him until he was well into his ministry-at least thirty years of age (John 7:5).
He was in the world and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.
—John 1:12-13

Just as Moses asked to see God's glory and Philip asked Jesus to show him the Father, we seek to experience God directly. And we need a mediator just as surely as did Israel. God gave us the only mediator who could redeem sinners from the curse of the law by his own obedience and sinless sacrifice. "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (John 1:18) To know God is to know Christ. But to know God outside of Christ is to know him as a judge and destroyer.

—Michael Horton, In the Face of God

The most obvious violation of the second commandment since its institution is the practice of establishing physical representations of the eternal God. When God commanded the construction of the temple, He insisted that there be no physical representations of deity. There was much use of color and shapes and images from the natural world (fruit, trees, flowers, land, water), but there were no images of God Himself (1 Kings 6:16-18).

As we saw in the last chapter, the essence of paganism was (and is) a plurality of gods. The God of Israel is what we mean when we say we believe in "God." It is not enough to simply be a theist; one must believe in the one true God. But here we see that another aspect of paganism is the commitment to physical representations of deity as points of contact between the heavenly and earthly realm. Through this pole or that totem, this bronze statue or that gold figure, the gods carry on a relationship with the people. Whoever controls the point of contact controls the deity. The idol becomes a means of manipulating the gods into service. In paganism, the worshipers insist on having a direct relationship with their deities, experiencing them through powerful display of blessing and cursing. The idol becomes the object through which this direct, sensual encounter can take place.

The religion of Israel was committed, however, to a mediated relationship with God. Individual Jews had a relationship with God only because they were part of a community of faith. This community was represented by mediators: prophets, priests, and kings. In the New Testament, the final prophet, priest, and king-mediator appears. Jesus Christ is the point of contact between God and humanity. Because God is holy and worshipers sinful, the only way worshipers can stand in God's presence is through the intercession of a mediator. Idolatry, on the other hand, promises a direct encounter with deity. But ultimately more is desired. People insist on having power over the idol so that they can control their own destinies. In most ancient pagan religions, for example, the name of the god itself was said to have magical powers. To know the name of a particular spirit was to have control over that being and manipulate it for one's own ends.


At least one purpose in forbidding the use of images is the fact that any representation of God other than Christ is not only false but an insult to His exclusive claim that "he who has seen Me has seen the Father"; "I and My Father are one" (John 14:9 NKJV; 10:30 NKJV)."

Jesus Christ is called "the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15). The Greek word used for image in the passage is eikon, from which we get the word icon. Jesus Christ is the only exact icon or physical representation of the invisible and unrepresentable deity. "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9). This is what paganism attempts with its idols-having a point of contact with God. By being close to the idol, the worshiper hopes to be close to God, for to his mind the idol possesses some degree of deity in itself. But just as God ridiculed the pagan idols as being blind, deaf, and dumb, so surely did Jesus Christ not only possess sight, hearing, and speech, but give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the dumb. He was God in the flesh, walking among us, talking to us, eating with us, weeping with us.

For us to set up our own images after Christ has come is even more of an affront to God than it was for the ancient pagans.
—Michael Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom