Why Did John Calvin and the Reformers Forbid All Images of the Divine Persons?

Why I believe all images of the divine Persons of the Trinity are sinful

Christianity is a religion of faith.  It focuses on “things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  Christians worship the unseen God and His unseen Son seated in the unseen Heaven, mediated by the unseen Spirit.  Unauthorized images of Christ add nothing beneficial to this religion of faith, and serve only to tempt the faithful to take their minds off “things above” (Colossians 3:2) and focus on the creations of human hands.  Such images tempt us to idolatry, the very thing we are to guard ourselves against (1 John 5:21).

One question I’m frequently asked as a Reformed pastor is why I believe all images of the divine Persons of the Trinity are sinful.  This is my reply.

Historically, Reformed and Calvinist churches have taught that all images/statues/paintings of Jesus Christ (and of the Father and the Holy Spirit) are violations of the 2nd Commandment:  “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5a).

Thus Calvin:  “God is opposed to idols, that all may know He is the only fit witness to Himself.  He expressly forbids any attempt to represent Him by a bodily shape . . . We must hold it as a first principle, that as often as any form is assigned to God, his glory is corrupted by an impious lie” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:11).  See also Heidelberg Catechism Questions 96-98; Westminster Larger Catechism Question 109; and 2nd Helvetic Confession Chapter IV.

So, no images of Christ at all?  Not in church?  Not in public nativity scenes?  Not even as art?  Yes, that is the position of Reformed churches, and I am persuaded from Scripture it is the correct one.  Here’s why:

1. The 2nd Commandment forbids not only the worship of man-made images of earthly or heavenly beings/creatures, but also the creation of such images.  “You shall not make for yourself a carved image–any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  The tendency is to run this statement together with what follows (“you shall not bow down to them nor serve them”) to conclude that it is only the worship of such images that is forbidden.  Yet the commandment has two imperatives and expressly forbids the making of such images exactly because it is in the nature of man to fall down and worship what he considers to be divine (this is why the second half of the commandment naturally follows from the first).  Jesus our Lord is in heaven, and He is to be worshiped by faith.  He is not to be imaged.

2. The apostles walked the Earth with Jesus, and even though they wrote extensively about Christ, they did not leave behind any images of the Lord, nor did they even describe His earthly appearance.  We can be sure that if these early eyewitnesses had thought it was important for the Christian church to have an accurate image of Jesus in His humiliation, they would have provided it.  But they didn’t.  This means that no one knows what Jesus looks like, and all images of Him are nothing more than figments of human imagination.  Thus if a man draws a picture and says, “This is Jesus,” he is lying.  He is telling us that what he has invented in his mind and created with his hands is the Son of God, and that is deceit, and an insult to Christ.  (It does not help to say, “No, but he only means that he has created a representation of God’s Son,” for this makes the image no less deceitful, and is the same argument pagan idolaters use to justify the images they create.)  There is no essential difference between pointing to an icon or statue of an imaginary person and saying “this is Jesus,” and Aaron referring to the golden calf as “Yahweh” (Exodus 32:5).

3. Images of Jesus can only capture His (imagined!) human nature.  Christ’s divine nature is impossible to reproduce, and thus the deceitfulness of the image is compounded, for the incomprehensible glory of the enthroned Son of God is unrepresented.  Zacharias Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said that this seems to revive the ancient heresy of Nestorius, who taught that the human and divine natures of Jesus were separate things.

4. Christianity is a religion of faith.  It focuses on “things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  Christians worship the unseen God and His unseen Son seated in the unseen Heaven, mediated by the unseen Spirit.  Unauthorized images of Christ add nothing beneficial to this religion of faith, and serve only to tempt the faithful to take their minds off “things above” (Colossians 3:2) and focus on the creations of human hands.  Such images tempt us to idolatry, the very thing we are to guard ourselves against (1 John 5:21).

5. Are Reformed churches against the creation of ALL images?  This is a frequently-asked question, and the answer is an emphatic NO.  Heidelberg Catechism Question 97 speaks to this:  “May we not make any image at all?  Answer: God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping of any likeness of them, either to worship them or to serve God by them.”  The 2nd Commandment forbids the making of images of created things or heavenly beings which are intended to be worshiped/prayed to as gods, whether it be the true God or a saint or some pretended god (for example, the various animal and river gods the Egyptians worshiped, which are referenced in “in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”).  God did not forbid the making of all images.  He forbade the making of images of earthly/heavenly beings the Israelites had made a habit of worshiping while they lived in Egypt (Ezekiel 20:5-9).  That this prohibition included any and all images of the God of Israel is obvious, as was demonstrated in the Golden Calf incident, where the Israelites called the image “Yahweh,” Exodus 32:4-5, and were severely judged, Exodus 32:28.

As Ursinus concluded, “God ought not to be represented by any graven image, because He does not will it, nor can it be done, nor would it profit anything if it were done.”

“I am the Lord, that is My name. I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images.” (Isaiah 42:8).

Joe Vusich is a minister in the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) and is the pastor of Emmanuel Reformed Church in Sutton, Neb. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.