The Institutes (18)

Book 1 Chapter 11 Sections 8-16

Calvin continues his assault on the use of images in worship. In so doing, he lays out a methodology for tenaciously pursuing and expelling error within the Church. This can be best summed up by an appeal to Scripture until it is plainly seen that whatever error is propounded cannot be claimed to be part of the Christian faith. His contention throughout this whole chapter is that using imagery in worship to depict God is a dangerous error that faces clear commands in Scripture to the contrary.

But lest it be claimed that Calvin was in opposition to the arts, he clarifies his position:

… because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each, lest those things which the Lord has conferred upon us for his glory and our good be not only polluted by perverse misuse but also turned to our destruction… only those things are to be sculptured or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing: let not God’s majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes, be debased through unseemly representations.

Calvin almost pleads for readers not to allow such a thing into their worship. He cites a particular argument that is presented in favor for images in worship: the distinction between latria and dulia. The argument goes like this: we don’t worship (latria) the images, we just serve them (dulia). Calvin demolishes this argument:

For just as an adulterer or a homicide cannot escape guilt by dubbing his crime by some other name, so it is absurd for them to be absolved by the subtle device of a name if they differ in no respect from idolaters whom they themselves are compelled to condemn. Yet so far are they from separating their own cause from the cause of these idolaters that the source of the whole evil is rather a preposterous emulation in which they vie with the latter while they both contrive by their own wit, and fashion with their own hands, the symbols to represent God for themselves.

Is this not precisely a description of liberal Christianity? The condemn what they themselves do, trying to maintain a distinctiveness in “following Jesus” while they hollow out everything that phrase means. Similarly, proponents of the “New Perspective on Paul” try to sympathize and identify with historical Christianity, all while they subtly undercut the meaning of justification by faith alone.

Summarily, he confronts Catholic appeals to church history and to Scripture to prove their support for images. In the case of church history, Calvin notes that there were no images in the churches for close to five hundred years after Christ. The Council of Nicaea in 787 was apparently used to bolster support for image-worship, but Calvin shows that there was plenty of dissenting opinion at the time. As such, the introduction of image-worship has a strong connection to much later Catholic tradition, not the Scriptures or early Christian practice.

Calvin quickly deals with the few Scriptures that Catholics cite who favor image-worship. Among them are Genesis 28:18, 47:10; and Psalm 44:13, 98:5, 9. These Scriptures are so out of context and spiritualized that the use of them shows how little was known about the Scriptures and how little they were held in esteem by the Catholic Church.

The Word is central to worship, and God has ordained two images to be used in order to display Himself to His people.

… even if so much danger were not threatening [i.e. images in worship], when I ponder the intended use of churches, somehow or other it seems to me unworthy of their holiness for them to take on images other than those living and symbolical [sic] ones which the Lord has consecrated by his Word. I mean Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, together with other rites by which our eyes must be too intensely gripped and too sharply affected to seek other images forged by human ingenuity.

Amen and amen. The images of baptism and the Lord’s Supper flow out of the Scriptures and point back to the Scriptures. Anything in worship that leads away from the Scriptures cannot be allowed in worship; it is deadening to Christians, and cannot be a part of legitimate worship.


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