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 incongruences that come from tolerating, the use and praise of images of Christ at 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 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 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. The logic in application by the catechisms is: God establishes how he is to be worshipped, he is not to be worshipped with images, images of God are not allowed in worship, and no other images are allowed in worship either.

It is undisputed that the catechisms do not 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 worshipped and forbids the use of any images at all. But it doesn’t do that; it establishes how God is to be worshipped 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 worshipped, 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.