The Second Commandment And Films Depicting Jesus

Many Christians believe that the second commandment has always only been against A77A360B-C561-458B-8F05-3A378D025046making 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. Of course, these Protestants don’t adhere to WLC #109, which forbids under the Second Commandment “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…”

Are Christians taking in a Jesus film 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.

What I think is often overlooked is that Jesus’ personality is that of the Second Person of the Trinity and not just any human personality. God could not 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. Added to this, an actor, no matter how good, cannot help but project something of 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.

The idea of perichoresis as it relates to the hypostatic union is relevant to this discussion and can inform our thinking on the second commandment as it relates to images of Christ in movies. 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. Also, 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. To see Jesus is to see not only his humanity but God with us, Immanuel.

The divine nature precedes the human nature in the incarnation. The Son of God became man. Although the human nature never penetrates the divine nature, the omnipresent divine nature penetrates the human nature in a qualified sense. In the time of Jesus’ humiliation the divine penetration results in Jesus’ tone of voice and body language. May Jesus be accurately portrayed as effeminate or would such an actual penetration to his human nature entail a metaphysical impossibility in the divine person? Would Jesus grin or appear disappointed in the same way and over the same things as any mortal actor? We must be mindful that the human nature of Christ could never be observable in isolation from the divine person and hence His eternal nature. The 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. Accordingly, we may not say we’re going to see a movie portraying Jesus’s humanity, as if something is not being portrayed of his divinity. One of the goals of the incarnation is that through gazing upon Jesus, “who is the exact imprint of God’s nature” – worshippers might exclaim, “my Lord, and my God!” (Hebrew 1:3; John 20:28) We might also note that in movie images crucifixion is being put forth but not the work of the cross. Propitiation cannot be captured in cinematography.

Given the arts and their depictions of Jesus, it’s no wonder that Lord is not more favorably seen by the church as the Ancient of Days, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, or the God of Psalms 2 and 3 (for instance). The Lord Jesus is too often depicted as a defeated suffering servant who deserves our pity and needs our help rather than as the King of Glory. Such a Savior doesn’t command the church. (The new fangled infatuation with Thomism and the “Great Tradition” hasn’t helped matters; neither has the recent rage among formerly Westminster pastors and professors who’ve traded in their confessional standards for a potpourri of theologians from various traditions, by which the “Reformed catholic” movement has begun.)

What possibly intrigues me most in all of this is that when I watch a 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 doesn’t that caution presuppose 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?

*Some have correctly observed that the second commandment includes the forbiddance of making an image of anything under the earth, which would include photos and art of deceased relatives. It’s also observed that the commandment forbids worshipping the dead through such aids. This invites the question, what makes images of loved ones okay but not images of Jesus if we discipline ourselves not to worship either?
The relative distinction is bound up in the principle that thoughts of God that do not invoke religious adoration are vain thoughts, which is forbidden under the third commandment. Unlike with non-divine persons, all thoughts of God are to invoke our worship. Yet worship may not be mediated through images of the object of our worship. Consequently, images of God that don’t sinfully result in unlawful worship reduce to a vain thing because they offer no lawful purpose. Whereas with deceased love ones, just like with living loved ones, our lawful thoughts of them are not to invoke our religious devotion. Therefore, it’s not a vain thing to remember them fondly with thanksgiving, short of worship. To that lawful end, images are acceptable. Whereas with God, the telos of reflection is always to be doxological. Even our theology is always to give way to doxology! Images have no place there, and to stop short of worship is to reflect upon God vainly, without lawful purpose. At the risk of repeating myself, one of the goals of the incarnation is that through gazing upon Jesus, “who is the exact imprint of God’s nature” – worshippers might exclaim, “my Lord, and my God!” (Hebrew 1:3; John 20:28)