by Zacharias Ursinus


The Hebrew words zelem and themunah usually signify an image; pesel signifies a graven image, whilst Hhezebh signifies an idol, or statue, from Hhazabh, which signifies to trouble, to lament, to grieve, because an idol disturbs and agitates the conscience. The Greeks express the word image by eikon; and by eidolon, they express any likeness, and especially that which men make unto themselves for the purpose of representing and worshipping God, be it a solid statue, or a mere naked image or picture. Among the Latins imago signified any likeness represented or painted: statua signified a solid image either graven or cast: simulacrum signified the same thing; so also idolum, borrowed from the Greek. The Papists, that they may defend with greater plausibility their worshipping of images, make a distinction between idolum and simulacrum. The latter they contend signifies the image of something really existing, whilst the former is the image of something imaginary; from which they conclude that idols, and their worship are prohibited, but not images. That this distinction, however, is vain and of no force is apparent, 1. From the etymology of both words, according to which it appears that they do not differ any more than panis and agtos, both of which signify bread. The only difference is that the one is a Latin, the other a Greek word. For as eidolon, which means a form, fashion, so simulacrum is derived from simulando which means to counterfeit, according to the testimony of Lactantius. 2. The interpreters of the Scriptures use both words indiscriminately; for the Septuagint everywhere translates the Hebrew Hhezebh by eidolon, whilst the Latin interpreters translate it by simulacrum. 2. Both words are used indiscriminately by good and standard writers. Cicero, in his first book, de Finibus, uses these words in the same sense. Euripides calls the shades or ghosts of Palydorus and Achilles eidolon, which means an idol. An idol is, therefore, not only an image of something imaginary, but also of something real. So simulacrum is also used for the image of something imaginary. Pliny, for instance, calls the idol of Ceres an imaginary god, simulacrum: and Vitruvius calls the image or idol of Diana, simulacrum. Hence the distinction which is made between these words is ungrounded. So much concerning the words which express what we call an image.

We must now proceed to the question itself, in regard to which we may remark, that this commandment does not absolutely forbid us to make, or to have images, likenesses and statues, because the art of painting, sculpture, casting and embroidery, is reckoned among the gifts of God placed in the tabernacle; (Ex. 31:3; 35:30) and Solomon had upon his throne images of lions, and had figures of palm-trees and cherubims carved upon the walls of the temple by the command of God. (1 Kings 6:23, 29; 10:19, 20.) The reason of this is plain and easy to be perceived, inasmuch as writing and painting are profitable for reviving a recollection of something done, for ornament and for the enjoyment of life. The law does not, therefore, forbid the use of images, but their abuse, which takes place when images and pictures are made either for the purpose of representing or worshiping God, or creatures. Hence all images and likenesses are not simply and wholly forbidden, but only such as are unlawful, among which we may include, first, all images or likenesses of God, which are made for the purpose of representing, or worshipping God. That these are all positively forbidden in this commandment, may be argued, 1. From the design of this commandment, which is the preservation of the worship of God in its purity. 2. From the nature of God. God is incorporeal and infinite; it is impossible, therefore, that he should be expressed, or represented by an image which is corporeal and finite, without detracting from his divine majesty, according as it is said: “Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand; and meted out heaven with a span,” &c. “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” “To whom will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.” “Who changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.” (Is. 40:12, 18, 25; Rom. 1:23.) 3. From the command of God. “Take ye, therefore, good heed unto yourselves, (for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire,) lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female; the likeness of any beast that is,” &c. (Deut. 4:15, 16.) 4. From the cause of this prohibition, which is that these images do not only profit nothing, but also injure men greatly, being the occasion and cause of idolatry and punishment. In short, God ought not to be represented by any graven image, because he does not will it, nor can it be done, nor would it profit any thing if it were done.

There is a memorable saying which Plutarch records of Numa in his life, in these words: “Numa forbade the Romans to have images of any of the gods, which had the form of man or beast. Nor was there in former times among this people any image of God either painted or graven; and for the first 170 years, although they had temples, and sacred places which they had built, yet there was no image or picture of God formed; and that because it was regarded as a great crime to represent heavenly things by earthly, inasmuch as a knowledge of God can only be attained by the mind.” Damascenus writes, “That to attempt to represent God is a foolish and wicked affair,” although he elsewhere evidently defends the worship of, images. He is, therefore, condemned with other defenders of images in the seventh council held by Constantine and his son, Leo, which, council decreed, among other things, that no images of Christ should be painted or graven, not even as it respects his human nature; because nothing but his humanity could be expressed by art; and those who make such images, seem to establish again the error of Nestorius, or Eutyches.

Secondly, those images and likenesses of creatures are unlawful which are set up in churches, at the corners of the streets, and elsewhere, for the worship of God, or for a perilous ornament. “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them,” &c. “Keep yourselves from idols.” (1John 5:21.) Those images of creatures, however, may be lawful which are made and kept away from the churches, which are without danger and appearance of idolatry, superstition, or offence, and which are for some political benefit, such as is historical or symbolical, or for some becoming ornament. The images of the lions upon the throne of Solomon, the image of Caesar stamped upon the coin, &c., were of this kind.

Obj. 1. Thou shalt make no graven image. Therefore God forbids the art of sculpturing.
Ans. He forbids the abuse, which occurs when we would make a representation of God, and bind the worship of God to images.

Obj. 2. The Holy Scriptures attribute to God the different members of the human body, and thus declare his nature and properties. Therefore it is also lawful to represent God by images.
Ans. There is a difference between these figurative expressions used in reference to God, and images; because in the former case there is always something connected with those expressions which guards us against being led astray into idolatry, nor is the worship of God ordinarily tied to those figurative expressions. But it is different in regard to images, for here there is no such safeguard, and it is easy for men to give adoration and worship to them. God himself, therefore, used those metaphors of himself figuratively, that he might help our infirmity, and permits us, in speaking of him, to use the same forms of expression; but he has never represented himself by images and pictures; neither does he desire us to use them for the purpose of representing him, but has, on the other hand, solemnly forbidden them.

Obj. 3. God formerly manifested himself in bodily forms. Therefore it is lawful for us to represent him by similar signs or forms.
Ans. God did indeed do this for certain considerations; but he has forbidden us to do the same thing. Nor is it difficult to perceive the reason of this prohibition. God may manifest himself in any way in which he may please to do so; but it is not lawful for any creature to represent God by any sign which he himself has not commanded. The examples are therefore not the same. Furthermore, those forms in which God anciently manifested himself had the promise of his presence in them, and that he would hear those to whom he revealed himself in this way. But this cannot be said of those images which are representations of God, without palpable idolatry. The saints of old, therefore, acted properly in adoring God at, or in those forms, as being present in a special manner in them; but to act thus in reference to images is wicked and idolatrous, seeing that it is done out of presumption and levity, without any divine command or promise. Lastly, those visible appearances in and through which God was pleased to reveal himself to his people of old, continued as long as God desired to make use of them, and as long as they did contribute to idolatry. But the images and pictures which men make in imitation of these ancient manifestations of God, and are therefore the object and occasion of idolatry.


Zacharias Ursinus  (1534-1583), was a German reformer and theologian. A reforming theologian, Ursinus was born Breslau in 1534 and studied at Wittenberg from 1550 to 1557. He then moved to Geneva for further study and from there took a teaching post in his native city of Breslau. His doctrine of the Lord’s Supper led to his dismissal from Breslau in 1559. But in 1561, thanks to his mentor Peter Martyr Vermigli, received an invitation from Elector Frederick III to come to Heidelberg as director of the theological academy.

It was at Heidelberg that with Caspar Olevianus he made his most notable contribution to church life by drafting the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). He also undertook the defense of the Catechism against Lutheran objections.

From 1562 he added the professorship of dogmatics to his administrative duties and also prepared a new liturgy. Zanchius relieved him the burden of teaching in 1568, but Ursinus became involved in a difficult struggle to bring in a new discipline on the Genevan model (1570). The death of the elector in 1577 opened the way for Lutheran influences. Ursinus, with Zanchius, move to Neustadt in 1578 and spent his last year there. In addition to his work on the Catechism, he also wrote an important treatise on the Lutheran Book of Concord and did much to promote Peter Martyr’s Loci.

This article is found in Ursinus’, The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Second American Edition: Columbus, Ohio 1852), pp. 525-28.

 Discuss this article and other topics in our Discussion Board

Home Page Return to the Main Highway

Calvinism and the Reformed Faith Calvinism and the Reformed Faith

Go to the Resource Page