Images of Christ, Part 1
Recently, I was part of a floor examination in presbytery and heard a very common exception taken to the WCF concerning the use of images as it pertains to the second commandment, that being, images are the books of the unlearned (or little children). I challenged and made the claim that such an exception should not be because it strikes at the heart of our system of doctrine. Meaning that an exception to the second commandment as it pertains to images is something that is connected to the whole doctrinal system of reformed confessionalism and therefore should not be an accepted exception for ordination and or licensure. Let me lay out a case for you as to why I believe this is so. I will unpack this in three separate articles where in the first two I will lay the groundwork for my claim and in the last I will answer the objections to this claim and offer some conclusions.
First, the exception goes against scripture (Exodus 20:4). Furthermore, the making of images as how to worship God was a capital offense as can be seen by the Golden Calf incident and various others.
Second, the exception goes against the explicit language of the Westminster standards in multiple places of the Standards. This can be seen in Question 109 which states, “What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment? Answer:
The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; 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 worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of false gods, 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; selling blessings; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed.
Note a few things here. First, the Catechism forbids not simply the worship of images but also the making of images as it pertains to all three persons of the Trinity. Second, the statement forbids the worshiping of the image and also “God by it.” Third, the Standards do not countenance good intentions if the practice is evil.The Westminster Confession (20 (21:1) also forbids the worship of God under any visible representation.
Third, the exception undermines and corrupts the vital and essential teaching on the doctrine of God. In chapter 2 of the WCF the divines write, “There is only one living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection. He is a most pure spirit, invisible, with neither body, parts, nor passive properties.” The reason that the confessions and the scriptures tell us to not make images of God is in light of what is particular in His divine essence. Meaning that who God is, without body parts, not having passible properties, is connected to how He is known and worshiped.” This means that the worship of God through (or in) visible representations of His essence is necessarily making a statement about His essence. This is why in Deuteronomy 4:9-20, God reminds the people of Israel to regularly worship Him in light of how His essence was visibly hidden from them on the mountain. God reminds them that they did not see His form but only heard His voice due to His invisible essence. Hence, it is so that any making of images is to make a declaration (whether desiring to do so or not) of God’s nature as finite, mutable, and divisible.
Fourth, the exception undermines and corrupts the vital and essential teachings on Christ the Mediator. One of the reasons stated for portraying Christ through images is due to Christ having become and remaining incarnate. So, the logic goes that since the second person of the trinity became visible it is appropriate in some cases to portray Him visibly. Consider the Westminster Larger Catechism (Question 36) which states, “Who is the Mediator of the covenant of grace? Answer: “The only Mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fulness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever.”
Also consider section 7:2 of the Westminster Confession of Faith which states, “the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.” Also section 7 says, in the same chapter, “Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.”
What is my point? Simply that portraying Christ's humanity without portraying His divinity (which is clearly forbidden) separates His divine nature from His whole person (Nestorianism). Since we cannot portray Christ's divinity which is without parts, to portray His humanity is inevitably to separate His divine nature from His whole person. Orthodoxy demands that we see Christ's whole person in light of His divinity and humanity which is not confused and/or separated. Portraying Christ's whole person simply with His human nature devoid of His divinity is the Nestorian heresy that indeed strikes at the heart of the vitals of the reformed faith and the system of doctrine.
As we conclude, let me summarize why I believe that the making of images (of Christ) for any reason is an exception that should never be accepted. First, it goes against the clear teaching of the scriptures and multiple parts of the WCF. And second, it undermines and corrupts the central doctrines pertaining to the essence of God and the doctrine of Christology.
Aldo Leon is the Senior TE of Pinelands Presbyterian church in Miami, Florida (PCA). He is married to Rebecca and is father to Elias, Adonias, and Abriella. He currently serves on the counsel for the Gospel Reformation Network in the PCA and is the host of the Kingdom Polemics Podcast.