Sadly some Christians have a very low view of art, and in good measure this is due to a faulty understanding and application of the Second Commandment. The prohibition against graven images has been wrongly interpreted and as a result has led to much mischief over the centuries.
So what does the Commandment actually say? Let me offer it here as found in Exodus 20: 4-6 (the other version of it in Deuteronomy 5:8-10 is identical):
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
So what is being discussed here? This commandment is all about idolatry, not art. The key phrase is this: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them”. It forbids making of God any physical image from any creature: “of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below”. God is the Creator and is distinct from the creature.
In all the surrounding cultures using living things of various kinds as images of the gods was commonplace. In the Ancient Near East physical images of the gods was allowed and sanctioned, but Israel was unique in barring all this. As Philip Graham Ryken comments:
The Israelites were not allowed to represent God in the form of anything in all creation. Remember that the Israelites had been living with the Egyptians, who worshiped many gods, nearly all of which they represented in the form of animals. The god Horus had the head of a falcon, the god Anubis had the head of a jackal, and so on. When it came to the Egyptians and their idols, any animal was fair game! But the God of Israel refused to be represented in the image of any of his creatures.
That various things living things and objects can be visually or artistically depicted is clear from the rest of Scripture. Indeed, entire chapters in the Old Testament are devoted to the artistic design and craftsmanship of the tabernacle and the temple: Exodus 25-31; 35-40; 1 Kings 6-7; 1 Chronicles 22:14-16; 29; 2 Chronicles 2-4; and Ezekiel 41.
R. Kent Hughes says this of the commandment:
It does not forbid the sculpturing and painting of images of living things, as some have supposed. If that were the case, then one has to account for God directing that cherubim be sculpted to preside over the Ark of the Covenant and also be woven into the veil of the Holy of Holies, as well as commanding embroidery of lilies and pomegranates. Likewise, Solomon’s Temple displayed lions, bulls, and cherubim (cf. 1 Kings 7:18-20). Rather, what is explicitly forbidden is the making of figures or objects representative of God as objects or aids to worship.
Or as Michael Horton has put it:
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)….
God does not forbid images because He is opposed to art. In fact, Solomon’s temple was richly decorated with representations of the natural world. Rembrandt, shaped by the Reformation, celebrated everyday life and gave the natural world its own place, without requiring spiritual justification for his subjects. Nor were all depictions of Christ and the apostles forbidden. They simply were not to be used in worship or devotion.
In his important booklet, Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer mentions Leviticus 26:1 and goes on to say:
This passage makes clear that Scripture does not forbid the making of representational art but rather the worship of it. Only God is to be worshiped. Thus the commandment is not against making art but against worshipping anything other than God and specifically against worshipping art. To worship art is wrong, but to make art is not.
One major principle of interpreting Scripture is that Scripture does not contradict itself. This is why it is important to note that on Mount Sinai God simultaneously gave the Ten Commandments and commanded Moses to fashion a tabernacle in a way which would involve almost every form of representational art that men have ever known.
The dangers of idolatry
Can some people turn art into an idol? Can love of art become idolatrous? Yes of course to both questions. But that is true of all good things in a fallen world. We can turn loved ones, our jobs, our relationships, our families, even our churches into idols.
Every good thing in this life can become idolatrous if we are not careful. And Christians can just as easily do this: they can idolise their pastor or priest, or theology, or denomination, etc. The answer to such idolatry is not to reject and spurn every good thing God has given us, but to hold everything in right perspective, always putting God first.
Jesus even warned about loving your mother and father more than him. Does that mean parents are bad? No, it just means that the human heart has a tendency to create idols everywhere. And when the one true and living God is not at the centre of our worship, we will find something else to worship.
Indeed, we are all created to worship. As Al Mohler, discussing the first two Commandments, puts it: “To be created in the image of God is to be made a worshipping being.” He asks why fallen sinful beings are so idolatrous: “The reason is simple – we must worship, we will worship. Even as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the human soul. The human soul will find an object of worship, either on the shelf, on the altar, in the mirror, or in heaven. We are born idolaters.”
Thus we “are homo-idolater, the creature who would fashion our own god. This is the true perennial heresy.” So art, like everything else in life, can be a good thing, but if misused and abused it can become a very bad thing indeed. We can become idolatrous about art like we can become idolatrous about anything.
That good things can be perverted is no reason to get rid of all good things. It simply means we must all guard our hearts and minds much more carefully so that we do not drift into idolatrous worship of anything and everything but the one true God.
Banning art is not the answer. Dealing with our idolatrous heart is. As James Packer rightly states, “God’s real attack is on mental images, of which metal images are more truly the consequence than the cause.” Let me conclude with the wise words of Francis Schaeffer on this:
The arts and the sciences do have a place in the Christian life — they are not peripheral. For a Christian, redeemed by the work of Christ and living within the norms of Scripture and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the Lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts. A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.