Christianity is first a hearing religion. The unimpressive “foolishness” of the preaching medium is suited to the Gospel message as are the modest visual media of the sacraments. We know these media are suitable and profitable because God has ordained them. If the words of scripture prompt visual images in our mind, that is natural. If we seek to create and fixate on sentimental images (even if only mental), we go astray according to the Westminster divines. Godliness with contentment is great gain—let us strive to be content with biblical data and media.
Nothing provides a jolt of controversy like touching the worship rails, Almost every discussion of the Second and Fourth Commandments turns into a skirmish if not a pitched battle. While some Reformed folk would slot issues connected to images, worship music, and the finer details of sacramental administration and Lord’s Day observance into second or third “tiers” of importance, the mere mention of certain ways of applying the Second and Fourth Commandments (ways that seem to comport with the plain reading of the Reformed standards) elicits howls of protest. The sharp reactions around these issues tell us that Calvin was right: worship is of primary importance. People tell you what really matters to them. Hear Machen:
In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.
Now, since I have no desire to start an actual shooting war I’ll refrain (for now) from talking about instruments, praise ditties and divine boyfriend songs, intinction, “young child communion,” non-elder scripture readers, or whether Christians should watch or even attend professional sporting events on the Lord’s Day…or eat at restaurants on the way to or from. I don’t want to be unreasonable.
But let’s talk about pictures of Jesus, not just in public worship or Sunday School rooms but in Christians’ heads—the mental images that the Westminster Divines had in mind (no pun intended).
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.
The plain reading of this answer to the 109th question of the Larger Catechism is itself based on the plain reading of the Second Commandment. Yet, it is controversial for some presbyters. Some aver that it is impossible to have, make, or use mental images of Jesus so the catechism must have overdone it. But the impossibility of keeping this commandment (not to mention the other nine) seems a poor argument for taking a pass on it or sanding its application down to a more pleasing smoothness.
Our friend Harrison Perkins wrote a fine paper on Westminster and images several years ago. Posting quotes from that article and the reactions to it prompted these reflections. In the article, Perkins showed that Westminster was not alone (as some have suggested) in its concern about mental images.