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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
I am seeing artistic representations of Jesus in many Adventist churches. Does that violate the second commandment?
This is a question church members often ask, indicating an increased use of religious art in our church buildings. Here I intend to look at the biblical evidence to find some guidance, comment on the practice of the Christian church, and make a suggestion.
1. Biblical Evidence on the Use of Images: The Bible says very little on the use of art in the private or collective life of God’s people. It is not clear whether in the ancient world art was an expression of creativity and individuality. In many of the ancient Near Eastern countries the production of art was usually under the control of the palace or the temple and had the purpose of preserving cultural and religious traditions and symbols. Originality does not appear to have been an intrinsic element in ancient art.
In the Old Testament religious decorative art was not forbidden. The skill needed to produce it was considered a gift from God (Ex. 31:2-5). Some of the furniture of the tabernacle was decorated with representations of flowers and fruit (Ex. 25:31-36; 1 Kings 6:29), the curtain on the ceiling of the tabernacle and the veil inside of it were mbroidered with figures of cherubim (Ex. 26:1, 31), and there were two cherubim of gold on the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:17-20). In the Temple of Solomon the ark was placed between two large cherubim (1 Kings 6:23), the large laver was supported by 12 metal bulls (1 Kings 7:25), and the movable stands had figures of lions, bulls, and cherubim (verse 29). Art in the form of pomegranates and lilies was used to decorate the building itself (verses 15-22). The king’s throne had decorative art in the form of lions (1 Kings 10:19).
2. Christianity and the Use of Images: Decorative images depicting religious motifs (e.g., fish, doves, prophets, etc.) may have been common in early Christianity, as indicated by drawings in the catacombs and in some Christian meeting places. By the end of the fourth century religious images were being introduced in the church, and by the seventh century they played a significant role in the Christian church. They were called “icons,” from the Greek eikon (image), and usually designated a sacred painting (Orthodox view) or image (Catholic) of Jesus, Mary, the apostles, and other saints venerated by Christians. Although there were controversies in the church concerning the use of such icons, particularly with respect to the charge of idolatry, the practice revailed and is still part of the religious life of the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches. Both traditions argue that such veneration should not be confused with idolatry, but distinguished from it on the basis of the theology it expresses.
They argue that the veneration of images is the veneration of the person portrayed in it and designates the honor shown to the saint and not the adoration that exclusively belongs to God. Hence the image is a vehicle of access to God; it is not an end in itself. For them the best theological justification for the use of icons is the reality of the Incarnation. The veneration of the icon, they believe, witnesses to the reality of the Incarnation of the Savior. The attempt to distinguish veneration from idolatry is laudable, but the two are so close to each other that in the minds of those who venerate them, one may easily merge into the other.
3. Adventists and Images: The veneration of images or icons is not part of the Adventist liturgy. We instinctively dislike the veneration of objects that represent God and Christ because it suggests the violation of the second commandment. The veneration of icons is based on church traditions that lack biblical grounding. It is important for us to examine the display of images in our churches to make sure that we do not give the impression that we are in any way or form venerating images. It is clear from the Scripture that decorative religious art is not essentially bad. That’s why we feel safe using a significant amount of religious art in our books and literature, and why some of our churches have stained-glass windows with religious motifs. Having an image is not necessarily wrong; after all, we are all living images of God.