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.

Heidelberg CatechismHistorically, Reformed and Calvinist churches have taught that all images/statues/paintings intended to represent Jesus Christ (and the Father and the Holy Spirit) are violations of the 2nd 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:  “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 teaching of the Reformed confessions, and I am persuaded from Scripture it is the correct one.  Here’s why:

1. The 2nd 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 it is only the worship of such images that is forbidden.  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.

Many Christians say that it’s not sinful to make images of Christ (or other so-called gods), just so long as we don’t worship them.  Yet this conclusion doesn’t follow from the 2nd Commandment, and is not supported by Scripture.

If it was theoretically okay for the Israelites to make graven images of God or so-called gods as long as they did not actually worship them, why in Deut. 4:15-18 does God command the Israelites to “take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, etc.”?

Notice that God says acting “corruptly” is evidenced not just in the worship of graven images, but in the creation of them.  Why is the making of such images in itself sinful?  Because God says that a graven image, an image of the unseen God or any other so-called god, is innately “a teacher of lies” (Hab. 2:18).  This is why Moses completely destroyed the golden calf, and ground it into powder.  This is why in Deut. 7:25, God commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy every Canaanite idol when they went into the land: “You shall utterly detest it and utterly abhor it, for it is an accursed thing.”  The image is evil and accursed in itself, because it lies to us.  This is why it draws us into lying, accursed worship (kissing icons, kneeling before images, praying while staring at images, etc.).  And this is why we are not to make or possess images of God (including the incarnate Christ) or other so-called gods.

2. Many say, “The sin’s not in the thing, it’s in my heart.  There is nothing innately wrong with images of Christ, it’s how men abuse them that is sinful.”  This type of argument would certainly apply in the case of things like alcohol and dancing.  The Bible teaches that wine is a gift from God (Ps. 104:14-15), and nowhere does the Bible prohibit dancing.  It’s true that people frequently abuse those things (just as they abuse other good gifts from God like food and sex), but the abuse of a thing is no argument against its proper use.  It is Pharisaism, man-made religion, to say all drinking of alcohol and all dancing are innately sinful.

However, in light of the plain and repeated teaching of Scripture, the above argument is misapplied in the case of graven images.  “The sin’s not in the thing, it’s in my heart” is a false dichotomy when applied to the creation (and ownership) of images of the unseen God or other so-called gods.  Again, according to God Himself, the sin is in the image itself.  This is why the Israelites were commanded to “burn the carved images of (the Canaanite) gods with fire . . . for it is an abomination to the Lord your God” (Deut. 7:25).  The images themselves were abominations, hateful things to God.  This is why the 2nd Commandment specifically forbids both the creation of such images and the worship of them.

3. 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 telling us that what he has invented in his mind and created with his hands is the Son of God, and that is impious deceit, a gross corruption of His unique glory.  There is no essential difference between pointing to an icon or statue of an imaginary person and saying “this is Jesus,” and Aaron referring to the golden calf as “the Lord (Yahweh).” (Exodus 32:5).

4. Images of Jesus can only capture His (imagined!) human nature.  Christ’s divine nature is impossible to reproduce, and thus the deceitfulness of the image is compounded, for the incomprehensible glory of the enthroned Son of God is unrepresented.  Zacharias Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said that this seems to revive the ancient heresy of Nestorius, who taught that the human and divine natures of Jesus were separate things.

5. 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).

6. Christians today need to be especially clear about these matters, given the growing number of popular films 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 2nd Commandment in that they are riddled with graven images of an imaginary Christ, leaving in their wake a mental image of Jesus that is a gross corruption 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.

7. Are Reformed churches against the creation of all images?  This is a frequently-asked question, and the answer is no.  Heidelberg Catechism Question 97 speaks to this:  “May we not make any image at all?  Answer: 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 2nd Commandment forbids the making of images of beings regarded as divine, whether it be the true God or a saint or some pretended god (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 that shall go before us,” and then referred to the image as “the Lord (Yahweh) . . . 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 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, p. 883)

“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).

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About JoeV

I am privileged to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in the United States. God has given me a beautiful wife, five great sons, and a loving congregation, all of whom I love dearly. I enjoy theology, reading (especially American history), hunting and fishing (though I'm no good at either), football and baseball, surfing the ‘Net, and playing Settlers of Catan with the boys. Soli Deo gloria!
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7 Responses to Why Did John Calvin and the Reformers Forbid All Images of the Divine Persons?

  1. Amen!
    This is especially an issue in our day when movies are made depicting Jesus. As well-intentioned as “The Jesus Movie” or “The Passion of the Christ” may be, they still misrepresent Jesus, since (1) they portrays the divine, sinless Son of God by a mortal, fallible actor, and (2) we don’t have the full “script” of everything that Jesus taught and did. Any theatrical representation of Jesus is especially dangerous, because it leaves a mental image of Jesus that is necessarily inaccurate and must, by its very nature, fall far short of depicting the true character of our Lord. Some movies intentionally distort God, Jesus or the Biblical teaching, but even those that strive for accuracy ought to be avoided, if they presume to depict God (i.e. Father, Son or Holy Spirit) by human actors or special effects.
    Thanks for another great post, Joe!!

  2. Pingback: 2nd Commandment, Images of Christ, Calvin

  3. Pingback: Why Did John Calvin and the Reformers Forbid All Images of the Divine Persons?

  4. Pingback: Are images of God sinful? | Conservative Christianity, Worship, Culture, Aesthetics – Religious Affections Ministries

  5. Viaractus says:

    Never really thought of that. Thank you, Joe.

    One of the things that bothers me, even years later as I read the Bible, is how much effort and study it takes to wipe off those adaptations I was shown as a child. Even if Christ was not portrayed.

    Just Moses for example. How many of us read him as an Egyptian in his early life? I do now, but it really takes almost a grinding of the mind to clear away other images.

    As for the film portrayals of Christ, they can rarely bring a person to faith. God’s Spirit will use any means, but that doesn’t validate those means. The Passion of Christ I couldn’t watch. It appeared more as senseless violence than anything to me.

    Real eye-opener, and I’m going to go over Ursinus commentary. RCUS has made available a digital edition for free:
    Ursinus Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism

    Thanks again, Joe.

  6. I’d been looking at the passage regarding the golden calf because of 1 Cor. 10:7 and my attempts to understand the context. Was Paul speaking of their attending pagan temples, or their own misbehaviour in Christian worship. Both were happening, as the letter goes on to show. I think your explanation has tipped me toward the position that, in verse 7, Paul was warning against worshipping the true God in inappropriate ways. Thanks for your explanation. Kind regardes, Michael.

  7. Thank you. Very helpful for seeking to be blessed by meditating day and night on God’s law of perfect freedom! Thank you for faithfulness to Christ.

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