Calvinist Iconoclasts? A Mixed Message from the Reformers on Images of Jesus

November 10, 2016

Here in the Christ-haunted South, Calvinists are in the minority, and images of Jesus are everywhere. I grew up in a rural Southern Baptist church that was adorned with stained-glass windows depicting the life of Christ. My grandmother had one of those electronic three-dimensional images of Jesus walking on water. I’ll admit that it was really cool. But can’t you just hear John Calvin turning over in his grave at the thought of it? In Reformed circles, we don’t make or use images of Jesus – or so we say.

That images violate the second commandment is clearly stated in both the Heidelberg and Westminster catechisms. And yet, images of Jesus are so prevalent in children’s curricula that it is difficult to find a Presbyterian church without them. And if Westminster is the standard, just imagine (or don’t) how many Reformed children and adults are violating it every Sunday when they imagine Jesus “in mind,” an act that the Larger Catechism question 109 forbids.

The question about the 2nd commandment is just as relevant today as it was in the sixteenth century. Yet, if we could transport a handful of the Reformers from the sixteenth century to the present day and ask them whether it is appropriate for us to make images of Jesus, we would likely be surprised by their answers.

For example, Luther would undoubtedly be the first to pipe up. “Ja,” he would say, “as I told Karlstadt, images are a great tool for teaching the uneducated about the difference between Law and Gospel. It is a greater idolatry to remove them from the church, as their removal would bind men’s consciences into thinking what is lawful is now forbidden.”

Zwingli would then respond, “Nein! We must remove all images from the churches because the mere fabricating of an image for sacred use violates the 2nd commandment!”

The room would then likely descend into chaos as Luther takes personal offense at Zwingli’s implicit accusation of blasphemy. In the ensuing barrage of exclamations and insults (which Luther would likely win), Martin Bucer might attempt a mediating position but get egg on his face, while John Calvin and Theodore Beza exit the premises without anyone noticing.

So, between Luther and Zwingli we receive a mixed message. We even receive a slightly-mixed signal from Zwingli alone, as the Zürich Bible that he helped produce includes an image of Jesus from St. John’s revelation.

The case is not all that clear among the so-called Calvinists either. Bucer’s position fermented in 1530 with his publication of That Any Kind of Images May Not be Permitted, wherein he argues that all images of Jesus are forbidden. We might naturally question this interpretation of the commandment to ask, “But if God did not want us to make images, then why did He become a visible, living, breathing human being in Jesus Christ?” Bucer responds, “Verily we do not deny whatsoever wholesome & profitable thing hath come to us by the death of Christ which he was suffering when he was conversant among men…yet that notwithstanding[,] the same Christ did plainly witness that his bodily presence was nothing profitable. It is the spirit (saith he) that quickeneth.”1 Yes, it is true that the physical body of Christ does not profit apart from his Spirit. Yet, is it really true, as Bucer says, that his bodily presence was “nothing profitable”? Doesn’t this assumption understate the significance of the incarnation? Given his conclusions, it is very confusing that – fifteen years later – Bucer would publish his Constant Defense in Bonn with a very prominent depiction of a crucifix on the frontispiece!2

In his major writings, Calvin does not explicitly state that images of Jesus violate God’s commands. He does note that it is idolatrous to make images of God because it is impossible to capture the infinite deity in a physical portrait.3 But what about the physical nature that God took to himself in the incarnation of Jesus? Calvin is only explicit about this concept in his sermons on Deuteronomy, in which he asks about paintings of Jesus: “Is it not a wiping away of that which is chiefest in our Lord Jesus Christ, that is to wit, of his divine Majesty?” to which he answers with a resounding, “Yes.”4 (Ironically, however, the 1583 English printing of Calvin’s sermons includes an image of Jesus on the frontispiece!) So, Calvin is clear that artistic representations of Jesus violate God’s explicit command. They are also heretical, he says, because they separate the divine nature of Christ from His humanity, since only the humanity may be represented. Thus, anyone who makes an image of Christ is guilty of the Nestorian heresy, a conclusion that Zacharius Ursinus reached as well.5

Unfortunately for our dilemma, not all of Calvin’s acquaintances agreed with his conclusion. The two Italians, Peter Martyr Vermigli and his disciple Girolamo Zanchi – both friends of and influences on Calvin and Ursinus – do not believe that images of Jesus are inherently sinful. Vermigli says only that images of saints and of Christ should not be placed within churches where they become temptations to idolatry, but they may be used in private and public settings. He affirms that these images “may bring an honest pleasure, which may have some utility joined with it, if they represent those things which are monuments and examples of piety.”6 Zanchi, in many ways the “second Ursinus” (he succeeded Ursinus’s chair of theology at Heidelberg), readily disagrees with the charge of Nestorianism brought up by Ursinus, saying, “It is not impious to paint Christ, insofar as he is man, as long as the image is not worshipped.”7 He continues, “The human soul cannot be painted either, but are not the forms of human bodies painted?”8 Zanchi argues here that if we apply Calvin’s (and Ursinus’s) logic regarding images of Christ to the human person, then we will have to conclude that no depiction of human beings is permissible either, since the soul cannot be painted.

So, we are left with a mixed message from some of the most prominent Reformers regarding the making of images of Jesus. Yet, how could there be disagreement on such a fundamental question?

This is not an issue of adiaphora. The making of images of Jesus, according to Calvin, is an act of idolatry, and strictly forbidden by God. Therefore, those who commit such acts are willful sinners at worst and Nestorians at best. We are left to wonder how what Calvin perceives as idolatry could be viewed by Vermigli, Zanchi, and others as an act of piety.

So, as Reformed Christians, we may choose to leave the room and let Luther and Zwingli duke it out over this issue. But, if we sneak out with Calvin and crew, we will only postpone the debate until we arrive at the pub. Then we’ll see who will be the first to criticize the electronic three-dimensional Jesus hanging inauspiciously behind the bar.

About the Author
  • Eric Parker is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montréal, where he is writing his dissertation on the theological ethics of the Cambridge Platonist, Peter Sterry. Eric has published academic articles on Martin Luther and various aspects of Reformed theology. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children and their ferocious dachshund.

  1. Bucer, A Treatise Declaryng and Shewing Dyvers causes that Pyctures and Other Ymages Which were wont to be Worshypped ar in no Wise to be Sufred in the Temples or Church of Cristen Men, (London, T. Godfray for W. Marshall: 1535). Spelling modernized by the author. 

  2. Of course, it is possible that Bucer neglected to request a different image for the frontispiece, yet he most likely could have made such a request.  

  3. See his Institutes I.1.1.  

  4. Calvin, Sermon of 23 May, 1555 in The Sermons of M. Iohn Calvin Upon the Fifth Booke of Moses called Deuteronomie, Arthur Golding, trans., (London: Henry Middleton for Thomas Woodcocke, 1583), 138. 

  5. The Commentary of Dr. Zacharius Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, G.W. Williard, trans., 2nd ed., (Columbus: Scott & Bascom: 1852), 527.  

  6. Most learned and fruitful commentaries of D. Martir Vermilius, professor ofdivinity in the school of Tigure, upon the Epistle of S. Paul to the Romans…, Sir Henry Billingsley, trans., (London: John Daye, 1568), 32.  

  7. Tractationum theologicarum volumen de statu peccati et legali… (Neustadt: Nicolaus Schrammius impensis haeredum Wihlelmi Harnisii, 1603), 501. This is my translation from the Latin.  

  8. Ibid., 502. 

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  1. As a pastor I seek to destroy every image of Jesus face people have in their minds or on their walls or in statues by simply stating – NONE of these look like our Lord Jesus – no one describes His face in the Scriptures – but He has a real face – and don’t you want to wait to see His real face and not spoil that moment by having all these false images in your mind? Besides Isaiah 53 clearly states He chose to have a face that would not appeal to anyone – ‘without beauty’ “without comeliness” – ie not handsome! But ah – when we see His face and His gracious loving eyes looking into our eyes – preserve that moment by mentally destroying all other images of Him you have seen – by saying to your self – that is not Him.