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WESTMINSTER AND IMAGES OF DEITY

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  May 28, 2012 — 12 Comments

As a biblical eschatological viewpoint, postmillennialism presents a holistic worldview. Foundational to the postmillennial hope is the victory of the gospel throughout the world so that it becomes the dominant philosophy of life among men. We believe that the gospel is indeed the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). We believe Christ really meant for us to go and make all nations his disciples (Matt 28:18-20).

As a necessary consequence of the advance of the gospel and the Christian worldview in its wake, the question arises as to the use of images of Christ. May Christian artists paint pictures of Christ? I am not speaking about images of Christ in worship. Our worship must be unadorned and without visible images of Christ. But what about the educational use of images of Christ? What about Christ as the subject of artistic expression? Are images of Christ prohibited altogether?

This is the third installment on this question. Though it is not directly related to eschatology, it has eschatological implications. This is necessary in that eschatology is a component of a whole Christian worldview which involves even artisitic expression.

I happen to be a dedicated Presbyterian. I am committed to the Westminster Standards

The Westminster Standards’ Larger Catechism answer to Question 109 states: “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are . . . 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….”

This Catechetical answer is theologically accurate, I believe. But I sense that many Reformed Christians misunderstand the theological implications of it when they deny all artistic representations of Christ.

The Catechism forbids “any representation of God.” But we must remember that according to historic, evangelical, Bible-believing orthodoxy, Christ possessed a true human body and that the divine is not co-mingled in the human. Thus, a picture of Christ is a picture of his human form, not of his hidden, inner deity. At the Transfiguration Christ allowed his inner divine nature to shine through, but otherwise it remained veiled from human eyes.

If we interpret this Catechism answer to mean that no pictures of Christ’s body may be made (which it does not say), then the Catechism would condemn the Apostles themselves. Note that the Catechism not only forbids “any representation of God” but also projecting images “inwardly in our mind.” Consequently, when the disciples would remember (in their minds) the human form of Christ, they would be guilty of breaching the Second Commandment.

Furthermore, you yourselves would be guilty of idolatry from time to time. For how can a minister preach on the cruel crucifixion of Christ and your mind not form a mental image of what he must have looked like hanging on the cross. Yet you would be doing nothing more than mentally conceiving what first century witnesses to the crucifixion actually saw with their own eyes.

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

12 responses to WESTMINSTER AND IMAGES OF DEITY

  1. Keep up the great work on this series Ken! I personally highly recommend the tape/dvd series Recovering the Beauty of the Arts by R.C. Sproul to anyone. It deals with much of this subject and many other related matters. It is quite a fascinating series he produced, more so than one might think.

  2. Dr. Gentry, you said that Westminster says, this is forbidden: “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”.

    I agree.

    I want to ask though, in the use of “artistic expression”, such as the picture you had up the other day of a white Jesus with reddish brown hair, would not truth be more acceptable? What I mean by the question is if there is an artist rendering should it not be relevant to the person. In other words, appear middle eastern. Second to that, if artistic expression is allowed for “teaching” and such, then will that not invariably go to some people’s minds in their worship. What I’m asking is if they are taught this is how Jesus looks through an artistic representation, and often it is a false representation, not a true one, then are people not then more prone to conjure “inwardly in our mind” images of Christ in worship?

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 29, 2012 at 6:30

      I would prefer more realistic paintings. However, there are oftentimes philosophical issues at work here. You will notice that some Renaissance art clothed people at the cross in Renaissance attire. This is not an egregious error but a philosophical statement: Christ’s death is relevant to me today.

    • Ken,

      Since this discussion in part has been around the Westminster Standards, it seems as if Tim’s final question relates to Larger Catechism 99.6 concerning the rules that are to be observed for the right understanding of the commandment – “That under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto.”

      How would you see that section of the standards applying, even if someone were to concede that the commandment did not absolutely condemn all images in the abstract?

      • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 30, 2012 at 6:30

        Dave:
        The implication of your note is that if we don’t prohibit pictures of Christ then we would be left without a broad application of the second commandment. But to quickly answer your question: It prohibits using images in worship and condemns devotional adoring images of Christ in any context.

  3. So do you include the Presbyterians who wrote/adopted the Larger Catechism among those who misunderstood the answer they gave to the question since it seems historically they understood it differently than you do? Didn’t the same catechism indicate that Christ “was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever” (WLC 36)? And therefore when they said that making a representation of any of the three persons in WLC 109, they understood it consistently with WLC 36 to forbid representations of the incarnate person of Christ (since there is only one person, but two natures)?

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 29, 2012 at 6:30

      Dave:
      My point would be that on rare occasion they state a theological truth but do not fully recognize its significance. This point arises from the fact that they are not infallible (of course, neither am I). They even allow for their own error when they note that councils may err.

      For instance, they were clearly in error when they called the Pope the Antichrist. For at least two reasons: (1) The Antichrist existed in John’s day (1 Jn 2:18, 22). The papacy did not arise until centuries later. (2) He denied that Jesus came in the flesh (2 Jn 1:7). The papacy does accept that Jesus has come in the flesh. The Westminster divines’ problem here, as I see it, is they were in the midst of a life and death struggle with the Roman Catholic Church (which caused the deaths of many under the Inquisition and later). Their zeal for the truth and their determination to defeat Romanism led them to make an strained (and erroneous) biblical charge against them.

      Likewise, in their resisting Romanism’s use of images in worship, they stated the problem of idolatry correctly, but wrongly applied the second commandment beyond its intention.

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 29, 2012 at 6:30

      The Westminster Confession of Faith states in 2:3: “three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity.” This does not include Jesus body, his outward physical appearance because his body was created in time and was not eternal. Nor did his body as such possess God’s almighty power, otherwise he would not have thirsted, wearied, and certainly would not have died.

      When we talk about his “two entire distinct natures and one person,” we are not talking about his body. And it is his body which is the object of artistic representation.

      • Ken,

        Not sure I see how your logic holds water. The eternal Second Person of the Trinity took to himself a human nature (including a body) which is from that point forward uniquely connected to his person, and a revelation of his person. His body is only part of one of his natures to be sure, but cannot represent any other person than himself, the eternal Second Person of the Trinity. That body does not belong to any other person, hence it would seem that a representation of it cannot represent any other person, and any person represented by it would be a divine person. But if I remember correctly, you are arguing that the commandment forbids representations of divine persons.

      • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 30, 2012 at 6:30

        Nevertheless, the body of Christ itself is not deity. Nor were his hair trimmings during his life, so that a picture of his hair trimmings would not be a representation of deity.

        Besides in the Lord’s Supper we have the bread and the wine which represent the body of Christ. Surely these are not forbidden as representations of God!

        WCF 27:1 – “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and His benefits.”

        WCF 29:5 – “The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to Him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.”

  4. Frank Brito. July 24, 2014 at 6:30

    Hello, Dr. Gentry,

    In the Old Testament, Jehovah God revealed himself on several occasions as a man (Gn 18) and as the Angel of the Lord (Ex 3:1-8). Do you believe that it would be acceptable for the Church in Old Testament to make statues of a man or of the Angel of the Lord to represent Jehovah as long as they didn’t worship the statue? Besides that, in Exodus 32:5 Aaron’s words clearly show that he intended the golden calf to represent Jehovah God. On the basis of this, do you believe the golden calf would be morally acceptable to the Lord if they had not worshipped it?

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. July 24, 2014 at 6:30

      No. As a matter of fact, God prohibits images of himself because of Israel’s setting wherein she was surrounded by idol worshipers. We see her temptation to idolatry coming to pass in the OT when God punishes her by sending her off into Babylonian captivity. Israel lived in the age of types, and was a church under age (Gal 3:24-25). She needed to be taught and confirmed in the spirituality of God as a message to the nations.

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