Luther proclaiming the good news


By Lucas Cranach | Scan courtesy of MyStudios

"Shortly after Luther's death, his friend, the artist Lucas Cranach, Jr., painted one more portrait of the Reformer. Cranach has him in the pulpit of the castle church, Bible opened, congregation looking on. What is most stunning, however, is the center. There Cranach painted Christ on the cross. As Luther preached, he preached Christ and him crucified. And his congregation did not see Luther, but instead saw Christ. Luther pointed the way to Christ" (S. J. Nichols, New Horizons, October 2005, p. 4).

Reformed iconoclasm

Following Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, the Reformed standards maintain that this passage from the law of Moses condemns all artistic portrayals of Jesus:

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:3-6)

Geerhardus Vos (Biblical Theology, 1948, pp. 236-7) pointed out that this passage must be taken as a unit; God condemns idolatrous images because he is a jealous God, tolerating no rival deities. Vos noted that the prohibition of idolatry would have been understood to prohibit the superstitious worship of deity wrapped up in images, not any modern concept of a visual representation of the true God, which would not necessarily incite his jealousy. Such superstition, strongly rooted in ancient beliefs about magic, puts powerless rivals in the place of the only true God, who will not share his glory with another.

In summary, Vos emphasized that the prohibition of images is based on the jealousy of God, pointing out that idolaters believed that their idols had magical powers — God was jealous of them because they were trusted instead of him. Thus, anyone who prays to a crucifiisx or who thinks having pictures of Jesus brings good luck thereby provokes the Lord to jealousy. On the other hand, to teach that creating or appreciating artistic portrayals of Christ is necessarily sinful is to teach the commands of men as if they were the commands of God.

Similarly, Luther argued that even if Christians were under the law of Moses, Exodus 20:3-6 read as a whole would not support iconoclasm:

And I say at the outset that according to the law of Moses no other images are forbidden than an image of God which one worships. A crucifix, on the other hand, or any other holy image is not forbidden. Heigh now! you breakers of images, I defy you to prove the opposite!
In proof of this I cite the first commandment (Exod. 20[:3]): “You shall have no other gods before me.” Immediately, following this text, the meaning of having other gods is made plain in the words: “You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness …” [Exod. 20:4]. This is said of the same gods, etc. And although these spirits cling to the little word “make” and stubbornly insist, “Make, make is something else than to worship,” yet they must admit that this commandment basically speaks of nothing else than of the glory of God. It must certainly be “made” if it is to be worshiped, and unmade if it is not to be worshiped. It is not valid, however, to pick out one word and keep repeating it. One must consider the meaning of the whole text in its context. Then one sees that it speaks of images of God which are not to be worshiped. No one will be able to prove anything else. From subsequent words in the same chapter [Exod. 20:23], “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold,” it follows that “make” certainly refers to such gods.
For this saying, “You shall have no other gods,” is the central thought, the standard, and the end in accordance with which all the words which follow are to be interpreted, connected, and judged. For this passage points out and expresses the meaning of this commandment, namely, that there are to be no other gods. Therefore the words “make,” “images,” “serve,” etc., and whatever else follows, are to be understood in no other sense than that neither gods nor idolatry are to develop therefrom. Even as the words, “I am your God” [Exod. 20:2], are the standard and end for all that may be said about the worship and service of God. And it would be foolish if I sought to conclude from this something that had nothing to do with the divine or the service of God, such as building houses, plowing, etc. No conclusion can be drawn from the words, “You shall have no other gods,” other than that which refers to idolatry. Where however images or statues are made without idolatry, then such making of them is not forbidden, for the central saying, “You shall have no other gods,” remains intact. [Luther, M. (1999, c1958). Vol. 40: Luther's works, vol. 40 : Church and Ministry II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (Vol. 40, Page 85-86). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.]

<<< back to the painting of Christ crucified

Bookmark and Share

Gloria Patri

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

About this site

Dawning Realm proclaims the good news of the kingdom as confessed at Caesarea Philippi, Nicaea, and Augsburg.
This cross symbol, when appearing to the left of a topic, designates a category in Theology of the Cross, a directory of Lutheran articles.
Last modified: January 16, 2016 9:25 AM
Author information. David Bickel confesses the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Augsburg Confession, and the other documents of the Book of Concord because they faithfully summarize the sacred writings of the prophets and apostles. As a layman, he lacks the call needed to publicly teach in the church. | professional web page

Display troubleshooting

Browser-specific help. Internet Explorer users might need to maximize the browser window. Windows users may correct the overlapping of sections by clicking the Refresh/Reload button or by pressing control-R. Safari omits white space before headings. Frames, such as those of the home worship page, cannot be resized with 2006 versions of Opera and Firefox. Opera sometimes goes to the top of a page rather than to the position specified by the link.

Copyright and permissions

Copyright © 2001-2016 by David R. Bickel. No part of this web page may be displayed on the Internet, copied to another web page, or transferred electronically. Permission is hereby granted to print and distribute, for non-commercial purposes, hard copies (paper copies) of the content of this page without changes. Any other copying or distribution requires prior written consent.
Artwork. The "Christ Pantocrator—Cefalu, Sicily" background photo, taken by Michael Wilson ("Xerones"), is displayed according to its Creative Commons license. The photo of lightning at dawn ("Morning Lightning Storm"), taken by Jeff Kramer, is likewise displayed according to its Creative Commons license.
Scripture translations. Copyright information

<<< Dawning Realm: The enfleshed God's triumph over death and hell