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Can Christians Watch Depictions of God? – A Response to Tim Challies

Christians of various shades throughout the years have raised questions about whether watching films that portray God constitutes a violation of the Second Commandment.  Those Christians certainly have their hearts in the right place, but to view film as a violation of the commandment betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the spirit of the commandment itself.

The commandment, found in Exodus 20:4, says:

“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.”

This concern has risen from multiple cultural concerns, but most recently it was raised by Christian blogger Tim Challies, in his post “Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack Movie.”  In that post, this is what he says about watching films that portray God in the context of the Second Commandment:

My foremost concern with The Shack—the one that will keep me from seeing it even for purposes of review—is its visual representation of God. To watch The Shack is to watch human actors play the roles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I take this to be a clear, serious violation of the second commandment . . . The Shack presents God in human flesh. It makes the infinite finite, the invisible visible, the omnipotent impotent, the all-present local, the spiritual material. In its visual portrayal of God it diminishes, it obfuscates, it blasphemes, it lies. Even though I would watch the film to help others interpret it and to bring correction to error, I would still be subjecting myself to a false, blasphemous portrayal of God.

I have an immense amount of respect for Tim Challies and his ministry.  I read his blog regularly, and I find it very helpful and insightful.  But here, I believe that he is misinterpreting the Second Commandment.  Now before I get into my counter-argument, if you are afraid that my response to this article will be to defend the theology of The Shack, you can set your mind at ease – I’m not going to do that.  I have no desire to attempt to defend The Shack‘s theological teachings, as I believe that theologians are probably correct in calling the book’s (and presumably the film’s) treatment of deity heretical.  But what Tim Challies says here has implications far beyond just The Shack.  If what he says is correct, then a great many films, both actual and theoretical, are at stake here.  This would include, for example, last year’s Risen, which includes portrayals of Jesus by a human actor.  It would also include The Passion of the Christ and The Young Messiah, as well as secular films that include portrayals of God, such as Evan Almighty.  If Christian films, particularly adaptations of bible stories, become more of a trend, then this could have some serious impacts for what Christians can and cannot see.

To look at what Tim Challies says, I think the best course of action is to look at historical treatment of the Second Commandment itself, and how Christians have typically understood it to apply to art.  Then, comparing those arguments to the scripture itself, I think the issue becomes much more clear.

Historical Treatment of the Second Commandment

While it’s true that we don’t live under the Old Covenant anymore, it’s important to recognize the continuation of the same principles that were in the Old Covenant.  If God did truly outlaw all visual representations of Him due to the possibility of idolatry, then it would follow that we should apply the same principles to warnings against idolatry under the New Covenant.

There have been, to be sure, some who have understood the Second Commandment to prohibit not only idolatry, but also some forms of artistic expression.  The rejection of visual art on these grounds, called Aniconism, was taught by the Jewish Halakha (rabbinical teachings based on the Torah), emphasizing that such visual representations were outlawed regardless of whether the intent was idolatrous worship or not.  At one point, most notably during the Byzantine era, the Catholic Church took a similar view, and began destroying pieces of religious art.

Early Christian art in the Roman catacombs.

Early Christian art in the Roman catacombs.

But what of Christian art?  After all, if you look at renaissance art, a great deal of it is inspired in some degree by Christianity.  How can this be, if Jews and Christians alike understood visual art to be in violation of the Second Commandment?  Well, it appears that they didn’t always understand it that way.  In fact, the earliest Christian art begins as early as the 2nd century.  This includes paintings of Jesus and Mary in the Roman catacombs.  Why the disparity?  In simple terms, the disparity is there over a disagreement about what the Second Commandment is actually saying – is it forbidding visual representation generally (regardless of intent), or idols specifically?

Repercussions of the Aniconist View

If we take “any graven image” to include representations generally, and not just representations intended to be worshipped, then the passage suddenly becomes much more restrictive, because the passage doesn’t just mention images of God.  It also mentions images of what is in the heavens, and the seas, and the earth.  So then, under the Aniconist view, it’s not only pictures of God that are prohibited, but pictures of birds and fish and snakes, as well.  In an unexpected twist, if we are to treat the text consistently, nature photography becomes an unchristian occupation, due to a hypothetical connection to idolatry.  That’s an extreme view.  Does the text support it?

Interpretation of the Second Commandment

If you look at the King James Version of Exodus 20:4, it says not to make any “graven image.”  But this is not what all versions translate the verse as.  The NASB, for example, says “any idol.”  The LEB (Lexham English Bible) says “any divine image.”

This is supported by Hebrew dictionaries looking at the word itself.  פָּסִיל or “nomen” means, in almost every dictionary, “idols,” perhaps followed after by words such as “graven image.”  The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament (sometimes abbreviated BDB) defines it as “idols (of wood, of stone), stone or metal (sheathed with) silver.”  This says nothing of visual representations not intended for worship.  In fact, in other places where there are visual representations not intended for worship, other words are used.  For example, in Daniel 2:31, when Daniel has seen a vision of a statue to represent the world kingdoms, this is not the word that is used.  Instead צְלֵם, is used.  BDB simply defines this as “statue.”  Strong’s does include idol in the definition, but only secondarily (its entry says “image, idol.”).  This word is used both here and in Daniel 3 to refer to the statue of himself that Nebuchadnezzar erected as an idol.  Note that, and this is important, this is the more general word, but not the one that is used in Exodus 20:4.  The word used in Exodus 20:4 is specific, not general.

Secondly, the context of Exodus 20 dictates the focus and the spirit of the command – it is so that we will not fall into idolatry.  This could conceivably be a concern with certain types of art in certain eras (such as sculptures or statues, for example), but for a film?  This has never been the case.  There’s also the matter of a particularly direct physical representation that we know the Israelites had – images of the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant.  This is described in Exodus 25:

And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you. “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends.
(Exo 25:16-19)

But the cherubim, being angels, would be described as “in the heavens,” wouldn’t they?  So how is it that God not only allowed, but commanded them to create these small statues of cherubim to include on the Ark of the Covenant?  An understanding of this, along with an understanding of the words that are used, would indicate to us that the Second Commandment is intended to curb idolatry, not to curb artistry.

In conclusion, while certain people at certain times have taken similarly strict approaches to portrayals of the divine through art, that does not make those approaches valid.  A closer study to the language, context, and spirit of the law in Exodus 20:4 reveals that to prohibit such artistic expression wholesale is not the intent of the command.  There are some reasons that Christians might consider passing over The Shack.  But the Second Commandment is not one of them.

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