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The Folly of Images: Calvin’s Institutes Family Devotional (Lesson 11)

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Calvin’s Institutes — Family Devotional Edition

Lesson 11

The Folly of Images

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 contrasts him in particular to idols so that it may better expose the folly of the world—in which everyone clings to his own speculations. The exclusive definition of God we find in Scripture annihilates every deity men frame for themselves of their own accord. God is, after all, the only fit witness to himself. A brutish stupidity, however, has overspread the globe in the meantime, with men longing after visible forms of God and thus 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, 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 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.

We know that the Sun was worshipped by the Persians. 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. 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.

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,” etc. 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. 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? When Paul refuted the error of giving a bodily shape to God, he was addressing not Jews, but Athenians.

I am not ignorant of the assertion which is now more than threadbare, “that images are the books of the unlearned.” So said Gregory. The Holy Spirit, however, gives a very different decision, and had Gregory gotten 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 everything 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: 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 I just quoted, the conclusion drawn is that since there is one true God whom the Jews worshiped, visible shapes made for the purpose of representing him are false and wicked fictions. 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.

Questions for Devotion

  1. From what source does the basic impulse to create images of gods arise?
  2. What is the result when any image is assigned to God?
  3. Cite three Scriptures from Moses, the Prophets, and Paul, that support the prohibition against images.
  4. What should be the answer to those who say that images in the church are necessary for the unlearned?

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