Was blind, but now I see.

5 : 2 February 2006




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Copyright for the journal © 2005
M. S. Thirumalai

M. S. Thirumalai


I undertook a project some years ago to prepare a descriptive and narrative report on the evolution of Image and Idol Worship within the Church. This is an ongoing project, but I thought that some of the preliminary writing that I have done may be shared with others interested in this important aspect that affects our spiritual life, and evangelism among people who practice non-Christian religions. Earlier articles published in CHRISTIAN LITERATURE AND LIVING can be accessed using the links given below.

The Roman Catholic Church had grown to be a public, official and mandatory institution for nearly thousand years in the western Europe from the end of the Iconoclastic Controversy until the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Everyone was born into it and was subject to its sole superintendence at least in spiritual matters. Opposition against the doctrines followed by the roman church was suppressed by persuasion, and, more often, by use of force. The clergy was growing indolent all along, and several corrupt practices had crept in. There were objections raised, however, against the absolute power held by the pope; but such opposition was of no avail.

In fact every opposition to papal authority was used to further strengthen the absolute powers of the pope. Sometimes, it was also claimed that the councils of bishops representative of the Christian world had greater powers than the pope. Also the unworthiness and corruption of church men were brought to light in witticisms both by the intellectuals and common men. Cynicism of the corrupt practices of the pope in Rome and the bishops all over became, in due course, very widespread. The spiritual side of the Roman church was losing its appeal as the centuries went by. Along with these trends, the pride in one's own national identity was growing to be a very widespread phenomenon. Nationalism began to assert itself in many people groups with Europe. Allegiance to modern European languages in place of classical languages was becoming more popular through the years.

The Reformation

The Reformation inaugurated by the Holy Spirit found its chief proponent in Martin Luther (A.D.1483-1546). The Reformation aimed at restoring the Church to its early condition. The Church was founded by Christ but was corrupted by the papacy in due course, the Reformation asserted. Strict adherence only to the Scripture would restore the Church to its early condition. Tradition and papal and council orders and decisions had nothing to do with the worship of the one true God.

One of the causes for the emergence of Lutheran Reformation was the adoration of images within the Roman church. The Reformers strongly felt that the Roman church went against the Biblical prohibition of the adoration of idols. However the Reformers differed among themselves as to the retention of statues and images within the church buildings. Whereas Martin Luther was not against the retention of the visual representations of the Deity and other Christian personages within the church buildings, Zwingli preached in favor of the destruction of the idols. Most of the Protestant approaches to image/idol worship within and without the Church emanate from the teachings of three Reformers, namely, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.

Lutheran Reformation: Scripture Only Theology - Worship of God A Universal Phenomenon

The Christ-centered, solo scriptura theology of Martin Luther finds that the worship of God is a universal phenomenon. People did put their trust and belief in God everywhere. As the apostle Paul pointed out, no people has been without some sort of divine worship. They may, however, choose some aspect of God and worship that aspect by personifying the features of the aspect. Jupiter was worshipped for his power and dominion; Mercury, Hercules, Venus and Diana were all worshipped, for these represented riches, happiness, or pleasure and so on. `Everyone made that his god to which his heart inclined'. Thus they put their trust and belief in false God (1636). Both God and idol are made by the confidence of the heart, according to Luther. When the faith and confidence are right, our God will be right. When our faith and confidence is false, we will not have true God (1637).

God - An Inexpressible Being

Luther emphasized the omnipresence of God. God is also an inexpressible Being. God is present in every creature. He sustains and fashions the creature, both in its outward and innermost being. It is axiomatic for Luther that none can contain and confine divine omnipotence. God's omnipotence is incomprehensible and infinite.`Nothing can be more present and closer to all creatures than God himself with his power (1645).

If God cannot be contained and confined, and if God is an inexpressible Being, how can one represent Him visually? So, the Lutheran theology undermines the very assumption of idol making and idol worship that God can be represented in a material form.

God can be Found Only in Scripture

Where do we find this omnipresent God? Luther says that God's presence in itself and God's presence for us are different matters (1652). Thus although God is everywhere, Luther finds that he does not want us to look for Him everywhere but only in the Word. If we try to seek him in everything and elsewhere we would be tempting God and setting up idolatry (1653). In essence, God should be apprehended in His word (1655).

Since God should be apprehended not according to our reason, but in the Word, it follows that visual representation of His majesty in a material form is to be avoided. As quoted above, Luther found that it was impossible to visually represent God.

Natural Knowledge and Specific Revelation

Of the two-fold knowledge of God, the natural knowledge is no sure way of knowing God. Even the heathen are in agreement with this position.(1659). The specific revelation of God is like the light in the tunnel of darkness. It admits the light and so one could see the direction.

Since both the general knowledge and the revealed knowledge are fragmentary, Luther would insist that we stay with the Word. It is futile to speculate about the Divine Majesty, `for he who would take captive the clouds by his speculations hurls himself into the depths.' Visual representation, an attempt to apprehend God in a material form, thus, is speculation about the Divine Majesty and hence should be avoided. But, alas, men are not content to stay with the Word. Luther was always upset about this tendency in men. Just four days before his death, in a sermon he delivered in Eisleben he preached:

Everybody wants to be His schoolmaster and teacher. We note this in all heretics from the beginning of the world. Arius and Pelagius, and now, in our times, the Anabaptists and Sacramentarians and all enthusiasts and ringleaders, are not satisfied with what God has done established. They cannot let it remain the way He has ordained it but imagine that they, too, must fabricate something in order to be somewhat better than other folk and to be able to boast: This is what I have made. What God has made and established is too plain and paltry, nay, too childish and foolish; I must add something to it (1671).

God is Unknowable Apart From His Revelation

Another aspect of the Lutheran theology that is directly relevant to visual representation of the Deity is Luther's emphasis that God is unknowable apart from His revelation. `Quae supra nos nihil ad nos: What is above us is none of our business.' Such enquiries are diabolical (1675).

Luther also insists that God should be worshipped only in Christ. In Old Testament times God wanted to be found only in the temple at Jerusalem. However, with the new grace, everyone is asked to go to Christ for worship of God (1683).

Idolatry is Natural to Man

Luther looks at idolatry of man in a much different manner than the others before him. Idolatry is natural to man, according to Luther. Man's sinful nature is the cause of idolatry. Idolatry is born in us, and it pleases us very much (2105). In this position, Luther includes both the idol worship per se and the fine idolatry humans practice and wish to receive. In fact, the Lutheran theology includes not just the worship of concrete idols as part of idolatry but the fine idolatry which seeks and gives vain glory to the objects and experience of the world. In this Luther is guided by the Pauline doctrine on what constitutes idolatry.

Luther finds that human nature, being idolatrous and superstitious, tries to flee from the true God. It promotes confidence in the ways it has devised worship and in its own works. Worship has become a source of income as well as a source of power for the priests (2106).

Origin of Idolatry

Luther finds that it was from Adam's teaching, after his fall, that idolatry must have developed. The heathen adoration and worship of the sun must have emanated from Adam's teaching to his family and children to bend their knees at sunrise and praise the Lord of heaven and earth. In due course `they forgot to thank God for creating light and the sun for their benefit, and they made an idol of the sun.'

Idolatry within the Church

The idolatry within the Church developed out of the pious teachings of the fathers. For wherever Christ builds a church and gathers a congregation, the devil is always wont to ape Him and to devise idolatrous forms of worship and teachings that resemble the true doctrine and the true worship of God. But he takes away the promise and the spirit of the fathers, meanwhile arranging splendid pomp and magnificent ceremonies. Under the guise of religion and sanctity he outdoes and obscures even the true worship and the church (2107).

Idolatry is Fornication

Luther finds that idolatry is far more fervent than true piety (2108). This was inevitable because man is naturally inclined to idolatry. Also Luther finds that idolatry is compared with fornication for various reasons. To begin with idolatry is spiritual adultery and fornication. There is similarity of the emotions and of the result in both. However, spiritual fornication is more difficult to cure than the physical inclination towards fornication and adultery. `For it is thought to be religion and the highest form of the worship of God.'That is why the Pharisees in the Gospel history were more difficult to accept change. They were puffed up with their own idolatry (2109).

Luther finds that there is a spirit of whoredom and that this spirit supplies men with `confidence in creatures, which is real idolatry. For not only the adoration of images is idolatry but also trust in one's own righteousness, works, and merits, and putting confidence in riches and human power. As the latter is the commonest, so it also is the most noxious idolatry'(2110).

For Luther, reliance on one's own works, thus, is a deadly form of idolatry. To rely on what is altogether nothing is `what all idolatry is.'

For it consists not merely in erecting an image and worshipping it. Its seat is the heart, which stupidly stares in other directions and seeks help and comfort from creatures, saints, or devils. It does not look to God, nor does it expect Him to be so good as to help; neither does it believe that whatever good it experiences comes from God.

Several Types of Idolatry

Thus there are several types of idolatry, one erecting image and worshipping them and such other objects, another seeking justification in one's own works, both religious and secular. Salvation is sought in rites. Such a dependence on one's own works and religious rites takes away the right of God. This is nothing but idolatry, for it turns God into an idol (2111).

Man Elevates Himself in Idolatry

Man's desire to elevate himself and his own creations to the status of God is very old and this could be found in the old Testament, according to Luther. Faith in the one true God was assailed by Satan through generations. Even after purging the world of evil persons by the flood, `the progeny of Satan continued in Ham, the third son of Noah.' They invented countless idols and religions (2112).

Idolatry is One's Own Devout Inclination

Any worship that is not sanctioned by the Word and any worship which followed one's own devout inclination is idolatry. It is not enough to say and think that one does the worship for the true God, because even the idolaters always say and think like that. Moreover, even the Jews and the heathen who persecuted the Christians and martyred many of them said and intended that they did worship the one true God and that they killed the Christians for the service of God. `Therefore it does our clergy no good whatever to pretend that they are not serving an idol in their churches and chapters but only God, the true Lord.' The test is as to whether such service is instituted by God's Word and not by man's reason or devout inclination (2113).

Missions Work will Eliminate Idolatry

Lutheran theology firmly believes that missions work will help remove the idolatry of the heathen. It is through the spread of the gospel among the nations that the heathen nations will give up idolatry and worship the True God. In a sense, Luther accepts the position of some of the early fathers who saw in the spread of the gospel a sure destruction of idolatry. Luther considers that `the very best of all works is that the heathen have been led from idolatry to the knowledge of God' (3008). The heathen cannot praise the one true God, if he does not believe in him and `let go of all idolatry,' Luther pointed out (3009).

Man's self-centered nature encourages idolatry, according to Luther. Man may live a noble life, but the bases of his life are rotten and idolatrous. Man's godlessness, impiety, and gracelessness are a great evil (2753). He may even sincerely believe that he is God-fearing, but in reality it could be just selfishness.

Roots of Idolatry in the Roman Church

Luther did talk about the possible roots of idolatry. He finds that the roots of saint worship in the Roman church should be found in the heathen practices of the past. Saint worship is pagan in its origin and conduct, and it is totally arbitrary. Note that Luther would consider the iconic representation, that is, the visual representation as totally arbitrary. It is arbitrary, even though it is a concrete representation, because the Deity the image seeks to represent has no one to one relationship with the idol/image. The Roman church imposes a similitude function between the image and the Deity, which, in reality, is an arbitrarily imposed function: When martyrs were slain, they were decently buried, a psalm was sung, and the martyrs remained in their graves. But latter it became customary to preach their martyrdom to others as an example encouraging to faith and love and patience, so that people might do as they did. Now such examples were certainly beautiful. But people went further and turned devotion into idolatry, so that every priest introduced an idolatrous worship, and he who had a saint buried in his church made him a patron. In this way a good beginning ended in idolatry (3999).

Note the phrase: turned devotion into idolatry.

Covetousness is Idolatry

Following Pauline theology which considers covetousness and such other attributes/qualities as idolatrous, Luther considers self-righteousness as self-deification and idolatry. Wanting to God and desiring to have divinity is the first sin and this is continued to be committed by all of us (4061, 4062).

Self-righteousness and dependence on works go hand in hand. Self-righteousness encourages works. This trust in works, and not in the grace of the Lord, is idolatry. Jeremiah's declaration that the people `worshipped the works of their own hands' (Jer.1:16) clearly shows how works and self-righteousness are in reality idolaters (4867).

Luther says that self-righteous people are not liberated from strange gods, from false confidence. Any dependence on things other than the Word of God is dependence on strange gods (4868).

Trust in works is very natural to fallen men, and that is why idolatry is to be considered natural to men. This is `idol full of hidden guile in the spirit'(4869).

Self-righteousness springs from self-will and thus Luther finds that self-will stands between us and our salvation. Self-will is just idolatry because worship of the true God is replaced by the worship of the self. This `must be crucified in us, for man always strives to set himself up as an idol and an abomination (4660).

Belief in Stars is Idolatry

Luther declared that to believe the stars is idolatry, for it is against the First Commandment (4944). Note that Luther's assessment is based on Christ-alone centered worship. Astrology, first of all, is not a science, according to Luther. Astrology cannot offer clear proof.

... what folly it is to be so anxious about the future! For even granting that it is possible to know the future through astrological predictions, would it not in many ways be far better, if they are evil, to be completely ignorant of them than to know them, as Cicero, too, contends? It is always better to live in the fear of God and to pray than to be tormented by the fear of future events (4943).

Papacy and Idolatry

Luther's immediate context was the reformation of the Roman church and in this he was concerned with the abolition of false doctrines of the Roman church. He finds that papacy was full of idolatrous practices:

The papacy was full of all manner of idols of silver, gold, wood, and stone. For although we knew that all of them were sculptured and fashioned by the hands of men, yet we fell down before these statues and adored them under the impression that God would graciously regard this or that image. And we fancied that St. Barbara, Anna, Christopher would regard their particular statues and hear our prayers. This cult was Egyptian darkness and quite the same madness and fury which in times of old was found among the heathen who made up an infinite number of divinities (2114).

No Room for Idolatry in Christ-Centered Theology

Martin Luther took up his position against idolatry within the church very early in his career as a reformer. Even in 1516 he was preaching in Wittenberg that all worship other than the worship of Christ is idolatry. His Christ-centered theology would not allow any sort of worship or veneration to any personage other than Christ (2115).

If we do not worship Christ alone, we are indeed worshipping the devil. The Moabites, the idolatrous Jews and other heathen all believed that they were worshipping only God, but in reality they worshipped the devil, as the Word of God clearly showed. The papists, `even the holiest and most religious of them, are now doing' the very same thing. They assume the right name of the true God and worship Him `with rites which He had not prescribed but they had invented....Therefore their thought about God (cogitatio de Deo) is of necessity a mere figment and a lie; and the god whom they fashion and form in this way is not the true God but an idol of their heart under the guise of which they are adoring the devil, the teacher and father of this lie' (2116).

Heathen and Idolatry

Agreeing with Apostle Paul, Luther says that the heathen is without God in the world. They resort to man-made godliness (1881). However, they did recognize `God's invisible being, his eternal power and Godhead.'This is an inborn theological sense, found in all people. They err when they transfer this to idols or someone else (1882).

Luther is indeed sorry for the plight of the heathen. Although the heathen recognized the existence of God, he continues to be in darkness (1882).

Luther found the heathen to be right in several points of views, but in their practice, the heathen tended to be wrong. Thus the heathen made many idols and sought their help. The heathen was right in seeking help from God; he was just using what inhered in all men. `But reason is wrong, blind, and idolatrous because it ascribes divinity to other things, things that are not God, and does not recognize the true God'(1883).

It is unfortunate that the heathen does not understand his folly. He does not have the Word of God (1884).

Idolatry is a monstrous infamy, but the heathen took it to be true religion (1884).

Heathenism is to be abhorred even though the heathen may have some general knowledge of God. As apostle Paul says that while attempting to achieve many things, the heathen became worse and finally worshipped idols (1886). The heathen cannot be saved `in any other way than through the Word of Christ...'(1890).

Heresy and Idolatry

The Lutheran notion of heresy has something to add to the Lutheran theology of what characterized idolatry. Luther would define heresy as meaning in Greek `to choose, select, and separate.' Therefore heresy means a separate, selected, self-made, individualistic doctrine and manner of faith and life, apart from the commonly accepted ones (1934). Since being self-willed is idolatrous, heresy in any form is idolatry.

Luther considers also disloyalty to Bible as heresy (1935). Roman Catholic Church is a heretical church, for it has swerved away from what is given in the Bible. Apostasy has become the mark of the Roman church. Luther says that because the pope fell away from the faith of Christ and on works, he has introduced one heresy after another (1937). Note that Luther attacks here the practice and process of introducing doctrines which have no basis in the Bible, in a progressive manner into the world, and calling these tradition, in the Roman church. Note also that the doctrine of infallibility of the Papacy pronounced by the Pope himself is used for the purpose of imposing one doctrine after the other with no basis in the Bible.

Luther declares that the Roman church, however, continues to resent being identified as heretical, but this resentment, in no way, hides the truth. Can there be no black birds among the crows? Can there be no heretic among the heretics? (1938).

Luther says that fighting against heresy is a difficult tasks. The devil is cunning and resourceful and hence he always finds a way out: `When one escape has been blocked, he finds ten others through which he may slip out' (1942).The devil uses always the significant people who rate highly with the world. The world would consider them the best, the wisest, the holiest, and the most learned (1943). But these are trapped by the devil and used for his purpose of stealing away the glory of God.

Luther cites Peter in identifying the ways by which heresy is smuggled into the church. Peter called them damnable sects.They would keep the language and terms of the Bible -- God, Christ, faith, church, Baptism, the Sacraments. They will, however, do things different in kind (1946).

As we pointed out earlier, Luther would agree only to the point that it is the Christ-centered theology which would avoid pitfalls and lead us to Truth. Luther insists that biblical Christology is the only answer to the heresies. It is the biblical Christology which would prevent heresies and idolatries:

I have found noted in all histories of the whole Christian Church that all those who have had and have maintained the central article of Jesus in its integrity have remained sane and sound in the true Christian faith. Although they erred and sinned in other respects, yet they were finally saved... On the other hand, I have also noted that all errors, heresies, idolatries, offenses, abuses, and ungodliness in the church have originally arisen because this article or part of the Christian faith concerning Jesus Christ has been despised or lost (431).
The Devil

The devil is always at hand to dupe people into making idolatry as part of their religion. It is unfortunate if people do not comprehend the design of the devil. The devil teaches them to worship all kinds of abominations. People do believe the devil because he is the god of this world (2117). The devil is always at work and he is able to deceive the idolaters into believing that they are indeed worshipping God (2118).


Performing signs and wonders alone would not make a doctrine right with the Word of God. We should observe and follow the Word and judge all teachings and signs, `life and doing, in accordance with them.' If these contradict the centrality of Christ, then we should not accept these, even though there are miracles performed daily (1939).

Miracles are often ascribed to the shrines and images, both by the pagans and the Roman church. Luther finds that the miracles are still performed, but the miracles have a limited function in that they do not necessary convert a person. Moreover, miracles may be performed both by the devil and by the Holy Spirit. So, we should have a discerning spirit (2997). `I would not want the grace to perform miracles; for those who pay no attention to the Word, against which the whole world has no reason to grumble will not be moved by signs' (2998). The miracles performed in the name of saints are indeed false wonders and we should not believe in them (3005).

If the miracles do not strengthen the faith in the Word, and do divert the attention of the pious to others such as the saints, these miracles are no miracles from God. In other words, the major function of a miracle is to strengthen the faith in the Word: `Then we will not let ourselves be diverted by their claims of the signs and wonders that Mary and other saints have done, nor by the skillful way throw dust into our eyes to lead us away from the Word. Since we hear this warning that these false signs have to happen, we shall be smart enough not to believe in any mere sign' (3003). The miracles, signs and wonders performed by the Lord were intended to serve as a testimony to the Word.`For it was not His main purpose to give this or that sick person bodily aid; it was his most important office to direct people to the Word and to impress it on their hearts, so that they should be saved thereby (3004).

Orthodoxy and Idolatry

Martin Luther was for total and complete orthodoxy. Violation of God's Word was not to be tolerated. Forgiveness is there for everyone who acknowledge their sin and ask for forgiveness. However, those who subvert doctrine are not given this grace (3171).

Orthodoxy is to be found where the Word is fully believed and practiced. There may be many claims to orthodoxy. For example, the Roman church always claimed for it the status of an orthodox church. How does one distinguish between the claims of the Roman church and truth? Wherever there is insistence only on faith in Christ without any addition, there the orthodoxy is found (3172). `An orthodox person gives the glory to God and does not doubt that every thing has been put down well and correctly in Scripture, even though he may not know how to prove everything. This conviction is useful for the learned in their defense of Scripture against blasphemers and perverters' (3174).

Neither the church hierarchy nor their pomp should ever have a determining role to decide what orthodoxy is, according to Luther. Likewise the Councils, whatever be number of persons who attended them, cannot create orthodoxy. Luther would not agree to the powers of the Councils to decide what orthodoxy is. The Councils are conclaves of men and their proceedings are to be evaluated based on what the Word says. The councils are brawls and tumults of men. It is the strict adherence to the Word of God alone that will be considered orthodoxy. `Even if there were as many popes, cardinals, and bishops as stars in the heavens and leaves in the forest, clothed in pure gold, pearls, and jewels, all mounted on the mules and asses, should you not justly consider all these idols and frauds mere muck and mud for the sake of the Word of God, of the supreme, divine majesty of Christ?'(3175, 3176).

It is not by majority that a position is decided as one of orthodoxy or not. The truth may be all alone and be in a minority (3178). Holy living is no guarantee that the position taken by a holy living person is one of orthodoxy (3179).

The solution is to have total orthodoxy, and no compromise at all. `One dare not toy with human doctrine. It always grows... Christ does not want one syllable of satanic doctrine to remain unextirpated'(3184).

Saints and Idolatry

If we accept orthodoxy and go by the Word of God, there is no room at all for the saintly intercessors, as elaborated preached and practiced by the Roman church. The Roman church encouraged people to believe that they would not receive anything if others did not pray for them. A Christian should pray on his own and believe that the Lord would listen to him and grant to him whatever is in the Lord's will (3455).

It is not to be advised or tolerated that one should call upon the departed saints to intercede for him or should teach others to do so......It was exceedingly bitter for me to tear myself away from the worship of the saints, for I was completely steeped and drowned in it. But the light of the Gospel is now so clear that henceforth no one has any excuse if he remains in darkness (3455).

It is to the Triune God that we should make our prayers directly. Luther, however, was not without admiration for the martyrs. But he would not agree that we should venerate the martyrs and pray that they should intercede for us. The Church could not exist without the shedding of blood. Satan is a liar and a murderer and hence shedding of blood will always be there. By this shedding of blood, the Church has always grown. That is why, Luther declared, he wanted to die the death of a martyr for the Word of God (831). And yet Saints are also human beings with their strengths and weaknesses. Hence they are not to be worshipped, says Luther. However, it is good to know all about the sufferings of the saints and the saintly people, for this would help us move forward in our faith (3989).

There are many stories about the exploits and lives of the saints which are not believable. Hence, Luther would ask for a judicious spirit to purify the legends. Luther called for a critical revision of the legends concerning the martyrs.

A saint is one who lives the life according to the Word. Luther points out that the Scripture speaks of the living saints on the earth. The word holy is used only in connection with the living. The Roman church, however, speaks only of the dead as holy. `The 'shameful abomination called the canonizing of saints has helped to bring on this wretched notion,' says Luther (3993). Unfortunately these canonized saints were appealed to in prayer as intercessors, with no basis for such practices in the Scripture (3994). Luther points out the tragedy: By insisting upon a mediator, one paints a picture of Jesus Christ as a cruel judge.

Intercessory Role to Saints - An Idolatrous Practice

Lutheran Reformation would not agree to any preaching of the intercessory role to the saints, and would consider any such role to and veneration of the saints in any form as idolatry.

In fact such a role and honoring should be considered idolatry. `For about the intercession, adoration, and prayer to departed saints there is nothing in Scripture. No one can deny that by such saint worship we have now come to the point where we have actually made utter idols of the Mother of God and the saints, and that because of the service we have rendered and the works we have performed in their honor we have sought comfort more with them than with Christ Himself. Thereby faith in Christ has been destroyed (3999).

Heathenism as Source of Saint Worship

Heathenism may be the source from which such saint worship might have crept into Christianity. The heathen `divided the infinite God into idol statues. To each one they attributed an office of his own.' Unfortunately, the papist followed the heathen and assigned functions to the saints and other personages, denying omnipotence to God (4000).

Is there any one who has asked to have this idolatry, is there any sanction for all this -- this new idolatry of the worship of saints, canonizing the saints, and setting aside fast and feast days `in order to honor them as though they were God Himself, so that men rely on their merit and take comfort in it more than they rely on Christ Himself and all his blood and merit?' He tells the Roman church that they had erected a pantheon in the church just as the Romans had a Pantheon in their city of Rome. The early Christian church would not even tolerate the pictures of saints, and much blood was shed in the controversy about them (4001).

Place, Posture and Idolatry

Luther insists upon the fact that we should not place any restriction as to where and when to pray (3453). A Christian may choose to be alone in his prayer so that he may have freedom to pour out his heart to the Lord and adopt whatever posture he likes to use. In any case, a Christian's heart is a heart of supplication all the time. It sends forth his prayer to the Lord in silence or with sound (3474).

Luther does not fail to recognize the importance of outward postures, however:

When the spirit of prayer is enkindled and burns in the heart, the body will naturally assume the proper attitude, lifting up the eyes and hands and bending the knees, without being taught to do so. This is evident from the examples of Moses, David, and Christ Himself. Therefore when we pray from a fervent heart, all external attitudes will come of their own accord; for the Spirit impels us to assume them. Hence they are not to be rejected, unless they are put on, without the Spirit, for hypocritical reasons, as, for instance, when a person presumes in that way to serve God and to do good works, while his heart is far away (3475).

Symbols: Crucifix

Luther sees crucifix as a symbol of great importance. It is the symbolism of the crucifix that holds his mind and not the object itself (579). Luther is against worshipping the crucifix. Worshipping crucifix is also idolatry. We should consider it only as a sign. Instead of doing it, the bishops and prelates `come along and bless churches and images and grant indulgences to boot, to be sure to fool the people and trick them out of their money, aye, alas, their souls, too. What shall we say? Wolves they are and wolves they remain' (876).

Luther was much against the pious frauds perpetrated by the priest against gullible people. Suddenly some would claim that they have found some chips of the original cross on which Jesus was crucified! So many pieces had been found that one could even build an entire house with it! (877).

Magnificent Structures

Luther did not care for the splendid structures of the church buildings. It is the indwelling of God in the hearts of the believers who have gathered to worship him in a place that is highly desired. Adornment of the buildings is a human innovation and has nothing to do with worship (869). `Though it be an obscure corner or a bare hill or a barren tree, it is truly and correctly called a house of God and the gates of heaven, even though it be uncovered, out under the clouds and the open sky' (870).

Luther would rather have us take care of people than building churches and founding of Masses (872). Decorations and furnishings are to be there if these contribute to the solemnity. However, these and the ceremonies are indeed of no consequence, spiritually speaking (896).


Luther was not against pictures, images, and crucifixes in the churches. The representations have their own functions to perform, namely, counteracting the influences of this world. The biblical incidents and truths portrayed in these visual representations remind the onlookers about the great sacrifice. This is especially true of the crucifix, Luther thought. He considered the indiscriminate expulsion of images an act of barbarism and ignorance. But adoration is to be avoided:

We judge the indiscriminate expulsion in many places of the images even of Christ and the apostles to be not only barbarism but also a case of remarkable ignorance....But, you ask, if the usefulness of pictures and images is so great, why did Moses and the prophets prohibit and condemn them such emphasis? I reply; Moses and the prophets are speaking of images made for people to adore and to believe that through this adoration they rendered God religious service (874).

Place of Art Within the Churches

Thus, Luther was not against displaying works of art within the churches, but he was certainly against venerating any of these works of art. He called the iconoclasts of his time as heavenly prophets and insisted that the Old Testament, in no way, prohibited works of art. It is not having the images that is forbidden, but worshipping them which is certainly forbidden, Luther argued. God did not punish the Israelites because of images or altars, but he did punish them when they worshipped them. The brazen serpent of Moses (Num. 21:8) was thrown away by Hezekiah only because it was being worshipped (2 Kings 18:4). In addition, Luther interpreted Lev. 26:1 (Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the LORD your God) as meaning that God's concern was about worshipping them. `That is why the `making' also in the First commandment must look to the worshipping and no farther' (875).

Luther Against Violent Iconoclasm

Luther was equally emphatic that the iconoclasts of his time were also as extremist as the supporters of papacy. He found that the iconoclasts were pushed into their position by the abuses of image worship within the Roman church. Luther cautioned that the abuse of a thing should not be taken as an excuse to abolish the thing itself (878).

Luther's position is that the use of the images is what counts. When an individual is a true Christian he would have no need for the images at all. He would have no use for other symbols also. The spiritually mature would treat the images as mere depiction, not objects of veneration:

We forbid children to climb on benches and to sit on tables, because we do not want them to fall off; likewise, to go to the water, because we do not want them to drown. We do not permit bread knives in their hands, because we do not want them to stab themselves. in this way we forbid children what, after all, nature does not forbid. Since children are foolish and weak, they may come to harm if they are not restrained. In this way God also led the rude Jewish people with such commandments, forbade them material images to keep them from abusing them, from falling into idolatry.However, people who have understanding and are full of the Holy Spirit do not require such commandments (879).

Can we then break the idols?

Luther takes the position that we should reform by the use of persuasion, and not by the power of violence:

People have gone entirely too far with their breaking of images. A different method is called for in order to tear down images. They should have preached that images are nothing and that we do not render God a service by setting them up. Had they done this, images would have disappeared and perished by themselves. Thus Paul acted at Athens (3781)...I condemn images, but only by Word. I do not say that they should be burned; I say that faith should not be placed in them, as has been done up to this time and is still being done. They would fall of themselves if people were instructed and knew that before God they are nothing (3783).


Luther was emphatic that since the Roman church emphasized the sacraments more than the Word, ceremonies had become an unalterable matter for them. Customs and ceremonies are all man-made. Anything that is man-made and which has no basis in the Word is idolatry, according to Luther (1199). All human doctrine is idolatry (1201).

Christ-centered Worship Alone True Worship

Luther takes the position that any worship other than Christ-centered worship is idolatry: `For outside Christ thee is nothing but idolatry, an idolatrous and false figment of God whether it be called the Law of Moses or the law of the people or the Alcoran of the Turk, etc.'(471).

When Christians call upon Jesus Christ and worship him, it is no idolatry, although the nature of man is also worshipped in him. Luther said that `it is impossible to worship without worshipping the Man' (473). Note that this position is in opposition also to the positions taken by some Reformed theologians. These theologians do not agree that the worship is given also to Jesus the Man. They call it `a horrible, idolatrous crime.'

Turning to Christ as the "Image of God", Luther says that Christ is the kind of `image of God' which has the Godhead or the divine Essence in itself. Other images or facsimiles do not in themselves have the essence of the person or the object of which they are an image. Thus a sculptor, a carver, or a painter pictures St.Peter in wood, stone, or canvas as precisely and as lifelike as he possibly can, so that whoever looks at the picture says and must say: That is St.Peter. But a picture of this sort is not the essence or nature, the body and soul, of St. Peter.....A woodcraftsman pictures Christ, makes a crucifix and image that resembles, and is like, Christ....But although it is a crucifix and is made to resemble the crucified Christ, it is, after all, wood and remains an image made of matter that has a nature different from that of Christ (478).


Just as saint worship is not sanctioned in the Word of God, pilgrimages to the shrines is also an abomination. The shrines are indeed bogus institutions, `for you do not know whether St.James or a dead dog or a dead horse lies there' (4002).


Should we venerate the relics, should we treasure them and should we expend our energies in collecting them? Luther calls these acts foolish. `Let them play the fool with the relics they have fabricated; we have the doctrine and the epistles of these people. Let us make a real shrine where we may lay their wisdom and this way we honor Peter and Paul, when we hear what was in their hearts by listening to their doctrine which they spoke through the Spirit, who dwelt in their souls (4003). But, the Bible is holiest of all, `it is the only holy thing we Christians know and have.' The relics are lifeless objects that can sanctify no one (4004).


Now what is left of the worship of the Christian personages is the worship of Mary. Lutheran theology accepts that `Mary is the mother of the true, veritable God; and the Jews did not crucify only the Son of Man but the veritable Son of God' (4005). However, worship of Mary is equally an idolatrous practice.

Indeed, we cannot take away too much from her, since she was created out of nothing, like all other creatures. But we can easily take away too much from God's grace, which is a perilous thing to do and not well pleasing to her. It is necessary also to keep within bounds and not make too much of calling her "Queen of Heaven," which is a true-enough name and yet does not make her a goddess who could grant gifts or render aid, as some suppose when they pray and flee to her rather than to God. She gives nothing; God gives all (4006).

Luther says that one may praise Mary, but the worship is given to Christ only. `In the papacy the Infant was entirely forgotten, and the mother was thought of alone. But the mother was not born for us' (4007).

Mariolatry in the Roman Catholic Church is often, rather always, followed using visual representations. Luther says that the Roman church has turned Mary into an abomination:

In the papacy artists have pictured the Virgin Mary as showing the Lord Christ the breasts at which He had nursed, as gathering emperors, kings, princes, and lords under her cloak, as protecting them and pleading with her dear Son to drop His wrath and penalties over them. Therefore everybody called upon her and honored her more than they did Christ. In this way the Virgin Mary turned into an abomination or into an idol and an offense, though without her fault, (4008).

In fine, Luther would consider any worship other than the worship of Christ as idolatry. This neatly sums up the position of the Reformation as regards idol worship, `for outside Christ there is nothing but idolatry and merely a false, imagined notion about God'(5025).


The Reformation in Zurich and Berne and all of Switzerland saw several violent moves against the retention of idols within the church buildings, even as opposition to the veneration of idols was very strong. Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, was totally against the violence and even destruction of the images if these would not be venerated, but the passions were aroused high against the veneration and retention of images within and without the church buildings by the enthusiasts of the Reformation.

Early in his life as a parish priest, Zwingli noticed that magical and healing powers were attributed to the images of Virgin Mary and some saints. And this attribution encouraged the common people to venerate these images in order to receive healing and other material benefits. The image of the black Virgin in his Einsiedeln parish was worshipped by the believers with the same intent. There were many other shrines which also attracted pilgrimage for the same purpose. Not only the mother of Jesus but also the mother of Mary, the grandmother of Jesus, St.Anne was venerated with great fervor. In fact the cult of St.Anne spread more rapidly than any other worship in northern Europe. The churches were full of statues, paintings and relics of all sorts. The whole religion was made visually oriented. And everyday piety revolved around the physical act of kneeling down before the images, praying to them, kissing them, and burning candles and incense and so on. Each saint was believed to be in charge of controlling this or that disease, sanctioning this favor or that favor and so on.

Progressive Emergence of Zwinglian Iconoclasm

Action against image worship was not high on the agenda of the Reformer Zwingli, when the thoughts of Reformation began to crystallize in him. The attack on the obligation to refrain from meat eating during the Lent (in the year 1522) was the occasion that prompted a series of sermons, thoughts, booklets and actions which ultimately led to the Reformation in Switzerland. The Reformation was already in the air and as urged by the Holy Spirit was to extend to cover all the non-biblical systems and practices and beliefs. The position against image worship followed theological positions against indulgences, the celibacy of the priests, monastic vows and orders, prohibition against meat eating and such other practices on stipulated days and periods.

Attack against image worship naturally flowed from an attack against the worship or veneration of Mary and the saints, and the intercessory roles assigned to these personages. At this time, Europe was full of images of Mary and the saints. In addition to the images, the walls would be painted with the pictures of the personages; pictures on the canvas were painted; stained glasses depicting the stories and legends of the saints were always put up; statues in wood and stone were very common. There were a variety of representations, some with great artistic merit and some in crude form and some others in symbolic and suggestive modes. These images and visual representations were said to be the Bible of the poor and were said to be intended for the illiterate to help them grow in piety. Sermons eulogized the intercessory roles of these personages and popular belief built around them spectacular stories of signs and wonders and miracles.

Zwingli's Convictions

Zwingli was convinced in his study of the Bible, not just the Old Testament but also the New Testament and the relationship between the Old and the New Covenants, that depiction of the Deity in any visual form and veneration of the other Christian personages was totally wrong. Secondly, such depictions were abused by the church hierarchy. Thirdly, such depictions were, indeed, obstructions to reaching out directly to God. Intercessory roles assigned to Christian personages and consequent supplications to the idols representing the personages did not help grow in their piety, nor did they help experience the presence of the Deity. They were to be treated as mere distractions.

When Reformation started moving forward, destruction of idols within and without the churches became a demonstrative part of the progress of the Reformation within Switzerland. Garside Jr.(1966:101,102) suggests that the rejection of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints was an independent development in the theology and reformation of Zwingli. This doctrine well preceded the ultimate rejection of the doctrine of the worship of images.

The War Against Idols

Zwingli, in his Short Christian Introduction (1523), emphasized salvation by faith and asked for the government to perform its duty by taking decisions and the citizens by obeying such decisions. As the Zwinglian Reformation, in its move forward, drew to itself the involvement of the civil authority, Zurich first declared that the images be removed from the churches in an orderly fashion. Initially, Zwingli desired that people should proceed cautiously in this matter. The churches could cover over the statues and pictures wherever possible, to begin with. Later on, Zwingli preached and wrote that the images be removed without any disorder and with a teaching about the vanity and worthlessness of the idols. By this time, however, in Zurich and elsewhere, destruction of images and the crucifixes had become widespread. The original intention of gradually phasing out the past practices and the images was not acceptable to the masses.

Strange God and the Images

Zwingli made a distinction between the strange gods in our minds which distracted men from God and the visible images. Both were dangerous enough to be removed. However, the removal processes for each of them did differ. He sought and used the help of the secular power in removing the images. The Zurich Council ordered in November 1523 to remove the visible images from the churches. The cherubim were ornamental objects, such as the trees portrayed. On the other hand the numerous objects adorning the various churches in Zurich lent themselves to be worshipped by people, Zwingli contended. They had led to idolatry, and so ought to be removed. If an art work would induce veneration and reverence in the beholder, such work would be treated idolatrous and removed. This restriction on retaining images in the churches applied to private homes and public places also. Depiction of historic events was allowed, so long as these did not create a sense of reverence in the people. Zwingli, later on, explained how this principle of giving or not giving birth to reverence was applied to two images of the same person, emperor Charlemagne. The image in the church was venerated like an idol by the people visiting the church. Hence this was removed. On the other hand, the image in the church tower was never venerated and so was allowed to remain. The moment this image became an object of reverence, it would be removed, Zwingli cautioned. In other words, religious art with an eye on ecclesiastical function was attacked and discouraged.

Decisions against Images by the Zurich Council

The Council in Zurich went through several stages before it finally ordered the removal of all the images. Initially, the small committee appointed by it took the position that the images be kept standing and that the people instructed about the futility of image worship. This position did not result in any change in image worship followed by the church authorities. Then it was suggested that all the paintings be covered and not opened until further orders. The golden, silver and ornamental images were not allowed to be taken around. The order prohibited putting images within or outside the churches, if these were not already there. This was also objected to by the canons of the Great Minster in Zurich.

The Council passed a decree in May 1524 asking all those who had made images and who had kept these images in the churches to remove them and keep them at home. If this was not done within a week, the church warden would remove them and keep them as part of the church property. If the images were made with church funds, then the congregation could decide as to what they would do with them. However, the decision thus arrived at would not be used to entice other people to their side. Moreover, no new images would be made and kept in the churches. The sculptor who carved any new images would be heavily punished. if a congregation decided to let the images remain within their churches, they ought not allow burning of candles or incense before them. Finally, the crucifix would remain wherever they were, because it was a sign for Christians, signifying the humanity and sufferings of Christ.

Zurich Council Church Committee ordered on June 15, 1524 that `in every commune which, after proper instruction, wished, by a majority, the images to be removed, this should be done forthwith, exception being made of the crucifix. If the commune wished to retain images, these were not to be honored and candles were not to be burnt before them' (Porter 1976:141). However, even before this official decision could be taken, there were incidents in the communes and the city itself in which the enthusiasts of the new doctrine had already pulled down the images. In fact the decision of the council was prompted and hastened by such acts. This decision aimed at regulating the removal of the images and other representations.

The final decree issued on June 15, 1524 announced that one could do away with images and idols with good behavior. A committee of the Council visited every church and, in a determined fashion, removed all the images, in two weeks.

Potter (1976) describes the situation thus:

In the city of Zurich itself, official action followed, and for two weeks individuals were taking their own images to their private houses, after which, carpenters, smiths, stonemasons and locksmiths descended in orderly gangs on the churches and forcibly removed the pictures and statues. Some of these were known to be valuable, particularly those from the comparatively Wasserkirche, and there was real concern at their loss; but, in general, there was thorough satisfaction. There were some fine bonfires of the carved wooden representations, and the stone ones were broken up. The bones found in the reliquaries were buried in the churchyards. When the workmen had finished, white clean walls looked down on such little seating as private initiative left in the naves; the stalls of the canons in the choir remained, often in mutilated form. It was a striking public demonstration of the implications of the Zwinglian teaching (pp.141-142).

Another graphic description of what went on after the promulgation of the decree is provided by Garside, Jr.(1966:60):

The committee as a body went into every church in Zurich. Once inside, they locked the doors behind them, and then, free from all disturbance from the curious crowds without, began to dismantle the church. The work was done quietly and efficiently by the various experts who had been selected by the constable for that purpose, and as a result no unnecessary damage or useless destruction was reported. Every standing statue was removed from its niche or its base and, together with the base, taken out of the church. It was then either broken up by the masons, if made of stone or plaster, or burned, if made of wood. Every painting was taken down from the altars and burned outside. All murals were chipped away or scraped off the walls. The altars were stripped of all images and vessels, all votive lamps were let down and melted outside and all crucifixes were removed. Even the carved choir stalls were taken up and burned. Then the walls were white washed so that no traces whatsoever of the old decorations and appointments might be seen. That done, the whole group went on to another church and repeated the process.

False Christian Belief: Trust in Creatures

Zwingli offered his considered and complete opinion on image worship in his booklet Answer to Valentine Compar. Valentin Compar was an official in Canton Uri. He sent to Zwingli a criticism of his theology. Compar, it seems, supported image worship, purgatory and tradition as Answer to Valentin Compar indicated. Zwingli distinguished between Christian belief and false Christian belief. Christian belief holds that reliance only on Christ is the correct position.

The Christian goes to God only for all his needs, and to none else. The false Christian belief, however, goes to anyone or anything for help. It puts up a mediator between God and man. True belief is a continuing and growing relationship between God and man, whereas false belief seeks multiple relationships. Any representation of the saints is idolatrous because of the multiple relation such representations helped foster. These representations sprang not from pure artistic intent, but from the internal strange gods, the urge in man to hold on to the created objects.

This trust in the mediator is the trust in the creatures and the created objects. This is a psychological process in man which seeks to replace God with man's trust in others. The trusted objects are strange gods, according to Zwingli. By the trusted objects, Zwingli meant reliance on property, riches, status, power of the doctor to heal, the power only of the medicine to cure, etc. These are really mental constructs. Because of dependence on these strange gods, men estrange themselves from the one true God. These strange gods may or may not have any external form, but come to dominate man's mind. They become inward idols.The mental process gets pictured, visually represented. Man's deeply rooted capacity and need for imagination comes very handy in this process. Man always tends to picture the thing spoken to him. The senses dominate the life of man, so to say. In the next stage, when these strange gods come to dominate men, men begin to give these strange gods, the inward idols, an external form, Zwingli reasoned out. Note that the inward strange god is the basis on which the external idol is erected. Rather the inward strange god is externalized, with outward reverence.

Zwinglian Opposition to Image Making

Opposition to image worship is what made the opposition to image making, to begin with, in Zwinglian theology. The relationship between the persons who see the image and the images themselves would be a deciding factor. If these images were to function as mediators between God and man, in any manner, these needed to be eliminated. This was the area in which common men had been thoroughly misled. They had begun to show reverence to these man-created objects. A whole lot of belief systems contrary to what had been sanctioned in the Bible had been established by the cult of image worship. They had become real idols, Zwingli remarked. He pointed out that these images had received reverence both in the churches and in homes. The presence of these images did indeed induce reverence to them.

Secondly, the relationship between the images and the personages they sought to represent should be considered. This relationship was found to be the basis for false belief among the learned.In their arguments, the intellectually-inclined worshippers of the images always sought to prove that they did not worship the images per se, but only the personages represented by them. This again was false belief because acceptance of images did indeed establish multiple relationships between God and man. These acted as mediatory objects, and thus no direct relationship between God and man was fostered. Moreover, the saints and apostles, the true believers in God, would not allow themselves to be mediators between God and men. What Paul and Barnabas did in Lystra should establish this for all of us, Zwingli wrote. These men did not have any strange gods in them, and did not apportion any of the powers of God to mediators.

Images of Christ No Different from Strange Gods

The images of Christ are in no way different from the above, Zwingli pointed out. Zwingli affirmed the two natures of Christ and the unity of these two natures. He, however, pointed out that even on the cross, the divinity nature of Christ was emphasized. The humanity of Christ always played an auxiliary role. For Zwingli, any visible representation of Christ is representation of God, which even the supporters of image worship accepted should not be made. If one wanted to portray the humanity of Jesus Christ, he could go ahead. One might even possess such portraits. But the moment reverence was given to such representations, these become idols, just as the images of the saints which became idols when reverence was shown to them. the moment reverence was shown to the images of Christ, these images separated us from God, even the portraits were representations of the humanity of Jesus Christ. That is, the representations of Jesus Christ himself would then be used to estrange us from God. In fact, the visual representations of Jesus Christ became idols much faster than the representations of others, Zwingli cautioned.

Zwingli further advocated that the images and portraits of Jesus Christ be removed from the churches along with the crosses. This ought to be done because these were turned into idols by the reverence shown to them. Note that this insistence on the removal of the crosses was a later development, subsequent to the decree issued by the Zurich Council in May 1524. No symbolic representation of Christ was to be made within the church and the private homes. Any representation in public places should be allowed only if these were treated as pure historical occurrences. These should have no liturgical and ecclesiastical purpose.

Visual Representation No Substitute for True Teaching

Zwingli answered also the argument that the visual representations of Christ taught the illiterates about Christ and encouraged them to piety. How could this be achieved, Zwingli asked, for even such visual representations to the non-Christian would require an explanation. This, indeed, would require that these illiterates be given information and explanation from the Word. Could someone comprehend the meaning of such representations without the help of the explanation from and introduction to the Word? How would we explain the representation of Last Supper without recourse to the Word? There were three solid reason as to why we should not use images for the teaching of the good news. First of all, Jesus had not told us to teach from pictures. On the contrary, he had explicitly asked us to teach from his Word. Also Jesus did never use any pictures for his teaching. Secondly, if teaching with images was more effective, then he would have certainly asked us to do the same. Thirdly, the apostles had specifically forbidden us from have any idols. The visual could not help in any manner the portrayal of substance, but they did help in representing what had happened historically. The true belief could be acquired only from the Word and not from visual representations. However, for centuries the Roman church tried to teach the Word only through the visual representations, hence their insistence on the visual mode. The visual representations stood as barriers for the acquisition of the Word and thus ought to be removed, Zwingli concluded.

Christian Images No Idols?

Zwingli turned to the argument that the images represented Christ and Christian personages and as such these ought not to be treated as idols. The Roman church had claimed that these were not similar to the idols of pagans which stood for their gods. Zwingli would not agree to this because these are mediatory objects and thus are strange gods. They increased and were the result of false belief. The idols of the heathen insulted the one true God, whereas the images of the Roman church insulted not only the one true God but also his saints.

Do Images Increase Piety?

There was also the argument that, by the positioning of images all over, people were led to piety as and when they saw such images. When people came across such images, they immediately paid reverence to them and thus were often led to God. On the other hand, if the images were not found they tended not to think of God. Zwingli found this argument to be circumscribing worship of God by time. On the other hand, people should be taught to lead a life of service to the Lord all the time, without interruption. Peremptory, isolated and haphazard prayers were induced by the positioning of images everywhere. this did confirm that such piety was based on the premise that being out of sight was out of mind. Neither God nor service to God was to be bound by time.

Eucharist Only an Emphasis on Sensual Experience

Zwingli's opposition to images and their worship rests solidly within his opposition to the dogma of transubstantiation of the Eucharist of the Roman church. The Roman Catholic Church taught that the reality of bread and wine in the eucharistic rite was changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The outward form was not affected, but these became real body and blood of Jesus Christ. Zwingli considered this position an extension of the emphasis on sensual experience of the sacred and the visual representation of Christ.

The Roman Catholic Church extended its liturgy in the direction of having more and more sensual experience and sensual interpretation of the Deity. The visual aspect was emphasized when liturgy insisted on actually seeing the bread and wine. The Elevation of the Host in the liturgy ensured that the bread and wine were lifted for a moment for the people to see them. Then the Feast of Corpus Christi, instituted nearly two centuries before, enable people to see the bread and wine for a much longer period. Processions ensured the physical movement and the kissing of the hands of the priest provided the sense of kissing the arms of Christ. The church building became in the sight of the worshippers the replica of the heaven. In so many other ways, the Roman church encouraged the sensuous perception of God and other Christian personages. In the process the Word was totally forgotten. The physical came to dominate, nay, to eliminate the spiritual, Zwingli pointed out. Since all these sensual demonstrations stood in the way of a direct relationship with God, for these came to dominate the liturgy and the life of the Christian, Zwingli would consider them as strange gods and treat all this as idolatrous.

Zwingli was certainly against the visual representation of the Deity. He was also against the intercessory roles assigned to various personages which resulted in and encouraged their veneration. He was against images because of the potential these had to turn the minds of the people away from God. On the other hand, Zwingli was not against the arts per se, so long as the arts were not used for purposes of reverence.

Calvin on Image Worship

John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, whose final Latin edition by the author was published in 1559, should be considered as the most important exposition on the subject of images and their worship, during the Reformation. John Calvin (1509-1564), in a characteristic orderliness and total piety all his own, devoted two chapters (chapters 11 and 12, Book I) exclusively for a discussion on idolatry.

God Alone is Witness of Himself

Calvin finds that we are prohibited from representing God in any visual form. None other than God Himself is the witness of Himself. The Scripture distinguishes the false gods by contrasting them with the True God. Men in their madness and brute stupidity `pant after visible figures of God, and thus to form gods of wood, stone, gold, silver, or other dead and corruptible matter.'

God has No Preference for One Picture Over the Other

Calvin makes a fine observation that in the Scripture `God would not compare these images with one another, as if one were more suitable, another less so; but without exception he repudiates all likenesses, pictures, and other signs by which the superstitions have thought he will be near them.'

Note that although most of the argument listed above sounds as if these were against only the heathen, the basic principle is that since God Himself is the witness of Himself, no one can and should portray Him. This principle certainly cuts down at the roots of the position taken by the Roman Catholic church.

Calvin cites Deut. 4:15-16 and declares that God speaks against all images and that he informs us that whoever seeks the visual forms of him depart from him. It is absurd for men to represent the incorporeal in the corporeal (Is. 40:18-20, and 41:7, 29; 45:9; 46:5-7).

Images are Dishonorable to God's Majesty

Citing Acts 17:29, Calvin would argue that the statues erected by men and the images painted by him displeased God because these were dishonorable to his majesty.

The God's command in the Old Testament that he be not portrayed in any visual form is not meant only for the Jews but for the entire world. that was why Paul preached to the Athenians against idolatry. Calvin notes that the incomprehensible essence of God is felt and found present everywhere but this presence is no justification to visually represent God. The faithful were in fact admonished to believe the Spirit to be invisible. Calvin cites the experience of Moses in Deut. 4:11 where the clouds, smoke and flame came to restrain the mind of Moses from penetrating too deeply. God revealed himself to Moses more intimately than to others, and yet Moses could not see the face (Ex. 33:11, 20). The likeness of a dove in Matt. 3:16 was yet another example of restraining the human minds from penetrating to see physically the essence of God. It is important that the minds are lifted above to contemplate the divine.

Indeed, the cherubim with wings outspread covered it; the veil shrouded it; the place itself deeply enough hidden concealed (Ex.25:17-21). Hence it is perfectly clear that those who try to defend images of God and the saints with the example of those cherubim are raving madmen.

Thus the function of the cherubim was to cover the mercy seat with their wings. The seraphim also appeared with face veiled (Is.6:2).

Human Nature is Inclined to Idolatry

Calvin says, like Luther, that our nature as humans is inclined towards idolatry. The origin of the idols is to be found in the opinion of men.

Icon is a Graven Image

Is the prohibition only against the graven image and not any other objects which are purported to carry the likeness of God? This was one of the arguments given in support of icons. Calvin argues that a `likeness' (is) no less than `graven image'. The "Greek Christians" (the Eastern Orthodox churches) claim that they are not making sculptures but only icons. `But the Lord forbids not only that a likeness be erected to him by a maker of statues but that one be fashioned by any craftsman whatever, because he is thus represented falsely and with an insult to his majesty.'

Images are NOT the Books of the Uneducated

Calvin refutes the suggestion that images are the books of the uneducated. Calvin asks what can the books of vanity and falsehood teach except their own vanity and falsehood? For prophets have declared that `the wood is a doctrine of vanity' (Jer.10:8) and `a molten image is a teacher of falsehood' (Hab.2:18).

Calvin's charge is that there would have been no uneducated person at all if the Roman church had done its duty. With the spread of Reformation, these innumerable people, who were considered ignorant by the Roman church, were now taught the Word of God. They were found eager to be taught the mysteries of God's Kingdom. They all began to use the Book. `Indeed, those in authority in the church turned over to idols the office of teaching for no other reason than that they themselves were mute.' If Galatians 3:1 (You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.) is taught (which emphasized faith), where is the need `for so may crosses --of wood, stone, silver, and gold--to be erected here and there in churches?' Calvin asked for teaching Gal.3:13, Heb. 10:10, Rev. 1:5, and Rom 5:10. From these people would have learned more than from a thousand crosses of wood or stone, he declared.

Originators of the Idols

Calvin quotes from the Wisdom of Solomon (14:15-16) that the originators of idols were those who conferred this honor on the dead, and thus superstitiously worshipped their memory. He finds, however, that the vice of idolatry was prevalent even before this eagerness to worship the dead. This could be gleaned from Moses's narration that Rachel stole her father's idols (Gen. 31:19). This clearly showed that the vice of idols was common. `From this we may gather that man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of conceives an unreality an empty appearance as God............ the mind begets an idol; the hand gives its birth.' The Israelites did not believe God was with them unless he showed himself physically present (p.108). And this reveals how desperately man wanted to make the idols so that he could have the presence of God.

The Spirits Behind the Idols

Calvin finds that when the heathen worship gods, they do not simply worship the stocks and stones; they indeed worship the concept behind these objects. They do understand God to be different from these stocks and stones.When `they gazed upon God in images, they also worshipped him in them.' From that stage, men quickly moved on to began to have admiration for them. They also developed the belief that `something of divinity inhered there.' No body worships an image for the sake of the image --they all assume that some power of divinity is in them. Therefore, when you prostrate yourself in veneration, representing to yourself in an image either a god or a creature, you are already ensnared in some superstition. For this reason, the Lord forbade not only the erection of statues constructed to represent himself but also the consecration of any inscriptions and stones that would invite adoration (Ex. 20:25).

For the same reason, also, in the precept of the law a second part is subjoined concerning adoration. For just as soon as a visible form has been fashioned for God, his power is also bound to it. Men are so stupid that they fasten God wherever they fashion him; and hence they cannot but adore. And there is no difference whether they simply worship an idol, or God in the idol. It is idolatry when divine honors are bestowed upon an idol, under whatever pretext this is done (p.109).

Jews were like the Pagans: Two Stages in the Development of Idolatry

There is really no difference between the fallen Jews worshipping the golden calf or the pagans worshipping multitudes of images or the Roman church venerating the images of Jesus Christ or Mary or the saints.

Calvin identified two stages in the development of idolatry among the Jews, even among the nations. The Jews were given a spiritual understanding and a revelation of God. But they were not content with it. For they demanded his physical presence as proof of his existence. So they fashioned and erected images. This perverse imitation of God, indeed, pleased them and they drew satisfaction out of it. But this perversion did not stop; in fact, it led to other perverse acts. The next stage was their belief that God manifested his power in these images. `In these images, nevertheless, the Jews were convinced that they were worshipping the eternal God, the one true Lord of heaven and earth; the pagans, that they were worshipping their gods whom, though false, they imagined as dwelling in heaven' (p.110).

False Distinction Between Service and Worship

Referring to the distinction between service and worship maintained by the Roman church, Calvin finds that the Roman church aims at proving that one and the same thing is really two things: `Let them show, I say, the real difference that makes them unlike the ancient idolaters.' The teaching that the honor dulia can be given to statues and pictures without wronging God is indeed absurd. The distinction between idol service and idol worship is only a wily distinction: `For since latreia means nothing else among the Greeks than `to worship,' what they say signifies the same thing as confessing that they `worship the images but without worship.'

Production of Images

Calvin is not against the production of images. He considers it superstitious to think that images are absolutely not permissible. What he insists upon, however, is that God should not be represented by a visible appearance,

because he himself has forbidden it (Ex. 20:4) and it cannot be done without some defacing of his glory... If it is not right to represent God by a physical likeness, much less will we be allowed to worship it as God, or God in it....Therefore it remains that only those things are to be sculptured or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing...Within this class some are histories and events, some are images and forms of bodies without any depicting of past events. The former have some use in teaching or admonition; as for the latter, I do not see what they can afford other than pleasure.

The images in churches were of the latter category. Nothing of instructional value is found in them, thus proving that these are due to thoughtless craving. Moreover, most of these have been indecently and licentiously painted (p.112).

Calvin finds that the early churches did not have images for about five hundred years. These innovations are a great decline from the integrity of early church fathers who had done without images (p.113). The early fathers, Calvin writes, saw no usefulness in the images, or very little use but much danger in them. Hence they argued against them with deliberate consideration. They did not overlook this error out of ignorance or negligence.

The Second Nicea Council which insisted upon image worship and anathematized all those who would not worship the images indeed proved that the distinction sought to be made between dulia and latreia was just an eye-wash. The Second Nicea Council declared that

let those who, having an image of Christ, offer sacrifice to it rejoice and exult. Where now is the distinction between latria and dulia, by which they are wont hoodwink God and men? For the Council accords, without exception, as much to images as to the living God (p.116).

Nothing of God to be Transferred to Another

Knowledge of God should be accompanied by a fitting reverence to him; it should lead us to the honoring of God. The Greek word..which meant `religion' connoted fitting reverence to God also. Nothing that belongs to God's divinity should be transferred to another. Thus `a bridle has been imposed upon men, to prevent their sinking into vicious rites,' Calvin said. However the superstition of men gave God the supreme place, but at the same time, surrounded him `with a throng of lesser gods, among whom it parcels out his functions.' The veneration paid to the saints and the intercessory roles assigned to them is not different from the lessening of God's glory done by the pagans. By such an abomination of God's majesty is not even obscured, while it is in great part suppressed and extinguished, except that we retain some sterile notion of his supreme power; meanwhile, deceived by trappings, we are drawn to various gods (p.118).

The fine distinctions made by the Roman church as regards servitus, cultus, dulia and latreia are no distinctions at all. Yet in Scripture this distinction is sometimes blurred. Even if one agrees to the distinction, can one do servitude, can one be enslaved to one if one is not willing to do the honor in some fashion? Is not servitude a greater submission than doing honor? In that case, does it not amount to assigning what is greater the saints and leaving to God what is lesser? (p.118-119).

Calvin concludes his critique of idol worship followed in the Roman Catholic Church by asserting that if we wish to have one God, we should not give anything due to him to others. Otherwise we commit only sacrilege.


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M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Bethany College of Missions
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