Chapter Summary – Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book One, Chapter XI – It Is Unlawful to Attribute a Visible Form to God, and Generally Whoever Sets Up Idols Revolts Against the True God
“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any likeness” [Ex. 20:4]. In this verse Moses records the second command of the Decalogue. As plain as this verse may appear, corrupt man has ever been wont to violate it in the form of sculptures, paintings and other man-made artifices, all of which stand in direct violation of this command. Regardless the sincerity of one’s intentions, such a figurative representation created by finite man does violence to the person and character of an infinite God. As also commanded by Moses, “you did not see a body…therefore take heed to yourself lest perchance, deceived, you make for yourself any likeness…” [Deut. 4:12, 15-16]. Similarly, Paul adhorts, “[s]ince we are the offspring of God, we ought not to judge the Deity to be like gold, and silver, or a stone, carved by the art or devising of man” [Acts 17:29]. Even those biblical occurrences of the manifestations of God’s presence to man do not provide such license. Rather, aptly spoken by Calvin, “the best way to contemplate the divine is where minds are lifted above themselves with admiration.”
Pope Gregory proposed the adage that “images are the books of the uneducated.” As it relates to an education of the heavenly, he stands in direct contradiction to Jeremiah who declares that “the wood is a doctrine of vanity” [10:8] and Habakkuk who teaches that “a molten image is a teacher of falsehood” [2:18]. Augustine agreed with Varro that such were idols and “removed fear and added error” by reducing God to a manageable contrivance that could be easily despised. Insult is added when one considers the obscenity of many of the representations depicted. And still further insult when it is considered that a large measure of the culpability for those “uneducated” lay with the papist church itself who instead of being the source of instruction to which they are called, instead abdicating this responsibility to the idols.
Calvin asserts that “man’s nature is a perpetual idol factory”. While art and craftsmanship are gifts from God they are a curse if worship only befitting God is directed to them. The use of images as a focal point of worship, whether with the intent to worship God or the idol itself, inevitably draws one to ascribe inherent deity to the inanimate, thereby stealing from God that which is given to the image. Those, as the papists, who would defend this practice retort that they do not call such idols their gods. Like the Jews and pagans of old, this does little to exonerate them from the charge of idol worship. The prophets condemned such behavior regardless of what it is otherwise called (Jer. 2:27; Ezek. 6:4; Isa. 40:19-20; Hab. 2:18-19; Deut. 32:37).
Papists employ word-play to draw a distinction between dulia (to serve) and latria (to worship). This is a distinction without a difference. Indeed, some of their own adherents have made statements refuting the reality of such a distinction. Constantius, for example, insists that he will show the same worship and honor to such images as owed to the Trinity itself. John, the legate of the Easterns, urged those who have an image of Christ to offer sacrifice to it, rejoice and exult.
Not only are we warned to avoid idol worship but even idols themselves [1 John 5:21]. This admonition is prudent as not only does man have a propensity for generating idols where they may be found, it is also an unworthy endeavor for the church to divert attention from the living and symbolic images the Lord has consecrated in his Word. Again, however, in defense of such practice there are those who erroneously appeal to the original Nicene council as being supportive, as well as Scriptures such as “God created man in his image” [Gen. 1:27], “Show me thy face for it is beautiful” [SS. 2:14], and “[n]o one lights a lantern and puts it under a bushel” [Matt. 5:15], and many other gross misuses of God’s Word. In fact, there are indeed those who shamelessly have pronounced anathema on any who would neglect adoration of such images.