The Intent of Westminster Larger Catechism 109 Regarding Pictures of Christ’s Humanity

From Chris Coldwell, “In Brief: The Intent of Westminster Larger Catechism 109 Regarding Pictures of Christ’s Humanity,” The Confessional Presbyterian journal 5 (2009) 227–228; 323.

In the preceding article,1a Professor David VanDrunen notes that Kenneth Gentry contends that Westminster Larger Catechism 109 “technically does not prohibit pictures of Jesus (since such pictures represent only his human nature and do not represent God)…” (p. 220). Gentry’s words were “An accurate reading of the Larger Catechism 109 will show I believe that it’s technically correct—although it may not have been intended to do this—I believe that it is technically correct and a proper interpretation of it will lead to a different conclusion” [i.e. that Pictures of Christ’s body are not proscribed] “than some have held.”1b

Dr. Gentry’s opinion of what the catechism’s words may technically allow cannot withstand the testimony of history; it is very clear what the Westminster Assembly intended. Personal constructions of “an accurate reading” must give way to original intent and the intent of the confessing churches when it comes to interpreting historic doctrinal statements.2

Before adducing some facts, it should be noted that Larger Catechism 109 fits with the doctrine of the Westminster Standards as a whole in proscribing pictures of Christ’s humanity. With the incarnation, “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person” (Westminster Confession of Faith 8.2), so that one may not depict the human nature exclusive of the divine nature and claim it is a representation of the person of Christ; and Westminster LC 40 richly indicates why no work that is proper to Christ’s human nature should be viewed in isolation from the whole person. “Q. Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God and man in one person? A. It was requisite that the Mediator, who was to reconcile God and man, should himself be both God and man, and this in one person, that the proper works of each nature might be accepted of God for us, and relied on by us, as the works of the whole person.”3

Facts of the period support this long held and almost unquestioned interpretation of LC 109, that it proscribes representations of Christ in toto. At his 1644 trial, according to Julie Spraggon, the Puritan archenemy William Laud, whose reintroduction of ceremony and imagery to English churches was largely responsible for the Puritan uprising and the subsequent reforms, expressed the view that “representations of Christ who had been called the ‘express Image of his Father’ were allowed.” Spraggon notes, “He qualified this, adding, ‘I do not mean to say that the Picture of Christ as God the son may be made; for the Deity cannot be pourtrayed or pictured, though the Humanity may’”4 The House of Commons made it clear in response that the Homilies of the English Church were against Laud’s view.5 The Homily against the Peril of Idolatry was added to the authorized homilies in 1563, and calls representations of Christ lying images, and unlawful.6

The homily formally predates Puritanism; Larger Catechism 109 itself was crafted during the apex of the Puritan Iconoclasm period of the 1640s. The iconoclastic orders by Parliament to remove or destroy representations of any of the three persons of the Trinity were understood to include pictures of Christ’s humanity.7 Such an order from the Parliament was issued in September 1641. Interestingly, an unauthorized draft was published on September 1, wording the order about images: “That all Pictures, and Images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the like, in Churches, Chappels, or Chancels, should bee taken away.”8 The version released formally by the Parliament omits Christ but more generally addresses images of any Person of the Trinity. “That all Crucifixes, Scandalous Pictures of any One or more Persons of the Trinity, and all Images of the Virgin Mary, shall be taken away and abolished….”9 The unauthorized draft was correct about the intent. Of the destructions carried out by William Dowsing recorded in his journal, the majority of images chosen for destruction were “pictures of Christ or crucifixes” (Spraggon, 126). And one of the notable results of Parliament’s iconoclasm was the destruction in March 1643 of Ruben’s Crucifixion, which was torn into bits and thrown in the Thames.10

The subject of picturing Christ’s “humanity” was actually addressed in a notable way before Parliament ventured to issue their iconoclastic orders. The House of Commons overruled a censor’s refusal to publish John Vicars’ The Sinfulness and Unlawfulness of making or having the Picture of Christ’s Humanity. It was published “with Authority” on February 20, 1641. Vicars held that “the simple and mere making and having of the picture of Christ, even for civil or morall uses, to be utterly unlawfull, and so absolutely sinful,” and he cited works such as the Homily on Idolatry and the long popular and often reprinted exposition of the ten commandments by Dod and Cleavor, as well as a 1639 work by Edmund Gurney vindicating the second commandment.11

As far as the Westminster divines themselves and pictures of Christ, prior to the Assembly in April, 1643, a report by four London ministers (who would later serve the Assembly) was ordered by the city, and appears to have resulted in widening the iconoclastic reforms beyond places of worship to public places. The four were William Gouge, Thomas Case, Lazarus Seamen and Edmund Calamy (whose name did not appear on the final report). Their task was to view the premises of the Guildhall (i.e. the London town hall) and report on monuments of idolatry. The report noted that among the monuments of idolatry found were depictions of the persons of the Trinity, and of Christ and the Virgin Mary in several forms (Spraggon, 157–158).

During the Westminster Assembly, Parliament requested the divines in 1645 to advise on what scandalous sins should bar one from the Lord’s supper. Accordingly, in June, the Assembly discussed at one point “Pictures of Christ.”12 Only a month later Parliament dealt with the pictures at York House. The Parliament ordered “That all such Pictures there, as have the Representation of the Second Person in Trinity upon them, shall be forthwith burnt.”13 In October 1645, Parliament published their list of sins after getting input from the Assembly. The phrase “Pictures of Christ” did not show up in the final list; rather they used the same broader language as their previous ordinances which, as shown, were understood to include these. Parliament noted as scandalous “all that shall make any Images of the Trinity, or of any Person thereof.”14

The wording of public ordinances and subsequent widespread destruction of depictions of Christ, the Parliament’s authorization of views such as those held by Vicars and others, Laud’s view contrary to the Homilies noted in his trial, and the involvement of the four London ministers in identifying idols for destruction which included pictures of Christ, as well as the work by the Assembly on Parliament’s list of scandalous sins, all indicate that if indeed the Westminster divines were of a mind to omit pictures of Christ’s humanity from their proscriptions in Larger Catechism 109, they would surely have needed to have stated this explicitly. Clearly, subsequent generations of Presbyterians understood this to be the intent of the Westminster Assembly, which can be traced in the many sources cited in Dr. VanDrunen’s article.

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1a. See David VanDrunen, “Pictures of Jesus and the Sovereignty of Divine Revelation: Recent Literature and a Defense of the Confessional Reformed View,” The Confessional Presbyterian 5 (2009) 214–227.

1b.  Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “Christmas and the Second Commandment,” Sermon 1 of Christmas and Christ, 34:24–34:43.

2. “The concept of animus imponentis finds further significance in that the church is not only the authoritative interpreter of its constitution but that it imposes on its members the oaths and vows that they take to maintain and defend that constitution. Animus imponentis means, in this respect, that when an officer in the church subscribes to the constitution of the church, he does so with the explicit understanding that the valid intention as to its meaning is that of the church as a whole and not merely his own private opinion.” Minutes of the Seventy-First General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, cited in The Confessional Presbyterian, 4.208.

3. The author credits Matthew Winzer for noting to the author the internal consistency of the Standards on this subject.

4. Julie Spraggon, Puritan Iconoclasm during the English Civil War (Woodbridge, U.K.: The Boydell Press, 2003) 23–24.

5. John Rushworth, “Historical Collections: 1634,” Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 2: 1629–38 (1721), pp. 245–286. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=74899 Date accessed: 15 July 2009.

6. Sermons or Homilies appointed to be read in churches in the time of Queen Elizabeth of famous memory. New edition (London: Printed for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1839) 235ff.

7. Spraggon, throughout; see author’s Index at “Christ, Images of”.

8. The Orders from the House of Commons for the Abolishing of Superstition, and Innovation, in the Regulating of Church Affaires. 1. Concerning the Communion Table. 2. Concerning the Sabbath day. 3. Concerning Images. September, 1, 1641 (London: B. Alsop, 1641) 4.

9. “House of Commons Journal Volume 2: 01 September 1641,” Journal of the House of Commons: volume 2: 1640–1643 (1802) 278–280. See British History Online. House of Commons Journal entries accessed July 15, 2009. Hereafter CJ.

10. Albert J. Loomie, “The Destruction of Rubens’s Crucifixion in the Queen’s Chapel, Somerset House,” The Burlington Magazine 140.1147 (Oct., 1998) 680–682.

11. Spraggon, 34. John Dod and Robert Cleaver, A Plain and Familiar Exposition of the Ten Commandments (1606). Edmund Gurnay, Toward the Vindication of the Second Commandment ([Cambridge]: Printed by Thomas Buck, one of the printers to the University of Cambridge, 1639).

12. Alexander F. Mitchell, and John Struthers, Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1874) 101.

13. “House of Commons Journal Volume 4: 23 July 1645,” CJ volume 4: 1644–1646 (1802) 215–216.

14. “House of Commons Journal Volume 4: 15 October 1645,” CJ volume 4: 1644–1646 (1802) 308–310; emphasis added.

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