(Calvin, Institutes on the Christian Religion 1, part 9)

Chapter 10. 
10. In Scripture, the true God opposed, exclusively, to all the gods 
of the heathen. 
1. Explanation of the knowledge of God resumed. God as manifested in 
    Scripture, the same as delineated in his works. 
2. The attributes of God as described by Moses, David, and Jeremiah. 
    Explanation of the attributes. Summary. Uses of this knowledge. 
3. Scripture, in directing us to the true God, excludes the gods of 
    the heathen, who, however, in some sense, held the unity of 
    1. We formerly observed that the knowledge of God, which, in 
other respects, is not obscurely exhibited in the frame of the 
world, and in all the creatures, is more clearly and familiarly 
explained by the word. It may now be proper to show, that in 
Scripture the Lord represents himself in the same character in which 
we have already seen that he is delineated in his works. A full 
discussion of this subject would occupy a large space. But it will 
here be sufficient to furnish a kind of index, by attending to which 
the pious reader may be enabled to understand what knowledge of God 
he ought chiefly to search for in Scripture, and be directed as to 
the mode of conducting the search. I am not now adverting to the 
peculiar covenant by which God distinguished the race of Abraham 
from the rest of the nations. For when by gratuitous adoption he 
admitted those who were enemies to the rank of sons, he even then 
acted in the character of a Redeemer. At present, however, we are 
employed in considering that knowledge which stops short at the 
creation of the world, without ascending to Christ the Mediator. But 
though it will soon be necessary to quote certain passages from the 
New Testament, (proofs being there given both of the power of God 
the Creator, and of his providence in the preservation of what he 
originally created,) I wish the reader to remember what my present 
purpose is, that he may not wander from the proper subject. Briefly, 
then, it will be sufficient for him at present to understand how 
God, the Creator of heaven and earth, governs the world which was 
made by him. In every part of Scripture we meet with descriptions of 
his paternal kindness and readiness to do good, and we also meet 
with examples of severity which show that he is the just punisher of 
the wicked, especially when they continue obstinate notwithstanding 
of all his forbearance. 
    2. There are certain passages which contain more vivid 
descriptions of the divine character, setting it before us as if his 
genuine countenance were visibly portrayed. Moses, indeed, seems to 
have intended briefly to comprehend whatever may be known of God by 
man, when he said, "The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, 
long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy 
for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and 
that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the 
fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto 
the third and to the fourth generation," (Ex. 34: 6, 7.) Here we may 
observe, firsts that his eternity and selfexistence are declared by 
his magnificent name twice repeated; and, secondly, that in the 
enumeration of his perfections, he is described not as he is in 
himself, but in relation to us, in order that our acknowledgement of 
him may be more a vivid actual impression than empty visionary 
speculation. Moreover, the perfections thus enumerated are just 
those which we saw shining in the heavens, and on the earth - 
compassion, goodness, mercy, justice, judgement, and truth. For 
power and energy are comprehended under the name Jehovah. Similar 
epithets are employed by the prophets when they would fully declare 
his sacred name. Not to collect a great number of passages, it may 
suffice at present to refer to one Psalm, (145) in which a summary 
of the divine perfections is so carefully given that not one seems 
to have been omitted. Still, however, every perfection there set 
down may be contemplated in creation; and, hence, such as we feel 
him to be when experience is our guide, such he declares himself to 
be by his word. In Jeremiah, where God proclaims the character in 
which he would have us to acknowledge him, though the description is 
not so full, it is substantially the same. "Let him that glorieth," 
says he, "glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that 
I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgement, and 
righteousness, in the earth," (Jerem. 9: 24.) Assuredly, the 
attributes which it is most necessary for us to know are these 
three: Loving-kindness, on which alone our entire safety depends: 
Judgement, which is daily exercised on the wicked, and awaits them 
in a severer form, even for eternal destruction: Righteousness, by 
which the faithful are preserved, and most benignly cherished. The 
prophet declares, that when you understand these, you are amply 
furnished with the means of glorying in God. Nor is there here any 
omission of his truth, or power, or holiness, or goodness. For how 
could this knowledge of his loving-kindness, judgement, and 
righteousness, exist, if it were not founded on his inviolable 
truth? How, again, could it be believed that he governs the earth 
with judgement and righteousness, without presupposing his mighty 
power? Whence, too, his loving-kindness, but from his goodness? In 
fine, if all his ways are loving-kindness, judgement, and 
righteousness, his holiness also is thereby conspicuous. Moreover, 
the knowledge of God, which is set before us in the Scriptures, is 
designed for the same purpose as that which shines in creation, 
viz., that we may thereby learn to worship him with perfect 
integrity of heart and unfeigned obedience, and also to depend 
entirely on his goodness. 
    3. Here it may be proper to give a summary of the general 
doctrine. First, then, let the reader observe that the Scripture, in 
order to direct us to the true God, distinctly excludes and rejects 
all the gods of the heathen, because religion was universally 
adulterated in almost every age. It is true, indeed, that the name 
of one God was everywhere known and celebrated. For those who 
worshipped a multitude of gods, whenever they spoke the genuine 
language of nature, simply used the name god, as if they had thought 
one god sufficient. And this is shrewdly noticed by Justin Martyr, 
who, to the same effect, wrote a treatise, entitled, On the Monarchy 
of God, in which he shows, by a great variety of evidence, that the 
unity of God is engraven on the hearts of all. Tertullian also 
proves the same thing from the common forms of speech. But as all, 
without exception, have in the vanity of their minds rushed or been 
dragged into lying fictions, these impressions, as to the unity of 
God, whatever they may have naturally been, have had no further 
effect than to render men inexcusable. The wisest plainly discover 
the vague wanderings of their minds when they express a wish for any 
kind of Deity, and thus offer up their prayers to unknown gods. And 
then, in imagining a manifold nature in God, though their ideas 
concerning Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, Minerva, and others, were not so 
absurd as those of the rude vulgar, they were by no means free from 
the delusions of the devil. We have elsewhere observed, that however 
subtle the evasions devised by philosophers, they cannot do away 
with the charge of rebellion, in that all of them have corrupted the 
truth of God. For this reason, Habakkuk, (2: 20,) after condemning 
all idols, orders men to seek God in his temple, that the faithful 
may acknowledge none but Him, who has manifested himself in his 
Chapter 11. 
11. Impiety of attributing a visible form to God. - The setting up 
of idols a defection from the true God. 
    There are three leading divisions in this chapter. The first 
contains a refutation of those who ascribe a visible form to God, 
(s. 1 and 2,) with an answer to the objection of those who, because 
it is said that God manifested his presence by certain symbols, use 
it as a defence of their error, (s. 3 and 4.) Various arguments are 
afterwards adduced, disposing of the trite objection from Gregory's 
expression, that images are the books of the unlearned, (s. 5-7.) 
The second division of the chapter relates to the origin of idols or 
images, and the adoration of them, as approved by the Papists, (s. 
8-10.) Their evasion refuted, (s. 11.) The third division treats of 
the use and abuse of images, (s. 12.) Whether it is expedient to 
have them in Christian Churches, (s. 13.) The concluding part 
contains a refutation of the second Council of Nice, which very 
absurdly contends for images in opposition to divine truth, and even 
to the disparagement of the Christian name. 
1. 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. 
2. Reasons for this prohibition from Moses, Isaiah, and Paul. The 
    complaint of a heathen. It should put the worshipers of idols 
    to shame. 
3. Consideration of an objection taken from various passages in 
    Moses. The Cherubim and Seraphim show that images are not fit 
    to represent divine mysteries. The Cherubim belonged to the 
    tutelage of the Law. 
4. The materials of which idols are made, abundantly refute the 
    fiction of idolaters. Confirmation from Isaiah and others. 
    Absurd precaution of the Greeks. 
5. Objection, - That images are the books of the unlearned. 
    Objection answered, 1. Scripture declares images to be teachers 
    of vanity and lies. 
6. Answer continued, 2. Ancient Theologians condemn the formation 
    and worship of idols. 
7. Answer continued, - 3. The use of images condemned by the luxury 
    and meretricious ornaments given to them in Popish Churches. 4. 
    The Church must be trained in true piety by another method. 
8. The second division of the chapter. Origin of idols or images. 
    Its rise shortly after the flood. Its continual progress. 
9. Of the worship of images. Its nature. A pretext of idolaters 
    refuted. Pretexts of the heathen. Genius of idolaters. 
10. Evasion of the Papists. Their agreement with ancient idolaters. 
11. Refutation of another evasion or sophism, viz., the distinction 
    of dulia and latria. 
12. Third division of the chapter, viz., the use and abuse of 
13. Whether it is expedient to have images in Christian temples. 
14. Absurd defence of the worship of images by the second so-called 
    Council of Nice. Sophisms or perversions of Scripture in 
    defence of images in churches. 
15. Passages adduced in support of the worship of images. 
16. The blasphemous expressions of some ancient idolaters approved 
    by not a few of the more modern, both in word and deed. 
    1. As Scripture, in accommodation to the rude and gross 
intellect of man, usually speaks in popular terms, so whenever its 
object is to discriminate between the true God and false deities, it 
opposes him in particular to idols; not that it approves of what is 
taught more elegantly and subtilely by philosophers, but that it may 
the better expose the folly, nay, madness of the world in its 
inquiries after God, so long as every one clings to his own 
speculations. This exclusive definition, which we uniformly meet 
with in Scripture, annihilates every deity which men frame for 
themselves of their own accord - God himself being the only fit 
witness to himself. Meanwhile, seeing that this brutish stupidity 
has overspread the globe, men longing after visible forms of God, 
and so forming deities of wood and stone, silver and gold, or of any 
other dead and corruptible matter, 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. In the Law, accordingly, after God 
had claimed the glory of divinity for himself alone, when he comes 
to show what kind of worship he approves and rejects, he immediately 
adds, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any 
likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth 
beneath, or in the water under the earth," (Exod. 20: 4.) By these 
words he curbs any licentious attempt we might make to represent him 
by a visible shape, and briefly enumerates all the forms by which 
superstition had begun, even long before, to turn his truth into a 
lie. For we know that the Sun was worshipped by the Persian. As many 
stars as the foolish nations saw in the sky, so many gods they 
imagined them to be. Then to the Egyptians, every animal was a 
figure of God. The Greeks, again, plumed themselves on their 
superior wisdom in worshipping God under the human form, (Maximum 
Tyrius Platonic. Serm. 38.) But God makes no comparison between 
images, as if one were more, and another less befitting; he rejects, 
without exception, all shapes and pictures, and other symbols by 
which the superstitious imagine they can bring him near to them. 
    2. This may easily be inferred from the reasons which he 
annexes to his prohibition. First, it is said in the books of Moses, 
(Deut. 4: 15,) "Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye 
saw no manner of similitude in the day that the Lord spake unto you 
in Horeb, out of the midst of the fire, lest ye corrupt yourselves, 
and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure," &c. We 
see how plainly God declares against all figures, to make us aware 
that all longing after such visible shapes is rebellion against him. 
Of the prophets, it will be sufficient to mention Isaiah, who is the 
most copious on this subjects (Isaiah 40: 18; 41:7,29; 45:9; 46:5,) 
in order to show how the majesty of God is defiled by an absurd and 
indecorous fiction, when he who is incorporeal is assimilated to 
corporeal matter; he who is invisible to a visible image; he who is 
a spirit to an inanimate object; and he who fills all space to a bit 
of paltry wood, or stone, or gold. Paul, too, reasons in the same 
way, "Forasmuch, then, as we are the offspring of God, we ought not 
to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, 
graven by art and man's device," (Acts 17: 29.) Hence it is 
manifest, that whatever statues are set up or pictures painted to 
represent God, are utterly displeasing to him, as a kind of insults 
to his majesty. And is it strange that the Holy Spirit thunders such 
responses from heaven, when he compels even blind and miserable 
idolaters to make a similar confession on the earth? Seneca's 
complaint, as given by Augustine De Civit. Dei, c. 10, is well 
known. He says "The sacred immortal, and invisible gods they exhibit 
in the meanest and most ignoble materials, and dress them in the 
clothing of men and beasts; some confound the sexes, and form a 
compound out of different bodies, giving the name of deities to 
objects, which, if they were met alive, would be deemed monsters." 
Hence, again, it is obvious, that the defenders of images resort to 
a paltry quibbling evasion, when they pretend that the Jews were 
forbidden to use them on account of their proneness to superstition; 
as if a prohibition which the Lord founds on his own eternal 
essences and the uniform course of nature, could be restricted to a 
single nation. Besides, when Paul refuted the error of giving a 
bodily shape to God, he was addressing not Jews, but Athenians. 
    3. It is true that the Lord occasionally manifested his 
presence by certain signs, so that he was said to be seen face to 
face; but all the signs he ever employed were in apt accordance with 
the scheme of doctrine, and, at the same time, gave plain intimation 
of his incomprehensible essence. For the cloud, and smoke, and 
flame, though they were symbols of heavenly glory, (Deut. 4: 11,) 
curbed men's minds as with a bridle, that they might not attempt to 
penetrate farther. Therefore, even Moses (to whom, of all men, God 
manifested himself most familiarly) was not permitted though he 
prayed for it, to behold that face, but received for answer, that 
the refulgence was too great for man, (Exod. 33: 20.) The Holy 
Spirit appeared under the form of a dove, but as it instantly 
vanished, who does not see that in this symbol of a moment, the 
faithful were admonished to regard the Spirit as invisible, to be 
contented with his power and grace, and not call for any external 
figure? God sometimes appeared in the form of a man, but this was in 
anticipation of the future revelation in Christ, and, therefore, did 
not give the Jews the least pretext for setting up a symbol of Deity 
under the human form. The mercy-seat, also, (Exod. 25: 17,18,21,) 
where, under the Law, God exhibited the presence of his power, was 
so framed, as to intimate that God is best seen when the mind rises 
in admiration above itself: the Cherubim with outstretched wings 
shaded, and the veil covered it, while the remoteness of the place 
was in itself a sufficient concealment. It is therefore mere 
infatuation to attempt to defend images of God and the saints by the 
example of the Cherubim. For what, pray, did these figures mean, if 
not that images are unfit to represent the mysteries of God, since 
they were so formed as to cover the mercy-seat with their wings, 
thereby concealing the view of God, not only from the eye, but from 
every human sense, and curbing presumption? To this we may add, that 
the prophets depict the Seraphim, who are exhibited to us in vision, 
as having their faces veiled; thus intimating, that the refulgence 
of the divine glory is so great, that even the angels cannot gaze 
upon it directly, while the minute beams which sparkle in the face 
of angels are shrouded from our view. Moreover, all men of sound 
judgement acknowledge that the Cherubim in question belonged to the 
old tutelage of the law. It is absurd, therefore, to bring them 
forward as an example for our age. For that period of puerility, if 
I may so express it, to which such rudiments were adapted, has 
passed away. And surely it is disgraceful, that heathen writers 
should be more skilful interpreters of Scripture than the Papists. 
Juvenal (Sat. 14) holds up the Jews to derision for worshipping the 
thin clouds and firmament. This he does perversely and impiously; 
still, in denying that any visible shape of Deity existed among 
them, he speaks more accurately than the Papists, who prate about 
there having been some visible image. In the fact that the people 
every now and then rushed forth with boiling haste in pursuit of 
idols, just like water gushing forth with violence from a copious 
spring, let us learn how prone our nature is to idolatry, that we 
may not, by throwing the whole blame of a common vice upon the Jews, 
be led away by vain and sinful enticements to sleep the sleep of 
    4. To the same effect are the words of the Psalmist, (Psalms 
115: 4, 135: 15,) "Their idols are silver and gold, the works of 
men's hands." From the materials of which they are made, he infers 
that they are not gods, taking it for granted that every human 
device concerning God is a dull fiction. He mentions silver and gold 
rather than clay or stone, that neither splendour nor cost may 
procure reverence to idols. He then draws a general conclusion, that 
nothing is more unlikely than that gods should be formed of any kind 
of inanimate matter. Man is forced to confess that he is but the 
creature of a day, (see Book 3: c. 9 s. 2,) and yet would have the 
metal which he has deified to be regarded as God. Whence had idols 
their origin, but from the will of man? There was ground, therefore, 
for the sarcasm of the heathen poet, (Hor. Sat. I. 8,) "I was once 
the trunk of a fig-tree, a useless log, when the tradesman, 
uncertain whether he should make me a stool, &c., chose rather that 
I should be a god." In other words, an earth-born creature, who 
breathes out his life almost every moment, is able by his own device 
to confer the name and honour of deity on a lifeless trunk. But as 
that Epicurean poet, in indulging his wit, had no regard for 
religion, without attending to his jeers or those of his fellows, 
let the rebuke of the prophet sting, nay, cut us to the heart, when 
he speaks of the extreme infatuation of those who take a piece of 
wood to kindle a fire to warm themselves, bake bread, roast or boil 
flesh, and out of the residue make a god, before which they 
prostrate themselves as suppliants, (Isaiah 44: 16.) Hence, the same 
prophet, in another place, not only charges idolaters as guilty in 
the eye of the law, but upbraids them for not learning from the 
foundations of the earth, nothing being more incongruous than to 
reduce the immense and incomprehensible Deity to the stature of a 
few feet. And yet experience shows that this monstrous proceeding, 
though palpably repugnant to the order of nature, is natural to man. 
It is, moreover, to be observed, that by the mode of expression 
which is employed, every form of superstition is denounced. Being 
works of men, they have no authority from God, (Isa. 2: 8, 31: 7; 
Hos. 14: 3; Mic. 5: 13;) and, therefore, it must be regarded as a 
fixed principle, that all modes of worship devised by man are 
detestable. The infatuation is placed in a still stronger light by 
the Psalmist, (Psalm 115: 8,) when he shows how aid is implored from 
dead and senseless objects, by beings who have been endued with 
intelligence for the very purpose of enabling them to know that the 
whole universe is governed by Divine energy alone. But as the 
corruption of nature hurries away all mankind collectively and 
individually into this madness, the Spirit at length thunders forth 
a dreadful imprecation, "They that make them are like unto them, so 
is every one that trusteth in them." And it is to be observed, that 
the thing forbidden is likeness, whether sculptured or otherwise. 
This disposes of the frivolous precaution taken by the Greek Church. 
They think they do admirably, because they have no sculptured shape 
of Deity, while none go greater lengths in the licentious use of 
pictures. The Lord, however, not only forbids any image of himself 
to be erected by a statuary, but to be formed by any artist 
whatever, because every such image is sinful and insulting to his 
    5. I am not ignorant, indeed, of the assertion, which is now 
more than threadbare, "that images are the books of the unlearned." 
So said Gregory: a but the Holy Spirit goes a very different 
decision; and had Gregory got his lesson in this matter in the 
Spirit's school, he never would have spoken as he did. For when 
Jeremiah declares that "the stock is a doctrine of vanities," (Jer. 
10: 8,) and Habakkuk, "that the molten image" is "a teacher of 
lies," the general doctrine to be inferred certainly is, that every 
thing respecting God which is learned from images is futile and 
false. If it is objected that the censure of the prophets is 
directed against those who perverted images to purposes of impious 
superstition, I admit it to be so; but I add, (what must be obvious 
to all,) that the prophets utterly condemn what the Papists hold to 
be an undoubted axiom, viz., that images are substitutes for books. 
For they contrast images with the true God, as if the two were of an 
opposite nature, and never could be made to agree. In the passages 
which I lately quoted, the conclusion drawn is, that seeing there is 
one true God whom the Jews worshipped, visible shapes made for the 
purpose of representing him are false and wicked fictions; and all, 
therefore, who have recourse to them for knowledge are miserably 
deceived. In short, were it not true that all such knowledge is 
fallacious and spurious, the prophets would not condemn it in such 
general terms. This at least I maintain, that when we teach that all 
human attempts to give a visible shape to God are vanity and lies, 
we do nothing more than state verbatim what the prophets taught. 
    6. Moreover, let Lactantius and Eusebius be read on this 
subject. These writers assume it as an indisputable fact, that all 
the beings whose images were erected were originally men. In like 
manner, Augustine distinctly declares, that it is unlawful not only 
to worship images, but to dedicate them. And in this he says no more 
than had been long before decreed by the Libertine Council, the 
thirty-sixth Canon of which is, "There must be no pictures used in 
churches: Let nothing which is adored or worshipped be painted on 
walls." But the most memorable passage of all is that which 
Augustine quotes in another place from Varro, and in which he 
expressly concurs: - "Those who first introduced images of the gods 
both took away fear and brought in error." Were this merely the 
saying of Varro, it might perhaps be of little weight, though it 
might well make us ashamed, that a heathen, groping as it were in 
darkness, should have attained to such a degree of light, as to see 
that corporeal images are unworthy of the majesty of God, and that, 
because they diminish reverential fear and encourage error. The 
sentiment itself bears witness that it was uttered with no less 
truth than shrewdness. But Augustine, while he borrows it from 
Varro, adduces it as conveying his own opinion. At the outset, 
indeed, he declares that the first errors into which men fell 
concerning God did not originate with images, but increased with 
them, as if new fuel had been added. Afterwards, he explains how the 
fear of God was thereby extinguished or impaired, his presence being 
brought into contempt by foolish, and childish, and absurd 
representations. The truth of this latter remark I wish we did not 
so thoroughly experience. Whosoever, therefore, is desirous of being 
instructed in the true knowledge of God must apply to some other 
teacher than images. 
    7. Let Papists, then, if they have any sense of shame, 
henceforth desist from the futile plea, that images are the books of 
the unlearned - a plea so plainly refuted by innumerable passages of 
Scripture. And yet were I to admit the plea, it would not be a valid 
defence of their peculiar idols. It is well known what kind of 
monsters they obtrude upon us as divine. For what are the pictures 
or statues to which they append the names of saints, but exhibitions 
of the most shameless luxury or obscenity? Were any one to dress 
himself after their model, he would deserve the pillory. Indeed, 
brothels exhibit their inmates more chastely and modestly dressed 
than churches do images intended to represent virgins. The dress of 
the martyrs is in no respect more becoming. Let Papists then have 
some little regard to decency in decking their idols, if they would 
give the least plausibility to the false allegation, that they are 
books of some kind of sanctity. But even then we shall answer, that 
this is not the method in which the Christian people should be 
taught in sacred places. Very different from these follies is the 
doctrine in which God would have them to be there instructed. His 
injunction is, that the doctrine common to all should there be set 
forth by the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the 
sacraments, - a doctrine to which little heed can be given by those 
whose eyes are carried too and fro gazing at idols. And who are the 
unlearned, whose rudeness admits of being taught by images only? 
Just those whom the Lord acknowledges for his disciples; those whom 
he honours with a revelation of his celestial philosophy, and 
desires to be trained in the saving mysteries of his kingdom. I 
confess, indeed, as matters now are, there are not a few in the 
present day who cannot want such books. But, I ask, whence this 
stupidity, but just because they are defrauded of the only doctrine 
which was fit to instruct them? The simple reason why those who had 
the charge of churches resigned the office of teaching to idols was, 
because they themselves were dumb. Paul declares, that by the true 
preaching of the gospel Christ is portrayed and in a manner 
crucified before our eyes, (Gal. 3: 1.) Of what use, then, were the 
erection in churches of so many crosses of wood and stone, silver 
and gold, if this doctrine were faithfully and honestly preached, 
viz., Christ died that he might bear our curse upon the tree, that 
he might expiate our sins by the sacrifice of his body, wash them in 
his blood, and, in short, reconcile us to God the Father? From this 
one doctrine the people would learn more than from a thousand 
crosses of wood and stone. As for crosses of gold and silver, it may 
be true that the avaricious give their eyes and minds to them more 
eagerly than to any heavenly instructor. 
    8. In regard to the origin of idols, the statement contained in 
the Book of Wisdom has been received with almost universal consent, 
viz., that they originated with those who bestowed this honour on 
the dead, from a superstitious regard to their memory. I admit that 
this perverse practice is of very high antiquity, and I deny not 
that it was a kind of torch by which the infatuated proneness of 
mankind to idolatry was kindled into a greater blaze. I do not, 
however, admit that it was the first origin of the practice. That 
idols were in use before the prevalence of that ambitious 
consecration of the images of the dead, frequently adverted to by 
profane writers, is evident from the words of Moses, (Gen. 31: 19.) 
When he relates that Rachel stole her father's images, he speaks of 
the use of idols as a common vice. Hence we may infer, that the 
human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols. There was a 
kind of renewal of the world at the deluge, but before many years 
elapse, men are forging gods at will. There is reason to believe, 
that in the holy Patriarch's lifetime his grandchildren were given 
to idolatry: so that he must with his own eyes, not without the 
deepest grief, have seen the earth polluted with idols - that earth 
whose iniquities God had lately purged with so fearful a judgement. 
For Joshua testifies, (Josh. 24: 2,) that Torah and Nachor, even 
before the birth of Abraham, were the worshipers of false gods. The 
progeny of Shem having so speedily revolted, what are we to think of 
the posterity of Ham, who had been cursed long before in their 
father? Thus, indeed, it is. The human mind, stuffed as it is with 
presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own 
capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest 
ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place 
of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus 
conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in 
this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth. That 
idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not 
present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited, appears 
from the example of the Israelites: "Up," said they, "make us gods, 
which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that 
brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wet not what is become of 
him," (Exod. 22: 1.) They knew, indeed, that there was a God whose 
mighty power they had experienced in so many miracles, but they had 
no confidence of his being near to them, if they did not with their 
eyes behold a corporeal symbol of his presence, as an attestation to 
his actual government. They desired, therefore, to be assured by the 
image which went before them, that they were journeying under Divine 
guidance. And daily experience shows, that the flesh is always 
restless until it has obtained some figment like itself, with which 
it may vainly solace itself as a representation of God. In 
consequence of this blind passion men have, almost in all ages since 
the world began, set up signs on which they imagined that God was 
visibly depicted to their eyes. 
    9. After such a figment is formed, adoration forthwith ensues: 
for when once men imagined that they beheld God in images, they also 
worshipped him as being there. At length their eyes and minds 
becoming wholly engrossed by them, they began to grow more and more 
brutish, gazing and wondering as if some divinity were actually 
before them. It hence appears that men do not fall away to the 
worship of images until they have imbibed some idea of a grosser 
description: not that they actually believe them to be gods, but 
that the power of divinity somehow or other resides in them. 
Therefore, whether it be God or a creature that is imaged, the 
moment you fall prostrate before it in veneration, you are so far 
fascinated by superstition. For this reason, the Lord not only 
forbade the erection of statues to himself, but also the 
consecration of titles and stones which might be set up for 
adoration. For the same reason, also, the second commandment has an 
additional part concerning adoration. For as soon as a visible form 
is given to God, his power also is supposed to be annexed to it. So 
stupid are men, that wherever they figure God, there they fix him, 
and by necessary consequence proceed to adore him. It makes no 
difference whether they worship the idol simply, or God in the idol; 
it is always idolatry when divine honours are paid to an idol, be 
the colour what it may. And because God wills not to be worshipped 
superstitiously whatever is bestowed upon idols is so much robbed 
from him. 
    Let those attend to this who set about hunting for miserable 
pretexts in defence of the execrable idolatry in which for many past 
ages true religion has been buried and sunk. It is said that the 
images are not accounted gods. Nor were the Jews so utterly 
thoughtless as not to remember that there was a God whose hand led 
them out of Egypt before they made the calf. Indeed, Aaron saying, 
that these were the gods which had brought them out of Egypt, they 
intimated, in no ambiguous terms, that they wished to retain God, 
their deliverer, provided they saw him going before them in the 
calf. Nor are the heathen to be deemed to have been so stupid as not 
to understand that God was something else than wood and stone. For 
they changed the images at pleasure, but always retained the same 
gods in their minds; besides, they daily consecrated new images 
without thinking they were making new gods. Read the excuses which 
Augustine tells us were employed by the idolaters of his time, 
(August. in Ps. 113). The vulgar, when accused, replied that they 
did not worship the visible object, but the Deity which dwelt in it 
invisibly. Those, again, who had what he calls a more refined 
religion, said, that they neither worshipped the image, nor any 
inhabiting Deity, but by means of the corporeal image beheld a 
symbol of that which it was their duty to worship. What then? All 
idolaters whether Jewish or Gentile, were actuated in the very way 
which has been described. Not contented with spiritual 
understanding, they thought that images would give them a surer and 
nearer impression. When once this preposterous representation of God 
was adopted, there was no limit until, deluded every now and then by 
new impostures, they came to think that God exerted his power in 
images. Still the Jews were persuaded, that under such images they 
worshipped the eternal God, the one true Lord of heaven and earth; 
and the Gentiles, also, in worshipping their own false gods, 
supposed them to dwell in heaven. 
    10. It is an impudent falsehood to deny that the thing which 
was thus anciently done is also done in our day. For why do men 
prostrate themselves before images? Why, when in the act of praying, 
do they turn towards them as to the ears of God? It is indeed true, 
as Augustine says, (in Ps. 113,) that no person thus prays or 
worships, looking at an image, without being impressed with the idea 
that he is heard by it, or without hoping that what he wishes will 
be performed by it. Why are such distinctions made between different 
images of the same God, that while one is passed by, or receives 
only common honour, another is worshipped with the highest 
solemnities? Why do they fatigue themselves with votive pilgrimages 
to images while they have many similar ones at home? Why at the 
present time do they fight for them to blood and slaughter, as for 
their altars and hearths, showing more willingness to part with the 
one God than with their idols? And yet I am not now detailing the 
gross errors of the vulgar - errors almost infinite in number, and 
in possession of almost all hearts. I am only referring to what 
those profess who are most desirous to clear themselves of idolatry. 
They say, we do not call them our gods. Nor did either the Jews or 
Gentiles of old so call them; and yet the prophets never ceased to 
charge them with their adulteries with wood and stone for the very 
acts which are daily done by those who would be deemed Christians, 
namely, for worshipping God carnally in wood and stone. 
    11. I am not ignorant, however, and I have no wish to disguise 
the fact, that they endeavour to evade the charge by means of a more 
subtle distinction, which shall afterwards be fully considered, (see 
infra, s. 16, and chap. 12 s. 2.) The worship which they pay to 
their images they cloak with the name of "idolodulia", and deny to 
be "idolatria". So they speaks holding that the worship which they 
call "dulia" may, without insult to God, be paid to statues and 
pictures. Hence, they think themselves blameless if they are only 
the servants, and not the worshipers, of idols; as if it were not a 
lighter matter to worship than to serve. And yet, while they take 
refuge in a Greek term, they very childishly contradict themselves. 
For the Greek word "latreuein" having no other meaning than to 
worship, what they say is just the same as if they were to confess 
that they worship their images without worshipping them. They cannot 
object that I am quibbling upon words. The fact is, that they only 
betray their ignorance while they attempt to throw dust in the eyes 
of the simple. But how eloquent soever they may be, they will never 
prove by their eloquence that one and the same thing makes two. Let 
them show how the things differ if they would be thought different 
from ancient idolaters. For as a murderer or an adulterer will not 
escape conviction by giving some adventitious name to his crime, so 
it is absurd for them to expect that the subtle device of a name 
will exculpate them, if they, in fact, differ in nothing from 
idolaters whom they themselves are forced to condemn. But so far are 
they from proving that their case is different, that the source of 
the whole evil consists in a preposterous rivalship with them, while 
they with their minds devise, and with their hands execute, 
symbolical shapes of God. 
    12. I am not, however, so superstitious as to think that all 
visible representations of every kind are unlawful. But as sculpture 
and painting are gifts of God, what I insist for is, that both shall 
be used purely and lawfully, - that gifts which the Lord has 
bestowed upon us, for his glory and our good, shall not be 
preposterously abused, nay, shall not be perverted to our 
destruction. We think it unlawful to give a visible shape to God, 
because God himself has forbidden it, and because it cannot be done 
without, in some degree, tarnishing his glory. And lest any should 
think that we are singular in this opinion, those acquainted with 
the productions of sound divines will find that they have always 
disapproved of it. If it be unlawful to make any corporeal 
representation of God, still more unlawful must it be to worship 
such a representation instead of God, or to worship God in it. The 
only things, therefore, which ought to be painted or sculptured, are 
things which can be presented to the eye; the majesty of God, which 
is far beyond the reach of any eye, must not be dishonored by 
unbecoming representations. Visible representations are of two 
classes, viz., historical, which give a representation of events, 
and pictorial, which merely exhibit bodily shapes and figures. The 
former are of some use for instruction or admonition. The latter, so 
far as I can see, are only fitted for amusement. And yet it is 
certain, that the latter are almost the only kind which have 
hitherto been exhibited in churches. Hence we may infer, that the 
exhibition was not the result of judicious selection, but of a 
foolish and inconsiderate longing. I say nothing as to the improper 
and unbecoming form in which they are presented, or the wanton 
license in which sculptors and painters have here indulged, (a point 
to which I alluded a little ago, supra, s. 7.) I only say, that 
though they were otherwise faultless, they could not be of any 
utility in teaching. 
    13. But, without reference to the above distinction, let us 
here consider, whether it is expedient that churches should contain 
representations of any kind, whether of events or human forms. 
First, then, if we attach any weight to the authority of the ancient 
Church, let us remember, that for five hundred years, during which 
religion was in a more prosperous condition, and a purer doctrine 
flourished, Christian churches were completely free from visible 
representations, (see Preface, and Book 4, c. 9 s. 9.) Hence their 
first admission as an ornament to churches took place after the 
purity of the ministry had somewhat degenerated. I will not dispute 
as to the rationality of the grounds on which the first introduction 
of them proceeded, but if you compare the two periods, you will find 
that the latter had greatly declined from the purity of the times 
when images were unknown. What then? Are we to suppose that those 
holy fathers, if they had judged the thing to be useful and 
salutary, would have allowed the Church to be so long without it? 
Undoubtedly, because they saw very little or no advantage, and the 
greatest danger in it, they rather rejected it intentionally and on 
rational grounds, than omitted it through ignorance or carelessness. 
This is clearly attested by Augustine in these words, (Ep. 49. See 
also De Civit. Dei, lib 4 c. 31) "When images are thus placed aloft 
in seats of honour, to be beheld by those who are praying or 
sacrificing, though they have neither sense nor life, yet from 
appearing as if they had both, they affect weak minds just as if 
they lived and breathed," &c. And again, in another passage, (in Ps. 
112) he says, "The effect produced, and in a manner extorted, by the 
bodily shape, is, that the mind, being itself in a body, imagines 
that a body which is so like its oven must be similarly affected," 
&c. A little farther on he says, "Images are more capable of giving 
a wrong bent to an unhappy soul, from having mouth, eyes, ears, and 
feet, than of correcting it, as they neither speak, nor see, nor 
hear, nor walk." This undoubtedly is the reason why John (1 John 5: 
21) enjoins us to beware, not only of the worship of idols, but also 
of idols themselves. And from the fearful infatuation under which 
the world has hitherto laboured, almost to the entire destruction of 
piety, we know too well from experience that the moment images 
appear in churches, idolatry has as it were raised its banner; 
because the folly of manhood cannot moderate itself, but forthwith 
falls away to superstitious worship. Even were the danger less 
imminent, still, when I consider the proper end for which churches 
are erected, it appears to me more unbecoming their sacredness than 
I well can tell, to admit any other images than those living symbols 
which the Lord has consecrated by his own word: I mean Baptism and 
the Lord's Supper, with the other ceremonies. By these our eyes 
ought to be more steadily fixed, and more vividly impressed, than to 
require the aid of any images which the wit of man may devise. Such, 
then, is the incomparable blessing of images - a blessing, the want 
of which, if we believe the Papists, cannot possibly be compensated! 
    14. Enough, I believe, would have been said on this subject, 
were I not in a manner arrested by the Council of Nice; not the 
celebrated Council which Constantine the Great assembled, but one 
which was held eight hundred years ago by the orders and under the 
auspices of the Empress Irene. This Council decreed not only that 
images were to be used in churches, but also that they were to be 
worshipped. Every thing, therefore, that I have said, is in danger 
of suffering great prejudice from the authority of this Synod. To 
confess the truth, however, I am not so much moved by this 
consideration, as by a wish to make my readers aware of the lengths 
to which the infatuation has been  carried by those who had a 
greater fondness for images than became Christians. But let us first 
dispose of this matter. Those who defend the use of images appeal to 
that Synod for support. But there is a refutation extant which bears 
the name of Charlemagne, and which is proved by its style to be a 
production of that period. It gives the opinions delivered by the 
bishops who were present, and the arguments by which they supported 
them. John, deputy of the Eastern Churches, said, "God created man 
in his own image," and thence inferred that images ought to be used. 
He also thought there was a recommendation of images in the 
following passage, "Show me thy face, for it is beautiful." Another, 
in order to prove that images ought to be placed on altars, quoted 
the passage, "No man, when he has lighted a candle, putteth it under 
a bushel." Another, to show the utility of looking at images, quoted 
a verse of the Psalms "The light of thy countenance, O Lord, has 
shone upon us." Another laid hold of this similitude: As the 
Patriarchs used the sacrifices of the Gentiles, so ought Christians 
to use the images of saints instead of the idols of the Gentiles. 
They also twisted to the same effect the words, "Lord, I have loved 
the beauty of thy house." But the most ingenious interpretation was 
the following, "As we have heard, so also have we seen;" therefore, 
God is known not merely by the hearing of the word, but also by the 
seeing of images. Bishop Theodore was equally acute: "God," says he, 
"is to be admired in his saints;" and it is elsewhere said, "To the 
saints who are on earth;" therefore this must refer to images. In 
short, their absurdities are so extreme that it is painful even to 
quote them. 
    15. When they treat of adoration, great stress is laid on the 
worship of Pharaoh, the staff of Joseph, and the inscription which 
Jacob set up. In this last case they not only pervert the meaning of 
Scripture, but quote what is nowhere to be found. Then the passages, 
"Worship at his footstool" - "Worship in his holy mountain" - "The 
rulers of the people will worship before thy face," seem to them 
very solid and apposite proofs. Were one, with the view of turning 
the defenders of images into ridicule, to put words into their 
mouths, could they be made to utter greater and grosser absurdities? 
But to put an end to all doubt on the subject of images, Theodosius 
Bishop of Mira confirms the propriety of worshipping them by the 
dreams of his archdeacon, which he adduces with as much gravity as 
if he were in possession of a response from heaven. Let the patrons 
of images now go and urge us with the decree of this Synod, as if 
the venerable Fathers did not bring themselves into utter discredit 
by handling Scripture so childishly, or wresting it so shamefully 
and profanely. 
    16. I come now to monstrous impieties, which it is strange they 
ventured to utter, and twice strange that all men did not protest 
against with the utmost detestation. It is right to expose this 
frantic and flagitious extravagance, and thereby deprive the worship 
of images of that gloss of antiquity in which Papists seek to deck 
it. Theodosius Bishop of Amora fires oft an anathema at all who 
object to the worship of images. Another attributes all the 
calamities of Greece and the East to the crime of not having 
worshipped them. Of what punishment then are the Prophets, Apostles, 
and Martyrs worthy, in whose day no images existed? They afterwards 
add, that if the statue of the Emperor is met with odours and 
incense, much more are the images of saints entitled to the honour. 
Constantius, Bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, professes to embrace 
images with reverence, and declares that he will pay them the 
respect which is due to the ever blessed Trinity: every person 
refusing to do the same thing he anathematises and classes with 
Marcionites and Manichees. Lest you should think this the private 
opinion of an individual, they all assent. Nay, John the Eastern 
legate, carried still farther by his zeal, declares it would be 
better to allow a city to be filled with brothels than be denied the 
worship of images. At last it is resolved with one consent that the 
Samaritans are the worst of all heretics, and that the enemies of 
images are worse than the Samaritans. But that the play may not pass 
off without the accustomed Plaudite, the whole thus concludes, 
"Rejoice and exult, ye who, having the image of Christ, offer 
sacrifice to it." Where is now the distinction of latria and dulia 
with which they would throw dust in all eyes, human and divine? The 
Council unreservedly relies as much on images as on the living God. 

Calvin, Institutes on the Christian Religion, Volume 1
(continued in part 10...)

file: /pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl-04:cvin1-09.txt