RPM, Volume 19, Number 37 September 10 to September 16, 2017

The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism

By Dr. Zacharias Ursinus


Question 96. What does God require in the second command?

Answer. That we in nowise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word.


Two things are comprehended in this commandment: the commandment itself, and an exhortation to obedience. The end, or design of this commandment is, that the true God, who in the first precept commanded that he alone should be worshipped, be worshipped under a proper form, or with such worship as it is right and proper that intelligent creatures should pay unto him -- such as is pleasing to him, and not with such worship as that which is according to the imagination and device of man: Or, we may say that the design of this commandment is, that the worship of God as prescribed be preserved pure and uncorrupted, and not be violated by any form of superstitious worship. The true worship of God is, therefore, here enjoyed, and a rule at the same time given, that we sacredly and conscientiously keep ourselves within the bounds which God has prescribed, and that we do not add anything to that worship which has been divinely instituted, or corrupt it in any part, even the most unimportant; which the Scriptures also expressly enjoin in many other places. The true worship of God now consists in every internal or external work commanded by God, done in faith, which rests fully assured that both the person and work please God, for the mediator's sake, and with the design that we may glorify God thereby. To worship God truly, is to worship him in the manner which he himself has prescribed in his word.

This commandment forbids, on the other hand, every form of will-worship, or such as is false, requiring that we neither regard or worship images and creatures for God, nor represent the true God by any image or figure, nor worship him at or by images, or with any other kind of worship which he himself has not prescribed. For when God condemns the principal, the grossest and most palpable form of false worship, which is that of worshipping him at or by images, it is plainly manifest that he also condemns at the same time all other forms of false worship, inasmuch as they all grow out of this. He forbids this most shocking kind of idolatry, not that he would overlook or exclude other forms of worship opposed to that which he has prescribed; but because this is the root, the foundation of all the rest. Hence all kinds of worship not instituted by God, but by men, as well as those which contain the same reason why they should be prohibited, are forbidden in this precept of the Decalogue.

All those things, therefore, which are opposed to the true worship of God are contrary to this second commandment; such as

1. Idolatry, which consists in a false or superstitious worship of God. There are, as we have already remarked, two principal kinds of idolatry. The one is more gross and palpable, as when worship is paid to a false God, which is the case, when, instead of or beside the true God, such worship as that which is due to him alone, is given to some thing or object, whether imaginary or real. This form of idolatry is particularly forbidden in the first commandment, and also partly in the third. The other species of idolatry is more subtle and refined, as when the true God is supposed to be worshipped, whilst the kind of worship which is paid unto him is false, which is the case when any one imagines that he is worshipping or honoring God by the performance of any work not prescribed by the divine law. This species of idolatry is more properly condemned in the second commandment, and is termed superstition, because it adds to the commandments of God the inventions of men. Those are called superstitious who corrupt the worship of God by their own inventions. This will-worship or superstition is condemned in every part of the word of God. "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." "Let no man judge you in meat or in drink, &c., which all are to perish with the using, after the commandments and doctrines of men; which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh." (Matt. 15:8, 9. Col. 2:16, 22, 23.)

We may now easily return an. answer to the following objection: Idolatry is forbidden in the first commandment. In the second also. Therefore, they constitute only one commandment. Ans. The first commandment forbids one form of idolatry, as when another God is worshipped; the second forbids another species of idolatry, as when the true God is worshipped differently from what he ought to be. Reply. But still there is always idolatry, and another God worshipped. Ans. There is, indeed, always an idol; but not always in the intention and profession of men. Hence, those who sin against the second commandment, sin also against the first; because, those who worship God otherwise than he will be worshipped, imagine another God, one differently affected from what the true God is; and in this way they do not worship God, but a figment of their own brain, which they persuade themselves is affected in this manner.

2. Hypocrisy, which consists in putting on the appearance of true piety, and the worship of God, doing such external works as God has commanded, whether moral or ceremonial, without true faith and conversion, or inward obedience. The prophet Isaiah describes and condemns this sin in these words: "Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their hearts far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men, therefore, be hold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people," &c. (Is. 29:13,14.)

3. Profanity. This includes a voluntary renunciation and contempt of all religion, and of the worship of God both internal and external, or of some portions of it, and is, therefore, not only in opposition to this commandment, but to the whole worship of God as prescribed in the first and second tables.

There are some who object to what we have here said, and affirm in support of will-worship, that those passages which we have cited as condemning it, speak only in reference to the ceremonies instituted by Moses, and of the unlawful commandments of men, such as constitute no part of the worship of God; and not of those precepts which have been sanctioned by the church and bishops, and which command nothing contrary to the word of God. But that this argument is false, may be proven by certain declarations connected with those passages of Scripture to which we have referred, which likewise reject those human laws, which, upon their own authority, prescribe anything in reference to divine worship which God has not commanded, although the thing itself is neither sinful nor forbidden by God. So Christ rejects the tradition which the Jews had in regard to washing their hands, because they associated with it the idea of divine worship, although it was not sinful in itself, saying, "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." "Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; for ye make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but within ye are full of extortion and excess." (Matt. 15:11; 23, 25.) The same thing may be said of celibacy and of the distinction of meats and days, of which the apostle Paul speaks, (Rom. 14:6. 1 Tim. 4:1-3,) and which he calls "doctrines of devils," although in themselves they are lawful to the godly, as he in other places teaches. Wherefore, those things also which are in themselves indifferent, that is neither commanded nor prohibited by God, if they are prescribed and done as the worship of God, or if it is supposed that God is honored by our performing them, and dishonored by neglecting them, it is plainly manifest that the Scriptures in these and similar places condemn them.

Such works, therefore, as are indifferent, must be carefully distinguished from those in which we worship God: 1. Because to imagine a different worship of God from that which he has prescribed, is to imagine another will of God, and so another God. And those who do this, as Aaron and Jeroboam formerly did, are no less guilty of idolatry, than those who professedly worship another god, beside that Jehovah revealed in the church. 2. Because, by such a mingling of the true worship of God with that which is false, the true God is confounded with idols, which are honored in the forms of worship invented by men. 3. Because whatsoever is not of faith is sin. (Rom. 14:23.) But he who does anything in order that he may worship God by it, his conscience not knowing or doubting, whether God will be worshipped in this way, or not, does it not of faith; because he is ignorant whether his work pleases, or displeases God, and so does not regard him, inasmuch as he presumes to do it, notwithstanding it is displeasing to him.

But since those who defend the forms of worship invented by men, also bring forward various declarations in which the Scriptures require us to yield obedience to the commandments of men, and maintain that they have the same force and authority which divine precepts have, and so have the nature of divine worship; it is, therefore, necessary that we should here say something in reference to human precepts and their differences.

Concerning human precepts and the authority of ecclesiastical traditions.

There are four classes of things concerning which men give commandment. These are, first, divine precepts, which God desires, that men should propose unto themselves for their observance, not, however, in their own name, but by the authority of God himself, as being the ministers and messengers, and not the authors of these precepts. It is in this way that the ministers of the gospel declare the doctrine revealed from heaven to the church, parents to their children, teachers to their pupils, and that magistrates make known to their subjects the precepts of the Decalogue. Obedience to these commandments is, and is called the worship of God, because they are not human, but divine precepts, to which it is necessary to yield obedience, even though the authority or command of no creature accede thereto; yea, even if all creatures should enjoin the contrary. The Scriptures speak of these commandments in the following places: "My son keep thy father's commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother." "The man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall." "If he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man, and a publican." (Prov. 6:20. Deut. 17:12. Matt. 18:17. See, also, Luke 10:17. Thes. 4:2, 8. Ex. 16:8. Matt. 23:2, 8. Heb. 13:17. 1 Cor. 4:21:2 Co. 13:10. 2 Thes. 3:14.) All these declarations teach that we ought to yield obedience to men, as the ministers of God, in those things which properly belong to the ministry; but they do not grant the power to anyone to institute new forms of divine worship at their own pleasure, according as it is written: "Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar." "As I besought thee that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine." (Prov. 30:6. 1 Tim. 1:3. See, also, 1 Tim. 6:25; 4:11. 2 Tim. 3:16, 17.)

Secondly, there are civil ordinances prescribed by men, which include the arrangement, or fixing of those circumstances which are necessary and useful for securing the observance of the moral precepts of the second table. Such are the positive laws of magistrates, parents, teachers, masters, and all those who are placed in positions of authority. Obedience is the worship of God in as far as it has respect to the general, which is moral and commanded by God, and includes obedience to the magistrate and others in authority; but not in as far as it pertains to that which is special in regard to the action, or to the circumstances connected with it -- in this respect it is not the worship of God, because only those works constitute divine worship, which it is necessary to do on account of the commandment of God, even though no creature had given any precept respecting them; but these, were it not that the magistrate commands them, might be done or omitted without any offense to God. But yet these civil ordinances prescribed by magistrates and others, bind the conscience; that is, they must necessarily be complied with, and cannot be disregarded without offense to God, even though it might be done without being connected with any public scandal, if we would keep our obedience pure, and unsullied. So to bear, or not to bear arms, is not the worship of God; but when the magistrate commands, or prohibits it, the obedience which is then rendered constitutes divine worship: and he who acts contrary to this command, or prohibition, sins against God, even though he might so conceal it, as to offend no man; because the general, viz. obedience to the magistrate, which is the worship of God, is then violated. Yet these actions do not in themselves, constitute the worship of God; it is only by accident, on account of the command of the magistrate. If this were not to intervene, obedience would not be violated. The following passages of Scripture are here in point; "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers." "Whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God." "Wherefore ye must needs be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake." "Put them in mind to be subject to principalities, and powers, to obey magistrates, &c." (Rom. 13:1, 3, 5. Tit. 8:1. Also Eph. 6:1. Col. 3:22, 23.)

Thirdly, there are ecclesiastical or ceremonial ordinances, prescribed by men, which include the determinations of circumstances necessary or useful for the maintenance of the moral precepts of the first table; of which kind are the time, the place, the form and order of sermons, prayers, reading in the church, fasts, the manner of proceeding in the election of ministers, in collecting and distributing alms, and things of a similar nature, concerning which God has given no particular command. That which is general in regard to these laws is moral, as in the case of civil enactments, if they are only correctly and profitably made, and is, therefore, the worship of God. But, as to the ceremonies themselves which are here prescribed, they neither constitute the worship of God, nor bind men's consciences, nor is the observance of them necessary, except when a neglect of them would be the occasion of offense. So it is not the worship of God, but a thing indifferent, and not binding upon men's consciences, to use this, or that form of prayer, to pray at this, or at that time, at this, or at that hour, in this, or in that place, standing or kneeling, to read and explain this or that text of Scripture in the church, to eat or not to eat flesh, &c. Nor does this power and authority to establish, abolish, or change these ordinances, belong merely to the church, as she may think it best for her edification; but the consciences of particular individuals also retain this liberty, so that they may either omit or do these things differently, without offending God, if no one take offense at it; that is, if they do it, neither from contempt or neglect of the minis try, nor from wantonness, or ambition, nor with a desire of contention or novelty, nor with an intention of offending the weak. And the reason is, that laws are observed properly, when they are observed according to the intention and design of the lawgiver. The church, however, ought to see to it that such ordinances as are established concerning things which are in different, be observed not out of regard to her authority, or command, but only for the sake of observing order, and a voiding offense. As long, therefore, as the order of the church is not violated, and offense is not given, the conscience of everyone ought to be left free: for it is sometimes necessary, not on account of the command of the church, or of the ministry, but for just causes to do, or to omit things which are indifferent. We may here quote the language of Paul as in point; "If any of them that believe not, bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go, whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no Question, for conscience sake. But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake; for the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; conscience, I say, not thine own, but the other; for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience. For if I by grace, be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?" (1 Cor. 10:28-31. See also Acts 15 and 1 Cor. 11.)

Obj. But if the edicts of magistrates bind the consciences of men, why do not the traditions of the church also? Ans. The cases are not the same. God has given to the magistracy the authority to frame civil laws, and has threatened to pour out his wrath upon all those who violate these laws; but he has given no such authority to the church, or to her ministers, but requires merely that their laws and ordinances be observed according to the rule of charity: that is, with a desire of avoiding offense, and not as if there were any necessity in the case, as though the conscience were bound thereby. The Scriptures expressly teach this difference: "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them; but it shall not be so among you. "Neither as being lords over God's heritage." "Let no man judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holyday." "Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free." (Matt. 20:25. 1 Pet. 5:3. Col. 2:16. Gal. 5:1.) The reasons of this difference are evident: 1. Because there is a great difference between the civil magistrate, whose province it is to exercise authority over his subjects, and to compel such as are obstinate to yield obedience by corporal punishment, and the ministry of the church, to whom no such power is granted; but who are entrusted with the office of teaching men in reference to the will of God. 2. Because when ecclesiastical ordinances are violated without any offense being given thereby, there is no violation of the first table of the Decalogue, to which they ought to contribute; but when civil enactments are violated, even though there may be no offense, there is a violation of the second table, inasmuch as this cannot occur without detracting something from the commonwealth, or giving some occasion of injury to it. To this it is replied: Obedience ought rather to be rendered to that office which is the greater and more honorable. Therefore those things which have been instituted by the ministers of the church, bind more strongly the consciences of men, than civil laws. We reply to the antecedent: That greater obedience is due to that office which is the more honor able, in those things which belong properly to the office itself. But it is the proper office of the civil magistrate to make laws, which are to be observed out of regard to the command itself; whilst it belongs properly to the ecclesiastical ministry to institute ceremonial precepts, which shall be observed, not on account of the command of men, but for the sake of avoiding offenses.

Fourthly, there are human enactments which are in opposition to the commands of God. These God forbids us to comply with, whether they be enjoined by the civil magistrate, or by the church and her ministry, according as it is said: "We ought to obey God rather than men." "Why do ye transgress the commandment of God by your tradition." (Acts 5:29. Matt. 15:3.)

From what has now been said we may easily answer the following objections: 1. God commands us to yield obedience to the enactments of men. Ans. God require us to comply with, 1. Such as are good and not op posed to his word. 2. Such as he himself has commanded by men, that worship may be thus paid unto him. 3. Such civil enactments as depend upon the authority of men, to which we render obedience not for the sake of divine worship, but for conscience sake. 4. Such ecclesiastical ordinances as those which we observe, not for the sake of worship, nor for conscience sake, but that we may avoid giving any offense.

Obj. 2. Those things which the church commands, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, are divine ordinances, having respect to the worship of God. But the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, institutes ordinances which are good and profitable. Therefore these ordinances bind the consciences of men, and have respect to the worship of God. Ans. That which is general in regard to the things which the church prescribes, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, pertains to the worship of God. This comprehends the divine laws which require a proper regard to charity, avoiding offenses, with the preservation of order and propriety in the church. The ordinances or institutions which have respect to what is general, being prescribed by the church under the influence of the Holy Spirit, are also divine, inasmuch as they form a part of those laws, the care and keeping of which God has committed to us in his word. But the good prescriptions of the church are human, or they are the prescriptions of men, in as far as they particularly designate what is declared, rather than what is expounded generally in these divine laws. Hence those ordinances do not constitute the worship of God, which the church by her own authority and in her own name advises, determines and commands, even though she be directed by the influence of the Holy Spirit in choosing and determining them. For the Holy Spirit declares to the church both what is profitable for the purpose of avoiding offenses, and also that these things which are enjoined for the sake of avoiding offenses are neither the worship of God, nor necessary to be observed, except for the purpose of avoiding every occasion of offense, as appears from the following declarations of Holy Writ: "I speak this by permission, and not of commandment." "And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction." (1 Cor. 7:6, 35.) So Paul also forbids to eat of things offered in sacrifice to idols, if by so doing we give offense to a weak brother; under other circumstances he leaves everyone free to act as he chooses. So the Apostles also, when assembled in Jerusalem, commanded, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, abstinence from things strangled and from blood; and yet they granted liberty to the church to act with freedom in this matter, where no offense would follow.

Obj. 3. God is worshipped in those things which are done to his glory. Those things which the church decides upon, are done to the glory of God. Therefore they also constitute the worship of God. Ans. Those things are indeed the worship of God which are done to his glory, and which he has commanded to this end, that we may declare our obedience to him by these works; but not those which contribute to the glory of God by an accident: that is, which lead sometimes to the performance of the things commanded by God on account of accidental causes, which, if they do not concur, God may still be honored, as well by those who do these things as by those who omit them, if they only be done or omitted of faith.

Obj. 4. But certain of the saints have worshipped God with acceptance without any express commandment of his; so Samuel offered sacrifices in Ramah, Elijah in Mount Carmel, Manoah in Zorah, &c. (1 Sam. 7:17. 1 Kings 18:19. Judges 13:19.) Therefore there are certain works which constitute the worship of God, although not expressly commanded by him. Ans. These examples establish nothing conclusively in reference to will-worship; for, in the first place, as it respects these sacrifices, they were the worship of God, because they were works commanded by him. And then as it regards the place appointed for offering sacrifices, the saints of old were free before the erection of the temple. Samuel fixed upon the place where he lived as the one in which he would offer sacrifices, this being the most convenient. And the prophets very well knew that the worship of God did not consist in the circumstance of place, in respect to which the godly were left free, while as yet the ark of the covenant had no fixed place. And then, finally, as it respects the persons themselves who offered these sacrifices, they had extraordinary power conferred upon them, being prophets, as Samuel and Elijah were. And as it respects Manoah, the father of Sampson, he either did not sacrifice himself, but delivered the sacrifice over to the angel whom he supposed to be a prophet, to be offered up; or else he himself offered it, being commanded by the angel, so that nothing was done contrary to the law.

So we may also easily return an answer to the other examples which are adduced by our opponents. Abel and Noah, say they, offered sacrifices; (Gen. 4 & 8) but they did not do it without a command from God; for they offered their sacrifices in faith as Paul affirms in Heb. 11. Faith now cannot be without the word of God. But the Rechabites, say they, of whom we have an account in the 85th chap, of Jeremiah, abstained from the use of wine, and from agriculture, according to the command of their father, Jonadab, and were commended by God. But Jonadab did not design to institute any new worship of God, but merely desired by this civil command to do away with drunkenness and such sins as accompany it. So it was not the kind of food and raiment which John the Baptist ate and wore, that commended him to the divine favor, but his sobriety and temperance, and worship of God. Nor was it the raiment, made of sheep and goat skins, nor their wandering in mountains, dens and caves, that made the saints of old (Heb. 11) approved before God, but their faith and patience in enduring afflictions and trials.

Obj. 5. Whatever is done of faith, and is acceptable to God, constitutes divine worship. The works which men perform voluntarily, are done of faith and so please God. Therefore, they constitute his worship. Ans. The major proposition is particular. To say, moreover, that a thing pleases God is not a sufficient definition of divine worship, inasmuch as actions which are indifferent may also be done of faith and so please God, although in a different manner from what his worship properly so called pleases him; for this pleases God in such a way, that the opposite of it displeases him, and so cannot be done of faith; whilst actions of indifference are approved of in such a way that their opposites may not be displeasing to God, and hence both may be done of faith, which rests assured that the work and the person both please God. Thus far we have spoken merely of the command itself. The exhortation contained in this second commandment remains to be explained. Before proceeding to this, however, we shall first give an explanation of the doctrine respecting images, which belongs properly to this commandment, and is contained in the two following Questions of the Catechism:

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 anything, &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?


I. The things to be considered in connection with this subject, may be comprehended under the following heads:
II. Whether, and how far images are forbidden in Churches by this commandment:
III. Whether the worship of images can be defended:
IV. Why images are to be removed out of Christian Churches:
V. 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 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 anything 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 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." (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 offense, 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, 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

Images are:

1. Natural

2. Artificial, of which some are:

a. graven
b. cast
c. painted
These are distinguished by their matter, object and end, and are either images of:
1) God, which are positively condemned in the commandment and throughout the whole Scriptures; and that because they distract from the divine majesty and make an idol of God

2) creatures, which are either:
a) lawful — not set up in churches and do not lead to idolatry; for civil purposes or ornaments

b) unlawful — set up in churches and lead to idolatry


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 seest therein;" and according to the following sentiment, expressed by Thomas: "When thou passest an image of Christ, always 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.; "Tomorrow 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. Images 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 someone 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.

Question 98. But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity?

Answer. No; for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his word.


This is the objection of those, who grant, indeed, that images and statues of God and the saints are not to be worshipped, but maintain that they should be tolerated in the churches of Christians, as books to the laity, and for other causes, if only they be not worshipped. We must, however, maintain the opposite, which is, that images and likenesses of God, or of the saints, are not to be tolerated in Christian churches, but abolished and removed from the sight of men, whether they be worshipped, or not.

III. Why Images And Pictures Are Not To Be Tolerated In Churches.

The reasons on account of which images and statues are not to be tolerated in our churches, but removed, are principally these:

1. Because it is contrary to the express command of God, that images should be made and set up in churches. "Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is," &c. Seeing, now, that God will not allow images to be made, by which he is to be represented, or at which he is to be worshipped, he, in like manner, will not permit those which are made by others, to be tolerated, or retained.

2. Because they have been the occasion, and means of horrible idolatry in the Papal Church.

3. Because God expressly commanded that idols should be removed, as well as every corruption of the true doctrine and worship of God, that he may in this way declare his displeasure against idolatry. (Ex. 33:24; 34:13. Num.33:52.)

4. For our confession of the sincere worship, and our hatred to idolatry, which confession consists not only in words, but also in outward actions, appearance and signs. "Ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. For thou art an holy people to the Lord thy God." "Little children, keep yourselves from idols," viz, in heart, in profession and signs. (Deut. 7:5. 1 John 5:21.)

5. Because the Scriptures speak in commendation of certain pious kings, such as Asa, Jehu, Hezekiah, Josiah, &c., for having destroyed the images and idols which had been set up. (1 Kings 15:13. 2 Kings 10:30; 18:4; 23:24.)

6. For the purpose of avoiding offense and preventing superstition and idolatry, so that, by not tolerating ancient images or substituting new ones, the church and ignorant souls may be preserved from the danger and sin which formerly fell upon our fore-fathers, for countenancing idols.

7. That the enemies of the church may not by this spectacle, which looks so very much like idolatry, be driven farther from a profession of the truth and be led to cast reproach upon it. God speaks of this in the following language: "Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare unto you." (Judges 2:3.) So the Jews, when they see statues and images in the churches of those who profess Christianity, are so much offended at the sight that they are led to hate more inveterately the Christian religion.

8. Lastly, images have never resulted in any good to those who have had them. The people of God, the Jews, were for the most part seduced by them, as sacred history abundantly testifies, especially in the books of the Judges, Kings, and Prophets. We are, therefore, prone by nature to the sin of idolatry, which is followed by those dreadful punishments which God in many instances threatened through Moses. "I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you." (Lev. 26:30.) The angel of the Lord, in reproving the Israelites, because they had made a league with the Canaanites, said: "Wherefore I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare unto you." (Judges 2:3.) For these reasons, therefore, images and statues are not to be tolerated in the churches of those who profess Christianity, but they must be removed, even though they be not adored.


Two things must be carefully observed in removing images --

1. That the doctrine concerning the true worship of God be preached before the idols and images are removed. It was in this way that Josiah proceeded. He first commanded the law of God to be read to all the people, and then proceeded to remove and destroy the images which had been set up. A change in external matters, without showing and explaining the causes, on account of which it is effected, will either lead to hypocrisy, or else it will excite and alienate the minds of the people from those who effect this change. Let the true doctrine of God's word, therefore, he preached, and the idols will fall to the ground of their own accord.

2. Images and their altars, and all that pertains to idolatry, must be removed, not by private individuals, but by public authority; whether of the magistrates, or of the people, if they have the sovereign power, and in those places in which the church holds the chief sway. It was in this way that God commanded the children of Israel to proceed in reference to this matter; and so we read that they and their pious kings acted. Paul, on the other hand, being only a private individual, seeing and disapproving of the idols of the Athenians, Ephesians and others, did not himself break them down, nor did he exhort Christians to do so, but to flee from and avoid them. The reason why the Apostle acted thus arose, no doubt, from the fact that he himself was no magistrate, and that the church had not in those places the chief sway. He, therefore, gives this rule: "What have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without, God judgeth."(1 Cor. 5:12, 13.)

Obj. 1. But books are retained in the churches and are useful to the laity. Images and statues are books to the laity. Therefore they may be retained in the churches with profit. Ans. Such books only are useful to laymen, which God has delivered to them. But God has prohibited images. We also deny the minor proposition; for the prophets teach very differently. "What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image and a teacher of lies?" "The idols have spoken vanity." (Heb. 2:18. Zech. 10:2.) We may deduce this argument from what has now been said: We ought not to speak vain things of God, nor to be of him, either in word or deed. But wood or graven images are lies of God, seeing that they cannot represent God; yea, by as much as they depart from God, and at the same time lead us from him, by so much is their figure unlike God, and as a matter of consequence they bring it to pass, that we he concerning God. If we would not, therefore, lie, it is necessary that we should neither make, nor have graven images by which to represent God: for as Jeremiah saith, "The stock is a doctrine of vanities." (Jer. 10:8.) In this sense, now, we grant that images and pictures are books for the laity; viz., that they partly teach and signify what is not true of God, and partly because by reverencing the thing signified, and the place, when they stand in the church and elsewhere, they easily lead some to superstition and teach the people idolatry, as experience abundantly testifies. We also deny the consequence of the above syllogism, because, although images might teach the unlearned, yet it does not follow from this, that they should be retained in the churches as books that are useful; for God will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his word. Neither does faith come from the sight of images, but by the hearing of the word of God.

Obj. 2. The command which respects the abolishing of images, is ceremonial. Therefore it does not pertain to Christians, but only to Jews. Ans. We deny the antecedent: for it is no ceremonial requirement to abolish those things which are the instruments, occasions and signs of idolatry. Nor are the causes on account of which this commandment was formerly given altered, so that the glory of God should not be vindicated against idolaters and enemies of the church, and that he should be tempted by our giving to those who are weak and ignorant occasions and inducements to superstition and idolatry to which they are naturally inclined. This commandment, therefore, which forbids our not having images, is moral and of perpetual force.

Obj. 3. Solomon, by the command of God, placed in the temple images of cherubim, lions, oxen, palm-trees, &c. Therefore images may also be tolerated in the church. Ans. The cases are not similar. 1. The figures of the various things and living creatures, such as oxen, lions, palm-trees, cherubims and such like, which Solomon caused to be placed in the temple, were ordered by the special command of God. The case, however, is different with images which are set up in the church at the present day. 2. The images which Solomon had placed in the temple were of such a character that they could not easily lead to superstitious practices; but images of God and the saints may not only lead to superstition, but alas! they have hitherto been the cause of most shameful idolatry in the Papal church. 3. The reason on account of which God commanded Solomon to have the images here alluded to in the temple, was that they might be types of spiritual things; but this cause is now done away with in Christ. Hence images which are now set up in the churches cannot be defended by this example; and it becomes us to obey the general commandment which forbids us to have, and to set up in such places images which are offensive either to the members, or the enemies of the church.

Obj. 4. But pictures and images are not worshipped in the Reformed churches. Therefore they may be tolerated. Ans. 1. God does not only forbid images to be worshipped; but also forbids them from being made, and to have them when made. Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image, &c. They are always an occasion of superstition and idolatry to the ignorant, as the experience of the past and present abundantly testifies. 3. They give to the Jews, Turks, Pagans, and other enemies of the church occasion of offense and matter for blaspheming the gospel.

Obj. 5. Images and statues are ornaments in our churches. Therefore they may be tolerated. Ans. 1. The best and true ornament of our churches is the pure and unadulterated doctrine of the gospel, the lawful use of the sacraments, true prayer and worship in accordance with the word of God. 2. Churches have been built, that lively images of God may be seen in them, and not that they should be made the abode of idols and dumb images. 3. The ornament of the church ought not to be contrary to the command of God. 4. It must neither be ensnaring to the members, nor offensive to the enemies of the church.

But someone may perhaps reply; the thing itself and the lawful use of it, must not be taken away merely because it may be abused. Images are ensnaring and offensive merely by accident. Therefore they are not to be removed from the churches. Ans. The first proposition is true, provided the thing be good in its own nature, and the use of it be lawful, and the accident inseparably connected with it, be not condemned of God. If this be not the case, the thing and the use of it, are both unlawful, and therefore to be avoided. But the images of God and the saints, which are placed in our churches for the sake of religion, are neither good, nor is the use of them lawful, but expressly forbidden by the command of God. And not only so, but the accident which is superstition, or idolatry, invariably accompanies the use of these images (notwithstanding the vain pretenses of those who are more fully established, and of their knowledge,) and is equally condemned by the commandment of God.

Obj. 6. All that is necessary is, that men should not, by the preaching of the gospel, have images in their hearts. Therefore it is not necessary that they should be removed from our churches. Ans. We deny the antecedent; because God not only forbids us to have idols in our hearts; but also before our eyes, seeing that he does not merely desire us to be no idolaters, but to avoid even the appearance of idolatry, according as it is said; "Abstain from all appearance of evil."(1 Thes. 5:22.) Again, such is the depravity of the human heart and its propensity to idolatry, that idols well-polished and adorned, being left before the eyes of men, very soon and readily become seated in the heart, and lead to false notions of religion, whatever may be said by some to the contrary. We may, therefore invert the argument, and reason thus: Images are to be rooted out of the hearts of men by the preaching of the gospel. Therefore they are also to be cast out of our churches: for the doctrine revealed to us from heaven does not merely command us not to worship and adore them, but likewise not to make, or have them. So much concerning the commandment itself.

The exhortation which is added to the second commandment.

The exhortation added to this commandment, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon Hie children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate me, and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments, contains five attributes of God which ought to constrain us to render obedience to him.

1. He calls himself our God, that is, our creator and preserver -- the giver of all the good things which we have enjoyed. In this way he would teach us what base ingratitude it is not to render obedience to him, our benefactor, and what an aggravated thing it is to fall from him into idolatry.

2. He calls himself a mighty God -- one that is able to punish the wicked, as well as to reward the obedient. He is, therefore, to be feared and worshipped above all others.

3. A jealous God, that is, a most rigid defender, and vindicator of his honor, terribly displeased with those who depart from him, or infringe upon his honor, or worship. Inasmuch now as jealousy, or indignation on account of an injury, or baseness, proceeds from love on the part of him, who is injured, God here signifies how ardently he loves those that are his.

4. A God that visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate him. In these words God reveals the greatness of his wrath and punishment, in that he threatens unto the children and the grandchildren, and the great grand-children's children of his enemies, to punish in them the sins of their fathers, in case they also imitate and approve of the sins of their fathers by committing them over again.

Obj. But it is said, Ez. 18, that the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father. Ans. It is, however, also said in the 14th verse of the same chapter, by way of reconciliation, "That if a wicked man beget a son that seeth all his father's sins which he hath done, and doeth not such like; he shall surely live. "Hence God threatens that he will punish the sins of the fathers in their children, meaning those who persevere in the sins of their fathers, whom it is just and proper should be made partakers of their punishment. Should anyone reply; That in this way, posterity do not suffer for the sins of their fathers, but only for their own, we answer nay; for there may be many impelling, moving causes of the same effect, and the cause of one punishment may be many sins, and these of different individuals besides those who bear the punishment. And if someone should object still further and say; That the sins of the fathers are not punished in their children, because the punishment which the children suffer, does not reach to the sins of their fathers, we reply, the children are a part of their fathers, so that they feel in themselves, as it were in some part of themselves, what their children suffer.

5. He declares that he is a God, who sheweth mercy unto thousands of them that love him and keep his commandments. By this promise, God would magnify his mercy, that so he might the more strongly invite us to obedience by a consideration of the greatness of his mercy and by the desire of our own salvation, and that of our children. And whereas he threatened punishment only to the fourth generation, he here extends his mercy to thousands, that so he might declare that he is more inclined to shew mercy than wrath, and in this way constrain us to love him.

Obj. 1. But the children of many pious persons perish. Ans. The promise is conditional: for God declares in the 18th chapter of Ez., that he will be merciful to the children of the godly if they persevere in the obedience of their fathers, and that he will punish them if they turn away from it. If anyone should ask, Why does God not convert all the children of the godly, since they cannot follow the holy example of their fathers without his mercy, we reply, that he will not bind or restrict his mercy to any single individuals included among the posterity of the righteous; but will reserve his election free to himself, that as he converts and saves some from the posterity of the wicked, so he will leave some of the posterity of the righteous in their natural corruption and misery which all deserve by nature, and this he does, that he may show that his own mercy is free, as well in choosing the posterity of the godly as the posterity of the wicked. Again: God does not convert all the posterity of the godly, because he has not bound himself to bestow mercy on all, or the same benefits on all the posterity of the godly. He, therefore, makes good this promise when he bestows temporal blessings upon the wicked descendants of the godly. Lastly: God does not convert all the children of the godly, because he promises this happiness to those who diligently keep his commandments, or to those who are truly godly. But inasmuch as the love of God and the obedience which is in the most holy, are imperfect in this life, the reward which is promised to them is also imperfect, and joined with the cross and chastisements, among which the wickedness and unhappiness of their posterity is not the least, as may be seen in David, Solomon and Josiah.

Obj. 2. Those who keep the commandments of God, obtain mercy. Therefore, we merit something from God by our obedience. Ans. The contrary follows. God says, I will shew mercy unto them. Therefore, it is not according to merit; for that which is done out of mercy is not of merit; and contrariwise. The argument is, therefore, false, in assigning that for a cause, which is none.

Obj. 3. This promise and threatening belongs to the whole Decalogue; why is it, therefore, annexed to this commandment? Ans. It is joined to the second commandment, not that it belongs to it alone, but that we may know that the first and second commandments are the foundation of all the others; and that God might declare that he is especially displeased with those who corrupt his worship, and that he will punish this kind of sin both in them and their posterity, and, on the other hand, that he will also bless the posterity of them, who keep his religion pure and undefiled.

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