Are Nativity Scenes a Violation of the Second Commandment?

Image by Maria Brauer
    Image by Maria Brauer

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

Several years ago, I began noticing more and more Nativity scenes being displayed.  I began wondering if somehow images of Jesus were a violation of the second commandment, which prohibits creating and worshipping 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?   

How do we formulate our spiritual practices?

As Christians, the first thing we should ask about any spiritual practices is:  What does the Bible say about it?  Our spiritual practices should be drawn from God’s clear direction in Scripture.  In the context of worship, this is referred to in Reformed theology as the “Regulative Principle.”

In the case of Christmas, the Bible never tells the church to celebrate it, nor does it condemn it.  From Jesus, to the Apostles, to 336 A.D., Christmas was never mentioned or celebrated.  “Bah humbug!” 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!  In this article I am not arguing against Christmas, but I’m asking the question if it’s proper to use images of Jesus as we celebrate?

In this article, the practice which I’d like to challenge the most is the display of Nativity scenes with the baby Jesus.  Why?  Well, that brings us to the second thing Reformed Christians should ask about our spiritual practices:  Do our 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 do have a clear opinion.  What is it?

The Reformed Confessions on the use of images

May not pictures be tolerated in churches as books for the people?  It 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.” –  Second Helvetic Confession (Chapter 4)

It almost seems they could have had nativity scenes in mind!

The Heidelberg Catechism says we should not make images of God.  “May we not make any image at all?”  It answers: God may not and cannot be imaged in any way.(Q. 96 & 97)

The Second Helvetic and the Heidelberg seem to clearly answer the question at hand.  Here is one more thought from the Westminster Larger CatechismMaking any representation of God, of all or any of the three persons, and worshipping it, is a violation of the second commandment. (Q. 109)

Reading these statements makes it appear there’s a unified consensus from these Reformed confessions and catechisms that leaves little doubt as to what the writers’ beliefs were: We should not use images of God for worship.

A few questions 

If we say, “Well, we’re not worshipping the images of the baby Jesus,” is this totally accurate?  Why are we displaying the nativity scene?  Aren’t we inviting worship if we display nativity scenes?  Aren’t we wanting people to honor Christ?  Isn’t honor at the heart of worship?  And even if this is not our intention, what if someone decides to worship it?  We have no control over what one might do.

Even with the clarity in the Reformed confessions, you might still wonder “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 question, I turned to John Calvin.  He writes:

“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, that is to wit, of his divine Majesty? Yes.” (Sermon of 23 May, 1555)

So Calvin is saying that depicting just the human nature of Christ wipes away his divinity.

The Two-Fold Issue

In reading the Reformed Confessions and John Calvin, it seems they’ve identified a two-fold problem with the issue of images of Jesus: 

First, if we display an image of Jesus and rationalize it by saying “it’s not an image of the deity, but just his humanity” we’re depriving Jesus of his divine nature and are in danger of creating an Arian type of Christ, which is a false Christ.  This is something Jehovah’s Witnesses do.

Secondly, if we display an image of Jesus, we’re presenting an image of God—the very thing the second commandment forbids.  Remember, we can’t say we’re just presenting the human nature of Christ, because it’s not proper to present Christ to people without his divinity—this would be Arian.  At the Incarnation, He forever became the God-man.  The Creed of Chalcedon tells his two natures are unconfused, unchangeable, indivisible, and inseparable.  We can distinguish but never separate His two united natures.

Always being reformed according to the Word of God

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

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

As Thomas Watson well said, 

“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.”

Biblical Manger Crib

It’s the Son’s deity, united to his manhood, that makes him Jesus Christ.  We can distinguish them, but we should never contemplate Him without both. 

Reformation in our spiritual lives isn’t easy. It often goes against many of our long-held practices, beliefs, and “traditions.”  As a Reformed Christian, ask yourself, “Does the Bible tell me it’s okay to make images of Jesus?”  If so, what verse would you point to?  Also challenge yourself if the Reformed confessions support your view.  I know his topic was a struggle for me and I’m sure it’s a struggle for you too.  I’ve found the Reformed slogan about the church is also true of my life:

“The church is Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.”