The Institutes (17)

Book 1 Chapter 11 Sections 5-7

Calvin becomes even more pointed in his arguments against images, delving into church history to prove his point. On one side Calvin places Pope Gregory I (600ish AD) as a representative for the pro-image position. After showing Gregory’s position (which is also reflected in current Catholic dogma), Calvin proceeds to confront the pro-image position with Scripture, church history, and common sense.

Pope Gregory’s statement that “images are books for the unlearned” is trounced by Calvin. I’ve heard similar statements from Catholics as recently as last year, which makes Calvin’s argument very pertinent. After probing through Scripture, Calvin concludes that “the prophets set images over against the true God as contraries that can never agree.” Attempts to do so show the latent Roman paganism seeping its way into Catholic dogma.

In upholding the Scriptures as authoritative, he makes it plain that Catholic tradition and Scripture are mutually exclusive on this matter. Thus, “when we teach that it is vanity and falsehood for men to try to fashion God in images, we are doing nothing else but repeating word for word what the prophets have taught.”

Next, Calvin appeals to church history, specifically to the church fathers. Calvin cites Augustine, who in turn quoted Varro: “”the first men to introduce statues of the gods ‘removed fear and added error.'”

Calvin continues:

… the first errors concerning God in which men were entangled did not begin from images, but once this new element was added, errors multiplied. Next, [Augustine] explains that the fear of God was diminished or even destroyed, because in the folly of images and in stupid and absurd invention his divinity could easily be despised… Whoever, therefore, desires to be rightly taught must learn what he should know of God from some other source than images.

Finally, Calvin confronts the (then) current state of the church, where the Catholic laity were “addicted” to images, preventing them from learning from the Word. This has parallels today, even at the VBS that I was a part of this week. Unless the analogies and illustrations we use are robustly Scriptural, we’ll lead those we teach astray. We use drama, pictures, stories, thinking that this will have sustaining value for the Christian. But the only thing that sustains is God, Who is found without error in Scripture alone.


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