The Reformation & the Arts

Gene Edward Veith
Thursday, August 30th 2007
Nov/Dec 1994

A major controversy during the time of the Reformation involved the proper use of the arts. Despite the artistic glories of the medieval church, the Reformers believed that art was being misused, that it was obscuring the Gospel behind a haze of aesthetic experience. In some ways, the medieval approach to the arts, as condemned by the Reformers, is coming back among contemporary evangelicals.

The Reformation, however, did not stifle the arts. Rather, in distinguishing art from religion, the Reformation liberated the arts, sparking an explosion of creativity and artistic excellence. Both the contemporary church and the contemporary art world have a lot to learn from the artistic heritage of the Reformation. (1)

The New Graven Images

The popular religion of the late Middle Ages was centered around works of art. Unable or not allowed to read the Bible, ordinary folk learned what they knew of Scripture from stained glass windows and street dramas. While the priests would perform Mass in barely audible Latin behind the rood screen, ordinary worshippers would contemplate the statues and icons that filled the church. In the popular mind, special images of the Virgin Mary had special power, and multitudes would embark on pilgrimages to pay devotion to a miraculous shrine. Instead of viewing art for its aesthetic value, many medieval Christians viewed it for its religious value. In doing so, the message of the Gospel was often obscured.

Today's popular religion also centers around works of art. While most evangelicals’unlike medieval Christians’are uninterested in the "high culture" of serious paintings, sophisticated music, and quality craftsmanship, many eagerly embrace the "popular culture" of the media and the entertainment industry. The kinds of art forms associated with today's popular culture’contemporary music, television shows, consumer-oriented communication’define the so-called "evangelical style." (2)

Today's Christian bookstores typically have more "art" than books: shelves of religious knickknacks, plaques, posters, and sentimental figurines; tapes and CD's of Christian rock, rap, and heavy-metal; videos of Christian thrillers, how-to's, and exercise routines; Christian T-shirts, toys, greeting cards, and gifts. If there is still room for books, most of them will follow the popular genres of the secular bestseller lists: Christian pop psychology, diet, and self-help; Christian romances, science fiction, mysteries, and horror.

Such art forms play an important role in contemporary Christianity. Many people find their religious experience not in congregational worship but in "inspirational" videos and contemporary Christian concerts complete with mosh pits and body passing.

During the Reformation, the controversies over art centered around the question of whether religious art violated the biblical injunction against the use of graven images in worship (Ex. 20:4). To their credit, the medieval Christians, though led astray, were led astray by high quality art. Even works of great merit, however, can become idolatrous when human expressions become substitutes for God's revelation and when aesthetic pleasure is confused with spiritual truth.

The taste of contemporary Christians for the artifacts of the pop culture has a similar danger: The glossy creations of human authors, musicians, and media specialists often take the place of the Word of God. Aesthetic criteria’such as how much we like something or how much we enjoy it’replace standards of theological truth. We say, "I really like that church," instead of "I believe in what that church teaches." We tell the pastor how much we "enjoyed" the sermon rather than how it convicted us of sin and of salvation. We even discuss theology in aesthetic terms rather than the language of truth: we say, "I don't like the idea of Hell," instead of asking whether there is such a place.

Even when today's religious junk is not idolatrous, it carries another danger. Much of today's "inspirational" art and music might not teach false doctrine’though it often does’but it does trivialize and vulgarize the Holy One of Israel. Such carelessness about what is holy is, literally, profanity and is sternly warned against in Scripture. If our popular religious art does not violate the commandment against graven images, it risks violating the commandment against taking the name of the Lord in vain (Ex. 29:7).

The Sacred and the Secular

If you walk through an art museum, you will notice that the medieval wing is packed with religious paintings’Madonnas, saints, and icons of Christ. When you get to the Reformation section’that is, art from northern Europe of the 1500's and 1600's’there is a dramatic change. Instead of Mary and the Christ child on a throne, you will see paintings of families, pictures of people at their workplace, and portraits of ordinary men and women. You may find a few biblical scenes in the Reformation gallery, but the biblical characters look like doughty German farmers or down-to-earth Dutch matrons instead of idealized saints. The background is not beaten gold as in the medieval paintings, but realistic villages and forests. The Reformation art seems very secular.

Does this mean that the Reformation had no religious impact on the arts? Not at all. The Reformation's rediscovery of Scripture and of the Gospel inspired a new flowering of the arts. The Reformers saw little problem with secular art. Ironically, their main complaint was against religious art.

The very secular quality of Reformation art, however, had a religious motivation. Paintings of families reflected the new awareness that marriage and child raising’as opposed to the medieval exaltation of celibacy’are high spiritual callings. The paintings of butcher stalls, farmers in their fields, and women at their spinning wheels reflected the Reformation insight that all vocations, not just the clerical ones, are ways of serving God and one's fellow human beings. The portraits grew out of the Reformation emphasis on the individual. The realistic biblical scenes came from the realization that the Bible is not only true, in a down-to-earth way, but it is for and about ordinary people.

If the Reformation helped to secularize art, it did so not by eliminating the sacred, but by seeing even the secular sphere in the light of God's grace. Reformation art made the secular sacred. Today's religious art, on the other hand, often does the reverse, making the sacred secular. Christianity is presented as the key to having a happy family, finding success on the job, and feeling good about yourself. The overt subject may be religious, but the prime emphasis is on this world. In Reformation art, the subject may be secular, but’as in a painting by Rembrandt’it will be transfigured by spiritual light.

The Reformers as Art Critics

In seeking to restore the Gospel and to place the Bible at the center of the Christian life, the Reformers attacked what they saw as the idolatry of the medieval church. In reaction to the devotion to images and the use of art to promote false doctrines, many Reformers became iconoclasts, smashing stained glass windows and burning crucifixes, reliquaries, and triptychs. Nevertheless, Reformation iconoclasm was not intrinsically anti-art.

Calvin and Zwingli objected to the religious use of art, but not to art as such. "I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible," writes Calvin, "but because sculpture and paintings are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each." (3) Zwingli, an extreme iconoclast, even permitted paintings of Christ as long as they were not in churches nor offered reverence. According to Zwingli, "where anyone has a portrait of His humanity, that is just as fitting to have as to have other portraits." (4)

Leo Jud, a colleague of Zwingli and a fellow iconoclast, distinguished between artificial images of God made by human beings and the true image of God made by God Himself. In other words, those interested in seeing the image of God need only look at a human being, whom God Himself made in His own image. Portraits, therefore, paintings of ordinary men and women, became a means of contemplating the Divine Image. According to Jud, portraits depict "living images made by God and not by the hands of men." (5)

As a result of this profound insight, portraiture flourished throughout the Reformed countries. The concept of the imago dei underlies the work of those painters known as the Dutch Masters, including perhaps the greatest Protestant painter, Rembrandt. In the face of his subjects’children, merchants, ordinary families’the depths of their personalities are suggested, and one can discern their dignity and value as having been created in the Image of God.

Not all of the Reformers were iconoclasts. After his condemnation by the Emperor, Luther came out of hiding at the risk of his life precisely to put down the riots of image burning and stained glass window smashing that had broken out in Wittenberg. Luther's rule for church art was to reject only art that interfered with the message of Christ. Images of Mary and the legendary saints were removed, with all of the attendant devotions and "works" associated with them. Crucifixes, depicting the all-sufficient atonement for sin, and other biblical paintings and church decorations were retained.

Luther, in a sermon on the subject, articulated an important principle of Christian freedom: "Although it is true and no one can deny that the images are evil because they are abused, nevertheless we must not on that account reject them, nor condemn anything because it is abused. This would result in utter confusion." Some people worship the sun and the stars, says Luther, but this does not mean we should try to pull them from the skies. Some are led astray by women and wine, but this does not mean we should kill all the women and pour out all the wine. Images, Luther maintains, "ought to be abolished when they are worshipped; otherwise not." "That yonder crucifix," he continues, "is not my God, for my God is in heaven, but . . . this is simply a sign." To be sure, many consider putting up an image to be a good work, a way to earn God's favor. For them, images are harmful, but "there are still some people who hold no such wrong opinion of them, but to whom they may be useful. . . . We cannot and ought not to condemn a thing which may be any way useful to a person." (6)

Luther appreciated the arts and his theology, in turn, was appreciated by artists. One of Luther's good friends’they stood as godfathers to each other's children’was the artist Lucas Cranach. His religious paintings, in marked contrast to the transcendent mysticism of the Middle Ages, are down to earth, locating biblical and spiritual events squarely in the ordinary, natural world. Albrecht DÃ?rer, one of the greatest innovators of realistic art, was a follower of Luther.

The great nonrepresentational art form of the Reformation was music. The Reformers from Luther to Zwingli reveled in music. "My love for music," said Luther, "which often has quickened me and liberated me from great vexations, is abundant and overflowing." Luther ranked music as second in importance only to theology. (7) Music, praised throughout Scripture, involves no graven images whatsoever, yet it is art of the highest craftsmanship and aesthetic impact. The Reformation created an outpouring of music not only in the form of hymns (music with the content of the Word) but also in instrumental music.

The Reformation's legacy to music finds its culmination in the piety and artistry of perhaps the greatest of composers: Johann Sebastian Bach. A devout Lutheran, Bach would begin many of his scores with the Latin abbreviation for "Jesus Help." He would end them with the Reformation slogan Sola Deo Gloria: "to God alone be the glory." These inscriptions can be found not only in his church music, but also in his secular music. Bach's fugues and minuets written for the court may have been secular, but they were born in prayer and praise.

Reforming the Arts

Not many Christian bookstores today sell Bach CD's, Rembrandt prints, or for that matter the writings of Luther or Calvin. For some reason, contemporary Christians uncritically embrace the art of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, while being averse to the art that actually emerged out of a biblical worldview. Spenser, Herbert, and Milton are still lauded even in secular universities, but despite their fervent Reformation spirituality they are not read much by today's Protestants. These works of these poets, as well as those of the Reformation painters and the great classical composers, demand effort, attention, and reflection on the part of their audiences. A number of Christian artists are continuing in their tradition, creating works of honesty, complexity, and quality, but they are often spurned by the contemporary church.

Cultivating taste may be an important survival skill for Christians. That contemporary Christians are addicted to pop music and pop art (music and art that recognizes no higher values than entertainment, commercialism, self-gratification, and shallow emotionalism) means that they are opening themselves up to a pop spiritual life. It is little wonder that many contemporary Christians insist on entertaining worship services, commercialistic evangelism, feel-good sermons, and subjective spirituality. Pop art leads to pop theology.

Responding to quality is a valuable self-discipline. Becoming knowledgeable about the arts, practicing discernment’both theological and aesthetic’and patronizing excellence are ways that Christians can actively resist mediocrity and corruption.

To be sure, aesthetics is no substitute for faith. The sophisticated patrons of the symphony and the galleries often use art for their religion, looking to aesthetic experience for their values, meaning, and inspiration. This kind of aestheticism may be sophisticated, but it is no less idolatrous than the most primitive superstition, insofar as human creations’however beautiful’are allowed to take the place of the transcendent God of Scripture. Ironically, when art becomes a substitute for God, the result tends to be not only bad religion but also bad art. The emptiness, immorality, and absurdity of so much of contemporary art is evidence of the spiritual condition of today's art world, which stands in sore need of the Reformation gospel.

Christians who do not look to the arts for their religion, however, are freed to appreciate them as they were intended to be appreciated. In his discussion of Greek culture, classical historian Werner Jaeger points out that "it was the Christians who finally taught men to appraise poetry by a purely aesthetic standard’a standard which enabled them to reject most of the moral and religious teaching of the classical poets as false and ungodly, while accepting the formal elements in their work as instructive and aesthetically delightful." (8) What the early church did for Greek culture, the Reformation reiterated.

This means that Christians can enjoy the whole range of the arts, but their standards should be high. Christians’recognizing that art testifies to the human condition rather than necessarily to divine truth’can approach even the most secular art from a theological point of view, while also enjoying it from "a purely aesthetic" perspective. As for explicitly religious art, Christians can agree with a work theologically, while criticizing its craftsmanship. Christians can also disagree with its theology, while admiring its form. Work that is both theologically profound and aesthetically powerful’the poetry of George Herbert, the music of Handel, a landscape by Thomas Cole’should be treasured. Because our faith comes not from art, but from the Bible, we can approach the arts in a spirit of Christian freedom.

Because I have written extensively on Christianity and the arts, I often hear from Christian artists who tell me about their struggles in finding acceptance within today's church. A young woman wrote me about how hard she worked to suppress her artistic gifts. Her church led her to believe that if she really wanted to serve the Lord, she needed to give up her artistic career to become an evangelist. She joined a parachurch organization and threw herself into witnessing programs. The problem was, she was unsuccessful. She had neither the temperament, the talent, nor the people skills to be a home missionary. She came to realize, though, that what she was good at’namely, art’was an ability that was given to her by God. She realized that she could serve God as an artist. In other words, she came to the Reformation understanding that being an artist is her vocation.

I know another artist and musician whose devotion to Christ led him into a career in contemporary Christian music. As he started studying Reformation theology, he became increasingly repelled by the shallow religiosity, false doctrines, bad quality, and sappy commercialism of so much of the contemporary Christian music industry. He finally decided to switch to the secular music scene. Today he writes love songs, blues, and ballads and sings them in coffeehouses and concert halls. His songs grow out of a deeply biblical worldview, expressed with honesty and artistic integrity. His songs and his drawings speak freely of a faith that informs the whole spectrum of his life. He is a true Reformation artist.

I have found that there are many Christians who have discovered their vocation in the arts, whether in the church or in the secular arena. Many of them are frustrated with the opposition or indifference they have encountered from their fellow evangelicals, many of whom prefer tackiness and mediocrity to aesthetic excellence. These artists, who are bringing a biblical vision into contemporary culture, deserve the understanding and support of the church. Ordinary Christians, in turn, would find their lives enriched by cultivating their tastes.

The Apostle Paul's admonition to "approve the things that are excellent," and to meditate on "whatever things are lovely [and] praiseworthy" (Phil. 1:10, 4:8) must also apply to the arts. The Reformation teaches us how to avoid idolatry’whether that of the fetish worshipper, the aesthete, or the entertainment industry’while freeing us to enjoy the fullness of beauty that God structured into His creation and into the human soul.

1 [ Back ] Some of the material in this article is adapted from my book State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991).
2 [ Back ] See Kenneth Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1989).
3 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), Book 1, Chapter 11, Section 12.
4 [ Back ] Quoted in Charles Garside, Zwingli and the Arts (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966), p. 171.
5 [ Back ] Quoted in Garside, p. 182.
6 [ Back ] Luther's Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 51:84-85.
7 [ Back ] Ibid., 49:428.
8 [ Back ] Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, trans. Gilbert Highet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. xxvii-xxviii.
Thursday, August 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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