Previous article in this series: March 1, 2017, p. 250.
The Scriptures of the Laity
Furthermore, wherever we turn our eyes, we see the living and true creatures of God which, if they be observed, as is proper, make a much more vivid impression on the beholders than all the images or vain, motionless, feeble and dead pictures made by men, of which the prophet truly said: “They have eyes, but do not see” ().
Chapter 4 of the Second Helvetic Confession (SHC) develops the biblical and Reformed objection to the use of images in the worship of God. The first three paragraphs of the chapter set forth the prohibition against the making and worship of images of God, since God neither can nor may be represented by an image. The SHC extends the application of the prohibition against the making and worship of images to Christ: “Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters.” Included in the prohibition of images in worship is the making of the image of any creature, saint, angel, or otherwise, for the purpose of veneration: “…the heavenly saints and angels are [not] pleased with their own images before which men kneel, uncover their heads, and bestow other honors.”
Instead of the use of images “to instruct men in religion and to remind them of divine things and of salvation,” the Lord has rather “commanded the preaching of the Gospel.” The church, therefore, ought “not to paint and to teach the laity by means of pictures,” but rather, to use the language of the Heidelberg Catechism, “not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have His people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of His Word” (Lord’s Day 35, Q&A 98). To His audible word in the preaching, Christ has indeed added a visible word. But that visible word is not that of a carved or painted image. It is rather His visible word in the sacraments that He has instituted in the New Testament church: “Moreover, he instituted sacraments, but nowhere did he set up images.”
This, then, is the Reformed response to the hankering after images. Included in this hankering after images, and the vivid impression that the visible has on the mind and emotions, are many of the embellishments of modern worship: clerical vestments, involved liturgies, impressive ceremonies, art and dance, banners hung from church walls and ceilings, or paraded down the isles during worship, and more besides. Over against all these human inventions and additions, Reformed worship is characterized by simplicity. And make no mistake, there is beauty in simplicity. Essentially, the simplicity of Reformed worship is the simplicity of the reading and exposition of the Word of God—lively preaching that contrasts with images, which are dead and lifeless.
To the lively preaching of the Word as the chief means by which God makes Himself known to His people, the SHC makes a significant addition in the fourth paragraph of Chapter 4. In contrast to the Roman Catholic justification of images as “books of the laity,” the SHC speaks of God’s revelation in the creation as “Scriptures of the Laity.” “Furthermore, wherever we turn our eyes [in the creation], we see the living and true creatures of God which, if they be observed, as is proper, make a much more vivid impression on the beholders than all the images or vain, motionless, feeble and dead pictures made by men….”
The SHC presents a very significant perspective on God’s general revelation, that is, His revelation in the creation. First of all, the perspective of the SHC is that in the creatures that God has made, one can behold something of the God who made them. More than “feeble and dead pictures made by men,” the living creatures that have come forth from the hand of God are a vivid and visible testimony to the God who has made them all. You would see God? You would see a representation of the God who has made all things and ought to be worshipped by us? Look around you at the creatures in His creation. See God in all that He has made. Not in what a man may make, either by carving or painting, but in what God Himself has made; behold an image, as it were, of God the Creator.
Secondly, the SHC makes plain that this view of God in the things that are made is not a view of God shared by all men. It is not the teaching of the SHC at this point that every man is able to behold the image of God in the things that are made. Rather, it is clearly its teaching that this view of the image of God in the things that are made, this beholding of God in that which has come forth from His hand, is a beholding by believers alone. The fourth paragraph is entitled, “The Scriptures of the Laity.” The laity are the members of the church. Here they are those who are truly members of the church. To genuine church members the creation about them functions as a kind of “scripture” to reveal God to them. That is supported by the pronouns that are used throughout this paragraph: “we.” “We turn our eyes” to the creation and “we see the living and true creatures of God.” We are the “beholders” upon whom these creatures “make a more vivid impression…than all the images or vain, motionless, feeble and dead pictures made by men….” “We” are regenerated children of God, in whom the Spirit dwells and upon whom the grace of God is at work. Our eyes have been opened, our ears have been unstopped, and our minds have been enlightened, so that in the light of Scripture and through the spectacles of Scripture, we are able to see the things of God in that which He has made.
Lactantius, Epiphanius, and Augustine
Therefore we approved the judgment of Lactantius, an ancient writer, who says: “Undoubtedly no religion exists where there is an image.” We also assert that the blessed bishop Epiphanius did right when, finding on the doors of a church a veil on which was painted a picture supposedly of Christ or some saint, he ripped it down and took it away, because to see a picture of a man hanging in the Church of Christ was contrary to the authority of Scripture. Wherefore he charged that from henceforth no such veils, which were contrary to our religion, should be hung in the Church of Christ, and that rather such questionable things, unworthy of the Church of Christ and the faithful people, should be removed. Moreover, we approve of this opinion of St. Augustine concerning true religion: “Let not the worship of the works of men be a religion for us. For the artists themselves who make such things are better; yet we ought not to worship them” (“De Vera Religione,” cap. 55).
Although they represent what one writer refers to as a “thin stream of opposition,” there were those from the time of the early church who opposed the use of images in the worship of the church. Three representatives of this “thin stream” are cited by the SHC in the last paragraph of Chapter 4: Lactantius, Epiphanius of Salamis, and St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa.
Lactantius (c. A.D. 250-c. 325), whose full name was Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius, was an early Christian educator, theologian, and writer. He was an advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, and was a tutor of his son. He was born in North Africa and began a successful public career there. At the request of the Roman emperor, Diocletian, he became a professor of rhetoric in Nicomedia. There he came into contact with important fellow educators and officials of the imperial court. Here he met the pagan philosopher Porphyry and first came into contact with Constantine. After converting to Christianity, he resigned his post in the Roman Empire. With the outbreak of persecution, Lactantius was forced to flee Nicomedia for a time and lived for a couple of years in relative obscurity and on the edge of poverty, until Constantine became his patron. Constantine appointed the now elderly Lactantius to be the Latin tutor of his son, Crispus. Lactantius wrote apologetic works that explained the teachings of Christianity to the educated class of Romans who practiced the traditional religions of the Roman Empire. He also wrote Divinae Institutiones, which was a systematic setting forth of Christianity, in which he advocated a literal millennial kingdom that would be established by Christ at His second coming.
Among other things, Lactantius is also known for his opposition to the use of images in the worship of God, something that was becoming more and more widespread in his day. He was not the only one voicing opposition to the growing practice. Among those who opposed the growing cult of images were Tertullian, Cyprian, and Eusebius of Caesarea, the early church historian. Asterius of Amasia, in a sermon on the rich man and Lazarus, said: “Do not paint pictures of Christ, who humbled himself enough by becoming a man.” Lactantius is said to have written: “Undoubtedly no religion [that is, true religion] exists where there is an image.”
The SHC also cites a memorable incident involving Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, Cyprus, whose dates are c. A.D. 320-403. He gained a reputation as a strong defender of orthodoxy. He was an early churchman who made an issue of the use of images in Christian worship, and became known as a vocal opponent of the use of icons and images. He is remembered for what became known as “the curtain incident.” This incident is reported approvingly by Jerome in his letters.He reports that Epiphanius, seeing a curtain hanging on the doors of a certain church that he was inspecting, a kind of
veil on which was painted a picture supposedly of Christ or some saint, he ripped it down and took it away, because to see a picture of a man hanging in the Church of Christ was contrary to the authority of Scripture. Wherefore he charged that from henceforth no such veils, which were contrary to our religion, should be hung in the Church of Christ, and that rather such questionable things, unworthy of the Church of Christ and the faithful people, should be removed.
Epiphanius’ actions are indicative of an early and significant opposition to the use of images in the worship of the New Testament church.
The third reference to the opposition in the church to the use of images is to Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine, whose dates are A.D. 354-430, and who was the father of the Western church, opposed the use of images in worship. The Protestant Reformation was in so many respects a return to Augustine. It was in its view of Scripture. It was in its view of salvation by grace and by grace alone. It was in its teaching on original sin, total depravity, and the rejection of the free will of the sinner. So was it also in its opposition to the use of images and icons. Writing in his work De Vera Religione (The True Religion), Augustine says: “Let not the worship of the works of men be a religion for us. For the artists themselves who make such things are better; yet we ought not to worship them.” The artists who make the images and icons “are better” than the images that they make because they at least are alive, whereas their images are dead and altogether lifeless. Thus, Augustine forbids the use of images in worship, as both contrary to the will of God and as foolish: “We ought not to worship them,” is his verdict.
On the basis of the express teaching of Scripture, as well as the tradition of the church, images and icons have no place in the worship of the people of God. They do not rightly instruct God’s people, nor do they properly represent God or Christ. Rather than to be a help to worship, they are a hindrance. Rather than to be a means for better worship, they are an instrument by which false worship is promoted. Not by means of images, but by the lively preaching of His Word God is pleased to be worshiped. That which represents God to the people of God is His Word, supplemented by the signs and seals of the sacraments.