Is “The Passion of the Christ” a Carved Image?

“4 You shall not make for yourself an carved image[i], or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not worship them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5a).

Over the centuries since the Reformation, Christians have benefited greatly from John Calvin’s exposition of Holy Scripture. One of the great legacies of this tradition includes Calvin’s comments on the Ten Commandments. There is a Christ-like impulse in Calvin’s understanding of the commandments. Just as Christ went beyond the letter of the Ten Commandments in order to set forth the Spirit of the law, so Calvin made a similar attempt. In Calvin’s reading of the scripture, it was not enough for the Christian merely to avoid doing those things which are prohibited in the commandments and to do those things which the commandments enjoin. For Calvin, if God commands one thing, He forbids the opposite; if God forbids one thing, He enjoins the opposite.[ii] Calvin’s legacy is seen perhaps most clearly in the Westminster Larger Catechism’s questions and answers on the Ten Commandments. For each commandment, the catechism asks “What are the sins forbidden” in this commandment, and “What are the duties required” in this commandment.[iii]

Yet Calvin and the Catechism reflect an exegesis of the second commandment that may not be entirely accurate. Calvin writes that the second commandment has two parts: “The first restrains our license from daring to subject God, who is incomprehensible, to our sense perceptions, or to represent him by any form. The second part forbids us to worship any images in the name of religion.”[iv] Calvin’s exposition of Exodus 20:4-6 is clear. God absolutely prohibits people from making any physical representation of God, and He absolutely prohibits any worshipping of such images.

Calvin’s exegesis recognizes that there are clearly two prohibitions at the beginning of verses 4 and 5: “you shall not make for yourself a carved image” and “you shall not worship them or serve them.” Therefore Calvin sees two obligations (not one obligation) flowing out of the second commandment. The obligation not to make a carved image of God is absolute, and so is the obligation not to worship anything in creation. Thus, for Calvin, the second commandment actually comprises two commands.[v]

If we apply Calvin’s exegesis to the movie “The Passion of the Christ,” we see that not only is the worshipping of the images in the movie a sin, but so is the making of the images. In Calvin’s view, even if no person ever bowed the knee to Jim Caviezel (a violation of “you shall not worship them or serve them”), the very fact Mel Gibson has put Jim Caviezel on the celluloid film as Jesus is a sin (a violation of “you shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness”).

While we can appreciate Calvin’s careful observation that there are in fact two prohibitions in verses 4 and 5, we do not agree with his separating the two commands from one another. Verses 4 and 5 read, “you shall not make for yourself a carved image” and “you shall not worship them or serve them.” Whereas Calvin has divided the two halves of the second commandment, I will argue that we should understand the two halves as joined together to make one commandment. That one commandment prohibits the making of images of the invisible God and of false gods for the purpose of worshiping them through the images. The commandment does not prohibit the making of images altogether. It only forbids the making of such images for the purpose of worshiping them. The episode with the bronze serpent in Numbers 21 and Moses’ elaboration of the commandment in Deuteronomy 4:15 confirm this reading of the second commandment.

Even though God forbade the making of carved images in Exodus 20:4, “or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth,” in Numbers 21:8 God commands Moses to make an image of a serpent, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live.” The making of this bronze serpent was the means of God’s deliverance for his people from judgment. On the face of it, the making of this serpent would appear to be a violation of the first part of the second commandment which prohibits making images. Is God directing Moses to break the second commandment in the making of the bronze serpent? In Calvin’s exegesis He would be.

The obvious conclusion is that the two halves of the second commandment were never meant to be held apart but to be taken together. As long as the people did not worship the bronze serpent, there was no violation of God’s law. Only when the people began to worship the serpent centuries later was the second commandment violated (2 Kings 18:4). God swiftly judged His people in the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-8) not because of the mere making of the object, but because of the proclamation, “This [golden calf] is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). These texts clearly show that the worshiping of carved images is what is forbidden in the second commandment, not merely the making of images.

In Deuteronomy 4:15, Moses explains the rationale behind the second commandment: “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a carved image for yourselves in the form of any figure.” In other words, because God had not revealed to the Israelites what He looked like, they were forbidden to make any representation of what they thought He might look like. At this point in salvation history, Yahweh was the invisible God. As long as God is invisible, the prohibition of making images of this unseen God makes perfect sense.

Yet with the incarnation, the situation has radically changed. Whereas no man had ever seen God at any time, Jesus Christ has made Him seen (John 1:18). Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” who was heretofore not seen (John 14:9). The rationale behind the prohibition of Deuteronomy 4:15 does not in fact apply to images of Jesus. The Westminster Larger Catechism’s prohibition against making images of “any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image,” therefore, goes beyond the prohibition of the second commandment. If the catechism is correct, then anytime the apostles remembered Jesus after his ascension they were breaking the second commandment!

Therefore, we should not conclude that the mere making of the film “The Passion of the Christ” is a violation of the second commandment. There is no violation unless people begin to worship the images in the film. If one begins to elevate either the celluloid images or the actor himself to a god-like position, then one has broken the second commandment.
[i]“Carved image” comes from the Hebrew noun ls#p#, which refers to an idol that is “carved from wood or sculpted from stone, but later cast in metal” (HALOT, s.v. ls#p#, p. 949; cf. s.v. ls^P*, p. 949: “to carve out, hew”).
[ii]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 edition, vol.1, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, ed. John Baillie, John T. McNeill, Henry P. Van Dusen (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), 375.
[iii]“What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the ten commandments? . . . where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded”(Question 99, Westminster Larger Catechism, Westminster Confession of Faith, [Atlanta, GA: Committee for Christian Education & Publications, 1990], 55-56).
[iv]John Calvin, Institutes, 383-84.
[v]Calvin’s exegesis is reflected in the Westminster Larger Catechism: “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are . . . the making of any representation of God, of all or 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” (Question 109, Westminster Larger Catechism, Westminster Confession of Faith, 66-67).