Images of Christ Are Unlawful, Even If Not Used For Worship


Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2.

Whether not only the worship but also the formation and use of religious images in sacred places is prohibited by the second commandment. We affirm against the Lutherans.

I. In the preceding question we treated of the worship of images. It remains to inquire further concerning their use—whether by the precept concerning images, besides the adoration, the making of them is also prohibited. Here we come into collision not only with papists, but also with Lutherans who (although they are opposed to and condemn the worship of images as unlawful and superstitious) endeavor to defend the making of images (eikonopoiian) and their use in sacred places as legitimate (if not for worship, at least for history and as the reminders of events).

Statement of the question.

II. The question is not whether all images of whatever kind they may be (even for a civil and economical use) are prohibited by God (as if the plastic [plastikē] art and all pictures as well as statues were condemned). Although this was the opinion of some of the ancients, Jews as well as Christians (as appears from many passages of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and others who thought that all use of images should be absolutely interdicted in order to withdraw Christians the more easily from the dreadful idol-mania of the Gentiles), still that this is a false opinion even the structure of the tabernacle and temple alone can teach (in which various figures of cherubim, oxen and other things were ingeniously wrought by skillful artists under the direction of God). Thus we do not condemn historical representations of events or of great men, either symbolical (by which their virtues and vices are represented) or political (impressed upon coins). But we here treat of sacred and religious images which are supposed to contribute something to the excitation of religious feeling.

III. The question is not whether it is lawful to represent creatures and to exhibit with the pencil historical events (either for the sake of ornament or for delight or even for instruction and to recall [mnēmosynon] past events) for this no one of us denies. Rather the question is whether it is lawful to represent God himself and the persons of the Trinity by any image; if not by an immediate and proper similitude to set forth a perfect image of the nature of God (which the papists acknowledge cannot be done), at least by analogy or metaphorical and mystical significations. This the adversaries maintain; we deny.

IV. Finally, the question is not whether it is lawful to have in our houses representations of holy men for a recollection of their piety and an example for imitation. Rather the question is whether it is right to set them up in sacred places; for instance in temples and oratories, not for worship and veneration, but for strongly impressing believers and exciting their affections by bringing up past things (which the Lutherans hold with the Council of Frankfort; we deny).

Proof that the use of images is unlawful.

1. From the second precept (Exodus 20).

V. The reasons are: First, God expressly forbids this in the second commandment, where two things are prohibited—both the making of images for worship and the worshipping of them. Nor can it be replied (a) that such images are meant by which men endeavor to express the essence of God; not, however, those by which either God or the saints are represented in appearance. The falsity is evident from this—that there would be no necessity of prohibiting this because no one is so simple and insane as to wish to represent the spiritual essence of God by any external and corporeal symbol. If we would speak accurately and philosophically, not even the smallest essence of the creature can be set forth, but only the external lineaments. (b) Nor can it be replied that it refers only to images of false gods. Moses himself clearly explained not representing God (Dt. 4:12); yea, even God himself (the best interpreter of his own law) intimates this (Is. 40:18). Hence the Israelites representing God by the image of a calf were sharply rebuked and heavily punished (Ex. 32). Pious kings of the Jews no less than of the heathen removed idols, even as God had laid both commands upon his people that they should demolish the altars of the Canaanites, break the statues and not make molten gods for themselves (Ex. 34:13, 17).

2. From the nature of God.

VI. Second, God, being boundless (apeiros) and invisible (aoratos), can be represented by no image: “To whom will ye liken God? or what likeness” (or “image” as the Vulgate has it) “will ye compare unto him” (Is. 40:18). Paul refers to this in Acts 17:29: “Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.” Hence God in promulgating the law wished to set forth no likeness of himself, that the people might understand that they must abstain from every image of him as a thing unlawful; yea, even impossible: “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; (for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you … lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female” (Dt. 4:15, 16). This the apostle condemns in the Gentiles “who changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23). Indeed this was not unknown to various Gentiles, who thought it unlawful to wish to represent the deity by an image. Plutarch: “He (Numa) however, forbids any image of God, like man or any animal; nor was there before among them any sculptured or graven representation of God. Indeed during all those preceding 160 years they continually built temples and erected sacred buildings, or shrines; still they made no corporeal representation, judging that it was not holy to liken better things to worse, and that God could be apprehended by us in no other way than by the mind alone” (Plutarch’s Lives: Numa 8.7–8 [Loeb, 1:334–35]). Thus Antiphanes: “God is not discerned by an image, is not seen by the eyes, is like to no one, wherefore no one can learn him from an image” (De Deo+). And Herodotus: “The Persians have neither statues nor altars, and think those who make them insane, because they do not (like the Greeks) think the Gods to be the offspring of men” (Herodotus, 1.131 [Loeb, 1:170–71]).

3. Because it is connected with the danger of idolatry.

VII. Third, that ought to be distant from sacred places which does not belong to the worship of God and is joined with danger of idolatry. Now images in sacred places do not belong to the worship of God, since indeed God has expressly removed them from his worship by the law and they are connected with the most imminent danger of idolatry. For men (especially uneducated men prone by nature to superstition) are moved to the worship of them by the very reverence for the place, as experience shows. As Brochmann properly acknowledges, “Rather ought all images of whatsoever kind to be removed than that we should permit them to stand in a public place for the sake of religious worship against the express command of God” (“De Lege,” 7, Q. 1 in Universae theologicae systema [1638], 2:46). In vain is the reply made here that indeed the occasion of sin per se is prohibited, not likewise that which is by accident; otherwise the sun ought to be taken away from the heavens since it has afforded the occasion of idolatry to innumerable persons. Therefore the abuse should be removed, but not the lawful use of them. For the abuse indeed ought not to take away the legitimate use, if any such is granted from the appointment of God (which the adversaries suppose; we deny).

Second objection: that only worship makes images unlawful, from which Lutherans profess that they shrink. We answer that although they are not expressly worshipped by them (as by the papists) by bowing the knee and burning incense to them or offering prayers, still they cannot be said to be free from all worship; if not direct, at least indirect and participative because they hold that by images and the sight of them they conceive holy thoughts concerning God and Christ (which cannot but belong to the worship of God, so that thus they really worship God by images). Finally, if they are not worshipped by them, they can be worshipped by others (namely by papists if they enter their churches) and so render the use of them in churches unlawful (exposed to the danger of idolatry) by which idolaters are confirmed in their error and innumerable persons—not only unbelieving Jews and Mohammedans, but believing Christians—are scandalized.

VIII. Our ancestors cannot therefore be blamed for their zeal at the time of the Reformation in causing all images to be removed from sacred places. They did nothing here which was not commanded by God (Num. 33:52; Dt. 7:5; Ezk. 20:7) and confirmed by various examples of kings and emperors. In destroying idols and purging all sacred places of every kind of idolatry, the latter labored diligently, as was done by Hezekiah, who “removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did bum incense to it” (2 K. 18:4). For this reason various emperors obtained the name of “image-breakers” (iconoclastarum).

Sources of explanation.

IX. Although God sometimes manifested himself in a visible form and in such an appearance is described to us in Scripture (when members and bodily actions are ascribed to him), it does not follow that it is lawful to represent him by an image. (1) The same God who thus appeared nevertheless strongly forbade the Israelites to fabricate any representation of him (to wit, God could employ speech, bodies and symbols, in order to testify his special presence; yet not on that account may man make unto God an image and statue in which he may exhibit himself to man). (2) Those bodily appearances were exhibited only in vision, shadowing forth not the essence of God, but in some measure his works and external glory; indeed extraordinary not ordinary, temporal not perpetual, not presented openly to all, but shown to individuals, especially in the spirit. Therefore they have nothing in common with images. (3) It is one thing to speak metaphorically concerning God in accommodation to our conceptions; another to form a visible representation of him as if true and proper and exhibit it publicly to the eyes of all.

X. The making of images is not absolutely interdicted, but with a twofold limitation—that images should not be made representing God (Dt. 4:16), nor be employed in his worship. Therefore to make images and to worship them are not to be regarded in the second commandment only as means and end, but as two parts of the divine prohibition. Images are prohibited not only inasmuch as they are the object or the means of worship, but inasmuch as they are made simply for the sake of religion or are set up in sacred places.

XI. From a mental image to a sculptured or painted image, the consequence does not hold good. The former is of necessity, since I cannot perceive anything without some species or idea of it formed in the mind. Now this image is always conjoined with the spirit of discernment by which we so separate the true from the false that there is no danger of idolatry. But the latter is a work of mere judgment and will, expressly prohibited by God and always attended with great danger of idolatry. Hence it is falsely asserted that it is no less a sin to present images of certain things to the mind or to commit them to writing and exhibit them to be read, than to present them to the view when painted. For there is a wide difference between these things.

XII. The consequence does not hold good from the figures of the temple at Jerusalem to the images of Christians. The former were commanded and the latter not; those typical and fulfilled in the New Testament, these not; the former placed almost out of sight of the people and danger of adoration, which cannot be said of the latter. Nor is Christian liberty to be brought up here (which is not the license of doing anything whatsoever in relation to the worship of God, but is the immunity from the malediction of the law and the slavery of ceremonies). Since the former figures pertained to these, they also are to be considered as equally abrogated in the New Testament.

XIII. So far from images being rightly called “books of the common people” and aids to piety and religious devotion, the Holy Spirit testifies that they are “teachers of vanity and lies” (Jer. 10:8; Hab. 2:18). There is another book to be consulted by all (learned as well as unlearned) which makes us wise and learned (to wit, Scripture, which is to be continually read and meditated upon by believers that they may be made wise unto salvation). But the pope takes this away from the people that they may be involved in inextricable error and that he may not be convicted by it. He substitutes other dumb books by which ignorance is not removed but nourished because he does not fear that they will mutter anything against it. So while for teachers he gives stones, the people are turned into stones and become no wiser than their teachers. Hence Augustine treats of the images of Peter and Paul (by occasion of which certain persons fell into error): “Thus forsooth they deserved to err, who sought Christ and his apostles not in the sacred writings, but on painted walls” (The Harmony of the Gospels 1.10 [NPNF1, 6:83; PL 34.1049]). (2) It would have been bad for the Jews to whom God denied those books (to whom nevertheless as more simple they were more necessary).

XIV. Whatever may be said of the utility of images in sacred places cannot and ought not to be opposed to the command of God forbidding them. That is taken for granted, not proved. Sacred signs are the sacraments, not images. The ornaments of churches are the pure preaching of the word, the lawful administration of the sacraments and holiness of discipline. The means for keeping the mind attentive are the presence and majesty of God himself and the difficulty and excellence of sacred mysteries.

XV. It is not sufficient to cast images out of the heart by the preaching of the word unless they are removed also from sacred places (where they cannot remain without danger of idolatry).

See also Three Reasons Images of God are Idolatrous

Please listen to the following audio for more detail:

Gregory Moeck, Westminster Larger Catechism 7a – Understanding Why We Say God is a Spirit

R. Scott Clark, Images Of Christ Don’t Affirm His Humanity, They Deny It

Reformed Forum, The Second Commandment and Images in Worship


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