On Images of Christ on Websites
Brad Isbell and D.G. Hart have raised criticisms of the Presbyterian council members of The Gospel Coalition for tolerating, or at the very least refusing to acknowledge the confessional incongruities that come from tolerating, the use and praise of images of Christ at the TGC website. I have deep reservations about parachurch groups and the “networks are the future of Christianity” ethos of TGC. I also affirm the Westminster Standards’ understanding of the law and the regulative principle. The Reformed tradition’s history of exegesis on the second commandment notwithstanding, I do believe Isbell and Hart have misunderstood our confessional documents on this issue. It is the Standards, after all, which we have vowed to uphold, not the exegetical tradition.
The Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1 states, “But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains the second commandment this way:
Q. 50. What is required in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word.
Q. 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.
The Westminster Larger Catechism expands on this,
Q. 108. What are the duties required in the second commandment?
A. The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him: as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.
Q. 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise 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 pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.
Q. 110. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment, the more to enforce it?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment, the more to enforce it, contained in these words, For I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments; are, besides God’s sovereignty over us, and propriety in us, his fervent zeal for his own worship, and his revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom; accounting the breakers of this commandment such as hate him, and threatening to punish them unto divers generations; and esteeming the observers of it such as love him and keep his commandments, and promising mercy to them unto many generations.
The second commandment is concerned with our proper worship of God. The key phrase which forms the crux of this discussion comes from WLC 109, forbidding “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.” The application of this clause, as asserted by Isbell and Hart, is that any image of any person of the Trinity whatsoever in any context is sinful.
That misses the point of WLC 109: this clause applies to images of God in worship. Every clause in WLC 109 deals directly with the worship of God, and this phrase should be understood as such. It is the second clause of WLC 109, following a clause forbidding of worship not approved by God, and serves to explain a specific area that is off limits to our worship. The immediate next clause clarifies this: do not make these images, and do not worship them. The word ‘worship’ is not included in the second clause in order to make it clear that this specific device is forbidden in Christian worship services, regardless if the intent or practice is to worship the images.
If this clause is not intended to apply to Christian worship, and is instead applicable to activities outside of worship, it is a rhetorical disruption and anomaly to the catechisms. In WLC 109 this clause would be the only one not addressing corporate worship, and sits in the middle of descriptions of sinful worship. This would render it only somewhat related to the subject at hand and the sentence it is in. Neither the WSC nor the WLC in their descriptions of the second commandment discuss anything other than the regulations for worship. If this clause is understood to be focused beyond worship, it is the only time that occurs, not just in WLC 109, but in the Standards’ exposition of the second commandment. Rather, it should be interpreted by the context and sentence in which exists, which is specifically addressing worship.
There is also a logical inconsistency within the Standards’ application if this clause is understood as forbidding images of God outside corporate worship. The second commandment prohibits the creation of images and worship of them in general. The logic of the catechisms’ application of this is: God establishes how he is to be worshiped, he is not to be worshiped with images, images of God are not allowed in worship, and no other images are allowed in worship either.
No one claims the catechisms forbid images of non-divine beings outside of worship, like videos of dogs or drawings of Superman. If they did, the argument would be that the second commandment establishes how God is to be worshiped and forbids the use of any images at all. But it doesn’t do that; it establishes how God is to be worshiped and makes clear that does not include the use of images. If this clause is understood to be regulating images outside of worship the WLC’s logic then has to be understood as establishing how God is to be worshiped, forbidding images of anything in worship, and forbidding images of God anywhere else.
But the biblical basis of forbidding images of God outside of worship is the same basis as forbidding the use of any image in worship: the prohibition on making graven images. If the catechetical application of this prohibition forbids the use of some images outside of worship, how can the commandment be understood to only prohibit images of God outside worship, rather than images altogether?
This issue is resolved if the Standards’ application of the second commandment, including the clause under discussion, is recognized to be informing the worship of the church. Since the photos and movies in question at TGC are not from worship services, they are not in violation of or encouraging violating God’s law, nor are Presbyterian council members violating their ordination vows.
Very insightful post, Cameron! You make a very compelling case for interpreting the Standard’s exposition of the 2nd commandment in light of worship. I found this post to be very helpful, as I have been wrestling with this very issue.
My main issue with this ordeal is that some of the posted images of Christ are for Lifeway’s “Gospel Project” Sunday school material, which is used in corporate instruction/worship. The congregations that use this material are most likely broadly baptistic, and therefore probably do not view the second commandment as binding in the way that you have explained.
While this is not an issue for Presbyterian council memebers to address, it does confirm my deep skepticism of parachurch organizations.
Cameron, what is your opinion on using images of Christ in Sunday school instructional material for Children and Adults?
Sunday School is not corporate worship. Catechetical classes were understood to be separate from worship in the early church, and Sunday School is just a (relatively recent) variation on that. I don’t have a problem with pictures, videos, or flannel-graphs in Sunday School.
I do think it’s a bit of a contextual slippery slope, which therefore requires wisdom. Congregants in classes may not be able to discern the difference between Christian education and worship when it comes to images. It may not be worth it if we want to avoid their confusion and frustration. It’s also helpful to remember images are not necessary for teaching in worship, and therefore are not necessary, even if permissible, in education. Heidelberg Catechism 98,
Thank you for your reply, Cameron. You said, “images are not necessary for teaching in worship.” I agree. I would also argue that images are not necessary for teaching in Catechetical instruction. Therefore, even if these images are permissible, they are not necessary, and as you have noted, they are also unnecessarily confusing for the average congregant.
Again, I appreciate the thoughtful nature of your post, but I have to admit, I am not persuaded by your argument, as compelling as it sounds. I agree with you that the WSC and WLC speak of the 2nd commandment in light of worship. I do, however, think that you are losing a needed distinction that the 2nd commandment implies by its own context.
We both know that the 1st commandment states that we shall have no other gods but the Lord our God. Then the 2nd commandment states, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…” The context of the first table of the law is helpful in this discussion. I do not take the first part of the 2nd commandment to only mean that we cannot make images for use in worship, or to worship the created images. I think it is saying more than that. It appears to state that we should not create any image with the knowledge that it represents what we perceive as true divinity, and that we should also not worship that said image. I think that this reading rightly reflects the 1st commandment in light of the 2nd. I believe we have misunderstood the 2nd commandment if we say that we should not create divine images to worship, but we can create what we perceive to be divine images for other purposes. I cannot fathom the Westminster divines having this in mind when they drafted the Standards.
This is the way that I take WLC 108-110. I also think the Heidelberg Catechecism picks up on this nuance In question 96. It states,
Q. 96. What does God require in the second commandment?
A. That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word.
Again, I truly appreciate your take on this issue, as it has caused me to think deeply on something often neglected: The Moral Law.
Thanks for the reply. A couple of quick thoughts, and then I’ll let you have the last word if you desire.
1) If the second commandment forbids creating images of the divine in general, andprohibits the use of images in worship, we have two commands masquerading as one, for a total of 11. For comparison, the fourth commandment has extensive explanations for what “remember the Sabbath” means, as does the tenth in regards to coveting. These additional comments are not different commands, but explanatory comments that modify the heading (what does ‘remember the Sabbath’ mean?) or outline the scope of the command (coveting extends to a whole host of issues). If the second commandment is to be split into two separate commands, rather than the latter half (regulations on worship) explaining the heading (no graven images), there needs to be a better exegetical warrant and precedent.
2) I agree that the first commandment informs the second, but in the opposite direction that you take. The first commandment established monolatry and monotheism as normative. What distinguishes it from the second commandment is the “how” of worship. If a graven image was made that we “perceive as true divinity,” as you put it, that would violate the second commandment, no question. But it’s not true that is necessarily what is happening if someone paints a picture of Jesus’ life. Since the first commandment is establishing the ‘who’ of worship, and the second the ‘how’, if an image is not part of worship it is not prohibited.
3) The individual members of the Westminster Assembly probably would not have approved of any images of Christ, but that is different than saying that Standards prohibit them. The Standards are a series of compromise documents that reflect a diverse group of men and were written to ensure the broadest level of adoption while staying true to the Reformation. WLC 109 was probably written (the minutes on the debates surrounding the catechisms are sparse on details) in that spirit. That is (informed) speculation on my part, but so is any other reading of intent of the Divines on this matter, rather than the content of the WLC.
4) It would be bizarre if the people who knew Jesus, or witnessed his baptism, were in violation of God’s law because they could recall in their imagination Jesus’ appearance or the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. The imagination and memory are tricky, and perfect recollections impossible, much less verbal descriptions of their appearances! Venerating the images in their memory, rather than God himself, would of course be sinful.
5) I don’t begrudge people who decline to use or view images of God, and don’t go out of my way to bother their conscience. It is disputed territory after all. But with the criticism of TGC the assumption is that they are out of accord with the Westminster Standards, rather than disagreeing over what they mean.
Thank you for your detailed reply. I will take your offer of the last word, but not to continue the debate.
I appreciate the way your writing focuses on the content of issues. You do not seem to get caught up in periphal speculation, which is unhelpful in debates. Therefore, I thought you would make for a good discussion partner on this topic, as I am just a seminary student who wants a sharper understanding of Reformed theology.
My purpose in posting was to ascertain a deeper understanding of the Standard’s interpration of the second commandment. It was not to win an online debate. Although I am still not convinced by your argument, you have given me much to consider, and I want to honor you in doing just that. So I guess it is Ad Fontes for me!
Lastly, thank you for taking the time to reply to me. I truly appreciate the detailed thought that you put into your response.
My pleasure Ryan. Thanks for commenting, and good luck in your studies.
Comments are closed.