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Recently I was told in a chat room on this site that the use of icons in the church 'wasn't offensive to anyone'!? I was so amazed that anyone would ever say such a thing, but since I have never had an interest in this sort of history,  I had some doubts. 

The question is, 'Well what is it? Were many reformers deeply offended with the use of religious icons in worship, or is this just an unfounded claim?

Note: I am now researching many details about real church history on similar topics as I realize I am weak in being able to answer questions about it.  This question therefore is part of a series of historical questions as I learn myself. Please do not think I have fallen into 'negative theology' it is merely an academic quest to sort out some facts.

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It does not take much research at all to find out the great offense that many reformers took in the use of religious icons in worship.  They viewed it as nothing less than idolatry.

Calvin dedicated a section of his Institutes to explain how this idolatry, though originally opposed by ancient church Fathers (he argues), became an established sin in the church.  For example here Calvin establishes some history of his own to work with.

Augustine distinctly declares, that it is unlawful not only to worship images, but to dedicate them. And in this he says no more than had been long before decreed by the Libertine Council, the thirty-sixth Canon of which is, "There must be no pictures used in churches: Let nothing which is adored or worshipped be painted on walls. (Calvin's Institutes Book 1, CH 11 - IMPIETY OF ATTRIBUTING A VISIBLE FORM TO GOD. —THE SETTING UP OF IDOLS A DEFECTION FROM THE TRUE GOD)

Clearly, even from the title of the section, Calvin had a problem with the use of images in the worshipping of God.

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John Calvin addresses this issue in his Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 11. In that chapter it becomes clear that he opposes:

  • all images meant to represent God
  • veneration or praying to any image
  • man-made images in worship that do not serve a didactic purpose

The first eight sections of the chapter focus primarily on images of God. In §1, he writes:

We must cling to this principle: God's glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him.

In §2–4, he makes the biblical case against images of God, and specifies that both images and sculptures are illegitimate in §4. In §7, he calls images dedicated to saints "idols" and "monstrosities," and in §9 he makes it clear that any sort of adoration of images is unacceptable:

When you prostrate yourself in veneration, representing to yourself in an image either a god or a creature, you are already ensnared in some superstition. For this reason, the Lord forbade not only the erection of statues constructed to represent himself but also the consecration of any inscriptions and stones that would invite adoration.

He quotes Augustine in §10 on the influence of such images:

What Augustine says is true, that no one thus gazing upon an image prays or worships without being so affected that he thinks he is heard by it, or hopes that whatever he desires will be bestowed upon him.

So then, to Calvin, is any art permissible in worship services? In §13 he asks why Baptism and the Lord's Supper do not capture our attention, though in §12 he admits the usefulness of some art:

Within this class [of art not representing God] 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.

Thus we see that Calvin finds highly objectionable all veneration, worship, and prayer to images. He emphasizes the value of the sacraments in providing images for the people, but accepts that some art, serving a didactic purpose, may be permissible as well.


Quotations from Institutes, ed. McNeill, tr. Battles. Section headings can be used to find similar wording in online editions of Beveridge's translation, such as on CCEL.

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