Iconoclastic Calvinism may never recover from Randall Zachman’s Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin, which culminates decades of Reformation scholarship to reveal how imagery is central – indeed constituent –  to the Reformer’s thought (hat tip for the book rec. to the bensonian).  And this is not even to mention William Dyrness’ magisterial Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, which further upends previous assumptions about Calvinism and imagery.  And yet, as one makes the case for post-iconoclastic Calvinism, one does well to limit oneself to smaller studies, just to keep the sport in it.  The following is from a nice little article by Rev. David J. C. Cooper, The Theology of the Image in Eastern Orthodoxy and John Calvin, Scottish Journal of Theology:

It is historically ironic that Calvin’s rejection of self-seeking artists and sensual art, in favour of the pure ‘Word’, has now issued in a parallel degeneration of the verbal medium. Modern Protestant preaching, as ‘entertainment’, with its emphasis on style, persuasive power, emotional impact, and the so-called ‘charisma’ of the individual preacher, is as distracting in relation to the Gospel as the art it was intended to replace.

Because such abuse is happening, why don’t we remove preachers altogether?  No wait, that would be silly.  Preaching, rightly understood, has its proper place in worship, as does…  you guessed it.

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Posted by Matthew Milliner

Matthew J. Milliner is associate professor of art history at Wheaton College. He is the author of The Everlasting People (2021) and Mother of the Lamb (2022).


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  2. Christopher Benson December 8, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Matt: Thanks for recognizing me with the “hat tip” (online jargon is queer, eh?). I recommended Randall Zachman’s book because I figured its thesis would resonate with a Protestant art historian like yourself. If you’ve read the book, can you tell us “how imagery is central – indeed constituent – to the Reformer’s thought”? Put differently, why have so many scholars and devotees misinterpreted Calvin’s theology of image?


    1. Read Calvin’s contemptuous comments regarding the Second Council of Nicaea to appreciate the extremity of his iconoclasm. As he expresses his disgust at the notion of God being sullied by matter one can almost picture Jesus tapping him on the shoulder and saying, “and what, pray tell, am I?” Fortunately, he is inconsistent, so later scholarship can synthesize the truths that both sides of the issue are trying to affirm.


  3. Good question which would take me far beyond the com-box. All I can offer by way of brief response is to say I forgot to mention Finney’s Calvinism and the Visual Arts.


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