Biblical use of Icons



The dispute over the use of images of God in the Church has a long history.  Some believe that we are not to use them at all.  They claim that to do so is a violation of the Ten Commandments, and will go so far as to say you cannot even have a Nativity in front of your house.

I found a very helpful post on the Just and Sinner blog by Pastor Jordan Cooper which you can find HERE.  Below I am going to use some similar scriptures that he does to present a Biblical case for the correct use of Christian Images.  I would also like to address the Reformed position and why I disagree with it.  This isn’t intended to be a slam on the reformed, but without stating what they believe and why arguing the opposite position becomes less clear.


Reformed Iconoclasm


When I speak to well meaning Reformed believers the first thing they usually bring up to support an Iconoclast position is the below excerpt from the Westminster Larger Catechism:


109. What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?

The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; 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 whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them, all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever;  simony;  sacrilege;  all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.


Notice it doesn’t even specifically condemn veneration, this document condemns all use of images or icons for any purpose.  In my experience, when Reformed believers object to the use of Icons they lean heavily on the above quoted text.  It’s not that they won’t cite the Bible at all.  But they cannot lean on scripture because it simply doesn’t say everything they really want it to when read in context, and is flat out contradicted when tested hermeneutically.  I think this is why they usually have this particular debate in house.

Below is the Biblical text that I do see them use though when you ask for one.  They will emphasize the first section of verse 4.


“3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.; 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:; 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.” Exodus 20:3-6 KJV 


Apology of the Biblical use of Icons


Since I do not hold to their confessions I really don’t have a problem rejecting the Westminster Larger Catechism.  So I am not going to bother even dealing with it.  I don’t mean this to be disrespectful, I appreciate that they wrote their beliefs down in black and white.  But it bears no authority over me at all so there you go.  My only concern with it is whether or not it coveys a Biblical confession, and on that point I do not believe that it does.

This is because in the body of the text it cites what they teach as the second commandment.  To that end I am going to post the passage again and highlight the parts that I think the Westminster theologians seem to have overlooked.


“3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.; 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:; 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.” Exodus 20:3-6 KJV


The obvious context of the command is with regards to worship.  Let me ask you a question, if you have a Crucifix in your Church or around your neck do you do any of the following?


Do you pray directly to it?

Do you worship the inanimate object?

Do you place your trust in it for your soul?

Do you compose songs for and sing to it in worship?


If you answered yes to those then I think the commandment has some applications.  But if those do not apply then I think the Commandment is irrelevant to this issue.  An important question is does a Biblical use of icons exist?  The answer is yes, we see Icons used and commanded to be used in the Old Covenant.


“17 And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof.; 18 And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat.; 19 And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof.; 20 And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be.; 21 And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee.; 22 And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.” Exodus 25:17-22 KJV 


I would caution the reader not to disregard the Cherubim as simply stand ins for an angel.  Notice that they designate the meeting place of God and the people of Israel.  For it is between the Cherubim that God promised to locate himself.  I would argue that the Cherubim meant to the Old Covenant Israelite’s what a Cross or Crucifix does to us today.  It symbolizes the presence, power, and blessings of God.  When you see one you think of the other and in this sense the Word is proclaimed with an image.


“1 Moreover thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubims of cunning work shalt thou make them.” Exodus 26:1 KJV 

“31 And thou shalt make a veil of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen of cunning work: with cherubims shall it be made; 32 And thou shalt hang it upon four pillars of shittim wood overlaid with gold: their hooks shall be of gold, upon the four sockets of silver. 33 And thou shalt hang up the veil under the taches, that thou mayest bring in thither within the veil the ark of the testimony: and the veil shall divide unto you between the holy place and the most holy.” Exodus 26:31-33 KJV 


My point with the passages above is that we can see that in the Bible there is a distinction between uses of images.  At the same time that God forbade the worship of graven images of false gods he commanded the use of images of the Cherubim.  Obviously he did not command the worship of the Cherubim, thus simply having an icon for other purposes than worship was not only allowed but commanded in the Old Covenant.


Is there a commandment to use icons in the New Covenant?  No.

Is there a commandment forbidding icons in the New Covenant? No.


Such things in the New Covenant can rightly be classified as adiaphora.  That is a reformation term that means things neither commanded nor forbidden.  Thus it is wrong to make a law in either direction as we don’t have the scriptural authority to do so.

Don’t miss the distinction that adiaphora makes.  It doesn’t mean we are free to have our own opinions about the law of the Bible.  It means that it is wrong to teach a law where none exists because to do so is to add to the word of God.

So here is a valid question, if you have a Crucifix why do you have one?  Is it to worship the object or is it a confession of the incarnation?


“14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” John 1:14 KJV 

“1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life”  1 John 1:1 KJV 


The Glory of God is something we have witnessed in human history.  Icons, art, and images rightly used confess this Glory.  Rather than re-state the obvious I am going to quote Pastor Jordan Cooper on this topic:


“We use them as tools to instruct and remind us of our faith. The crucifix is a constant reminder of the gospel. It is often placed in the sanctuary to remind both the pastor and the congregation that Christ, and his cross are the center of the church’s worship life.” – Just and Sinner




Simply put, if you choose in Christian freedom to have a Christian icon then feel free to do so.  If you choose to not have one for the same reasons then know that you are free there as well.  What we should be careful of is binding people’s consciences to fake laws that we do not have the scriptural authority to back up.  If  you feel I have wrongly called out the Westminster theologians, or if I missed something contextual in their teachings, please feel free to let me have it in the comments.







About ACTheologian

I am a layman who blogs my Biblical studies. Enjoy, please read with an open Bible and do double check with your pastor.
This entry was posted in Creeds & Councils, Law and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Biblical use of Icons

  1. O My Soul says:

    A clearly written and Biblical article on the topic of icons. Thanks for posting. – Jeff


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