John Calvin and the Visual Arts: Dueling Cavaliers? - page 3

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From the Spring 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

John Calvin and the Visual Arts: Dueling Cavaliers?

Part One of a Two Part Series on the Arts and Theology

by Connally Gilliam
C.S. Lewis Institute Fellow

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  At this point, though, the artist within me aches to ask, “Couldn’t images be put in their proper place, as objects of contemplation, and not be given ‘idol’ status?” Calvin concludes no. Not only are images problematic because people have abused them and thereby dethroned God, but images of God are, he argues, implicitly idols, the product of deceitful hearts: “The mind begets an idol,” says Calvin, “the hand gives it birth.”9 That is why, Calvin contends, God said, “You shall make no graven images” (Exod. 20:4). Romans 1 says our nature is to be idolatrous, so if images are there, people will inevitably worship them. The best bet, insists Calvin, is to rid one’s heart of the images and, in obedience to God’s commands, do away with all the visual depictions that might be deemed implicitly idolatrous. (As an aside, this is where John Calvin and Martin Luther differed: Luther emphasized that idolatry is solely a heart issue; one can make an idol out of anything that is good [e.g., one’s spouse], but that does not mean we should eliminate that object or person. And though I tend to agree with Luther, I cannot help but recognize that in some way Calvin seemed to understand the undeniable power of sensuous images to affect the heart; the artist in me knows he is right in this.)
  Convinced then that visual images of Jesus Christ in particular are inextricably linked with false understandings of God, Calvin nevertheless reminds us that not every visual image need be eliminated. Toward the end of chapter 11, Calvin forwardly declares:

I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible. But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each, lest those things which the Lord has conferred upon us for his glory and our good be not only polluted by perverse misuse but also turned to our destruction.

  Perhaps then Calvin was not so much an oppressive aesthetic nit-wit, as he was a pastor concerned for the freedom of heart and the right grasp of grace for all of his parishioners.10

Calvinism: Disparaging the Senses?

  Pondering these insights together, the two cavaliers inside my mind stare at each other long enough to almost smile, but then . . . the Artist cries out, “Wait just one minute! So perhaps you make a decent case for not painting images of Jesus Christ, and perhaps you have pastoral inklings—but in your Institutes, Calvin, you speak in high, aloof words about an immutable, ineffable God. You seem like a cold Platonist. Do you know what it is to be a human? Do you value what it is to sweat or smile or cry or drink a glass of wine? If you don’t value these things, how could you ever value life as embodied in sculpture or painting? What is this ‘pure and legitimate use’ of which you speak, anyhow? Is it a cold utilitarianism: for those who cannot read words, give them images? Does this life’s sensuous beauty and its related pleasure have any intrinsic value?”
  Admittedly, Calvin does emphasize that God is an “incompressible essence”11 (and obviously that would not lend itself toward a visual depiction), and he does declare that “the best way to contemplate the divine is where minds are lifted above themselves with admiration.”12 God is for Calvin undoubtedly greater than we can ever understand. But contrary to what the Artist within wonders so vehemently, in both the content and the language of his writing Calvin seems to celebrate the immanence of God. In his preface to The New Testament he writes:

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