Message 24, Optional Session: Visual Theology:
It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Words and pictures together can tell the truth powerfully or proclaim error strongly. This session considers how we can combine words and pictures to explain truth and edify believers.
Peter Jackson ruined the ‘Lord of the Rings.’ I promised online I would begin that way. Those are fighting words, I know, for fans of the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but if you bear with me for a few minutes I’ll do my best to prove that, and to show you why it matters.
You know, for years and years we got along just fine without a Lord of the Rings movie to entertain us, as long as we ignore that animated series from way back when. And then Jackson made this trilogy of movies, right? And he took that $300 production budget and blew it up into three-billion dollars at the box office, and the movies got rave reviews. They won all sorts of big awards. So, why would I say that he ruined the ‘Lord of the Rings’?
Well, I’ll get to that, but first I want to remind you what we’re doing in this session together this evening. We’re talking about visual theology. And I suppose you’ve probably heard it said before that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s the way we attest the value, the power of images.
And we, I think, of all generations are the most visual. We are just drowning in images today, and drowning in opportunities to see images, and yet we can learn from the history of Christianity, from our own church history, that images can be used to help, and they can be used to hinder the work of the gospel, help and hinder our work in this world. And I believe Dr. Ferguson spoke about that a little bit already.
What I want to do this evening, then, is to talk about how we can use words and pictures together to explain truth and to build up Christians. That is what I mean by visual theology, displaying what is true in visual forms. So, visual theology then is not fine art. These are not paintings of people. No, this is functional art, and there’s a key difference between the two. I’ll explain as we go.
Now, here’s what perplexed me after I was assigned this topic: What do I call people to in a session like this? Because I can’t just talk. I can’t just relay information. There’s got to be something you can do with this information. I had to think about that a lot, and I think this is it. We need to be first, theologians.
Each one of us needs to accept our calling from God to be a theologian. We need to know theology. We need to commit our lives to growing in our understanding of theology. And then once we know what we believe, once we’re well-grounded in it, then we can accept, or consider this idea of using images, using visualizations to help teach it.
So, we can use our theology to inspire that kind of functional art that I’ve been speaking about. And I think there’s a great opportunity here for people, especially I want to pin it on young people to learn how to use certain tools, and first to learn theology, then to learn how to use certain tools and to display your theology in those visual formats.
So, what I’ll say this evening will fall under two headings.
First, we are all theologians. I’ll discuss that, and then I’ll talk about how we can use visual theology well, and how we can use it poorly. And I’ll even show how God Himself has used visual theology to teach us in the past.
Now, I’m going to refer to a couple of images here that are visual theology images that my artist and I have made up. I want you to see those if you’re able. You probably can’t this evening, but you can download those. If you go to ‘Ligonier.visualtheology.church,’ there’s a couple of nice high-resolution images that you can download there that will show you the kind of thing I’m speaking about. That’s ‘ligonier.visualtheology.church.’ You’ll see a message there and two images for you to download that I think will display some of what we’re talking about here.
So first this: we are all theologians. This may be very obvious to some people in this room. It might be very, very novel to others. God calls each one of us to know what is true about Him.
Each one of us is responsible before God to learn what’s true about God, what’s true about God’s character and actions, what’s true about the world that He made, what’s true about the people that He made, how it’s all going to wind up, what’s the future of all that God has made? God made this world. He made everything in it, and there’s no greater study than that, than God Himself, His character, His actions.
But we don’t just need to learn theology. We also need to teach it. And so we are all theologians in the sense that we need to learn truth, that we need to know truth and that we need to teach truth. Now, I say this may be a novel idea to some people, and I say that because we’re living at a time of profound theological ignorance. And, I really mean that.
I’m a writer by trade. Day by day I try to write something and present it where people can read it and engage with it. And I receive all sorts of feedback from people, and I’m genuinely glad to receive that feedback, but it never ceases to amaze me how little some people know, just how little theology some people understand, how little of God’s truth people have absorbed.
Now, in some cases that’s fine. Right? If you’re a new believer, we all begin with very little knowledge. We all begin with false doctrine, right? And over time it gets corrected. Over time our understanding is sharpened. There’s no new Christian who can properly define the Trinity, right, who really has a sharp understanding of that very, very difficult doctrine.
But what I see, and the trouble really comes when people have professed faith for years, they’ve been believers for years and for decades, but they’ve still got almost no knowledge of theology. That is very, very common and it’s very, very tragic.
Thinking just the other day about that passage in Acts, chapter 19. So Paul is traveling on one of his missionary journeys and he comes to the city of Ephesus for the first time. I’ll read what happens. “It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. And there he found some disciples, and he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” and they said, “No. We’ve not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
So here were these people that are described as disciples, but they had no knowledge of the Holy Spirit. So they might’ve been pre-Pentecost believers who had put their faith in Jesus but just never heard about the coming of the Spirit, or they might’ve been disciples of John who had been baptized by John but never actually heard about Jesus.
We don’t really know the facts, but we do know this: they were ignorant. They had not been taught. Nobody had told them about the Holy Spirit. Right? We didn’t even know there is a Holy Spirit.
Well, I think today we would find vast numbers of people who profess faith in Jesus Christ, and we might say to them, “Tell me about your theology. Tell me what you believe,” and they might say, “We haven’t even heard that there is theology.” Right? In so many cases I just don’t think they’ve been told that this is a category. They’ve been told that this is an expectation, that this is a joyous privilege of the Christian is to learn about God, to learn who God is and what he’s done.
We tell people, Christianity it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship. Right? People hear that all the time, and, OK, it’s true. Christianity is a relationship. We don’t need to downplay that. We don’t have to, it is. But what a joyous thing that when we put our faith in Christ we’re adopted into the family of God. Right? We enter into this true, living relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that’s good.
But the Christian faith is also this substantial and established and orderly and cohesive body of truth, and so many people have never been told that. They’ve never been taught theology. Maybe they’ve heard that theology is dangerous, that doctrine divides or something like that. But so few people have been told, “You are entering into this thing, now the stream of theology, and it’s your responsibility to learn it, to believe it, to teach it to others.”
What happens then? Somebody comes to them and gives them a book. And maybe the author of that book in the introduction says, “I fully adhere to Reformed theology. I embrace this kind of theology. This is very doctrinal book.” And yet her whole book is messages that have been communicated to her by Jesus. She listens, Jesus speaks and she writes it down.
There are vast numbers of people who see no contradiction here. Vast numbers of people who are not the least bit concerned by that, by somebody saying, “Here is what Jesus told me that he now wants to tell you. Listen as I speak the new words of Jesus.” For some people that sets alarm bells ringing. For some people that doesn’t even register. And really the difference is typically some people have theology. Some people have theological convictions founded on Scripture, and some people simply do not.
So, of course, then they absorb this. Or maybe someone recommends a book about the Trinity, and in that book the person says something like “Father, Son and Holy Spirit together died on the cross.” And a lot of people have no substantial knowledge of the Trinity, and so this doesn’t stand out to them. This doesn’t concern them as poor teaching or full-out heresy.
And again, the difference is that some people have studied God’s Word and they’ve read the ancient creeds and they’ve really entered into this stream of Christian theology, they’ve developed a substantial theology of who God is, but others haven’t. Those two books have sold forty-million copies between them.
You could take all the speakers — there’s a lot of speakers at this conference — you could take all of them and put them together and all of their books wouldn’t come close to that total. Yet here’s two books that have outsold all of them that are so dangerous and founded on such poor theology.
Without substantial theology it is so easy to lead people astray, to lead them wandering away from the truth. All that to say, we are responsible to learn and to embrace, and to teach what is true. Theology, doctrine exists and we need to learn it and to teach it. And the beauty of the Reformed tradition is that it’s a tradition that knows its theology, and it values learning that theology and teaching it again. Right?
The Reformed tradition is a tradition of catechisms and confessions and systematic theologies. I would imagine the reason you’re here this weekend is that you’re a theologian. You know that it’s your responsibility to embrace sound doctrine, and that’s what we love about Ligonier Ministries.
Just before I came here this weekend I was reading a little quote form R.C. Sproul. This is on the Ligonier ministries website, and he was talking about why he founded this ministry. And he said this, “From the beginning we’ve sought to help Christians know what they believe, why they believe it, how to live it and how to share it. Over the decades our commitment has not changed.” That’s it. That’s why I’m here. I think that’s why you’re here.
We need to know what we believe. We need to know why we believe these things. We need to know how to live on the basis of that and we need to know how to share it with others. That’s theology, and we are all theologians. So you and I as individuals, we need to go to the Word of God, we need to learn what it teaches. Right? All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, for theology. God’s Word teaches, reproves, corrects, it trains in righteousness, that’s theology, to fill our minds and warm our hearts, and direct our hands.
As parents, we need to instruct our children. As churches, we need to be teaching sound doctrine from the pulpit, and then in one to one relationships, every way we can to be teaching theology. It’s our calling from God. You know, Dr. Sproul wrote a systematic theology and he titled it “Everyone’s a Theologian.” That’s absolutely the case.
So how then do we learn, and how do we teach theology? Well, the majority of our efforts are in words. Right? We explain the truth. We preach the truth. We get in classroom settings and we teach it. I was raised on the catechisms, every Tuesday night with the pastor teaching us from the Heidelberg Catechism. That was my childhood, just laying that systematic foundation of theology. That is good. It’s good to teach in that way.
But as we’ve entered into a more and more visual society, as we have amazing new tools at our use, we might be missing this opportunity to express truth visually as well. There is so much visual teaching going on outside the church. I think this is an opportunity we as Christians may be missing.
If you go online you can find channel after channel on YouTube that presents truth in intriguing, visual ways. You can go and find whole sights full of infographics that present truth in compelling ways, and as Christians we’ve done very, very little in this realm. We found these amazing ways to present truth in visual formats, but we as Christians are lagging behind.
So I want to put out a call, especially for young people again, to learn this, to learn how to visualize information, to learn how to visualize theology. So let’s transition then to that.
Imagine that someone gave you this challenge, OK? I want you to invent or create a place of worship that will communicate truth about God, but without words. People ought to be able to go into this place of worship and see what is true about God. That’s the tabernacle, right? God created this very place.
As God’s people entered into it, and as they interacted with it, as they did things, as they saw things, everything had a meaning beyond itself. Everything there was functional, but everything had a deeper meaning and the more they used it, the more they studied it, the more they engaged with it, the more they would learn about God.
So think about this. Let’s engage our imaginations a little bit, so you’ve got to imagine here that you’re an ancient Israelite and you’re going to the tabernacle. Well, you know exactly where to go to find it, because it’s always at the center of the camp. Now, you could say that’s a very functional decision, right? So, it’s easy for as many people as possible to get to. But there is a meaning behind the location, and the meaning was, God dwells among His people. God’s place, God’s place of worship is right there in the middle of His people.
As you approach the tabernacle you see that it’s walled off, right, curtains all the way around forming a wall. So you know, yes God is in the center of His people, but I can’t just casually approach God. I can’t just go marching into His presence. That way is closed off.
So then you walk to the entrance, that one entrance, and you walk there and you stand still and you look. And you see in the middle is this tent. And you know that you’re not allowed to go in there, and that tells you that God must stay separate from man, that God has shut Himself off from man, that you’re a sinful person. You cannot walk into God’s place, into the holy place, or into the Holy of Holies. So you can come close to God, but not all the way.
Still, there’s going to be something keeping you from the presence of God. So far you’ve just gone as far as the tabernacle. You’ve walked to it, and by simple observation you’ve seen God is among His people, God is separate from His people, God cannot be approached casually, God will not tolerate sinners in His presence. All of this just being taught through the form itself. And it goes on and on. Even the fact that this is a temporary, not a permanent structure tells you something. Right? We have not yet come home. We haven’t come to God’s place through the Promised Land.
You look into the courtyard and you see animals being slaughtered and you know sin requires blood. God’s wrath must be appeased. And maybe you wonder, “How could it ever be appeased permanently, because I’ve got to come this year and next year, and the year after. Year after year to appease God’s wrath with a sacrifice. Could there ever be a permanent sacrifice?” And you see a washbasin where the priests are washing, and you know that they’re symbolically washing themselves of sin, but you also know it is God’s joy to cleanse His people.
And if you could go into the Holy Place you would see there an incense altar with smoke rising up to represent God hears the prayers of His people and they cry out to Him, He hears. And a giant curtain blocking the way to the Holy of Holies with this fierce guardian, this cherubim on it. And you know there, too, I cannot walk into the presence of God.
So as we think of visual theology this is exactly the kind of thing we’re talking about. There weren’t labels on everything explaining it. There was no priest there preaching a sermon about these things. God’s people were to see it and to ponder it and to know, to learn from His visual theology, this tabernacle. And so this is the difference then between fine art, things that are beautiful to communicate beauty, beauty is good. But these were also supposed to communicate function. There’s truth. And the longer you ponder it, the more then you learn about who God is and what God has done.
I think the best visual theology is that. We look at it and we ponder it. And the more we look at it the more we come to understand of it. So with the designer, we — he and I went back and forth. And we said, “Let’s lay out the books of the Bible like the periodic table of elements. What if we were to make a little card like the periodic table for each book of the Bible, and what if we were then to use that to divide it book by book and testament by testament and genre by genre?”
And it’s this chart you can look at. I gave you the link where you can download it later. You can look at this chart, and the longer you look at it the more parts of the Bible you’ll see, the more you’ll come to understand of the Bible.
First you’ll just see a bunch of cards, but then you’ll see a division between two, and a division between genres. And you’ll start to see names of authors and dates they were written and you’ll come to learn more and more about the Bible. So again I’m putting out the call here, especially for young people. See, learn, understand who God is and then see if you can take advantage of some of these tools and, and your God-given design-skill and artistry.
But I want to consider this: if we’re going to guard ourselves against doing visual theology poorly there’s something important we need to consider. And we can see it in the tabernacle. What did God not put in the tabernacle? Have you ever thought about that before? What was conspicuously absent from the tabernacle? You might think that within the Holy of Holies would be an image of God. And why not? Right?
Wouldn’t that make sense as you get closer and closer, you’d go into the Holy of Holies, there is a statue of God. Right? No. Of course not. In the entire tabernacle, with all the beauty and all the different works of art in there, there’s not a single representation of God.
The invisible God never takes on visible form. Right? And right around the same time he gave the instructions for the tabernacle, He said this, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that’s in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” That’s as clear as clear can be. God’s place of worship was going to be full of vivid images, but none of them would be of God Himself.
What was in the Holy of Holies? Just a box, right, an ark. And then on the top of the ark were two cherubim reaching out their wings. And right there in the blank space, that’s where God dwells. Right? The God who dwells between the cherubim. God would be present. He would be there among his people, but never in form. Now, why would God never appear in form? Why would God never take shape?
Well, that’s where we go back to the Lord of the Rings. And I’ll use that to hopefully show you. I love that book. I first read the series when I was young. I had a lonely year when my family had moved and I needed someone to keep me company, and Tolkien was my friend. And so I read that book and devoured that book, and I’ve read it again and again ever since then. And if you’ve read that book or another one like it you know what happens. You begin to form pictures of the character in your mind.
Each one of those characters takes shape in your mind, not necessarily visual shape, but you just begin to collect information, and you begin to know that person. Right? You begin to see the things he does or hear the things he does. You see His actions. You see His character and you form a picture. And the more you read the book, the deeper that characterization gets, the more accurate it gets.
That’s what I did with Lord of the Rings. And then the movies came along. And boom, right there on a giant screen there was Aragorn in the shape of Viggo Mortensen. And there was Elijah Woods in playing Frodo. Right? And now today when I read the books that’s who I see. Right? Those vivid pictures have scrubbed the other ones from my mind, but I kind of like my old one. I think he might’ve been more accurate actually because when Peter Jackson made the movies he had to change the form.
He had to take it from the word and transform it into something else. He had to show us this is who that person is, but he had to make some editorial decisions. There’s some movie decisions. He had to change their personalities and change their words, and so now I don’t even know who am I imagining in my mind. Is it the one from the book or is it one from the movies?
Why did God not want to be visibly represented? Because any image of God will lie. It will represent a part of the truth, but it will misrepresent other parts of the truth. There’s no image of God that can only ever tell what is true. And that’s because God transcends images. God is so different. He’s so other that any image might capture a very small part of who or what He is, and display it. But it will lie about the rest.
And so in a movie where you have a character playing God, or think about a movie that’s out today where Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all portrayed by different human characters, you could watch that movie and say, “Here are three characters that nicely portrays Father, Son and Spirit, are three persons.” And that’s what we believe: Father, Son, Spirit are three persons, but we also believe that God is one being.
Well, how on earth can we portray three persons and one being? How can we do that? And so that movie, that representation is maybe giving a little bit of the truth, but it’s also lying about something very, very important. Even as it might be leading you towards one thing, it’s leading you away from another. Not to mention it’s denying God’s infinity and God’s invisibility, and God’s transcendence, and God’s omnipresence. All we’ve done is made God smaller. We’ve diminished God. We’ve made Him more like us and less like what He really is.
So as we’re talking visual theology, how do we guard against doing it poorly? We realize the limitation of images. Images are so useful. Think about the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, these amazing images God has given us, these visualizations that tell us something that’s true, but they don’t portray God, not in that sense. So in all our visual theology we have to realize the limitations. We cannot portray God, because God means to be known through words not through pictures, not through images, not through statues.
So we do visual theology well when we realize our limitations, when we visualize what is true about God, true about His world, true about the things He made, true about the things he’s declared to be true, but we do it poorly when our images start to lie, when we attempt to use them to portray what can only truly be known in our hearts and in our minds. I’ll wrap up. This is a visual age. We are a visual generation and we’ve got more visual tools at our disposal than ever before. We’ve got ways of getting information out around the world in a moment.
One of the beautiful things about images is that they can transcend language. They can be used by Christians around the world. There’s a great opportunity before us. So let’s first be theologians who value the truth and who know the truth and hold fast to the truth. Now, let’s use these tools. Let’s make sure our young people are learning to use these tools. Let’s make sure they’re embracing these tools and let’s challenge them then.
Let’s give them the challenge to create and to use functional art to teach truth about our God, about His works and about His ways. And one more time, if you want that URL I told you before, it’s ‘ligonier.visualtheology.church.’ I hope there you can see a couple of examples. They’re free for you to take, where you can see at least our humble attempts at trying to portray some of what I’m talking about here. Thank you.