What About Nativity Scenes at Christmas?

Image by Maria Brauer
Image by Maria Brauer

I love the Christmas season! One of my favorite things to do is take walks through the “Candy Cane Lane” in our neighborhood. What a delight to the senses to feel the cool winter air, smell the wood fireplaces, and see all the colorful Christmas decorations and lights.  

Several years ago I noticed more and more Nativity scenes being displayed to honor the birth of Jesus. After becoming Reformed, I began wondering if somehow images of Jesus were a violation of the second commandment (which prohibits images of God). I tried to dismiss this thought by telling myself that since Jesus was the “reason for the season,” these images can’t be wrong.

When I first mentioned this to my wife, she scoffed at me! Why would it be wrong to have a miniature figurine of the baby Jesus in our home? A manger had always been one of her favorite things to display by the fireplace. But then—one Christmas season—the baby Jesus happened to disappear from our manger! Hmm…what had happened? Who was the culprit? Part of me wanted to keep it as an unsolved mystery!

 

How do we formulate our spiritual practices?

As Christians, the first thing we should ask about any of our spiritual practices is: What does the Bible say about it? Does the Bible address the issue or does it leave it to our conscience?

In the case of Christmas, the Bible never tells the church to celebrate it. From Jesus, to the Apostles, to 336 A.D., Christmas was never mentioned or celebrated. That’s pretty staggering when you think about it. “Bah humbug,” you say! I say that too! What’s wrong with taking a season every year to contemplate the Son of God becoming flesh? For studying and meditating on the Incarnation of our Lord? I love the idea and could do it 365 days a year! But should we really use images of Jesus as we celebrate?

The practice on which I’d like to challenge us the most in this article is the display of Nativity scenes. Why? Well, that brings us to the second thing (Reformed) Christians should ask about our spiritual practices: Do the Reformed Confessions or Catechisms say anything about the issue? Do they give guidance? In the case of Nativity scenes and what they represent—images of Jesus—the Confessions have a clear opinion. What is it?

The Second Helvetic Confession (Chapter 4) asks: But may not pictures be tolerated in churches as books for the people? It then answers: No, for we should not be wiser than God, who will not have His people taught by dumb idols, but by the lively preaching of His word. Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters. It almost seems they could’ve had nativity scenes in mind.

The Heidelberg Catechism (Question and answer 96 & 97) says we should not make images of God. Just in case there was any misunderstanding, it adds: May we not make any image at all? It then answers: God may not and cannot be imaged in any way.

These two answers seem to clearly answer the question at hand, but here is one more thought from the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q&A 109): Making any representation of God, of all or any of the three persons (of the Trinity) is a violation of the second commandment (forbidding images of God).  

When we look at these three Reformed Confessions & Catechisms we see there appears to be a solid consensus that leaves little doubt as to what the writers’ beliefs were on the issue.

Even with such clarity in the Reformed confessions, you might still wonder what I wondered when I studied the question of images: Isn’t it possible to portray just the humanity of Christ instead of His deity? This would seem to get around the issue of making images of God. For this answer, I turned to John Calvin:

Jesus Christ…is not only man but also God manifested in the flesh. He is God’s eternal Son, in Whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells – yes, even substantially . . . Should we have portraitures and images, whereby only the flesh may be represented? Is it not a wiping away of that which is chiefest in our Lord Jesus Christ—His Divine Majesty?

 

The Two-Fold Issue

In reading the Reformed Confessions, and John Calvin, it seems there’s a two-fold problem on the issue of images of Jesus:  

  1. If we display an image of Jesus and rationalize it by saying “it’s not an image of the deity, but just the humanity of Christ” we’re depriving Jesus of his divine nature and are in danger of creating an Arian (Jehovah’s Witness) type of Christ, which is a false Christ.
  2. If we display an image of Jesus, and acknowledge He’s God, we’re then creating an image of God—the very thing the second commandment forbids.

 

Reforming Our Spiritual Lives

When we’re asked by family and friends, “Why is it wrong to have a nativity scene with the baby Jesus?” what a golden opportunity we have to witness to His deity! We could answer “It’s because Jesus is God and Scripture forbids making images of God.”  

When they comment by saying, “It’s just an image of his humanity,” we could reply, “But this would be a denial of His person as God and man. His deity can never be separated from his humanity.”

As Thomas Watson has well said, it’s Jesus’ deity, united to his manhood, that makes him Christ. Therefore to picture his manhood, when we cannot picture his Godhead, is a sin, because we make him to be but half Christ; we separate what God hath joined, we leave out that which is the chief thing, which makes him to be Christ.

Image by Greyson Joralemon
Image by Greyson Joralemon

Reformation in our spiritual lives isn’t easy. It often goes against many of our long-held practices, beliefs, and “traditions.” It may even cause someone like me to be the culprit in taking the baby Jesus from the Nativity manger, because I’ve found the Reformed slogan about the church is also true of my life: “The church is Reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.” 


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