Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Jesus Movies, Images of Christ & the Second Commandment

Many Christians believe that the second commandment has always only been against making an image of God and using it as a worship aid, like Roman Catholicism promotes in practice. (The Eastern Church’s icons are usually up for grabs.) A growing number of Protestants who avoid crucifixes and such will say that the commandment is addressing carved images or possibly God’s divine nature but certainly not Jesus’ human nature acted out in a movie.

Are Christians going to a Jesus movie merely to get a glimpse of the Lord’s humanity, or are they looking to be spiritually edified by a visual depiction of the God-man? If they're looking for spiritual edification, then the accompanying sin is that of false worship through the mediation of an image of Christ, which is forbidden under the second commandment. If the aim is not spiritual edification, then the pursuit is a vain thing and, therefore, forbidden under the third commandment. If the second commandment refers only to false gods and not the living God, then the second commandment collapses into the first commandment leaving us with nine commandments, (which although is theoretically possible it would raise a question regarding redundancy over two in light of the remaining eight and very distinct commandments).

What I think is most times overlooked is that Jesus’ personality is that of the Second Person of the Trinity and not just any human personality. God couldn’t have given the incarnate Christ my personality for instance, and we reject adoptionism. No, the incarnate Christ has the personality of the eternal Son while being fully God and fully man. It had to be that way since the Son, the Second Person, became man. Added to this, an actor, no matter how good, cannot help but project his own personality (blended with a scripted personality) onto the screen. He cannot portray the personality of another perfectly - let alone the personality of the Second Person of the Trinity even approximately. Therefore, the actor who would dare play the Christ cannot but project a false image of God even if he sticks to the written script of Scripture. It’s not as though verbal tone and body language do not proceed from personality. In fact, the reverse is true. Reactions of persons convey ideas that are propositional in nature. These picture-words are being passed off as God's communication.

I know how unspiritual it can be to use theological terms, but it’s my Blog. :) The idea of perichoresis as it relates to the hypostatic union is relevant to this discussion and should inform our thinking on the second commandment as it relates to images of Christ in movies. As Oliver Crisp astutely notes, we can rightly say that the divine nature penetrates the human nature (yet without commingling or confusion of the distinct natures of Christ). Although the two natures of Christ are indeed distinct (i.e., there is no transfer of properties), the divine works of the Second Person, though they do not originate with the human nature, are performed through the human nature by the divine Son. (Similarly, the three persons of the Trinity although distinct, mutually indwell each other and "share the same divine space," as it were. Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, Luke 4:1; the Father indwells the Son, John 14:10, etc.)

The divine nature precedes the human nature in the incarnation. The Son of God became man. Accordingly, although the omnipresent divine nature penetrates the human nature in this most qualified Crispian sense, the reverse is not true. The human nature never penetrates the divine nature.  In the time of Jesus' humiliation, no less than now as the exalted Christ, this divine penetration results in Jesus’ tone of voice and body language. May Jesus be accurately portrayed as effeminate or would his divine nature forbid such a penetration to his human nature? Would He grin or appear disappointed in the same way and over the same things as any mortal actor? We must also remember, the human nature of Christ could never be observable in isolation from the divine person and hence His eternal nature. This human nature belongs to a divine person who is as fully God as he is fully man. To see Christ the human being is to see God in the flesh. To see Jesus thirst is to see the Second Person thirst in His humanity. And so, to see the divine works of Jesus is to see them through the workings of Jesus the human being. So, we may not say we're going to see a movie on Jesus's humanity, as if something is not being alleged about His divinity. One of the goals of the incarnation is that upon gazing on Jesus we might also exclaim, "my Lord, and my God!" John 20:28 (As an aside, we might note that the crucifixion is being put forth in such depictions but not the work of the cross. Propitiation is neither a RC doctrine nor able to be captured in cinematography.)

What possibly intrigues me most in all of this is that when I watch a good movie I have no problem suspending my beliefs so that the actor may “become” for me the character. So, Al Pacino becomes The Don and Anthony Hopkins becomes C.S. Lewis. No necessary sins there I trust. Do Christians do the same when watching Jesus movies? If they shouldn't, then what should that tell us? Obviously, Christians are to be on their guard because they should realize that the actor will not be faithful to the Second Person. But that presupposes a false image, a violation of the second commandment. We don’t know Jesus’ facial expressions, etc. but such expressions from an actor often speak a thousand words. Are those words consistent with the Son of God? More to the point, are they His words? If not, then how are movies such as this not putting words in God’s mouth? How is that not to construct a false image? 

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Anonymous said...

Since a few years a passion play is staged annually in a random city in the Netherlands and broadcasted live. This week the last passion won a (Dutch) TV-prize for “beste amusement” (best entertainment). This event isn’t just created by Roman Catholics, but instead the NBG (Dutch Bible Society, i.e. a protestant bible society), the EO (Evangelical Broadcasting) and the PKN (Protestant Church in the Netherlands, the largest Protestant denomination in the Netherlands) are major participants. This year this event will be held in the city of Groningen. Also this year it will be sold to and by Christians as a good and permissible way to evangelize. And also this year this spectacle will be just plain ordinary entertainment for more than 2,300,000 Dutch people.

Reformed Apologist said...

I appreciate the data. In all fairness though, that this all ends in "ordinary entertainment" (although not surprising) doesn't make the practice wrong. Conversely, if it all ended in massive conversion and reformation (which would be surprising)still shouldn't influence our opinion on the question at hand. Again though, I appreciate the data. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

How in the world can the divine nature penetrate the human nature without co-mingling the two natures?

Reformed Apologist said...

It's really no different than the way in which the Holy Spirit penetrates our human nature when we're recreated in Christ. Our human nature no sooner becomes divine than does the Son's human nature become divine, but the divine nature penetrates our nature as God causes us to will and to do of his good pleasure. Added to this, Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit and the three persons of the Trinity mutually indwell each other - Jesus and the Father are one. As I said in the original post, the divine person does his works through the human nature of the Second Person. That is nothing other than divine penetration.


I'm not sure that all of our Lord's behavior or characteristics would have been a reflection of His divine personality. That would seem to deny His true humanity and end up implying some form of Apollonarianism which denies a true human soul or spirit to Christ.

Some examples:
-His left or right eye dominance.

-Certain mannerisms, way of laughter, one's accent, are often unconsciously learned and mimicked by observation.

-Food preferences (speaking anachronistically, a hypothetical preference of chocolate over vanilla ice cream)

Examples could be multiplied.

It seems to me that God's choice to incarnate His Son necessarily invited us to consciously or unconsciously imagine in our heads a human figure doing the things that Jesus did whenever we read or hear aloud the Scriptures.

Also, before any of the Gospels were eventually written down the message and story of Jesus would have been verbally relayed by the Apostles, disciples and other missionaries. [The Jewish culture of course being both one of writing *and* oral tradition.]

It's difficult to imagine they never attempted to re-enact some of the Gospel stories. That they always and only stood still when relaying the stories. Sitting or standing still in the synagogue while testifying or preaching makes sense. But doing so on the streets and marketplaces where missionary/evangelistic work was sometimes done doesn't make sense.

That's why I'm sympathetic to the idea that a complete ban on any images of Jesus whatsoever is an implicit denial of the incarnation and true humanity of Christ. It has the flavor (or at least scent) of doceticism.

I have to ask myself, could Jesus have painted a self-portrait in a preferred artistic style? I don't see why not. If He did, would that violate the 2nd commandment? If He did paint, would His preference for a painting style be an expression of His Divinity or of His human preference or both? If only human or both, doesn't that entail that other artistic styles are licit (even if some may be illicit)?

Would a preference for chocolate make vanilla ice cream illicit?

Ron, I'd be interested in your thoughts. Though, I understand that we're all busy, including yourself.


Having mentioned Apollinarianism, I don't rule out the possibility of the truth of William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland's modified Apollinarianism.

Craig discusses his view ">HERE and HERE.


I notice that the first link to Craig's discussion of his views on Christology doesn't work. It's the more relevant link of the two.

Here's the link again:

Christological Conundrums.

Also, I lean towards a two/dual minds view of Christ. It can explain how Christ can both be omniscient and non-omniscient (Mark 13:32) without falling into the Nestorian heresy. Oliver Crisp has spoken on the dual minds view, but I don't know if he subscribes to it.

Reformed Apologist said...


Need to be careful here. Many of the things you mentioned speak to personality. The Lord's personality was divine, not human.

Regarding Craig, aside from the fact that his position, although could be conceived as compatible with Chalcedon (but can it really?), is in direct conflict with the Third Council of Constantinople, it negates the redemption of our human wills and minds. Not to mention, what's a human nature apart from a distinct human will?

Much to ponder, no doubt.

MikeManea said...

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Anonymous said...

“ If the aim is not spiritual edification, then the pursuit is a vain thing and, therefore, forbidden under the third commandment.”

I go to movies strictly for entertainment. Is that a vain thing?

Anonymous said...

2 Questions:

What about allegorical representations like Aslan?
Also, what about stick figure representations used to make communication easier or simpler?

Reformed Apologist said...

Even the most mundane things, like eating and drinking, are to be done unto God’s glory. In that context, entertainment can be a fine thing, even a needful thing. That said, I don’t think the life of Jesus, let alone Christ’s passion, was divinely preserved in sacred Scripture for our entertainment. To be “entertained” by it would not merely be a vain thing. I believe it would be a blasphemous thing as well.

Reformed Apologist said...

Aside from the fact that “to make communication easier” is a debatable notion, it’s logically irrelevant. Even if Mel Gibson’s attempt to portray Christ made things easier or simpler to understand, God’s commandments aren’t to be broken for any *perceived* worth of doing so. The Bible is pretty clear on that. To put it plainly, to act according an alleged benefit of breaking a commandment for some greater good makes one a judge of the law. Obedience has become passé.

Aside from the dubious assumption of making things easier to understand, I find Aslan to be a clear violation of the law.

Anonymous said...

Lewis didn’t see Aslan as representing Jesus.

Reformed Apologist said...

Lewis apparently said: I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing. (Alexander 37. Quoted in this article from Walter Hooper’s C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide)

Something being a “different thing” doesn’t make it *quite* a different thing. Lewis draws a distinction without a relevant difference. By his own admission he’s depicting an incarnation of the true Son if God. It’s just an incarnation that happens in a fantasy world. It’s a revelation to mythical Narnians; yet it’s depicted to be a revelation of the non mythical Son of God. That’s what God forbids. Casting anything forbidden in a fantasy context can’t somehow legitimatize it.

Aside from imaging the Son, the theology of the cross is compromised. Lewis puts forth a ransom theory. A payment to someone evil.

Check the quote below, attributed to Lewis, which I found here:


“Laurence can't really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that's what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.”

Aside from who might think such things, the consequences of such ideas can be damning consequences. I’d no sooner get my theology from Lewis than my philosophy.

Anonymous said...

“Casting anything forbidden in a fantasy context can’t somehow legitimatize it.”

So we can’t depict murder in a movie?

Reformed Apologist said...

What would be forbidden is actual murder in a movie, not the depiction of actual murder.

Christ-actors are attempts to image the actual Christ. Removing the image from a realistic world and dropping it into a fantasy world or one of counterfactuals doesn’t negate the portrayal. It merely places it in another context. Maybe think of it this way. Can sinful thoughts be legitimatized by mentally casting them in unrealistic situations? May someone fantasize about murdering his enemy if contextualized somehow?