John Calvin Didn’t Oppose All Religious Images

John Calvin Didn’t Oppose All Religious Images April 10, 2023

Sergiusz Michalski wrote in his book, Reformation and the Visual Arts: The Protestant Image Question in Western and Eastern Europe, New York: Routledge, 1993:

Calvin, somewhat contradictorily, allowed the keeping of holy images in private homes…he left an open field for narrative biblical scenes—especially from the Old Testament— and for secular art. Of decisive importance was the removal of works of art from the sacral sphere, from places of worship; in profane places an image took on an entirely different meaning…Calvin stated his position clearly: ‘Certainly, it is permissible to make use of images; however, God wishes his temple to be freed from images. If in a secular place, however, we have a portrait or a representation of animals, this is not harmful to religion…even idols kept in such places are not worshipped’ (pp. 70-71)

Thus Calvin regarded ‘histories’ or landscapes as the two main subjects of pictorial art. A similar view was espoused by Zwingli’s successor Heinrich Bullinger in his tract against images of 1539, On the Origin of Divine Worship and of False Images. . . .

Whether his brief suggestions for painting landscapes were that much read or conscientiously followed remains another matter. . . . the influence of Calvin’s directives proved to be not that great in Geneva . . . Thus in 1580 all religious images — even in printed books — were banned. (p. 72)

Calvin stated in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

I am not, however, so superstitious as to think that all visible representations of every kind are unlawful [“. . . of thinking absolutely no images permissible.”]. 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. . . .

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. (Book I, ch. 11, sec. 12, in the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1846, from the 1559 edition in Latin. Bracketed portion is from the translation of Ford Lewis Battles [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960], vol. 1, 112)

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. . . .

[W]hen 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, . . . (Book I, ch. 11, sec. 13)

Related Reading

Early Protestant Antipathy Towards Art (+ Iconoclasm) [1991]

Veneration of Images, Iconoclasm, and Idolatry (An Exposition) [11-15-02]

Martin Luther on Crucifixes, Images and Statues of Saints, and the Sign of the Cross [4-15-08]

Bible on Physical Objects as Aids in Worship [4-7-09]

Calvin, Zwingli, and Bullinger vs. Statues of Christ, Crucifixes, & Crosses [9-19-09]

Crucifixes: Abominable Idols or Devotional Aids? [11-10-09]

“Turretinfan” Calls a Statue of Jesus Christ an “Idol” (While His Buddy Bishop James White Praises the Statues of “Reformers” Calvin, Farel, Beza, and Knox) [6-8-10; rev. 6-24-20]

Biblical Evidence for Worship of God Via an Image [6-24-11]

The Bronze Serpent: Example of Proper Use of Images [Feb. 2012]

“Graven Images”: Unbiblical Iconoclasm (vs. John Calvin) [Oct. 2012]

Biblical Idolatry: Authentic & Counterfeit Conceptions [2015]

Should God the Father be Visually Depicted in Paintings? [2015]

Worshiping God Through Images is Entirely Biblical [National Catholic Register, 12-23-16]

The Biblical Understanding of Holy Places and Things [National Catholic Register, 4-11-17]

“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #9: Images & Relics [3-2-17]

Statues in Relation to Bowing, Prayer, & Worship in Scripture [12-26-17]

Biblical Evidence for Veneration of Saints and Images [National Catholic Register, 10-23-18]

Eucharistic Adoration: Explicit & Undeniable Biblical Analogies [2-1-19]

Crucifixes: Devotional Aids or Wicked Idols? [National Catholic Register, 1-15-20]

Crucifixes & Worship Images: “New” (?) Biblical Arguments [1-18-20]

Was Moses’ Bronze Serpent an Idolatrous “Graven Image?” [National Catholic Register, 2-17-20]

St. Newman vs. Inconsistent Protestant Iconoclasts [3-21-20]

Golden Calf Idolatry vs. Carved Cherubim on Ark of the Covenant [National Catholic Register, 1-7-21]

Reply to Baptist Gavin Ortlund’s Critique of Icons [5-19-22]

St. Augustine, St. Basil the Great, & Veneration of Images (+ St. Augustine’s Enthusiastic Advocacy of Relics) [8-3-22]

Biblical Defense of Images and Icons (vs. Matt Hedges) [8-3-22]


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Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


Summary: Early Protestant leader John Calvin didn’t oppose absolutely all religious images. Private biblical paintings (“historical … representation of events”) were permitted.



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