Institutes of the Christian Religion: The Use and Abuse of Images

What profit is the image, that its maker should carve it,
The molded image, a teacher of lies,
That the maker of its mold should trust in it,
To make mute idols?
Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Awake!’
To silent stone, ‘Arise! It shall teach!’
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
Yet in it there is no breath at all.
But the Lord is in his holy temple.
Let all the earth keep silence before him.
Habakkuk 2:18-20

reformers
International Monument to the Reformation (William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox)

Calvin categorically condemned the use of all images, including paintings and statues, as idolatry, and yet statues of him and other theologians were erected in Geneva Switzerland, the city where he carried out his ministry and where he was buried, an International Monument to the Protestant Reformation. Oh, the irony of it!

Having grown up an atheist, I never understood why people worship inanimate objects; Lacking imagination myself, I never knew how people can create images of deities, whom they’ve never seen. With a few exceptions, physical representations of God always make me wince, whether images, statues, plays or movies.

In Book 1 chapter 11 of the Institutes, Calvin addresses two issues with regard to images: first, whether images can represent the attributes of God; second, whether man can learn of the things of God via images. He denies both, but his arguments baffle me.

First, Calvin argues that because God is incorporeal and transcends the creation, and images are imitations of corporeal things which are parts of the creation, “every thing respecting God which is learned from images is futile and false”.

However, it is written in the Scripture, “His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1.20). If the heavens and the earth can show the illiterate peasants the majesty of God, as Calvin himself writes, and we perceive the heavens and the earth via images from our senses, does it not prove the saying of St. Gregory the Great that “images are the books of the unlearned” [1]? And yet Calvin goes so far as to criticize Gregory for not learning his lesson from the Spirit.

Second, Calvin argues that the depravity of man would always pervert images for idol worship, therefore images cannot incline the heart of man to God, books must be used instead.

If the depravity of man makes him incapable of knowing God, this incapacity applies not only to images, but to ideas and doctrines as well (1 Cor. 2:14). For images are nothing but visual representations of ideas. Why aren’t books banned from churches along with images? On the other hand, if God reveals Himself through the writings of the prophets and apostles, what prevents Him from doing the same through images made by those who are anointed by the Spirit? The artisans who constructed the Tabernacle of the Lord, were filled “with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship”(Exodus 31:1-3, Exodus 36).

Idolatry

“It is said that the images are not accounted gods…Nor are the heathen to be deemed to have been so stupid as not to understand that God was something else than wood and stone. For they changed the images at pleasure, but always retained the same gods in their minds; besides, they daily consecrated new images without thinking they were making new gods. The vulgar, when accused, replied that they did not worship the visible object, but the Deity which dwelt in it invisibly. Those, again, who had a more refined religion, said, that they neither worshipped the image, nor any inhabiting Deity, but by means of the corporeal image beheld a symbol of that which it was their duty to worship. What then? All idolaters were actuated in the very way which has been described. Not contented with spiritual understanding, they thought that images would give them a surer and nearer impression.”

“When once this preposterous representation of God was adopted, there was no limit until, deluded every now and then by new impostures, they came to think that God exerted his power in images. For why do men prostrate themselves before images? Why, when in the act of praying, do they turn towards them as to the ears of God? It is indeed true, as Augustine says [2], that no person thus prays or worships, looking at an image, without being impressed with the idea that he is heard by it, or without hoping that what he wishes will be performed by it. Why are such distinctions made between different images of the same God, that while one is passed by, or receives only common honour, another is worshipped with the highest solemnities? Why do they fatigue themselves with votive pilgrimages to images while they have many similar ones at home?”

Notes:

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