Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

To follow-up on my blog post “Sunday of Orthodoxy: Or, When Schisms Are Functionally Irrelevant,” the excerpt below has helped me to understand John Calvin’s treatment of idolatry. Understanding must precede criticism.

From Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008):

Having indicated Scripture as the true source of the true knowledge of the true God, Calvin devotes two chapters to idolatry (I.11-12) between his exposition of the general teaching of Scripture (I.6-10) and the doctrine of Trinity (I.13). Idolatry is the human attempt to create a god to honor and worship, and a portion of the Institutes often passed over. Neither Niesel, Wendel, Kerr, nor McKim treat this section. Yet Calvin takes the second commandment with great seriousness (cf. II.8.17-21), as Carlos M. N. Eire powerfully demonstrates. Eire makes the valuable points that Calvin’s attack on idolatry is closely connected with his rejection of Roman Catholic worship as superstitious and idolatrous. For Calvin the reformation of worship was urgent. Again, Calvin is concerned not merely for idolatry on the part of individuals but also for communities. Calvin’s crusade against superstition required social support. The most questionable part of Eire’s analysis is his confidence in the objective/subjective dichotomy. According to Eire, Calvin’s opposition to idolatry is divided into objective and subjective reasons. Likewise “Calvin analyzes the act of worship by separating it into two spheres: the objective and the subjective.” Eire concludes, “The two spheres of existence are connected by worship, which is a human act.” Two spheres of existence may be a helpful modern distinction for analyzing some parts of Calvin’s thought, but must be cautiously invoked.

Calvin insists that human beings left to their own devices without the teaching of Scripture will manufacture idols of wood, stone, gold, or silver and worship them. In strong language Calvin asserts, “This people with fervid swiftness repeatedly rushed forth to seek out idols for themselves as waters from a great wellspring gush out with violent force” (I.11.3). Even more vivid is Calvin’s comment that those who live in excrement emit such a stench that they can no longer smell foul odors. These people dwelling in filth (odure) become so accustomed to it that they think themselves roses. In Calvin’s view, “Daily experience teaches that flesh is always uneasy until it has obtained some figment like itself in which it may fondly find solace as in an image of God.” In short, human nature “is a perpetual factory of idols” (I.11.8). What the idolatrous mind conceives to be a subject of worship, the hand delivers to the idolatrous eye. Calvin thinks idolatry originates from minds ensnared by a passion for novelty (Com. Dt. 12:29).

For Calvin, worship and honor blend into a single action. Therefore, he does not accept a distinction between latria and dulia. One cannot worship God and pay homage to saints without taking away some of the honor that belongs solely to God. In addition, the employment of images attacks sound doctrine because images replace true teaching. Idolatry is not only stupid but dangerous. It is silly to render homage to the work of your own hands. Paying tribute to false gods offends the true God who is not the object of speculation but “the sole and proper witness to himself” (I.11.1.). “Surely,” Calvin writes, “there is nothing less fitting than to wish to reduce God, who is immeasurable and incomprehensible, to [a human] measure!” (I.11.4). The biblical appearances of God in smoke and flame and cloud are intended as restraining symbols of the incomprehensible divine essence. All graven images dishonor God, replacing true worship with superstition. According to Calvin, God is revealed in Word and Sacrament. God’s Word comes to us so fully through Scripture and preaching and the sacraments, that to seek it elsewhere is to enable idols to be the focus of our quest for God.

Heeding Calvin’s urgent and earnest warning against idolatry is continually necessary. The substitution of false idols for the true God is a major intellectual and theological objection to images, but Calvin also objects angrily on the human grounds of modesty. He claims, “Brothels show harlots clad more virtuously and modestly than the churches show those objects which they wish to be thought images of virgins” (I.11.7).

In Partee’s exposition above, the main point is expressed here: “All graven images dishonor God, replacing true worship with superstition. According to Calvin, God is revealed in Word and Sacrament. God’s Word comes to us so fully through Scripture and preaching and the sacraments, that to seek it elsewhere is to enable idols to be the focus of our quest for God.”

The priority on divine revelation in Word and Sacrament is the biblical priority, but should this priority exclude other possibilities of divine revelation, such as images? What bothers me is the presumption that “images replace true teaching” when they might facilitate true teaching. For me, nothing compares to beholding the image of God in the mirror of the Gospel, as Calvin said, but this does not exclude the instruction and edification I receive when contemplating Cranach the Elder’s “The Paradise” (1530) or Rembrandt’s painting “The Woman Taken in Adultery” (1644).

As a Reformed Christian, I am wrestling with the legacy of Calvin’s iconoclasm, attracted to the aesthetic of simplicity, inwardness, and order but also troubled that “Protestant culture, perhaps unintentionally, fostered indifference to beauty beyond the self,” as one observer writes. I plan on exploring recent Protestant contributions to aesthetics in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic, William Dyrness’ Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship, Jeremy Begbie’s Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts, and Frank Burch Brown’s Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully and Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life.

More on: Protestantism

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles