Calvin’s Institutes I.xi.1-16

Mr C. engages in a lengthy discussion on the use of images. I suppose it must be remembered that he is speaking from a context where the use of images in worship was a matter of great controversy. It is perhaps no less so in this visual age, and at a time where film-making can portray Christ in compelling ways. I have written about The Passion of the Christ here.

Calvin says a number of interesting things:

  • He sees the prohibition of Exodus 20:4 as absolute. There are to be not visual representations of God. While recognizing that God at times appeared in some physical form in the OT, nowhere were the Israelites given the go-ahead to depict such appearances in worship. More specifically, Calvin goes on to say,

    The fact that God from time to time appeared in the form of a man was the prelude to his future revelation in Christ. Therefore the Jews were absolutely forbidden so to abuse this pretext as to set up for themselves a symbol of deity in human form. (p.102, Battles)

    This is quite significant, I think, since his argument could conceivably be extended to the use of images of Christ himself. Some would argue that Christ, in whom all the fullness of God dwelt, who, as the perfect man, was the perfect image of the invisible God, can be legitimately be depicted in various ways. Yet, Calvin’s observation could appear to apply here too. In other words, all temporary forms in which God appeared in history, even as Jesus himself, are not to be used as justification for representing God in human form. Some work would be required to make the argument watertight, though.

  • Calvin condemns the Gregorian doctrine that “images are the books of the uneducated”. He simply counters with the observation that ordinary people should not be uneducated in spiritual matters. If there was true preaching of the word there would be no need for such arguments! In this modern age, this is a relevant observation. More and more, modern attempts to overcome the lack of knowledge of the unbeliever, and often now the believer, involve a turning to the use of visual methods. Calvin’s argument could just as well be leveled now: we need better preaching not other methods.
  • His famous comment, “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols” (p.108, Battles). In practice, this means that “…man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived.” Since man has this root problem, images are appealing, but tend to “bend the mind”.
  • There is a right use of images and sculpture since art is a gift of God. However, since representations of God are excluded, we must represent only that which can be seen with the eyes. Some pictures and sculpture are used to depict history or past events, which have some use in education, while others only offer pleasure. Calvin notes that the churches of the time have almost exclusively the latter. (I’ll have to take his word for it. The modern use of crucifixes immediately springs to mind, which was of course an historical event. Are crucifixes a relatively modern innovation?)

    Clearly he is speaking in the light of RC practice. Having dealt with images of God in human form, perhaps here he has in mind depictions of biblical characters in the historical scenes of Scripture. These may be useful. But this may be in contrast to the prevalent use of statues and pictures of apostles, prophets and other saints as part of worship.