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What do Presbyterians believe about art?

Art is a gift of God

By P. Lynn Miller

Reprinted from the April 2006 issue of Presbyterians Today

Presbyterians believe that painting, sculpture and other art forms are gifts of God, who inspires people with the ability to create artistic designs and to teach these skills. We read in the Bible of artisans who were called by God (see Exodus 31), and we know it still happens today. Throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) faithful artist-members gather together at conferences and retreats, celebrating God’s gifts of creativity and exploring together with heart and hands and voices what it means to be made in the image of a creating God.

Art in Exodus

Over the years controversies about the use of art and images have arisen in the church. The roots of these controversies can be found in the Exodus account of God’s covenant with the people at Mount Sinai. The second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4–5) forbids the making of an “idol” or “graven image.” This commandment has been interpreted to mean:            

  1. We are not to make any images at all (through painting, sculpture, drawing, photography or any other media).
  2. We are not to make images of God.
  3. We are not to make an image of something else and call it God.

The second part of the commandment speaks against the worship of created images. The creation of the golden calf in Exodus 32 seems to confirm the fear that images lead to idolatry. This story often is used to justify a removal of the visual arts from the life of the church.