Challenge of the Icons
One of the most striking
differences between Eastern Orthodox worship and Protestant worship
is icons. When one enters an Orthodox church one encounters a profusion
of images. One sees the icon of Jesus Christ the Word made flesh. One
also sees an icon of the Virgin Mary, icons of the angels, and icons
of the saints. On the other hand when one enters most Protestant churches
one sees an austere absence of images.
This is not to say
that Protestant churches suffer from an absence of aesthetics. There
is a certain abstract beauty in the internal architecture of Protestant
sanctuaries: the steps leading up to the altar, pulpits standing to
the side, the cross hanging from the ceiling, and the interplay of
wood, stone, and glass are all beautifully designed.
What accounts for
the stark difference between Orthodox and Protestant worship experience?
Why did they diverge into two different worship traditions? One major
part of the answer to these questions can be found in the Protestant
Reformation, especially that of the Reformed tradition. Protestantism's
iconoclasm can in large part be traced to John Calvin. This page describes
and critiques Calvin's argument against the use of icons in Christian
As one of the leading
theologians of the Protestant Reformation John Calvin helped define
and shape Protestant theology. One of Calvin's lasting legacies is
Protestantism's iconoclasm. According to Georg Kretschmar, "Calvin
built up the most precise and radical position opposed to the icon
theology of the 787 Council of Nicea" (1990:80). Where Luther was
quite tolerant of images in churches, Calvin and his followers were
much more vigorous in their opposition to images in the church. As
a consequence, Protestant places of worship have a stark austerity
in comparison to Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches. 
The Seventh Ecumenical
Council, Nicea II, stands as a landmark in church history. It was
at this council that the Church decisively affirmed the use of icons
for worship. It was here that icons were recognized as being an integral
part of liturgical worship and of the historic Christian Faith. Any
attempt to disprove the veneration of icons must come to grips with
the decision made at Nicea II and early theologians like St. John
of Damascus. Therefore, one of the tasks of this page is not only
to assess Calvin's position on the icons on its own ground, but also
in relation to historic Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Logic of Calvin's
In order to understand
Calvin's opposition to icons, we must first understand the logic of
his Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin
devotes no little attention to the issue of icons. He devotes three
chapters of this book to attacking the icons (Book I, chapters 10-12).
Only after we can show that we understand Calvin's arguments against
the icons, can we proceed to critically assess the validity of Calvin's
The starting point
of Calvin's Institutes is the question: How can we know God? In Book
I we see him denying the possibility of knowing God through creation
but affirming the possibility of knowing God through the Scriptures.
We have taught
that the knowledge of God, otherwise quite clearly set forth in the
system of the universe and in all creatures, is nonetheless more intimately
and also more vividly revealed in his Word (Institutes 1.10.1).
For Calvin, God's
transcendence not only rendered him unknowable, it also made him beyond
human comprehension. Therefore, it became axiomatic that any human
attempt to depict the transcendent God in a visible representation
was not only a gross superstition, it also deformed our understanding
of the true God and distorts our worship of the one true God (see
cling to this principle: God's glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood
whenever any form is attached to him (Institutes 1.11.1).
This principle is
valid in light of the predominance of paganism in the ancient world.
The Old Testament injunctions against idols and graven images were
necessary in order to protect the purity of Israel's monotheism. However
it seems that such a sweeping statement about "any form" would even
rule out the possibility of the Incarnation of the Word of God. St.
Paul in his letter to the Philippians 2:6-7 described the Incarnation
in terms of Jesus having the "form of God" and taking on the "form
of a servant".
Calvin seems to have
assumed that in both the Old and New Testament worship of God was
totally devoid of images: "What punishments do the prophets, apostles,
martyrs, deserve, in whose days no images existed?" (Institutes 1.11.16).
However either Calvin is overstating his case or he ignores biblical
references to art forms in the Old Testament tabernacles: the sculpted
cherubim over the ark of the tabernacle, the faces of the cherubim
woven into the tabernacle curtains, and the twelve bulls that held
up the Sea of cast metal (see Exodus 26, I Kings 6 & 7). There is
also the carved images of cherubim and palm trees in the New Temple
(Ezekiel 41:15 ff.).
shows that as late as the 3rd Century, Jewish synagogues appear to
have used images in their interiors, as demonstrated by the findings
from the synagogue at Dura Europos in modern Syria (circa 240-250
Calvin's failure to
treat the use of images in synagoge worship, in contrast to the appearance
of images in the Old or New Testament may be attributed to lack of
archaeological scholarship in his day. However, it does clearly illustrate
that the use of images in the Old Testament is representative of the
actual temple and synagogue practice of Judaism. What is astonishing
is that Calvin seems not to have dealt with these passages in his
In Institutes 1.11.3
Calvin takes note of the fact that God did manifest himself in the
Old Testament through visual forms but that these do not justify attempts
to depict God. For Calvin even the depictions of cherubim in the Old
Testament Tabernacle cannot justify the use of images.
is perfectly clear that those who try to defend images of God and
the saints with the example of those cherubim are raving madmen. What,
indeed, I beg you, did those paltry little images mean? Solely that
images are not suited to represent God's mysteries (Institutes 1.11.3).
For Calvin the nature
and purpose of the Tabernacle was not to manifest the divine presence
as to point to its hiddenness. He writes,
seat from which God manifested the presence of his power under the
law was so constructed as to suggest that the best way to contemplate
the divine is where minds are lifted above themselves with admiration.
Indeed, the cherubim with wings outspread covered it; the veil shrouded
it; the place itself deeply enough hidden concealed it [Exodus 25:17-21]
Did Calvin overemphasize
the concealing aspects of the Tabernacle? It is probably more accurate
to say that the Tabernacle both revealed and concealed the divine
Presence. The divine Presence, the shekinah glory, was situated deep
within the Holy of Holies. This was the place where only the High
Priest could enter and only once a year, and points to the Tabernacle's
concealing function. However there is also the Tabernacle's revealing
function. Visual depictions of the cherubim were far more profuse
than Calvin lets on. Images of the cherubim were visible on the inner-curtain
of the Holy Place and on the curtains that made up the Tabernacle
structure (Exodus 26). A more fair reading of the biblical text will
lead us to conclude that the visual arts were an integral part of
Old Testament worship.
to the use of images stemmed from his desire for the glory of God
-- soli deo gloria. Anything that detracted from God's glory or obscured
it was to be vigorously opposed. His hostility was also based upon
his belief that it is it is impossible to visually depict God who
is invisible and transcendent.
it wrong that God should be represented by a visible appearance, because
he himself has forbidden it [Exodus 20:4] and it cannot be done without
some defacing of his glory (Institutes 1.11.12).
Calvin had no objection
to sculpture and paintings in themselves. He recognized them to be
gifts from God and legitimate in their own proper spheres (Institutes
1.11.12). But he strongly objected to their use in the realm of religious
worship and teaching. Calvin argues that visual representation were
allowable with respect to creation but not with respect to God.
it remains that 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 (Institutes 1.11.12).
This argument is similar
to the position taken by Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox position
is that God the Father cannot be represented in the icons. The Orthodox
position also holds that because God the Son took on human flesh in
his Incarnation, it was possible to depict the Son in the icons. St.
John of Damascus anticipated the main thrust of Calvin's argument
against icons when he argued that the Old Testament injunction against
images was given in order to prevent the Israelites from attempting
to represent the invisible God. He noted however that the situation
changed with the incarnation of Divine Word.
It is clearly
a prohibition against representing the invisible God. But when you
see Him who has no body become man for you, then you will make representations
of His human aspect. When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in
the flesh, become visible, then represent the likeness of Him who
has appeared. When He who, having been the consubstantial Image of
the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, thus
becoming bound in quantity and quality, having taken on the carnal
image, then paint and make visible to everyone Him who desired to
become visible (in Ouspensky 1978:44).
Calvin's failure to
deal with St. John of Damascus probably constitutes the greatest weakness
in his polemic against the icons. It is a serious oversight because
St. John of Damascus provided the classic biblical and theological
defense for the veneration of icons.
Perhaps the saddest
thing about it is that St. John's theological apologetic for the use
of icons reflects centuries of church history, back to early Christian
faith and practice-this is not a Medieval theological concoction.
This can clearly be seen in the archeological reconstruction of the
early Christian church at Dura Europos (circa 240-250 A.D.), which
is the earliest Christian church yet to be found.
Of note is that this
church was built and in use a full seventy five years before Constantine's
Edict of Toleration, thus representing typical practice while the
early Church was still under the duress of persecution-thus representing
typical practice. This makes Calvin's polemic against the icons one
of the greatest missed opportunities in church history. This omission
means that there was no real engagement between the Reformed and Eastern
Orthodox theological traditions in the sixteenth century. The two
traditions are like two ships passing each other in the middle of
As a Renaissance humanist
scholar one of the tools that Calvin employed was the discipline of
philology or historical linguistics (Bouwsma 1988:12). Calvin's critique
of the semantic distinction between dulia "veneration" and latreia
"worship" in Institutes 1.11.11, 1.12.2 and 1.12.3 would seem to be
one of his strongest attacks against the veneration of icons. The
defenders of icons argued that they were attributing to icons "veneration",
not "adoration". In response to this, Calvin resorts to a number of
proof texts to demolish this claim.
However Calvin's philological
argument misses the point. The dulia/latreia distinction was unique
to medieval Catholicism. John Cochlaeus, a contemporary of Calvin,
used this distinction in response to Calvin's Inventory of Relics
(see Calvin 1960:111 n. 21). This distinction was not used at Nicea
II (see Cavarnos 1973:9-10). This tells us that Calvin was not familiar
with the official Orthodox position on icons. More importantly, it
means that Calvin's polemic against icons never effectively refuted
the Orthodox position on icons.
The closest Calvin
comes to rebutting the terminology of Nicea II is in his study of
the word proskuneo. Calvin marshals a whole list of prooftexts where
honor improperly given is strongly discouraged: Satan's temptation
of Jesus (Matthew 4:10), John's prostration to the angel in Revelation
(Revelation 19:10 & 22:8-9), Cornelius' falling before Peter's feet
(Acts 10:25). The word used in these three passages is proskuneo which
can have the abstract meaning 'to worship' or the more concrete meaning
of the act of prostrating one's self before someone and kissing their
feet (see Arndt and Gingrich). It was the custom among the Persians
to prostrate one's self before the king and kiss his feet. Because
the Persians saw the king as an incarnate deity, this political act
was charged with sacred meaning. Nicea II used the word proskuneo
for the veneration of icons but at the same time qualifies it by attaching
timetike (to honor) to it. This is the word used in "Honor your father
and mother". However it appears that Nicea II did a more than adequate
job in defining and circumscribing the terminology for the veneration
of icons and so anticipated much of Calvin's philological arguments.
The Historical Argument
argument is seriously flawed. In Institutes 1.11.13 he is under the
impression that for the first 500 years the Christian churches were
devoid of images and that it was only with the decline of doctrinal
purity that images began to appear in the churches.
If the authority
of the ancient church moves us in any way, we will recall that for
about five hundred years, during which religion was still flourishing,
and a pure doctrine thriving, Christian Churches were commonly empty
of images. Thus, it was when the purity of the ministry had somewhat
degenerated that they were first introduced for the adornment of churches
An example of the
weakness of Calvin's understanding of early and historic Christianity
is that Calvin seems to be unaware of (or he ignores) Eusebius' Church
History in which mention is made of colored portraits that were made
of Christ and his apostles (7:18). The fact that Eusebius lived c.
265 to c. 339 and that the final version of his Church History appeared
in A.D. 325 deals a devastating blow to Calvin's historical argument.
Furthermore it undermines his theory of church history. The presence
of icons in the early church implies either that icons were an integral
part of the early Christian tradition or that Christianity had suffered
corruption from its early days. To assume the latter position is extremely
problematic. It calls into question Christ's promises to be with the
Church always, to guide it by the Holy Spirit, and to establish it
Did Calvin Understand
The numerous omissions
and oversights in Calvin's polemic against the icons reflect not so
much weaknesses in Calvin's scholarship but constraints imposed upon
him by historical circumstances. One factor to consider is that Calvin
probably never saw an icon in his life. Also Geneva had been devoid
of images for a number of years when Calvin arrived in 1535.
Calvin did know of
the Orthodox veneration of icons and it appears that Calvin was aware
of the different ways Western Roman and Eastern Orthodox Christians
venerated the icons. However there is no evidence of Calvin ever having
had direct contact with Orthodox Christians. Thus, Calvin's disparaging
remark about the "Greek Christians" in Institutes 1.11.4 can be seen
as the result of uninformed stereotyping. 
probably applied to Calvin's understanding of Nicea II. Calvin knew
of the decision of Nicea II in 787 to affirm the use of icons (Institutes
1.11.14). To refute the pro-iconist stance of Nicea II Calvin drew
upon the anti-iconist Libri Carolini. But what must be kept in mind
is that all this was quite new to Calvin. Kretschmar points out that
the decisions of Nicea II was published in 1540 and the Libri Carolini
became available in 1549 (1990:79).
This leads Kretschmar
to conclude that Calvin's opposition to icons was not based upon direct
encounters with icons nor was it founded upon familiarity with Orthodox
The way Calvin
actually deals with the 8th-century Councils of the iconoclast controversy
shows he did not really get to grips with the questions at issue in
the Byzantine theology of that age. For that matter he probably never
saw an icon in his life (1990:80).
Some of Calvin's polemic
is understandable in the context of the Reformation and as a reaction
to the excessive ornamentation of medieval European Catholic churches.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux was troubled by this excessive ornamentation
that resulted in the Church "resplendent in her walls and beggarly
in her poor" (Coulton 1928:573). The extravagance of religious art
was compounded by the absence of a regulating principle. Unlike the
Eastern artistic tradition which had an art-manual, in the West there
was no centralization of its artistic tradition (Coulton 1928:243-244).
This resulted in Western European religious art being much more free
in their depiction of God. Michaelangelo's depiction of God the Father
with the long flowing beard in The Creation of Adam in the famous
Sistine Chapel frescoes would not be allowed in the Orthodox tradition.
During 1300s the Trinity was often depicted in the form of a man with
three mouths, three noses, and four eyes or in the form of a head
with three faces (see Coulton 1928:378). The excesses were such that
the Roman Catholic Church was forced to curb these excesses during
Conclusion: Was Calvin
In conclusion, Calvin's
polemic against the icons is unconvincing because of four significant
flaws: (1) Calvin's philological argument (dulia vs. latreia) has
no bearing on the terminology of Nicea II, (2) Calvin's historical
argument is plain wrong, (3) Calvin's theological argument failed
to take into account the theological implication of the Incarnation
as spelled out by John of Damascus, and (4) Calvin's biblical proof
text overlooked some important passages.
Because Calvin never
dealt directly with the historic Christian nor the Eastern Orthodox
position on icons, he never effectively refuted the Orthodox position
nor addressed the historic Early Christian teaching and practice.
His polemic may be valid in the context of the Reformation and when
viewed against the abuses and excesses that the Reformation set out
to right. However it should be noted that medieval Catholicism by
Calvin's time had diverged significantly from Eastern Orthodoxy and
Nicea II. For this reason it can be claimed that Calvin's polemic
against the icons is incomplete and possibly invalid.
Calvin's polemic against
the icons flows from the deep structure of his theology. Calvin's
theological system rests on two major premises: (1) that God is utterly
transcendent and unknowable, and (2) God's transcendence is bridged
by means of divine revelation, particularly the Bible as the Word
of God. The preeminence given to the written Word of God in Calvin's
theological system builds upon Martin Luther's discovery of the radical
power of the Gospel to transform the sinner. In the Reformed tradition
the preaching of the Word of God takes priority to the exclusion of
everything else: the sacraments, the icons, the saints.
on the written Word of God as the basis for sure knowledge of God
leads him to exclude images as means for teaching people about God.
A similar claim can
be made for the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the icons. The Orthodox
Church's veneration of icons flows from the logic of patristic theology.
The Orthodox theological system rests on two premises: (1) that God
is utterly transcendent and unknowable, and (2) that God's transcendence
has been bridged through the Incarnation. For Orthodox Christians
the Incarnation forms the basis for the icons.
is the revelation not only of the Word of God, but also of the Image
of God, in which His likeness is revealed (Leonid Ouspensky in Forest
The Incarnation was
crucial to the theology of the early Church. The significance of the
Incarnation was such that one cannot understand the Christology of
the early Church apart from it. In the same way one cannot understand
the decisions of the ecumenical councils  apart
from the Incarnation. The interplay between these two factors helped
determine the outcome of Nicea II. Alain Blancy notes,
theology was a theology of the Incarnation and it depended directly
on the Christology of Chalcedon which had been defined four centuries
previously. The canons of Nicea make it clear, in particular, that
representation of the figure of Christ was not merely legitimate but
requisite, because of and on the basis of the Incarnation (1990:40).
The issue then becomes
not just a matter of images but of Christology. If the hypostatic
union is indeed (as taught in the Chalcedonian Definition) a personal
unity of the divine and human natures of Christ then the icons of
Christ and the veneration directed towards them complement each other.
Blancy writes: "True God and true man without separation and without
confusion: the Christology of Chalcedon fits the case of the icon
perfectly and is expressed in it" (Blancy 1990:40). For Protestants
who accept the first four Councils this presents something of a challenge.
 Nicea II (the seventh council) becomes a logical
extension of the theology of Chalcedon (the fourth council). The Protestant
who accepts the Council of Chalcedon must then wonder if accepting
Chalcedon leads logically to accepting Nicea II.
From the standpoint
of historical theology, the Reformed understanding of the Incarnation
represents a paradigm shift in theology.  Although
Calvin did not deal directly with the concept of the Incarnation as
providing a basis for icons, the Second Helvetic Confession did. The
Second Helvetic Confession  (chapter IV) decisively
dismisses any attempt to use the Incarnation to justify icons of Christ:
Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume
it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters.
A further reading
of this confession shows that this dismissal arises not out a mere
prejudice against icons but out of a radically different understanding
of the Incarnation.
that his bodily presence would be profitable for the Church, and promised
that he would be near us by his Spirit forever [John 16:7].
The attitude of the
Second Helvetic Confession towards the Incarnation stands in sharp
contrast to Nicea II:
One of the
traditions which we thus preserve is that of making representational
paintings, which is in accord with the history of the preaching of
the Gospel, as confirming the real and not merely imaginary incarnation
of God the Word (Logos).... (in Cavarnos 1973:10; emphasis added)
The difference here
is not minor but profound. Theological differences over the Incarnation
inevitably lead to differences in practice. Where Calvinism emphasizes
the written Word, Orthodoxy's emphasis is on the Word made flesh.
The Calvinist emphasis on the written Word results in the centrality
of the pulpit and the preaching ministry in worship. Orthodoxy with
its emphasis on the Word made flesh leads to liturgical worship, liturgical
vestments, the use of incense and icons, and most importantly the
centrality of the Eucharist in worship. Although Calvin and the early
Church Fathers believed in the Incarnation, their understanding of
the Incarnation led to divergent theologies and practices.
Can a Calvinist Venerate
In the end it must
be recognized that anyone who actively venerates the icons has to
some degree made a decisive break from Calvin and Calvinism. To venerate
the icons involves acting on theological principles alien to Calvinism.
The veneration of the icons is good example of the principle lex orans,
lex credens -- the rule of worship is the rule of faith. This ancient
theological principle teaches that the way we worship regulates the
way we do theology. Conversely, the way we do theology affects the
way we worship. This ancient theological principle was a common understanding
in the early Church, is also good sociology, and applies to Calvinism.
As has been shown
in this treatment, Calvin's opposition to the icons arises from the
underlying logic of Calvin's theology. Calvin's primary motive for
his anti-iconist stance lies his in concern for the recovery of a
true knowledge of God which leads to pure worship in the Church as
well as the reform of the Church. For this reason the Protestant Reformation
was concerned not just with the reformation of theology but also with
the reformation of worship. Thus, the plain interiors of Protestant
churches are not tangential but integral to Protestantism and its
theology. The bare interiors are an embodiment of Protestantism's
theology, especially its emphasis on the primacy of Scripture. Therefore,
iconoclasm cannot be easily detached from Calvin's theology.
This leaves Evangelicals
interested in historic Christianity in general, and Eastern Orthodoxy
in particular, in a quandary; or to put it more positively at a crossroads.
They can either follow the more recent paradigm of Protestantism or
they can follow the paradigm of historic Christianity.
The Challenge of
Although icons may
seem to be a quaint curiosity to many Evangelicals, the icons in fact
pose a profound theological challenge to Evangelical Christians. Icons
stand as a significant challenge to Evangelicalism because it calls
into question its Protestant presuppositions. One consequence of this
realization is that Calvin's failure to effectively deal with Nicea
II and the historic Christian teaching on icons means that the burden
is on the Calvinists of the twentieth century. It is the responsibility
of Calvin's descendants to pick up where Calvin has left off.
We are now living
at a historic moment when genuine dialogue can take place between
the Christians of the Reformed tradition and Christians from the Eastern
Orthodox tradition--a tradition that retains the historic understanding
and use of icons continues down to this day. There is an unprecedented
openness among Protestants to Orthodoxy. Kretschmar notes that until
recently it was only the specialists who were aware of the Orthodox
theology of icons (1990:84), but there has begun some attempts by
Protestants to take icons seriously. Some believe that icons are compatible
with Calvinism, e.g., Alain Blancy's chapter which has the subtitle
"Towards a Reformed Theology of the Icon". There will be Calvinists
and other Protestants of the Reformed tradition who will continue
to insist that the Orthodox position on icons is wrong. Hopefully
though, Evangelicals and Christians of the Reformed tradition will
not cavalierly dismiss the icons but take up the challenge to meet
and dialogue with Eastern Orthodox Christians.
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The Icon: Its Spiritual Basis and Purpose. Authoritative Christian
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Coulton, G.G. Art
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Forest, Jim. Praying
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Orthodox Church. Reprinted 1973. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books,
 There are
notable exceptions within Protestantism, e.g., Lutheranism and Anglicanism.
 The word
"Institutes" comes from the Latin institutio which can signify: (1)
instruction, (2) a summary, (3) a manual, or all three (Bouwsma 1988:17).
 This can
be verified using the Scripture index provided in the back of Vol.
II of the Battles' edition.
writes, "But we must note that a "likeness" no less than a "graven
image" is forbidden. Thus is the foolish scruple of the Greek Christians
refuted. For they consider that they have acquitted themselves beautifully
if they do not make sculptures of God, while they wantonly indulge
in pictures more than any other nation" (1.11.4).
 The seven
Ecumenical Councils were crucial to the theological development of
the early Church. It was at these gatherings that the Church set forth
the theological benchmarks of the Christian faith: Nicea I (A.D. 325)
which affirmed the full divinity of Christ; the Council of Chalcedon
(A.D. 451) which affirmed the two natures of Christ; and Nicea II
(A.D. 787) which affirmed the icons.
Garth Rosell, Professor of Church History at Gordon-Conwell Theological
Seminary, noted that Protestants accept the first four Ecumenical
Councils, whereas Orthodox and Roman Catholics accept all seven Ecumenical
Councils. Although much of Evangelicalism pay little or no attention
to the early Ecumenical Councils, Evangelicals who belong to mainline
denominations or who take theology seriously accept to some degree
the decisions of the early councils, e.g., the divinity of Christ,
the dual nature of Christ as truly divine and truly human.
 The phrase
"paradigm shift" is taken from Thomas Kuhn's classic The Structure
of Scientific Revolutions.
 The Second
Helvetic Confession has been described as "the most universal of Reformed
creeds" (see Leith's Creeds of the Churches p. 131).