Art for Whose Sake?

You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (Ex. 28:2).

- Exodus 28

Unlike many of his followers, John Calvin did not think all Christian art was absolutely forbidden. He did simplify the liturgy of the medieval church, but he also said visual depictions of biblical and historical events could be useful for teaching provided they did not attempt to picture the divine form (Institutes 1.11.12). The iconoclasm found in some of his tractates was not intended to be absolute. It was only necessary in his day so that those newly liberated from the excesses of medieval Catholicism could focus on the Gospel.

Like John Calvin, the Old Testament prophets recognized the danger of dead formalism. Jeremiah, for example, castigated the citizens of Judah because they repeatedly looked toward their possession of the temple to ensure their security instead of returning to the Lord in repentance (7:3–4). However, these covenant prosecutors never called Israel to give up the temple or its artifacts. After all, God Himself provided the instructions and blueprints for the tabernacle, the ark, the altar, and all other components of worship (Ex. 25–30).

Furthermore, even though as new covenant believers we are well aware of how temple worship prefigured the life and death of Jesus (Heb. 9:1–10:18), we too often fail to see how the Lord ordained the temple service to be beautiful in and of itself. As today’s passage teaches us, one of the purposes of the priest’s clothing under the old covenant was “for beauty” (Ex. 28:2).

Try as we might, we simply cannot escape from art or liturgy in our public praise. Even “plainer” church buildings use art forms to communicate. The absence of paintings or stained glass and the use of white walls, for example, conveys an emphasis on “simple” worship. Every form is an art form and every art form signifies something.

These facts tell us the use of art in worship is not in itself the problem. Only when we elevate the arts and lose the biblical Gospel do we commit idolatry. With many in the history of the church we affirm the propriety of visual art in our churches. Likewise, with them we confess that if we care more about the beauty of the sanctuary than the truth of Scripture, our priorities do not conform to the Lord’s.

Coram Deo

Many believe the second commandment (Ex. 20:4–6) prohibits the use of all art in the sanctuary. However, the fact God commands the crafting of things like cherubim in the sanctuary (26:31) proves He does not forbid all artistry in the public setting. Take some time today to reflect on the use of art in your church building. What does the presence of things like stained glass and paintings, or lack thereof, communicate?

Passages for Further Study

Ex. 26
Num. 21:4–9
2 Kings 18:1–8
Rev. 21:9–21

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