“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.
No Good Reason for Images in Churches
Let’s consider for a minute the practicalities of having art of any kind in churches. If we value tradition at all, then we’ll realize that in the first five-hundred years of the church’s existence, churches were free from representations of any kind. The first time art was introduced into churches was after a period of when the ministry had been degraded. I don’t want to get into a dispute as to whether it’s logical to have art in churches or not. What I want to do is compare the two time periods: before images and after images. The period in the church’s history after images were introduced showed great decline compared to the time before they were introduced. Why? Should we suppose that the church fathers would have allowed images if they believed them to be useful for worship? No way! The early church fathers saw the danger in images and rejected their use on rational grounds. They did not refuse to use them because they didn’t know about them. They refused them intentionally.
Augustine clearly attests to this: “When images are placed in the seat of honor, to be seen by those praying or sacrificing, even though they do not have any life but appear as if they do, they affect weak minds just as if they were living and breathing.” In another passage, he writes, “The effect which is produced by images distorts the worshipper’s true perception of reality.” Again, he writes, “Images easily give a wrong idea to an unhappy person. They give off the impression they can see, hear, talk, or taste, because they have mouths, eyes, ears, and feet. But in reality, they cannot.” Because idols lead us astray, the apostle John warns us not only to stay away from the worship of idols, but also from the idols themselves (1 John 5:21).
Furthermore, we know all too well from experience that as soon as images appear in churches, idolatry is not far behind. Sinful people cannot resist falling into superstitious worship. Even though the danger might be less with other kinds of art, I still don’t believe any other kind of art should be in churches. Only the living symbols which the Lord Himself has given us should be displayed in churches: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Through these symbols our eyes should be firmly fixed on Christ. We don’t need any man-made image. The blessing of the sacraments is so much greater than that which could come through any image that it even isn’t worth comparing the two!