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Volume 13, Issue 3: Poetics

Rethinking the Second Commandment

Douglas Jones

the second commandment is deep water.

It looks so serene and simple, but we can't touch the bottom. Something wonderfully important is lurking there, but the perennial debate over images—iconoclasts and iconodules—has always failed to match up to the greatness of this command.
During the medieval iconoclast controversy in the eighth century, the good guys and bad guys defended wrong conclusions with some good arguments. The whole debate has been crucially important but awkwardly artificial.
Iconoclasts of today still make strong prohibitionist claims against images but somehow have to allow for images in the Tabernacle and elsewhere. Iconodules take the moral high ground on the Incarnation: images were prohibited, they say, in the past, but not after the Word was made flesh; but the fact is that divine embodiments in the Old Covenant didn't nullify the commandment back then.
Both sides in this debate have also always assumed a sharp distinction between word and image. Over the centuries various candidates for this divide have made their appearance. The most ancient is the claim that images are natural resemblances and words are conventional "unlikenesses." Images look like their referents in nature, but words don't. The word eagle isn't a picture of an actual eagle but an arbitrary set of letter symbols.
One noted problem with using resemblance as the distinguishing marker for images is that things can resemble each other without being a picture of the other. Cars off an assembly line resemble one another, but one car isn't an image of the other. Twins, coins, and the object itself share resemblances without being images of the other or itself.
The nature/convention line also suggests that language is unnatural, but it seems the most natural thing to children. Conversely, reading an image assumes familiarity with certain conventions and picture "codes" before it can be deciphered.
Other distinctions have been proposed. Burke proposed that the distinction between image and text is that between eye and ear. But that distinction isn't absolute, since reading texts requires vision. Lessing proposed that image/text difference is that between space and time; images are spread out in space, and texts follow at least a syntactic narrative. But images also involve time to be scanned (and now film images move in time), and texts are spread out in space. Other proposed distinctions fall to similar examples.
No distinction appears to be able to stand up on behalf of the traditional debate. This may not be so bad after all. Scripture itself doesn't appear to push for an absolute difference between image and text. Christ, for example, is described as both word and image. He is the "express image" of the Father (Heb. 1:3), "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), and the image into which we are to be transformed (2 Cor. 3:18). At the same time, Christ is the "Word made flesh" (Jn. 1:14), and "the Word of life" (1 Jn. 1:1), and "the Word of God" (Rev. 19:13).
Deuteronomy also provides an interesting connection betwen word and text. In commenting on the second commandment, Deuteronomy 12 invokes issues of naming that assume some interchange between image and name. God commands Israel to remove the images/name of idolaters and replace them with the name of God (which involved Tabernacle images). Similarly, we find passing instances where Scripture plays down any strong contrast between word and image, like Isaiah 2:1 which speaks of the "word" that Isaiah "saw."1
Neil Postman's rationalism aside, these closer connections between image and naming appear to be keys to understanding the second commandment. Naming is always an expression of authority and dominion. God names us and changes biblical names when He makes new persons; Adam names Eve; Adam names the animals; Adam and Eve express their dominion over creation by naming it. Naming authoritatively declares a nature; it also sets a path for the future. That's why contemporary debates over pronouns, movements, and groups can create such animosity. Hostile worldviews are trying to express their dominion over reality.
Images express dominion too; they declare natures and set paths for the future. To paint a landscape or a still life is a creaturely expression of dominion. To submit to a photographer or portrait painter is to allow someone to declare your nature. That's why we get so particular about our images. They delimit our character.
Viewing images as a kind of naming, then, it's evident that the second commandment has little or nothing to do with all the traditional incarnational arguments usually brought to bear. The second commandment is a prohibition of taking dominion over God in worship by naming Him with creaturely images, i.e., we may not delimit God in worship via images of cows or any creature in heaven or earth. He determines His name, we don't. Again, assuming word and image are only differences on a continuum, the third commandment prohibits naming/imaging the divine on our own initiative outside of worship as well. He might do that, but we can't just assume that authority. To image is to constrain. To draw a portrait of Christ is a claim of dominion and supremacy, a claim to determine the nature and future of God.2 That is the offense. He reserves the right to name Himself in word and image.

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