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Category: Incarnation (Page 2 of 4)

The Illogic of Calvin’s Iconoclasm



John Calvin  source

On 23 May 1555, John Calvin preached on Deuteronomy 4:15-20 applying Moses’ admonition against idols to the depicting of Jesus Christ in icons.  This sermon is significant for Reformed-Orthodox dialogue because it presents us not only with Calvin’s hermeneutical method but also the theological reasoning underlying his iconoclasm.

In my article, “The Biblical Basis for Icons,” I pointed to the use of images of cherubim on the curtains of Moses’ Tabernacle and images of cherubim carved on the walls of Solomon’s Temple.  Then in another article, “Calvin Versus the Icon,” I wondered about Calvin’s failure in his Institutes or his commentaries to address these pro-icon passages.  This made me curious about how Calvin would have responded to these passages in the Bible that support images in the church.  It turned out that Calvin in his 1555 sermon did address this issue.  We are fortunate to have Arthur Golding’s English translation of Calvin’s sermon series on Deuteronomy posted online by the University of Michigan.  The reader should keep in mind that Golding (1536-1606) lived in the sixteenth century which accounts for what seems to us peculiar English spelling.

Interior of Solomon's Temple

Interior of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6)

And whereas the alledge that there were Cherubins painted vppon the vaile of the Temple,* and that two likewise did couer the Arke: it serueth to condemne them the more. When the Papistes pre∣tend that men may make any manner of image: What, say they? Hath not God permitted it? No: but the imagerie that was set there, serued to put the Iewes in minde that they ought to abstaine [30] from all counterfeiting of God, insomuch that it was a meane to confirme them the better, that it was not lawfull for them to represent Gods Maiestie, or to make any resemblance thereof. For there was a vaile that serued to couer the great Sanctuarie, and againe there were two Cherubins that couered the Arke of ye couenant. Whereto commeth all this, and what is ment by it, but that when the case concerneth our going vnto God, we must shut our eyes and not preace [40] any neerer him, than he guideth vs by his word? Then let vs hearken to that which he teacheth, and therewithall let vs bee sober, so as our wits bee not ticklish, nor our eyes open to imagine or conceiue any shape.  (Emphases added.)

Calvin’s reasoning here is a curious one.  He argues the cherubim were depicted in the Temple: (1) to condemn the Israelites and (2) to remind them to abstain from making idols.  It is as logical as a teetotaler parent’s taking a drink in order to teach his children to abstain from alcohol, or a college professor copying another professor’s work in order to teach his students the wrongfulness of plagiarism.  In my earlier assessment of Calvin I took an irenic stance by titling the sub-section “The Logic of Calvin’s Iconoclasm.”  However, Calvin’s peculiar exegesis in this sermon leads me to a quite different conclusion: “The Illogic of Calvin’s Iconoclasm.”

When reading the Old Testament it is important for Christians to interpret the text in light of the coming of Christ.  In his sermon, Calvin applies Deuteronomy against the Roman Catholics as if they were living in the Old Testament dispensation.  Calvin here seems to have skipped over the Incarnation.  This is a huge omission because the early Church Fathers saw the Incarnation as a “game changer.”  Prior to the coming of Christ humanity was estranged from God and pagans sought to worship God in the light of their understanding of him.  This led to all sorts of pagan rituals and idols, and erroneous beliefs about his character.  God’s meeting with Moses on Mt. Sinai marked the beginning of the restoration of the true knowledge of God which would culminate in the coming of Christ.  John of Damascus explained how the Incarnation was a game changer.

It is clearly a prohibition against representing the invisible God.  But when you see Him who has no body become man for you, then you will make representations of His human aspect.  When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, become visible, then represent the likeness of Him who has appeared.  When He who, having been the consubstantial Image of the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, thus becoming bound in quantity and quality, having taken on the carnal image, then paint and make visible to everyone Him who desired to become visible (in Ouspensky 1978:44).

As a result of the Incarnation the life of Christ takes on a revelatory character.  We come to know God’s character not just through the teachings and sayings of Christ but also through his actions.  The Orthodox Church sees the Trinity being revealed in Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and his transfiguration on Mt. Tabor.

John’s First Epistle likewise makes the case that in the Incarnation God the Son became visible and tangible.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched…. (1 John 1:1; emphases added)

Calvin’s polemic against images makes sense if God was up in heaven far beyond human knowing and comprehension.  In the Old Testament times it was impossible for man to ascend up to the heavens by his own power to behold God.  Knowledge of God was only possible if God condescended to come down from heaven and showed himself to the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or on Mt. Sinai as he did with Moses or through the prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah.  God’s condescension culminated in his  taking on human flesh and dying on the Cross (Philippians 2:5-11).


Are Icons Nestorian?

Calvin makes another argument against depicting Christ in images.  He argues that to depict Christ in images is a form of the Nestorian heresy.

Beholde, they paint and portray Iesus Christ, who (as wee knowe) is not onely man,* but also God manifested in the flesh: and what a representation is that? Hee is Gods eternall sonne, in whom dwelleth the fulnesse of the Godhead, yea euen substantially. Seeing it is said, substantially, should wee haue portraitures and images whereby the onely flesh may bee represented? Is it not a wyping away of that which is chiefest in our Lorde Iesus Christ, that is to wit, of his diuine Maiestie?  (Emphases added.)

In this passage Calvin makes two arguments.  First, he affirms the two natures of Christ: human and divine.  Second, he argues that because only the human nature can be depicted in a painting the result is a Nestorian heresy in which Christ’s humanity is separated from his divinity.


Christ the Pantocrator (The Almighty)

Orthodoxy has two responses to this.  One, the icon depicts the Person of Christ.  This can be seen in the prominence of the face in icons.  Therefore, when Orthodox Christians venerate an icon of Christ their devotion is directed to the Person of Christ, not to his physical nature or the colored paint on the wooden board.  The Person of Christ encompasses both his divine and his human natures.  Two, Orthodox icons of Christ have symbolic references to Christ’s divinity.  Typically, in the Pantocrator icon we see Christ’s red tunic overlaid with the blue mantle.  The underlying red symbolizes Christ’s essential divine nature whereas the blue symbolizes his taking on human nature as an act of grace.

The visual depiction of Christ’s humanity is accompanied by symbolic references to his divine nature.  We see inscribed on the Pantocrator icon the Greek phrase “Ο ΩΝ” which means “He Who Is.”  This is taken from the book of Revelation:

Holy, holy, holy

Is the Lord God Almighty,

Who was, and is, and is to come.

(Revelation 4:8)

For the Orthodox Calvin’s theological critique of icons is fundamentally flawed.  His ignorance of the principle that icons depict the person leads him to a Nestorian understanding of icons.  In other words it is Calvin who is committing the heresy of Nestorianism, not the pro-icon Orthodox!  We don’t know what kind of images Calvin saw in the Roman Catholic churches of his time but in Orthodox iconography there are safeguards in place to guard against Nestorian heresy that viewed his humanity as separate from his divinity.



For an Orthodox Christian, Calvin’s sermon against images is seriously flawed.  One, Calvin’s neglecting to interpret Deuteronomy in the light of the Gospels, i.e., the Incarnation of the Word, results in anachronistic hermeneutics.  He criticizes the use of images in Roman Catholic churches as if they were living in Old Testament times.  Two, Calvin’s reading of Old Testament passages where God instructed Moses to have images of the cherubim woven into the Tabernacle curtains as being iconoclastic in intent make no sense whatsoever.  Three, Calvin’s accusation of the implicit Nestorian nature of icons shows a fundamental misunderstanding of icons in Orthodoxy.  Calvin’s accusation of Nestorianism holds up if evidence can be shown that the Church Fathers or Ecumenical Councils understood icons as depicting only Christ’s human nature.  Four, Calvin’s failure to see icons depicting the Person of Christ leads him to an inadvertent Nestorian heresy.

Orthodox Crossing Themselves

Orthodox Crossing Themselves

If a Reformed Christian visiting an Orthodox Liturgy were to observe an Orthodox Christian venerating an icon of Christ they should refrain from jumping to the conclusion that the Orthodox parishioner is worshiping the painting of Christ or his physical nature.  When an Orthodox Christian venerates an icon he or she is showing love and respect to the Person who came down from heaven and died on the Cross for their sins.

It may be that Calvin’s iconoclasm was the result of his being embroiled in the heated Protestant versus Roman Catholic polemic of the time.  Reformed Christians today are fortunate to have the opportunity to engage in dialogue with Orthodox Christians who are familiar with both the Reformed and the Orthodox theological traditions.  [I am grateful for the grounding in Reformed theology that I received at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary prior to my becoming Orthodox.]  Icons have been a longstanding stumbling block between the two traditions.  If it can be shown that Calvin’s iconoclasm is based on a flawed understanding of icons and that the Orthodox pro-icon position is grounded in Scripture then the possibility emerges for a rapprochement between the two traditions.

Robert Arakaki

See also:

Are Images of Jesus Idolatrous?” by Jason Goroncy in Per Crucem ad Lucem.

What  is Calvin’s Take on Images of Jesus?” by Eric Parker in The Calvinist International.

Are icons Nestorian?” in Wicket’s Take.

Theology of the Icon by Leonid Ouspensky, Volume I (1978).


A Tale of Two Gospels

"And was-given to-him [the] book of-Isaiah [the] prophet" Source

“And was-given to-him [the] book of-Isaiah [the] prophet” Source

By Stefan Pavićević.


Stefan Pavićević

If there’s one thing I really think Protestantism has gotten wrong, it would be the way it treats the Bible.  Now, before I continue, I want to assure the reader that my intention is not to bash Protestants, because I have many friends who are good Christians and Protestants, people I deeply respect and love as my brothers and sisters in Christ.  My point here is not to be rude to Protestants or to even try to set out the logical outworking and problems with Sola Scriptura per se. This has been done over and over there is no need to repeat it here. I want to offer a fresh perspective and look at things a bit differently.

Protestants would often say that they believe in the true Gospel, making it clear that they are not like those who believe in a false Gospel. But, what is the true Gospel? And what is a false Gospel? Some would say the true Gospel is that Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins.  I see nothing objectionable about that definition. But tell me, what major Christian denomination, group or church doesn’t believe that? Why then, do Protestants insist that Roman Catholics or Orthodox do not have the true Gospel?  Then the Protestants would add a number of other qualifications for what counts as the true Gospel, and what doesn’t. Then different groups would come up with different descriptions of what the true Gospel really is. And now we have chaos!

What they don’t see is that they have made an abstraction of the Gospel.  They have set up a neat logical and abstract system which they call the (true) Gospel. However, this approach is always bound to fail.  Why? Because it misses the most central fact of Christianity: the Incarnation. Now, I don’t want to even remotely imply that they have rejected the Incarnation.  But I am concerned that they may have turned the Incarnation into an abstraction, an idea.

We are abstracting whenever we go from what is tangible and particular to what is universal and remote to our senses, accessible only to our intellects. Such is our idea of God, abstract and indirect. But we are not abstract concepts. As living breathing human beings we need tangible reality, not abstract reality.  That is why we need the Incarnation.


The Word of God Became Flesh - Icon of the Annunciation. Source

The Incarnation — The Word of God Became Flesh for our salvation   Source

The Incarnation is the most important event in world history.  This event has cosmic consequences. The intangible, inaccessible, unlimited God became tangible, accessible and limited in order to save us. Not only did he share in our suffering, and tasted our bitter grief and death, but He revealed His Divinity in His very own flesh. God became a living breathing human being who walked on earth (1 John 1:1-3)! The Gospel is the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is the Gospel.

Thus, the Gospel is a living, tangible reality of sharing in the life and sufferings of the Word of God, so that we may share in His most blessed divine life. This life consists of the experience of and in the Church, a life of ascesis, prayer and partaking in the Holy Mysteries, the Sacraments. Our life in Christ and the life of countless of others, especially those who have reached the light of deification, this is what the Gospel is.  The light of deification means that the Gospel is more than a teaching, it is a reality that will profoundly change who we are.  It is the continued life and incarnation of Christ in His Church.

That is why we need to heed the advices and most divine words spoken to us by the prophets, the apostles, the fathers, and all the saints, as they speak to us. These are not formulas and algorithms for salvation, but words that are life eternal, that ought to be practiced and lived. We don’t need an abstract Gospel, we need a tangible, incarnational Gospel! We need Emmanuel, God with us!

The capital “W” Word of God is not the Bible, it is Christ Jesus, our Lord who is the eternal Word (Logos) of the Father. The Bible is not the way, the truth, and the life, it is Christ who is the only way, truth and life (John 14:6). The Holy Scriptures are profitable unto salvation only when through them we encounter our Lord Christ. The Bible doesn’t have the answers to all questions, nor is it a textbook of correct belief and right living. Yet, for some Protestants it is as if reading the Bible is all one needs. As if reading the Bible is enough to be true Christians, with sound and correct belief and right living. As if those who read the Bible can never become heretics. But what about history? What about those who fought against heresies and who have spent their whole lives on defining the landmarks of orthodoxy, can we just ignore them? Can we ignore the history of the Christian Faith, risking the grave danger of repeating the mistakes and the errors of the past?

Whenever someone commits himself to a strict, literal reading of the Scriptures, divorced from the actual life of the Church, they are not only reading the Bible in a superficial and profitless manner, but they actually sever themselves from the communion of saints and from communion with Christ. The Bible is called the Word of God only by analogy, because it is Christ who is the True Word, and the One the Scriptures testify of.

Now, someone would say: “Stefan, you’re painting with a broad brush.” I realize there are people from traditional Protestant churches who don’t read the Bible in the literal way. But my point still stands as I’ve noticed that this trend of reading the Bible literally is very popular among many Protestants.  This is especially true for those with an evangelical bent, regardless of the denomination they may formally belong to. Our tale of the two Gospels illustrates my point perfectly. There is the true Gospel, and there are false Gospels, according to many Protestants. They approach the Bible as if it has come down from heaven and has become Emmanuel, God with us.  But it is a Person, the Word of God, who came down from heaven. (John 1:14)  Just as Jesus Christ took on flesh in the Incarnation so likewise the Incarnation continues in the Church the Body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)  It is at Church, the Body of Christ, on Sunday mornings that we meet God.  We first hear God’s word in the Scriptures and then at Holy Communion we go up to feed on the body and blood of Christ, the Word of God made flesh for our salvation.  Jesus said:

I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:53-54)

Where Protestant worship emphasizes the Gospel as the written word of God especially through the sermon, Orthodox worship emphasizes the Gospel as the Incarnate Word of God who gave us His Life on the Cross for our salvation and incorporates us into His Body, the Church.  For the Orthodox Christian the true Gospel is not just a message to be intellectually understood but a life of worship, discipleship, and ascesis in the context of the Church, the Body of Christ.

I propose that we distinguish between the tangible, incarnational Gospel and the abstract intellectualized Gospels. The former is the true one, because it is rooted in the life and experience of the Church even as she lives and experiences the life of Christ, whereas of the latter I need not comment.

And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor. 3:4-6)


Stefan is a cantor at the Macedonian Orthodox Church. He is interested in arts, music, philosophy, church history, patristics and theology, as well as computer science (in which he is majoring). In the free time, he likes to read books (he’s an avid Lord of the Rings fan), listen to Orthodox chant as well as secular music, or just hang out with friends. When it comes to Orthodox theology, his main interests are in St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Dionysius the Areopagite.  


See also:

Stefan Pavićević — “The Mystery of the Church and My Search for Truth”  24-January-2015


Why Christ had to Die












Athanasius the Great’s theological classic On the Incarnation contains passages that explain eloquently the significance of Christ’s death on the Cross.  In this blog posting I highlighted certain phrases to bring to the reader’s attention important themes in Athanasius’ exposition on Christ’s death in § 20.

Universal salvation: Christ died for all that all men might be saved.  No limited atonement here!  The early Church then and the Orthodox Church today emphasizes God’s philanthropia – his love for the human race.

Incarnation: Through the uniting of the divine Word with a mortal human body Christ destroyed death.  The God-Man died on behalf of all; the goal here was “the death of all mankind” and not his own individual death (§ 22).  Death was incapable of containing the infinite Life of the divine Word and so was “blown to smithereens.”

Release from Satan: As a result of Adam and Eve’s sin all humanity became enslaved to Satan who had the power of death; so when Christ died on behalf of humanity he paid in full the ancestral debt owed to the devil and when Christ destroyed death he nullified the devil’s number one weapon.

Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.  In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection.

Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.  Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid.  Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it, “might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them who all their lifetime were enslaved by the fear of death.”



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