Why Did John Calvin and the Reformers Forbid All Images of the Divine Persons?

Why Did John Calvin and the Reformers Forbid All Images of the Divine Persons?

One question I am frequently asked as a Reformed pastor is why I believe all images of the divine persons of the Trinity are sinful. This is my reply.

Historically, Reformed churches have taught that all images, statues, and paintings of Jesus Christ (and of the Father and the Holy Spirit) are violations of the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5a)

Thus John Calvin wrote: “God is opposed to idols, that all may know He is the only fit witness to Himself. He expressly forbids any attempt to represent Him by a bodily shape . . . We must hold it as a first principle, that as often as any form is assigned to God, His glory is corrupted by an impious lie.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.11) See also Heidelberg Catechism Questions 96-98; Westminster Larger Catechism Question 109; and 2nd Helvetic Confession Chapter IV.

So, no images of Christ at all? Not in church? Not in public nativity scenes? Not even as art? Yes, that is the position of Reformed churches, and I am persuaded from the Bible it is the correct one.

1. The Second Commandment forbids not only the worship of man-made images of beings regarded as divine, but also the creation of such images. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image.” The tendency is to run this statement together with what follows (“you shall not bow down to them nor serve them”) to conclude that what is forbidden is only the worship of such images. Yet the commandment has two imperatives and expressly forbids the making of such images exactly because it is in the nature of man to fall down and worship what he considers to be divine. Jesus our Lord is in heaven, and He is to be worshiped by faith. He is not to be imaged.

2. The apostles walked the earth with Jesus, and even though they wrote extensively about Christ, they did not leave behind any images of the Lord, nor did they even describe His earthly appearance. We can be sure that if these early eyewitnesses had thought it was important for the Christian Church to have an accurate image of Jesus in His humiliation, they would have provided it. But they didn’t. This means that no one knows what Jesus looks like, and all images of Him are nothing more than figments of human imagination. Thus if a man draws a picture and says, “This is Jesus,” he is lying. He is telling us that what he has invented in his mind and created with his hands is the Son of God, and that is deceit, and an insult to Christ. There is no essential difference between pointing to an icon or statue of an imaginary person and saying “this is Jesus,” and the Israelites referring to the golden calf as the Lord . . . our God. (Exodus 32:4-5)

3. Christianity is a religion of faith. It focuses on things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1) Christians worship the unseen God and His unseen Son seated in the unseen Heaven, mediated by the unseen Spirit. Unauthorized images of Christ add nothing beneficial to this religion of faith, and serve only to tempt the faithful to take their minds off things above (Colossians 3:2) and focus on the creations of human hands. Such images tempt us to idolatry, the very thing we are to guard ourselves against (1 John 5:21).

4. Christians today need to be especially clear about these matters, given all the popular movies that portray Jesus. As well-made as “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Jesus Film,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” and “The Son of God” may be, they violate the Second Commandment in that they, (1) are riddled with graven images of an imaginary Christ; (2) portray a mortal, sinful actor as the divine, sinless Son of God; and (3) leave in their wake a mental image of Jesus that is deceptive and falls far short of the true Christ. We must especially resist the idea of using such films to promote Christian evangelism. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17), not by watching graven images set to film.

5. Are Reformed churches against the creation of all images? This is a frequently-asked question, and the answer is no. Heidelberg Catechism #97 speaks to this: “May we not make any image at all? God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping of any likeness of them, either to worship them or to serve God by them.” The Second Commandment forbids us to make images of the true God and of created or imaginary beings that are worshiped or prayed to as gods (for example, the various sky, animal, river, and underworld gods the Egyptians worshiped, which are referenced in heaven above . . . the earth beneath . . . the water under the earth). God did not forbid the making of all images. He forbade the making of images of beings the Israelites had made a habit of worshiping while they lived in Egypt (Ezekiel 20:5-9). That this prohibition included any and all images of the God of Israel is obvious, as was demonstrated in the golden calf incident, where the Israelites exhorted Aaron to make us Elohim (God) that shall go before us, and then referred to the image as the Lord . . . our God . . . that brought (us) out of the land of Egypt, a terrible sin for which they were severely judged (Exodus 32:1-5, 27-28).

As Zacharias Ursinus concluded, “God ought not to be represented by any graven image, because He does not will it, nor can it be done, nor would it profit anything if it were done.” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 883)

As the Biblical prophets declare, What profit is the image, that its maker should carve it? The molded image, a teacher of lies? (Habakkuk 2:18)

I am the Lord, that is My name. I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images. (Isaiah 42:8)

Rev. Joe Vusich
Sutton, NE

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