The question must still be considered whether the Roman Catholic custom of placing images in the churches and bowing before them is to be justified. The Catechism treats this subject in Question and Answer 98: “But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity? No: for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of His Word.”
The Council of Trent, in its Twenty-fifth Session, composed a chapter on “The Invocation, Veneration, and Relics of Saints, and on Sacred Images.” From this we quote the following: “ The holy synod enjoins on all bishops, and others who sustain the office and charge of teaching, that agreeably to the usage of the catholic and apostolic church, received from the primitive times of the Christian religion, and agreeably to the consent of the holy fathers, and to the decrees of sacred councils, they especially instruct the faithful diligently concerning the intercession and invocation of saints; the honor paid to relics; and the legitimate use of images: teaching them, that the saints, who reign together with Christ, offer up their own prayers to God for men; that it is good and useful suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, and help for obtaining benefits from God, through His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who is our alone Redeemer and Savior; but that they think impiously who deny that the saints, who enjoy eternal happiness in heaven, are to be invocated; or who assert that they do not pray for men; or that the invocation of them to pray for each of us even in particular is idolatry; or that it is repugnant to the Word of God, and is opposed to the honor of the one mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus; or that it is foolish to supplicate, vocally or mentally, those who reign in heaven.”
Then, after a paragraph in which the Council of Trent teaches that the bodies of the saints must be venerated, and even their relics must be adored because many blessings are bestowed on men by God through them, the same chapter continues: “Moreover that the images of Christ, of the virgin mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained particularly in temples, and that due honor and veneration are to be given them; not that any divinity, or virtue, is believed to be in them, on account of which they are to be worshipped; or that anything is to be asked of them; or that trust is to be reposed in images, as was of old done by the Gentiles, who placed their hope in idols; but because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent; in such wise that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ, and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear: as, by the decrees of councils, and especially of the second synod of Nicea, has been defined against the opponents of images.”
These images, according to the same decrees of the Council of Trent, are placed in the churches for the instruction of the people: “And the bishop shall carefully teach this,—that, by means of the history of the mysteries of our redemption, portrayed by paintings or other representations, the people is instructed, and confirmed in the habit of remembering and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith.” Images, therefore, according to the Romish Church, are placed in the churches as books of the laity.
This the Heidelberg Catechism condemns.
Ursinus, in his exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism, offers eight reasons why images should not be tolerated in the churches. They are as follows: 1) It is contrary to the express command of God that images should be made and set up in churches. 2) Images placed in churches have been the occasion and means of horrible idolatry in the Romish Church. 3) God expressly commanded that idols should be removed, as well as every corruption of the true doctrine and worship of God, and in this way declared His displeasure against idolatry. 4) Our confession of the sincere worship, and our hatred to idolatry, cannot be expressed only in words, but must reveal itself in outward actions. Hence, we ought to remove all images from our churches. 5) The Scriptures speak in commendation of certain pious kings, such as Asa, Hezekiah, Josiah, who destroyed the images and idols which had been set up. 6) We must avoid all offence, and prevent all superstition and idolatry, so that the church and ignorant souls may be preserved from danger and sin, which formerly fell upon our forefathers for their idolatry. 7) The enemies of the church may not be given occasion by this spectacle which looks so very much like idolatry to be driven farther from a profession of the truth and to cast reproach upon it. And, 8) images have never resulted in any good to those that had them. The history of Israel plainly reveals that images were always the cause of corruption and idolatry.
To this we may add that it is always quite impossible not only to make an image of God, but even to make an image of Christ incarnate. The Catechism contrasts the use of images in the churches with the lively preaching of the Word. And that is undoubtedly correct. Suppose you have images of all the phases of the historical Jesus, as He sojourned on earth in the years 1 to 33 A.D. Would all those images together be a true representation of the Christ of the Scriptures? They would not; and they never could be. You may make an image of the Babe of Bethlehem lying in the manger; but that image could never represent the Son of God incarnate. You can make images of all phases of the suffering of Christ on the Via Dolorosa in its different stages,—images that are usually set up in the Roman Catholic Churches; but can an image of the cross possibly represent the Word of the Cross, the logos tou staurou, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them? That is forever impossible. Such an image cannot possibly serve as a book for the laity, but can only serve to cover up the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord. God was not only in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself when the Son of God in the human nature died on the accursed tree, but He also put the Word of the Cross in the apostles. And the apostles proclaimed that Word of the Cross. If it had not been for that revelation of God Himself, we could never have understood the cross. And that cross, arrested in one of its moments by a dumb image, is deprived of all its glory and power. And what to say of an image of the Christ in His resurrection, and in His ascension, and in His exaltation at the right hand of God? It is evident that a dumb image in wood or stone can only serve to deprive the exalted Christ of His glory and power. Hence, we must not have images in the churches, not even as books of the laity. For they can never represent the glorious gospel of God revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord. But we must have the lively preaching of the Word of God, which brings unto us the complete Christ of the Scriptures, the Son of God in the flesh, conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary, Who suffered and died for our sins, and in Whom God reconciled us unto Himself, Who rose for our justification in the glory of immortality, and Who is exalted at the right hand of God, there to make intercession for all His people. Hence, the Heidelberg Catechism is certainly correct when it states in the answer to Question 98: “We must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his Word.”
It is evident that while the second commandment negatively forbids the worship of images, by implication it positively demands that we can and must know God only from His own revelation. When we mate an image, we say who and what God is; we make a God after the imagination of our own heart. This we cannot say and may not do, but, on the contrary, we must let God say who and what He is, and worship Him according to His own Word. This is also emphasized by the Heidelberg Catechism in this Thirty-fifth Lord’s Day. In Question and Answer 96 it instructs us that we shall not represent God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word. And again, in Question and Answer 98 we are taught once more that God will have His people instructed in the knowledge of Him not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of His Word.
We can know God only from His own revelation to us.
What is this wonder of revelation? For a wonder it certainly is, that the infinite and incomprehensible God makes Himself known to the finite, creature in such a way that he can have fellowship with Him in an eternal bond of covenant friendship.
Revelation presupposes, in the first place, that God knows Himself. All God’s revelation in all Scripture plainly teaches us that God only knows Himself with a perfect and eternal knowledge. He is not a blind, impersonal power, but a personal, consciously knowing and willing Being, Who as the Triune God knows Himself in an infinitely perfect sense. Eternally the Father generates the Son. For as the Father has life in Himself, so hath He given to the Son to have life in Himself. John 5:26. This eternal Son is the “brightness of his glory, the express image of his person.” Heb. 1:3. The Son reflects in infinite perfection, within the Being of God, all the glory and virtues, all the delights and perfections of the Father eternally. For in the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. John 1:1. It is in this Word, the eternal Son, that God knows Himself and speaks to Himself concerning Himself in the Spirit. For the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son. He proceeds from the Father to the Son, in order as the Spirit of the. Son to return to the Father. That Spirit is the divine bond of knowledge and fellowship within the divine family. For the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God, and knows all that is in God. I Cor. 2:10. And He never speaks of Himself, but eternally witnesses of the Son, even within the economy of the Trinity, and glorifies the Son. John 16:13. And therefore, there is an eternally perfect knowledge in God of Himself. He alone knows Himself with infinite perfection. The eternal God is comprehended only by His own divine, infinite mind. And this knowledge stands before His divine consciousness eternally, unchangeably, in infinite perfection. We know in part. And even of that knowledge in part we are not always conscious. We speak of that which lies below the threshold of our consciousness at any given moment. But in God there is no unconsciousness, nor a subconsciousness. He is a perfect light also in this respect, and there is no darkness in God at all. There is in Him no difference between the scope of His being,—if we may use this anthropomorphism,— and the scope of His knowledge, nor between His knowledge and His divine consciousness. The whole of God’s infinite being, with all His unfathomable perfection and perfect knowledge, is constantly reflected in His divine consciousness. The Lord our God knows Himself and fathoms His divine essence eternally, and consciously contemplates His own glorious perfections without interruption.
Now, even as God knows Himself, and that too with an infinitely perfect and eternally self-conscious knowledge, so also He alone it is that is able to impart His knowledge to the creature, that is, to reveal Himself Not indeed as if there were a creature that is capable of receiving that knowledge of God: God Himself must create that recipient of revelation. And this He did, and still does. For He originally created man in His own image and likeness, and thus made Him capable of receiving, the knowledge of God. And after man fell into the darkness of the lie, He recreates him in Christ Jesus, restores the image of God in him, and raises him to a higher level of knowledge than he ever knew before. Nor, again, as if such a creature could ever be formed capable of receiving God’s own infinite and eternal knowledge of Himself: for such a creature would have to be infinite as God is infinite. Revelation must needs consist in this, that God speaks concerning Himself and imparts His knowledge in a form the creature can receive, in a creaturely measure. And behind and beyond the plane of revelation there must always remain infinite depths of divine glories and perfections which we can never fathom. In revelation God comes down to us; He does not lift us up to His infinite majesty. He gives His Word a finite form; He does not communicate to our hearing an infinite capacity. Yet, while on the plane of revelation He reaches out for us and speaks to us in language adapted to our capacity, He at the same time and through that same medium of revelation deeply impresses upon our minds and hearts that He is always greater than His revelation; that while He is revealed, He is still hid; and while He is known, He is still the incomprehensible one. If it were not so, we would still worship an image and an idol. This does not necessarily imply that revelation gives us no adequate knowledge of God, even in the sense that through revelation God reflects all His fullness: in Christ dwells all the fullness of God bodily. Col. 2:9. That we know in part must not be so interpreted that we know only a part of God. But it does mean that beyond and above the divine revelation of Himself in finite form there is,—and we are ever conscious of the reality of it,—an infinite essence. Even when in glory we shall see face to face, we shall still forever be conscious that the face we behold is but the presence of Him Who must remain invisible in His infinite majesty.
We are accustomed to distinguish between two forms of revelation, a general revelation in nature and a special revelation in Scripture. Also our Confession speaks of this in Article 2 of the Netherland Confession: “We know him by two means: first, by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his power and divinity, as the apostle Paul saith, Rom. 1:20. All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse. Secondly, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.’’ A good deal has been written about these two forms of revelation, the one general and the other special. And the last word has not been said about this subject. However, We would go astray if we would consider these two forms of revelation as if they were two wholly different revelations, not only distinct, but separated from each other, so that the one is adapted to “natural light” and the other to faith. In that case the one is a revelation of God to man in general, the other to His people in Christ. The one, according to this view, provides man with the necessary material for the structure of a “natural theology”; the other is the source of Christian knowledge. But this is plainly erroneous. It speaks about general revelation, natural theology, and natural religion as if the original condition of the first paradise still existed. And it completely fails to take into account the important change that was brought about in this “general revelation” through the fall of man and the curse of God.