Saturday, October 15, 2011

Response to Fred Butler - John MacArthur and the Second Commandment

My friend Fred Butler has recently responded to my other friend Matthew Lankford's video, which was titled: "The Idolatry of John MacArthur."

Fred writes:
I was recently alerted to a video by a fellow named Matthew Lankford.  You only need to concern yourself with the first 7 or 8 minutes:
What's interesting is that the remaining minutes of the video are John MacArthur himself speaking.  That's the part you needn't be concerned with, according to my friend Fred Butler.  That misses the point of Mr. Lankford's video.  Lankford was calling MacArthur to be consistent with his own teachings and providing a lengthy excerpt of good material from MacArthur.

The Idolatry of John MacArthur

Oh my.  You gotta love these Puritan lynch mobs.
I get that "Idolatry" sounds harsh, particularly since some forms of idolatry involve worshiping false gods.  But considering that the video is an exhortation to repentance and consistency, "lynch mobs" seems more than a little over the top.  I'm sure it's just meant to be a humorous remark, but it seems to represent a view that Mr. Lankford's is extremely hostile, which was certainly not Mr. Lankford's intent.  Again, I think Mr. Butler's response may be visceral, rather than intellectual.  I'm not sure he got the full point of the video.

It’s hard to figure out where to begin.
ok ...
I will say that I can sympathize a bit with Matthew’s consternation with regards to pictures of Jesus.  As I have argued elsewhere, I don’t believe pictures of Jesus are even close to being the idolatry Matthew condemns in his video and that he is misapplying the second commandment.
They are exactly what Mr. Lankford condemns in his video.  Let's be clear about this.  Mr. Butler may disagree with the historic Reformed position on images of Jesus (which I think is what he's trying to say), but Mr. Lankford's objection is to MacArthur promoting the making and use of images of Jesus.
That stated, however, I am not particularly fond of all the modern displays of Jesus, because I don’t believe they capture accurately what He looked like.  IOW, I don’t think Jesus looked anything like Kenny Loggins or Dan Haggerty.  Nor do I like sacrilegious Precious Moments-like figurines that cheapen who Jesus truly is and what He did. 
Mr. Lankford focused mostly on the theological/moral objections to images of Jesus.  There are also practical/pragmatic/utilitarian objections.  I'm sure Mr. Butler and Mr. Lankford would agree on those points.  I appreciate that Mr. Butler has chosen to emphasize this common ground.
Before offering a response, it may be helpful to read what John has actually said about images of Jesus in Christian artwork.  The more comprehensive comment linked by Matthew is from a Q&A session done, from what I can gather, in 1980:
That's always good.  It is good to put material in context.

MacArthur (per Butler) said:

The text, "thou shalt not make any carved image" is based upon the prior verse: "thou shalt have no other gods before Me." "Thou shalt not make thee any carved image or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above or in the earth beneath." The assumption is that you're not to worship the stars, the sun, the birds, the animals, man, any other thing. But once God invaded the world in a human form, He gave substance or image, didn't He? And that's exactly what Hebrews 1 says, that He is the express, what?...image of God. God...God gave us an icon. And I hate to use that sense, but God gave us an image. God gave us a model and a pattern. So I don't think that it is outside...I don't think it violates this intent to make an image which is constituted as another god. You could never make an image of a spirit being. Right? So He couldn't be talking about an image of Himself. I mean, not essentially. But there was a case where they did this. You know, in the golden calf incident, I don't know if you've thought this through, but if you read the text, in the wilderness when the people made the golden calf, you remember Moses was up on the mountain getting the law and the people were down with Aaron making the golden calf. They made the golden calf as a representative of the true God. It was not a pagan idol. It was the representation of their own God. They were still, in some sense, monotheistic. They were trying to represent God, and that's what the text indicates, in that calf. And at that point, God judged them. The only proper manifestation that God has ever permitted of His Person is in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
This is mostly correct, but a few corrections are needed.  MacArthur has forgotten about the various Old Testament epiphanies.  People could have made images of those epiphanies, even though they could not make an image of a pure spirit.  For example, God appeared to Abraham, to Joshua, and so on.  Those epiphanies were visible and could have been used as the model for an artistic representation.  When I say "could have" I don't mean "without violating the second commandment," but rather "technologically possible."

Thus, the Incarnation did not change anything in that regard.  Jesus was the image of God, but not in the sense that his human body was a likeness of the invisible spirit of God.  And while Jesus was visible, he was not made by man - he was incarnate by the will of God.  We living humans are all said to be "made in the image of God" in a different but related sense.  That sense has nothing to do with what we look like.

MacArthur writes: "God gave us an icon. And I hate to use that sense, but God gave us an image. God gave us a model and a pattern."  God gave us Jesus himself, but not to serve as a model for paintings and statues.  The New Testament did not contain any pictures in the originals.  Jesus is the Word made flesh.  The New Testament passes on to us God's self-revelation in Jesus.

MacArthur (per Butler) continued: 
Now, there's one other thing that I might just mention. God has used a lot of symbols of His Person. In the Old Testament I can think of one major thing was a serpent on the rod, which, in a sense, pictured Christ. And there's much language imagery as well. Every lamb that was slain was, in a sense, prefiguring Christ. But I think you're safe in saying that since God has revealed Himself, this is the bottom line, God has revealed Himself in the image of man, the man Christ Jesus, that God allows us that one representation. I don't have a problem with that. He allows us that one representation so that we see God in human dimension.
No doubt there is a sense in which those things were representations of God.  But they were not purported likenesses.  They were types and shadows.  We have such representations today too!  "This is my body," and 'This is the blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many."  As the Iconoclastic council of 754 indicated, those are the only authorized icons of Christ.  Those are our representations, but they are not likenesses.  Jesus doesn't look like a loaf of bread, and while his blood might somewhat resemble wine, we can easily tell the difference, particularly in terms of taste.

MacArthur (per Butler) continued: 
Now, having said that, let me say this. We do not have in our house a picture of Jesus of any kind because I don't think any of them look like Him, probably, and I would rather have Him be who He really is than me to assume that He is someone He's not. That's just a personal thing. So what we do is, without having a picture of Jesus, we still encourage our children to read many, many Christian books and all of them have pictures of Jesus, but all of them have pictured Him differently. And I think you're pretty safe if you approach it that way. If you get some great big head of Christ slammed in the middle of your house, I'm not against that. That's okay if you like that but I perceive Christ in my own mind and I'm very comfortable with that and I've never yet seen the picture that looks like what I believe He is. So that's just a personal preference. But I really don't think the spirit of Deuteronomy 5:8 is broken when we have representation of the Lord Jesus Christ. 
That, of course, represents the crux of the disagreement between us.  It is not merely a matter of personal preference.  There's nothing in the New Testament that tells us that we can or should make imagined likenesses or Christ, any more than the Old Testament permitted imagined likenesses of the theophanies.  In that regard, as noted above, the Incarnation changed nothing.

The letter of Deutoronomy 5:8 is broken when we have such a representation.  Appeal to the "spirit" of the law can be useful.  For example, I don't think for a second it was contrary to the spirit of the law for the disciples to remember what Jesus looked like.  Then, it wasn't really contrary to the letter either.  Those memories were made by Jesus.  But our images are not God-made.  They are man-made.  The same goes for reflections of Jesus in mirrors and bodies of water.  (The same goes for the images in the memory of the theophanies, as well as the reflections of those theophanies in mirrors or water.)  Those images that Jesus himself made, either before, during, or after the Incarnation and whether through an apparition, true human body, or vision are all permitted.

A wise person once suggested to me that "sometimes the spirit of the law is that the letter of the law be obeyed."  In general, that is the case.  You need to provide some good justification for violating the letter of the law if you want to say that you are still within the spirit of the law.
In fact, the word imagery of the New Testament paints for us marvelous pictures of Christ. And you can never, I don't know about you, you can never, I can say for myself, I can never really read an account in the Gospels of Christ without vivid imagery of His Person; can you? I mean, when I see Him, for example, reach down and touch a leper, if that was just God doing that, I don't know that I could even focus on that. When you think of God, do you think of something? Do you think of a form or a shape? I don't. I don't think of...I don't know that I think of anything. But when I think of Christ, immediately I have this image of the robe and His hands and you know... So I really think that the spirit of the person who simply has in his mind or perceives Christ in human form is not in violation of that.
There's no physical description of Christ's appearance in the gospels.  We're not told whether he was thin or fat, short or tall, bald or bushy-haired.  We're not told how handsome he was, though Isaiah's prophecy suggested "no beauty that we should desire him." We are told what he did and said, but not what he looked like.  Thus, while the NT may point marvelous pictures of Christ, the NT does not paint representations or likeness of Christ.

That's the end of the quotation from MacArthur.  Butler continues:
Now.  Returning to the video, I believe there are a couple of glaring problems I see with what Matthew thinks is idolatry.
Not just problems, but "glaring" problems.  Let's check them out.
First, the second commandment prohibits idolatry as it relates to the worship of God the Father, the only true God.  As John pointed out in his response, the prohibition builds upon the first commandment that forbids the worship of any other gods.  Idols were considered the home of the so-called deity, or it had attributed to it some supernatural power that governed the people in a superstitious manner. Thus, an idol represents a god that is worshiped at the center of a pagan, socio-religious worldview.
The second commandment prohibits idolatry as it relates to the worship of all three persons of the Trinity.  I'm not sure why Mr. Butler singles out the Father, but the commandment does not.  Is Christ worshiped at the center of Butler's worldview?  I trust He is.  So, idols (such as the rather insultingly effeminate one - which raises a third commandment issue - found on Butler's blog post) of Christ are purported representations of the God who is worshiped at the center of our worldview.  Thus far, no glaring error on Mr. Lankford's part.
So at the outset, his objection to John’s views of images in artwork is misplaced and exegetically unsound.
a) Mr. Butler hasn't identified a basis upon which Mr. Lankford's objection could be said to be misplaced; and
b) Mr. Butler hasn't done a lick of exegesis, much less show that any argument by Lankford is exegetically unsound.
Second. The main problem with Matthew’s view of idolatry, is that if we work his conclusion to its logical end, he would be setting up God to be violating His own commandment when God the Son became incarnate.
This argument supposes that the commandment that we refrain from making images of God also prohibits God from making images of God.  But why should "thou shalt not make unto thee" prohibit God from making unto us?
Think about it: Jesus was a man – God becoming flesh.  He was seen by thousands of people.  He spoke and taught.  As the apostle John says in the opening of his first epistle, “That which was from the beginning, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hand have handled, concerning the Word of life.”  I believe John is speaking literally here.  This isn’t his flowery words describing a really strong spiritual experience.  He truly saw, heard, and touched the Lord of Glory, because He was in the “image of a man.”
Who knows what Butler is quoting with "image of a man." Jesus was both God and man.  He was not merely the image of a man.  But Jesus' physical appearance is not what revealed the Father to us.  It is the Word and Spirit that revealed the Father, not the flesh as such.

After all, even after the Incarnation, Paul reviles the pagan Romans in this way:

Romans 1:23  And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

Butler seems to be guilty of doing that by his argument, and worse he seems to be accusing God of doing that too!  But God did not send Jesus into the world to serve as a model for icons and statues.  That is not how Jesus revealed himself to us.  It is the words which Jesus spoke that profit us.
Now generally, one of the arguments thrown out is that God did not inspire the NT writers to describe Christ’s physical appearance.  Perhaps God did; but Jesus was still a real, historical man who lived in space and time, just like Justin Martyr, John Calvin, and Abraham Lincoln. He was “veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,” as the classic Christmas carol goes.
And we have very little to go on as far as what Jesus looked like.  We know he was male and Jewish and probably not very handsome.  That's about it.

More to the point, so what?  The theophanies were real appearances of God that took place in time and space as well.  There's nothing that makes us revisit the second commandment, just because Jesus was truly man.
Additionally, Jesus received worship on numerous occasions, the most notable example is Thomas in John 20:28 who exclaimed, “My Lord and My God.”  These people were worshiping a visible, flesh and blood person.  Obviously it was not idolatry, because Jesus was God in the flesh, but He was still real, sinewy, sweaty flesh.
Again, so what?  They were worshiping Jesus himself, not a representation of him.  There's no record of Paul carrying around a painting of Jesus in his pocket.  Instead, the one authorized representation of Jesus is not a likeness, but is instead the elements of the Lord's Supper: the bread of which it was said "this is my body" and the cup of which it was said, "this is the blood" etc.

Matthew takes a cheap shot at John by saying he naively embraces a Roman Catholic view of images that allows them to worship Mary and the saints.   Honestly, is that what John is advocating?  Even though no physical description of Jesus exists that is not a violation of the second commandment nor does it forbid Christians from representing Jesus in artwork or passion plays because, once again, He was a real, historical man and those representations do not have anything supernatural attributed to them.
Of course, the second commandment does not require that we attribute supernatural attributes to the idols themselves.  Only the most gullible of the pagans would do this.  Our Romanist friends are the same way - only the most gullible of them attribute supernatural attributes to their images.   The question is whether you claim that your picture is a picture of one person of the Trinity.  But surely Butler cannot deny that is his intent in having such pictures.
Now.  Where I would say the second commandment is violated is with some art work like “The Creation of Man” as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Not only do you have the image of God the Father, but He reclines on what looks to be a flying sea shell with a topless woman and a bunch of corpulent children.  And, I don’t think God look anything like John Brown. 
On the one hand, I certainly agree that the "Incarnation" argument suggested by Butler and MacArthur (and long ago by John of Damascus) cannot be legitimately extended to defend pictures purporting to be of the father.  Moreover, there are third commandment issues that arise when God is irreverently portrayed.  Nevertheless, that point of agreement (welcome as it is) of course does not address the underlying problem of having images of the second person of the Trinity.

Such pictures are forbidden by the terms of the second commandment and not authorized by Jesus, the apostles, or anyone else who could authorize them in the New Testament.  It's not merely a matter of every picture of Christ being untrue (since it is a false representation) but is a matter of failing to heed the commandments of God.  God does not wish us to show him religious reverence and honor (what we generally call "worship") through the use of images. And it is only and exactly Jesus' religious significance as God that motivates the making and using of these images.  So, these images violate both the letter and the spirit of the commandment.  We ought to abstain from them.  I hope Butler and MacArthur will be encouraged to join the Reformed in this regard.

I'd like to conclude by pointing out that there is a range of seriousness of violations of the second commandment.  While the error of MacArthur is within that range, it's not at the same place as the Romanists with their open adoration of the bread and devotion to the images.  While we think this is an important issue worth pressing, it does not mean that we can't see the difference between Ratzinger and MacArthur.  We can.  Finally, we are calling MacArthur to be consistent.  We worship an unseen God, and we ought to do so without the use of images.  MacArthur seems to realize that in some of his materials, as Mr. Lankford has quoted at length.


P.S. As noted above, Mr. Butler posted an idol as the graphic for his post.  You've been warned, but should you wish to go to his post, you can find it here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Answering Skeptics' Questions

Steve Hays provided concise and useful responses to 22 (he didn't select the number, I'm not sure the significance of that number to the questioner) questions from skeptics.  They are posted courtesy of


Recent Email from a Friend's Account

Someone claiming to be my friend and writing from my friend's account wrote:
We're writing this with tears.My family and i made a quick trip to Madrid Spain on a short vacation and we got mugged at the park of hotel where we stayed. Worse of it was that our bags, cash and credit cards were all stolen at GUNPOINT leaving us penniless right now.

It's was a horrible experience for us and we need help flying back home,the authorities are not being 100%  supportive but the good thing is that we still have our passports. we need some cash to settle our bills and get on flight back home. please let us know if you can help.

We're freaked out at the moment..
[name of victim and his wife]

Now, I know for a fact this friend is perfectly well and sitting at home on the other side of the world.  There's no possible way this email is true.  It's the work of someone resourceful attempting to trick my friend's friends into sending money under false pretenses.  It's fraud.  Very serious and disturbing fraud.

It's not as bad fraud as claiming to be the earthly head of Christ's church, but it's fraud nonetheless.



Monday, October 10, 2011

Why An Old-Looking Earth? Five Possible Answers

In a comment box at Triablogue, Alex B. wrote:
Care to actually answer the question as to why your god would create a universe that looked old if he know that it would lead people from him?

I answer:

Alex didn't explain why he wants this question answered.  First, however, let's consider a few possible answers:

1) God did so, because he wanted it to lead people from him.
2) God did so, despite the fact that it would lead people from him because of a greater good.
3) God did so, despite the fact that it would lead people from him because of an equal good.
4) God did not do so, the premise that it leads people from him is wrong.
5) God did not do so, the premise that the universe looked old when God created it is wrong.

Second, let's place an important caveat on this discussion.  Alex's question may not be directly answered by Scripture.  Not every question has an answer in Scripture, even if it is a question that vexes the mind of a person who does not want to believe that his Creator exists.

Third, let's consider the options.

First, possibly God specifically made the world to look old so that many people would not believe in God.  This contradicts the unspoken premise that God's main purpose in life is to win over as many people as possible.  Nevertheless, surely it is obvious that God isn't trying to do that.  So, the contradiction of that unspoken premise is hardly of much significance.

Second, possibly God specifically made the world to look old for some greater good.  Perhaps an old-looking universe is more comfortable to live in than a new-looking universe.  After all, a new-looking universe would be extremely hot, using contemporary scientific models for what constitutes appearance of youth in universes.

Third, possibly God specifically made the world to look old for some equal good.  After all, God could have made people more heat resistant and still made the universe look younger.  But then again, perhaps in this scenario, the heat resistance would have led an equal number of people from God.  This is all just speculation, of course - but since the question calls for speculation, why not speculate?

Fourth, there isn't really any evidence that what leads people away from God is the appearance of age of the universe.  After all, people turned away from God even before modern cosmologies began claiming that the world was 13 billion years old.  So, the apparent age of the Earth may simply be an excuse of contemporary atheists and agnostics rather than the actual reason.

Fifth, the idea that the world "looks" old is largely subjective.  It depends on the presuppositions that one brings to the table.  21st century naturalistic assumptions lead one to conclude 13 billion years or so as the age of the universe.  Yet God has not left us to make assumptions.  Genesis provides a cosmology.  Using that cosmology as one's starting point, the world doesn't "look" 13 billion years old.


By the way, Fred Butler has provided his own thoughts relevant to the question.

Matthew Lankford: "The Idolatry of John MacArthur"

My friend Matthew Lankford has posted a new video in which he addresses John MacArthur's position on images.

One thing I like is that while Matthew responds firmly to MacArthur's position, he also shows (quoting from MacArthur himself) that this should be a matter of consistency for MacArthur, rather than being a matter of a fundamental change.