In 1550 John Knox was called by the authorities in Scotland to give a defence of his claim that the Roman mass was idolatry. Knox stated as his first proposition: “All worshipping, honouring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without his own express commandment, is idolatry. The Mass is invented by the brain of man, without any commandment of God; therefore it is idolatry.” We might shrink back at the boldness of this statement. We might recall some half-forgotten history lessons about image-burning by Protestants in the 16th century, and think that our spiritual fathers went somewhat overboard. But before we go in that direction we need to remind ourselves of the proper context.
Jewish worship in New Testament times was considered strange by non-Jews since, apart from the temple, it was so simple and unadorned. Even in the temple there were no images of the deity. It seemed like a strange ‘superstition’ to the Romans, but the Jews were touchy on the issue, and mostly were left alone.
Christianity in its early decades was also characterised by great simplicity. Most Christians met in private homes. But the pious remembrance of a loved and holy Christian developed in a number of unhelpful ways. Prayers to such departed believers appeared, and in the third century religious pictures began to have a place in the churches. Mementoes of the departed, such as a lock of hair, developed into a cult of relics regarded as having special virtue. Supposed pieces of the cross on which our Lord was crucified, a drop of his blood or some milk of the virgin, were highly valued. The official recognition of Christianity by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century brought many into the churches who carried similar ideas from their former paganism.
These ‘saints’, are a select class numbering nowadays more than 10,000. They may be patrons of particular occupations (eg. locksmiths) or activities (eg. travellers), or places (eg. St Andrew of Scotland), or ailments (eg headaches) or other dangers (eg. drowning). At first recognised by popular acclaim, later the church hierarchy controlled elevation to sainthood. Veneration of images of saints was distinguished from worship of them, but the technical distinction was not very obvious in practice, and mere sophistry from a Reformed perspective.
The cult of images was justified as an aid to devotion, and a helpful way of teaching the poor who could not read. But it led to a lengthy controversy in the Eastern church in the 8th and 9th centuries with various rulings for and against. Ultimately on 11 March AD 843 the use of picture icons was permanently restored, a day marked by the Eastern Church as ‘The Triumph of Orthodoxy’.
In the West there was not the same level of controversy and three-dimensional representations were also permitted as well as pictures. In the West also the views on what happened to the person at death developed even more than in the East. The real saint who was sufficiently free of sin could enter heaven immediately at death. The one who died unrepentant in mortal (serious and fatal) sin went straight to hell. But the vast majority were not sufficiently holy and needed to be purified in purgatory before they could enter heaven.
Pictures and relics of Christ, Mary or the saints were sought after for their alleged spiritual benefit, particularly for obtaining indulgence from time in purgatory. Purgatory – a place of purification after death before entering eternal bliss – was itself a gradual development rooted in pagan ways of thinking, and only formally recognised as dogma by the Council of Trent in 1550.
Pieces of the true cross were legion, Mary’s breast milk was common, hair, nail clippings, bones, even heads of saints also. This all begins to sound bizarre to us, but if we remember the way in which the material and the spiritual were intertwined, and the religious fervour of the age, we will begin to understand.
The teaching of transubstantiation – that the bread and wine are turned into the very body and blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine – was referred to in this way by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and affirmed as Roman Catholic doctrine by the Council of Trent in 1551. It had grown out of a literal reading of Christ’s words ‘this is my body’ in a belief context where the material was making visible the spiritual.
Still in the current Catholic Catechism we read: “In the liturgy of the Mass we express our faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine by, among other ways, genuflecting or bowing deeply as a sign of adoration of the Lord. ‘The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession.’”
Although before the 16th century there were criticisms of the cult of images, it is really only with the Reformation that there is a sustained theological objection. Luther was content to allow much carry over of religious practice so long as the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ was not imperilled. But the stream of reform associated with Zwingli and Calvin was more radical.
Calvin insists that the purpose of creation is to know God and to glorify him by worship and obedience. For him knowledge of the right way of worshipping God is foundational as the soul of the Christian life. In 1543 he writes in his book On The Necessity of Reforming the Church, “There is nothing to which all men should pay more attention, nothing in which God wishes us to exhibit a more intense eagerness, than in endeavouring that the glory of his name may remain undiminished, his kingdom be advanced, and the pure doctrine, which alone can guide us to true worship, flourish in full strength.” For Calvin true worship must flow from knowledge of God.
Calvin maintains that true worship must be spiritual in line with God’s nature. God must not be worshipped in material symbols, or through physical conceptions of him. Further, God is to be worshipped only in ways warranted from Scripture. Similarly, while art as such is not condemned, the second commandment excluded visual art from the worship and meditation of the church.
Idolatry arises out of the corruption of the human heart so that man’s mind is a veritable factory of idols, ignoring or perverting what God has revealed, whether in nature or Scripture, and making his own religion in which the material plays a major role. Instead of worshipping the Creator according to his spiritual reality, man worships the creature, bringing God down to the creaturely level. The material world is good, but one cannot find spiritual values in it, but only in God himself.
Calvin’s most popular book was in fact a long list of relics called Inventory of Relics issued first in 1543. Calvin’s aim was to show the blindness of idolaters through listing its most obvious deceptions. He believes that as soon as one admits material objects into worship people begin to attach spiritual value to them. Materiality in worship is a disgraceful affront to God’s majesty. Calvin writes of Roman worship: “For they have prostrated themselves, and bent the knee before relics as before God, lighting torches and tapers as a sign of homage, putting confidence in them, and running to them as if they possessed divine power and grace. If idolatry is just to transfer the honour of God to others, can we deny that this is idolatry?”
The simplicity of Reformed worship, its barrenness in the eyes of critics, therefore is not something to be remedied by the creative arts. Rather it reflects a great and wonderful truth concerning the God we worship! It is not an easier path to follow, given the materialistic tendencies in our minds and hearts, but it is the true path.
When challenged by the lack of miracles claimed by Rome, Calvin affirms that miracles are seals of the Gospel and its apostolic messengers. As the Reformed have no new Gospel, but have simply recovered the old, their teaching is attested by all the miracles Christ and the apostles performed. The miracles of Rome lead people away from the true worship of God and are necessarily false.
Calvin did not encourage people to act on their own initiative and smash idols, anymore than did Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:37). But he did provide both a scriptural and a rational interpretation of idolatry that provided a very significant driving force for the reformation of both doctrine and piety along Scripture lines. It gave a more adequate grounding to the temptation of Protestants to compromise with Rome by outward conformity. Calvin allowed for exile if one could not worship God without idolatry, or alternatively one could live among idolaters quietly but inoffensively in line with true worship. His teaching enabled the Reformed Church in France to survive persecution. It produced martyrs but it even more produced people of conviction that the chief purpose for which man is made is to glorify God and worship and serve him accordingly.
Today the picture is not much different. It is said that more Italians pray to Padro Pio, who was declared a saint in 1965, than to Jesus or Mary. His body has recently been put on display and 7,000 people a day come to see it. We regularly hear of statues of the Virgin which are weeping blood or oil, and many other such things. Certainly in Australia we do not see the gross idolatry of religious processions seen in many nominally Roman Catholic lands where compromise with earlier pagan traditions is even more noticeable. But even here we have a whole mass of teachin0g and practice utterly at odds with Scripture. These are not things to laugh about so much as to weep for the dishonour given to God by them, and the ignorance of those who give reverence to physical objects.
We of the Reformed tradition need also to look at ourselves, given our human tendency to corrupt the worship of God in one way or another. Are there areas where we are slipping?