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Christmas Series: Are Nativity Sets Biblical III? The Opinion of John Calvin

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This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Are Nativity Sets Biblical?

For the first several hundred years after Christ, images of any person of the Godhood (Jesus included) were strikingly absent from the church. By “strikingly absent” I mean, absolutely, completely lacking in any presence. Not rare, mind you – absent. Usebius, the pastor-historian, gave us insight into the church’s views on icons (images) when he strongly rebuked Emperor Constantine’s sister for asking for an image of Christ. He found the notion repugnant, said no images would be found in the Christian church, and rebuked her. I wrote about that yesterday in Part II in this series. This followed on Part I, which is here.

During the third century, certain images of Christ began to exist in uniquely pagan parts of the Grecian world. The more historically Jewish centers of Christianity (even though Judaism had been widely dispersed after 70AD) in the Greco-Roman world still abhored images of God, no doubt because of their closer connections to the Decalogue and the Second Commandment. Images appeared of a shepherd, which many equate to Jesus, but modern scholarship widely believes these images were not of Christ, but was a Greek symbol of philanthropy (this is because these images are found in places without significant Christian influence, which is where you would expect to find images of Christ).

As Christianity was increasingly paganized in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh centuries after the “conversion” of Constantine, images of God became increasingly found in Christian circles. Yet, the inclusion of images of Jesus was not without great controversy. The church warred over the use of images, even in a significantly paganized church. The matter was settled (for a time) at the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787. Until that time, by the imperial edict of Leo III, who argued that the Christian Church had never allowed images of God (including the Son) and never should. Leo’s son, Constantine V, was also incensed at the use or creation of icons, which were officially banned at the Council of Hieria (754). His conviction that icons were the same as idolatry was upheld by his son, Leo IV.

Things began to change when it came to the church’s stance on icons when Leo IV died, and his widow found the political benefit of lifting the ban on icons. Chiefly, there were other churches – particularly in the east – that had embraced iconography, and soon the consensus developed that the church could have great catholicity (universality) by also allowing such icons. In other words, it was an attempt at a political power-grab. In 784, a patriarch named Tarisius (the leader of the church in Constantinople) said he would take the job, but only on the condition that the churches be reunited in their unequivocal acceptance of icons. His decree wasn’t seen as sufficient, however; because a council forbade icons, a council would be needed to approve of icons. They tried to hold a council on the subject in 786 in Constantinople, but iconoclastic (that is, those who do not believe in images of God) soldiers disturbed the meeting. The council was then held in Nicaea at the Hagia Sophia.

Here is what the council determined in its seventh and final session…

“As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary,  the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone – for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerate the image venerate in it the reality of what is there represented.”

From this time forward, there was no turning back on the subject of iconography among Christians…at least until a little even known as the “Reformation.”

In plainest of terms, the Reformation turned back the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and reclaimed iconoclasm as standard Christian doctrine. We will look at the opinions of other Reformers on images of Jesus as it relates to Nativity Sets in coming issues in this series, but for now we will focus on John Calvin.

Calvin devoted chapters 11-13 in Book 1 of The Institutes to images of God. He was not a fan. Appealing to images God instructed to be made in the temple or the Ark was an apples-and-oranges situation for Calvin, chiefly because God actually inspired those craftsmen to accurately represent God (Exodus 31:3). No other images of God or angels are crafted by inspired men, and so they falsely represent God.

Hence it is perfectly clear that those who try to defend images of God and the saints with the example of those cherubim are raving madmen. What, indeed, I beg you, did those paltry little images mean? Solely that images are not suited to represent God’s mysteries (Institutes 1.11.3).

Every image of God that is graven (made/manufactured) falls short of God’s glory and is offensive to him, argued Calvin.

We believe it wrong that God should be represented by a visible appearance, because he himself has forbidden it [Exodus 20:4] and it cannot be done without some defacing of his glory (Institutes 1.11.12).

Along the lines of Calvin, remember Eusebius’ argument from the last part in this series. Christ is now glorified. His body is radiant and perfect. What is represented in the nativity sets is not Christ’s glory, but is a representation of Christ’s humiliation. His humilation – a feces saturated cloth diaper, as the King of Glory made into an infant suckling from the breast of a human – is now over, and Christ is now glorified in all of his fullness. To represent Christ as the suckling babe is not only grossly inaccurate (for he surely looks nothing like the Anglo-Saxon baby idols pushed off of the Chinese sweat shop assembly lines for mass production marketing at Hobby Lobby ), but it does not represent him in is glory, but in his shame. It is “defacing of his glory,” according to Calvin.

Calvin reminds us that the early history of the church was thoroughly iconoclastic, with hardly an image at all…

If the authority of the ancient church moves us in any way, we will recall that for about five hundred years, during which religion was still flourishing, and a pure doctrine thriving, Christian Churches were commonly empty of images. Thus, it was when the purity of the ministry had somewhat degenerated that they were first introduced for the adornment of churches (Institutes 1.11.13).

One would be hard-pressed to argue that Calvin didn’t understand church history. For Calvin, there was a zero tolerance policy for images of God, and this would remain true for most of the Reformers, especially those who would be called (or later considered) “Calvinists.”

God is opposed to idols, that all may know He is the only fit witness to Himself.  He expressly forbids any attempt to represent Him by a bodily shape . . . We must hold it as a first principle, that as often as any form is assigned to God, his glory is corrupted by an impious lie” (Institutes 1.11)


What is beyond bizarre are Christians claiming a Calvinist heritage who claim no problem with the Nativity Sets that adorn our homes or churches. Consider the Heidelberg Catechism on this subject:

Q96. What is God’s will for us in the second commandment?

A. That we in no way make any image of God1nor worship him in any other way than has been commanded in God’s Word.2

1 Deut. 4:15-19Isa. 40:18-25Acts 17:29Rom. 1:22-23
2 Lev. 10:1-71 Sam. 15:22-23John 4:23-24

Q97. May we then not make any image at all?

A. God can not and may not be visibly portrayed in any way.

Although creatures may be portrayed, yet God forbids making or having such images if one’s intention is to worship them or to serve God through them.1

1 Ex. 34:13-14, 172 Kings 18:4-5

Q98. But may not images be permitted in churches in place of books for the unlearned?

A. No, we should not try to be wiser than God. God wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of his Word—not by idols that cannot even talk.2

1 Rom. 10:14-15, 172 Tim. 3:16-172 Pet. 1:19
2 Jer. 10:8Hab. 2:18-20

Or, consider the Westminster Larger Catechism on this subject…

Q. 109. What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising,[529] counselling,[530] commanding,[531] using,[532] and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself;[533] tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever;[534] all worshipping of it,[535] or God in it or by it;[536] the making of any representation of feigned deities,[537] and all worship of them, or service belonging to them,[538] all superstitious devices,[539] corrupting the worship of God,[540] adding to it, or taking from it,[541] whether invented and taken up of ourselves,[542] or received by tradition from others,[543] though under the title of antiquity,[544] custom,[545] devotion,[546] good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever;[547] simony;[548] sacrilege;[549] all neglect,[550] contempt,[551] hindering,[552] and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.[553].

One would be hard-pressed to argue that the current Protestant/Evangelical affinity for Nativity Sets at Christmas time is anything but the Modern Day Downgrade. The Reformers weren’t having it. The early church fathers weren’t having it. We not only tolerate these images of Jesus, however, we put them on display.

That’s not because we’ve studied the Scriptures. It’s because we’re the product of our age.

Series Navigation<< Christmas Series: Are Nativity Sets Biblical II? The Opinion of EusebiusChristmas Series: Are Nativity Sets Biblical Part IV…The 5 Worst Nativity Sets (Maybe) >>