Authors Eric Parker Reformed Irenicism

What Is Calvin’s Take on Images of Jesus?

Unless I am missing something quite obvious, which is possible, the question of whether images of Jesus violate the second commandment does not receive a clear and definitive answer in Calvin’s major works. In his Institutes (I.11) he fails to explicitly mention images of Jesus. He only refers to images of “God” or the adoration of created things. So, what does Calvin think of images of Jesus? One might plausibly argue, that the images of God that he speaks of refer to the person of the Son, so any depiction would be out of bounds. This would make sense of his recounting of those “Papists” who travel hither and yon to venerate different images. In this case Calvin would agree with Zacharius Ursinus, David Pareus, and Lancelot Andrewes (Catechism, p. 132) who argue that representations of Jesus are inherently Nestorian because they only depict one of Christ’s natures. The 17th century English divine, Henry Hammond notes that the English Book of Homilies classifies this issue as adiaphoron. Hammond then appeals to Calvin to say that images of Jesus may be made but are not to be placed in churches. Calvin does not say this, however. Hammond is misquoting John Rainold’s quote of the Jesuit theologian, Robert Bellarmine, who groups Calvin in with Peter Martyr Vermigli and Flacius Ilyricus as those who permit the making of images but not their inclusion in places of worship. Rainolds, one of Richard Hooker’s teachers, apparently sees no issue with Bellarmine’s quote and accepts it as accurate. The closest Calvin comes to saying that making images of Jesus are permissible is in his Catechismus Ecclesiae Genevensis (1545):

Non ergo quamlibet simpliciter picturam vel sculpturam his verbis damnari intelligendum est: sed tantum imagines prohibemur facere in hunc finem, ut in illis Deum vel quaeramus, vel colamus: sive, quod idem est, eas colamus in Dei honorem, aut quoquo modo illis ad superstitionem & idololatriam abutamur.

Calvin says here that images and sculptures are not prohibited simpliciter by the second commandment but only if they are made for purpose of worshipping them. There is no mention of Jesus here. So, what does he think of images of Jesus? The answer is that he did believe that images of Jesus violate the second commandment. Yet, it is understandable that there would be confusion in the 17th century regarding Calvin’s opinion on this issue simply because Calvin himself does not say so explicitly in his major works. He does say so in his sermons on Deuteronomy, where he implicitly accuses those who make images of Christ of Nestorianism:

Behold, they paint and portray Jesus Christ, who (as we know) is not only man, but also God manifested in the flesh: and what a representation is that? He is God’s eternal Son in whom dwells the fullness of the God head, yea even substantially. Seeing it is said, substantially, should we have portraitures and images whereby only the flesh may be represented? Is it not a wiping away of that which is chiefest in our Lord Jesus Christ, that is to wit, of his divine Majesty? Yes: and therefore whensoever a Crucifix stands mopping & mowing in the Church, it is all one as if the Devil had defaced the son of God. (Sermon of 23 May, 1555).

So, Calvin’s position is clearly stated here and is exactly the same as that of Ursinus and many others. It is not, however, the same as Vermigli to whom many of the more moderate Reformed divines appeal in this issue and who perhaps even influenced the Book of Homilies in this regard as well. The fact that Calvin did not clearly state his position in the Institutes allowed for confusion, with Bellarmine’s widely read misattribution (perhaps he confused Vermigli with Calvin) popularizing the error even among those who shared Calvin’s theological heritage.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

One reply on “What Is Calvin’s Take on Images of Jesus?”

If this is helpful at the end of section 4 of I.11 Calvin does say this, commenting on Psalm 115:8:

“And it is to be observed, that the thing forbidden is likeness, whether sculptured or otherwise. This disposes of the frivolous precaution taken by the Greek Church. They think they do admirably, because they have no sculptured shape of Deity, while none go greater lengths in the licentious use of pictures. The Lord, however, not only forbids any image of himself to be erected by a statuary, but to be formed by any artist whatever, because every such image is sinful and insulting to his majesty.”

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