Beauty, Art, and Images in Worship: Mark Mattes and Michael Horton Q&A

Michael S. Horton
Mark Mattes
Tuesday, January 9th 2024
A naturalist's drawing of two doves in a tree with a repeating wallpaper pattern.
Jan/Feb 2024

In the following exchange, theologians Mark Mattes and Michael Horton take turns asking each other some of the questions on their minds as they wrestle with the similarities and differences between their respective Lutheran and Reformed traditions on the role of images in worship, the difference between art and idolatry, and the nature of beauty.

MM: The doctrine of common grace is influential in the Reformed tradition. Are there aesthetic implications embedded within it?

MH: Definitely. Calvin upheld a clear distinction between the common and the holy. On the Lord’s Day, Christ gathers his people in saving grace through his word and sacraments. Believers then go out into the world, taking up their common callings where God sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. We’re not only giving gifts to unbelievers but receiving gifts from them. In this common arena, we give and receive not the grace that regenerates but the grace that restrains and blesses for the natural flourishing of all people. Just as believers share in the common curse, so unbelievers share in the common grace that enlightens and enriches all of God’s image-bearers. We would be ungrateful to the Holy Spirit, Calvin says, if we rejected the fruit of their labors. This is premised on the fact that everyone remains created in God’s image, though fallen.

MM: What might be the connection between a heightened emphasis on the sovereignty of God in the Reformed tradition and the concept of beauty?

MH: I think there’s sometimes a self-contradiction in much of Christian practice. We sing “This is my Father’s world,” and then, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” Well, the world as it is in its rebellion against the Triune God isn’t my home. But it’s this evil age that’s passing away, not this good creation. Just as our bodies will be raised, the whole creation will enjoy the everlasting Sabbath (Rom. 8:18–25). “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). If the earth is the Lord’s, then I don’t have to carry the burden of saving it, redeeming culture, or making my country great again. I’m set free to go to work, hoping for the gift of another day to love and serve my neighbor, passing along the gifts God has given me for their welfare. Believing in God’s sovereignty enables us to wait patiently—but not passively—for the Lord to make all things new.

MM: William A. Dyrness, in my judgment, makes an excellent case for a distinctively Reformed approach to aesthetics. He claims that Calvin encouraged us to direct our attention not to sacred objects but outward, toward life as coming from God. Do you agree with that assessment and, if so, what should contemporary Christian artists and theologians take from it?

MH: Yes, even in his Institutes, Calvin offers important clues along these lines. He speaks of “contemplating God in his works” as opposed to speculating. These works are “what one can point to and the eye can see”; that is, God is revealed by being reflected in the natural world. (Some historians have said that this emphasis contributed to landscape and still-life painting.) In various places, Calvin reproaches Stoics and monks for deprecating emotion or the enjoyment of God’s gifts of laughter, marriage and friendship, good wine, and a decent wardrobe. If God’s ideal for us were monastic austerity, using only the minimum necessary to sustain life, then why did he create so many colors? Isn’t it all a bit much? Calvin pauses to savor the variety of God’s creation, and he criticizes Anabaptists for condemning secular learning in the arts and sciences. In fact, he received much of his intellectual and spiritual formation in the circle of Jacques Lefevre D’Étaples, a catalyst of French humanism. Calvin’s first published work was a commentary on Seneca’s De clementia. He maintained connections to leading Renaissance poets (some of whom he recruited to Geneva). The first book of the Institutes contains a string of quotations from Cicero, Seneca, and other classical authors influential in aesthetics.

Calvin’s sermons and commentaries are also filled with striking natural imagery and analogies. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed preaching was generally marked by such allusions, often exhibiting detailed knowledge of flora and fauna, medicine and astronomy, as well as works of classical rhetoric. Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, wrote poetry and even a couple of plays that were performed in Geneva—but not on a Sunday!

MM: I find it striking that you emphasize how Calvin savors the variety of God’s creation and you affirm so strongly that it’s this evil age that’s passing away, not this creation as such. Both claims resonate markedly with a Lutheran theology of creation. Substantive differences exist between Lutherans and the Reformed over Christology and sacramental theology—we’re both well aware of that. But I’m not convinced there’s a huge difference in our two confessional traditions with respect to a theology of culture. Does H. Richard Niebuhr overdraw a distinction between “Christ transforming culture” (which he labels as the Reformed approach) and “Christ and culture in paradox” (the Lutheran approach)? I tend to see greater similarities between the two traditions with respect to culture than does Niebuhr’s typology, though I confess I’ve used his categories in the past.

MH: As you know, the so-called Yale School of Niebuhr, Frei, and Lindbeck was fond of such typologies, which can be useful pedagogically. But Niebuhr’s contrast between Lutheran paradox and Reformed transformation seems beholden to a tendency in late nineteenth-century German historiography to reduce every system of belief to one central dogma. So, for Lutherans, it’s justification; for Calvinists, the sovereignty of God.

Like many topologies, the one Niebuhr proposed privileged his own modern outlook. Nothing in the classic Reformation confessions, catechisms, or standard systematic theologies justifies this contrast in central dogmas. “The sovereignty of God” is not an independent locus in any classic Reformed confessions, for example, but “justification” is always a major one. The doctrine of election is asserted no less clearly in the Book of Concord; all the Reformation confessional documents affirm God’s sovereignty and election but give far more space to justification and the sacraments.

I think Niebuhr correctly perceived a world-embracing rather than world-despising emphasis in the Reformed tradition. And Calvinists have been at the forefront of modern developments in the arts and sciences, but so have Lutherans. Both traditions also emphasize the eschatological paradox of the “already” and “not yet” of Christ’s kingdom. Maybe there are different nuances, but it’s hard to conclude from primary sources that our confessions are categorically opposed in our approaches to culture.

Speaking of differences, let’s dip into a few issues that divide our traditions to some extent. About Andreas Karlstadt’s iconoclasm, Luther wrote:

[He] blames me for protecting images contrary to God’s Word, though he knows that I seek to tear them out of the hearts of all and want them despised and destroyed. It is only that I do not approve of his wanton violence and impetuosity . . . . On the destruction of images I approached the task of destroying images by first tearing them out of the heart through God’s Word and making them worthless and despised.

Karlstadt was motivated by a legalistic spirit, Luther argued. Even Zwingli condemned the violence, insisting that images should be removed by the government authority only after the people have been taught properly. Some Lutherans today say that Luther’s patience (letting the word do its work) meant acceptance of images. What’s your take?

MM: Within the same context of this anti-Karlstadt quote, Luther wrote, “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.” On the face of it, Luther seems less focused on patience or acceptance than on evangelical liberty versus idolatry. He does not reference John of Damascus, but his stance echoes Damascene’s distinction between an image of the invisible God, which is unacceptable, and that of the incarnate God, which is acceptable because the Son of God assumed a human nature, including a body. Defenders of icons in the Eastern tradition honor icons’ ability to teach the faith, remind us what God has done, and incite us to devotion. They also offer grace, as if they were sacramental, since they serve as windows of the divine to humans. Nothing in Luther affirms this last conviction—that icons bring grace; but Luther would share the first three affirmations about images. Of course, Eastern Orthodoxy, as I understand it, requires icons, as opposed to merely permitting them.

The images we’re discussing are external or outside us. In principle, we could cleanse congregations of their presence. But for Luther, the wider category of imaging includes an inescapable internal dimension, since words themselves convey images. No imaging, no language. Because language inherently employs images, we need to rethink the acceptability of a crucifix: “It is impossible for me to hear and bear [Christ’s passion] in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. . . . If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?” Luther sought patience with images because he wasn’t convinced that their use necessarily leads to idolatry. But he was convinced that Zwingli’s rationale for rejecting images led to a false dichotomization between material and spiritual realities.

Luther’s appreciation for the physical and the tangible grows out of his sacramental theology. Counter to Zwingli, he sees the sacraments as offering believers an objectivity in Christ’s promise, so that faith is never reflected back on itself (i.e., “Was my repentance truly sincere?” “Have I withheld something in my heart from Christ?”), resulting in the misstep of attempting to assure our faith in itself as opposed to Christ. Luther is anxious that Zwingli’s move places the object of faith where it shouldn’t be: one’s subjectivity.

The key word for Luther against Karlstadt is heart. More than anything, Luther is a theologian of the heart. He’s convinced that the gospel creates new desires and new wills that accord with nature as God designed it for humans, in which we honor God neither like slaves fearing hell nor as hirelings drooling for heaven, but instead as children who adore their Father. As God made it, nature operates according to the law of love in which all things exist to serve their neighbors. Sinful inwardness disorders nature as God made it. As idolators, people look not to Christ but instead to some saint imaged in a painting or a statue to grant favor. The best way to free people from such idolatry is not to demolish images but to preach the word that changes hearts. Both the Reformed tradition and Lutherans are interested in purity. For the Reformed, images are an abomination to God and therefore the church should be free of them. For Lutherans, nothing external guarantees purity of heart. Only faith in the word secures that. The word is the reality to which the heart must be attached, not a human-made image. If images are idolized, then Luther has no patience for them. But images need not be idols; at their best, they remind us of scriptural truths and provoke devotion within us. That said, those images that are grounded on legends instead of on scriptural narratives have no place in the church.

MH: One of Calvin’s main arguments is that all images of the invisible God—apart from the incarnation communicated through word and sacrament—are inherently idolatrous. He particularly argues that attempting to represent Christ’s humanity apart from his deity is a Nestorian separation of natures. This would seem to be an argument Lutherans would share.

MM: True enough. To represent Christ’s humanity apart from his deity would be a Nestorian separation of natures. But it is a rare thinker who would label Luther as Nestorian! For Luther, when we worship Christ, we worship not only Christ’s divine but also his human nature, since as incarnate his two natures are inseparable. When we worship Christ, we don’t worship merely his deity but also his humanity. As Jack Kilcrease explains, “Whoever worships the humanity of Christ . . . is no longer adoring a creature (for this is what is meant by the union of natures) but the Creator Himself, for the unity is what is fundamental.” For Lutherans, not only Christ’s divinity but also his humanity is adored. That said, this robust incarnational approach to worship offers no license to worship an image.

Arguing against the suitability of images, Calvin, with characteristic eloquence, challenges the attempt to justify the use of images based on the cherubim covering the mercy seat:

What, indeed, I beg you, did those paltry little images mean? Solely that images are not suited to represent God’s mysteries. For they had been formed to this end, that veiling the mercy seat with their wings they might bar not only human eyes but all the senses from beholding God, and thus correct men’s rashness.

To be sure, for both Luther and Calvin, idolatry is a grievous sin in which one is ultimately placing one’s trust in nothing other than a projection of themselves. But it’s a mistake to think that images such as a crucifix primarily exist to represent God, as if the divine mystery could be confined to an artifact. Instead, a crucifix is a vivid reminder that Jesus died a painful death for you. Were you not a sinner, the Lord Jesus would never have had to become sin (2 Cor. 5:21) in order to die as your substitute. Hopefully, that message will sink home and make us grateful. To understand a crucifix from a Lutheran perspective is to recognize that it’s a lot like a sermon. The purpose of a crucifix is less a visual representation of the incarnate God than a form of preaching, albeit not an auditory but instead a visual one. Likewise, every auditory sermon is chock-full of vivid imagery.

MH: Do you agree that in the divine service, the greatest divide between our traditions is the regulative principle: “What is not commanded is forbidden” versus “What is not forbidden is allowed”?

MM: Yes, this is spot on in terms of describing the different attitudes between Lutherans and Reformed with respect to worship. No doubt the Scriptures offer patterns for various approaches to worship, such as praise to God or lament or confession or prayer. Likewise, the divine service has a long history stretching back to the synagogue. The Reformers’ goal was to purify the Mass. Luther retains the altar, for example, not because any sacrifice is being offered to God but instead because Christ as testator distributes his body and blood to the beneficiaries of his testament (Heb. 9:11–27). If I understand correctly, the Reformed more so than Lutherans are convinced that a specific pattern for worship is offered in the Scriptures. Lutherans do ground our liturgy in the Scriptures, of course—for instance, the LCMS Lutheran Service Book prooftexts each part of its liturgy. That said, the Lutheran liturgy is a revision of the mass purified of all sacrificial language about the Supper as well as prayers to saints and the like.

We should be cautious in thinking the Bible has a pattern or game plan for everything. No doubt, it does for doctrine and life. But thinking that it has an outline for every matter in worship can lead us astray. Restorationist groups like the Church of Christ, for example, have said that since instrumental music for accompanying worship is not explicitly specified in the New Testament, then in church we should only sing a cappella. In this regard, nineteenth-century American Lutheran theologian Charles Porterfield Krauth labeled Lutheranism as a “conservative reformation.” In principle, Lutherans have latitude in worship styles. In practice, this is the case if we compare worship in Ethiopia with that in Frankenmuth, Michigan. (Incidentally, the worship services of the conservative Presbyterian congregation and the Reformed Baptist congregation, in my Des Moines, Iowa, neighborhood are very similar to a conservative Lutheran worship service.) Be that as it may, and despite the recent rise of contemporary worship, the Lutheran instinct is to retain whatever is retainable from the Roman Mass.

Mike, can we shift gears once more and return to the overall question of aesthetics? Do you think there’s a connection between the importance of vocation and beauty?

MH: This is a great question, and I don’t hear it raised often enough. Our modern culture has narrowed beauty and aesthetics mostly to visual consumerism. What about “the beauty of holiness” (Ps. 96:9)? Of marriage and friendship, a meal shared, even a sorrowful but “precious” death in the Lord (Ps. 116:15)? We don’t have just one vocation. We’re children, siblings, spouses, parents, volunteers, and so forth. Even changing diapers can be a beautiful sort of performance art when you’re trying faintly to imitate the providence of a good Father who takes care of sparrows and knows the number of each person’s hairs.

MM: Embedded in my work is a critique of atheism. While atheists experience beauty, they have no rational basis for how to account for it. To their way of thinking, the experience of beauty does not correspond to anything in reality—because there is no God who is beauty—but instead is a happenstance product of purposeless evolution. Not only are secularists lacking with respect to objective truth in ethics, but likewise beauty. In such a secular environment that avoids questions of truth by reducing everything to power, is it fair to say that people today are left without a “chief end”? Might not Roger Scruton’s perspective (that beauty permits humans to feel “at home” in the world) be appropriated for sharing the gospel with people of all ages, especially young people?

MH: One of the reasons I encourage our readers to pick up your Luther’s Theology of Beauty is its apologetic relevance in our nihilistic age. At least in the last few centuries, Roman Catholics have done the heavy lifting in aesthetic theory (for example, Hans Urs von Balthasar) and practice (J. R. R. Tolkien). At the same time, there’s a Christocentric specificity in Luther that you highlight so well: not just a transcendent Beauty but a Mediator of all beauty in creation now present with us in the most concrete, accessible, and particular person of the incarnate Son crucified and raised for us. It is this sort of “apologetics of the cross” that connects with those who feel hopeless and abandoned by God.

MM: How might the cross shape a shared “Reformation” approach to aesthetics?

MH: You’ve written so beautifully on this, Mark. Lots of things come to mind, but I’ll mention only two. First, we’re in Christ so we can expect to follow him on the same trail: suffering and then glory. We live in a fallen world, we’re fallen, and so is everyone else. Corruption spreads to every domain, even to nature itself. If we assume that God expects us to smile all the time, then we need only look at Golgotha. There is God himself, in our flesh, ripped apart by our transgressions.

Sometimes Christian artists exhibit a triumphalist view of life: happy, upbeat, cheerful, like a Thomas Kinkade painting. But with a more biblical appreciation of the extent of the fall, we should be able to jibe with the horror, tragedy, and evil we can’t explain away. As Bono has said, the Bible’s songbook includes the blues: provocative lamentation that sometimes I feel awkward singing in church. Knowing how the story turns out, we don’t mourn like those without hope, but we do weep with Jesus at Lazarus’s tomb. The biblical account of original sin is big enough, broad enough, and deep enough to allow us to grieve with our neighbors whether it’s in their novels, screenplays, or music or just in their living room. Good art is neither a gratuitous celebration of depravity nor a dishonest suppression of the truth.

Second, at the cross, our sins were forgiven—including our failures in our vocations. By “what we have done and what we have left undone,” we have contributed our own ugliness to God’s beautiful creation. But “Father, forgive them!” (Luke 23:24) is the last word. At the cross, tragedy and comedy meet.


  • William A. Dyrness, The Origins of Protestant Aesthetics in Early Modern Europe: Calvin’s Reformation Poetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).

  • Martin Luther in Luther’s Works, vol. 40, Church and Ministry II, trans. Bernhard Erling and Conrad Bergendoff, ed. Conrad Bergendoff, general ed. H. T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958), 85 (hereafter LW).

  • LW 40:85–86.

  • John of Damascus, On Holy Images, trans. Mary H. Allies (London: Thomas Baker, 1898), 15–16.

  • LW 40:99–100.

  • LW 40:146.

  • See the Large Catechism in Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 388:20–21.

  • Kolb and Wengert, The Book of Concord, 1.11.3–4.

  • LW 73:263–64.

  • Jack D. Kilcrease, The Self-Donation of God: A Contemporary Lutheran Approach to Christ and His Benefits (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 120; see also “On the Divinity & Humanity of Christ,” LW 73:267.

  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.xi.3.

  • Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology, 2nd ed. (repr., Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1978).

  • Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 174–75.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Photo of Mark Mattes
Mark Mattes
Mark Mattes (PhD, The University of Chicago) serves as the Lutheran Bible Institute chair in theology as well as department chair at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Prior to this call, he served parishes in Illinois and Wisconsin. He is the author of several books, including Law and Gospel in Action (New Reformation Press, 2019) and Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Baker Academic, 2017). He serves as an associate editor of Lutheran Quarterly and a member of the Continuation Committee of the International Luther Congress.
Tuesday, January 9th 2024

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