The Use Of Images Is An Indicator Of The Functional Authority Of The Standards In The PCA

When the Westminster Assembly (1643–52), which was composed of Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, deliberated on the moral law of God, they agreed on with the church of all ages and times on the abiding validity of God’s moral law. In their Confession (19.5) they wrote: “The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” The Larger Catechism (1647), which the assembly debated between April and October, 1647, explained the consensus of the ancient (pre-eighth century) church and of all the Reformed churches on the “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6) of the second commandment:

You shall not make any graven images or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them: for I Yahweh your God am a jealous God, visiting the sin of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate me; and showing mercy to thousandth generation of those who love me, and keep my commandments (Exod 20:4–6).

They confessed:

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.

In the modern period, the divines have taken a good deal of abuse for their opposition to mental images of Christ, but about the Assembly’s opposition to representations of God the Son incarnate there can be no doubt.

Good Faith Subscription

In the history of American Presbyterianism since the early eighteenth century the trend has been toward subscribing the Standards (i.e., the Westminster Confession and catechisms) not because (quia) they are biblical but insofar as (quatenus) a candidate or minister believes them to be biblical. The Book of Church Order (BCO) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) permits exceptions to the Standards

only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion (BCO 21-4 (f).

It is this writer’s understanding that it is the practice of some PCA presbyteries, under their “good faith” (BCO 21-4(g)) approach to confessional subscription, to allow candidates for ministry to take exception to the Standards on the second commandment and specifically images of Christ. The material issues have been discussed here and elsewhere at length. On this see the resources below. It would, however, surprise our Reformed fathers (and our fathers in the ancient church) to no end to discover that Christians had decided in that images of God the Son incarnate are morally adiaphora. Nevertheless, under the PCAs BCO, it is apparently possible.

It is one thing to dissent from the Standards of the church. It is quite another to flaunt that exception to the Standards publicly and thereby to risk offending the consciences of those who hold the ancient Christian view and who agree without exception to the understanding of God’s Word as confessed by all the Reformed churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Whether ministers (in the language of the PCA, Teaching Elders) may teach things that are contrary to the confession of the church is a matter of debate in the PCA. How this could be a debate is not exactly clear. When the church has confessed her understanding of God’s Word on a particular point, that is the church’s understanding. The church does not confess an interpretation of Scripture or conviction about every issue. Some things truly are morally indifferent (adiaphora). When the church has prayed, studied an issue, deliberated, debated, and finally confessed a view there should be little question oner what the church intends to impose upon her members.

Should a church quite graciously decide to permit certain exceptions to her standards—the wisdom of this practice has been discussed elsewhere; see the resources below for more—it seems obvious that recipients of the church’s mercy and kindness should have only one stance: humble, quiet, submission. That a minister would take another stance is beyond puzzling. For one thing, should a minister hold as a strong conviction, e.g., that we ought to make images of Christ and that we ought to publish them for the purposes of Christian instruction and edification, then there is one clear course for him: find a place of service where the church does not confess that it is sin to make and use images of Christ. It is not as if there are not ecclesiastical options in the USA for those for whom it is conviction that images of Christ are beneficial. It will not be difficult to find an evangelical congregation whose conviction it is that the second commandment does not forbid images. Certainly the Lutherans do not share the ancient Christian and Reformed conviction that images of Christ are forbidden.

Perhaps the ancient church was wrong and perhaps all the Reformed churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were wrong? Perhaps the Standards are wrong. If that is ones conviction there are avenues of complaint and appeal by which one (or a group of ministers) may seek to correct the teaching of the church. The PCA is not Rome, which is incorrigible. The PCA is a confessing Reformed communion and, as such, is subject to the final, sole, unique authority of God’s Word. It is theoretically possible that the ancient church and all the Reformed churches were wrong about images. It may be that, as one notable Reformed theologian in the modern period has argued, that to deny images is to deny the humanity of Christ. I rather doubt that is true but let those who are persuaded that the Reformed are wrong bring their case to the courts (in the language of the PCA) of the church. If ones session is persuaded then let overture presbytery. If presbytery agrees, then overture the general assembly. If session or presbytery disagrees, then appeal or complain to a higher (in the language of the PCA) court. If the courts of the church, however, are not persuaded then one has two choices, to submit quietly or leave.

The practice of Reformed pastors publicly teaching or practicing the faith in a way that is flatly contrary to the Standards of the churches, in the case where an assembly has granted an exception to the Standards, hardly seems like “a good faith” approach, to borrow a phrase, to living together with with ones brothers and sisters. Let us suppose that you have a roommate who hates chocolate and is so allergic so that even to smell it makes him nauseated and you are aware of this condition. It would be one thing for you to fill the apartment with the smell of freshly baked brownies when you thought your roommate was to be out of town and quite another for you to bake brownies while your roommate is in the next room. The former would be an honest mistake. The latter would be acting in bad faith.

Love The Brothers

Then there are the consciences of those who have not taken an exception to the moral theology of the PCA. They agree with the the church’s official, published, constitutional (in the ecclesiastical sense of the word) interpretation of God’s Word. What of them? What of those who do not wish to be subjected to ostensible, imaginary, and even (under the Reformed understanding of the second commandment) inherently idolatrous representations of God the Son or God the Holy Spirit? As Heinrich Bullinger wrote in the Second Helvetic Confession (ch. 4), God the Son did not become incarnate to make work for artisans or carvers. Neither did the Holy Spirit inspire Matthew to write, “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (Matt 3:16) so that graphic artists might portray the Holy Spirit as a dove. What about those who are convicted, however improbable it might seem to one who takes exception to the Larger Catechism on this point,
that mental images are forbidden? How is publishing an ostensible image of Christ and the Spirit edifying to them?

What about those who have left the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the broad evangelical world, or Rome to the safe haven of the PCA, whose consciences are, for the sake of discussion only, “weak” and who might be tempted to return to Rome, broad evangelicalism, or Eastern Orthodoxy? Does not Paul offer us clear instruction about how to treat the weaker brother? Paul does indeed address this problem directly:

However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble (1 Cor 8:7–13).

Now, as I suggested, I do not at all think that the ancient church nor all the Reformed churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were “weak” in the Pauline sense but is not one who has taken exception to the Standards on this point bound to think of them as weak? In his own mind, has he not decided that he has insight on this matter that the rest of the church does not have? Does he not think of himself as “free” to hold a contrary view.

In the current debate in the PCA as to its direction and its future, the status and normatively of the confession would seem to be right at the center. How is the Larger Catechism’s unequivocal teaching about images of Christ and the Spirit not one of the “vitals of religion“? How is it possible for PCA ministers to live together peaceably when some of them are convinced that it is a denial of Christ’s humanity to forbid images and others of them are convinced that images of Christ are idolatrous and forbidden by the moral law? This would seem like a fairly basic point of Christology and moral theology. Is it not the function of the church’s doctrinal standards to set boundaries just just such a question? Has not the PCA already taken a clear and unequivocal position on the natures and person of Christ and on images of God? That this a live issue both theologically and practically tells us something about the role of the Standards in the life of the church. It seems to me that the future of the PCA hangs on this question as much as any other.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. I often hear this text only spoken of about images of God, but it says “anything” on the earth or heaven is forbidden if used in an idolatrous fashion.

    “You shall not make any graven images or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

    Does that mean to be consistent it forbids not just images (photos, painting, statues, etc) of the one true God, but also birds, rocks, and anything? Would painting fruit be forbidden, or is the context not about the images per se, but the idolatry given to them as the next sentence explains?

    “You shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them: for I Yahweh your God am a jealous God, visiting the sin of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate me; and showing mercy to thousandth generation of those who love me, and keep my commandments.”

    I ask because while researching Lutheranism I was told the commandment isnt about images, but images used for idolatry. Otherwise to be consistent it forbids all images of anything, not just God’s image.

    Thanks Dr. Clark.

    • Michial,

      This approach is what is known as a reductio ad absurdum, an attempt to persuade people not to agree with something by making a view look ridiculous. In fact, our writers and churches have distinguished between images of creation for secular purposes (e.g., art) and images of creation for sacred purposes. The reductio ignores this distinction.

      The purpose of the commandment was never to forbid all images for any reason. That is fairly easily demonstrated. God himself commanded the creation of certain images (not of himself) even for cultic use under the types and shadows. He commanded the making of bronze serpents for example. God did not, however, ordain the making of calves at Bethel and Dan. This is why we observe the “rule of worship” (Calvin). We do in worship only what God has commanded (and not, as the Lutherans suppose, forbidding only what God has explicitly forbidden).

      The Lutherans would do better to ask themselves how they find themselves disagreeing with the church (as an institution) of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries? Apparently the ancient church did not get the memo either. There is also this tantalizing bit from Oberman on Luther’s own view of images.

      Take a look at the resources on images for more on this.

    • Dear Scott,

      Can we then enjoy, in a secular way, images that their creators made for devotional purposes?

  2. Scott, your reference to doves as representations of the Holy Spirit reminded me of the Huguenot cross. From a purely historical perspective, is there any evidence of other Reformed churches taking exception to this at the time?

    • Allan,

      This is interesting.

      Was the Huguenot cross used ecclesiastically?

      Condemnations of the Spirit represented visibly as a dove did not occur frequently. It comes up in the Bremen Consensus (1595), produced by students of Caspar Olevianus. Here’s an intro:

      In 1522 Johan Timann (Johannes Tideman, ca. 1500–1557) arrived in Bremen to assume sacerdotal duties at St. Martin’s Church. Within two years he had joined Jakob Probst (†1562) in bringing the Lutheran Reformation to the city. Probst had been a student of Luther at Wittenberg, and journeyed to Bremen in 1524 to take up priestly duties at the Liebfrauenkirche. In the year of his death, the Second (Calvinistic) Reformation was adopted in Bremen. The embrace of Calvinism did not, however, eliminate Lutheran loyalism. Count John VI of Nassau-Dillenburg (1535–1606), eager to consolidate his own Reformed faith, enlisted Christoph Pezel (1539–1604) to draft the Confession of the Dillenburg Synod in 1578 (cf. the Confession of Nassau-Dillenburg in this volume, pp. 458–539).

      In 1580 John VI then dispatched Pezel to Bremen in an effort to reconcile Calvinists and Lutherans. When Pezel arrived he was designated to debate Jodocus Glanus/Glanaeus, champion of the Lutheran adherents in the city. Glanus steadfastly refused to engage in debate with Pezel, and was subsequently deposed by the city council. Though Pezel took his place as the theological leader of the city, he returned to Nassau for a time, only to be subsequently made permanent successor to Glanus in 1581. By means of his leadership of the Liebenfrauenkirche and the Angariikirche (St. Angar’s), the people promoted him as Rector of the local Gymnasium (the “Gymnasium Illustre”). This illustrious academy would send forth hundreds of graduates as ministers and university theologians for the German Reformed Church and beyond in the seventeenth century (Johannes Cocceius [1603–1669], perhaps the most famous alumnus). Catechetical instruction in the Gymnasium shifted from Luther’s Catechism, to one Pezel had written (the so-called “Bremen Catechism”), to the Heidelberg Catechism in 1600. As in Nassau-Dillenburg, the Bremen Consensus (which was also largely—if not exclusively—the work of Pezel) consolidated the Calvinistic Reformation in this region (James T. Dennison Jr., ed. Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–14), 645–46.).

      In ch. 88 they said:

      Under the papacy there were paintings and carvings of the Holy Trinity of the Godhead to look like three-headed Geryon. God the Father was commonly painted or sculptured in the form of an old man with a gray beard and wearing a papistical triple crown and a broad cope; while they gave God the Son the form of a youth with a black beard and crown of thorns who lies wounded in the Father’s bosom. They paint the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove suspended over the Father and the Son. These they set in front of poor, silly youth and plain, simple people (which is to their great hurt). For on this account, in prayer they do not worship God the Lord, in spirit and in truth, but rather these idols devised by the brains of men. Through this the truth of God is changed into a lie, as St. Paul relates [Rom. 1:25]. Yea, the sanctity of the invisible and immortal God is changed into an image like visible and mortal men and the birds.

      Now this was anathematized in the ancient, orthodox church as an element in the error of the Anthropomorphists. Nicephorus (book 18, chap. 7) imputes to the heretical Jacobites that they made certain images of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and displayed them to the people. And Aventinus (book 7) relates that those who inhabited the borders of Bohemia and Austria, and who portrayed the exalted majesty of God in the form of an old man, a youth, and a dove, were considered by Pope John XXII to be Anthropomorphists and repudiated (ibid., 729).

      In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the debate tended to focus on representations of the Son but I don’t think that the churches condoned images of the Spirit.

    • Thank you. My sense is that it was originally used as an identifying mark, particularly by women as a pendant, but that it has come to be used as a ‘logo’, rather as we use the Burning Bush. Presbyterians of the Seceder tradition used a dove in the same way and the UF church uses the dove and Burning Bush side-by-side as a logo in reference to the 1900 union.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    I was wondering,

    Do you think that Jesus considers this work of art sinful?


    In your understanding of the confessions, is Jesus displeased with the artist?

    Thank you for your time

  4. Scott,

    You are more correct about the PCA on this point than you know. At one General Assembly (2015, 2016?) a minority report came up from the Review of Presbytery Minutes Committee on this matter. A presbytery held a worship service prior to its business meeting. The bulletin cover featured a portrayal of the second person of the God-head (it was done by a famous artist). The presbytery had no problem with it, nor did most of the RPR Committee. One commissioner objected and brought it up as a minority report on the floor of the assembly. Sadly, he was mocked by some in attendance and dismissed as a crackpot (something he is not). In the end, I believe that the assembly supported the minority report by a slim margin and gave the presbytery a tsk, tsk about the matter, before moving on to other business.

  5. Does this prohibition include the sign of the cross as well?

    Should reformed churches abstain from displaying crosses outside and inside their buildings?

    • Theo,

      To the best of my knowledge—I searched Dennison’s 4 vol collection of the Reformed confessions in English—the Reformed churches didn’t confess against crosses. As a matter of opinion, some were indifferent (e.g., Beza) and some were opposed. My personal opinion is that in some places, e.g., in Mormon country out West, an empty cross is a positive good. It is a way of signaling that a congregation is not Mormon. Their buildings tend to be neo-Colonial and they have spires. In other places, it might be a bad idea. Obviously, a crucifix, with a Christ-figure, is a violation of the moral law of God.

  6. Thank you for clarifying the distinction between images used for sacred and secular usage. What drew me to Lutheranism, and ultimately away from it and back to the Reformed faith, was their tendency to make complex issues simple. It sounded refreshing and they often implied those making fine contextual distinctions, such as the Reformed, were like the Gnostics, or used a “magisterial use of reason” as opposed to their straightforward “ministerial use of reason.” What I realized was ministerial use was more often than not a flat surface reading out of context. They did it with the 2nd commandment, baptism, the supper, perseverance and atonement.

    I appreciate your blog and commitment to teaching biblical Christianity. Not to say Lutherans are not our brothers in the faith, I just think the Reformed faith best reflects the scriptures.

  7. It puts people in an awkward position when their pastor takes this exception. I want to support and encourage my pastor in the good work he is doing, rather than be constantly nagging him about things that I know he would see as trivial. Plus, he’s the one with the seminary degree, the one ordained, and I’m not bold enough to challenge that. So when images of Christ pop up in our (PCA) church I am always unsure about how long do I remain silent? Particularly, as a female, I don’t want to go try to tell my pastor or session what they should be doing. And I continue to walk past the light up nativity at the entrance at Christmas, send my children to Sunday school classes that may randomly add images of Jesus, occasionally get handed a bulletin with a crucifix Jesus done by a local artist, and hear the pastor repeatedly recommend we all go watch the Choosen. None of this was on display when we became members (it is PCA, I thought we could assume this point wouldn’t be an issue), so now I feel just stuck with it. I don’t like it, but have no idea what, if anything, is appropriate to do or say, especially since it doesn’t fall specifically during worship (except maybe the bulletins). All that to say, I appreciate those of you pointing out the ways good faith subscription does not play out so well. It’s just awkward at best. Thanks!

    *The pastor and some elders also take exception to 4th commandment (if it’s good to take exceptions, isn’t more better?), so you go through all the trouble of getting your family dressed and out the door only to be told what a Pharisee/hypocrite you are for having done so. You begin to wonder what the point of coming to church is then, since you’d apparently be less of a hypocrite if you’d have just stayed home. These exceptions might sound “good” on some theoretical level, but they don’t play out well at all.

    • Amy,

      It does put God’s people in an awkward position when the laity are more faithful to the Confession of Faith than the ministers/Teaching Elders. It is remarkable to me that a confessional Presbyterian Church would allow exception to the very clear teaching of the Standards on the 2nd and 4th commandments, which are, after all, God’s holy moral law. In my experience, exceptions to the 4th are usually grounded in misapprehensions about the intent of the Standards and in myths about an alleged “continental” view (Cocceius) which was only ever a minority view in the NL. It’s hardly the case that the entire European church (Geneva is in Europe) agreed with Cocceius. Calvin certainly didn’t.

      Whatever the difficulties with the 4th commandment, exceptions to the 2nd are even more difficult to understand since there are no ambiguities here. The history is clear. The Scriptures are clear. The Standards are clear. If one wants to be Greek Orthodox and make use of icons, go be a Greek! They will gladly have you. If one wants to be a Presbyterian minister then one must agree with the pre-8th century church and the Standards.

      If laity find themselves in a congregation where the TE has taken exception to the Standards, e.g., on the 2nd commandment, and then teaches contrary to the Standards, the people have a right to expect their TE 1) to affirm and uphold the standards; 2) at the very least not to teach contrary to them.

      In the case that a TE is teaching contrary to the Standards, laity have the option of complaining to the session about such teaching. Again, the laity have a right to expect their session to insist that the TE not contradict the Standards.

      Ultimately, the laity in the PCA will have the church they accept.

  8. To tag along Diane S. question and response, is watching the Chosen streaming series on the life of Jesus beneficial or detrimental to a growing families spiritual life?

    • Hi Daniel,

      It’s detrimental. The person portraying God the Son incarnate is obviously not God the Son incarnate.

      This is what you must think about: In the beginning was the Word (the Son) and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”.

      Again, the guy portraying Jesus, whether it’s Jim Caviziel or someone else, isn’t and cannot be God the Son. So, the image is fundamentally wrong. It’s heresy against the ecumenical faith because it separates the two natures of Christ. That’s Nestorianism, which was and is condemned by all the orthodox churches since the Council of Ephesus in AD 431.

      Further, any representation of God the Son, who thundered from Mt Sinai and who sits at the right hand of the Father, be anything other than idolatrous? Are we permitted to make images of God? No. Is Jesus God? Yes. Ergo, images are forbidden. Isn’t he also true man? He is indeed! Does that not create license to make images of his humanity? It does not. God the Son did not become incarnate to license us to guess about his appearance nor for teaching purposes. He became incarnate in order to save us from the wrath to come and to be our substitute and our Mediator.

      Had he wanted us to have images he would have left us images. He did not. His disciples did not. The early church did not even permit them. They did not become widely used until the 8th century. The Reformed churches all rejected them.

      How can meditating on a idolatry be edifying?

      Thus, we confess in the Heidelberg Catechism:

      96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

      That we in no wise make any image of God,1 nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.2

      1 Deut 4:15-19. Isa 40:18, 25. Rom 1:22-24. Acts 17:29. 2 1 Sam 15:23. Deut 12:30-32. Matt 15:9. * Deut 4:23, 24. * John 4:24.

      97. May we not make any image at all?

      God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping any likeness of them, either to worship them, or to serve God by them.1

      1 Exod 23:24, 25. Exod 34:13,14. Deut 7:5. Deut 12:3. Deut 16:22. 2 Kgs 18:4. * John 1:18.

      98. But may not pictures be tolerated in churches as books for the people?

      No, for we should not be wiser than God, who will not have His people taught by dumb idols,1 but by the lively preaching of His word.2

      1 Jer 10:8. Hab 2:18,19. 2 2 Pet 1:19. 2 Tim 3:16,17. * Rom 10:17.

      Idols are emotionally satisfying because they are gods that we control but Jesus is no idol.

      He has left us representations of himself:

      1. Holy Scripture
      2. Holy Baptism
      3. Holy Communion

      These are the ways he has ordained for us to edify one another. One day we will see him again, face to face, when comes or when we die and go to him. Until then we wait patiently and trust him and obey his Word gratefully making due use of the means he has ordained and abstaining from those means that are purely the product of the human imagination.

  9. Background: As a recent PCA convert, I disagree on a personal level with the “Westminster Divines” on this issue. [Parochial school educated Lutheran who does not worship the religious icons in my house or jewelry on my person.] I got thoroughly gobsmacked by a Reformed (not PCA) Missionary for buying his daughters crosses to wear without inquiring first. His explanation wasn’t as explicit as the quote from the WCF above. But he didn’t return the necklaces, either.

    1- Why did the original Reformers destroy works of art, stained glass windows, and even pipe organs in the Church buildings they “converted and reformed” rather than building their own churches? (Did they covet the land/buildings/property?) Were they not breaking other Commandments in order to make an example of their definition of the Second?
    2- Why are Reformed churches today so quiet about the [Reformed] Second Commandment? I’ve listened to sermons and lectures on each of the Ten Commandments and not heard the WCF quoted above expounded and highlighted.
    3- What is the public Reformed stance concerning tattoos of crosses and other religious symbolism? Do Reformed churches who hold to the WCF permit Deacons and Elders to keep any/all tattoos they got before (or after) conversion, while in the military, etc? [No, I’m not tattooed.]
    4- I see that the First Book of Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” addresses this issue. Can you point me to audio or written sermons or lessons from the 20th Century to the current day which elucidate each of the Reformed Ten Commandments and especially the Second?

    Thank you.

    • Hi Carol,

      I understand. I was not raised in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition (hereafter P&R). I came to faith in the context of broad evangelicalism. It took me a while to understand why the P&R churches say and do what they do.

      I will comment below.

      Background: As a recent PCA convert, I disagree on a personal level with the “Westminster Divines” on this issue. [Parochial school educated Lutheran who does not worship the religious icons in my house or jewelry on my person.]

      Yes, worshiping icons is obviously idolatry but there is a sharp difference of principle between the Lutherans and the P&R churches on this point. The Lutheran principle is that we may do in worship/piety/devotion whatever is not forbidden. The P&R principle, which Calvin called the “rule of worship,” which is now called the “regulative principle” is that we may do in worship only what God commands.

      Thus, we apply the second commandment differently. The Lutherans think that since God the Son took on humanity we are free to represent that humanity. This conclusion is at sharp variance with the Ancient church, which categorical rejected all images of Christ as necessarily idolatrous (see my reply to Leslie).

      Here are some resources on this question. In the Reformation, the P&R churches returned to the pre-eighth century view of images.

      Re: jewelry. Empty crosses are one thing, crucifixes are a violation of the second commandment. Jesus is God the Son incarnate. The second commandment forbids the making of images of God and regulates how God may be worshiped.

      When you say you disagree with the divines, that may be true but it is not just the divines who held their view. The confessional Reformed churches still confess the Standards and thus you also disagree with all the Reformed churches (and, as I say, all the ancient Christian churches before the Second Council of Constantinople). That should give one pause.

      I got thoroughly gobsmacked by a Reformed (not PCA) Missionary for buying his daughters crosses to wear without inquiring first. His explanation wasn’t as explicit as the quote from the WCF above. But he didn’t return the necklaces, either.

      Well, that was probably not a very gracious way for the parents of those children to respond. They would better have responded by saying something like, “thank you for for this kind gift but our convictions are…”. Yes, they should probably return the gifts.

      1- Why did the original Reformers destroy works of art, stained glass windows, and even pipe organs in the Church buildings they “converted and reformed” rather than building their own churches? (Did they covet the land/buildings/property?) Were they not breaking other Commandments in order to make an example of their definition of the Second?

      The Reformation did not occur in the context of the separation of church and state and free (i.e., independent of state control) churches as we know things now. The American experiment and experience is rather novel and radical in the history of the world. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was assumed that there must be a state-church and the question was which church would be the state-church.

      Thus, when the Reformed came to power, they instituted polices and practices that accorded with their beliefs. They truly believed that the representations of Christ in the windows, the crucifixes, the icons of saints etc and even the organs were deeply offensive to God.

      On instruments. The Reformed in the 16th & 17th centuries returned to the ancient view and practice of all the churches. Instruments were unknown in worship until 8th century, when one Spanish church was licensed to install an organ. They did not become widespread until the high to late middle ages. Many services were conducted a cappella through the middle ages. Organs were forbidden from papal masses. The Lutherans embraced them but the Reformed saw them as a corruption and part of the medieval return to types and shadows (see 2 Chron 29). The ancient Christian and Reformed conviction was that instruments were as typological as national holy war, animal sacrifices, and circumcision. They all went away with the death of Christ.

      Here are some resources on this.

      2- Why are Reformed churches today so quiet about the [Reformed] Second Commandment? I’ve listened to sermons and lectures on each of the Ten Commandments and not heard the WCF quoted above expounded and highlighted.

      1. There is a lot of pressure in some Reformed churches to be “successful” by “growing the church” numerically and pastors know that if they hit these commandments clearly or forcefully they may offend prospective members.
      2. It is relatively widely held in some precincts (typically in the PCA) that the WCF is wrong on the 2nd and 4th commandments. I doubt that those who think so understand the Reformed tradition or confession on these topics. Candidates for ministry have been known to give the Greek Orthodox defense of icons in presbytery exams.
      3. Ignorance? I have the impression that there are more than a few ministers who, for whatever reason, have never seriously encountered the Reformed account of the 2nd commandment. I attended a confessional seminary and my ethics prof (c. 1987) openly mocked the Heidelberg Catechism on images as denying Christ’s humanity. If it happened in my conservative P&R seminary what must be happening in more progressive schools?

      3- What is the public Reformed stance concerning tattoos of crosses and other religious symbolism? Do Reformed churches who hold to the WCF permit Deacons and Elders to keep any/all tattoos they got before (or after) conversion, while in the military, etc? [No, I’m not tattooed.]

      I’m not aware of any stated position on tattoos. I’ve written/spoken about them as a cultural indicator:

      Tattoos as a Search for Fixity in a Liquid World

      Brooks Describes The Problem But Does He Answer The Central Question: Why?

      Heidelcast 19: The Church of Steel vs A Cross of Wood

      Generally I approach tattoos under the rubric of wisdom rather than under the rubric of law (i.e., morally right or wrong).

      Obviously, tattoo or not, any image of God, including God the Son incarnate, is problematic. I hear tattoo removal is unpleasant.

      4- I see that the First Book of Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” addresses this issue. Can you point me to audio or written sermons or lessons from the 20th Century to the current day which elucidate each of the Reformed Ten Commandments and especially the Second?

      I can:

      Heidelcast Series: God’s Holy Law

      This will get you started.

      Thank you.



      • Thank you for a quick reply.
        I’ll listen to the podcast when RefNet has their Lamplighter series. (Already heard it.)

        I looked at St Andrews Chapel website (RC Sproul’s) and they aren’t adhering to the WCF or Calvin.

        I’ll print your answer out and take it under advisement.

        This discussion reminded me how the Assembly of God church I attended in the 1970’s to 1980’s had a “book burning” where tapes and vinyl records and games and pictures and cards and books deemed “satanic” or “demonic” were tossed into a burn barrel. I don’t know if that sacrifice was a pleasing aroma to God or not.

        Alistair Begg’s “Pathway to Freedom” has a section on the Second Commandment. He explains the starkness of his Presbyterian church sanctuary and quotes a bit of Calvin from The Institutes.

        As RC Sproul wrote in “Which Laws Apply” A) The law reveals the character of God; B) The law functions as a restraint against sin; C) From Calvin’s perspective, the law reveals to us what is pleasing to God. I’m not covenantally obligated to the law or under the curse of the law, yet I meditate on the law because it tells me what is pleasing to God.

        Just thought to myself: How close is this WCF explanation to legalism and thereby to a form of works righteousness?

        (Listening to RefNet) Psalm 119 teaches us how to use God’s law and Commandments.
        So, Jesus Christ fulfilled the law through His life, death, and resurrection, correct? Did He fulfill the Decalogue?

        In the New Covenant/Testament, Matthew 22:35-40 sums up the whole law and the prophets. James writes in 2:8 “love is the fulfilling of the royal law.”

        And that’s where I am right now. Thank God for Jesus’ saving Grace.

        • Carol,

          Obeying God’s law in order to be accepted by God is legalism. Obeying God’s law because we have been redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, is Christianity. The Lutherans agree with this on that. It was Philip Melanchthon who gave us the phrase, “third use of the law.” Luther certainly taught this in his Large Catechism (1529). The Book of Concord teaches this, so this is not an area of disagreement in orthodox Protestant theology. Indeed, we all agree that anyone who says that we are not obligated to obey the law out of gratitude is known as an antinomian.

          Now, there is disagreement within the Reformed world about the implications of the 2nd commandment but, if you’ll look at the Reformed confessions, which are the public, formal declarations of the churches as to what the moral law requires, there is unanimity on this point. I understand that some prominent contemporary teachers have disagreed but we don’t confess them (nor would the want us to do).

          “Stark” is a prejudicial word. How about beautifully simple They have been plain, yes, but they have also been beautiful. Remember, we inherited churches and were compelled morally to cleanse them of things we regarded as idolatrous. People really did worship those icons or sought to worship God through them. It’s easy for us, after the Reformers did that hard work, to pick at them but we have the leisure to re-think and criticize because they feared God rather than the scorn of humans.

          I agree with R. C. re the third use of the law. Amen.

          Yes, Jesus fulfilled the Decalogue but unlike the Jewish religious and judicial laws, the moral law did not expire at the death Christ. It is perpetual because it is grounded in the divine nature. It reflects who and what God is—as R. C. says in his wonderful volume on the holiness of God. Yes, Matt 22:37–40 summarizes the moral law (and there are multiple other summaries in the NT) but Jesus did say:

          “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (ESV).

          Heaven and earth has not passed away.

  10. This is a great article. The second commandment is ignored today largely due to technology and the “greater good” of reaching the masses for the gospel. Do you think that a “back of Jesus” portrayal is permissible?

    • Hi Leslie,

      Short answer: no.

      That actor is not God the Son incarnate. any portrayal of God the Son incarnate is necessarily false. Any portrayal of God the Son incarnate necessarily separates the two natures, which is the Nestorian heresy. Any portrayal of Jesus is necessarily a violation of the 2nd commandment.

  11. I listened through the Second Commandment. I’m on Eastern Time so it’s bedtime. Will respond tomorrow.

    I’m still unconvinced that to be a Christian I must give up my enjoyment of musical instruments and singing hymns on key. However, I’d gladly give up guitars in exchange for a “David’s Harp.”

    And I also am unconvinced that Reformed were doing “God’s work” by destroying all that Christian art and hand crafted pipe organs. I think they thought they could be judge and jury because of how they decided to interpret (piece together) Scripture. Did their distaste of all things they considered “Jewish” or “Biblical Hebrew” influence their opinions and terminology? After all, they left the buildings which were often designed similar to the Hebrew Tabernacle.

    I can do all things by a verse taken out of context.
    (A little Bible humor.)

    • Carol,

      I understand that this may be an unfamiliar view and perhaps shocking but you should realize that it was the universal view of the ancient church and predominated across much of the medieval church for centuries. It wasn’t merely they who regarded instruments as Jewish and icons as idols. When the Reformed cleansed the church they weren’t being that radical. It seems so to us because we’ve been living with instruments in church—that’s what we’re discussing, not homes or private gatherings. What if we’re wrong? We could be you know.

      Some things to consider:

      1) The aesthetic argument isn’t very strong. How do we know that God cares whether we’re on key? He might but how do we know? After all, 1 Sam 15:22 says, ““Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
      as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
      Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
      and to listen than the fat of rams.”

      2) What if God has not ordained the use of musical instruments in New Covenant worship?

      3) If we may use instruments, what else may we do? This is the point of the regulative principle.

      4) Have you read and carefully considered 2 Chron 29? Who was playing the instruments? Who was making the offerings? How do we restore the New Covenant worship the instruments of the Levites without the sacrifices?

      5) Were the calves at Bethel and Dan “art”?

      6) The church is called to interpret and apply Scripture. I’m sorry you’re offended but the divines et al were far more worried about what God thinks that what we might think. The calves at Bethel and Dan were also well crafted. What about Uzzah’s cart. Don’t you think it was well crafted? Evidently God wasn’t impressed. He killed Uzzah for, as R. C. once said, thinking that his hand was cleaner than God’s earth. God killed Uzzah because Uzzah wasn’t authorized to touch the ark. That’s the regulative principle at work.

  12. Dr. Clark,

    What is your suggestion when a church sanctuary had stained glass windows of Jesus installed a century ago?

    Thank you.

  13. I know. When I first heard of the position I thought it was nuts, but the one word argument against musical instruments is “judaizing”.
    Musical instruments were only brought into the OT temple worship by the command of God and were part and parcel of the ceremonial worship fulfilled and done away in Christ. To return to the types and shadows of the law then, is to return to bondage and in principle deny Christ and the liberty he purchased for his church.
    FTM I’ve been in a few churches where if there is no one to play, they just about cancel the service

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