More historical answers to the question: Is it permissible for Christians to use pictures of Jesus? These sources were gathered and organized by purelypresbyterian.com. I’m reproducing it without permission and with gratitude because it isn’t his original writing and all quotations are properly cited.
How should you interact with these well-respected, historical answers? Measure each to the perfect standard, the Bible. Are these answers persuasively summarizing the Biblical testimony? If not, how so?
With humility, let us recognize that we are not the first to consider the appropriateness of pictures of Jesus. What do our older brothers say?
Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 109
What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?
The sins forbidden in the second commandment are…the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever ( Deut. 4:15-19; Acts 17:29; Rom. 1:21-23, 25); all worshiping of it ( Dan. 3:18; Gal. 4:8), or God in it or by it (Ex. 32:5)…
2nd Helvetic Confession, Chapter 4
“IMAGES OF GOD. Since God as Spirit is in essence invisible and immense, he cannot really be expressed by any art or image. For this reason we have no fear pronouncing with Scripture that images of God are mere lies. Therefore we reject not only the idols of the Gentiles, but also the images of Christians.
“IMAGES OF CHRIST. Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters…He denied that his bodily presence would be profitable for the Church, and promised that he would be near us by his Spirit forever (John 16:7). Who, therefore, would believe that a shadow or likeness of his body would contribute any benefit to the pious? (II Cor. 5:5). Since he abides in us by his Spirit, we are therefore the temple of God (I Cor. 3:16). But “what agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (II Cor. 6:16).”
Heidelberg Q&A 96-98
Q. What is God’s will for us in the second commandment?
A. That we in no way make any image of God1 nor worship him in any other way than has been commanded in God’s Word.2 1 Deut. 4:15-19; Isa. 40:18-25; Acts 17:29; Rom. 1:22-23 2 Lev. 10:1-7; 1 Sam. 15:22-23; John 4:23-24
Q. May we then not make any image at all?
A. God can not and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Although creatures may be portrayed, yet God forbids making or having such images if one’s intention is to worship them or to serve God through them.1 1 Ex. 34:13-14, 17; 2 Kings 18:4-5
Q. But may not images be permitted in churches in place of books for the unlearned?
A. No, we should not try to be wiser than God. God wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of his Word1—not by idols that cannot even talk.2 1 Rom. 10:14-15, 17; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:19 2 Jer. 10:8; Hab. 2:18-20
Thomas Watson, A Body of Practical Divinity
Question: If it be not lawful to make the image of God the Father, yet may we not make an image of Christ, who took upon him the nature of man?
Answer: No. Epiphanius seeing an image of Christ hanging in a church, brake it in pieces. It is Christ’s Godhead, united to his manhood that makes him to be Christ; therefore to picture his manhood, when we cannot picture his Godhead, is a sin, because we make him to be but half Christ, we separate what God hath joined, we leave out that which is the chief thing, which makes him to be Christ.
John Murray, Pictures of Christ (1961)
Secondly, pictures of Christ are in principle a violation of the second commandment. A picture of Christ, if it serves any useful purpose, must evoke some thought or feeling respecting him and, in view of what he is, this thought or feeling will be worshipful. We cannot avoid making the picture a medium of worship. But since the materials for this medium of worship are not derived from the only revelation we possess respecting Jesus, namely, Scripture, the worship is constrained by a creation of the human mind that has no revelatory warrant. This is will-worship. For the principle of the second commandment is that we are to worship God only in ways prescribed and authorized by him. It is a grievous sin to have worship constrained by a human figment, and that is what a picture of the Saviour involves.
Thomas Vincent, A Family Instructional Guide (1674)
Q 5: Is it not lawful to have images or pictures of God by us, so we do not worship them, nor God by them?
A: The images or pictures of God are an abomination, and utterly unlawful, because they debase God, and may be a cause of idolatrous worship.
Q 6: Is it not lawful to have pictures of Jesus Christ, he being a man as well as God?
A: It is not lawful to have pictures of Jesus Christ, because his divine nature cannot be pictured at all; and because his body, as it is now glorified, cannot be pictured as it is; and because, if it do not stir up devotion, it is in vain; if it stir up devotion, it is a worshipping by an image or picture, and so a palpable breach of the second commandment.
James Fisher’s Catechism (1753)
Q. 9. May we not have a picture of Christ, who has a true body?
A. By no means; because, though he has a true body and a reasonable soul, John 1:14, yet his human nature subsists in his divine person, which no picture can represent, Psalm 45:2.
Q. 10. Why ought all pictures of Christ to be abominated by Christians?
A. Because they are downright lies, representing no more than the picture of a mere man: whereas, the true Christ is God-man; “Immanuel, God with us,” 1 Tim. 3:16; Matt. 1:23.
Justinian Code (AD 528)
NO ONE SHALL BE PERMITTED TO CARVE OR PAINT THE IMAGE OF OUR SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST UPON EARTH, STONE OR MARBLE.
1. The Emperors Theodosius and Valentinian to Eudoxius, Prætorian Prefect.
As it is Our diligent care to guard in every way the religion of the Celestial Divinity, We specially command that no one shall be permitted to trace, carve, or paint the image of Christ the Saviour either upon the earth, upon stone, or upon marble placed in the earth, but it shall be erased wherever found; and anyone who attempts to violate Our laws in this respect shall be subject to a heavy penalty.
Justinian scholar Fred H. Blume footnotes, “It was still reckoned a heathen practice to represent objects of worship by pictures. Gieseler, 1 Ecclesiastical History 427. Images of the Savior bound to the cross were first introduced about the end of the 6th century. Kurtz, Church History ß 60.”
Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 2, pp. 109-110
In the first place, one may make no images of God whatsoever; that is, of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
First, this is absolutely forbidden in this commandment and in many other passages. Consider only the following passage: “Ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves … lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, the likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: and lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven” (Deut 4:12, 15-19). Who then, while believing the Word of God, would be so bold to act blatantly contrary to this and make images of God—a practice clearly forbidden?
Secondly, God cannot be depicted and it is therefore God‘s will that such ought not to occur. “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto Him” (Isa 40:18).
Thirdly, it highly dishonors God. “And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Rom 1:23). The Papists readily imitate this. They depict God the Father in the appearance of a man, that is, of an old man; God the Son in the appearance of a four-footed beast, that is, of a lamb; and God the Holy Spirit in the appearance of a bird, that is, a dove. They thus dishonor God as the heathen do.
Fourthly, it corrupts man. “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves … lest ye corrupt yourselves” (Deut 4:15- 16). For this prompts man to think of God—who is a Spirit, and who must be served in Spirit—in physical terms.
John Brown of Haddington, Questions and Answers on the Shorter Catechism
Q. What is the idolatry forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The worshipping of God by images, saints, angels, &c.
Q. How did the Pagans break this command?
A. By using images in the worship of their false gods.
Q. May not we make images of mere creatures?
A. Yes; if they are not to be used for a religious use.
Q. What different kinds of images of God are forbidden in this commandment?
A. Images made by men’s hands, and images made by their fancies. (Deut. 4:15)
Q. Is it idolatrous to make an image of any divine person; of the Father as an old man; of the Son as a babe; or man hanging on a cross; or of the Spirit as a dove; or to conceive any such fanciful idea of these persons?
Q. Is it idolatrous, when we read of God’s hands, feet, &c. to fancy him as having such members?
Q. Is it idolatrous to paint God as light or the Trinity as a triangle, or body with three heads?
Q. Why must we make no images of God with our hands or fancy?
A. Because God hath forbidden it; and it misrepresents him as material, finite, &c. and so as no God at all. (Deut. 4:15-19, Isa. 40:18-20)
Q. May not such images help to instruct the ignorant? A. No; they are teachers of lies. (Hab. 2:18, Jer. 10:15)
Q. Is an image, or imaginary idea of Christ, as a suffering or glorified man, helpful to our faith? A. No; it is very hurtful to it; for it divides the natures of Christ in our conception of him, whereas faith must still view them as united in one person. (Isa. 9:6, John 1:14)
The Council of Hieria (AD 754)
Our holy synod therefore assembled, and we, its 338 members, follow the older synodal decrees, and accept and proclaim joyfully the dogmas handed down, principally those of the six holy Ecumenical Synods. In the first place the holy and ecumenical great synod assembled at Nice, etc.
After we had carefully examined their decrees under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we found that the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation—namely, the Incarnation of Christ, and contradicted the six holy synods. These condemned Nestorius because he divided the one Son and Word of God into two sons, and on the other side, Arius, Dioscorus, Eutyches, and Severus, because they maintained a mingling of the two natures of the one Christ.
Wherefore we thought it right, to shew forth with all accuracy, in our present definition the error of such as make and venerate these, for it is the unanimous doctrine of all the holy Fathers and of the six Ecumenical Synods, that no one may imagine any kind of separation or mingling in opposition to the unsearchable, unspeakable, and incomprehensible union of the two natures in the one hypostasis or person. What avails, then, the folly of the painter, who from sinful love of gain depicts that which should not be depicted—that is, with his polluted hands he tries to fashion that which should only be believed in the heart and confessed with the mouth? He makes an image and calls it Christ. The name Christ signifies God and man. Consequently it is an image of God and man, and consequently he has in his foolish mind, in his representation of the created flesh, depicted the Godhead which cannot be represented, and thus mingled what should not be mingled. Thus he is guilty of a double blasphemy—the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and manhood.
Those fall into the same blasphemy who venerate the image, and the same woe rests upon both, because they err with Arius, Dioscorus, and Eutyches, and with the heresy of the Acephali. When, however, they are blamed for undertaking to depict the divine nature of Christ, which should not be depicted, they take refuge in the excuse: We represent only the flesh of Christ which we have seen and handled. But that is a Nestorian error. For it should be considered that that flesh was also the flesh of God the Word, without any separation, perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine. How could it now be separated and represented apart? So is it with the human soul of Christ which mediates between the Godhead of the Son and the dulness of the flesh. As the human flesh is at the same time flesh of God the Word, so is the human soul also soul of God the Word, and both at the same time, the soul being deified as well as the body, and the Godhead remained undivided even in the separation of the soul from the body in his voluntary passion. For where the soul of Christ is, there is also his Godhead; and where the body of Christ is, there too is his Godhead. If then in his passion the divinity remained inseparable from these, how do the fools venture to separate the flesh from the Godhead, and represent it by itself as the image of a mere man? They fall into the abyss of impiety, since they separate the flesh from the Godhead, ascribe to it a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own, which they depict, and thus introduce a fourth person into the Trinity. Moreover, they represent as not being made divine, that which has been made divine by being assumed by the Godhead.
Whoever, then, makes an image of Christ, either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians.
The only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ, however, is bread and wine in the holy Supper. This and no other form, this and no other type, has he chosen to represent his incarnation…
Moreover, we can prove our view by Holy Scripture and the Fathers. In the former it is said: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth;” and: “Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath;” on which account God spoke to the Israelites on the Mount, from the midst of the fire, but showed them no image. Further: “They changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man,…and served the creature more than the Creator.”…
Whoever in future dares to make such a thing, or to venerate it, or set it up in a church, or in a private house, or possesses it in secret, shall, if bishop, presbyter, or deacon, be deposed; if monk or layman, be anathematised, and become liable to be tried by the secular laws as an adversary of God and an enemy of the doctrines handed down by the Fathers.
Phillip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume XIV: The Seven Ecumenical Councils, pp. 543-545