The Second Commandment
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (v. 4).- Exodus 20:4–6
Paul in Romans 1:18–32 tells us that fallen humanity’s tendency is not toward atheism but rather to idolatry. Having rejected the God who does exist, sinners are prone not to abandon worship altogether; rather, we make up all manner of other gods to “take the place” of the Creator of heaven and earth. Apart from grace, we remain in Adam, hating the One who has revealed Himself in nature and in the Bible, and we fashion other deities in our own image. Some people make statues to represent these gods — consider the many deities of Hinduism, for example. Others create mental ideas about the god they want to worship — “my God would certainly never condemn anyone to hell.” The fallen human heart, John Calvin reminds us, is an idol factory that is ever coming up with new ways to image false gods.
This is the context in which we should consider the second commandment, which prohibits the fashioning of idols (Ex. 20:4–6). Due to our proclivity toward idolatry, we are to shun any attempt to imagine God apart from His revealed Word. The Lord has the absolute right to reveal Himself as He chooses, and He has chosen not to reveal His Spirit in visible form (Deut. 4:15–31). To attempt to depict the divine apart from Jesus the Christ, however well-intentioned, is to craft an idol and violate God’s prerogative to reveal Himself in whatever manner He so chooses. It also undermines His commands as to how He will be worshiped.
Many within the Reformed tradition have interpreted the second commandment as prohibiting all art within the worship setting, but imagery of every kind cannot be what this stipulation proscribes. God commands Israel to craft images of cherubim only a few chapters after He prohibits them from fashioning a depiction of Himself (Ex. 26:1). The Lord would certainly never contradict Himself; therefore, many scholars have concluded that the only thing prohibited in the second commandment is a picture or other image of that which has not been visibly revealed of the Godhead — the divine essence. Depictions of that which has been revealed, including all of creation, are allowed. To be sure, there may be some contexts where the introduction of such images may not be wise, as they might prompt the people to worship falsely. Still, there is no universal rule against art in our places of worship.
Some people will disagree, saying that there is to be no art in the worship setting. While these opinions should be respected, we believe that to prohibit art is to neglect the fact that God is the fountainhead of all beauty. Whatever art is in our places of corporate worship, may we not forget that the Lord is indeed beautiful (Ps. 27:4) and is to be worshiped according to His unsurpassable loveliness.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 5:21