Although Abraham saw Christ, this did not give Israel permission to make any images of him and the same is true for us. Surely it would have been a blessing to have been one of those thousands of men and women who saw Jesus with their own eyes during the incarnation. But the Holy Spirit has chosen not to preserve any description of Christ for us because we are called to be a people of the word who walk by faith, not by sight. Just because some people saw Christ does not mean that we may now make images of God for didactic or any other purpose.
When men being examined for ministry take an exception to any portion of the Westminster standards we always require that they explain their rationale. A man ought to be able to explain and defend why he believes what he does. In my experience, the justifications given when men take exceptions to Larger Catechism 109 are usually along the same lines. So I want to respond to two of the most common explanations that I hear at presbytery.
Larger Catechism question 109 states
“What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?
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.”
Common Rationale #1
The common objection to this portion of the catechism usually concerns images of Christ. Specifically, men taking this exception will acknowledge that images of Christ should not be used for worship, but they see no problem with images being used for didactic purposes, by which they mean that they see no problem using images of Christ to teach children. This is so common an exception it’s often called the “Jesus Storybook Bible exception.” However, the problem is that images of God will be connected to worship and that education should be connected to worship.
As always, we should begin by considering scripture itself. Exodus 20:4-6 says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, 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. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
What’s frequently overlooked when considering the second commandment is the fact that it contains two imperatives, not one. In forbidding idols this commandment does not simply say “You shall not worship them.” It says much more than that. It first says in verse four that you shall not make them. Significantly, the language does not say “You shall not make them in order to worship them.” The Hebrew conjunction לְמַעַן generally translated “in order that” is conspicuously absent. Verse four is a separate sentence in Hebrew as well as English. The second commandment has always been “you shall not make any idols” and “you shall not worship them.” No Israelite could ever make an image of God or any other gods and plead its acceptability on account of its not being used for worship, but only didactic purposes.
Attention must be drawn to this fact because compression of the second commandment often underlies this common exception. God gave this commandment the way he did because he understands our hearts, even better than we do ourselves. John Murray writes, “A picture of Christ, if it serves any useful purpose, must evoke some thought or feeling respecting him and, in view of what he is, this thought or feeling will be worshipful.”
If we say something is a depiction of God we will naturally desire to worship through it, or have that image be a means of stirring up devotion and piety.