An Orthodox Response to John Calvin on Icons: The Rhetoric of the Reformation

Rhetoric and the Reformation

Ever since the Protestant Reformation, there has been varied opposition among Christians to religious or devotional artwork—what Orthodox Christians generally refer to as holy icons.

As I have noted before, the Reformers were not all in agreement on this subject, with some allowing religious artwork and a limited veneration of both the Cross and Eucharist, others allowing their presence in church buildings while completely opposing their veneration or religious use, and the rest opposing both their proper use and existence altogether. And it’s that last position of certain Reformers—known to Orthodox Christians as iconoclasts—to whom I’d like to respond with this present article.

Remarkably, the iconoclast arguments against holy icons have changed very little, if at all, since the sixteenth century—largely a combination of bombastic rhetoric and misleading caricatures of the iconodules and their beliefs. While there were many Reformers writing and preaching against icons and relics before him, there’s likely no more influential person on this subject than John Calvin.

A French lawyer and later pastor of Geneva, Calvin’s magnum opus was the Institutes of the Christian Religion. This work began in 1536, was revised and expanded a number of times, and came to its ultimate completion before his death in 1559. Since Calvin refers to the 1559 edition as a “new work” in comparison to earlier iterations—working even on his deathbed to ensure its completion[1. T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography, pp. 161–164]—I’ll refer alone to this final edition as translated into English by Ford Lewis Battles.[2. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960] His primary discussion on icons can be found in Book 1, chapter 11, sections 1–16.

Not unlike Luther’s opponents on this same issue (e.g. Münzer and Karlstadt), Calvin offers colorful rhetoric when it comes to his arguments against the use or existence of religious icons. Light on actual argument—or even logic—Reformers opposing both religious imagery and relics would move from one degree of rhetoric to another in their polemical tracts and sermons.

In Von Abtuhung der Bilder, Andreas Karlstadt uses a lopsided conversation with the Pope to convince peasants of his position against images. While physical images are opposed by Karlstadt, he uses language to paint a most drastic picture against them:

It is indeed ironic that in a writing which is directed so massively against the misuse of material images, there is a curious naivety about the way in which verbal images, similes, and metaphors are used to create vivid visualisations which provoke pity, derision, disgust, outrage and anger. Traditional piety, for example, because of its monetary aspects, is described as a flea-market, a grempell marckt. Towards the climax of the writing the sexual theme becomes prominent; the image-worshipper is described as a whore, the Church as a brothel. The technique of association is frequent: the Pope is associated with the devil, the priests’ teachings with the plague.[3. Peter Matheson, The Rhetoric of the Reformation, p. 174]

Also common to Reformation polemics was a strong dualism between good and evil—you are either with God or for the devil:

The world is divided between true worshippers and idolatrous non-Christians. God and the devil confront one another. Everything is seen in terms of black and white, of extremes, of the sharpest of contrasts. Moses forbids the adoration of images; Gregory VII commends it. God is faithful, while Israel constantly rebels. The language continually rams home the message that the reader has to make a radical choice between the things of the Spirit and the things of the flesh, between outward appearances and inner reality or power; between pretence and authentic truth; between mere images, Bilder, which seduce, and books, Bücher, which instruct (note the alliteration in the German!); between the authority of the Pope and that of God; between Scripture and the devil, decked out in human customs and authority …

The ultimate dualism is that of the transcendence of God and the materiality of images, which are but stick and stone, are deaf, dumb and blind; they can neither teach nor learn; are flesh, and nothing but flesh.[4. ibid., p. 176]

In the Institutes, Calvin uses similar language in his polemic against religious artwork. The inclination towards images is “brute stupidity” and “impious falsehood,” the result of a “rude and stupid wit” that plagues the whole lot of “common folk” (1.11.1). Writing of two-dimensional icons directly, Calvin laments the “foolish scruple” of the “Greek Christians” (1.11.4):

For they consider that they have acquitted themselves beautifully if they do not make sculptures of God, while they wantonly indulge in pictures more than any other nation. But the Lord forbids not only that a likeness be erected to him by a maker of statues but that one be fashioned by any craftsman whatever, because he is thus represented falsely and with an insult to his majesty.

Ignoring for the moment Calvin’s actual nugget of an argument here, I think it’s demonstrable that Calvin relies just as heavily on rhetoric and dualism—false dichotomies, if you will—as Karlstadt, Münzer, and the rest. While these tracts and sermons make for amusing reading, they do nothing to either advance or retreat any particular argument. They are—like their authors’ often physical manifestations of such—an iconoclastic destruction of their opponents, rather than their beliefs.

The real danger with this rhetoric, whether written or preached, was the way in which it directed the Humanistic-born, rebellious anger of the “common folk.” The over-the-top style eventually led to the literal destruction of countless churches, relics, crosses, statues, icons, and even whole towns of the German countryside.

Matheson, for example, remarks on the conclusion of Karlstadt’s treatise:

As the little tract moves towards its end there is a shift from argument to emotional appeal; the surge of anger is based on God’s own abhorrence of images, and with it comes an urgent call to action. For God is a God who speaks and expects to be obeyed. The eyes of all the world are upon the Germans. A reformation, a genuine Christian order, is urgently needed … But action is now required. The language becomes cruder and even violent, mirroring the need to destroy, knock down, burn the images.[5. Peter Matheson, The Rhetoric of the Reformation, pp. 178–179]

This rebellion—much to his regret and lament—inspired Luther to write a number of pointed treatises against iconoclasts, and in particular against Andreas Karlstadt.[6. e.g. Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, ca. 1525] While Luther and Calvin would ultimately part ways over their different interpretations of the Real Presence in the celebration of the Eucharist, they were also in substantial disagreement with regards to religous artwork.

In the end, if there is to be any real understanding between Orthodox Christians and Protestants on this issue, rhetoric alone is not the answer. And as we will soon see (in future articles), unhelpful caricatures of the iconodule position—associating Christian icons, the Cross, relics, and the Eucharist with pagan idols and idolatry, for example—are not only useless, but are also easily answered by a thoughtful Orthodox Christian. And even from the scriptures alone.

One comment:

  1. Last year I visited St Andrews, Scotland. While I was walking around the ruins of the cathedral, I lamented the rash behavior of those inspired by John Knox to tear it down and desecrate the graves in the cathedral. I kept thinking to myself: This was a mistake.

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