Chapter Nine: Pictures to Represent Christ Are Idolatrous By Definition

“The chief act of the false spirit consists in his leading men to make an image of the Antichrist and in his making it live (see Rev. 13:14-15)...

With the presentation of this image in which deity manifests itself as a ‘living incarnation,’ the Seer describes the origin of all religion: mankind makes itself an image (presumably of the redeemer, in reality however) of the beast, the false redeemer from hell.

Thus all religion, all false conceptions of God, are stigmatized as idolatrous representations of the Antichrist. The antichrist-like spiritual power causes the image to speak, that is, the image becomes for men an objective source of revelation.”

Rissi: Time and History—A Study on the Revelation. (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1965); pp 67-68.
Introductory Overview

Is it idolatry to try to make a picture or image to represent God? If we define “idol” by either its dictionary definition or by its biblical definition, it is obvious that pictures made to represent God are idols in the basic sense of the word. This means, of course, that if Christ is God, pictures to represent Christ fit the definition of idols.

Obviously this definition may offend people who use pictures to represent Christ. Nobody thinks he or she is an idolater, least of all do earnest Christians think they are. As one person put it, “I know that I am a Christian; I know that no idolater will go to heaven; so I know that I am not an idolater.” He could not accept any definition of idolatry that would classify him as an idolater.

Me? An Idolater?
“And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)

We should not be surprised to find idolatry at work in us. Man is idolatrous by nature; his understanding about God is darkened; his sinful nature causes him to hate God. As sinful people we should recognize that idolatry is going to manifest itself in any way it can.

To be able to recognize and admit and confess one’s sin is basic in the Christian life and essential for progress to better ways. Indeed, it would be remarkable if a person enlightened by the Holy Spirit could not recognize idolatry and hatred for God in themselves.

Nor should a Christian consider it impossible that they could be deceived by sin—even though idolatry may appear as an angel of light, or as a feeling they first considered to be very holy, or as an idea about Christ they first thought was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

In the past God closed His eyes to our ignorant use of images to represent Him. Now, the apostle says, he calls on us to repent of using them.
Martin Luther faced a similar dilemma in his day. Many church people did not want him to show the biblical definition of idolatry because it would not justify their actions. To his credit he spoke out. Luther summed up a basic meaning of idolatry when he said:
One who is accustomed to serve God in ways that have no testimony of God for them ought to know that he is serving, not the true God, but an idol that he has imagined for himself, that is to say, he is serving his own notions and false ideas, and thereby is serving the devil himself, and the words of all the prophets are against him. (“Preface to the Prophets”)
Luther was not as gentle and diplomatic as the Apostle Paul who told the idolaters of Athens that in times past God “winked at,” or overlooked this idolatry of making images to represent Him. Nevertheless, Paul said, it is time to “repent” (Acts 17:30).

Christians often are not aware of the basic biblical and dictionary definitions of idolatry.

Idolatry: Dictionary Definition

1. According to A Greek-English Lexicon (Liddell and Scott) our English word “idol” comes directly from the Greek word eido which means form, phantom, or image. We are speaking Greek words when we speak the word “idol” or “idolatry.” The first part of our word “idolatry” comes from eido, and the “-latry” ending comes from another Greek word latreuo, which means “serve.”

This Greek word eido is very revealing. Eido (as a verb) means both (1) to see, and (2) to know. This one ancient word (eido) formed both word families: eido is the “mother” of both word families.
(a.) Eido: To see, behold, look at.
(b.) Eido: To know. What one sees, one knows.

In ancient Greek, an idol (eidolon) had several meanings:

(a.) A shape, figure or image especially of disembodied spirits. Note that Homer spelled it with a digamma F, as Fidon; this carries over into Latin videre, Sanskrit vidscire, German wissen, and English to wit or wot.
So the Greek word from which we get our word “idol” is the word from which various languages get their word for “know.” It is the same word from which we get “video”!
(b.) An image in the mind, idea. (See Xen.)
(c.) An image or statue, especially of a god, thus an idol or false god. It is used this way in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). (Liddell & Scott, p.399)
The original meaning continues in modern dictionaries. An idol is an image made to represent a divine person or being. A number of examples follow.

2. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary states on page 368:

“Idolatry in ancient times included two forms of departure from the true religion: the worship of false gods, whether by means of images or otherwise, and the worship of Jehovah by means of images.

3. Unger’s Bible Dictionary includes (regarding the definition of idolatry) these categories:
(a) the worship of Jehovah under image or symbol;
(b) the worship of other gods under images or symbol;
(c) the worship of the image or symbol itself. (p. 512)
4. Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary on page 271 states:

“Idolatry, strictly speaking, denotes the worship of Deity in a visible form, whether the images to which homage is paid are symbolical representations of the true God or of the false divinities which have been made the objects of worship in His stead.”

5. Cruden’s Complete Concordance gives as its second meaning of idolatry, “The making of any image or likeness of God or any creature for a religious end, Deut. 5:8; Gal. 5:20.”

6. Baker’s Dictionary of Theology says:

Because God was unseen and transcendent, men set up idols as a materialistic expression of Him. Soon the created thing was worshiped as a god instead of the Creator. (“Gods”, p. 248).

7. An Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Virgilius Ferm, sees an idol as a symbol of a deity, but does not consider it idolatrous until it is “worshiped”:
An idol is a representation of a deity in symbolic or human form, adored or worshiped as a tangible manifestation of the divine presence. Idols are images, but many images are not worshiped... Pictured or sculptured images of saints, of events in the history of a religion, or in the life of the founder appearing in religious structures often serve the purposes of instruction or inspiration; they may or may not be worshiped.
8. In the book Comparative Religion, A. C. Bouquet recognizes this dictionary definition of idolatry, and sees idols as something of a necessity:
But an “idol”, strictly speaking, is an eidolon or image and symbol, and where the reality is hard to describe, such a symbol, whether mental, verbal or physical, may be a justifiable aid to concentration, provided that the mind is not content to settle on it, but to see through it and beyond it, and to reckon it as at best inadequate. (pp. 14-15).
9. The Encyclopedia Americana defines idolatry as “the worship of the Deity or of a deity under a visible form.” (1943 edition, Vol. 14, p. 669)

Summary and Conclusion Regarding Dictionary Definition

We have sampled dictionary and encyclopedia definitions from a broad spectrum of sources.

An idol, in the root meaning of the word, is something we look at in order to know God (or some deity). To see (the eidolon) is to know (God): that was the ancient concept of an idol.

Is this meaning any different than the modem reasons for using pictures to represent Christ—even though the church does not want to call them “idols”?

To try to make an image of a divine being, such as Christ is, is to commit idolatry according to both the original meaning of idolatry and modem dictionary definitions.

Idolatry: Biblical Definition

“We know how execrable a thing idolatry is in the sight of God, and history abounds with narratives of the dreadful punishments with which He visited it, both in the Israelitish people and in other nations. From his own mouth, we hear the same vengeance denounced against all ages. For to us he speaks when he swears by his holy name, that he will not suffer his glory to be transferred to idols, and when he declares that he is a jealous God, taking vengeance, to the third and fourth generation, upon all sins, and more especially on this one. This is the sin on account of which Moses, who was otherwise of so meek a temper, being inflamed by the Spirit of God, ordered the Levites ‘to go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion and every man his neighbor’ (Ex. 32:27), the sin on account of which God so often punished his chosen people, afflicting them with sword, pestilence, and famine, and, in short, all kinds of calamity; the sin on account of which, especially, the kingdom, first of Israel, and then of Judah, was laid waste, Jerusalem the holy city destroyed, the temple of God (the only temple then existing in the world) laid in ruins, and the people whom he had selected out of all the nations of the earth to be peculiarly his own, entering into covenant with them, that they alone might bear his standard, and live under his rule and protection—the people, in short, from whom Christ was to spring, were doomed to all kinds of disaster, stripped of all dignity, driven into exile, and brought to the brink of destruction. It were too long here to give a full detail, for there is not a page in the Prophets which does not proclaim aloud that there is nothing which more provokes the divine indignation. What then? When we saw idolatry openly and everywhere stalking abroad, were we to connive at it? To have done so would have just been to rock the world in its sleep of death, that it might not awake.”

(John Calvin, Tracts & Treatises, I, 187).
Images made to represent God are categorized as idols by the Bible. More specifically, those images made to represent the pre-incarnate Christ are shown to be forbidden idols.

Here are various Scriptures which call the images (that are made to represent God) by the words for “idols.”

1. Deuteronomy 4

This passage is important for the question about picturing Christ. Here God reminded Israel that when He came down in the clouds upon Mt. Sinai, He did not reveal himself by any form. Why? So they would not try to make an image of that form.

Today the fact that Christ assumed a human form which could have been photographed is often interpreted to mean that it is now all right to attempt to create pictures of Christ. But this fourth chapter of Deuteronomy warns Israel not to make pictures if God should manifest His presence by a physical form.
You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal...(Dt. 4:15-17)
If He had used a form for revealing himself at Sinai, the people would have made an image. They would have believed that any form they saw for God would justify, even mandate, making an image of that form. But that would be idolatry, God tells them through Moses. This action would prove itself to be idolatry: it would result in the known consequences of idolatry. The image would cause the people to corrupt themselves. (See how Rom 1:18 ff develops this text).

Observe that Christ did not appear in the flesh until hundreds of years later. The incarnation did not occur until the time when people learned not to make images to represent God, until the time when God had prepared a people who would not make images when he would appear.

This command was addressed to Israel’s future. Future generations were not to make any image of God if he should manifest himself by some form.

If such images are not true reminders of God, then how could Israel remember its God? This question is anticipated and answered immediately here in Deuteronomy 4. It is the Word of God, not images, that will communicate the knowledge of God to future generations. The people are to give God’s Word to their children so that they, too, can know and remember God, and take their turn in passing the knowledge to their children. It is God’s Word that makes God known. The Word reveals the true spiritual “form” of God: the Word is the correct reminder of God. The Word stands in contrast to idols.

2. Isaiah 40 & Acts 17

This entire passage in Isaiah (actually chapters 40 to 46) is against idolatry, the idolatry of making an image to represent God. Isaiah focuses attention on the basic problem: associating God’s name with images.

“To whom will ye liken God?” is the key question. Isaiah ridiculed any deity-images formed by skilled craftsmen. He contrasted God to the images; he did not liken God to any image. God is contrasted, not compared or likened, to them. God is contrasted with images made of worldly materials.

God does not give His name to images.
God does not give His glory to images.

All that men can see in wooden images is wood. Look at what they are really doing: they actually are not bowing to the God they think the image represents. They are literally bowing to the image, no matter what they think the form represents. The wood is not God and cannot serve as His representation.

These images made to represent God are literally called “idols” repeatedly in this section of Isaiah. The prophet recognized that the people thought the images were symbols of God and assisted their worship of God. But the prophet keeps teaching the people to see that the symbolic forms for God are really idols, and what is done to them with God in mind is really idolatry in action.
As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold ...

A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood ... He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol ...
The prophet then contrasts the great and living God with these insignificant and dead idols.
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood ...?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth ...
He stretches out the heavens ...
He brings princes to naught ...
“To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Isaiah contrasts God with the world and its forms and materials. To know God, do not compare Him to created things. Likening God with such forms makes God equal with those forms, in the mind of the idolater. Do not go to images for knowledge about God.

Instead, go to the living Word of God. There find His image. Be satisfied with that image. We cannot improve on it. Men’s methods and means, such as images and pictures, teach uncertain and false ideas, not truth, about God.

In Acts 17 Paul quoted Isaiah 40 to explain to the Athenians the folly of using images to represent God. Paul applied Isaiah’s words against Athenian images to show that New Testament believers cannot use God-images. Such images are contrary to the nature of God. They are always idols, in both Old Testament times and New Testament times.

3. Jeremiah.

The prophet Jeremiah agreed with Isaiah’s teaching. People, Jew or Gentile, might think their images were true and necessary symbols of Deity. But Isaiah and Jeremiah would not let them identify Yahweh with such images. Yahweh cannot be mentally conceived in such images.

Jeremiah says that the Gentile nations learn their theology from idols. But the true God is not like those false images.

Do not learn the ways of the nations ...
For the customs of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it ...

No one is like you, O Lord; ...
there is no one like you.
They are all senseless and foolish;
they are taught by worthless wooden idols.
(Jer. 10:2-8)
The nations think their images symbolize true Deity; Jeremiah says the true God is not like images (Jer. 10:16; 51:17-19).

4. The Golden Calves were idols.

A more thorough study of the golden calves was made earlier in this study. It found that they were made to represent Yahweh God; they were not made intentionally to be worshipped as other gods.

In this section, the evidence that the golden calves were classed by the Bible as idols is the focus.

Two opposite things about the golden calves need to be seen. (1) They were forbidden idols in the sight of God. (2) In the minds of their makers and users, the golden calves were holy images made to represent the true God.

The Biblical record about the golden calves has been preserved for our instruction so that we who are Christians will not be idolaters. (1 Cor. 10:11)

The golden calves were idols. This is one of the clearest, most non-controversial teachings of the Bible. Everybody knows they were idols. The golden calves are classic examples of idolatry.

Bible students know that Aaron’s golden calf caused Israel great grief and trouble: those images caused God’s anger, Moses’ anger, broken tablets, and thousands of people slain by the sword (Ex. 32).

Bible students also know that King Jeroboam’s golden calves caused Israel great trouble and national disaster, trouble lasting hundreds of years. These images caused Israel to be taken into captivity and disappear from the kingdoms of the earth. The golden calves always caused disaster.

A number of Hebrew names for idols are applied to the golden calves. Aaron’s golden calf was called a “great sin” (Ex. 32:21,30,31), elohim (God, or gods) of gold (Ex. 32:31), a “molten image” (Dt. 9:12), a “molten calf’ (Dt. 9:16), the “sinful thing” (Dt. 9:21).

Yahweh Himself, in personal conversation with Moses, labeled the golden calf by a word that is translated “idol” in the New International Version. In Deut 9:12 Moses reported that while he was on Mount Sinai the Lord said to him, “Go down from here at once, because your people whom you brought out of Egypt turned corrupt. They have turned away quickly from what I commanded them and have made a cast idol for themselves.”

Jeroboam’s golden calves seem to be the “altars” in 1 Kings 12:33 and 1 Kings 13:2, 5 and “other gods” and “molten images” in 1 Kings 14:9. They are evidently the images that are called “idols” in Isaiah 10:11 (the Hebrew word here is more literally “nothings”). In 1 Kings 16:26 they are called “idols” (“vanities” is what the Hebrew word here usually means).

In the New Testament, the golden calf was called an “idol” (eidolon) by the martyr Stephen. In his speech to the Jewish council, Stephen reminded them that their Jewish forefathers created the golden calf apostasy. “Make us gods,” they demanded; “they made a calf in those days, and brought a sacrifice unto the idol.”

The golden calves of Aaron and Jeroboam, though made to represent Yahweh, actually were idols that led their users to suffer all the consequences that idolatry brings.

To use an image or likeness to picture God is to commit idolatry, according to the original meaning of the word and according to modern dictionary definitions.

More importantly, the Bible itself speaks clearly on this issue of idolatry. The Bible itself shows that it is idolatry to try to picture God.

So, if Christ is God, it is idolatry to use a picture to represent Christ.

Bibliographic References & Notes

Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960).

Barabas, Steven. “Idolatry,” Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963). pp. 68-70.

Bouquet, A. C. Comparative Religion (Baltimore: Penquin Books, 1941; pp. 14-15).

Cruden’s Complete Concordance

Encyclopedia Americana (1943 edition, Vol. 14, p. 669).

Ferm, Virgilius, ed. An Encyclopedia of Religion, (from the Philosophical Library in New York City, 1945)

Follows, Zenos, and Willett, editors, The Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopaedia and Scriptural Dictionary (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Co., 1902; Vol. 11, 849)

Liddell, Henry George & Robt. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, New York: Harper, 1869.

Luther, Martin. “Preface to the Prophets,” Works of Martin Luther, Vol. VI. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1932.)

Rissi: Time and History—A Study on the Revelation (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1965)

Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary (page 271)

Unger, Merrill F. “Idol” and “Idolatry,” Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1957), pp. 511-515.