According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, some of the things forbidden in the second commandment include:
“the making of 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; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it…” (q109).
In his commentary on this catechism, JG Vos makes the following points (when you come to the dates, note that it was originally published as a magazine series in the 1940s – edited later by GI Williamson and published in book form in 2002) .
1. Why is it wrong to make any representation or picture of God?
Because God is a pure Spirit, without bodily form, and any picture or representation which man can make can only give a false idea of the nature of God. This is true, as the catechism intimates, regardless of whether an outward image or likeness is made, or only an inward image in a person’s mind. In either case, the attempt to visualise God is sinful and can only falsify or distort the revelation of God presented in the Bible.
2. Is it wrong to make paintings or pictures of our Saviour Jesus Christ?
According to the Larger Catechism, this is certainly wrong, for the catechism interprets the second commandment as forbidding the making of any representation of any of the three persons of the Trinity, which would certainly include Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, God the Son. While pictures of Jesus are extremely common in the present day, we should realise that in calvinistic circles this is a relatively modern development. Our forefathers at the time of the Reformation, and for perhaps 300 years afterward, scrupulously refrained, as a matter of principle, from sanctioning or making use of pictures of Jesus Christ. Such pictures are so common in the present day, and so few people have conscientious objections to them, that it is practically impossible to obtain any Sabbath School helps or Bible story material for children that is free of such pictures. The American Bible Society is to be commended for its decision that the figure of the Saviour may not appear in Bible motion pictures issued by the Society.
3. What attitude should we adopt in view of the present popularity of pictures of Jesus Christ?
The following considerations may be suggested as bearing on this question:
(a) The Bible presents no information whatsoever about the personal appearance of Jesus Christ, but it does teach that we are not to think of him as he may have appeared ‘in the days of his flesh,’ but as he is today in heavenly glory, in his estate of exaltation (2 Cor 5:16).
(b) Inasmuch as the Bible presents no data about the personal appearance of our Saviour, all artists’ pictures of him are wholly imaginary and constitute only the artists’ ideas of his character and appearance.
(c) Unquestionably pictures of the Saviour have been very greatly influenced by the theological viewpoint of the artist. The typical modern picture of Jesus is the product of nineteenth-century “Liberalism” and presents a “gentle Jesus” who emphasised only the love and Fatherhood of God and said little or nothing about sin, judgment, and eternal punishment.
(d) [People who derive their ideas about Jesus from such pictures] inevitably think of Jesus as a human person, rather than thinking of him according to the biblical teaching as a divine person with a human nature. The inevitable effect of popular acceptance of pictures of Jesus is to overemphasise his humanity and to forget or neglect his deity (which of course no picture can portray). …
4. Are not pictures of Jesus legitimate provided they are not worshipped or used as ‘aids to worship’?
As interpreted by the Westminster Assembly, the second commandment certainly forbids all representations of the persons of the Trinity, and this coupled with the truth … that Christ is a divine person with a human nature taken into union with himself, and not a human person, would imply that it is wrong to make pictures of Jesus Christ for any purpose whatsoever. Of course, there is a difference between using pictures of Jesus to illustrate children’s Bible story books or lessons, and using pictures of Jesus in worship … Admittedly the former is not an evil in the same class with the latter. …
JG Vos (2002), The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary (edited by GI Williamson).