The Place of Images in the Venerable Protestant Tradition

In a recent Ad Fontes essay, Dr. Matthew Hoskin made a surprising argument. At the beginning and end of the piece, he briefly states that icon veneration falls “within the bounds of the formularies of some Protestant churches.” This claim raised an eyebrow or two, and at least one was my own. After all, a critical view of icons and images has historically been one of the things that most distinguishes Protestantism both from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In what follows I would like to advance disagreement with Dr. Hoskin on this point.

Before beginning the argument proper, it is not entirely clear to me which churches Dr. Hoskin has in mind. The only example he offers is Anglicanism, but this example fails because, as I will show in more detail, the Anglican formularies do indeed prohibit all icon veneration. Further, while there is some diversity between the Lutheran and Reformed churches on the permissibility of religious images in churches, they agree about the danger of using them in worship.

To be fair to Dr. Hoskin, the bulk of his essay was not focused on this point. Most of it was a helpful historical explanation of the Second Council of Nicaea and the opposition to it by the Carolingians. For that purpose, the essay was quite good, giving an appropriately detailed overview of the history in a relatively short amount of space. Were it not for the opening and concluding paragraphs, I would readily commend the piece. Yet, there they are. He begins with what he terms his “unpopular hypothesis,” and ends with the suggestion that the broadest bounds of confessional Protestantism can accommodate “Byzantine veneration of [icons].” The unfortunate inclusio, in my judgment, sours the rest.

It is also not obvious whether Dr. Hoskin fully appreciated how dramatic a claim he was making, as the positive doctrinal argument is actually fairly short. He does not discuss the level of awareness that the Protestant Reformers had about the historical material which his essay provides. His most important point is the “distinction between worship and veneration.” But this is not really a new contribution to the debate. Calvin discussed the distinction between dulia and latria in his Institutes 1.11.11, and Lancelot Andrewes addressed both the distinctions of proskynesis and latreia, and dulia and latria in his A Pattern of Catechetical Doctrine (under his discussion of the second Commandment). The Reformation position cannot be easily sidestepped by the use of distinctions which the Reformers themselves understood and rejected.

The rest of this essay will highlight confessional statements from various Reformation churches, including the Anglicans and the Lutherans, to show that there is no place for the veneration of images. An individual may conclude that the Reformation was wrong on this point, but they will not be able to show that Reformation confessions allow for the recovery of images and icons. Indeed, the rejection of image veneration is a truly pan-Protestant position.

The Anglican Formularies

I offer the case regarding Anglicanism first and at the greatest length for two reasons: 1) Dr. Hoskin’s aforementioned mention of it in his piece, and 2) it is the tradition in which I minister, and thus one in which I have a special burden to understand and promote.

Despite contemporary confusion about Anglican identity, the older Edwardian, Elizabethan, and Stuart settlements were clear that the 39 Articles, Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal were the primary standards of doctrine, worship, and governance. Subordinate to these, but also understood as explanatory extensions, were the Two Books of Homilies and Nowell’s Catechism. The canon law of 1604 also quickly assumed an authoritative role. The revival of traditional Anglicanism in the 21st century has attempted to recover much of this older position, in declarations such as the 2008 Global Anglican “Jerusalem Statement” and the 2020 Cairo Covenant.

So, while it may not be possible to speak for all Anglicans everywhere, there is at least unity among provinces and jurisdictions affirming these two accords, including the Anglican Church of North America, on the standards for doctrine, discipline, and worship. The 39 Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal are the official Formularies.

The 39 Articles

Article 22 of the 39 Articles rejects a number of errors and abuses, saying, “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” This seems clear enough, but many surprising interpretations have been employed over the years. Dr. Hoskin suggests that this Article may not condemn all use of images and icons in worship because it does not explicitly mention the distinction between worship and veneration. Perhaps the “worship” of images is rejected but not their veneration.

This argument fails for two reasons. The first is that the Latin edition of the Articles, which was adopted along with the English edition in the 16th century, does not rely on the terms “worship” or “adoration” but instead condemn “de veneratione tum imaginum tum reliquiarum.” This shows that the English words were understood to include veneration as well. Second, the broader historical and literary context shows that the Anglicans of the time understood Article 22 in this way.

Consider the official “Homily Against Period of Idolatry,” found in the Second Book of Homilies and commended by Article 35 of the 39 Articles as teaching “godly and wholesome doctrine.” This homily is entirely iconoclastic. It expressly condemns the use of images in worship and even the placing of them in churches: “the corruption of these latter dayes, hath brought into the Church infinite multitudes of images.” Images of Christ’s humanity are forbidden, a fact no doubt shocking and puzzling to many later Anglicans. And the distinction between dulia and latria is noted and rejected on the basis of biblical and patristic authority: “herewithall is confuted their lewde distinction of Latria & Dulia, where it is euident, that the Saints of GOD can not abide, that as much as any outward worshipping bee done or exhibited to them.” This homily is too strong for many Anglicans today, but it was regularly cited as evidence for the true meaning of the 39 Articles in the 17th and 18th centuries.[1]  

In addition to the Homily, there is Nowell’s Catechism. Alexander Nowell was the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and a member of the Convocation of 1563. He wrote the Catechismus puerorum, which was approved by Archbishop Parker and came to be an official catechism for the Church of England under Elizabeth I and James I. Its repute can be seen in the words of John Donne: “all that doctrine, which wrought this great cure upon us, in the Reformation, is contained in the two catechisms, in the Thirty-nine Articles, and in the two Books of Homilies”.[2] The “two catechisms” Donne mentions are the short Prayer Book catechism for confirmation and Nowell’s Catechism.

In his catechism, Nowell treats the Second Commandment in some detail. He does not set forth as strict of an iconoclastic position as did the Homily, but he does state that the Law “forbiddeth us to make any images, to express or counterfeit God or to worship him withal; and secondly he chargeth us not to worship the images themselves.”[3] He goes on to explain which uses of images are specifically forbidden:

When we, intending to pray, do turn ourselves to portraitures or images; when we do fall down and kneel before them with uncovering our heads, or with other signs, shewing any honour unto them, as if God were represented unto us by them; briefly, we are in this law forbidden, that we neither seek nor worship God in images, or, which is all one, that we worship not the images themselves in honour of God.[4]

It is clear that Nowell interpreted both “veneration” and “worship” as illicit uses of images.

Since history has shown how dangerous this temptation is to Christians, Nowell concludes, “it is very perilous to set any images or pictures in churches, which are properly appointed for the only worshipping of God.”

The Book of Common Prayer

The rubrics of the Prayer Book were often battlegrounds between various ecclesiastical parties. One way this was resolved in the Church of England was through an increasingly strict enforcement of uniformity. As the canons of 1604 explain, “All Ministers likewise shall observe the Orders, Rites, and Ceremonies prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, as well in reading the holy Scriptures and saying of Prayers, as in Administration of the Sacraments, without either diminishing, in regard of Preaching, or in any other respect, or adding any thing in the Matter or Form thereof” (Canon 14).[5] Everything prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer was to be said and done, and nothing was to be added. Since there are no rubrics prescribing the veneration of images in the Book of Common Prayer, the practice of such is excluded.

This is more obvious when one consults the Elizabethan Injunctions of 1559. The second of these states,

“to the intent that all superstition and hypocrisy crept into divers men’s hearts may vanish away, they shall not set forth or extol the dignity of any images, relics, or miracles; but, declaring the abuse of the same, they shall teach that all goodness, health, and grace ought to be both asked and looked for only of God, as of the very Author and Giver of the same, and of none other.”

In fact, the 23rd injunction commands the removal of religious items, including images, which had been used for worship:

…they shall take away, utterly extinct, and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trindals, and rolls of wax, pictures, paintings, and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition, so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass windows, or elsewhere within their churches and houses; preserving nevertheless, or repairing both the walls and glass windows; and they shall exhort all their parishioners to do the like within their several houses.[6]

Within the Book of Common Prayer, there are several places where the use of images in worship would be condemned. The most regular is the reading of the decalogue at the beginning of every service of Holy Communion. Each commandment is read individually, separated by the congregational response, “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” The liturgical philosophy here is that each commandment is being driven home to the people there present, and they were expected to consider how they had broken that law, to repent, and to resolve, by God’s grace, to live in new obedience. The second commandment is not truncated but is read in full (Ex. 20:4-6). When read by a minister who had been taught the catechism, had subscribed to the 39 Articles, and who was expected to read the homilies, there would not be ambiguity when it comes to the public meaning of the second Commandment.

A second relevant location in the Book of Common Prayer is the Commination service. This was prescribed to be used on the First Day of Lent, as well as any other special penitential days. It opens by calling down a series of curses upon sinners. The very first curse, in its 1662 form is this: “Cursed is the man that maketh any carved or molten image, to worship it.” Applying this line in the service to the errors of Roman Catholicism, Archbishop Thomas Tenison commented, “But the Church of England repeating this Law in its Commination, doth thereby own it to be still of validity, and to oblige Christian men.”[7]

Similar themes dominate the prescribed first lessons in the Sundays of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, which draw heavily from idolatry texts in Isaiah (e.g. 2:20; 37:19; 44; 46). Whilst these texts emphasize God’s judgment against His covenant people (an obvious Advent theme), they also present a sustained polemic against idolatry, as well as the promises of God’s salvation and even a suffering servant who will bear the sins of the people. That these readings were selected for this time of the year shows their priority for the annual life of the people. Regular attenders could not be in doubt as to the mind of the Church when it comes to images and idols, especially when interpreted in light of the injunctions, canons, and other theological literature of the time.

Other Reformation Churches

Having shown that the Anglican Formularies are clear in their rejection of the use of images in worship, including an explicit rejection of veneration, what of the other magisterial Reformation bodies? There is no debate over the “Calvinist” churches in Switzerland, France, Germany, Holland, and Scotland. A swift look at almost any Reformed confession, evidences this point, even more “moderate” ones such as the Second Helvetic Confession.

The only remaining magisterial Protestant body after this is the Lutherans. It is true that they do not devote much space to the question of images in their confessional documents, but a few important points can be determined. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession addresses religious images in its twenty-fourth article, “Of the Mass.” The Lutheran churches allow the presence of images insofar as they might be decorative or pedagogical. The defense says that they can indeed be “becoming.” However, “if the adversaries make worship consist in such matters, and not in the preaching of the Gospel, in faith, and the conflicts of faith, they are to be numbered among those whom Daniel describes as worshiping their God with gold and silver, Dan. 11:38” (24.51).[8]

Martin Chemnitz, in his Examination of the Council of Trent vol. 4, lays out a fuller position. There he maintains that the Lutherans consider the matter of images to be a matter of adiaphora insofar as they are used for art or teaching. But veneration, which Chemnitz includes under the condemnation of image worship, is a different matter. It is strictly forbidden.

Chemnitz first invokes Luther himself on the matter.[9] He then states that “when the people of God transferred the use of images to the worship of the true God, Scripture reprehends, prohibits, and condemns this.”[10] He later makes a distinction between adoration and worship, interpreting the former as addressing external acts of devotion and the latter as the attitude of the heart. “He forbids every kind of worship of religious objects by means of two words: ‘You shall not adore nor worship them.’ The first of these signifies bowing down, all outward gestures and rites of worship: the second embraces the inner affections and devotions of worship.”[11] With this distinction, Chemnitz condemns both veneration and worship.

In the following section of his Examination, Chemnitz discusses the Second Council of Nicaea. He rejects its rulings, including the distinction between dulia and latria[12] He states that it is true that lesser forms of “worship” can be given to men (bodily displays of honor and service), but he maintains, “giving this to inanimate statues or images is not the same thing.”

Lutherans are certainly more permissive than the Reformed regarding images of the humanity of Christ and the placing of images in churches. And yet Chemnitz condemns the veneration and worship of images, presenting himself as faithfully explicating Luther’s own position.


Much more could be said and many more sources consulted on the matter of images in the Reformation churches. There is no doubt diversity and controversy among the reception of these various confessional statements within their respective communions, and it is certainly true that the 20th century showed an exceedingly lax attitude towards enforcing official doctrine and practice in some of these traditions. Still, the historical record is clear. The Protestant confessions give no allowance for the veneration of icons.

Steven Wedgeworth is the rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He has written for Desiring God Ministries, the Gospel Coalition, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Mere Orthodoxy, and served as a founding board member of the Davenant Institute.

  1. For example, Bishop George Carleton’s response to Montagu, An Examination, Ch. 11; Archbishops John Tillotson, “The Protestant Religion Vindicated,” Pt. 2, and Thomas Tenison Of Idolatry: A Discourse, Ch. 1, Pt. 1; Gilbert Burnet, An Exposition of the 39 Articles, Art. XXII)

  2. John Donne, “A Sermon upon the XX verse of the V chapter of the Book of Judges, 1622”,, 25.

  3. Alexander Nowell, A Catechism Written in Latin by Alexander Nowell Dean of St. Paul’s Together With the Same Catechism Translated into English, trans. Thomas Norton (London: Parker Society, 1853),, 123.

  4. Nowell, A Catechism, 123.

  5. “Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical of the Church of England,”

  6. “The Injunctions of 1559”,

  7. Thomas Tenison, “Of Idolatry,;view=fulltext;q1=commination, Ch. 10, Pt. 1

  8. “Apology of the Augsburg Confession,”, XXIV.

  9. Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, vol. 4, II.I

  10. Chemnitz, Examination, II.iii.1.

  11. Chemnitz, Examination, II.iii.6.

  12. Chemnitz, Examination, II.iv.9.

*Image Credit: Experia


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