What were John Calvin's counterarguments for iconoclasm aniconism against John of Damascus' arguments in favor of icon veneration?

  • 2
    Terjij, what research have you already done on this subject? Care to give us a few clues so we know where to start? I don't feel inclined to start searching through Calvin's huge body of work in order to pin it down to this very specific question. :-)
    – Lesley
    Jan 23, 2023 at 17:36
  • @Lesley I don't want to either, that's why I asked this question. I was hoping that someone who had already researched this topic would see this question and answer. Jan 23, 2023 at 17:51
  • Which specific work of John of Damascus are you referring to?
    – guest37
    Feb 14, 2023 at 13:18

1 Answer 1


John Calvin didn't promote icons in churches as John of Damascus did but he didn't support iconoclasm either.

Calvin against using icons in the church

We can read Calvin's indirect argument against John of Damascus on using icons in the church in his Institutes of the Christian Religion Book 1 chapters 11 & 12:

This Ancient Faith Ministries 2017 article What John Calvin Really Thought About Icons in the Church summarizes Chapter 11, situates Calvin's argument in his own historical context, and clarifies the Orthodox point of view, which indirectly provides John of Damascus's response to Calvin by agreeing with Calvin with some points but disagreeing with Calvin on other points. For an extract of John of Damascus's writings defending the use of icons, see Fordham University's Medieval Sourcebook article.

Calvin against iconoclasm

Calvin's position against iconoclasm can be read from the Ad Fontes 2021 article Calvin Against Iconoclasm by Steven Wedgeworth relying on a biography of Calvin (2011) by Bruce Gordon. Iconoclasm implies proactive destruction of icons by private individuals but John Calvin, following Augustine, was more interested in preventing idolatry in the heart and taught for private individuals to wait for public authority's decision to remove icons only when warranted since he disagreed with destruction of the private properties of others.

Quotation from the article:

Contemporary readers might find this observation somewhat surprising. After all, wasn’t Calvin vehemently opposed to images? At least two chapters in the Institutes are devoted to this (Bk. 1, chapts 11 & 12) ...

... iconoclasm is not simply an opposition to images of God. The term does not even signify the mere desire to remove those images. Rather, iconoclasm refers to the violent and disorderly removal of images. As Gordon explains, Farel actually led violent mobs who pulled down statues “in a fury of destruction” (Gordon, pg. 65) and even “engaged in covert acts of iconoclasm in which Catholic churches were attacked, often in the dead of night” (ibid, pg. 66). A non-iconoclastic Calvinistic position rejects such approaches in favor of a planned and consensual (by way of a larger political action) removal of offending images.


Calvin then approvingly cites Augustine, writing, “Augustine sensibly infers, that there is no command for private individuals to destroy the instruments of idolatry; but that the people are armed and furnished with this authority to take the charge of regulating the public interests, when they have obtained possession of the land.”

There’s the key argument. “Private individuals” should not destroy the idols but rather wait until they have the appropriate public authority to do so.


A little later Augustine argues that Christians should not attempt to violently destroy the property of others, even if that property happens to be an idol. They should instead overthrow the idolatry within the human heart, through teaching and evangelism, and only destroy the physical idol when the person agrees or when a legitimate higher authority appropriately rules it to be done. This is the position Calvin is holding forth as his own.

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