Should we really be tearing down statues of Jesus?

In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today Programme” (conversation starts at 2hrs 34mins into the broadcast), the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, made a number of comments about the statues and images of Jesus in Anglican places of worship. The comments were prompted by a question from the host about statues around the world that have been removed in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the further calls, made by some, to extend this campaign to statues (and other artwork) of Jesus that are seen to be perpetuating “a form of white supremacy”. The Archbishop’s response to this question was to say that some of the statues in, for example, Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey would be coming down.

This was a startling admission. On national radio, the Archbishop all but confessed that some of the grandest and oldest images of Jesus in the country are to be taken down. What will happen to them after they will be taken down is perhaps another matter. The backlash from a number of Christians to the Archbishop’s comments have been scathing. Some argue that he is caving to a radical mob. Others saying that this is being used by people antagonistic to Christianity to conintue to beat the faith out of national prominence. Still others advocate that historical statues and artifacts, in general, should not be removed simply because we don’t agree with or like them.

Perhaps all of these complaints against the Archbishop’s choice to act in this manner at this particular time in history is true. I doubt it is an idea he has come up with independently of the recent protests. But it is worth examining the argument that has convinced people, including the Archbishop it seems, that these statues of Jesus are problematic.

The main thrust of the complaint is that Jesus wasn’t ‘white’. It is argued that since the vast majority of images of Jesus (specifically in the West) portray a white man, this is not only historically inaccurate, but perpetuates an idea of ‘white supremacy’. Since Jesus is God incarnate, to portray Him as white would therefore imply that to be white is to be inherently ‘purer’ that others.

What is undeniable about this argument is the initial premise. Jesus was not a white European/Caucasian. He was Jewish. But the reason He is inaccurately portrayed as white is not due to some idea of racial superiority, but rather that the people who made these pictures of Jesus made them with features similar to their own. It is, perhaps, a natural tendency to think of people we have never met as having features similar to ours, and it takes a conscious effort to break out of that natural tendency.

But what is the antidote to this admittedly inaccurate historical representation of Jesus? Certainly the Archbishop’s answer seems to be to simply promote alternative depictions of Jesus. In a tweet, Welby displays some images of Jesus from ‘around the world’. These images portray people who are black, Chinese, and other shades of colour. Interestingly, this presents a further problem for the ‘white supremacy’ argument. Is portraying a picture of Jesus with black skin a monument for ‘black supremacy’?

If the concept of a ‘white Jesus’ is problematic because Jesus was not white, then how are these other images any better? All of the other images have different skin colours, so how can they possible all portray an accurate representation of Jesus’ skin colour? Of course, they can’t. The Archbishop, and those who agree with his removal of white depictions of Jesus but encourage ‘coloured’ images of Him, present a self – contradictory argument. By their own logic, only images of Jesus with His exact skin colour would be permissible. Since there cannot possibly exist an image of Jesus, carved or painted, that could possibly match His exact skin colour, why aren’t these alternative images also equally controversial? The inevitable conclusion is this: all images of Jesus are as bad as each other. None of them are accurate representations of Him.

The conversation around these statues and images has all been about skin colour. By why stop there? Which depiction of Jesus has His correct eye colour? Hair colour? Muscle tone? Height? Facial features? And which of them has all the above correct? Surely none. As mentioned above, people have made images that mostly look like themselves or people they know. This, by the by, is the reason why in Justin Welby’s tweet, there are pictures of Jesus with multiple skin colours. Portraying Jesus with similar features to your own is not a uniquely ‘white’ tendency.

This really gets to the heart of the argument about the images and statues of Jesus. We makes our images of Jesus in the image of our own person. We make Him in our image, so to speak. However, Jesus Himself says that He is not the image of any man, but He is the true reflection of the Father. He says “whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). When we look upon Jesus, we should see a perfect reflection of the Father. When Jesus walked on Earth, the angels could look down from Heaven at Jesus and say “He’s just like the Father.” Everything, from His facial expression, to His body language, to the way He healed the blind, to the way He treated children, to the way He rebuked the Pharisees, to the way He comforted His disciples, was a perfect image of God.

Ultimately, any image of Jesus that we produce is going to fall hugely short of a perfect reflection of who God is. No angel could look down on any statue or picture of Jesus and think “That’s just like the Father.” Every image of Jesus is, therefore, an inaccurate and corrupted representation of God because it is a flawed representation of Jesus. The Bible references inaccurate representations of God by a particular name: an idol.

By necessity, the images we have of God affect, to a greater or lesser extent, how we worship Him. Yet the Bible says that we are to worship God “in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24). The flawed images we have of Jesus do not help us fulfil this imperative since our knowledge of God is being affected by images that are material and inaccurate (the very opposite of spirit and truth). Moreover, such images run straight into problems when we consider the 2nd Commandment.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the Earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4 – 5a)

To explain the meaning of the 2nd Commandment, I defer to the words of the Heidelberg Catechism,

“Q96. What is God’s will for us in the second commandment?

A. That we in no way make any image of God nor worship Him in any other way than has been commanded in God’s Word.

Q97. May we then not make any image at all?

A. God can not and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Although creatures may be portrayed, yet God forbids making or having such images if one’s intention is to worship them or to serve God through them.”

And, similarly, from the Westminster Larger Catechism,

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

A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God Himself; 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 pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.”

So ultimately, I, at least in part, agree with the Archbishop. I certainly think that statues and images of Jesus in places of worship need to be removed, but not for the reasons he intimates. The fundamental problem is not that pictures of Jesus perpetuate ‘white supremacy’ but that they perpetuate an inaccurate picture of Jesus, who as the Son of God incarnate is the perfect image of God. Even if we are not worshipping the image itself, the purpose of that image is to draw our focus and attention to what is being depicted – a corrupt view of God.

The Death of R.C. Sproul

We are secure, not because we hold tightly to Jesus, but because He holds tightly to us. – Dr. R.C. Sproul

Last Thursday afternoon, Ligonier Ministries released a statement announcing the death of Dr. R. C. Sproul. For anyone who has been influenced by Dr. Sproul’s ministry, this day was never far away as he had been struggling with ailing health for quite some time. Nevertheless, I was, and still am, deeply saddened to hear of his passing. Throughout his life, he wore many different hats, and each of the roles he played in public ministry have blessed me greatly.

Firstly, and primarily to me, he was a wonderful speaker; both at conferences and in the sermons he preached at St. Andrew’s church. I never had the pleasure of sitting in a service of his, or to a conference he has spoken at, but listening back to the recordings for his various talks has been my main interaction with Dr. Sproul over the last few years. I first encountered his gift for speaking on listening to a debate that he had with John MacArthur on the subject of baptism. At once, even in an extremely controversial debate, Dr. Sproul showed himself to be neither aggressive nor divisive towards those who disagreed with him, and prioritised unity in the Gospel above all things. The way he presented his arguments captivated me as someone who held the the infant baptist position but with little knowledge of the complex arguments. Immediately after listening to the debate, I search his name on YouTube to see what other talks or debates he had done that I could listen to, and the top video at the time was entitled “If God is Sovereign, How Can Man Be Free?“. This was a topic in my Christian life that I had been keenly avoiding at all costs and so I decided to see what Dr. Sproul had to say, given I was so impressed by his arguments in the baptism debate. It was that talk that got me to understand what the sovereignty of God really meant and what human freedom actually entailed. From then on, I became a bit of an R.C. Sproul junkie for a few months, listening to at least one 45 minute to an hour long sermon per day of his, on whatever topic I could find. I specifically enjoyed his public Q&A sessions at various conferences with different conference speakers, which in turn introduced me to other gifted ministers that I could engage with.

Secondly, Dr. Sproul was a seminary professor and founder of the Reformation Bible College. Through the founding of Ligonier Ministries, he has released a lot of his teaching material to the public; much of which is made free to view or purchasable for relatively small cost. It was through the recordings of these classes that I understood what Reformed Theology was and began to understand what the Bible means when it talks about the holiness of God. Another way that I have been greatly blessed by Dr. Sproul’s academic work is his general editing of the Reformation Study Bible, which quickly became my go-to study Bible.

Thirdly, as his broadcasts for Ligonier Ministries on the radio programme “Renewing Your Mind” which uses a daily chunk of 25 minutes or so of material in mini-series to help explain a whole range of theological, epistemological, ecclesiological, Biblical, and historical topics. On bus or car journeys, whilst cooking or doing other activities, recent Renewing Your Mind broadcasts were top of the list of things to listen to. Some I have listened to again and again because of how captivating and engaging Dr. Sproul made these broadcasts.

Fourthly, and finally, as an author. His book “Chosen By God” is a phenomenal masterpiece of the subject of election and predestination and was incredibly formative in my understanding of the Reformed view of salvation and God’s sovereignty. Similarly, his St. Andrew’s commentary series on various books of the Bible are something I have recently discovered and am certain to benefit from enormously in the future as I continue my way through reading them.

In these ways, R.C. Sproul taught me so much of sound doctrine and Biblical study. In one sense, I am so thankful for his 78 years of life and his long and prosperous ministry that I can still benefit from in the future, yet I am greatly saddened that no more can come from his pen or lips. As sad as it is to lose such a giant of the faith, it is a great comfort to know that Dr. Sproul is now in the presence of the Lord and can see Jesus face to face; the hope that he constantly shared. His works will endure and may he long bless the church, even in death.

The Nashville Statement

Earlier this week, a number of prominent Christian leaders, mostly in America, but also from nations across the world signed a document called the Nashville Statement. The statement was signed by some of the worlds’ most well-known theologians and pastors, from several denominations. Among them were John Piper, J. I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, Al Mohler, Don Carson, R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Mark Dever, Matt Chandler, and Alistair Begg. You could scarcely ask for a greater pantheon of Christian leaders with better credentials than this. Yet, despite this ringing endorsement, the so-called Nashville Statement has caused enormous controversy in recent days, both in the secular media but, more worryingly, in Christian circles.

The statement is, in short, an outline of the Biblical, Christian attitude towards marriage, gender, and same-sex relationships. The statement in full can be read here, and consists of 14 Articles. Each article consists of a belief affirmed by those who sign it and a related belief, or misrepresentation, that they deny. This format will be very familiar to those who have read other Church statements and councils throughout history; it is a traditional, and sensible, format when compiling a document clarifying a position.

The statement is nothing more than the clarification of positions held by Christians for centuries and does not state anything remotely new. It concisely promotes the Biblical view of marriage, gender, and sexuality and denies that departure from these designed concepts is natural or godly but that, nevertheless, those who do depart are no less worthy of respect as bearers of God’s image than anyone else nor are they too far from the Gospel.

So, what is this furore of criticism of the Nashville Statement? With which points do people have difficulty? I want to address the three major points of contention with this statement that I have come across.

Hate and Bigotry

A quick scroll through a Twitter search of #NashvilleStatement shows vitriol against the statement, saying that it is hateful and bigoted. This objection is entirely groundless. Nowhere, not once, does any Article express a hatred for homosexual people, or transgendered people. At no point were any person who identifies as either or both of the above considered as anything more or less than an image bearer of God Himself, with dignity and worth equal to anyone else (Article VI). It states that salvation is for them as anyone else (Article XIV)  and that they are to be welcomed and encouraged to be, upon profession of repentance and faith, as faithful followers of Christ (Article VI). This is anything but hatred! In fact, the statement speaks truth in love (Article XI) and refuses to out-of-hand condemn everyone to hell who identifies as ‘LGBT’ (Article XIII, XIV) and it would be false teaching to do so. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6:9, states clearly that men who perform homosexual acts (amongst a long list of other sins!) will not inherit the kingdom of God. However, he does not stop there! In verse 11, he says

And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

 

This is completely consistent with the Nashville Statement. It says, like Paul, that unrepentant homosexual lifestyles prohibits the inheritance of the kingdom of God but, praise the Lord, such were some of you! God has the power to save you from your life and a life saved is a life loved and not a life hated.

Jesus never said anything about homosexuality

The first thing to ask people who claim this is: do you believe in the Trinity? If they say no, then they are not a Christian and actually the main focus of witness should be there. If they say yes, however, then they affirm that Jesus is a member of the Trinity; He is God. If He is God, and the Bible is God’s word, anything in the the Bible must therefore be the words of the Second Person of the Trinity – God the Son. So, when God spoke to Moses and said that homosexuality was an abomination in the sexuality code in Leviticus 18, that was as much Jesus’ words as God the Father’s and God the Holy Spirit’s. Similarly, when sulphur and fire rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah in judgement (Genesis 18), Jesus was not absent, nor was He in disagreement.

Furthermore, it’s actually untrue to claim that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality – at least, indirectly. In both Matthew 5 and Matthew 19, Jesus talks about marriage, referring to divorce in the case of sexual immorality. How was sexual immorality defined in first century Israel? By Scripture, like Leviticus 18. Jesus was affirming that homosexuality is a condition to end a marriage, not to start one. Moreover, if that’s not what He is saying, then we have even bigger problems. In Leviticus 18, we also find verses mentioning:

  • Incest (verses 6-18)
  • Affairs (verse 20)
  • Child sacrifice (21)
  • Bestiality (verse 23)

So, if our new metric of understanding Christian morality is ‘Only if Jesus talked about explicitly, then it’s okay’ then we have a whole load of serious issues on our hands and homosexual acts are the least of our worries.

We must, therefore, reject the notation that just because the word ‘homosexuality’ (in any language) is not recorded to have been uttered by Jesus Christ, it is permissible. This idea should be obviously fallacious to any Christian.

Hypocrisy

Finally, many see the Nashville Statement as hypocritical. This view seems to imply that those who would agree with the Nashville Statement by saying that, according to Christians, a man cheating of his wife is okay, but a monogamous same-sex marriage is not. Or, similarly, that the Church affirms that adultery, rape, and divorce are acceptable, but homosexuality isn’t.

But, surely, this is no basis in fact, at all! By the above point on Leviticus 18, the Church holds firm that adultery is not acceptable, and that divorce is only permissible in matters of sexual immorality and desertion /abandonment (1 Corinthians 7:10-16). With regards to rape, it is also condemned Biblically in Deuteronomy 22:25-27. At no point, has the Church commended these things. In fact, I know that this line of criticism is particularly unfounded since I have been extensively blessed by the ministries of a great many of these signatories.

Of course, a large portion of this line of attack comes from the notation that so-called ‘evangelicals’ supported Donald Trump to the presidency of the USA in the most recent election and therefore find it hypocritical for the same people to be against homosexuality, but not adultery etc. However, this too is a misnomer. In fact, this video shows Al Mohler, a significant signer of the Nashville Statement, decrying Trump’s moral character saying it is ‘below the baseline of human decency for anyone who would deserve our vote’. This is just one of many such statements against the things that those against the Nashville Statement say that Christians support! The fact of the matter is, as Christians, we must use our time and efforts wisely for the defence of the truth and the furthering of the Gospel. Therefore, it would be an enormous waste of time and energy to pioneer a zealous fight against the legalising of rape, when no such campaign exists.

As a Bible-believing Christian, who fights for the orthodox faith that was once for all delivered to the saints, I am honoured to be able to sign the Nashville Statement, for the glory of God, alongside many champions of the Gospel.