Calvin Against Iconoclasm

In his biography of the great reformer John Calvin, Bruce Gordon repeatedly points out that Calvin opposed iconoclasm (see pgs. 283, 323-327 of Gordon’s Calvin). On this point, Calvin differed from men with whom he was otherwise associated, such as Farel and Viret. 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), and the topic appears continually throughout Calvin’s entire body of writing. Calvin rejects all 2CVs.

But 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 writes about his philosophy of the removal of images in his Commentary on the Law, vol. 2, particularly the section on Exodus 23:24. Surprisingly, Calvin there states that Christians are not forbidden from making new use of temples which had once been polluted by idols. This stands in something of a contrast to the Mosaic example, but Calvin believes we can separate the eternal moral law from the temporary political law given to Israel:

After Moses has taught what was necessary to be observed, he adds a political law about breaking down altars and overthrowing images, in order that the people may take the more diligent heed. These passages, however, differ from the foregoing; for in condemning thus far the superstitions which are vicious in themselves, God prescribed what He would have observed even to the end of the world. He now confirms that instruction by temporary enactments, that He may keep His ancient people up to their duty. For we have now-a-days no scruples in retaining the temples, which have been polluted by idols, and applying them to a better use; since we are not bound by what was added consequently (propter consequentiam), as they say, to the Law.

So already we see a non-theonomic Calvin. But he goes on. He says we should indeed remove anything which “tends to foster superstition,” but he adds an important qualification, “provided we are not too rigorously superstitious in insisting peremptorily on what is in itself indifferent.” We should not ourselves be “too rigorously superstitious” in deciding which “indifferent” matters are potentially superstitious.

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.

Calvin’s editors have supplied what they believe to be the proper reference in Augustine, pointing to his Sermon 62. This is available online here. In that sermon, Augustine says:

May God grant that they all come into our lawful power in the same way as he gave us that one that has been smashed. I am saying this to your graces, to make sure you don ‘t do this sort of thing when it is not in your lawful power to do so. It is characteristic of depraved people like the ranting and raving Circumcellions,” to be violent where they have no lawful authority to be so, and they deliberately court death without reasonable cause…

When the land is given over to your lawful power (he first said “to your lawful power,” and only then went on to say what was to be done), you shall pull down their altars, he said, cut down their groves, and break in pieces all their signs (Dt 7: 1.5). When you have received lawful authority, do all this. Where authority has not been given to us, we don’t do it; where it has been given, we don’t fail to do it. (Augustine, Sermon 62.17)

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.

This understanding of Calvin and iconoclasm does not recast the Genevan Reformer as an iconophile, but it does add proper context to the nature of the debate at the time. Iconoclasm was not merely an idea but a violent and disorderly action. It involved theft and unjust aggression. It was on par with individual rebellion against authority, something Calvin also opposed. The proper response would be to first persuade the people so that they could consent to the removal of the images. Even failing that, a godly magistrate or city council could order the image to be taken down. This would be orderly as they would have the proper jurisdiction. And in all cases, this is only necessary for those images which truly offended.


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