Let me briefly define things here, then offer a few prefatory remarks. Simply put, iconoclasm – in a religious context – literally means “image-breaking”. It has to do with destroying or removing religious images. Related terms include:
-Iconodulism = the religious veneration of religious icons
-Aniconic = without idols or images
Rightly or wrongly, both the veneration of icons and images, and opposition to them, have occurred throughout church history. My qualifications here are these: I make no claim to being an art expert, and I am not an authority on church history. But I am keen on both, along with theology and biblical studies. So an issue like this is worth focusing on, although it is admittedly very complex and rather involved.
To do justice to it, it needs to be broken down a bit. Here I will concentrate on the commandment against graven images which plays such a large role here. Other articles will look at the history of icons and iconoclasm. And another piece or two will look at the Reformers and their view on things like church images, art and architecture.
The Second Commandment
Leaving aside here the somewhat differing divisions of the Ten Commandments by Jews, Catholics and Protestants (some see Exodus 20:3-6 as one commandment, not two, and divide the final commandment into two ‘no coveting’ commandments), we can simply refer to this as the second commandment. It says (in Exodus 20:4-6):
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. 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 fathers 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.
This commandment is also found in Deuteronomy 5:8-10. So what exactly is being prohibited here? It is primarily about making an image of God and of worshipping any such images. God is God – no one is like him. Nor can any image properly represent him.
And God already has divine image-bearers: mankind. We are the ones who are to model what God is like. As Christopher Wright says about the Deut. 5 version of the second commandment:
Yahweh is the living God, and any carved statue is necessarily lifeless. Something that can do nothing is no image of the God who can do all things. The only legitimate image of God, therefore, is the image of God created in his own likeness – the living, thinking, working, speaking, breathing, relating human being (not even a human statue will do, but only the living person).
And of course Christ himself is God, and the very image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Philippians 2:5-6; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). So there can and must be no other image of God. But it is the issue of worship that is especially being stressed here.
Mark Rooker says in his book on the Ten Commandments, “The second commandment prohibits any crafted or sculptured image for worship.” And as T. Desmond Alexander comments, “The second ‘word’ in the Decalogue concerns the making of an idol with the intention of becoming subservient to the god represented by it.”
Or as Kevin DeYoung says in his brand-new book on the Ten Commandments, “If the first commandment is against worshipping the wrong God, the second commandment is against worshipping God the wrong way. . . .Most generally, the second commandment forbids self-willed worship – worshiping God as we choose rather than as he demands.”
The issue of worship is crucial. God is the Creator and he is forever distinct from the creature. When Moses shared this commandment with the Israelites, such worship of images was the norm. In the Ancient Near East physical images of the gods were widespread and fully sanctioned. Israel was to have none of this. As Philip Graham Ryken writes:
In all the surrounding cultures using living things of various kinds as images of the gods was commonplace. 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.
The whole problem here is really that of idolatry. As Albert Mohler says about this commandment:
We are homo-idolater, the creature who would fashion our own god. This is the true perennial heresy. . . . Why are fallen sinful human beings born idolaters? 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….
We are natural-born idolaters, and we will commit idolatry. We will worship, even if we do not recognize that we are doing so. . . . To be created in the image of God is to be made a worshipping being.
Or as G. Campbell Morgan put it:
It is as impossible for a man to live without having an object of worship as it is for a bird to fly if it is taken out of the air. The very composition of human life, the mystery of man’s being, demands a center of worship as a necessity of existence. All life is worship. There may be a false god at the center of the life; but every activity of being, all the energy of life, the devotion of powers—these things are all worship. The question is whether the life and powers of man are devoted to the worship of the true God or to that of a false one.
The problem of idolatry is just as real today as it was back then. As Michael Horton says about the first commandment:
It is rarely declared but often practiced: God is in charge of the area called ‘religion,’ but life itself is ruled by a pantheon of deities: career, possessions, greed, self-esteem, family, friends, entertainment, fashion. Whenever we make a decision to violate God’s revealed will in favor of one of these ‘deities,’ we are putting other gods before the one true and living God.
That is why it is so important that we worship the one true God only, and avoid any man-made images of him. And it is not just material images of God that is being spoken about here. Mental images of God can as easily become idols – false gods. So this commandment urges us to also think properly about God.
As J. I. Packer has rightly said, this commandment “forbids, not worshipping many gods (the first commandment covered that), but imagining the true God as like yourself or something lower. God’s real attack is on mental images, of which metal images are more truly the consequence than the cause.”
We are just as quick to fashion mental images of God – but they end up being false gods. As C. S. Lewis famously said about this in A Grief Observed: “Images of the Holy easily become holy images – sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast.”
This is true even in something like Christian prayer. As Lewis said in a letter to a friend on this matter:
The prayer preceding all prayer is “May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.” Infinitely various are the levels from which we pray. Emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth. If we pray in terror we shall pray earnestly; it only proves that terror is an earnest emotion. Only God Himself can let the bucket down to the depths in us. And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter.
One final issue needs to be mentioned here. It must be pointed out that this commandment is not a prohibition of art in all its forms and varieties. Scripture allows for sculpting and painting of images of living things, as the artwork on the temple makes clear (see for example 1 Kings 7:18-20).
Indeed, we have whole chapters of the Old Testament devoted to the matter of artistic design and craftsmanship of the tabernacle and the temple. See these passages for example: Exodus 25-31; 35-40; 1 Kings 6-7; 1 Chronicles 22:14-16; 29; 2 Chronicles 2-4; and Ezekiel 41.
There certainly is a place for art in the life of God’s people. But for more on the issue of art and the second commandment, see here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/04/11/art-second-commandment/
So the second commandment is a key text to examine when we consider the issue of religious images and icons, and how we should consider them. Are we to be iconoclasts or iconodulists? If we do start clearing out various religious images, how far should we go?
And is it only in places of worship that we do this? And what about religious art in general, including things like depictions of Christ? Plenty more such questions arise here, and in part they will be answered as we look at 2000 years of church history, and how such matters have been handled over the centuries.
That is where future articles will come into play. So stay tuned.