Digital production is standard in most churches. In our own church we use videos to promote the work of the church and to testify to God’s grace. We use slides for announcements and sermon notes. All of these are helpful.
That said, I am questioning the use of digital image and video production in some contexts. Most definitely it is often useful. Should there be any caution to these uses? Does Scripture have anything to say? Is the use of images ever dangerous or even sinful? More specifically, should we visually depict Christ on sermon slides? Do video depictions of His crucifixion in worship services potentially do more harm than good?
At the outset, we know for certain that Scripture unequivocally forbids idolatry. Abraham left his idol worshiping family to pursue the unseen God in Canaan (Joshua 24:2). The second commandment forbids the use and creation of images, particularly in worship (Exodus 20:4). The prophets railed against idolatry. The early church so rejected the production of idols that they almost ran the silver smiths into insolvency (Acts 19:27).
So Scripture clearly forbids idolatry, but does the biblical prohibition against idolatry in any way inform how we think about depictions of Christ in worship services? To help with these questions, allow me to make some historical observations.
Very early in church history, churches began embracing the arts as a way to enhance worship. Portraits were painted on church walls. Various saints and Christ Himself were portrayed in statues. The practice began quite innocently by introducing pictures to help illiterate people understand Bible stories. Over time people began praying to statues and honouring the depictions of saints and of the Lord. Most teachers were clear that the images were only depictions, but they also taught that honouring a person’s depiction is a way to honour the person depicted. So people kissed crucifxes and prayed to paintings. What started as a teaching tool eventually became an aid in worship.
In response, many believers protested that such acts resemble pagan idolatry more than biblical Christianity. In 305 AD, the Council of Elvira forbade the use of pictures in churches. Saint Augustine expressed similar sentiments in “Faith and the Creed,” a discourse he originally delivered to the Council of Hippo-Regius in 393 AD. In 14th and 15th century England, John Wycliffe and the Lollard movement rejected the religious superstitions of the day and called for a return to Scripture. In defiance of the use of images within churches, they burned statues of saints as fuel for fires to heat the homes of poor people and to cook their food.
In the 17th century the British reformers crafted The Westminster Catechism as a means to teach Christian life and doctrine, and it is still used today by many believers worldwide. It clearly forbids depictions of any member of the Trinity under question 109, its explanation of 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…”
In the 19th century, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge wrote, “Idolatry not only is the worship of false gods, but also is the worship of the true God by images.” On this quote J.I. Packer, in his 20th century classic Knowing God, elaborates, “This means that we are not to make use of visual or pictorial representations of the triune God, or of any person of the Trinity, for purposes of Christian worship.”
At the very least in light of these observations, many notable Christians have condemned depictions of Christ and of saints during worship services.
Now let’s fast forward to the 21st century where churches electronically display pictures and videos on a regular basis. What do we make of this contemporary practice in light of what’s already been said?
To be clear, I don’t think we should throw the digital projector into the church furnace to help heat the building on a cold day. That said, we do need to be careful in what we project on the screen or even what we publish as sermon graphics or sermon series trailers. Visual objects can unwittingly, but rather quickly, turn into something terrible like idolatry. When those objects depict the Son of God, the temptation to or even the reality of idolatry could intensify. Specifically are depictions of Christ at all helpful during worship? My conscience answers, “No.” More generally, Scripture warns how quickly innocuous objects can become damning idols, and examples from history verify the urgency of that warning. Prudence and caution should guide us when we contemplate whether or not to project any fashioned objects before the eyes of God’s people while they worship. We should not think we are immune from the temptation towards idol worship in its most obvious form.
Our Lord left us only two visual signs to remind us of the Gospel, namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each, in its own way, depicts the work of Christ. Beyond that, how should we feel about any depiction of His person? Personally, my feeling is uneasy.
We have always been a people who listen to and worship the unseen God. We walk by faith and not by sight. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Ultimately we don’t look to images or statues or videos, but we look to the record of our forefathers in Scripture, to the hope we share with them of a now unseen future New Jerusalem, and to the day when our faith will finally become sight.
Augustine, “Of Faith and the Creed.” Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1304.htm. Accessed April 17, 2015.
McNeill, John T. Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion Volume 1). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.
Packer, J.I. Knowing God. London, England: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973.