The Institutes (16)

Book 1 Chapter 11 Sections 1-4

Calvin now continues with an argument against the use of images in worship that is obviously directed at the Catholic Church. This supremacy of the Word that Calvin has spoken about until now precludes (in his mind) the use of images in worship. He notes that no where in the Old Testament did Israel actually create a pictorial representation of God; it was always angels, or other things. Never was an object of worship created with hands.

“God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him.” As such, an attempt to display God is some manner of idolatry, because we don’t know what He properly looks like.

The best evidence that Calvin gives here is his exposition of Deuteronomy 4:12-16: he points out that verses 12 and 15 are intricately connected. Moses states that Israel saw no form of God at the giving of the commandments, but only heard a voice. The “therefore” in verse 15 tells what God desires of them: because they haven’t seen what He looks like (indeed, no man can see Him and live), they should not attach any form to Him. “[A]ll those who seek visible forms of God depart from him.” Calvin writes concerning the cherubim that covered the Ark:

… images are not suited to represent God’s mysteries. For they had been formed to this end, that veiling the mercy seat with their wings they might bar not only human eyes but all the senses from beholding God, and thus correct men’s rashness. In addition to this, the prophets depict the seraphim as appearing in their vision with face veiled toward us. By this they signify that the splendor of divine glory is so great that the very angels also are restrained from direct gaze, and the tiny sparks of it that glow in the angels are withdrawn from our eyes.

God’s majesty is too amazing to try to attach an image to it. “For surely there is nothing less fitting than to wish to reduce God, who is immeasurable and incomprehensible, to a five-foot measure!” Thus Catholics and the Orthodox Churches practice a subtle form of idolatry when they make up an image for God, not to mention saints as objects of prayer.

The proper images for worship are in the form of two Scripture-mandated ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s supper. When these ordinances are declared as they ought, there really is no reason to resort to images to enhance worship; indeed, when we try to stick God in such a framed box, we bypass the centrality of Scripture is seeing God as He is. The Word is central to worship… so much so that images are at every turn warned against in worship.

In the next section, Calvin addresses specifically the Catholic errors that sprouted up from Pope Gregory.


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