Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Hello, everyone. Well, porcelain nativity sets are a popular choice for mantle décor in the Christian home this time of year. But are these sets forbidden from our places of worship by the second commandment? A great and timely question sent to us by a listener named Lisa. Lisa writes in to ask this. “Hello, Pastor John! I just started reading Knowing God by J.I. Packer. And in chapter four he discusses the second commandment. I’ve always assumed this referred to actual ‘objects of worship’ like crucifixes or pagan ‘idols,’ but Packer seems to say any material or even mental images of all or part of the Trinity is forbidden. Perhaps even a nativity set, I wonder? And even frescoes painted inside the Sistine Chapel? His argument made sense. In our finiteness, we can’t accurately represent him, so it would be inaccurate and essentially a lie. Having grown up in Baptist churches that lean pretty Reformed, I’m surprised I’ve never heard or thought of this before. Have you?”

Yes — because I’ve read Packer! If J.I. Packer says something, it would be wise to pause and take it very seriously. So, I got out my old 1973 edition of Knowing God and I reviewed chapter four. It’s about idolatry and specifically about the second commandment of the Ten Commandments.

True God, False Images

Let me read the key verses that Packer is dealing with. This is Exodus 20:4–6:

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. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“Artists will never exhaust the glories of God if they confine themselves to the wonders of creation.”

So, Packer’s point is that this commandment tells us not only not to worship false gods, which he says would simply repeat the first commandment — “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) — but rather is telling us how not to worship the true God falsely. In other words, it’s not just about whom we worship, but how we worship. He quotes Charles Hodge, saying that the point of the second commandment is this: “Idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images.” Then Packer says this:

In its Christian application, this means that we are not to make use of visual or pictorial representations of the triune God, or of any person of the Trinity, for the purposes of Christian worship. . . . What it tells us is that statues and pictures of the One whom we worship are not to be used as an aid to worshiping him. (44)

Then he explains why with two things: “1. Images dishonor God, for they obscure his glory.” “They . . . conceal most, if not all, of the truth about the personal nature and the character of the divine Being” (46). “2. Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God.” Now, the whole chapter is worth reading, and I encourage everybody: if you haven’t read Knowing God by J.I. Packer, it’s a modern classic for good reasons. He’s still living and still faithful, I believe, and I would encourage everybody to pick it up and read it.

Sin in the Sistine

Now, Lisa says, “Packer seems to say any material or even mental images of all or any part of the Trinity is forbidden. Perhaps even a nativity scene, I wonder? Even frescoes on the Sistine Chapel?” I have two responses to that application. With regard to the Sistine Chapel, I would say not even the Sistine Chapel, but especially the Sistine Chapel. I think the spectacular genius and gifting of Michelangelo as an artist has almost totally eclipsed the fact that the chapel is full of images that not only break the second commandment, but because of the ubiquitous nudity, compound idolatry with obscenity.

Now, remember, we’re talking about a chapel — a chapel, not a museum — where worship is to be happening. We were there a year ago, and when you walked in, the place was crawling with noisy Americans, and the poor guards were saying, “Shh, shh, shh, this is a place of worship. Shh, shh.” It didn’t work at all, but that’s clearly the intention. Whatever you think of nudity in art, the use of nudity in worship is, I think, absurd — absurd. I’m tempted to say, and I will say, especially male nudity with single male priests.

But the point here is that this is a chapel. This is a place of worship, and the image of God the Father as a white European male encased in a shape like a human brain is, I would say, an almost perfect embodiment of what is forbidden in the second commandment. This is not the way God calls us to worship him in spirit and in truth. So, if you have a Michelangelo in your church, don’t commission him to paint a representation of God on the ceiling of your church. Don’t do it, no matter how good he is.

“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God — not by seeing images.”

Let me say something positive here: Painting is a great part of creation, and creation is declaring the glory of God. Artists will never exhaust the glories of God if they confine themselves to the vastness and complexity of the wonders of creation. That’s what we’re supposed to do with it: reshape it, remake it, represent it, draw out of it glories. There’s plenty to do there. You don’t need to create God the Father on the ceiling of your church in order to get the Michelangelos in your church busy.

What About Jesus?

Now, my second and last response to Lisa’s sentence has to do with nativity scenes. She wonders if the second commandment bans the representation of the baby Jesus in the art of nativity scenes, because he’s the second person of the Trinity. The same question is raised, of course, in picturing Jesus, for example, in children’s books. My goodness, they almost all do it. Should we? I think the key here is given by Packer himself, so let me read what he says.

Historically, Christians have differed as to whether the second commandment forbids the use of pictures of Jesus for purposes of teaching and instruction (in Sunday school classes, for instance), and the question is not an easy one to settle; but there is no room for doubting that the commandment obliges us to dissociate our worship, both in public and in private, from all pictures and statues of Christ, no less than from pictures and statues of his Father. (45)

I agree with that. So, everything hangs on whether we are able to distinguish the use of pictures of Christ — which may be warranted, because he was both man and God. There’s the one difference between the Holy Spirit and the Father, and Jesus: Jesus became part of creation. Whether we can distinguish the use of pictures of Christ in worship from using them in other ways that don’t involve worship is the question.

Packer’s right, I think. It is not easy to settle this issue, because in a sense, we should be worshiping in all that we do. Oh, how easy for a picture to become the source of our affections, seemingly for God, rather than Christ himself becoming the source of our affections.

Nativity at the Piper Home

Now, I’ll just be honest here, as I close. Our house at Christmastime is full of nativity scenes. I dare say the Piper household has more nativity scenes than 99.9 percent of the houses in the world, because my wife collects them from all different ethnicities across the world. I mean, we’ve got elephants in the scenes. They’re from all over Africa and Europe and cultures around the world trying to portray the holy family in appropriate ways to their culture. We love this cross-cultural dimension of Christmas that came from all the nations. The wise men were people from outside Judea.

I hope these scenes simply serve to say one loud, glorious fact in the Piper household: God sent Christ to save sinners like us. Look at him in the gospel, Piper. Look at him in the gospel. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God — not by seeing images.