In chapter ten we saw how Calvin exposits the truth that God hates the “gods” of the heathen. Still on the subject of the attributes of God, Calvin uses chapter eleven to explain the error of attributing a visible form to God through worship or art. This is a subject that been questioned for many centuries from the day of the early church and even until now where God is often portrayed visibly through art. Calvin will deal with all of these issues in this chapter.
Calvin divides this chapter into three main sections; the first being a refutation of the thought of ascribing a visible form to God. Throughout Scripture, God is seen as diametrically opposed to the idols of the world. Just as he is opposed to other “gods”, God is also opposed to us representing him with something physical. This is seen through Exodus 20:4 where it plainly states, ” You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Calvin adds a distinction to this law by saying, “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.” He backs this statement up with many references from Scripture namely verses from Deuteronomy 4:15 and many passages from Isaiah (40:18; 41:7, 29; 45:9; 46:5). The latter book explains how men defile the very nature of God by assimilating him into a physical object. Paul picks this up in the New Testament in Acts 17: 29, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” Calvin continues his refutation by saying that all of the instances wherein God was manifested “face to face” he was seen in accordance with his incomprehensible essence and glory. Calvin concludes his first refutation by saying that such actions of making an effigy of God are entirely against the will of God and that all modes of worship devised by man are detestable to God.
This first argument of Calvin could be seen along the spectrum of history from the encampment of the Israelites at Sinai to the Schism of the Western and Eastern Church. He deals with the issue of the Greek church’s idea of making pictures or icons of God; this directly is disobedient of God’s command not to make any image in the likeness of God. Likeness is forbidden. With that in his readers’ minds, Calvin moves directly into a more contemporary issue; at least in his day. This is the issue where the Roman Catholic Church has used various modes of images and such to convey God. This idea began with a popular quote by Gregory, “that images are the books of the unlearned”. Calvin refutes this idea with two Scriptural arguments by two Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Habakkuk namely, “They are both stupid and foolish; the instruction of idols is but wood!(Jere. 10:8)” and “that the molten image is a teacher of lies”. Calvin uses these verses and their contexts to infer “that everything respecting God which is learned from images is futile and false”. Even Augustine would agree and go further to say that it is “unlawful not only to worship images, but to dedicate them”. Calvin continues his argument with many other statements by various church leaders of the errors of using images to teach others. This was a major issue in Calvin’s day and age and has been fought over the centuries.
Today we still struggle over the use of images, though in different ways, and even Calvin deals with this. Not all visible representations are unlawful, he says. Lawful representations would be those that are historical; these are represent events of history and are to be used for instruction or admonition. The other kind are pictorial which are more commonly used in churches for amusement. Images should not be used as images to worship as if they contained some physical representation of God. Since it is a slippery slope where men may be infatuated by them. Such thought has been expressed in the evangelical church where many artists either vaguely or not at all convey a physical appearance to God or Christ. It is a dangerous road that would be better not traversed lest one slip into the worship of images. It is interesting to note that when Jesus was described in Revelation, John gave him quite a confusing description. I believe that is intentional so that we might not create exact images of Christ and put them in our homes and bow to them because they are representations of Christ. Such actions would be idolatry; our acts of bowing before Our Creator and Savior will be when we are in His presence and I can’t wait! Marantha!