calvino-small-300x214John Calvin

1. God is opposed to idols, that all He may know is the only fit witness to Himself. He expressly forbids any attempt to represent Him by a bodily shape.

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 subtly 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 impious1 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 that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exo 20:4). By these words He curbs any licentious2 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 worshiped 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 worshiping 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.

2. Reasons for this prohibition from Moses, Isaiah, and Paul. This may easily be inferred from the reasons which He annexes to His prohibition. First, it is said in the books of Moses, “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. (Deu 4:15-16). 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 copious3 on this subject (Isa 40:18; 41:7, 29; 45:9; 46:5), in order to show how the majesty of God is defiled by an absurd and indecorous4 fiction, when He who is incorporeal5 is assimilated to corporeal6 matter; He who is invisible to a visible image; He who is a spirit to an inanimate7 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,” (Act 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’s8 complaint, as given by Augustine9 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.”10 Hence, again, it is obvious, that the defenders of images resort to a paltry quibbling evasion,11 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 essence 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.

1. impious – irreverent toward God; contemptuous toward God and His Law.
2. licentious – unrestrained by law or morality.
3. copious – abounding in thoughts or words.
4. indecorous – unbecoming; inappropriate.
5. incorporeal – not composed of matter; having no material existence.
6. corporeal – bodily.
7. inanimate – not living; destitute of life.
8. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65) – Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman.
9. Augustine (AD 354-430) – Bishop of Hippo, early church theologian known by many as the
father of orthodox theology; born in Tagaste, North Africa.
10. Aurelius Augustine, City of God, Book 6 chapter 10.
11. paltry quibbling evasion – avoidance of truth by raising trivial, insignificant objections.

From Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol I, xi. Beveridge Translation (1845).

John Calvin (1509-1564): the father of Reformed theology. During his ministry in
Geneva, lasting nearly twenty-five years, Calvin lectured to theological students
and preached an average of five sermons a week. He wrote commentaries on nearly
every book of the Bible and numerous treatises on theological topics. His correspondence
fills eleven volumes. Born in Noyon, Picardie, France.

Published with permission of Chapel Library.