The great Christian hope is that we will see God. Jesus assured us that “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). In this age, “we walk by faith, not by sight,” suggesting that sight is the better experience (2 Cor. 5:7–8). Waiting on this side of Christ’s return, however, Christians have wrestled with our longing to behold God, particularly regarding whether or not it is acceptable and suitable to make images of him (whether sculpted statues or painted icons) in light of the prohibition in the Ten Commandments: “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” (Exod. 20:4).
Some of our hardest fought battles have been over images of the incarnate Christ, since he alone is God made visible: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). The Reformation period witnessed the eruption of this debate amid burgeoning groups of Protestants. However, their many shared convictions did not carry over to a united interpretation of God’s prohibition of images. In this essay, I want to explore one episode of the debate between Lutheran and Reformed factions of the Reformation enterprise, the Colloquy of Montbéliard (1586) between Theodore Beza (1519–1605), John Calvin’s successor in Geneva, and Jakob Andreae (1528–1590), a principal author of the Formula of Concord.
This historical debate affords opportunity for deep reflection regardless of which side we take. Reformation-era Protestants took theology seriously because they realized that the fruits of faithful Christian practice must grow from the rich soil of true doctrine. Our investigation of this sixteenth-century event should help us to re-examine the importance of our doctrines of worship, images, and idolatry, following them to their natural end in faithful communal life and genuine personal piety. After all, the apostle Paul supported one of his most fundamental admonitions for the Christian life—to have an others-centered mindset of humility—with some of Scripture’s deepest reflections on the significance of the eternal Son taking upon himself our human nature (Phil. 2:1–11).
The Colloquy of Montbéliard
The Colloquy of Montbéliard in 1586 was a public debate convened to address the growing tension between a French-speaking Reformed region and Count Frederick, the German prince under whose jurisdiction they lived. Those belonging to the Reformed faith sought official permission to worship according to their own confession rather than the Lutheran confession. Although the debate was overtly biblical and theological, we must remember how entwined religion and politics were in early modern Europe. The question of adhering to and practicing a region’s authorized religious confession necessarily intersected with the authority of the civil authorities; challenging the established confession readily suggested a challenge to their authority as well. Although Beza and Andreae’s discussion revolved around matters of conviction and conscience, there were political, cultural, and confessional identity factors at stake in this debate.
Beza and Andreae discussed Christology, the sacraments (especially the Lord’s Supper), predestination, and worship. Although their discussion on worship included music, our focus for this essay is on their debate over art and images in worship. Throughout the colloquy, Beza and Andreae wrestled over whether, and to what extent, a Protestant church should retain practices and décor prevalent prior to the Reformation that had not been explicitly authorized by God’s word. These issues would ultimately center around a growing divergence between Lutheran and Reformed views about how Scripture regulates our practices pertaining to worship. The Reformed hold that we do in worship only that which Scripture commands (the regulative principle); the Lutherans hold that we can do in worship whatever Scripture does not forbid (the normative principle). The colloquy, then, embodied wider developments that remain points of division still today.
Within this wider discussion, Beza and Andreae agreed on several points, one of the most important being their rejection of iconoclasm—that is, the forcible removal and destruction of church statues, paintings, or other artwork or elements now deemed idolatrous. Andreae denounced the violence of the iconoclasts across France and the Netherlands, and Beza responded (to Andreae’s relief) that Geneva also decried this rash behavior of overzealous crowds. The problem, Beza argued, is not with church buildings but with what happens inside them, which must accord with biblical mandates. Importantly, Beza also agreed with Andreae that “painting and sculpture has great use in civil affairs”; artwork concerning secular things was not a point at issue. This initial agreement, however, did not outweigh their differences. Andreae proceeded to speak in favor of the value and propriety of organs, paintings, and sculptures, while Beza urged simple psalmody and argued against the making of what he considered unlawful images and the use of such religious artwork in worship.
Beza homed in specifically on the unlawfulness of making and using images depicting the persons of the Trinity—including Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son—as well as heavenly beings, according to Exodus 20:4. Andreae acknowledged that Lutherans “think exactly the same thing” as the Reformed when it comes to images “which are looked at in holy places” for the purpose of worshiping them or using them superstitiously. This constitutes grave idolatry. Idols “should be taken away” in such cases; indeed, “God not only forbids that they be adored, but also that they be made.” Montbéliard shows Lutheran and Reformed consensus about the biblical prohibition of images used as objects or means of worship and the grave spiritual danger of such practices. For the Reformed, the biblical prohibition against man-made images of God or heavenly beings was absolute; making them against God’s command is inseparable from false worship and inherently unlawful. For Lutherans, God’s word doesn’t prohibit image-making as such, but it does condemn making and using them in service to “superstition and idolatry.”
This subtle but crucial difference comes through clearly in Andreae and Beza’s discussion about imagery in the old covenant tabernacle and temple. Andreae argued that God’s law could not proscribe religious imagery altogether because the Jerusalem temple included artwork of cherubim alongside lions, bulls, trees, and other ornate artifices. Beza responded that, on the one hand, the depictions of cherubim were constructed under God’s direct instruction and placed in an area of the temple where the people were not permitted to enter—namely, the Holy of Holies. On the other hand, the depictions of earthly things such as lions and plants were not meant to visualize heavenly realities or God himself, and Reformed criticism of images doesn’t apply in such cases.
Perhaps the most heated moments of the colloquy came when Beza and Andreae took up the question of images of Jesus. Beza raised the issue of the crucifix and the widespread depiction of Christ crucified in statues and paintings. On this issue, Beza cast aside his typically composed rhetoric: “Our hope is placed in the true cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, not an image. For this reason, I confess that I whole-heartedly detest the image of the crucifix.” He had previously stated his preferred method of displaying Christ to the congregation: “But I would be willing to have the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Christ crucified, depicted for Christians by the preaching of the word, just as we read him depicted by Paul to the Galatians (3:1).” Again, in Beza’s estimation, the use and abuse of unauthorized images are one and the same, so no lawful and helpful use for images of Christ could be warranted.
Beza’s strong stance on this matter sparked in turn an intense response from Andreae. Taking away visible images, he said, could never remove idolatry from someone’s heart. He contended that Roman Catholics had abused “the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the Apostolic Epistles, the Gospel,” so should these be done away with too? Andreae, for his part, had seen plenty of images in churches that were not abused because proper teaching of God’s word had warded off superstition and idolatry. “For if the word of God should ring out purely, there is no longer any danger from images.” Thus Andreae maintained that the use of images was a matter of Christian liberty that should be preserved. Beza replied with a similar emphasis on the power of God’s word, but to opposite effect: “We do approve of written, as opposed to painted, images. . . . For pictures do not speak, but the word of God always speaks, and for this reason it should remain in the word, and not be stuck in a picture.” The disagreement, then, depended in part on different views about whether the use of images is an attempt to accomplish something Scripture itself is meant to achieve.
This pointed interaction over biblical convictions also brought to the fore a less direct divergence of concerns in ongoing reform efforts. Andreae was conservative regarding change, not wanting to discard more traditional practices than was necessary. Even in cases where he conceded that various practices had detrimental results, he defended grounds for retaining them provided that pastors properly explained the truth and fended off the possible dangers of idolatry attached to images. Beza was more concerned to simplify worship according to what he saw as biblical principles and to strip away what he saw as inevitably leading to idolatry and corrupted worship. Despite much effort to agree to consensus principles, Andreae and Beza reached an impasse.
The debate, of course, did not end as the colloquy closed in 1586. We have its proceedings because Andreae published them with his annotations on Beza’s comments. Beza later responded with his own published responses to Andreae’s annotations. Count Frederick seems to have been convinced by the Lutheran position and continued to refuse official recognition of Reformed worship in Montbéliard. Yet he was nevertheless motivated to publicly support the cause of the Huguenots against Roman Catholic persecution in France. Ongoing encounters and debates helped entrench Lutherans in their approach to images as a mark of confessional but nonradical identity. Meanwhile, “the people of Montbéliard,” in historian Jill Raitt’s words, “never forgot their Reformed origins and the long struggle against the efforts of their rulers to impose” the Lutheran confession. It took them another fifty years after the colloquy to officially adopt Lutheranism. Although in many countries today, religious freedom (thankfully) lowers the political stakes involved in disputes between confessional communities, disagreement about the use of images as well as our broader principles of how to regulate worship according to God’s word remains alive between Lutheran and Reformed churches.
Conclusions for Today
Admittedly, as a Presbyterian, my lot falls with Beza and I find that his arguments resonate with my own concerns and conclusions. Nonetheless, as I reflect on this debate, there are many aspects of Andreae’s contribution that I appreciate. Lutherans had great concern about the disastrous effects of radical iconoclasm in the wake of riots instigated by Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486–1541), resulting in serious social and political upheaval. I appreciate that Andreae and other Lutherans were not only following their theological convictions but were also leery of sparking more unrest. We must be measured in our reform, especially when changes are loaded with wider ramifications than just for our own consciences or immediate circles. We certainly shouldn’t welcome or incite uprisings with our theological endeavors.
Perhaps most pivotally, I deeply appreciate Andreae’s resolve not to depart too quickly and uncritically from traditional practices. Although I demur from his assessment about the use of religious images, his commitment to well-worn traditions, refusing to abandon them without what he considered explicit theological necessity, is a refreshing stance in our age of anti-traditional biblicism. Andreae’s trust in the consensus authority of church officers and his appreciation for traditional worship are admirable. Today, biblicism is used to justify countless novel practices—ironically not well grounded in Scripture—to upend traditional patterns of worship. We should learn from Andreae’s willingness to allow his church’s confessional commitments to shape the way he thought about personal piety and the shared doctrines and practices that bound together his ecclesiastical community. We should all strive for careful consistency between theology and practice—Reformed, Lutheran, or otherwise.
Beza also provides us with insights for today. He certainly wanted more wide-ranging reform of worship practices than did Andreae, yet he manifested a similar caution about reforming too quickly. As was Calvin’s principle, all reform must be tempered with pastoral patience. Shepherds must not get too far ahead of the pace of the flocks they lead. Beza’s stance in the debate further helps us to be sensitive to which biblical and theological principles might specifically apply to church worship practices and which pertain to broader concerns about cultural or civil affairs.
The debate between Lutherans and Reformed about the use of images will likely not be resolved this side of Christ’s return. This irresolution, however, directs us again to the main motivation for wrestling with the question of images in the first place: We want to see Christ. No matter where we land on the question this side of eternity, faith become sight is the final hope held up before us all.
No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. (Rev. 22:3–4)
For some reflection on debates in the patristic era, see Harrison Perkins, “Images of Christ and the Vitals of the Reformed System,” The Confessional Presbyterian 14 (2018): 212–15.Back
Concerning some of these issues beyond our scope, see Jill Raitt, The Colloquy of Montbéliard: Religion and Politics in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Richard Cross, Communicatio Idiomatum: Reformation Christological Debates, Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 226–55; Joshua Pauling, Modern Reformation (September 2020), https://www.modernreformation.org/resources/articles/.Back
For background on the colloquy, see Jill Rait, “Montbéliard, Colloquy of,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillebrand (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), https://www.oxfordreference.com; Raitt, Colloquy of Montbéliard, 3–10; and Jakob Andreae and Theodore Beza, Lutheranism vs. Calvinism: The Classic Debate at the Colloquy of Montbéliard 1586, ed. Jeffrey Mallinson, trans. Clinton J. Armstrong (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2017), x–xi, 13–21. This last source is a translation of the records from the colloquy.Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 462, 465–67.Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 461, 480–81, 493–95.Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 459–60.Back
Raitt, Colloquy of Montbéliard, 136–37.Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 460–61.Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 472–73.Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 457.Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 462–63, 486–87.Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 489.Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 477 (emphasis added).Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 490.Back
Lutheranism vs. Calvinism, 489–92.Back
Jacob Andreae, Acta Colloquii Montis Belligartensis (Tübingen, 1587).Back
Theodore Beza, Ad Acta Colloquii Montis Belligardensis pars prior (Geneva, 1588); and Theodore Beza, Ad Acta Colloquii Montis Belligardensis pars altera (Geneva, 1588).Back
Raitt, Colloquy of Montbéliard, 187.Back
Bridget Heal, “‘Better Papist than Calvinist’: Art and Identity in Later Lutheran Germany,” German History 29, no. 4 (December 2011): 584–609.Back
Raitt, The Colloquy of Montbéliard, 176.Back
R. Scott Clark, “Calvin’s Principle of Worship,” in David Hall, ed., Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of his Quincentenary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 247–69.Back