Has not the PCA already taken a clear and unequivocal position on the natures and person of Christ and on images of God? That this a live issue both theologically and practically tells us something about the role of the Standards in the life of the church. It seems to me that the future of the PCA hangs on this question as much as any other.
When the Westminster Assembly (1643–52), which was composed of Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, deliberated on the moral law of God, they agreed on with the church of all ages and times on the abiding validity of God’s moral law. In their Confession (19.5) they wrote: “The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” The Larger Catechism (1647), which the assembly debated between April and October, 1647, explained the consensus of the ancient (pre-eighth century) church and of all the Reformed churches on the “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6) of the second commandment:
You shall not make any graven images 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. You shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them: for I Yahweh your God am a jealous God, visiting the sin of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate me; and showing mercy to thousandth generation of those who love me, and keep my commandments (Exod 20:4–6).
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.
In the modern period, the divines have taken a good deal of abuse for their opposition to mental images of Christ, but about the Assembly’s opposition to representations of God the Son incarnate there can be no doubt.
Good Faith Subscription
In the history of American Presbyterianism since the early eighteenth century the trend has been toward subscribing the Standards (i.e., the Westminster Confession and catechisms) not because (quia) they are biblical but insofar as (quatenus) a candidate or minister believes them to be biblical. The Book of Church Order (BCO) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) permits exceptions to the Standards
only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion (BCO 21-4 (f).
It is this writer’s understanding that it is the practice of some PCA presbyteries, under their “good faith” (BCO 21-4(g)) approach to confessional subscription, to allow candidates for ministry to take exception to the Standards on the second commandment and specifically images of Christ. The material issues have been discussed here and elsewhere at length. On this see the resources below. It would, however, surprise our Reformed fathers (and our fathers in the ancient church) to no end to discover that Christians had decided in that images of God the Son incarnate are morally adiaphora. Nevertheless, under the PCAs BCO, it is apparently possible.
It is one thing to dissent from the Standards of the church. It is quite another to flaunt that exception to the Standards publicly and thereby to risk offending the consciences of those who hold the ancient Christian view and who agree without exception to the understanding of God’s Word as confessed by all the Reformed churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Whether ministers (in the language of the PCA, Teaching Elders) may teach things that are contrary to the confession of the church is a matter of debate in the PCA. How this could be a debate is not exactly clear. When the church has confessed her understanding of God’s Word on a particular point, that is the church’s understanding. The church does not confess an interpretation of Scripture or conviction about every issue. Some things truly are morally indifferent (adiaphora). When the church has prayed, studied an issue, deliberated, debated, and finally confessed a view there should be little question oner what the church intends to impose upon her members.