The mystery of Christ’s incarnation, the wonder of the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the person God-Man are high and holy things, the depths of which theologians and faithful pastors have spent lifetimes sounding. The truth (as the Second Helvetic Confession says) that “Christ assumed human nature” was not “in order to provide a model for carvers and painters.”
[Editor’s note: As of January 26, 2021 all the offending promotional videos and images for the MTW online mission conference have been removed or replaced.]
In his book “War Against the Idols” Roman Catholic scholar Carlos Eire makes a convincing case that a primary impetus for the Reformation of the 16th century was indignation against idolatry and false worship in the church of the time, a church dependent upon images of saints and the Second Person of the Trinity.
Some churches of the Reformation including many Lutheran and Anglican churches have employed images similar to those of the Roman Catholic church in the centuries since, but only recently (in the late 19th and 20th centuries) have Reformed and Presbyterian churches discarded a strong, confessionally-based opposition to images of the Persons of the Trinity.
Most recently this can be seen in the case of a web page and promotional video published by the international missions board of the largest conservative Presbyterian church in the United States—the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). To promote an online conference, Mission to the World (MTW) used multiple images that obviously purport to represent Jesus. These images included colorful, artistic images of a pudgy, white Christ child, a pink- and purple-stained Victorian image of Jesus confronting Pharisees, a woodcut-style image of the crucifixion, and a facial closeup of Jesus, again with pink and purple swirling color effects. The production is high quality; the concept is doctrinally suspect.
The Westminster Larger Catechism (a constitutional doctrinal standard of the PCA) in answer to question 109 says sins forbidden by the Second Commandment include “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…” Of course, worship of images or worshiping with the aid of images is also forbidden, not just the making of such images. Many elders in the PCA take exception to the quoted portion of the answer to question 109, agreeing that worshiping images or worshiping with the aid of images is forbidden, but asserting that “pedagogical” use is not.
Here great questions arise: Can Christians control how they receive images purported to be of their Savior? Can they keep from worshiping when presented with an image that is supposed to be of the God-Man? Can any picture accurately and creditably portray Jesus, about whom we have so little visual information from our only source of knowledge about Him, the Bible? Can any image of Jesus be anything but a lie?
It’s true that a number of elders in the PCA must believe that the above questions and the concerns they raise are not enough to prohibit images of Christ, at least in some contexts. Some conservative churches have “live nativity scenes;” some progressive churches use highly stylized images or classic art on their web pages. The disturbing tendency to use video clips and the like in worship services means there is yet another second commandment minefield to be navigated. Often these images or videos are purchased from stock agencies or their production is farmed out to professionals who have no knowledge of Reformed doctrine. One assumes this was the case with the MTW video images, but surely all such content is approved by someone on the PCA payroll.
Since good faith subscription came to the PCA in the early 2000s, registering exceptions to the Westminster standards has become common, and exceptions to those portions that treat the second and fourth commandments are definitely the most common exceptions taken. Right or wrong, it has become allowable for elders to take them. But it seems a stretch to assert that agencies of the PCA ought to be allowed, in effect, to take exceptions to the standards. Any visitor to the MTW website (as of 1/24/2021) would see these images whether they wanted to or not. The video (with four images purported to be of Jesus) plays automatically at the top of the page. No agency of the PCA should exhibit such disregard for the biblically-informed consciences of its members and elders.
It’s also worth remembering that the last time the PCA General Assembly dealt with a question of images of Jesus, they ruled against the image users. The 2017 Greensboro assembly narrowly approved a Review of Presbytery Records minority report to cite a presbytery for using an image of Jesus in a presbytery worship bulletin. Principled adherence to the Westminster standards’ doctrine of the second commandment is not dead yet, but Mission to the World’s recent online production shows that the traditional reading of the standards is either widely disregarded or misunderstood.
Historically, the question of images has hinged on the worship-versus-pedagogical-use issue. But what type of use did Mission the World make? MTW surely did not intend worship, though (as asked above) how can worship be prevented when the Savior is presented to believers? The use of the images was probably not pedagogical, since visitors to the MTW site are usually church members, officers, and prospective missionaries who presumably know the stories of the Bible and understand basic doctrine.
Most can probably read as well, so the traditional “images are books for the illiterate laity” argument would not seem to apply. So the use must have been thoroughly modern: promotional—as “eye candy” or decoration—to create visual interest. Is this not the lowest use of all?
The mystery of Christ’s incarnation, the wonder of the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the person God-Man are high and holy things, the depths of which theologians and faithful pastors have spent lifetimes sounding. The truth (as the Second Helvetic Confession says) that “Christ assumed human nature” was not “in order to provide a model for carvers and painters.” Nor was it to provide pleasing visuals for web designers and video producers, especially on the website of an agency of a confessional Presbyterian denomination.
Brad Isbell is a PCA ruling elder, board member of MORE in the PCA, and co-host of the Presbycast podcast.