Reformed Images

My friend Eric has a great little post up about Zwingli’s Illustrated Bible here.

The Reformed did not oppose the making of images (pictures, paintings, sculptures), but rather the use of images in worship, along with superstitious ideas that the image was some sort of locus for the divine.  They appealed to the 2nd commandment, the New Testament’s reiteration of this theology (Paul at Athens, as well as other epistolary texts), and the first several centuries of the Christian church.

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About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, FL. He is also a founder and general editor of The Calvinist International. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), a full-time minister, and occasional classical school teacher, Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, and daughter.

32 thoughts on “Reformed Images

  1. Yeah, I agree that seeing the Icon as the locus of the divine is problematic. Something is seriously wrong in Orthodox churches where no one receives the Sacrament, and instead venerates the icon.

    But:

    1) I think a Lutheran would agree with that, and Lutherans don’t have any objection to images in Church etc., nor can I find a reference to images in the Book of Concord.

    2) I think the Reformed can have a tendency to err on the other side. Reverence for the “prototype” is generally expressed in reverence for the image. Thus desecrating the American flag is an attack on America; and we treat the flag with peculiar reverence, precisely because it is the American flag. Similarly, when Mark Studdock was tempted to stomp on the crucifix, it would have been an attack on Christ to do so; and similarly, “holy images” should not be given value simply based on their artistic value, or on the value of the materials, but should be valued, and even to some degree reverenced, as images of God.

    And we should be able to pray while looking at an image. Otherwise we aren’t allowed to use the image to meditate on the one imaged.

  2. Yes, the Lutherans expressly forbid any veneration of images: they use them “memorially”, that is, as historical reminders. In principle the Reformed allow the same thing, but are much less sanguine about the possibility of healthy use of images. But Beza publishes “Icones”, which were Plutarchian depictions of character, more informative by far than mere visual likeness, and yet “icons” nonetheless, in an acceptable sense. And of course, one branch of the Reformed saw the publication of “Eikon Basilike”, regarding Charles I; and the English had monumental sculpture in churches, commemorating the dead (often depicted as reposing, and even in shrouds, such as the famous statue of Donne). But never has veneration been allowed.

    In another thread, something was mentioned about the Eastern icons; the iconodule argument for them depends upon the practice being apostolic, which it manifestly isn’t, or, as a sort of deus ex machina, upon the “acheiropoietic” icons, which are no more acheiropoietic than the icon tradition is apostolic. Without reliable continuity of true depiction, what one has is fantasy. Arguably, that is one would have even with accuracy and continuity of representation; given the fact that an icon has as its aim a fictitious optical illusion, the “presence” of the saint. The only icons of God are living people; and while the blessed dead are icons too, they are not sensibly available to us. We can remember them narratively, and even pictorially, so long as that simply illustratively subserves the narrative. But the dead cannot be vicariously present through visual representations; the Eastern “icons,” in the context of veneration, are simply mirrors of the devotee’s imagination, not windows into Heaven.

    peace
    P

  3. But it isn’t in the Book of Concord, so while most Lutherans wouldn’t allow adoration, someone could, and still consider himself Lutheran. And I doubt many Lutherans would have difficulty with looking at an icon while praying to Christ–their Church architecture practically encourages this with the Crucifix of the image of Christ victorious front and center.

    Anglicans might take a similar position, but, while not being Catholic, they are distinctly different from Continental Reformed or Scotch Reformed or Puritans. So it depends on what you mean by Reformed whether they are included, and it is debatable how helpful such terminology is. (Again, I’m not arguing they are really Catholic; just that saying “there are three types of Protestant: Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans” (with a division then along both liturgical and doctrinal lines) and saying “there are two types of Protestant: Lutherans and Reformed” are both legitimate.)

    I’m not sure how the doctrine would fall out, but a Lutheran or an Anglican, would generally be more open to having images in Church, praying while looking at an image, and showing reverence to images as images–that is, like the reverence we would show to an American flag–than mainline Reformed would be.

  4. Peter,

    What I have trouble with in your post (conceptually) are the following two statements:

    “The only icons of God are living people.”

    Wouldn’t it be technically true that the only Icon of the Father is Christ, but living Christians are Icons of Christ. But then if that is so, why isn’t a picture of Christ an icon of Christ. Perhaps in “icon” you include “presence of” in which case I can understand; but an accurate representation of Him that conveys that He is “this Man” as it were.

    And second:

    “We can remember them narratively, and even pictorially, so long as that simply illustratively subserves the narrative.”

    This makes the pictoral art subservient to the narrative art. But I don’t see why such a division would be (philosophically) valid. Surely I don’t need narative to make sense of, say, The Rape of the Sabine Women; and though a narrative to supply context adds something, my explanation of the story is subservient to the David painting. And some art, like say, This Breugel, or say this Manet, doen’t need a narrative at all.

    In short, the narrative makes the one narrated present, after a fashion; why does not the visual do the same. I can understand saying that in the Word Christ is present fully; whereas in the Icon He isn’t, but the same would be true of any non-Canonical tale of Christ, or preaching of Christ, like say Sayers’ The Man Born to be King.

    Or why, if the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God; cannot the icon of the Word of God be the Word of God.

  5. “cannot the icon of the Word of God be the Word of God.”

    I think the short answer might be, because God never said it was, or as Peter put it “the Eastern ‘icons,’ in the context of veneration, are simply mirrors of the devotee’s imagination, not windows into Heaven.” We can’t just turn something into a mediator of God by our own fiat.

  6. Matt,

    No Lutheran could venerate icons and remain Lutheran: the whole consensus is absolutely against it. On the other hand, illustrative representation is considered adiaphoron, and the Lutherans have retained images probably as much as a sign of rejecting Karlstadt’s position, with its implication that the Law justifies, as for any other reason.

    The Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline church was certainly Reformed, though ER I herself seems to have held a Lutheran position on images (though her own edicts were responsible for the removal of images from English churches).

    Regarding your philosophical concerns: the Word is the Image of the Father, but man (Adam) participates this: this is the clear teaching of the Bible. But to be a true image of the personal God, the image must be itself personal. Other images are imitations of accidental qualities. There is no comparison between a person and a piece of wood, which is just a mirror of our imagination. Further, as I noted earlier, Eastern icons have no verified or verifiable accuracy of representation: hence the myths of apostolicity (St Luke), or acheiropoiesis. But even if we did have verified accuracy, it would just be an image of externals, “animated” by our projected imagination.

    On narrative: of course you don’t need narrative to make sense of certain images. My point wasn’t that narrative is required for the intelligibility of the picture. My point is that narrative is the point: we have to have a moral exemplum, and a static picture of Saint Chiropracticus, Certain Help of Lumbago, is not anything of the sort. But it is very likely to be an idol, a locus of a fake supernatural presence thought to help the supplicant, straight out of old Mediterranean polytheism.

    An image can be the Word of God, in a relative and derivative sense, insofar as it homiletically presents the Gospel. But then it is being “read”, as if a text, and not being regarded as a two-dimensional vicarious body of a supernatural helper.

    peace
    P

  7. Peter, I’m curious, what authoritative Lutheran documents could you recommend to substantiate your assertion that “No Lutheran could venerate icons and remain Lutheran”? I’ve talked to a number Lutheran pastors (all LCMS) in the past three months and they have all corroborated M.N. Peterson’s statement: “But it isn’t in the Book of Concord, so while most Lutherans wouldn’t allow adoration, someone could, and still consider himself Lutheran.”

  8. Kepha,

    Luther and all the Lutheran doctors are decidedly against it.

    Certain persons in the LCMS have become, in their weird zeal to distinguish themselves from the Reformed, less than Protestant in respects.

    peace
    P

  9. If you wish, I could collate a number of places in Lutheran authorities where the exclusion of veneration is either explicitly taught or directly implied (as in the Apology, in the article on Invocation, where veneration of images is listed as a predictable phase in the rise of idolatry).

    peace
    P

  10. Peter,

    Luther and all the Lutheran doctors are decidedly against it.

    That may be true, but neither Luther nor “the Lutheran doctors” (whoever may be included in that vague designation) are authoritative for confessional Lutherans. Only the Book of Concord is authoritative, and it does not take an iconoclastic position. Indeed, the Augustana’s general approbation and retention of most pre-Reformation “ceremonies” could be construed to include an acceptance of the veneration of icons — at least as an adiaphoron.

    In any case, there is no necessity for the Lutheran Confessions to include a condemnation of the “adoration” of images. The decree of Nicaea II itself condemns the adoration of images (even while endorsing their veneration). Part of what makes discussion of these matters difficult is that folks with iconoclastic leanings fail to understand just how different “veneration” and “adoration” are from each other. The word “venerate” is far closer in meaning to the word “respect” than it is to “worship” or “adore.”

    Logically, iconoclasts such as the Reformed should refuse to call their ministers “the Reverend Mr So-and-So,” since “reverend” means “ought to be revered” and the words “revere” and “venerate” are essentially synonyms.

  11. Chris,

    The Apology does take a stand against it, and it’s in the Book of Concord: as I just mentioned, it lists veneration of images as a phase in the psychology of idolatry: that is a very far cry from tacitly including them as adiaphoron ceremonies. Besides, one has to look at how the men contemporary with the Augustana acted to see how they took it; and they were not for veneration. Also, what is permissibly adiaphoron varies according to circumstance, and though Flaccius is the extreme position, he expresses the common sentiment regarding this. As I also mentioned, there were theological reasons why the Lutherans retained images, in order to demonstrate Christian freedom in the face of Karlstadt. They weren’t simply carried over with a shrug and some vague idea of talking to them less.

    As for Lutheran doctors: it’s not a vague designation at all;I can even give an empirical test. Take any given Lutheran theologian between say the death of Luther and 1750, and wave his books in front an LCMS pastor. If the pastor gets excited and happy, that author is a Lutheran doctor. Seriously, though, I think you know perfectly well of whom I’m speaking: Chemnitz, Hollaz, Calov, Quenstedt, Chytraeus, et alia.

    Iconoclasts usually know quite well the specious distinction between veneration and adoration. We just think it’s silly and psychologically naive: Calvin treats this matter very acutely. After all, even the most wild medieval statue-cult technically would not, under the specious distinction, be “adoration,” but it would nevertheless be practical polytheism. There would be less of a problem, and more perhaps of the possibility of a real distinction, if the sign of the represented were symbolic and not mimetic: for instance, if, in the Middle Ages, there had been no images, but one saluted the Cross or apostolic arms as we would a flag; but even there, the mind would be trained to reify things, and Calvin I think would see the danger in it. Historically, iconodulia has always led to the ruin of religion.

    peace
    P

  12. Mr. Jones! I haven’t seen you (via Internet) in a while. I sent you an email about a book club, did you get it?

    P.S. Sorry, Wedge, for the irrelevant comment.

  13. Chemnitz’s exegesis of Ex. 20:4-6 in his Examination of the Council of Trent re images is an excellent explanation of the Lutheran view.

    More fundamentally, Lutheranism’s understanding of how God works, i.e., through his Word (cf. Rom. 10:17), makes the absue of images unthinkable.

    Peter is right.

    In any case, just because something isn’t in the Book of Concord doesn’t mean the Lutheran church wouldn’t condemn it. Haven’t you ever heard of the Bible? It has a lot to say, and not everything it teaches is discussed in the Book of Concord.

    “Veni, Domine Iesu.”
    Jordan

  14. Peter

    I presume that this is the passage in the Apology that you have in mind:

    In the beginning, mention of the saints seems to have been admitted with a design that is endurable, as in the ancient prayers. Afterwards invocation followed, and abuses that are prodigious and more than heathenish followed invocation. From invocation the next step was to images; these also were worshiped, and a virtue was supposed to exist in these, just as magicians imagine that a virtue exists in images of the heavenly bodies carved at a particular time. In a certain monastery we [some of us] have seen a statue of the blessed Virgin, which moved automatically by a trick [within by a string], so as to seem either to turn away from [those who did not make a large offering] or nod to those making request. (Ap 21.34, my emphasis)

    The worship (adoration) of images is indeed condemned, but not veneration. I know you find the distinction specious, but that does not mean that the Confessors found it so. The fact that Melanchthon condemns this sort of manifest abuse and fraud is not equivalent to a blanket condemnation of veneration. Abusus non tollit usus.

  15. Chris,

    Care to offer me anything from the Confessors, either loci works, or their acts, which suggest that they didn’t find the distinction as specious as I do? I might be wrong, but I did doctoral work in Reformation image theory, and my recollection of all the Lutheran leaders is that they did not allow veneration, and kept images only for “memorial use” (and to make the point about justification not having to do with externals, contra Karlstadt), which excluded veneration. Memorial usus is the only usus I know of that they allowed, and to read your distinction back into the Apology, when it seems pretty clear that it tacitly rejects the distinction by not drawing it, and condemning without exception the whole historical medieval image cultus, seems to be without much warrant.

    If you are one of those Lutherans who will only argue from the Confessions without allowing context or other evidence as to their framers’ intentions to shed light on the document, then there’s probably not much conversation to be had. But I don’t know this about you; so do fill me in your hermeneutic presuppositions here.

    peace
    P

  16. In any case, just because something isn’t in the Book of Concord doesn’t mean the Lutheran church wouldn’t condemn it.

    It does not mean that the Lutheran Church wouldn’t condemn it, but it does mean that the Church hasn’t condemned it. And the opinion of a Lutheran theologian — even one as respected as Chemnitz — does not amount to a formal condemnation by the Lutheran Church.

    Haven’t you ever heard of the Bible? …

    Do you think you could be a little more condescending?

    … It has a lot to say, and not everything it teaches is discussed in the Book of Concord.

    True; but the Book of Concord addresses the points that were at issue at the time of the Reformation, and it is the authoritative dogmatic definition of the Lutheran Church on those issues. Nothing else (not even Luther or Chemnitz) has that stature in the Lutheran Church.

    The Church has made other dogmatic definitions at other points in her history, when other doctrines were at risk. That is why we have things like the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian definition. Those dogmatic definitions are part of our patrimony as Lutherans; that is why the Augustana embraces and endorses our Catholic heritage (our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic, but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times). Among the dogmatic definitions which thus form our Catholic heritage as Lutherans is the definition of Nicaea II.

    Iconoclasm is a heresy; Lutherans are not iconoclasts.

  17. Chris,

    Where do the Lutherans commit themselves to Nicaea II?

    And do remember to answer my other questions, about your hermeneutic presuppositions, and whether you can offer me anything at all to suggest that the Confessors didn’t find the distinction in question as specious as I do.

    peace
    P

  18. do fill me in your hermeneutic presuppositions here

    My hermeneutic presupposition is that there is such a thing as the Apostolic Tradition, and I read the Confessions in the light of it. I have little interest in explorations of “the framer’s intentions” that make the Confessions say things that they do not actually say.

    Care to offer me anything from the Confessors, either loci works, or their acts, which suggest that they didn’t find the distinction as specious as I do?

    No, I don’t care to, nor do I have any such obligation; if the Confessors had wanted to address and refute the distinction, they were quite capable of speaking for themselves. They chose not to (at least in the Confessions themselves). The Confessions do not tacitly reject the distinction by not drawing it; they don’t draw the distinction because they do not address the issue.

    The Church spoke to this issue at Nicaea II. Evidently the Confessors saw no need to revisit it in the Confessions.

  19. Chris,

    This is called “dodging the question.”

    I’ll ask you again : where do Lutherans affirm Nicaea II? Would a pastor be subject to discipline for condemning it?

    You seem to admit that your Confessors might well have addressed the distinction, in a way you could not accept, and your refuge is the claim that they did not do so in the Confessions themselves. My argument is all the context suggests that they did address and refute it, in the locus on image-worship.

    So, since you won’t give any examples of your Confessors drawing the distinction and accepting it as you do, how about I start giving historical and textual examples here of how your Confessors departed as theologians and as pastors from Nicaea II? That would leave you with a Confession which you regard as orthodox (if considered as some dropped-from-Heaven thing with no context), but written by men you would, on your own terms, call heretics.

    peace
    P

  20. Peter — I’m not sure Chris is saying that rejecting the distinction is heresy — that’s slightly different from saying that “iconoclasm” such as that of Karlstadt is heresy. ???

    Chris — Sorry if you thought I was being condescending. I was more exasperated. Tone often gets lost in cyberspace.

    “Veni, Domine Iesu.”
    Jordan

  21. Peter,

    An image can be the Word of God, in a relative and derivative sense, insofar as it homiletically presents the Gospel. But then it is being “read”, as if a text, and not being regarded as a two-dimensional vicarious body of a supernatural helper.

    I’m not sure what to make of the second sentence here–it seems nearly self-contradictory.

    For Protestants the Word of God is the presence of God, and even “The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” [Second Helvetic Confession, I] Though the Scriptures are not Christ, I should go to the Scriptures to find Christ, for that is where He is present[1]. Similarly, I should go the preaching of the Word of God to find Christ, for the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. In the Preaching, Christ is present. In the homily, Christ is present. In The Man Born to Be King, Christ is present.

    So if an image can be the Word of God, and if it can be read (and if perhaps it is written rather than painted)–that is if it is, quoting St. John not St. Augustine, a visible Word–it is a presence of God.

    Moreover, veneration of the book is permitted. Zwingli included carrying the gospel aloft and kissing it in his liturgy, and Calvin said “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God”. (Commentary on Timothy, Titus, Philemon, on 2 Timothy 3:16).

    Which would mean that the image could be venerated. Perhaps not so much as Othodox would want to venerate it, but venerated nonetheless. And venerated precisely as an image, or rather Word, of God.

    ______

    [1] Throughout I’m not trying to debate the mode of presence. I believe “Christ is present in the Sacrament” and “Christ is present in the Word” are statements all Protestants could agree on, though they would disagree on the meaning of “in”.

  22. Jordan,

    Chris is saying that not abiding by Nicaea II is heresy. And his Confessors certainly didn’t, unless you read Nicaea II in a very specific way, which is grammatically possible but historically dubious. And Karlstadt wasn’t rejected for iconoclasm, but for *legalism*. Luther would say that you could if you want get rid of all the images, or retain them if you please (so long as you don’t venerate them. At all.). Just don’t say that one *must* get rid of the images, because that would be legalistic. All of this is very far from the doctrine and rationale of Nicaea II.

    peace
    P

  23. Thanks, Peter, but I’m not sure saying that Nicea II was right is the same as saying that those who disagree are heretics. Maybe Chris thinks so, but I wouldn’t want to put words in his mouth. I have enough trouble with the words that come out of my own mouth!

    Speaking of which… Chris, really, I am sorry for my language.

    “Veni, Domine Iesu.”
    Jordan

  24. Jordan,

    Nicaea II itself thinks that those who don’t agree with it are heretics; if Chris agrees with Nicaea II, he must agree with that too, and his earlier language suggests that he does.

    Of course, it is possible to have position which is neither old-style iconoclast nor Nicaea-II iconodule: and that position is the old Lutheran and irenic Reformed position, where images can either be used memorially and illustratively, but not venerated; or not used at all.

    peace
    P

  25. Matt,

    If you can’t make sense of that statement, I don’t know what i can do to make it clearer. Tell me where you’re confused.

    Yes, the Word of God is the presence of God: but not in any local way, nor in any as-if-local way. And note that I said an image can be the Word of God, *in a relative and derivative sense*, insofar as it reflects or illustrates God’s Story, and thus “preaches” that Story. The Word of God in the essential and primary sense is the Scripture, written and preached; there no sensible theophanic loci for us anymore, with the exception of the Supper, and even that is not in any way a local, or venerable-as-if-local, sort of presence, since Christ is present in,to, and among us in the action of the rite, but only figuratively present in the bread and wine.

    That’s a curious bit about Zwingli. I’d like the source (and am not not at all bothered by him doing that, if he did). As for Calvin, he means the words as read and understood, not the physical object.

    So though you have a sort of conclusion at the end of your comment, I don’t see an argument yet.

    peace
    P

  26. Regarding Zwingli: One of the NSA Graduate students did a presentation on Zwingli’s liturgy last year, and one of the things he said was that in his liturgy the scriptural half of the Hail Mary was said, and the Gospel was carried aloft and venerated. I don’t know the source, Dr. Leithart may be able to point you in the right direction.

    Regarding my point about images:

    To be shown: Icons are a presence of Christ.

    If, on the one hand, the visual cannot itself preach, cannot itself be a word, but is only at best a prop for the word, actual experience cannot be made sense of.

    To see this: Icons are dependent on the Word, and are the Word only in a secondary sense. They, of course, must be a depiction of the real thing, and not a flight of imagination; they must be dependent on revelation, and not inventions of the earthly mind; they must reflect or preach Christ as revealed in Scripture; and thus they are dependent on the Scriptures.

    But the same could be said for the oral preaching of the Word of God. It must be a depiction of the Word, and not a flight of fancy or imagination; they must be dependent on revleation, and not inventions of the earthly mind; they must reflect or preach Christ as revealed in the Scripture; and thus are dependent on the Scriptures.

    And therefore, it seems, if icons are dependent not merely on the Scriptures, but also on any oral preaching, the visual art is made dependent on the written word. Which it manifestly is not.

    On the other hand, if images can be preaching, and thus along side oral preaching (though not liturgically aside oral preaching), can be the Word of God–though naturally only in a way derivative from Scripture–they are, at least in a sense, presences of God, for the preaching of the Word of God is a presence of God.

  27. But maybe I glossed over “the narrative is the point” taking it as “the Real is the point, and the real is expressed in the narrative of Scripture.” The second seems sensible, the first at least needs a defense. The Real is the point, inasmuch as the real is captured in the narrative, the narrative is good. But inasmuch as it is captured in a painting, the painting is good. And paintings can, independent of the narrative, capture the real.

  28. Peter said-
    The Word of God in the essential and primary sense is the Scripture, written and preached; there no sensible theophanic loci for us anymore, with the exception of the Supper, and even that is not in any way a local, or venerable-as-if-local, sort of presence, since Christ is present in,to, and among us in the action of the rite, but only figuratively present in the bread and wine.

    Forgive my need to understand what may seem simple things. Peter, what are your definitions of “presence” as in the presence of Christ in our rites vs. in the elements and in, say, preaching. Also, what is your definition of veneration?

    Thanks,
    Ron

  29. Steven invited me to comment here. Actually, my comments are here:

    http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/rite-reasons/no-57-the-second-word-v-on-images-and-art-part-1/

    and here:

    http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/rite-reasons/no-33-the-second-word-i-seeing-and-hearing/

    Each of these is followed by other essays in succession.

    The Second Word prohibits the establishment of anything made by human hands as a contact point with God. The point is that God establishes the contact points; we do not. God sets up the mediation; we do not. God sets up the tower or ladder to heaven; we do not.

    Moreover, regardless of mental intentions, we are told not to do it. The body is not a clay tomb whose actions are irrelevant, as if only mental intentions count. Such is far from a Biblical view of the total person. Nowhere does the NT even hint of any change in this warning.

    The danger in iconic types of representation, even if not venerated, is that they tend to freeze history. Language impels change; meditation on silent images stifles change. The God of the Bible is “new every morning” and is a God continually and progressively exorcising and glorifying His people. The human tendency is to freeze history and prevent the Spirit’s ongoing work. The use of icons in the Eastern Churches has been singularly successful in this regard, but it can be a problem anywhere. A protestant church with windows only of the Friend of Children and the Good Shepherd is going to distort the understanding of its members significantly over time. They will be estranged from the fiery Jesus of the Bible. Hence, best to keep pictures in books and museums.

    This is only the barest summary of the material cited above, if anyone is interested.

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