"Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee", 1633, by Rembrandt.
This post is part of my year long study of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. To facilitate this course of study, I am following along with Princeton Theological Seminary's "A Year with the Institutes", which also includes an audio reading of the text.
Calvin's Institutes: 1.11.4-16
Having now finished with Calvin's polemic on the use of images, and/or figures, it seems that I now have a new persuasion.
Let me first share Calvin's paragraph, which tidied up my thinking on this matter: "And yet I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible. But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each, lest those things which the Lord has conferred upon us for his glory and our good be not only polluted by perverse misuse but also turned to our destruction. We believe it wrong that God should be represented by a visible appearance, because he himself has forbidden it [Ex. 20:4] and it cannot be done without some defacing of his glory. And lest they think us alone in this opinion, those who concern themselves with their writings will find that all well-balanced writers have always disapproved of it. If it is not right to represent God by a physical likeness, much less will we be allowed to worship it as God, or God in it. Therefore it remains that only those things are to be sculptured or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing: let not God's majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes, be debased through unseemly representations. Within this class some are histories and events, some are images and forms of bodies without any depicting of past events. The former have some use in teaching or admonition; as for the latter, I do not see what they can afford other than pleasure. And yet it is clear that almost all the images that until now have stood in churches were of this sort. From this, one may judge that these images had been called forth not out of judgment or selection but of foolish and thoughtless craving. I am not saying how wickedly and indecently the greater part of them have been fashioned, how licentiously the painters and sculptors have played the wanton here-a matter that I touched upon a little earlier. I only say that even if the use of images contained nothing evil, it still has no value for teaching."
- It is an affront to God to represent him in any visible fashion.
- Visible representations of Christ, and the Holy Spirit by themselves, serve no purpose and furthermore lend themselves towards idolatry.
- Visible representations of Christ, and the Holy Spirit engaged in historical settings, are valuable for teaching and admonition.
I appreciate Calvin's thinking on this matter. There was a significant amount of digging to do, through his diatribe against the behavior of the papists, nonetheless, his message seems clear to me, and has a ring of truth.