Imagination and Idol: A Puritan Tension -- By: John K. La Shell

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 49:2 (Fall 1987)
Article: Imagination and Idol: A Puritan Tension
Author: John K. La Shell

Imagination and Idol: A Puritan Tension*

John K. La Shell


The Puritans were recipients of a diverse heritage. From Calvin and the Reformed tradition they learned an abhorrence of idolatry. Images of God were strictly forbidden. But Puritan psychology also kept its strong Scholastic roots. Although the seventeenth century witnessed important developments in the theory of perception, significant terms often continued to be understood in much the same way as formerly. One such term was “Imagination,” a word which designated the image-making and image-storing faculty of the mind.

Tension between Reformed iconoclasm and Scholastic psychology was not immediately apparent, but during the Evangelical Awakening of the 1740s it became acute. The problem may be stated concisely: If mental images are natural products of the imagination, how can a mental image of Christ be condemned as idolatrous? Does not this impugn the character of God who gave the mind its capacity for forming images? The following study examines the Puritan definition of the imagination, then turns to the Puritan understanding of the second commandment. It concludes with the controversy which erupted in Scotland when Jonathan Edwards defended the psychological neutrality of “Imaginary ideas of Christ.”

* A more extensive discussion of the concepts covered in this article may be found in the author’s unpublished Master’s thesis, “Images of the Lord: A Travesty of Deity” (Talbot Seminary, 1976) and his “Imaginary Ideas of Christ: A Scottish-American Debate” (Ph.D. dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985), available from University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I. Puritans and the Imagination

Ever since Perry Miller’s masterful study of New England thought, there has been a tendency to view Puritan psychology as a monolithic intellectual structure.1 As Richard Baxter notes, that is not quite accurate:

But in these things even Christian philosophers differ. 1. Some think, man hath three distinct souls, intellectual, sensitive and vegetative. 2. Some that he hath two, intellectual and sensitive; and that the vegetative is a part of the body. 3. Some, that he hath but one, with these three faculties. 4. Some, that he hath but one, with these two faculties, intellectual and sensitive. 5. Some that he hath but one, with the faculty of intellection and will; and that the sensitive is corporeal.2

Baxter is inclined toward the fourth option, but he confesses great uncertainty in the matter.


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