John Calvin: The Human Heart is an Idol Factory

The Great Reformer of the 16th century, John Calvin, along with Martin Luther, were the most influential voices of the Protestant Reformation. After the Bible, Calvin’s systematic theology titled ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ continues to be one of the greatest literary works which have helped to shape the soul of the church, both then and now. My attempt in this article is to present a summary of what he has to say on the subject of idolatry in general and specifically about its manifestation in the form of ‘veneration of images’ in the Catholic church during those times. I am sure that this will have implications for all of us who live in cultures where idolatry is a very prevalent religious practice, especially for those of us who live in India. And as you think about it, my hope is that this article will inspire some of you to take up this book and start reading it for yourself.

The Degenerating Catholic Church
Calvin is deeply concerned by veneration of the images of saints in the Roman Catholic church. He knew that this practice first existed among the gentiles for ages past when he says,

We know that the sun was worshiped by the Persians. As many stars as the foolish nations saw in the sky, so many gods they imagined them to be. Then to the Egyptians, every animal was a figure of God. The Greeks, again, plumed themselves on their superior wisdom in worshiping God under the human form

Concerned that this trend had now entered the church, he ends his two chapters on idolatry by saying,

First, superstition attached divine honors to the sun and stars, or to idols: afterward ambition followed – ambition which, decking man in the spoils of God, dared to profane all that was sacred

Decking man in the spoils of God or veneration of mortal human beings, had become a common practice within the Roman Catholic church during Calvin’s lifetime. The practice was held in such high esteem by the church that, ‘Theodosius, bishop of Amora, would fire off an anathema (curse) at all who object to the worship of images. Constantius, bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, professes to embrace images with reverence, and declares that he will pay them the respect which is due to the ever-blessed Trinity: every person refusing to do the same thing he curses and classes with the heretics. And John the Eastern legate, carried still farther by his zeal, declares it would be better to allow a city to be filled with brothels than be denied the worship of images’. These responses give us a glimpse in to corruption that existed within the church and the hostile context in which Calvin was working to bring about reforms.

The Sword of the Scriptures used to fight idolatry
The church in those days reasoned that God did manifest his presence through certain ‘signs’ in the scriptures. Calvin acknowledges this but for him all those signs were in accordance with the scheme of doctrine and they communicated the impossibility of knowing God perfectly. For example, the cloud, and smoke, and flame in Deuteronomy 4:11, though they were symbols of heavenly glory, worked as a bridle to curb the human mind from trying to penetrate any farther. Even Moses to whom God manifested himself most familiarly (in the burning bush and the cloud) was not permitted to see God’s face rather his prayer to do so was rejected because its brilliance was too great for any man (Ex. 33:20). Also, the mercy seat in the Old Testament (Ex. 25:17, 18, 21) where God exhibited the presence of his power was concealed in such a way as to tell us that God is best seen when the human mind rises in adoration above itself. And that is why it was shaded by the outstretched wings of the cherubim and the veil of the tent covered it, while it was located farthest from those who draw near to it in worship. Finally, the prophets also depicted the seraphim, who are exhibited to us in a vision, as having their faces veiled, demonstrating that the brilliance of the divine glory is so great, that even the angels cannot gaze upon it directly, while the minute beams which sparkle in the face of angels are shrouded from our view.

The Catholic Church and its leaders also defended the use of images by saying that ‘images are the books of the unlearned’. But Calvin’s rebuttal to this came from the scriptures, quoting Jeremiah who said that ‘the instruction of idols is but wood’ (Jer. 10:8) and Habakkuk who said that ‘a metal image is a teacher of lies’ (Hab. 2:18). Calvin adds that everything that images teach us about God is ‘futile, false and wicked fictions’ and therefore all those who look to them for knowledge about God are ‘miserably deceived’. Calvin contends that the right method of teaching Christians is through ‘the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments’ but unfortunately little attention is given to these disciplines by those whose eyes are only gazing at idols. He sharply criticizes those in church leadership who have surrendered this role of teaching to idols, by saying that the only reason they would do this was because they themselves were ‘dumb’. After quoting the apostle Paul who said that by the true preaching of the Gospel, Christ is portrayed and, in a manner, crucified before our eyes (Gal. 3:1), he says that there would be no need of so many crosses of wood and stone, silver and gold, in churches if the Gospel was being faithfully and honestly preached.

Even as the church justified the use of images or carved items in worship, Calvin’s response to it was always grounded in the scriptures. And therefore he talks about the responsibility of the church leadership to preach and teach it well. In fact, he says that the introduction of the use of images in churches was also the result of wrong interpretation of the scriptures. One bishop said that, ‘God created man in his own image’ and therefore images ought to be used. Another bishop to prove that images need to be placed on altars quoted the passage, ‘No man, when he has lighted a candle, putteth it under a bushel’. Another Bishop to show the value of looking at images quoted a verse of the Psalms, “The light of thy countenance, O Lord, has shone upon us”. Calvin says that ‘their absurdities are so extreme that it is painful even to quote them’ and that by ‘handling scripture so childishly or wresting it so shamefully and profanely’ the fathers of the church have discredited themselves.

On his part, Calvin says that scripture discriminates between true God and false deities, it particularly opposes Him to idols. The scriptures annihilate every deity which men frame for themselves. Calvin points out that Isaiah is most vocal of the Biblical prophets in showing that when God is restricted to an image then the majesty of God is being defiled by an absurd and inappropriate fiction (Is. 40:18; 41:7, 29; 45:9; 46:5). He goes on to mention that even Paul’s reasoning would be the same in Acts 17:29. Calvin consistently used the sword of the scriptures in his battle against idolatry within the church.

God reserves His right
Why does God ban the use of idols or images in the scriptures? Calvin’s straight answer is that ‘God is the only fit witness to himself’. He reserves the right to identify himself. So, when man tries to give a visible form to God using wood and stone, silver and gold or any other matter, his glory is being corrupted by an impious lie. That is why after claiming to be God, he says in Ex. 20:4, “Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image…” By these words he curbs any licentious attempt we might make to represent him by a visible image so that we do not turn his truth in to a lie.

Not only does God reserve the right to identify himself, he also reserves the right to prescribe the method of worship. Because inevitably man begins to worship or adore the idol as if God were present in it or at least His power resides in it. And that is why God continues in his second commandment that ‘you shall not bow down to them or serve them’ (Ex. 20:5). God does not will to be worshipped in idols and all such worship is nothing but robbing God.

Calvin through his writings is trying to tell us that God is the only true witness to himself and he also reserves the right to prescribe the method of worship. Both of these points He embraces in His Law when He first binds the faithful in allegiance to Him as their only Lawgiver, and then prescribes a rule for worshipping Him in accordance with His will. So, God uses the Law as a bridle to curb men and prevent them from turning aside to spurious worship.

The real culprit is the sinful human ‘nature’
Through his two chapters on idolatry Calvin keeps reiterating that the sinful human nature is to be blamed for it. He says that this practice of making idols has been going on relentlessly ever since the world began. To begin with, he quotes the example of Rachel who stole her father’s images (Gen. 31:19) as a proof of the early existence of this common vice. Calvin adds that even before many years have elapsed after the Great Flood during Noah’s time, men were once again making idols at will. He says that there is good reason to believe that Noah would have witnessed the re-emergence of this practice in his own lifetime. Joshua also testifies, that Terah and Nahor, even before the birth of Abraham, were the worshipers of false gods (Josh. 24:2). And if Shem’s descendants revolted so quickly, what can we imagine of Ham’s descendants who had been cursed long before in their father.

Calvin says that the human mind which is filled with arrogant rashness has the audacity to conceive a god according to its limited capacity. Man knows that he is a creature of a day and yet wants the metal which he has deified to be regarded as God. Calvin quotes a heathen poet to capture this irony, who says, “I was once the trunk of a fig-tree, a useless log, when the tradesman, uncertain whether he should make me a stool, chose rather that I should be a god”. In doing so the poet is giving expression to the rebuke of the prophet in Isaiah 44:9-17, who elsewhere tells us that ‘nothing is more inappropriate than to reduce the immense and incomprehensible Deity to the stature of a few feet’. But Calvin says that such a ‘monstrous proceeding, though deeply offensive to the order of nature, it is natural to man’. In other words, it is in the nature of sinful man to commit idolatry. Every now and then it rushes forth with boiling haste in pursuit of idols, just like water gushing forth with violence from an abundant spring.

Finally, Calvin’s defining statement on idolatry is that ‘the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols’. Many others have rightly paraphrased this statement as ‘the human heart is an idol factory’. And as this corruption of the human nature (sin) hurries away all mankind collectively and individually in to this madness, Calvin says that, God is simultaneously making a dreadful declaration that, “Those who make them (idols) become like them; so, do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8). And this declaration is so much more relevant here in India where people make idols at will and every day add to the millions of deities that their hands have already forged. Like Calvin, the church in India has an urgent task of pointing out the futility of their actions and call them to repent and put their faith in Christ who is the only true ‘image of the invisible God’. And Christ has not called us to make idols after Him in order to assure ourselves of His presence and guidance, rather His Word has promised us that ‘he will be with us to the end of the age’.

2 Replies to “John Calvin: The Human Heart is an Idol Factory”

  1. Sir, very good and informative article. However, my question is-are there no idols in the life of believers of the Protestant Church? Moreover the mainline Protestant Church is also have venerated idols inform of the Cross. Isn’t it???

    1. Thanks Uday! Definitely there are idols in the life of Christians which we need to repent from. But Calvin’s objective was primarily to address the physical idols and images used by people around him and since i wanted to summarize his teachings on the subject, the more subtle forms of ‘idolatry of the heart’ are not a part of this article. And as Calvin says that if the use of the ‘cross’ becomes a substitute to teaching of the Word then it should be a cause of concern for any church. The Word of God is the best way to convey the message of ‘Christ-crucified’ instead of using a ‘cross’.

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