When discussing idolatry, and in particular whenever the question of images of Jesus Christ is brought up, the discussion (by those who approve of images of Jesus) usually turns to the question of what lies at the heart of the 2nd commandment. The defense offered by those who support the use of images (whether images of Jesus Christ, or of a dove, or of a flame, both meant to represent the Holy Spirit) is that "we don't bow down and worship these images, so they are permissible".
Calvin questions this right at the start of his chapter on images, chapter 11 of Book I of the Institutes. His target in the first four sections of this chapter is the illegality of images, according to God's Law, considered in and of itself. A key concept around which Calvin builds his case is stated in the first paragraph of this passage: "for God himself is the sole and proper witness of himself." (p. 100, Institutes of the Christian Religion) For Calvin, the argument begins here - God alone is the one who can authorize representations of or physical manifestations of himself, and nobody else. Hence the commandment, Calvin argues, that NO likeness or image of God in any way may be made. He elicits a principle from the Scriptural text, too - that "God's glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him." (ibid.) There is no way to present to us an image of God that is truthful, or that fails to detract from His glory. We can do all we want to wiggle around the letter of the Law given in Exodus 20:4, but it must be recognized that even the letter of the Law given there elucidates a principle that is at the heart. It is not possible, period, for a man to construct any kind of image whatsoever and, without sin or blame, represent God with it. This includes, I firmly believe, images of Jesus Christ, the God-Man (but Calvin doesn't go into this here, though I am equally firmly convinced that he repudiated images of Jesus Christ just as much as images of Mary). Calvin here is discussing the representation of the divine being - the one true and living God, who is spirit and whose worship must be according to spirit and truth.
It is sometimes argued (and I have argued with people putting forth this argument) that images like the dove, or the flame are appropriate for use in worship and guiding thoughts and prayers because God Himself used those images as representations of Himself. To that I say, first, that nevertheless, God has condemned such images by His direct command in Exodus 20:4; but secondly, the fact of God using such representations of Himself has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is right for us to do so. If God's physical presence was "in" those manifestations - it would have been appropriate to offer Him worship through them, as HE designated those manifestations as representing Himself. Moses spoke to the flame in the bush, rightly, because God was *there* in a particular way. Would it have been appropriate later for Moses to recreate the event, in order to have an image by which to worship Almighty God? NO.
Christ, too, was the Divine and simultaneously human - He was and is the express image of God, we are told in Scripture. Was worship offered to Him, properly, being venerated as He stood there with the disciples? Indeed! Is it appropriate to make a statue of Christ in order to have a focal point for prayers, to excite the emotions and raise up our thoughts to the divine reality of Jesus? NO - for the same reason as it would be wrong for us to have a bonfire to represent God and worship Him through it - even if our minds were solely focused on worshipping the true and the living God.
I firmly believe that many who were condemned as guilty of idolatry in the episode of the golden calves, truly believed they were worshipping God through them (not worshipping the idols themselves, but using them to direct their prayers). This is the heart of idolatry - worshipping God in a way that He has not prescribed. He condemns the use of images. Period. We mustn't then use or allow them, even with the best of intentions. So argues Calvin, and with him I couldn't agree more completely.
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