Are Mental Images Of God Unavoidable?

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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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


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.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Very apropos. Thank you.

    Coming from an Eastern Orthodox background, I am shocked by how many of my Reformed brethren are embracing non-Reformed arguments to justify unbiblical doctrines and practices such as images of Christ, uninspired songs, and so on. For someone who has come from the outside, and cherishes the Reformed tradition, the modern downgrade is disheartening.

    • Dear Claudiu,

      Indeed! It is sometimes frustrating to see that the number of people in Reformed circles that also hold Romish views in regard to images. Despite this, I am grateful for the amount of resources that are freely available online, along with people willing to fight to recover our biblical and confessional heritage.

  2. Against those who invoke the adiaphora excuse (the Lutherans, Anglicans, and Evangelicalsm, as you say) for images as well of different forms of worship based around secular activities, would it be correct to use Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, especially Ch.4:6 and some of the preceding (Ch.2:11-16) as a relevant application of Scripture for not doing so? If so, how and why do some of these denominations insist that Paul’s words have a different meaning? Or are they just ignoring them? Seems to me like a bold-faced workaround.

    • This also might help :
      “…while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2Cor.4:18)
      “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2Cor.5:7)

  3. For me, reading Revelation 1:14-15 and not forming a mental image is impossible. Why are we provided such a vivid description if we are not to form an image in our head. Of course, this does not “go beyond what is written” (to George’s point), but is, nevertheless, seemingly intended to allow for a mental image of some type. I welcome correction.

    • Jerry,

      1. Should we suppose that when the Reformed articulated this view that they were unaware of Rev 1:14–15? We should not. Then, we should ask ourselves, how did they go at this? What did they say? Is there reasonable way of understanding Rev 1:14–15 that coheres with the Reformed and ancient Christian opposition images? There is.

      2. The language of Rev 1:14–15 is figurative. It says:

      12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like ka son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and this face was like the sun shining in full strength.

      Are there literally 7 lamp stands in heaven? No.

      Does Jesus literally have a sash around him? No.

      Are the hairs on his head literally white? No.

      His eyes are like a burning fire. That is a simile.

      His feet are like burnished bronze. Another simile.

      His voice is like the roaring water.

      And, of course, a sword is not literally coming from his mouth etc.

      We are supposed to form some kind of an image. This is why the Spirit inspired this sort of figurative language and why the Apostle John wrote it for us.

      None of it is literally true. It’s the same sort of figurative language used of God throughout Scripture. Such language gives us a way of thinking about God. Apart from the incarnation, does he literally have hands, eyes, feet etc? No but Scripture uses that imagery of him. When we think hands, eyes, feet etc we’re not thinking of God. Does he have a “backside”? No.

      Letting figurative language imagery instruct us about God’s attributes is not forming a mental image of God.

  4. When we are confronted with the unfamiliar, we invariably reach for things familiar and with the familiar thoughts we try to reason ourselves to the unfamiliar. Isaiah’s vision of God illustrates this and the effect had on him. Woe is me, I’m undone, unbuttoned… The danger of images of whether mental or metal is to limit the subject.

  5. Thanks Dr. Clark,

    I was actually going to write you about something very similar regarding the reading of historical fiction which takes proximity to the Biblical narrative. I’ve been wrestling with this concept as I’ve started reading “Ben Hur” aloud to my children.

    When partaking in media at the entertainment level, it is going to also have the opportunity to perniciously corrupt our worship. But we like Redemptive or Biblical allegory stories. There’s a reason that Pilgrim’s Progress has sold so many copies. Lewis and Tolkien both set worlds with either allegory or Biblical elements regarding good and evil. Melville and Hugo wrote challenging pieces which intertwine strong story with reflections and references to the One True Story of redemptive history.

    I am not wiser than God, nor am I as discerning as I should be. When it comes to fiction and story telling, how should we as Reformed Christians be faithful to God and the 2’nd commandment while glorifying him as we create or appreciate art?

    As always, thank you for your service to The Kingdom

  6. Scott,
    I purposefully chose not to see Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” When I taught at Gordon-Conwell, my barber also had Gen. Patton’s son as a client (also a General), a half block from Patton Park in S. Hamilton. Everyone who knew the family said the son was the spitting image of his father, and he was in his early seventies at that time. But whenever I think of Patton, I do not think of his son (who looked like him, and whom I saw on several occasions in the barber shop–you DO know what a barbershop is, don’t you, old friend?); I think of George C. Scott. Scott’s portrayal has “trumped” my actual, living experience with Patton’s son. I knew then that I never wished to see (intentionally) a film in which some actor had the impossible responsibility of conveying the character of Christ, and I never wanted that actor’s image to intrude on my subsequent readings of the Scriptures. Even a theoretically perfect rendition would still only be an accurate rendition of Christ in his humiliated state; but now we must deal with the ascended and glorified Christ, who will return for judgment. ANY likeness–however faithful–of his humiliated state would turn the Lion of the tribe of Judah into a domestic kitten.
    T. David

  7. This doctrine (avoiding both internal and external images) requires some degree of inference (like mode of baptism or the shift of the Sabbath Day). That is not unique in biblical teaching, of course, but here the semi-inferential conclusion is combined with some level of inconvenience (e.g., it is difficult to find high-quality image-free children’s instructional material, people are nostalgic about nativity scenes, people like stained glass Bible stories, etc.). I think that combination (and not wanting to look “extreme” to other Christians) has probably contributed to people abandoning this teaching more readily than many other Reformed distinctions as if it is not really worth the effort. It isn’t particularly inconvenient to baptize by aspersion, and no inference (or inconvenience) is required to avoid murdering someone, but trying to discuss avoiding images of God with your child’s Christian kindergarten teacher (our current reality) can feel embarrassing, if not futile, and confuses people. A lot of folks would rather not have to deal with these problems in the first place.
    Of course this is not an optional element of the RPW (or at least it’s inconsistent if someone thinks it is). I was encouraged by just re-reading “In Living Color” and have been thinking about this a lot recently.
    Thank you for your article!

  8. Re: the barber, I’ve always had a mental image of Dr. Clark jumping out of bed early on Sat. morning, doing his chores then saddling up his horse and riding to the barbershop for a straight razor shave.

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