For all the controversy surrounding The Chosen, it has been a revelatory year for the Mormon backed depiction of Christ. The latest controversy involves the comments of Voddie Baucham on The Chosen given during the Babylon Bee’s longform, sit-down interview podcast. After contrasting the collusion of Steve Deace, catholic writers, and Glenn Beck to produce Nefarious, this then segways into a conversation about The Chosen. Throughout the interview, Baucham spoke about his rules of engagement when going on other peoples’ platforms, explaining his logic that if he is unmuzzled, then he has no issues going on CNN, Ben Shapiro, or wherever else.
Yet when it comes to The Chosen, he makes clear that it crosses his line, calling it “2CV” for Second Commandment Violation. This is after advocating Brazilian Ju Jitsu over other forms of martial arts because it lacks any spiritual or mystical component to its origin unlike Karate.
For the hour-long podcast, the commentary on The Chosen is almost in passing, and packaged in an abbreviated, playful wording that apparently made the rounds on the internet, drawing the response of Dallas Jenkins.
In his Facebook response, Dallas Jenkins rests his case on the presumption that his viewers do not worship Jonathan Roumie’s portrayal of Jesus on TV, so thus it is not idolatry. His emphasis is on the worship aspect, not the object. To his rare credit, rather than further muddling the waters, he articulated a theological statement with clarity. Jenkins also links to an article on Church Leaders which recaps the conversation on The Babylon Bee while appealing to John Piper’s favorable theological analysis. For obvious reasons, Jenkins’s followers were supportive of his rebuttal.
The most engaged comment called Baucham’s application of Scripture “extreme and unnecessary” while others contended that the show moved them spiritually. Though not featured above, a personal favorite was a comment from a woman claiming that while she is not a theologian, she is really “surprised that Voddie, with such theological intellect, would interpret this verse like that.” While there was not a reaction of Baucham hate, there was disagreement and a sentiment that Baucham is inciting needless division. Whether Baucham would extend 2CV to Sight and Sound portraying King David or Ester, neither of which would require a depiction of God, is unstated in his interview.
Protestant Reformation and Graven Images
For the woman who is surprised how a theologian of great intellect could arrive at Baucham’s conclusion, it is rather simple and really highlights the historical and theological ignorance of the American Church. Throughout Church history, depictions of Christ have been an ongoing debate. Churchgoers who attend presumably non-Roman Catholic churches will likely notice the absence of a Crucifix at their churches, instead seeing (hopefully) a barren cross. The lack of crucifixes in modern protestant churches is a direct result of the Protestant Reformation’s rebuke of graven images and depictions of Christ’s body being within the confines of the Church. This is part of the iconoclasm debate which has persisted for a millennium. During the Protestant Reformation, there arose iconoclasts who sought to destroy these images. Most of the protestant reformers would be in agreement with Voddie Baucham.
We think it unlawful to give a visible shape to God, because God himself has forbidden it, and because it cannot be done without, in some degree, tarnishing his glory…The only things, therefore which ought to be painted or sculpted, are things which can be presented to the eye; the majesty of God, which is far beyond the reach of any eye, must not be dishonored by unbecoming representations. Visible representations are of two classes, i.e., historical, which give a representation of events, and pictorial, which merely exhibit bodily shapes and figures. The former are of some use for instruction or admonition. The latter, so far as I can see, are only fitted for amusement. Hence we may infer, that the exhibition was not the result of judicious selection, but foolish and inconsiderate longing. I say nothing as to the improper and unbecoming form in which they are presented, or the wanton license in which the sculptors and painters have here indulged.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.11.12
Calvin asserts that depictions of Christ inherently tarnish His glory; therefore, they are unbecoming. Though he gives some leeway towards depictions of historical events, meaning biblical texts, images of Christ are indulgent and reflect “judicious selection” which is “inconsiderate and foolish.” Even if Calvin would approve of a faithful historical portrayal of Christ, the creative license of Dallas Jenkins testifies against him regarding whether The Chosen is a graven image and would certainly be classified by Calvin’s teachings as an “unbecoming representation” for the purpose of “amusement” due to its pictorial liberties.
109. What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?
The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise 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 worshiping 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 pretence whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.
Westminster Larger Catechism, 1647 [Emphasis added]
The Westminster Larger Catechism, which was created in tandem with the Westminster Confession, is stricter than Calvin’s Institutes regarding depictions of Christ as sinful, even extending it to depictions of other false deities, like those of Greco-Roman origin. Theoretically, this is the advanced version of doctrine which should be espoused by members of the PCA and most other presbyterian denominations, though it is a common exception for pastors under the Westminster Confession.
Thus, they erred, who sought Christ and his apostles not in the sacred writings, but on painted walls.
A major influence of the Reformation, Augustine applies sacred images to even the apostles, condemning the substitution of Scripture with depictions. Augustine clearly critiques the use of artwork over sacred text within the church.
Any religious worship should not be paid to images; thinking piously before an image is forbidden. We condemn here the treatment of sacred or religious images that are supposed to contribute something to the excitement of religious feeling. God forbids the making of them and the worship of them.
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology
Turretin would hold that if the image stirs to religious excitement, it is therefore sinful, which is the reaction many viewers have regarding the show’s portrayal of Jesus. To them, the show quickly becomes a sacred cow, and criticisms against it are deemed as attacks and antithetical to Christianity. The fans become emotionally attached to the show, making it idolatrous. As noted in Evangelical Dark Web’s episodic reviews of The Chosen, it’s merits as a TV show are below average. Therefore, the devotion to the show is best explained as idolatry.
For a more exhaustive breakdown, Dr. C. Matthew McMahon at A Puritan’s Mind gives a detailed exposition on the history of this subject. Voddie Baucham is in agreement with the majority of the protestant reformers, and a simple survey of Church History would find much historical agreement with him.
Martin Luther on Graven Images
The instigator of the Protestant Reformation would differ with the above reformers, with Turretin in his works responding to the Lutherans.
Thus it is with all idolatry; for it consists not merely in erecting an image and worshiping it, but rather in the heart, which stands gaping at something else, and seeks help and consolation from creatures, saints, or devils, and neither cares for God, nor looks to Him for so much good as to believe that He is willing to help, neither believes that whatever good it experiences comes from God.
The Book of Concord, 1580
The Lutheran larger catechism would distinguish between the image and the worship of the image, stating that it is the latter which makes the former sinful, not the image in itself.
Now I say this to keep the conscience free from mischievous laws and fictitious sins, and not because I would defend images. Nor would I condemn those who have destroyed them, especially those who destroy divine and idolatrous images. But images for memorial and witness, such as crucifixes and images of saints, are to be tolerated.
Luther was not an iconoclast as his contemporary reformers were, and this tolerance of crucifixes and other depictions is consistent within Lutheran practice to this day. However, it should be noted that this is not a blanket statement that all depictions are permissible, but only those of “memorial and witness.”
The best case for Luther’s position, and the permissibility to respectfully portray Christ in imagery, is one that Luther himself makes, that the command of God to the Israelites to erect the Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21) would constitute an image that was created yet not to be worshipped. This image directly points to Christ, as is expressed in John 3, that just as the serpent was lifted up, so too the Son of Man. However, when the Bronze Serpent became worshiped, as is stated in 2nd Kings 18, King Hezekiah destroyed it.
If Luther is correct, then there is some permissibility in depictions of Christ, yet this exegesis is often lacking in defenders of The Chosen.
Many contemporary heroes like RC Sproul would side with Luther. Sproul emphasizes the detailed depictions found in Scripture regarding the temple, tabernacle, and Mercy Seat as being images that were commanded by God. He also said that “the Second Commandment prohibits the making of graven images for the purpose of worshiping the image.” Ligonier Ministries uses the burning bush as it logo. However, Sproul would not condone depictions of the Father. John MacArthur’s commentaries on Exodus 20 echo a similar sentiment to Sproul.
For those who have espoused favorable stances towards depictions, they maintain that there are regulations.
The Chosen vs The Passion
The debate over The Chosen violating the 2nd Commandment would also extend to all depictions of Christ, including The Passion of the Christ, the most successful independent film of all time. The view of most reformers would be a proscription against any depictions of Christ in film or other media, which would rebuke both. Under Luther’s theology, which implicitly is held by most American Christians, there is some permissibility. Assuming Luther’s premise, the question then becomes one of memorial and witness, which coincides well with Calvin’s historical class of images. Because it cannot be denied that unfaithful portrayals, like that seen in Christian Bale’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), which depicted The Lord as a child, are tolerable, the question is whether these same standards of historical, memorial, or witness apply to images of Christ.
The Passion holds closely to the gospel accounts of the crucifixion, with Caviezel’s Jesus enduring the torture, trials, and eventual death on the cross. The primary deviation is the tame amount of Catholic Mariology. Though the depiction is mainly historical rather than pictorial, under Calvin’s classification, the depiction of Christ by Caviezel tarnishes His glory, albeit displaying the events of Christ’s suffering and humiliation. In favor of The Passion, it cannot be said that people worship the film, and there are barriers to worship created within the film, namely that of the Aramaic language spoken throughout and the semi-undepicted resurrected Savior. The former inhibits the heart from worshiping Caviezel’s Jesus through a barrier of language while the latter demonstrates restraint in portraying His resurrected glory. The other element is that the brutality depicted in the film is disconcerting to many with weaker stomachs, and the film is intentionally uncomfortable to watch; therefore, further deterring worship of a depicted Christ. While this might not satisfy the doctrines of the reformers, the reverence towards the source material would be in compliance with Luther and Sproul regarding depictions of Christ that is clearly distinguished from that of The Chosen.
The episodic format of a TV show makes difficult the creation of a faithful adaptation that is not stretched out by extrabiblical details. Dallas Jenkins’s doctrine on plausibility regarding the biblical text permits him to take artistic liberties that amount to hubris and folly that denotes an underlying irreverence towards the source material, which is the Inspired Word. This transforms The Chosen from being historical to pictorial, as Jenkins is imposing his version/image of Jesus, along with the biblical texts, on the screen. Portraying Christ as uttering a Mormon “I AM” statement that is absent in the biblical cannon imprints this dialogue of Christ into the minds of viewers as being “authentic,” probably also in violation of the Third Commandment given the implications. An autistic Matthew is pictorial, not historical. The imagined relationship drama between Thomas and his girlfriend that reflect modern dynamics is pictorial, not historical. The emphasis on Mary Magdalene is pictorial, not historical. Further condemning Dallas Jenkins is his tolerance and defense of homosexual pride flags on his sets and in his promotional materials, and the fact that The Chosen is funded by a religious ministry which Christians were encouraged to donate to this shady charitable organization. These background circumstances inhibit the value of their witness while demonstrating the lack of conviction on set. Truly, under a Lutheran standard, the affinity for The Chosen despite its overwhelming scandals is tantamount to worship from its viewers who refuse to relinquish their idolatry in face of rampant sin. It also should be said that the additions by Jenkins are neither memorial, nor fruitful for witnessing.
So even if Voddie Baucham is incorrect regarding all depictions of Christ, The Chosen is still a violation of the 2nd Commandment due to its artistic liberties, tolerance of sin, and irreverence towards both God’s law and word.
The debate over depictions of both Christ and other Biblical texts is a discussion that has been had for over a millennium and should not be ignored because there are major spiritual implications for being wrong, particularly if one is favorable towards depictions.
The real question is whether there is a permissible standard that can apply to the image of Christ. The iconoclasts have an incredibly strong argument, both from Scripture and history, and should not be ignored due to modernity or historical indifference. It cannot be forgotten how prone humanity is towards the worship of images, which is not a phenomenon of ancient times, but an ongoing display of our sinful nature.
Beyond Hollywood, there are broader implications towards the local church, both in its internal decorations and its depiction of Christ through theatrical productions or nativity displays should be a matter of further discussion and deliberation as to whether these are in violation of the First Table. Reverence towards the Lord must be paramount, as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” is “the first and great commandment.”