Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 109 and Representations of Deity

A visual representation of Jesus is not necessarily an immoral object. It becomes immoral if it is regarded or treated superstitiously or used as an object of worship.

According to this fourth possible view, a visual representation of Jesus in His humanity is no more than an external image and a visual metonymical representation. It is therefore not necessarily an immoral object. It becomes immoral if it is regarded or treated superstitiously, if it is used as an object or channel of worship, and if it conveys information contrary to what the Bible teaches about the historical Jesus.

 

The following is the portion of WLC Q. 109 which addresses the issue of visual and mental representations of deity:

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…

Before explaining my understanding of the above, I need first to define some terms that are relevant to the explanation.

An artificial image has a different nature from its prototype, and a natural image has the same nature as its prototype. A painting of a man is an artificial image, and his biological son is a natural image. God the Son is the natural image of God the Father, and a water reflection of Jesus is an artificial image.

An external image of something is a representation of a portion of the outward appearance of that something. Jesus treated the image of Caesar on a coin as a mere external image. An essential image of a person is a representation through which the prototype is present in the image to such an extent that the image is treated much as the prototype would be treated if he were present in person. Sometimes an essential image even possesses certain abilities of its prototype. Through an essential image, a person can be iconically present when he is not present personally. The image of the beast in Revelation 13:14-15 is an idolatrous essential image. Jesus in His deity is the completely perfect and perfectly complete essential image of God the Father (Colossians 1:15).

A synecdochal representation is based on the relationship between a whole and a part of that whole. Take, for example, a big circle and a small circle that overlap each other. The two circles together are the whole, and the small circle is a part of the whole which could represent that whole. This is a graphic illustration of Jesus in His humanity as a synecdochal representation of God the Son Incarnate. The small circle is Jesus in His humanity, and the large circle is Jesus in His deity. The overlap which belongs to both circles is the person of God the Son Incarnate, who subsists simultaneously in both natures. The part of the small circle outside the overlap is Jesus’ human nature, and the part of the large circle outside the overlap is the one divine nature. The whole figure is God the Son Incarnate, who consists of both Jesus in His humanity and Jesus in His deity.

In a metonymical representation, there is no ontological connection between the image and its prototype. The relationship between them is strictly analogical. It is a representative relationship based solely on some point of comparison. For example, a photograph of something is a metonymical representation in which a depiction of the outward appearance of something represents that something. There is no ontological connection between the photograph and the object depicted in the photograph.

Now that I have defined these terms, I will explain my understanding of the above statement from WLC Q. 109. This statement rightly assumes that any effort to represent God visually must be through an image or likeness of something within created reality. The very essence of deity cannot be seen, and what cannot be seen cannot be depicted. Any representation which is intended as or perceived to be a direct depiction of deity is in reality a depiction of something within creation and is thus addressed by the above statement quoted from WLC Q. 109.

The creation is a creaturely reflection of God’s invisible attributes, even His eternal power and Godhead (Romans 1:20). An artist’s painting of any glorious scene from the creation is a visual representation of God’s wisdom and power regardless of the intention of the artist. Because of divine simplicity, a visual representation of any divine attribute is a visual representation of God. In this general sense, the world is filled with visual representations of deity. All of the glorious aspects of creation which remain after the fall visually represent the Creator in an analogical or metonymical sense. For this reason, the scope of this prohibition against making creaturely visual representations of deity cannot be absolutely universal. Such a universal prohibition would prohibit all the artwork which appropriately depicts the glories of the creation.

There are also certain specific visual representations of deity through creaturely images that are accepted by many who profess to hold to the Westminster Standards. The Trinity Hymnal uses an equilateral triangle to represent the Trinity. The image of a dove was used to represent the Holy Spirit in a proposed PCA logo at the 1990 PCA General Assembly. These visual representations of deity are analogical or metonymical representations and are not intended to be used as objects or channels of worship.

An external image of Jesus is a likeness or image of a creature because the human nature whose outward appearance is represented in an external image of Jesus is a creaturely entity with a beginning in time. A visual representation of Jesus in His humanity is a representation of deity because Jesus is fully God as well as fully man. Such a representation represents the person of God the Son subsisting in His human nature as a divine person. His person is a divine person because the person of God the Son is also simultaneously subsisting in the one divine nature. Yet this visual representation of deity is only a metonymical representation through an external and artificial image. It is not an essential image of deity in which Jesus is iconically present, nor is it a synecdochal representation based upon a hypostatic union with the image. Those who worship such visual representations are treating them as if they were essential images and synecdochal representations, even though they are not and cannot be.

A specific example of a visual representation of Jesus in His humanity through an external image is a natural reflection of Jesus during His earthly ministry. Such a natural reflection could have occurred, for example, when Jesus healed the lame man beside the still water at the pool of Bethesda in John chapter 5. A water reflection would depict only a portion of the outward appearance of Jesus in His humanity. It would not depict any invisible parts such as Jesus’ mind or soul or His person as an acting subject. A water reflection would represent Jesus by analogy as a metonymy of adjunct in which the depiction of the outward appearance of a created nature visually represents the person subsisting in that created nature. The same would be true of a photograph if one had been taken of Jesus during His time upon earth.

An example of a mental representation of Jesus in His humanity is a memory of Jesus in the mind of an apostle during the apostolic age. That also would be a metonymical representation.

If someone bowed in worship before a water reflection of Jesus, that innocent representation would then become a functional idol. If an apostle in the apostolic age were to direct worship to a memory of Jesus instead of to Jesus Himself seated at the right hand of God, that innocent representation would then become a functional idol. The sin would not be in the visual or mental representation itself but in the perception and treatment of the representation by the person who is directing worship to it. My position is that natural reflections and memories of Jesus are not violations of WLC Q. 109 unless they are idolatrously abused.

Many people have mental representations of events described in Scripture when they read the narratives in Scripture or hear them preached. For example, one might have a mental image of the boy David with his slingshot standing before the Philistine giant Goliath. One does not have to know exactly what the boy David then looked like in order to do this. The figure representing David does need to be a credible representation which conforms to what information is given in Scripture about David’s appearance at the time. Yet the figure representing David in the mental narrative scene is identified not by an exact replication of David’s physical appearance at the time of the scene but by the role which the figure plays in the scene. The figure of a boy armed with only a slingshot and confronting an armed giant is the figure in the scene which represents David. One can similarly mentally visualize narrative scenes from the gospels. For example, in the narrative scene of Jesus walking on water, the lone figure walking on water toward a boat is the figure representing Jesus in His humanity.

If one can rightfully imagine such a narrative scene, then an artist can rightfully make a visual representation of it. The visual image and the mental image stand or fall together. A mental or visual representation of Jesus in His humanity in a narrative scene depicts only a credible representation of the outward appearance of Jesus’ created human nature playing an identifying role in the narrative scene. The representation represents Jesus only as a metonymy in which the depiction of something related to a created nature represents the active subject subsisting in that created nature.

In contrast to a visual or mental representation of Jesus in His humanity, Jesus in His humanity is a synecdochal representation of Jesus in His deity. The Son of God took to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul through the miraculous conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. The human nature of Jesus is thus a part of creation and may be referred to as a creature. Yet Jesus in His humanity is a proper object of worship because of the hypostatic union. The hypostatic union is the union of the human nature of Jesus and the one divine nature through the person of God the Son Incarnate who is subsisting simultaneously in both natures. The person of God the Son is an acting subject who has lived in and through the one divine nature for eternity. At a point in time, the person of God the Son became in addition the acting subject of a complete and genuine human nature. The person of God the Son as acting subject is the real connection (as opposed to a mere analogical connection) between Jesus in His humanity and Jesus in His deity. Jesus in His humanity functions as a synecdoche in which the part represents the whole. The part is Jesus subsisting in His human nature which can be seen. The whole is the whole Jesus, a whole which includes Jesus subsisting in the divine nature which cannot be seen but which can and should be worshipped. The one divine nature is the only proper object of worship in all of reality. Jesus in His humanity is the one and only portion of creation who is a proper object of worship as an essential image of deity and a synecdochal representation of deity. Apart from this hypostatic union of Jesus’ human nature with the one divine nature, not even the human nature of Jesus would be a proper object of worship. Anything in all of creation that is worshipped other than Jesus in His humanity is being mistakenly and wrongly regarded and treated as if it were a synecdochal representation of deity and an essential image of deity.

A representation of Jesus in His humanity is abused as an idol when it is regarded and treated as if it were in a category with Jesus in His humanity. A visual representation such as a photograph of any human being is an artificial image with no ontological connection to a person or to a human nature. There is no person subsisting in a visual representation of Jesus in His humanity, and the nature of the representation is determined by the artistic medium used in making the image. For these reasons, a visual representation of Jesus in His humanity cannot be a synecdochal representation of deity through a natural and essential image. It is instead a metonymical representation of deity through an artificial and external image of a creaturely human nature.

In interpreting the prohibition against making a representation of deity in WLC Q. 109, one should take into account that the Westminster Standards elsewhere specifically allow for a visual metonymical representation of Jesus in His humanity. The sacraments represent Christ and His benefits through sensible signs (WCF 27.1; WLC Q. 177; WSC Q. 92). Baptism with water represents Christ applying the Spirit from above in salvation, and the Lord’s Supper shows forth the death of Christ with the bread representing His body and the wine representing His blood. The Reformed understanding of the sacraments is an analogical or metonymical understanding of the sacraments. In a synecdochal understanding of the sacraments, the application of the water of baptism is confused with the Holy Spirit’s application of the benefits of redemption, and the elements of the Lord’s Supper are confused with the body and blood of Jesus and are worshipped.

If the prohibition against making a representation of deity in WLC Q. 109 is absolutely universal in scope as some claim, then one needs to apply it consistently to every possible representation of deity. The triangle and the dove must be prohibited as representations of deity. All representations of Jesus in His humanity must also be prohibited. This includes the use of a bridge as a visual illustration representing Jesus as the one Mediator between God and fallen humanity. This includes depictions of Old Testament types of Jesus, such as a sacrificial lamb. This includes visual representations of Jesus in His humanity which avoid showing a face. The TEV New Testament has illustrations of gospel narrative scenes in which Jesus is depicted with a blank face. Some Reformed Sunday School literature illustrations depict gospel narrative scenes with portions of Jesus represented but never His face. The Two Ways to Live gospel tract represents Jesus as a sketchy silhouette with the letter “J” beside it. If all representations of Jesus in His humanity are to be rejected as inherently idolatrous, then these also need to be rejected. The limited nature of their representation does not negate their being representations. The problem with this line of thought is, of course, the sacraments. They, too, visually represent Jesus in His humanity, and the Westminster Standards not only allow them but require them.

I would suggest a way to interpret WLC Q. 109 such that it does not contradict the Westminster Standards’ teaching on the sacraments as visual representations of Christ. The relevant portion of WLC Q. 109 forbids both the making and the worshipping of a representation of deity through the use of the likeness or image of anything within creation. A key question is whether the prohibition against making a representation of deity should be interpreted independently of or concordantly with the prohibition against worshipping a representation of deity. If the prohibition against making a representation of deity is interpreted independently from the prohibition against worshipping a representation of deity, then the prohibition against making a representation of deity is an absolutely universal prohibition. That, of course, contradicts allowing the sacraments as sensible signs that visually represent Christ.

The other possibility is to interpret the prohibition against making a representation of deity concordantly with the prohibition against worshipping a representation of deity. This approach limits the scope of the prohibition against making a representation and is consistent with allowing the sacraments as sensible signs which visually represent Christ. With this understanding, what is prohibited is the making of a representation of deity for use as an object of worship. One’s intention in making a representation of deity becomes a factor in its moral status. With this understanding, making a representation of deity is not prohibited as inherently and necessarily idolatrous when the maker acknowledges his work to be a metonymical representation of deity through an artificial and external image of something within creation and when the maker has no intention of his work’s being used as an object of worship.

This concordant interpretation works only in this one direction. The worshipping of a representation of deity is prohibited whether the representation is a man-made image or a natural object such as a fallen meteor. The worshipping of a representation of deity is also prohibited whether the maker did or did not intend the representation to be used as an object of worship.

The Westminster Standards take a similar approach in distinguishing between observing the Lord’s Supper properly and idolatrously. The Lord’s Supper is observed idolatrously when the presiding minister claims to transform the elements into objects of worship and when the communicants worship the elements. As long as the presiding minister does not claim to make this idolatrous transformation, he is not necessarily violating the prohibition against making a visual representation of deity when he serves the Lord’s Supper. Yet the communicants should not worship the elements regardless of what the presiding minister should say about them.

Some interpret the quoted portion of WLC Q. 109 as it relates to representations of Jesus in His humanity based on arguments that are not found anywhere in the Westminster Standards. These are the Christological argument, the irresistible temptation argument and the unobtainable accuracy argument. People are free to accept these arguments, but accepting them should not be required as necessary for full agreement with the Westminster Standards.

Constantine V originated the Christological argument in the eighth century. He believed that the only valid image is a natural image. He also believed in the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Thus his understanding of the Lord’s Supper conformed to his definition of a valid image as an image which shares the nature of its prototype. His argument against all other visual representations of Jesus in His humanity is a disjunctive syllogism which argues that any visual representation of Jesus in His humanity other than the Lord’s Supper presents an impossible dilemma.

One horn of the dilemma is a separation of the two natures of Christ as in the Nestorian heresy. Only the human nature of Jesus is depictable, and depicting only one of the two natures allegedly separates them. The other horn of the dilemma is a mixing of the two natures as in the monophysite or Eutychian heresy. In order to depict both natures, one must allegedly mix the indepictable divine nature with the depictable human nature. Thus whichever route one takes in making a visual representation of Jesus other than the Lord’s Supper, the result is allegedly a serious Christological heresy. If this argument were true, then a similar dilemma would apply to making a visual representation of any human being. To depict any human being, one would allegedly either have to separate the indepictable soul from the depictable body or else one would allegedly have to mix the soul with the body in order to depict them both.

These arguments regarding depictions and dilemmas are based on the assumption that a valid visual representation must be a natural image of its prototype. These arguments lose all their logical force the moment one realizes that a visual representation is an artificial and external image and not a natural image. Also, if the Christological argument is applied consistently, it condemns natural reflections of Jesus and memories of Jesus as reified Christological heresies. This argument cannot be true because it proves too much.

I don’t know of any Reformer who used the Christological argument. The only Reformer who even mentioned it to my knowledge is Peter Martyr, and he argued against it. I have found only a few instances of a Puritan’s using language consistent with the Christological argument. The champion of this argument is Ralph Erskine in his eighteenth century book Faith No Fancy. He regarded mental representations of Jesus in His humanity as a form of atheism and referred to them as vermin.

The irresistible temptation argument simply says that any representation of Jesus in His humanity is an irresistible temptation to idolatrous abuse. This argument for a prohibition of all possible representations of Jesus in His humanity in all possible contexts is not found anywhere in the Westminster Standards. This argument if applied consistently condemns natural reflections of Jesus and memories of Jesus as irresistible temptations to idolatry. Many who saw Jesus during His earthly ministry chose not to worship Him. I cannot believe that these same people would have been irresistibly tempted to worship a visual representation of Jesus in His humanity such as a water reflection.

The unobtainable accuracy argument says that any representation of Jesus in His humanity is immoral if any detail of Jesus’ actual appearance is not depicted with exact accuracy. This argument disallows any representations of gospel narrative scenes in which the figure representing Jesus in His humanity is identified by the figure’s role in the scene without claiming to depict exactly what Jesus looked like. It also brings into question the morality of a water reflection of Jesus when the wind is making waves that distort the image and the morality of a memory of Jesus when some of the minor details of His appearance had become vague over time. This argument is not found in the Westminster Standards.

The Reformers and Puritans often wrote about the idolatrous and superstitious abuse of images, the misuse of images in a cultic context and the making of images with a false message. Calvin wrote a paragraph with some helpful statements that apply to visual art outside the cultic context. He wrote that only those things are to be painted which eyes can see and that historical paintings can be useful. The human eye can see Jesus in His humanity and gospel narrative scenes are historical representations, but Calvin did not specifically comment on these particulars. Two Reformers did write more comprehensively on visual art; they are Zwingli and Peter Martyr. They both clearly stated that visual representations of Jesus in His humanity can be morally legitimate.

A representation of deity can be unacceptable for a variety of reasons in addition to its being regarded and treated idolatrously as if it were a synecdochal representation of deity in a category with Jesus in His humanity. A representation which is in an inappropriate style that is dishonoring to God or Jesus, or which conveys information contrary to what the Bible teaches about God or Jesus is immoral. A history of the idolatrous abuse of a certain image or the location of an image can make it more susceptible to idolatrous abuse. In my opinion, visual representations of Jesus in His humanity (other than the elements of the Lord’s Supper, which is a sacrament) should not be displayed in a place being used for worship in order to make clear that they are not proper objects of worship. I prefer an uncluttered sanctuary that is free of distractions.

When one interprets the prohibition against making a representation of deity independent of the prohibition against worshipping a representation of deity, the prohibition against representations of deity is absolutely universal. The attraction of this interpretation is its apparent simplicity. In theory, every possible visual representation of deity is prohibited without any need for debate. The reality, however, is often not so simple. Some who accept this universal understanding of this prohibition nevertheless allow certain visual or mental representations of deity. Consciously or unconsciously, they apply their absolute prohibition selectively and inconsistently. With the concordant interpretation of this prohibition, visual representations of deity have to be evaluated on a case by case basis, and the theory is more consistent with the reality. For example, an icon of Jesus covered with glass and situated at the entrance of a sanctuary is obviously made to be kissed as an act of worship. This is clearly a violation of the prohibition against making a representation of deity even if this prohibition is interpreted concordantly. Yet a bridge representing Christ in a gospel tract is clearly not a violation of the prohibition against making a representation of deity only if this prohibition is interpreted concordantly. The depiction of the bridge was obviously not made for use as an object of worship, even though there is always the outside possibility that someone somewhere at some time will kiss it in an act of worship.

I will close by examining four possible ways of viewing visual representations of Jesus in His humanity. My focus here is not on any secondary issue such as treating such an image superstitiously or using it as an object or channel of worship. The focus here is on the morality of the image in itself apart from its use and treatment.

The first possible view believes that the incarnation has abrogated the second commandment. This view believes that the incarnation continues on earth through the visible church as the body of Christ. The visible church on earth has the power and authority to consecrate and use certain physical objects as incarnational instruments. These include the water of baptism and the elements of the Lord’s Supper understood as instruments that convey saving grace ex opere operato. These also include visual representations of Jesus in His humanity that have been consecrated as objects worthy of a lesser form of worship.

The second possible view also believes that the incarnation has abrogated the second commandment. This view believes that there is a personal union between Jesus in His humanity and certain images consecrated by the church. This personal union between these images and Jesus functions similarly to the hypostatic union of the incarnation. The key to this personal union between image and prototype is a physical resemblance of the image to its prototype. This view holds that church traditions have infallibly preserved knowledge of the physical appearance of Jesus in His humanity. If an image faithfully captures this traditional physical resemblance and if the church consecrates the image, then the image has a personal union with Jesus such that to look upon the image is to look upon the person of Jesus. The image is thus a valid object of a lesser form of worship.

In contrast to the first two possible views, the third maintains the continuing validity of the second commandment. The incarnation is compatible with the second commandment because the second commandment does not prohibit God from making an essential image of the divine as God has done in the incarnation. Yet this third possible view agrees to a limited extent with the first two possible views that there is something special about certain visual images of Jesus in His humanity. They are something more than mere external images and something more than mere visual metonymical representations. They are in some sense and to some degree essential images of the divine made by human hands. For that reason, they are by their very nature violations of the second commandment.

The fourth possible view agrees with the third possible view that the incarnation has not abrogated the second commandment and is compatible with it. Contrary to the first possible view, it regards the incarnation as a unique event that is not continued on earth through the visible church. It believes that the church has no authority or ability to transform physical objects into automatic instruments of saving grace or into valid objects of worship. Contrary to the second possible view, it regards the hypostatic union of the incarnation as unique. There can be no personal union between a visual representation of Jesus in His humanity and the person of Jesus based on some alleged physical resemblance. According to this fourth possible view, a visual representation of Jesus in His humanity is no more than an external image and a visual metonymical representation. It is therefore not necessarily an immoral object. It becomes immoral if it is regarded or treated superstitiously, if it is used as an object or channel of worship, and if it conveys information contrary to what the Bible teaches about the historical Jesus.

Dr. Grover E. Gunn III is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of McDonald PCA in Collins, Miss.