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 (Westminster Larger Catechism, 1647
After the fall we humans are all idolaters at heart. By nature, our first instinct is to fashion gods for ourselves with our hands or in our hearts and minds. When the committee that produced the Westminster Larger Catechism got to the exposition of the Ten Commandments they re-articulated the Reformed rule of worship (i.e., the regulative principle of worship): we may worship God only in the way he has authorized. This rule is biblical and connects us to the ancient Christian church. Other traditions (e.g., the Lutherans, Anglicans, and Evangelicals) ask first whether God has prohibited something in worship. We ask whether God has authorized it. These are distinct views with different outcomes and consequences. Thus, following the consensus of the ancient church, which prohibited images of Christ until the iconodules overthrew that consensus in the eighth century, the Reformed churches across Europe and the British Isles removed images of the holy Trinity, including images of God the Son incarnate, from the Reformed churches and forbid their use.
However much even Reformed people continue to chafe under the rule of worship and the ancient iconoclast position, judging by the objections I have heard from seminary students, fellow ministers, and by the correspondence I have received over the years, one phrase in particular troubles critics and even those who would otherwise subscribe the Larger Catechism: the prohibition of mental images: “either inwardly in our mind…”. Is this phrase warranted or is it an example of over-zealous “Puritans” going just a bit too far in their desire to purify the worship of the churches and prosecute sin to the inner reaches of every man?
The English Reformed gathered at Westminster, who commissioned and comprised the committee did not go too far in Q/A 109. Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) agreed with the divines:
The seventh sin is to make physical representations of God in our minds. God reveals Himself to the soul of men as a Spirit, doing so in a manner much more devoid of the physical than can be expressed. When the natural man initially thinks upon God, however, he spoils this initial reflection upon God and changes that which is spiritual into something physical. One will either seek to maintain this physical representation of God, finding delight in creating various representations of God in the mind, or it will be contrary to the will of the person engaged in thought, who wishes to have spiritual thoughts of God but cannot do so—this being caused either externally due to people speaking of God, or due to Satan’s influence upon the imagination. The latter is not the sin of the person, but of Satan; that is, if the person is only passively involved, abhorring this, and laboring to resist it (John 4:24).1
The rejection by the divines of mental images of God is not as extreme as it is sometimes made out to be. Indeed, Calvin famously wrote, “Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols” (Institutes, 1.11.8). What is not as often remembered is what he went on to say:
The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dulness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly (ibid.).
Like all other sins, images of God, whether of the Father, the Son, or the Spirit arise first of all in the heart and mind. This is why the Divines confessed that inward images are forbidden: they are the root of the external images that are obviously forbidden. The rejection of internal images is a good and necessary consequence of the rejection of external images. The god we fashion in our hearts and minds are just as idolatrous as icons of the Father, the Son incarnate, and the Spirit.
A few points to consider particularly in reference to mental images:
- Though the question is often posed relative to images of God the Son incarnate (Christ), the Reformed rejected interior images of the Trinity. Implicit in the notion that images of Christ are permissible is the assumption that God the Son became incarnate so that we may image him. That is a false premise. Heinrich Bullinger addressed it in the Second Helvetic Confession (ch. 4): “Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters. He denied that he had come “to abolish the law and the prophets” (Matt. 5:17). But images are forbidden by the law and the prophets” (Deut. 4:15; Isa. 44:9). He denied that his bodily presence would be profitable for the Church, and promised that he would be near us by his Spirit forever (John 16:7). Who, therefore, would believe that a shadow or likeness of his body would contribute any benefit to the pious? (II Cor. 5:5). Since he abides in us by his Spirit, we are therefore the temple of God (I Cor. 3:16). But “what agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (II Cor. 6:16)
- No mental image that we might form in our hearts and minds is the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. Any mental image we form of God is nothing more than a figment of our imagination. From where in Scripture would we infer that God approves of our imaginations about him? Does not this whole question really come back to the rule of worship? That is a rhetorical question.
- Mental images of God, even Christ, are not inevitable. As a practical matter, whether because of circumstances beyond our control or laxness, images of Christ are regularly seen. The less we see them, the less likely we are to form a mental image. Inward images of God are not inevitable but because our hearts are idol factories, Brakel’s counsel is right: we ought to repent of them and flee from them. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
- Mental images of God are a sin to mortified like all other sins. Just as we ought to seek inward sexual chastity so too we ought to seek inward purity regarding images of God.
- Reformed folk especially ought to resist the practice of trying to make the Divines (and other fathers in the faith) ridiculous by exaggeration. Here is another reason why we ought to avoid the adjective puritan because it evokes in our minds caricatures of the English (or, more broadly, British) Reformed tradition. They were the British expression of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Caricatures of the Divines are typically self-serving, a way of seeming to affirm the Reformed while distancing oneself from some alleged extremists. As we have seen, however, on this question as on others, the Divines were simply articulating the Reformed consensus. I doubt that there exists in the classical period a Reformed theologian or church that approved on interior images of God any more than they approved of exterior images.
- Presbyteries who grant exceptions to the Standards on this point should stop. The objection to the Standards of this point is not well grounded logically, theologically, biblically, or historically.2
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- How to support Heidelmedia: use the donate button below this post or on the front page.
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
- Resources On Images Of Christ
- Resources On The Rule Of Worship
- Presbycast on Mental Images
- Review of J. I. Packer, Puritan Portraits
- Deconstructing Puritanism
1. The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1994), 3.115–16.
2. See Ben Glaser’s excellent summary of Ralph Erskine on this point. This is a topic of conversation on a recent Presbycast.