The Second Commandment and Images in Worship

Several traditions within the Christian church have understood the second commandment differently. Some have understood it is a prohibition against statues. Others understand the commandment to prohibit images of God in worship. Still others argue it is a prohibition against all images as representations of God. We discuss the duties required and reasons annexed to the second commandment as well as the liturgical theology inherent to the issue.

Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 21: Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day

1. The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

Westminster Larger Catechism

Q. 107. Which is the second commandment?
A. The second commandment is, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Q. 108. What are the duties required in the second commandment?
A. The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him: as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.

Q. 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?
A. 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.

Q. 110. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment, the more to enforce it?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment, the more to enforce it, contained in these words, For I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments; are, besides God’s sovereignty over us, and propriety in us, his fervent zeal for his own worship, and his revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom; accounting the breakers of this commandment such as hate him, and threatening to punish them unto divers generations; and esteeming the observers of it such as love him and keep his commandments, and promising mercy to them unto many generations.

Westminster Shorter Catechism

Q. 49. Which is the second commandment?
A. The second commandment is, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Q. 50. What is required in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word.

Q. 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.

Q. 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?

A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.

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Charlessib

12 months ago

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Baus

12 months ago

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CM

12 months ago

Top 10 episode. Great discussion on a very important topic.
I especially appriciate the discussion on being held between the 2nd and 3rd commandments; no images on the one hand, yet any unworshipful thought of Christ is a vain thought of Christ. Again, the Law convicts us of our sin and irreverence and leads us to the Gospel, our true need.

Baus

12 months ago

Here are two works you mentioned in the episode:
1. https://www.amazon.com/Word-Worth-Thousand-Pictures-Electronic/dp/1579106382
2. http://www.heritagebooks.org/products/in-living-color-images-of-christ-and-the-means-of-grace-hyde.html

Coldwell has a piece here on the intent of the WLC 109:
https://www.naphtali.com/articles/chris-coldwell/the-intent-of-westminster-larger-catechism-109-regarding-pictures-of-christ%e2%80%99s-humanity/

Baldwin has a piece on EO icons:
http://web.archive.org/web/20080513110045/http://bettercovenant.org/papers/eastern_orthodoxy.htm

And perhaps most interesting, this is the RPCES Report from 1981, which is behind the near total disregard for the confessional view of images in the PCA:
http://pcahistory.org/findingaids/rpces/docsynod/332.html
(And this also accounts for the disturbing fact that the Covenant College chapel has images of Christ in the stained glass windows).

Matt

12 months ago

A great podcast topic, and well explored from an historical Reformed perspective. I also appreciate that the Eastern Orthodox understanding, as presenting in the Second Ecumenical Council, is fairly presented as well.

There’s a book I read a few years ago by a Presbyterian art history professor at a seminary (unfortunately I can’t now find the book or the professor), who did a study on Evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox in California.

I can’t help thinking about how he found that Evangelicals use the same language when describing the liturgical function of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie during the Easter season as the Eastern Orthodox generally use for icons (though Evangelicals wouldn’t recognize it as such). It was so similar you would have thought John of Damascus directed the film.

But I don’t bring that up to poke at broader Evangelicalism, because I don’t think that it necessarily follows at all from a Reformed perspective that a visual aid for the eye draws the interior prayerful mind to idolatry. If this were so, wouldn’t traditionally Reformed folk abstain from laying eyes on Jesus in The Passion for reasons beyond his His popish and caucasian depiction?

A moving icon is not a difference in kind, and evidently in broader Evangelicalism at least, not a difference in function. The same could be said of passion plays and Ixthus fish on cars, I suppose? Maybe even the word ‘Christian’ itself? That’s my concern – that it’s realistic to envision an argument being made for the consistent application of this perspective on the Commandment #2 that goes well beyond and even in conflict with what the most iconoclastic of Reformers would intend. And, as I see it, the only way to have a restrained view of #2 would be to distinguish between the imagination and the perception of the senses, which from my Presbyterian understanding is all the iconophiles have been saying since the earliest disputes on this matter, even if, in historic practice, idolatry clearly has clearly occurred.

I would invoke Saint R. C. Sproul on this matter by way of some iconophile quote of his, but I’m sure you folks see what I’m getting at.

Always thankful for your podcasts. They really are the gold standard. Nothing compares!

All the best,
Matt

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