Article of the Month




The Chrisitan Use of Visual Art in Worship Today
by Terry Johnson


The transformation of the plain-style meeting-house of the broadly Reformed tradition (Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, and even Methodist), with its undecorated interior and simple services, into a mega-church filled with banners, pictures, stage props, and liberal use of media raises important questions about the use of visual art in Protestant worship today. The Reformed tradition from Zwingli to the twentieth century was disciplined, or shall we say, restrictive in its use of visual art. The Reformers carefully read Scripture and church history and rejected not just all cultic (i.e. devotional) but also all illustrative (i.e. didactic) use of visual art in worship and only permitted careful use of decorative art.1

According to Sally Morgenthaler, a widely respected consultant on church growth and evangelism, the use of video clips in worship increased 625% between 1999 and 2005. Twenty-one percent of American churches use video on a weekly basis.2 American Protestant churches are being swept along in the cultural tide that is transforming western civilization from an essentially typographic, or word-based culture to a pictographic, or image based culture.3

This use of visual media is unprecedented in the Reformed tradition. The pressure to join the trends is considerable and begs a reexamination of the biblical and historical data and the formulation of guidelines designed for our times.

Reformed Critique

The Reformed argument against cultic or liturgical use of visual art begins with the second commandment. Calvin launches his discussion of the use of visible forms in worship in the Institutes with his polemic against idolatry in Book I and elaborates further in his exposition of the Ten Commandments in Book II.4 “We must cling to this principle,” says Calvin: “God’s glory is corrupted by impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him.”5 The second commandment reads:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:4,5, NASV)

Calvin argues that the second commandment builds upon the first. The first commandment defines who is to be worshiped. The second answers how the true God is to be worshiped. “Now He defines what is His legitimate worship,” that is, “the manner in which He would be worshiped.”6 Positively the second commandment requires spiritual worship. “The sum is, that the worship of God must be spiritual, in order that it may correspond with His nature.7

Negatively, the commandment forbids both the making of images of God (“you shall not make”) and the worshiping of them (“you shall not worship or serve them”). More broadly it “forbids us to worship any images in the name of religion.”8 The Reformers highlight at least four reasons why God prohibits visual images of Himself:

1. Images imply the inadequacy of God’s self-revelation in words. God forbids the making of images in the second commandment because He has chosen to reveal Himself in words. Calvin attacks Pope Gregory’s claim, repeated countless times since, that “images are the books of the uneducated.” He answers that there would be no “uneducated” if the church had fulfilled its duty to preach the gospel. God reveals Himself in words, not visible forms. “Paul testifies that by the true preaching of the gospel ‘Christ is depicted before our eyes as crucified’ (Galatians 3:1).”9

Calvin cites Deuteronomy 4:12:10

“Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice.”

Deuteronomy 4:12 indicates that the manner in which the second commandment was delivered was a “confirmation” of its meaning. “God manifested Himself to the Israelites by a voice, not in a bodily form,” Calvin explains, “whence it follows that those who are not contented with His voice but seek visible form, substitute imaginations and phantoms in His place.”11

Bucer, writing in 1524 in his seminal defense of the reform of worship, Grund und Ursach, citing the arguments of Zwingli, urged, “The lay people should be taught with the word of God and not with dumb rocks, stones and paintings . . . if you are a Christian, then listen to this: the word is sufficient to inspire you to all that which is good.”12

2. The use of images leads to idolatry. Idolatry is inherent to images. Why? Because physical forms are inadequate to the task of representing God. “To what will you liken Me?” God asks (Isaiah 40:18). Indeed they are both inadequate and they misrepresent. They are “teachers of lies” (Habakkuk 2:18). God’s “incomprehensible essence” cannot be captured in a physical form, Calvin maintains.13 “We must surely infer this general doctrine,” says Calvin commenting on Habakkuk, “that whatever men learn of God from images is futile, indeed false.”14

Carlos Eire explains Calvin’s and the Reformers’ objections as arising from the principle finitum non est capax infiniti: the finite cannot contain the infinite.15 Their concern to guard the transcendence of God was behind their objections to the cult of saints, relics, images, pilgrimages, and the doctrine of transubstantiation. This, along with their concern for soli Deo gloria, informed their critique. “God’s majesty is sullied by an unfilling and absurd fiction, when the incorporeal is made to resemble corporeal matter, the invisible a visible likeness, the spirit an inanimate object, the immeasurable a puny bit of wood, stone, or gold,” said Calvin.16 Christ alone, the Reformers insisted, is “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3). He alone is the “word made flesh” and visible (John 1:14).

The reason attached to the second commandment is also important. “I . . . am a jealous God.” The implication of His jealousy is that visible representations of God are in fact rival gods who deflect affection and honor from the true God to themselves. They inevitably result in a transfer of allegiance, even glory from the invisible God to the visible form. “No one should do honor to (images) nor serve God through them,” said Martin Bucer, “since by doing so the heart is estranged from true faith and attaches itself to external things.”17

Calvin cites Exodus 32 and the incident of the Golden Calf to refute the claim that it is not the image that is worshiped but God through the image. The children of Israel intended the calf to be an image of the LORD. The prolonged absence of Moses (and his God) was meant to be rectified by an image through which God could be made manifest. But this is precisely what the second commandment forbids. Not only are the images of false gods not to be worshiped, but neither is an image of the true God to be worshiped. “It is always idolatry when divine honors are bestowed upon an idol,” says Calvin, for “whatever is conferred upon the idol is snatched away from Him.”18

3. The use of images in worship violates Scripture. In many ways this is the Reformers primary concern. Scripture forbids images. No more need be said. In addition to the passages cited above, the Reformers cite the prophets, who regularly level devastating criticism attacks on idolatry (e.g. Isaiah 40:18-20; 41:7,29; 44:12-17; 45:9; 46:5-7), and the Psalms, which as well join in the scorning of images (e.g. Psalms 78:58; 96:5; 97:7; 115:4; 135:15).19

In the New Testament one finds the Apostle Paul repeating the Old Testament criticisms of pagan idolatry thereby extending the scriptural prohibition of images into the New Testament. At Athens the Apostle Paul argued,

Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. (Acts 17:29; cf. Romans 1:18ff)

“God cannot be represented by a picture or sculpture,” says Calvin commenting on this passage, “since He has intended His likeness to appear in us.”20 God cannot be represented by gold, silver, or stone. He cannot be represented by the products of human “art” and “thought.” Hughes Old’s words are to the point:

When Paul preached to the Athenians before the backdrop of the Acropolis, the citadel of the greatest artistic creations of ancient Greece, he told them, ‘Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man’ (Acts 17:29). It is clear from this passage, just as it is clear from the Old Testament prophets, that gold, silver, and stone cannot reflect the nature of God; only human beings, God’s offspring, can do that. The idols are misleading because they come from human imagination rather than divine revelation but even more importantly because God is reveals to the world not by art but by righteousness . . . let us simply note that this crucial text is telling us that art is not a form of revelation. Luke understands as well as the other New Testament writers the prophetic theology of worship. He presents Paul as making the same criticism of idolatry that the prophets had made before him.21

The Apostle condemns all “will worship” (Colossians 2:23, KJV), worship that arises out of the imagination and desires of man rather than the revealed will of God. “True religion,” says Calvin, “ought to be conformed to God’s will as to a universal rule.”22

Calvin and the Reformers were able to appeal to the practice of the early church as confirmation of their understanding of Scripture. During the first 500 years of the Christian era the churches “were commonly empty of images,” says Calvin.23 He appeals to Lactantius, Eusebius, and Augustine for support. He cites the Council of Elvira (ca. 306) which forbid pictures in the churches decreeing, “There shall be no pictures in the churches, that what is reverenced or adored not be depicted on the walls” (canon 36).24

If it be objected that the second commandment only forbids representations of God the Reformers would reply that since the human heart is a “factory of idols,”25 as Calvin put it, visual portrayals of any biblical characters or saints ought to be avoided, as well as those of God, in the place of worship. Martin Bucer wrote That Any Kind of Images May Not Be Permitted (1530) to defend the removal of all images from the Strasburg churches in 1530.26 He argued against all images (not just images of God) on the basis of the first and second commandments. All images must be removed because they always lead to idolatry.27 He traced the history of the use of images and cited the support of church councils, Jerome, Eusebus, Lactantius, and Athanasius, among others. His writing was very influential in the development of the Reformed tradition. Even illustrative or didactic forms of art ought not to be brought into the place of worship, the Reformed tradition has argued, because of the propensity of the human heart toward superstition and idolatry.

4. Images are distracting. Martin Bucer argued in Grund und Ursach (1524) that images were “decoy birds.”28 Calvin argued that the only visual aids that God has given to the church are the “living and symbolical ones,” namely the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism.29 Images derived from “human ingenuity” distract attention from the God-ordained means of grace: the word, sacraments, and prayer.

The Misuse of Art

Having reviewed the four primary objections of the Reformers to the use of visual art in worship, we now must ask how then is usual art to be used? The Apostle Paul’s appeal in Acts 17 (cited above) demonstrates that the incarnation has not resulted in an alteration of the second commandment. Consequently the same principles and the same cautions from the sixteenth century are in order for Reformed churches today. All around us we find a growing preference in the churches for the visual in all its forms (media, dance, drama) over to the verbal, the pictographic over to the typographic. How are Reformed churches to respond?

Because the church has been down this road before, history may again prove helpful. This may be particularly the case with respect to two ways that the church has attempted to make visual its worship: use of ritual and images.


By “ritual” we mean the attempt to visualize Christian truth through dramatic ceremony and costume (as in high liturgical churches) or through the performing arts (as in some contemporary churches today). We see these two approaches to worship (the contemporary and the ancient) as sharing the assumption that grace is mediated through the visual. Consequently each visualizes the gospel through elaborate rituals (anointing, crossing, lighting candles, clouds of incense, etc.) or liturgical dance or drama.

Josef A. Jungmann’s landmark work, The Early Liturgy, published as a part of the University of Notre Dame’s series of “Liturgical Studies,” devotes a chapter to the question of “Pagan and Christian Mysteries.”30 Jungmann denies any influence of the mystery religions on Christian worship “in its inception.”31 The worship of the early church was simple. It employed little visual and little or no religious art. However over time similarities between the highly visual and symbolic mystery rituals and Christian rituals developed, setting the stage of the liturgical revolution centered in Jerusalem in the fourth century. The mystery religions promised salvation through ritual enactment. Dramatic ceremonies presented mythological scenes from the life of a given god (be it Dionysos, Eleusis, Cibele, Isis, Mithras, or some other deity). Through ritual and ceremony the life of the god was thought to be imparted to the initiate, as well as through washings, consignings, anointings, the laying on of hands, and so on. There were cleansing baths, sacred meals, nighttime celebrations, torch-lit rituals, and other dramatic solemnities. These rites “exercised a great attraction on the people of their times,” says Jungmann, and were vigorously combated by the early Church Fathers.32 Sometimes the Fathers attacked them directly. At other times they presented Christianity as the “true mysteries.”

Beginning the fourth century, however, Christian apologists began “to borrow expressions from the language of the mysteries,” observes Jungmann.33 In particular Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita (ca. 500 A.D.) and the Byzantine literature then emerging reflect a significant departure from the approach to the mystery religions from that of the eras that preceded them. At this time there was even “an influx into the liturgy of customs and institutions connected with the ancient mysteries, a carrying over of mystery forms into Christian worship,” Jungmann acknowledges (my emphasis).34

Indeed the prominence of these elements borrowed from the mystery religions, even the concept of mysterium itself became so great, that Odo Casels argued in the earlier part of the twentieth century that the Christian liturgy cannot be properly understood except as a cult-mystery. “Liturgy is the cult-mystery of Christ and the church,” he argued.35 Casel’s view is now largely discredited, but that this idea could be entertained at all demonstrates the preponderance of the evidence that Christian liturgical developments were decisively shaped by interaction with the mystery religions. The collapse of Rome and its educational institutions confronted the church with an increasingly illiterate membership. The strategy of the church was to make its verbal message visual through the use of imaginative ritual and costume.

According to Dom Gregory Dix, the man whose “personal ideas and liturgical initiative” were behind the “liturgical revolution” of the fourth century, was Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 315-386).36 Cyril sought to recast Christian worship in terms of the much admired rituals of the Greek mystery religions. We might say today that he was “contextualizing” Christian worship and the Christian message. Lietzmann speaks of Cyril (and his fellow travelers) as adopting “the idiom of nature religion” in order to facilitate “the migration of the masses across to Christianity.”37 He speaks of the growing mystic ritualism as a dangerous “low undergrowth” through which “the concrete, materialistic ideas of the nature-religions penetrated into Christianity.”38 The Constantinian church, he says, flooded by crowds of converts streaming into its fellowship, “moulded her spiritual endowment to meet their own needs, needs which arose from feelings rooted in nature religions.”39 Consequently the sacraments came to be explained as Christian mysteries, administered with ever expanding ritual, to which an allegorical meaning was given for every movement, revealed only to the initiated. The motive for the mimicking of the mystery religions was mission. The “prevailing air,” explains Lietzmann, “favored mysticism,” and consequently “the church adapted its message to meet the expectations of its budding converts.”40

Cyril’s “mystagogical catechisms,” five sermons preached after the baptism of converts, explained the “mysteries” of baptism, chrismation, and eucharist to the initiated.41 “Mystagogical” was “the term used to explain to those who had gone through the cultic mysteries what had happened to them,” explains Old.42 An allegorical explanation would be given for each stage in baptism: renunciation of the devil, confession of faith, removal of clothing, anointing with exorcised oil, baptism, on to chrismation, and finally first communion. Old describes this as “the beginning of a totally new approach to teaching and preaching” and “one of the most important innovations in the history of Christian worship.”43

At the same time that Cyril was developing the symbolic ritualism that would prove so influential in the liturgical development of the church, Constantine was providing the ecclesiastical theaters in which the ceremonies could be housed. “Constantine’s architectural donations provided the setting for worship as mystery,” Old claims.44 New monumental church buildings were erected on historic sites in Jerusalem: Church of the Nativity, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives. Torch-light processionals were held in connection with the churches and various historic sites such as Bethlehem, Lazarus’ tomb, Gethsemane, and Golgotha. Jerusalem and its surroundings, says Hughes Old, were turned into a “theme park” for religious tourists.45

The ceremonial simplicity of previous centuries vanished. In Jerusalem baptismal preparations were expanded to take place over several days. On the Saturday before Easter an all-night vigil was held. Elaborate ceremonies would unfold in which the baptismal font was blessed, final exorcisms and anointing took place, and finally catechumens were tri-immersed in the name of the Trinity. The bishop then laid hands on the initiated and anointed them with chrism. Chrismation is particularly instructive because it likely started a standard post-bathing practice which gradually became a part of the baptism ritual and eventually was given sacramental status. Its development as a ritual, says Old, “likely owes its existence to a concern to make baptism and first communion which followed it into Christian mysteries more splendid than the rites of initiation so popular in the Helenistic world.”46 The baptized were dressed in white robes and led back into the church to receive first communion just as the light of Easter day was beginning to break. “This was all quite splendid as liturgical drama,” admits Hughes Old, but it also “was far removed from the sort of baptismal service held by the apostles.”47 Yet Cyril’s innovations proved influential. Dix figures that Cyril’s Holy Week and Easter cycle “is at the basis of the whole future Easter observances of this culminating point of the Christian year.” He attributes to Cyril and the Jerusalem church the creation of the “divine office” (with its multiple hours of prayer), the church calendar, the use of liturgical vestments, the carrying of lights, and the use of incense.48

Cyril’s “new conception of the liturgy,” as Dix calls it, was widely imitated through the influence of returning pilgrims who eagerly sought to duplicate their Jerusalem experience. “In the 80’s & 90’s of the (fourth) century the new Jerusalem observances begin to come in like a flood all over Christendom,” says Dix.49 Rentel refers to fourth century Jerusalem not only as “a perpetual and inexhaustible source for new liturgical practices” and the major influence on liturgical development of the newly founded Constantinople and its future Byzantine form of Christianity.50 There were misgivings, particularly in the older churches about Cyril’s innovations, but in the end they prevailed.

The aim of Cyril and others was noble: explain the Christian faith in terms that could be understood by a culture enamored of the mystery religions. Jerusalem’s innovations, however, mark a shift from preaching Scripture to preaching the liturgy, from the verbal to the visual. “Basically the idea was that by dramatizing a cosmic creative or redemptive act one could actualize it for the benefit of those who participated in it,” says Old.51 John F. Baldovin speaks of the culture of late antiquity as “a world in which symbol and ritual were not the counterfeit of reality but rather the privileged means to access reality.”52 Baptism, with reference to Romans 6, became associated with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Chrismation, an anointing with perfumed oil after baptism, was explained by Cyril as a sacrament which conferred the Holy Spirit. First communion was received only after an elaborate ritual, was interpreted not as a covenantal meal, but as a mystical meal conferring the benefits of Christ’s death.

All three rituals reflected a theology or anthropology which says, in Old’s words, “that religious ceremonial which was seen with the eyes and experienced with the senses communicated better than the reading and preaching of Scripture.” For Cyril, “seeing is more persuasive than hearing.” Cyril’s work prepared the way “for making ceremonial the principle way of communicating the gospel. More and more the church gave its attention not to the proclamation of the gospel but to its ceremonial dramatization.”53 Cyril “firmly believed in salvation by ceremony, just as did the adherents of the Greek mystery religions.”54 Those promoting drama, dance, and video would do well to ponder the implications of the growing preference for the “enacted visual,” as we might call it, in light of the foregoing history.


We may now briefly review what we’ve presented so far.

The worship of the early church was simple. Not until the third century were there any written liturgies. Services were conducted with minimal ritual or ceremony. But in the fourth century, at the initiative of Cyril of Jerusalem, ritual came to be seen as a means by which to make the gospel visible. Garments, gestures, furnishings, processionals, and so on were devised so as to commend the gospel in a culture enamored of the elaborate ceremonies of the mystery religions. This was the first stage in the triumph of the visual over the verbal.

We may see the use of images as a second stage in the triumph of the visual over the verbal in the ancient and early medieval church. Robin Cormack, Professor in the History of Art in the University of London, acknowledges that Christian places of worship did not contain “figural images” in the first 200 years of the church.55 Gradually some decorative art was introduced into places of worship, typically featuring non-religious themes such as plants, birds, and geometric patterns. The earliest “religious” Christian art was either symbolical (Christ represented as a shepherd, a lamb, or a fish), illustrative (Bible scenes), or typical (e.g. Jonah representing death and resurrection). Early Christian art was essentially Christian “wall paper,” as Hughes Old has argued.56

But from the time of Constantine Christian art came to be seen as devotionally helpful and finally as revelatory. “Under the influence of Neoplatonic aesthetics, which saw art as disclosing a higher, spiritual realm,” art began to take on a positive, liturgical function, notes the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.57

Patricia Karlin-Hayter concurs. “Condemnation of holy images had been dominant in the early church.” Later the first Christian iconography was “justified by its didactic value (‘the Bible of the illiterate’).”58 However by the second half of the sixth century, she continues, images “are attracting direct veneration and some of them are credited with the performance of miracles.”59 Further development can be seen with the introduction of the concept of art that was divinely-inspired or even divinely-given. Cormack states that “increasingly from the sixth century, Byzantinism had ‘icons not made by human hands’ (acheiropoietos), representations of Christ thought to be miraculously produced by divine means and containing the powers of healing and protection of Christ himself.”60 In the orthodox church God-given Scripture came to be paralled as a source of divine revelation by God-given art.

These developments did not occur without protest or controversy, culminating in the Iconoclasm Controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries. The Iconoclasm Controversy began in 726 A.D. when Byzantine Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741) ordered the destruction of the image of Christ that was over the gate of the imperial palace. The controversy raged, with various degrees of intensity, for nearly 120 years, ending with the ascension of the “iconodule” (worshiper of icons) patriarch Methodios I on March 11, 843.

But back to its onset—Leo III had interpreted the devastating Byzantine military and territorial losses to Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries as an indication that God was punishing Christians for idolatry. Muslims tolerated no images in worship. Christians were misusing them. Consequently Leo banned their use. Also motivating Leo III’s iconoclasm was his concern that the excessive use of icons had become “the chief obstacle to the conversion of Jews & Muslims.”61 Cormack describes John of Damascus (c. 675 - c. 753/4) as the “significant intellect” on the “iconophile” (lovers of icons) side of the debate. He seems to have been the first to have developed the theology that defined iconodulia.62 His familiarity with ancient art criticism “enabled him to incorporate into his aesthetic thinking from Platonic and Neo-Platonic writings” as well as Christian sources such as the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite.63 John of Damascus took the defense of icons beyond bare permissibility to the positive benefits found in their veneration. Icons, says Karlin-Hayter of John’s view, “reveal what is invisible or distant or to come.”64 That is they are revelatory. They even manifest the divine presence: “Where Christ’s symbol is, there He is also,” John affirmed. Karlin-Hayter calls this argument the “basis of the future theology of the conflict,” establishing a direct relationship between the image and what she calls its “prototype,” that is, the religious figure being portrayed.65

Both the Scripture and liturgy came increasingly to be interpreted allegorically, as the unfolding of cosmic mysteries acted out through extra-biblical ceremony. The visual came to supplant the verbal. Icons, in John’s handling, came to be understood to “provide access to that which is represented on them” and became, in Orthodox worship, the “loci of devotion.”66 In other words, the benefits which Christ, Mary, or the saints could confer were understood to be gained through contemplation of their images. Lowden puts it this way: “Holy images (icons) . . . were not seen as mere ‘artists impressions’ of what Christ or the saints might have looked like: they were held to versions of ‘true’ images of these figures and thus to contain or transmit--not just represent--the presence of divinity or supernatural power.”67

Reformed Protestants must continue to see this as a regrettable development in the history of Christian worship, one which among the Orthodox “eventually transformed the whole liturgy into a dramatic icon,” and the sermon, says Old, into a “verbal icon.”68 Icons came to be given nearly sacramental status as means of grace alongside of the word and sacraments. Under this influence the reading and preaching of Scripture came to have a secondary role.

Current Evaluation

The question that must be answered by Reformed Protestants is whether the cultural momentum toward the pictographic in the twenty-first century is to be conceded and accommodated, as it was in the fourth-ninth centuries, or resisted and defied? The preference for the visual is in church history a slippery slope which eventually overwhelms the verbal. Are the Reformers’ arguments still valid? Does the use of the visual, whether in the form of elaborate liturgy or images, imply the inadequacy of God’s word? Do images inevitably lead to idolatry? Is their use in violation of Scripture? Are images distracting? Scripture and history have led us to answer these questions in the affirmative. Consequently we continue to approach the use of visual art with great caution.

Devotional Art

The devotional use of art must continue to be prohibited for Reformed Protestants. Despite the claims to the contrary made by the Eastern church, visual art may not be seen as a means of divine revelation or as a means of grace. The church does not possess acheiropoietic art, that is, art made without human hands, nor did God inspire sacred art in any sense like the way in which He inspired sacred Scripture. The devotional use of art fails all four tests that we identified many months ago. It implies the inadequacy of God’s word to reveal truth, it leads to idolatry, it violates Scripture, and it is distracting.

Decorative Art

However, churches are going to be decorated, either suitably or unsuitably. How should they be decorated? Our answer would be that churches should be decorated simply and beautifully. This means that the finest materials ought to be used and the finest craftsmanship employed within the framework of simplicity.

For example, consider architecture and interior design. The church has understood the need for simplicity in its buildings and restraint in the decorating of its worship spaces, not only in its early centuries but also during periods of spiritual health in the middle ages. The Cistercian monastic movement of the twelfth century emphasized “the eloquence and beauty of simplicity.”69 The Cistercians gave renewed attention to the study of Scripture and the church fathers, which they deemed had been neglected. They focused on biblical theology rather than a theology driven by philosophical concerns. Their preaching, as exampled in Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1151), was biblical exposition. He was concerned to preach the text. Old finds his preaching to be even “a premonition of Puritan plain-style at its purest.”70

This concern for simple biblical preaching spilled over into concern for simplicity in all areas of life, including architecture, art, and liturgy. “This simplicity of artistic expression goes hand in hand with a recovery of preaching,” observes Old.71 “Cistercian preaching, as Cistercian art, has a classic straightforwardness.”72

The Cistercians simplified the liturgy, the church calendar, clerical vestments, and church furnishings. Their buildings featured no statues, no gargoyles, centaurs, or griffins, and no elaborate decorations. Their altars were bare. “Functionalism was their architectural gospel,” says Old.73

Similarly the simplicity of life emphasized by the Cistercians was also emphasized by the thirteenth century preaching orders, the Franciscans (founded 1209 by Francis of Assisi) and Dominicans (founded 1216 by Dominic). Both groups emphasized what might be called “apostolic simplicity.” If the Franciscans gave emphasis to Scripture preaching and the Dominicans to doctrinal preaching, both were concerned to be biblical.

Three hundred years later the Reformation revived the same concern for simplicity: a simple gospel, unostentatious living, simple and functional buildings, simple and undistracting furnishings and decorations. Each of these groups, the early church, the Cistercians, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Reformers, were concerned with biblical preaching. Consequently each was concerned not to allow architectural ostentation distract attention from the proclamation of God’s word.

The plain-style New England meeting house mentioned in our introduction provides a classic example of what we mean. Beautiful woods, colors, and textures may be used. Skilled architects and interior designers are needed to maximize efficiency and beauty. Some ornamentation may even be in order. But simplicity should not be compromised. Nothing in the place of worship should call attention to itself and thereby distract attention from the God-ordained means of grace: the word, sacraments, and prayer. Form should follow function. Pulpit, table, and font should be given architectural prominence. Stained glass, banners, statuary, pictures of biblical scenes or characters from church history should be avoided, not so much because they are prohibited as because they are distracting and consequently unwise. Functional efficiency and undistracting beauty are the hallmarks of a proper Christian use of decorative art.

Illustrative & Didactic Art

Art designed to illustrate a biblical passage or enhance a biblical lesson or otherwise serve the ministry of the word may be useful today in an educational setting. But it should not be employed in the space devoted to worship, where, we have noted above, it is likely to distract attention from the means of grace and could be misused as a devotional aid leading to idolatry.

Graphic art

Bulletins, hymnals, Psalters, and prayer books, of use within the worship service, ought to be more rather than less beautifully designed. The personal computer has generated a revolution in graphic design. What was considered acceptable just a few years ago is now considered substandard by those with knowing eyes. Cheap or “cheesy” graphic design can be its own kind of distraction, even saying to outsiders that “no one cares here about excellence!” Outside of the worship service the work of graphic designers is also needed in the layout of web sites that are “user friendly” and appealing. Artists and designers are also needed in the design of letterhead, brochures, advertisements, and other church literature or publications.

Graphic arts could also be effectively utilized in the layout and design of study Bibles, biblical study aids, and other Christian books, be they doctrinal, historical, or pastoral. Similarly, painting and photography could be carefully employed to illustrate or emphasize the message of these various books. Care should be taken never to portray God. Neither should the human face of Jesus be prominently displayed, since his facial appearance is unknown and its portrayal always involves the projection of the artist’s ideals, thereby compromising the biblical portray of Christ (Galatians 3:1). Design work should be understood not as an alternate means of communicating, but as enriching and supporting the ministry of the word. The development of skilled artists, photographers, and graphic designers will always be a need of the Reformed church.

Performing arts

Liturgical dance and drama may be understood as having an illustrative or didactic intent. They are meant to teach or illustrate scriptural or moral lessons by making those truths visible. But as is the case with devotional art and ostentatious decorative art, they fail important tests, namely the objections of the Reformers to images. Namely, i) their use implies the inadequacy of God’s word; ii) their use leads to idolatry, in this case a different kind of idolatry, that is, the idolatry of confusing entertainment with worship;74 iii) their use lacks scriptural warrant (despite the claims of their advocates); iv) their use is distracting in that they deprive the worship service of the time that might have been devoted to the ministry of the word read, preached, sung, prayed, or administered (in the sacraments). The growing momentum behind the use of the performing arts in worship, what might be considered the contemporary low-church alternative to the ancient liturgical drama of the high-church, should be resisted. There may be a place for drama, skits, and plays in non-liturgical settings and on weeknights and Saturdays. Youth groups, Christian schools, and other organizations may find legitimate use for non-liturgical didactic drama. It’s less clear that dance can fulfill the same non-liturgical yet didactic function.

Modern Innovations

How are these considerations to be applied to the use of images electronically projected upon large screens? Overhead projectors, slides, DVDs, “PowerPoint” are readily available. Should they be used? Some issues can be answered straightforward in light of principles already considered.

Images of God, facial images of Jesus, would still be strictly forbidden. Images are images whether they be third century mosaics or twenty-first century film-clips.

Images of biblical characters or personalities from church history would be less risky, less susceptible to idolatry, when flashed upon a screen in worship services than when in a permanent form as in a fresco, mosaic, or statuary. Similarly film clips used for illustrative or didactic purposes would also be less vulnerable to the concerns of the second commandment. However to say that a practice is “less risky” is hardly an endorsement, and the same objections to their use in worship remain: their use implies the inadequacy of God’s Word, they lack scriptural warrant and they are distracting. They should be excluded from the place of worship.

The question of temporary, flashed images is: are they consistent with a religion revealed through the word? Are they compatible with a religion spread through the “foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21, KJV)? Can the time used to project these images be justified, given the priority of the word (John 17:17; Romans 10:17)? In other words, why would a church that takes seriously the theology of the word want to use the finite time devoted to the public assembly to project images rather than pray, read Scripture, sing praise, or preach? The evidence is already piling up that the “law of diminishing returns” has set in, that young people have been saturated with images and are immune to them, and real communication with youth takes place the old fashioned way: person to person.75

Finally, the projection of the image of the one preaching upon large screens within worship spaces, in overflow rooms, and in off-campus or remote sites (sometimes across the state, and even across the country, via satellite), raises questions about another kind of idolatry of which Bonhoeffer warned, the idolatry of hero-worship.

The technological sophistication of churches today is impressive. But it is not at all obvious that complex electronics trumps biblical simplicity. There is a sobering sense in which we can say that the church has been down this road before, as we have seen in the era of the Fathers, in Middle Ages (spurring the Cistercian call to simplicity) and the Reformation era.

The issues which we face today are similar. In the name of outreach the ministry of the church is being pushed in the direction of the visual, whether the high-church ceremonial or the low-church technological. Now, as then, the argument of the advocates of visual medium is that this is the way to reach our civilization. Now, as then, the church has to decide, if faith comes by hearing or seeing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).


  1. The categories of cultic, illustrative, and decorative are ours, not theirs.
  2. Sally Morgenthaler, “Film & Worship: Windows in Caves & Other Things We do with Perfectly Good Prisms, in Theology, News, & Notes, Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring 2005, p. 15.
  3. See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).
  4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1 & 2, The Library of Christian Classics, Vols. XX & XXI (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), I.xi.1-16; II.viii.17-21.
  5. Ibid, I.xi.1., p. 100.
  6. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, Vol. 2, trans. C.W. Bingham (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), p. 106-107.
  7. Ibid, p. 107.
  8. Ibid, II.viii.17., p. 384.
  9. Institutes, I.xi.7., p. 107.
  10. Institutes, I.xi.2., p. 101.
  11. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Vol. 2, p. 119; The essential soundness of Calvin’s exegesis is confirmed by Yale Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs: “Images are prohibited because they are an incorrect response to God’s manner of making himself known which was by means of his word” (407). Again, “The central issue is the nature of legitimate worship . . . God testified to himself in a voice which is fully sufficient (4.12). An image is a rival human witness, and therefore false” (409), Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974).
  12. Martin Bucer, Grund un Ursach, found in Ottoman Frederick Cypris in Basic Principles; Translation and Commentary on Martin Bucer*s Grund und Ursach, 1524 (A Dissertation presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School, Union Theological Seminary, 1971), p. 204.
  13. Institutes, I.xi.3., p. 102.
  14. Institutes, I.xi.5., p. 105. The twentieth century Calvinist A.W. Pink in The Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994) explains, “Since God is a spiritual, invisible and omnipotent Being, to represent Him as of a material and limited form is a falsehood and an insult to His majesty” (p. 22).
  15. Eire, p. 3.
  16. Institutes, I.xi.2., p. 101.
  17. Bucer, Grund und Ursach, p 198.
  18. Calvin, Institutes, I.xi.9, p. 109.
  19. See Hughes O. Old, “John Calvin and the Prophetic Critique of Worship,” in Timothy George (ed.) John Calvin and the Church: A Prism of Reform (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990).
  20. John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles, 14-28, Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. John W. Fraser, eds. David W. and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973), p. 122.
  21. Hughes Old, Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).
  22. Institutes, I.iv.3, p. 149; cf IV.viii.3,4,8,9,11,13; IV.ix.8; IV.x.8,16-18.
  23. Institutes, I.xi..13., p. 112.
  24. Institutes, I.xi.6., p. 106. André Grabar in Early Christian Art: From the Rise of Christianity to the Death of Theodosius (New York: Odyssey Press, 1968) largely confirms Calvin’s argument, conceding that prior to the third century the Christian church “dispensed with any iconography . . . ruling it out entirely (p. 67). Through the fourth century only decorative uses of art are to be found in churches, primarily featuring birds, plants, and pottery vessels (pp. 186,187).
  25. Institutes, I.xi.8., p. 108.
  26. A translation of this from 1535 may be found at
  27. Eire, War, p. 93.
  28. Eire, p. 92; Bucer, Grund und Ursach, pp. 196-207.
  29. Institutes, I.xi.13., p. 113-114.
  30. Josef A. Jungmann, S.J. The Early Liturgy: to the Time of Gregory the Great, trans. Francis A. Brunner (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1959).
  31. Ibid, p. 152.
  32. Ibid, p. 155.
  33. Ibid, p 158.
  34. Ibid, p 159.
  35. Cited in Ibid, p. 160.
  36. Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: A&C Black, 1945), p. 349.
  37. Hans Lietzmann, The Era of the Church Fathers: A History of the Early Church, Vol. IV, trans. Bertram Lee Woolf (London: Lutterworth Press, 1951), pp. 102, 109.
  38. Ibid, p. 109.
  39. Ibid, p. 98.
  40. Ibid, p. 99.
  41. Cyril of Jerusalem, “Five Catechetical Lectures to the Newly Baptized,” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), pp. 144-157.
  42. Hughes O. Old, The Reading & Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Vol. 3: The Medieval Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 19.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Old, Class lectures, Erskine Theological Seminary, April 9, 2007. See Dix, p. 349.
  45. Old, Class lectures, Erskine Theological Seminary, April 9, 2007.
  46. Ibid, p. 31.
  47. Hughes Old, Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), p. 11.
  48. Dix, pp. 350,351; cf. E.D. Hunt, “Pilgrimages,” in J. G. Davies (ed.) The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986): “The Jerusalem church ‘pioneered’ the annual cycle of worship (which subsequently spread to the church at large), re-enacting the historical progress of Christ’s birth, ministry, death, and resurrection,” p. 433.
  49. Dix, p. 353.
  50. Alexander Rentel, “Byzantine & Slavic Orthodoxy,” in Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker (eds.), The Oxford History of Christian Worship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 257; cf. pp. 254-306.
  51. Old, Vol. 3, p. 21.
  52. John F. Baldovin, “The Empire Baptized,” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, eds. Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 90.
  53. Old, Vol. 3, p. 23.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Robin Cormack, Byzantine Art, Oxford History of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 90.
  56. Hughes O. Old, Class lectures, Erskine Theological Seminary, April 9, 2007.
  57. “Iconography,” in F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 816.
  58. Patricia Karlin-Hayter, “Iconoclasm” in Cyril Mango (ed) The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 154.
  59. Ibid, p. 154.
  60. Cormack, p. 77
  61. “Iconoclastic Controversy” in ODCC, p. 815.
  62. Cormack, p. 92.
  63. Ibid.
  64. Karlin-Hayter, p. 157.
  65. Ibid.
  66. Sergei Hackel, “Orthodox Worship,” in J.G. Davis, The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986), p. 423.
  67. John Lowden, Early Christian & Byzantine Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1997), p.7.
  68. Ibid.
  69. Old, Vol. 3, p. 256.
  70. Ibid, p. 275.
  71. Ibid, p. 256.
  72. Ibid.
  73. Old, Class lectures, Erskine Theological Seminary, April 11, 2007.
  74. For further development of this theme see Messenger article on “Adiaphora,” September 4, 2005.
  75. Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), pp. 228ff.


Terry Johnson was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. His home church was Baptist, his sport was baseball, and his favorite class was history. As an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, he continued to play baseball and study history. But he also began to grow spiritually and over time sense a call to the gospel ministry. This led to two years at Trinity College, Bristol, England (an Anglican theological college), two years at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America. After 5 years in Coral Gables, Florida as an assistant minister, Terry married the former Emily Billings, and within 6 months they moved to Savannah to take the call of the Independent Presbyterian Church, which they have served since 1987. Terry is the author/compiler of the Trinity Psalter and Leading in Worship, and author of The Case for Traditional Protestantism, Reformed Worship, and the trilogy, When Grace Comes Home, When Grace Transforms, and When Grace Comes Alive. You may email Terry at

This article appears here by permission from the author, Pastor Terry Johnson.


  Please join others who have commented upon this and other topics in our Discussion Group.

      Back to Library 

Return to the Main Highway 

Calvinism and the Reformed Faith Index