Born this way…

Here are some thoughts I jotted down a while back about whether we are responsible for our feelings and dispositions even if we do not choose them or act upon them. This matter comes up generally in theological discussions of guilt and culpability, often with the assertion that we cannot be held morally responsible for how we feel but only for how we act. This perspective is frequently expanded to vindicate same sex attraction by suggesting that the absence of volition also removes culpability. The follow-on to that suggestion is that such feelings and inclinations must be viewed as innocent and natural if they are inborn. Quite apart from the ethical incoherence of this latter expanded position, the former assertion, that we are not morally responsible for our dispositions or feelings, is entirely contrary to biblical morality.

Heart sins are still sins even if they are not taken to the level of overt actions. For example, this is Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5.21ff regarding heart dispositions of hatred and overt actions of murder, in Matthew 5.27ff regarding heart dispositions of lust and overt actions of adultery, in Matthew 5.33ff regarding heart dispositions of duplicity and overt lies. James teaches us that overt sins arise out of sinful dispositions or desires (1.13ff; 4.1ff). As we confess in Westminster Larger Catechism 99 part 2, the Moral Law of God addresses inward dispositions of the soul and not only outward actions. ‘2. That it is spiritual, and so reacheth the understanding, will, affections, and all other powers of the soul; as well as words, works, and gestures.’ (Romans 7.14; Deuteronomy 6.5; Matthew 22.37-39; Matthew 5.21-22, 27-28, 33-34, 37-39, 43-44)

Of course, this is part of what folks find so offensive in this context. If I’m born this way, they say, then I can’t be held responsible because I didn’t choose. This is one reason why Reformed Protestants are sometimes despised: we teach the doctrine of original sin; that is, we are conceived already guilty of Adam’s first sin, and corrupted in our whole nature, apart from any act of our own will (Westminster Shorter Catechism 18).


Wilson contra Trueman

I’m a huge fan of Reformed Confessional ‘Two Kingdom’ theology (because it’s biblical). That being said, most modern Two Kingdom advocates are ‘radical’ and ‘anti-transformationalist’, meaning that they deny the existence of a thoroughly Christian, i.e. biblical, civil and public ethos, one that extends beyond the hallowed and desirable halls of the institutional church and her worship piety. With this narrowing tendency we must disagree. The moral law of God extends its reach into all of life, obliging all mankind, and thus it speaks more or less directly to all that we do as humans, including our public ethos, the spirit and character of our civilisation, and the way we live together. Thus, the denials of that far and wide reaching biblical ethos are disappointing in the likes of DG Hart, RS Clark, and Carl Trueman.

Well, Douglas Wilson, for all his problems and errant tendencies, has responded well to this gainsaying by Carl Trueman in his recent article ‘Cigar Smoke and Mirrors and Transformation’ on the Reformation21 blog. Trueman’s foil in this recent article is the historic public efforts of Kuyper in ‘transforming’ Dutch public life as contrasted with what has become of those efforts in the modern corruption of Dutch society. I disagree with much of Kuyper’s method and direction, especially when it comes to his denial of establishmentarianism, and so on. Still, Kuyper’s heart was in the right place on the absolute dominion of our King above all Kings. Trueman misses the real point and Wilson hits it fairly head on.

Trueman, Toilets, and Transformation « Blog & Mablog | Douglas Wilson

Be that as it may, I remain in agreement with Trueman’s opposition to ‘despising the day of small things’ and making heroes out of men like Dr Tim Keller simply because such men seem to have got themselves into positions of some cultural influence. Trueman is right that our aim should not be to grasp the reins of influence and power as though doing so is the the only way to show Christ’s dominion. Transformationalists can easily become obsessed with ‘making a difference’ and consequently end up disparaging the simple calling of the Christian life. Our aim ought to be faithfulness in our place and calling, even if that’s simply cleaning toilets.

Bowl brush with holder green


Third Rejoinder on Images of the Incarnate Word

Duet5 8Dr Gentry gave a lengthier reply to my second rejoinder. This was very generous of him and though I am grateful for his efforts, I am disappointed at what his reply reveals. Dr Gentry failed to understand or avoided addressing most of my objections and arguments. The result is that he spends much of his article pursing matters that either are not in dispute, or are beside the point.

As Dr Gentry has to move on from this subject, my third rejoinder is intended to be brief and to avoid introducing new arguments. I hope that it will remove confusion and bring greater clarity to the objections and arguments I’ve already made.

I am very thankful that Dr Gentry has taken the valuable time to interact with the critique I offered. Understanding that Dr Gentry intends no further articles on this topic at this time, I do not wish to introduce anything substantially new here, but simply to correct what appear to be some misunderstandings of my objections and very briefly to respond to Dr Gentry’s misunderstandings of the quotation from professor John Murray.

First, Dr Gentry misunderstands my objection regarding the scope of the second commandment. He uses a substantial portion of his reply citing historical evidence from Reformed and Presbyterian sources demonstrating that the second commandment governs worship. However, this matter was never in dispute. Rather, I objected to Dr Gentry’s assertion (repeated here) that in relation to images, the second commandment only forbids the use of them in worship. Earlier Dr Gentry seemed to indicate something more, that all images of the divine persons in relation to their divine nature are forbidden categorically whether in worship or not. Dr Gentry’s position is unclear on this point in his final articles. My comments about the Reformed tradition had to do with this point, namely, that the Reformed tradition has typically understood the second commandment not only to govern worship generally, but also to forbid all images of God whether in worship or not, and in the case of the second Person of the Trinity, this prohibition has traditionally included the physical aspect of His human nature.

Second, Dr Gentry misunderstands my objection in relation to God’s invisibility and what I called “original source material.” It is indeed impossible to portray God in His invisible essence, but that is really beside the point. We’re discussing what can be seen. On multiple occasions God portrayed Himself visibly to the eyes of men, and that prior to the Incarnation, yet men were forbidden to imitate such portrayals. My citation of Turretin was to show his agreement that God’s own portrayals of Himself do not give warrant for men to imitate such portrayals. On that same principle I argue that since Christ is God’s own Image of Himself, the Incarnation does not give warrant for men to imitate this image. I demonstrate this with an exegetical and theological argument from Exodus 24, Deuteronomy 4, and Colossians 1. Dr Gentry fails to deal with this biblical argument in any substantial way, leaving it stand unanswered.

Third, Dr Gentry misunderstands the import of John Murray’s statement which I quoted. Dr Murray is making the classic argument that images of Christ must necessarily break either the second or third commandment. Firstly, Dr Gentry protests that he experiences no worshipful response to the truths about Christ communicated for “educational” purposes by these pretended images of Him. This would appear to be contrary to what is required from us by the third commandment. But if the truths communicated by such images evoke the appropriate response required by the third commandment, then we have necessarily broken the second commandment by being moved to a right reverence of God but by a wrong means, namely that of a man-made image. Secondly, Dr Gentry then offers a reductio ad absurdum which fails by reason of the informal fallacy of weak analogy. The corresponding elements are not the paint and canvas of the image, and the ink and paper of the bible. Rather, the analogy is between the two disparate means of representing the human Image of God. The former means is visual, man-made, and forbidden; the latter is verbal, God-breathed, and commanded.

Again, I am very thankful for Dr Gentry’s generosity in engaging me in this discussion. While we continue to disagree on this important moral issue, I trust that our Lord Christ, whom we both love and serve, will bring us to one mind in His appointed time.


Second Rejoinder on Images of the Incarnate Word

Decalogue parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer 1768Dr Gentry extended his series of articles in favour of visual portrayals of Christ to a third and fourth article. In his series on this subject, Dr Gentry has alluded to my critique as presenting an “extreme” position, and suggesting that responses to his argument are not exegetical and theological, but merely emotional. I hope that my second response will show that the traditional Reformed and Presbyterian view which I have defended and which is held forth in the Westminster Standards is not extreme, but plainly biblical, and that our disagreement with his error is not an emotional response, but the result of exegetical and theological reasoning. My second rejoinder was as follows.

Dr Gentry has taught that we may not make images of God, but we may make images of the bodily aspect of the human nature of Christ. Reformed and Presbyterian believers for hundreds of years have objected to such teaching for both exegetical and theological reasons. While Dr Gentry suggests that the second commandment is limited strictly in its scope to the use of images for worship, this is not the standard Reformed exegesis. Similarly, Dr Gentry suggests that we may represent the bodily aspect of Christ’s human nature just as we may portray any human being, but this is contrary to standard Reformed theology regarding this matter.

First, in relation to the exegesis of the second commandment and related passages, Dr Gentry holds forth two prohibitions: We may not visually represent the divine nature, and we may not worship idols. Reformed and Presbyterian exegetes have typically come to a different understanding of what is found in the relevant passages, namely, we must not make images of an object of worship, and we must not use such an image in worship. Both these are found in the explicit wording of the second command, but further clarified in related passages, Deuteronomy 5.8, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness…” and further at verse 9, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” Are all images of every sort forbidden? No, images of various creatures were used by God’s command in the Tabernacle (e.g., Exodus 26.1). So what images are forbidden? The preceding chapter of Deuteronomy sets the stage for understanding which images are forbidden. Deuteronomy 4.15-18 demonstrates that it is God Himself that must not be represented by some work of man’s hands. “Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb … lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure…” God gave the command at Horeb in such a way as to teach this prohibition by example. God did not reveal Himself to the congregation in any form at Mount Horeb so as to teach them that they must make no form representing Him. “You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice… Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire…” (Deuteronomy 4.12, 15).

We must note here that the passage examined above holds forth an express command forbidding the making of an image of God in any form whatsoever. Dr Gentry suggests that this does not apply in relation to our Lord Christ, because Christ has a body that can be seen. According to Dr Gentry, this means we are free to make visible representations of Christ. Dr Gentry would seem to be suggesting that the prohibition given in the Old Testament was partly due to a lack of original source material — that is, there was nothing to see, and so nothing to make. Dr Gentry suggests that the Incarnation changed all that. But this is shown to be false by the many theophanies God wrought in the Old Testament. We may note especially the visible representation God wrought before the 70 Elders in the immediate context of the events at Mount Horeb. “Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity… So they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24.9-11) So God formed a visible representation of the invisible God which these men saw, yet they were forbidden to make such a visible representation for themselves. God may make such a representation of Himself, but man may not. That seems plain enough from the text. And it also seems plain, as Dr Gentry rightly points out, that Christ’s body is an “image” of the invisible God prepared by God Himself. “He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God…” (Colossians 1.15). Now, given the remarkably clear prohibitions against manmade representations of God, even in the face of God’s own revealing of Himself visibly, why would Dr Gentry think that this prohibition ceases to apply in the case of the clearest and most permanent visible representation of the invisible God? Is there a single example from Scripture of any mere man making such an image of Christ? Is there any example from Scripture of a manmade image representing the invisible God that was not roundly condemned and cursed by God?

Far from being an “extreme” position as Dr Gentry suggests, the principles described here are plain enough from Scripture. It is a part of the traditional Reformed and Presbyterian view regarding the second commandment and images. For example, Francis Turretin (d. 1687) explains, “Although God sometimes manifested himself in a visible form and in such an appearance is described to us in Scripture…, it does not follow that it is lawful to represent him by an image. The same God who thus appeared nevertheless strongly forbade the Israelites to fabricate any representation of him…” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, p. 65). It is puzzling to read Dr Gentry describe a standard Reformed and Presbyterian position on images as “extreme.” With much respect to the learned doctor, from a committed and confessional Reformed Presbyterian viewpoint, Dr Gentry’s position would appear to be the one in the extreme.

Dr Gentry objects that if the traditional Reformed understanding were true, a first century person would be sinning by recollecting how God had revealed Himself visibly in Christ, but this is readily seen to be false. Such a person would not be sinning by recollecting what God had revealed precisely because God had revealed it to him. Of course, this would be true for those who experienced the various theophanies, as well. Dr Gentry further objects that we ought to be able to represent what God has represented, but as Turretin points out, this does not follow. Syllogistically, Dr Gentry’s argument clearly fails: God forbids images of God; God has made an image of Himself in Christ; Therefore, we may make images of Christ Who is the image of God. The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. Further, we may ask, where do the Scriptures teach that we may pretend to do whatever God has actually done relative to revealing Himself visibly? Clearly this is a false assumption and there are no biblical arguments supporting it. Indeed, we have explicit prohibitions against it.

Finally, we may benefit from considering the reasoned theological and moral argument of Professor John Murray (d. 1975) on this matter. He points out that anything truthful conveyed by pretended images of Christ must necessarily evoke an appropriately worshipful response within us since it relates to Christ. But this is precisely what the second commandment condemns, all worship evoked by manmade images. “[P]ictures of Christ are in principle a violation of the second commandment. A picture of Christ, if it serves any useful purpose, must evoke some thought or feeling respecting him and, in view of what he is, this thought or feeling will be worshipful. We cannot avoid making the picture a medium of worship. But since the materials for this medium of worship are not derived from the only revelation we possess respecting Jesus, namely, Scripture, the worship is constrained by a creation of the human mind that has no revelatory warrant. This is will-worship. For the principle of the second commandment is that we are to worship God only in ways prescribed and authorized by him. It is a grievous sin to have worship constrained by a human figment, and that is what a picture of the Saviour involves.”

We trust that it is clear from all of the foregoing that ours is not an “emotional reaction” as Dr Gentry suggests, but a reasoned exegetical and theological objection.


On Images of the Incarnate Word

91px Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn 079Over at, the Reverend Dr Kenneth L. Gentry has been posting a series of articles in defence of visible representations of the Lord Jesus Christ. I responded to this latest article as follows.

There is a fundamental flaw in Dr Gentry’s argument defending images and other visible representations of Christ. Dr Gentry explains that it is only images of the divine persons in their divine essence which are forbidden. Indeed, Dr Gentry explains that because God is a spirit, He is incapable of being represented visibly and thus this is the point of the second commandment in relation to images of God. Dr Gentry goes on to explain that the body of Christ is not essentially divine but human and thus visible and capable of visible representation. This is the crux of Dr Gentry’s argument in defence of visible representations of Christ.

While this distinction between the human nature and the divine nature of the Theanthropic Person is accurate and essential to biblical confessional orthodoxy, it fails as a defence for making images of Christ. First, we should note that the premise framed by Dr Gentry is demonstrably false. While it is true that God is a spirit, and thus invisible in His essence, Dr Gentry’s suggestion — that this in and of itself makes it immoral to represent visibly any or all of the divine persons — is not true. We know this is not true because God Himself, the invisible God, repeatedly represented Himself visibly throughout redemptive history before and after the incarnation of Christ. As it is impossible for God to sin, this visible representation of the Divine cannot be sinful in and of itself because God Himself did it.

And now we begin to see the real issue at hand. God alone may represent Himself visibly. This is part of what is forbidden to man in the second commandment, namely, 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” (from WLC 109). This has never been forbidden to God — it is indeed a prerogative which God reserves exclusively to Himself. God has, throughout redemptive history, represented Himself outwardly in various images and likenesses. This prerogative of God has always been forbidden to man.

The Incarnation of Christ is certainly the superlative epitome of Divine visible self representation, but the Incarnation does nothing to change the fundamental prohibition expressed in the second commandment. This visible representation is a prerogative that belongs to God exclusively. Dr Gentry’s own comments highlight this fact when he notes, ‘God himself prepared this “image,” the body of Christ.’ Exactly. This is a prerogative that is strictly reserved to God Himself and forbidden to man. The incarnation does not change that moral fact, it demonstrates it.


Atheist morality

Atheists and agnostics frequently assert that ethics and morality are not dependent upon a belief in God. Rather, they urge that ethics and morality can be understood in sociological terms as a set of conventions that provides evolutionary advantage for groups of humans. But the true weight of such an assertion is rarely grasped by those who make it. This is not an alternative morality, but really no morality at all.

This is pointed out with wit by Dr. William Lane Craig.

The point is that a meaningful morality, a genuine belief in “right and wrong,” requires a faith commitment to something beyond the “here and now,” that is, it requires something “metaphysical.” And of course, the only consistent morality, one that can bear the weight of its own assertions, is the morality revealed in the Christian Scriptures by the one true God.