Packer on Images in ‘Knowing God’

I reread J. I. Packer’s classic Knowing God last week for the first time since my teenage years. It was an overlong return, and well worth the read. Something I had not recalled, and was pleasantly surprised to find, was the Anglican Packer’s rejection of the use of images of God in worship. The edition of Knowing God I reread was from 1993, and Packer had faced so much pushback on his original position that he included an additional section in that chapter explaining why he had not changed his mind in the 20 years since the book’s original publication. So, evidently, this was a significant enough feature of the book to have warranted a lot of attention, and yet I had managed to forget it. The thing I was delighted to find in Packer’s argument was that his conclusion generally overlapped with my own: Images of God, including depictions of Christ, should not be used in worship; ambivalence in regards to the appropriateness of images of God for didactic purposes outside of worship; and finding prudent uses of images of God in art limited but acceptable.

Packer lays out his argument in these ways:

1. The second commandment prohibits any image of God in worship, not only images that borrow from paganism or present a degraded view of God.

1.A. This rules out not only the use of animals to represent God, but also the highest created image God gives us: man. Therefore, this precludes images of Christ in worship since they would have to be fashioned using an idealized likeness of humanity in their depiction of him.

The biblical reasoning for this includes,

2. Images dishonor God, for they obscure his glory. Citing Calvin, Packer notes that all images of God not only add features to him, but conceal most of his person and character, and are therefore idolatrous. The golden calf was intended to honor God, but obscured other truths of him. Crucifixes display Christ’s human weakness, but conceal his divine strength. “We should not look to pictures of God to show us his glory and move us to worship; for his glory is precisely what pictures can never show us.”

3. Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God. Presenting God as a golden calf mislead the people into debauchery. “Psychologically, it is certain that if you habitually focus your thoughts on an image or picture of the One to whom you are going to pray, you will come to think of him, and pray to him, as the image represents him. Thus you will in this sense ‘bow down’ and ‘worship’ your image; and to the extent that the image fails to tell the truth about God, to that extent you will fail to worship God in truth.”

4. Just as the second commandment prohibits us making physical images of God, it prohibits constructing mental images of God. To create an image in our minds and hearts of what God must be like is to create a God in our image. It prioritizes our idealized values over scripture’s revelation that God is mysterious and inscrutable.

5. God did not provide images of himself, but his word (cf. Deut. 4). Therefore, the second commandment is designed to guide us from seeking visible images of God, but rather to seek him as revealed in his word.

6. How can I tell the degree to which I am looking at created images of God? God reveals himself fully in his Son; are you looking to God in Christ, as revealed in scripture?

Packer in his updated section notes that,

7.¬†Art can serve worship, but the second commandment sets the terms of worship, not our use of art. Since neither children nor “unsophisticated adults” can discern the difference between a symbolic representation of Jesus in art and the truth of the idealized form there, art that represents Christ in worship is foolish.

8. The use of imagination is good, but should be used in the lively appreciation of the drama of redemption in scripture, not in crafting static and representational images of God.

9. The intent of using images (e.g. crucifixes) to encourage devotion rests on them being symbolic rather than representational. As soon as they become representational they “corrupt the devotion they trigger” and humans struggle to avoid the pitfall of keeping images symbolic in that way.