What John Calvin Really Thought about Icons in the Church

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an October 2017 series of posts on the Reformation and Protestantism written by O&H authors and guest writers marking the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Articles are written by Orthodox Christians and discuss not just the Reformation as a historical event but also the spiritual heritage that descended from it.

December, 1524. A French wool carder named Jean Leclerc inconspicuously removes a bull of Pope Clement VII from the doors of the cathedral in Meaux. The bull promised indulgences, but Leclerc would not have it. In its place, he offered a rendering of Clement as the Antichrist.

He was soon found out, sentenced to a brutal and public lashing after a short trial in Paris. And in March of 1525 he received his punishment, being thereafter exiled from his home. But this did not deter Leclerc from future trouble making.

In the town of Metz, he continued his trade as a wool carder. For a while, he kept his contrary views to himself. But eventually, Jean found an opportunity to make a statement. He decided that on the occasion of the next holy procession to a shrine, he would make a definitive stand. The night before the procession was scheduled to take place, Leclerc took all of the icons and relics at the shrine and destroyed them.

The next day, worshipers were obviously in shock. Leclerc was discovered and arrested for his actions, being immediately sentenced to death. On July 22, 1525, tortured alive for all to see, he reportedly spoke in a calm voice: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.”

Leclerc is but one example of the radicalization of Protestant Christians in sixteenth century France.

Perhaps most well-known are the Huguenots and the bloody Protestant-Catholic wars that persisted to a climactic St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. And while torturing people to death for their religious beliefs is not something any of us would either condone or accept, the high stakes during this period of history make it clear there were passionate, and deeply held beliefs on either side.

But where did this anger come from? Why were common folk in France and other parts of Europe so suddenly angry at the very sight of images and relics?

Calvin and the French Influence

While he was forced to leave France by 1534, humanist and student of the law John Calvin published his first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, dedicating it to the king of France. And in 1539, the first Synod of Paris officially sought to organize the Protestant Church in France as a “Calvinist” one. Absent or not, Calvin and his theology were at the heart of the Protestant movement both in France and elsewhere in the sixteenth century.

Throughout his magnum opus, Calvin writes on a number of theological topics. Divided into four books, the eleventh chapter of his first volume deals specifically with the issue of sacred images or icons. Being so influential over Christianity in France, his words carried substantial weight. And while Calvin would later condemn the violent and public acts of iconoclasm (much like Luther), this did not prevent him from holding a pointedly negative view regarding their use both within the Christian church and in the private devotions of Christians.

As Orthodox Christians, we obviously hold icons to be holy and important objects. They are “windows into heaven,” as some have put it, and are a real way for us to be connected in the great communion of the Saints. They bridge the apparent divide between heaven and earth; between the heavenly eternity and the mutable present.

And so, on this monumental anniversary of the Reformation, I thought it might be prudent to examine what Calvin himself had to say about icons and then consider what we as Orthodox Christians believe. Public execution and torturing those who disagree with us is not the answer—as I’m sure we can all agree—but if these matters were so serious in the sixteenth century, they are no less serious today. Theology is important, and something as seemingly innocent as the images of Saints deserves a serious examination—and a serious response—when charges of idolatry or heresy are made.

All Images Are Idols?

Calvin first argues from the standpoint that we are forbidden by scripture to make any depiction or pictorial representation of God (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.11.1).

Following the instructions given to Moses, we should not make “… an idol nor a likeness of anything, whatever is in the heaven above and whatever is in the earth below and whatever is in the waters under the earth.” And before these objects we must not “bow down” or “worship” (Exodus 20:4–5). This seems relatively straightforward, until one considers the implication and the actual intended message.

As Orthodox Christians, we wholeheartedly agree that the invisible God, who is immaterial and uncircumscribable, cannot be depicted. Even if we wanted to, we could not accurately or faithfully represent God the Father. But who we have in the Incarnation is the “express image” (Heb. 1:3) of God the Father, the “icon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). In Jesus Christ we see God, and in his Incarnation, God reveals himself to us. While the Father and Spirit are both formless and invisible (1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 11:27; 1 John 4:20), the Person of the Son is revealed to us in the God-Man Jesus Christ: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

And so as Calvin laments a straw-man of false idols made from stone and silver (1.1.1), the Orthodox Christian need only reply that we are receiving and venerating the image of God he himself has given to us. If making an image of Jesus Christ is “superstitious” or “falsehood,” the first violation belongs to God himself. Calvin goes on to reinforce his argument by citing the example of Moses hiding in the rock (1.11.2), yet this is obviously a pre-Incarnational example of the immaterial God being hidden from our eyes. In Christ, we need no longer turn away, for God has given us a face to behold.

Images and Statues Contrary to Scripture

Following on his previous point, Calvin suggests that the very idea of images or forms depicting the invisible God is contrary to scripture. How dare anyone “confer God’s honor upon idols” (1.11.4)? For Calvin, scripture clearly associates superstitions with being the “works of men’s hands,” and not from God.

However, every example Calvin provides from the old covenant is an example of God’s people worshiping other gods or demons, not the one, true God.

As Orthodox Christians, we must also guard against superstition, and ensure that our veneration of icons and relics is pointed towards the one, true God. We must remember that our hope is in him and not any material thing. But to reject something good and holy just because it has potential for abuse would be, as Martin Luther himself once argued, to abolish the sky, food, and everyone we hold dear.

Images Make Bad Teachers

Next, Calvin reflects on the words of Pope Gregory the Great, who once wrote to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles regarding an act of iconoclasm.

Apparently, Christians in Marseilles were worshiping images and so the local clergy had them destroyed and removed from their churches. But Gregory rebukes Serenus and his fraternity for this act, explaining that of course they should not be worshiped (“adored”)—which is due to God alone—but are to remain in the churches so those “ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books” (Letter 105).

But to Calvin, images are not useful for instruction at all, especially when compared with books. Whatever can be learned from images is “futile” and “false” (1.11.5), an opinion he holds to be in line with the Prophets themselves. To this point Calvin returns in several more instances throughout the chapter (e.g. 1.11.7, 1.11.12). But is this really the case?

It seems possible Calvin was especially insistent on this point because a good portion of the Roman statuary and images of Saints in his day were influenced by a more Renaissance style (1.11.7). He notes that even some of these images were inappropriate for church, due to how they were dressed or positioned. Leaving that bit aside, how should Orthodox Christians respond to this historical (and scriptural) example?

Orthodox Christians do not approve the adoration or “worship” of icons, which should only be offered to the Holy Trinity. We do not worship icons as idols but rather pay them respect, as we might kiss the precious photograph of a loved one, or as an American citizen might salute the American flag. We are not worshiping the paper of a photograph or the fabric of a flag, but are rather paying respect and affection (“service” or δουλεία) to their prototype.

We affirm the words of St. Gregory the Great that any abuse or superstitions related to icons and relics should be condemned. In fact, the Church did this very thing during the deliberations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The letter to Serenus is not an opposing, patristic voice to the proper use of icons. St. Gregory stands firmly in the same tradition as Orthodox Christians to this day.

Gregory’s belief—contra Calvin—that icons could not only instruct the illiterate, but also lead men of all ages and educations to a proper contemplation of and encounter with the Divine, was a belief shared by many fathers of the Church. St. John of Damascus once wrote that “we are led by perceptible icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual” (PG 94:1261a). St. Gregory of Nyssa remarked that he could not see an icon of Abraham with Isaac “without tears” (PG 46:572). And finally, the Seventh Ecumenical Council reflects on Nyssa’s tears: “If to such a Doctor the picture was helpful and drew forth tears, how much more in the case of the ignorant and simple will it bring compunction and benefit?” (NPNF2 Vol. 14, p. 539).

Images Reflect a Later Corruption of the Church

Calvin also suggests that icons and statues were an abuse not found in the early Church.

He claims that “for about five hundred years, during which religion was still flourishing, and a purer doctrine thriving, Christian churches were commonly empty of images” (1.11.13). And while he does not expand on this point to a great extent, the insinuation is commonly held by enough authorities throughout the Reformation that it warrants a brief response.

By archaeology alone, we know today that images and pictorial representation were inextricably linked with the worship and piety of the earliest Christians.

The catacombs of Italy, for example, make this plain for anyone to see. The relics of martyrs were routinely placed beneath Eucharistic altars, with images of Mary, Saints, and Christ with his disciples on the walls and ceilings around those partaking of the most holy of Christian mysteries. And in Syria, we have the amazing house church of Dura Europos, a place with iconography in the Baptistry and place of worship (not to mention a nearby Jewish synagogue with much of the same).

There is also very little to suggest in the writings of the Church fathers that iconography, the veneration of icons and relics, or their placement in churches was any sort of later “corruption” or invention. Instead, we see a continual strain of support and respect for their proper usage, and the ultimate vindication of iconodules in the eighth century’s Second Council of Nicaea.

“Childish” Arguments of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

Calvin next turns his attention to the Second Council of Nicaea, held near the great city of Constantinople in the year 787. He laments that “a wicked Proserpine named Irene” was responsible for the Council dictating that images in church “should be worshiped” (1.11.14).

Much like the Franks before him, Calvin is utterly impaired in his evaluation of this Ecumenical Council due to a poorly (mis-)translated Latin edition. He in fact references the text of Charlemagne in this very section. Instead of an orthodox nuance between veneration and adoration (or “worship”), he sees an assembly of bishops and priests arguing for the worship of icons as if they were God himself. Unfortunately, most of Calvin’s evaluation of this event is based on the misleading fiction of the Carolingians, who had political—not theological—reasons for wishing to overturn and ignore the conclusions of this Council.

That said, it is worth pointing out that the Ecumenical Council does not promote the worship of images as God, and goes to great lengths to promote their proper and orthodox use. All scriptural arguments made in their deliberations (e.g. from Gen. 28:18, 47:10,31; Ps. 44:13; 98:5,9 LXX; Heb. 11:21) are ignored by Calvin, being merely dismissed outright as treating Scripture “childishly” and “foully” (1.11.15).

And so really, since Calvin fails to present any substantial or meaningful argument outside of a false translation of the Council and ignoring the actual arguments made therein—including from scripture—there is not much more to be said on our part. I do find it ironic that a man so passionate about all theology being based upon the scriptures is so quick to avoid an interaction with them and the holy fathers of this Council.

Misquoting and Misrepresenting Augustine

The final area we’ll cover is Calvin’s citations of Augustine as a supporter of his aniconic position.

Here again Calvin assumes that the earlier, more pure Christians would’ve obviously rejected images as impious and idolatrous. They certainly saw in images “no usefulness” (1.11.13). He then cites Augustine as an agreeable authority. Calvin writes:

Augustine even states this in clear words: “When they are established in these seats,” he says, “in honorable loftiness, so that they are attended by those who pray and those who sacrifice, by the very likeness of living members and senses—although they lack both sense and life—they affect infirm minds, so that they seem to live and breathe,” etc. And elsewhere, “For the shape of the idol’s bodily members makes and in a sense compels the mind dwelling in a body to suppose that the idol’s body too has feeling, because it looks very like its own body,” etc. A little later, “Images have more power to bend the unhappy soul, because they have mouth, eyes, ears, feet, than to straighten it, because they do not speak, or see, or hear, or walk.” (1.11.13)

However, if these letters of Augustine are read in context, it becomes immediately clear that the Bishop of Hippo has in mind the false idols of other religions. For example:

With all our desire, however, to be brief, this one thing we must by no means omit to remark, that the false gods, that is to say, the demons, which are lying angels, would never have required a temple, priesthood, sacrifice, and the other things connected with these from their worshipers, whom they deceive, had they not known that these things were due to the one true God. When, therefore, these things are presented to God according to His inspiration and teaching, it is true religion; but when they are given to demons in compliance with their impious pride, it is baneful superstition. (Letters 102.18)

In other words, idols and the veneration of false gods or “demons” are of course to be rejected, because these other religions are parroting the true worship and liturgy of Christianity. They are using our forms for the worship of a false deity. And for Augustine, the offerings and prayers of our Christian liturgy—including images—are “true religion,” when done according to the traditions of the Church (and when offered to the one, true God).

Later, Augustine emphasizes:

In the sacrifices appointed by the divine oracles there has been a diversity of institution corresponding to the age in which they were observed … so, in the complete cycle of the ages, when one kind of offering is known to have been made by the ancient saints, and another is presented by the saints in our time, this only shows that these sacred mysteries are celebrated not according to human presumption, but by divine authority, in the manner best adapted to the times. (Letters 102.21)

Far from “the work of men’s hands,” Augustine speaks of “divine authority” in contrast to “human presumption.”

Calvin’s appeals to Augustine on the subject of icons and relics is much like his appeal to the minutes of the Second Council of Nicaea: they are appeals based on both fiction and misrepresentation.

Concluding Thoughts

So what can Orthodox Christians take away from all of this?

First, it must be noted that there is much we hold in common with our Reformation brothers and sisters. Not everything that took place during the Reformation, and especially during the Magisterial Reformation, was in vain or without justification. The Western church of that era was certainly one in need of reform and correction, and we must remember that figures such as Martin Luther were not necessarily setting out to create a new church in their own image, but rather reform the church from within. In some cases, the latter meant appeals to the worship, theology, and practices of the “Greek Christians,” as with both Luther and the later Tübingen theologians.

Second, it may be possible that some of Calvin’s arguments or positions on the issue of images and relics was excessively influenced by both bad translations and the abuses of the Western church in his day. For the former, we may give him the benefit of the doubt to some degree—though this is more difficult in the case of his use of Augustine’s letters. For the latter, we likely agree to a certain extent on the impropriety of superstition and misuse when it comes to both images and relics. However, Eastern Christians are not entirely without blame in terms of abuses, as (for instance) the Patriarchate of Constantinople was known to (in the eighteenth century) offer indulgences—though this was isolated and not a widespread or accepted practice elsewhere in the Church.

Finally, we must also stand firm in our own beliefs related to iconography, as this is not some optional or secondary aspect of our beliefs as Orthodox Christians. This was made plain both during the first wave of Byzantine iconoclasm at the Seventh Ecumenical Council and in the ninth century by authorities such as Theodore the Studite. For example, the Studite writes: “If anyone should say that, when the image of Christ is displayed, it is sufficient neither to honor nor to dishonor it, thus refusing it the honor of relative veneration, he is a heretic.” As Orthodox Christians, it is not enough to take a fence-sitting stance on this issue, as we believe the very doctrine of the Incarnation is at stake. And so on this we depart, willfully, from our Reformed friends (and from the counter-arguments of the Carolingian Libri Carolini).

It is also worth noting that the defense of icons and their proper veneration was not entirely a Byzantine affair. No, the Church was rather united on this point, even outside the confines of the Second Council of Nicaea or the ninth century in Constantinople. For a more Western or Roman Catholic perspective, one need only reference the Councils of Rome in 727 and 731, the Council of Gentilly in 767, and the Council of the Lateran in 769.

In the veneration of icons, Orthodox Christians see an importance that transcends even our best or most elaborate written arguments. In the Incarnation, God has made himself known to us. He could be seen, felt, and heard. And through his friends, our Saints and Fathers, we see what it means to act, live, and love like Christ. We are provided examples of how to mold our own lives to be patterned after him. We pay honor to them, because they have imaged Christ to us. We follow in their footsteps because they have sought to follow in the footsteps of our God and Savior.

And so we chant on every Sunday of Orthodoxy a refrain that has deep meaning and significance for every Orthodox Christian—a staunch reminder that the veneration of icons is no mere secondary concern or the imaginations of human presumption:

This is the Faith of the Apostles,
this is the Faith of the Fathers,
this is the Faith of the Orthodox,
this is the Faith that has established the Universe.


  1. Excellent article. I wonder what John Calvin would respond if it was pointed out to him that God directed Moses to make such images in Exodus Chapter 25 (the Cherubim on the Ark) and in Chapter 26 directed Moses to have images of Cherubim embroidered into the curtains of the Tabernacle. I know how pointing this out to modern Calvinists who are questioning our use of Icons leaves them confused and at a loss for words.

    1. Still Calvin and none of his descendants seem to be able to explain away how God can order images not be made and then turn around and command them to be made. Yes, he called them a crutch and unneeded in the “current times” but he did not account for the seeming contradiction.

  2. Very good. Thanks.

    I think it might also be worth noting that, if “every example Calvin provides from the old covenant is an example of God’s people worshiping other gods or demons, not the one, true God,” then the image, depiction, or icon is of something unreal; i.e., something that does not exist except in the imagination. Our Orthodox icons, however, depict real persons, real scenes, and the heavenly reality.

  3. Another hugely important use for Holy Icons is that they were utilized a missionary tool to convert the British Isles and the Rus; additionally, they were used by the Nestorians when they attempted to evangelize China:

    Bede the Venerable ca. 673-735

    (597 a.d. British Isles) Augustine [of Canterbury] thus strengthened by the confirmation of the blessed Father Gregory, returned to the work of the word of God, with the servants of Christ, and arrived in Britain… It is reported that, as they drew near to the city, after their manner, with the holy Cross, and the Image of our sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, they, in concert, sung this litany: “We beseech Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that thy anger and wrath be turned away from this city, and from the holy house, because we have sinned. Hallelujah.” (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Bk. 1 Chap. XXV)

    Chinese imperial Proclamation Tang Dynasty

    (638 a.d. China) Bishop Alopen of the Kingdom of Ta-chin (Syria), bringing with him the Sutras and the Images, has come from afar and presented them at our Capital. Having carefully examined the scope of his teaching, we find it to be mysteriously spiritual, and of silent operation. Having observed its principal and most essential points, we reached the conclusion that they cover all that is most important in life…This Teaching is helpful to all creatures and beneficial to all men. So let it have free course throughout the Empire. (The Nestorian Stele Commemorating the Propagation of the Ta-ch’in [Syrian]Luminous Religion in China)

    St. Nestor the Chronicler 1056-1114

    (987 a.d. Kiev) As [the Greek Orthodox scholar] spoke thus, he exhibited to [Great Prince] Vladimir a canvas on which was depicted the Judgment Day of the Lord, and showed him, on the right, the righteous going to their bliss in Paradise, and on the left, the sinners on their way to torment. Then Vladimir sighed and said, “Happy are they upon the right, but woe to those on the left!” The scholar replied, “If you desire to take your place upon the right with the just, then accept baptism!” Vladimir took this counsel to heart, saying, “I shall wait yet a little longer,” for he wished to inquire about all the faiths. Vladimir then gave the scholar many gifts, and dismissed him with great honor. (The Russian Primary Chronicle)

    When it comes to images, Calvin was ignorant of Scripture, Tradition and history.

  4. It seems to me that the struggle around icons, emerging at this time, was really about a technological shift. The printing press was about a hundred years old, so it was possible for Calvin to privilege reading over other methods of taking in information, as you write, “But to Calvin, images are not useful for instruction at all, especially when compared with books.” It would simply not have been possible to hold that view prior to the mid 15th century. Calvin was just a too eager early adopter of new technology. He’d have loved Twitter.

  5. There is an apparent anti-materialistic, anti-physical impulse in Calvin’s Institutes that does not seem to take into account the Incarnation:

    XI.2 “… the majesty of God is defiled… when he who is incorporeal is assimilated to corporal matter; he who is invisible to a visible image…”

    XI.4 “…nothing being more incongruous than to reduce the immense and incomprehensible Deity to the stature of a few feet…”

    Lately I find these kinds of statements chilling.

  6. As an Anglican of catholic and orthodox bent, I am in the middle between the Orthodox and Protestants. While Anglicanism at first made a break towards the hard Protestant, it eased its way back towards the catholic. I see the Calvinist and other Protestant iconoclasm as a reaction to the abuses of the popular Roman Catholic practices of the mid 2nd Millennium which included “adoration” of images as opposed to veneration of them. The Roman Church had lost itself in its power and influence in the West and had become too much of a corrupt secular establishment such as with the Borgia Popes. I don’t see the Orthodox Churches having ever fallen far into these traps though there have been issues at times.

    I pray for the unity of Christians.

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