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Question 97. Are images then not at all to be made?

Answer. God neither can nor may be represented by any means; but as to creatures, though they may be represented, yet God forbids us to make, or have any resemblance of them, either in order to worship them, or to serve God by them.



We may here remark, that the words of the second commandment forbid two things. They first forbid us to make and to have images, saying: Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing, &c. Then they forbid us to worship images and likenesses with divine honor, saying: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them. In speaking of the first thing which is here forbidden, we must en quire, Are all images and likenesses prohibited? and if not all, what, and in how far are they lawful, or unlawful? In speaking of the second thing forbidden by this commandment, we must enquire, Is all adoration or bowing to images forbidden, and can it by any means be defended?



  1. The things to be considered in connection with this subject, may be comprehended under the following heads:

  2. Whether, and how far images are forbidden in Churches by this commandment:

  3. Whether the worship of images can be defended:

  4. Why images are to be removed out of Christian Churches:

  5. How, and by whom they are to be removed.


The first and second of these propositions belong here; the third and fourth belong to the 98th Question of the Catechism.


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 eixwn; and by eiswlon, 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 etymolgy of both words, according to which it appears that they do not differ any more than panis and aqtoj , both of which signify bread. The only difference is that the one

is a Latin, the other a Greek word. For as eiswlon, which means a form, is derived from the Latin formando, which means to form or 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 eiswlon, 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 eiswlon, 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 which are good and profitable to human life, and God himself had certain images placed in the tabernacle; (Ex. 81:3; 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 arid 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.) 8. 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 informer 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 be cause 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.” (1 John 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 im ages.

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. 8. 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, have not been devised for the purpose of revealing God, nor are they representations of those ancient manifestations of God, and are therefore the object and occasion of idolatry.


A table of images according to their distinctions.




We return an answer to this Question from the second part of this commandment, which positively forbids us to give divine worship or honor to images and pictures, including not only that which is given to creatures, but that also which is given to the true God. “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”

Obj. 1. But we do not worship the images, say these advocates of images among the Papists, but God, of whom they are signs, according to what the council of Nice teaches: “That which the image exhibits is God; the image itself, however, is not God. Look thou upon the image; but worship in thy mind what thou secst therein;” and according to the following sentiment, expressed by Thomas: “When thou passest an image of Christ, alway pay homage unto it; yet worship not the image, but that which it shadows forth” Ans. 1. We deny that images are signs of God; for the reason that God cannot be truly represented by them, inasmuch as he is immense; and even though he could be represented in this way, yet he ought not, because he has forbidden us to make images representing him, and because it is in the power of no creature to institute signs by which ,he may be represented. This power belongs to God alone. 2. The cause which is here assigned is of no force; for not only is the worship of images the cause and form of idolatry, but even the worship of God himself, which is paid to images or creatures, is in contradiction to what he in his word requires. This is taught with sufficient clearness in the case of Aaron and Jeroboam, who had images of calves made. For although they said, in both instances, “These be thy Gods, Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt,” &c.; “To-morrow is a feast of the Lord;” yet God abhorred and severely punished those who were engaged therein, as being guilty of horrible idolatry. (Ex. 32:4, 5. 1 Kings 12:28.) Hence, although those who worship images pretend to honor God in this way, yet it is not God, but the devil, that is worshipped, according to what Paul says of the Gentiles: “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice [to idols], they sacrifice to devils, and not to God;” notwithstanding they also pretend to honor the name of God by these things. (1 Cor. 10:20.)

Obj. 2. The honor of the sign is the honor of the thing signified. Im ages are signs of God. Therefore the honor which is paid to images is also paid to God. Ans. Here again the minor proposition must be denied, or else the major distinguished thus: The honor of the sign is the honor of the thing signified only in case the sign is a true sign, and has been instituted by him who has the power to do so; and in case that honor be given to the sign, which the proper author commanded to be given; for it is not the will of him that honors, but of him that is honored, that is the rule according to which we are to pay our respect. Wherefore, inasmuch as God has forbidden both that images should be made of him, and that he should be worshipped at images, which are made for him, or for creatures, it is manifest that he is not honored, but disgraced whenever it is attempted to worship him, against his will, at and under images.

But some one may perhaps say: The contempt which is cast upon the sign, even though it may not have been instituted at the command of God, falls back upon God himself. Therefore the honor, also, that is paid to the sign, is given to God. Ans. We deny the consequence which is here deduced; because contrary results are attributed to things that are contrary only when the opposition of the things which are affirmed depends upon that according to which the subjects are opposed, but not when it depends upon something else, as here, where contempt of God follows that of the sign, be it divinely instituted or not, because an intention to depart from the commandment of God is sufficient to cast dishonor and contempt upon him. But the honor of God does not follow the honor of the sign, unless both the sign and the honor thereof be ordained of God, seeing that the intention to honor God is not of itself sufficient to constitute acceptable worship, unless the manner also be such as God himself has prescribed.

Obj. 3. But if it is lawful to honor the images and monuments of renowned and well deserving men, it is much more lawful to honor the images of blessed angels and saints. Ans. It is lawful to honor the monuments of great and distinguished men with such respect as that which constitutes a grateful and becoming remembrance of them and their deeds, which they have left behind them as their own monuments, in case it be directed to that use which they themselves would desire it; and, on the other hand, it would be lawful to demolish them, if necessity demanded such a thing, provided it were done without any wish or desire to cast any disrespect upon those whose monuments they are. But it is by no means lawful to attribute divine worship to them, such as that which the Papists pay to their idols, whether it be under the name of worship or service. Again, the monuments of great and good men should be such as do not lead to idolatry; for if this should be the case, we must not honor them, but utterly abolish them, after the example of Hezekiah, who broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made (2 Kings 18:4) when it was turned into idolatry, although it had been formerly preserved as a monument of the goodness of God, which he had showed to the children of Israel in the wilderness, when they were bitten of fiery serpents.  

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