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  • Matthew Fenn

"Holy Images Are Not Forbidden": Martin Luther against Iconoclasm

Updated: Apr 22


Crucifixion by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11

Sacred art has profoundly influenced both the arts and Christendom over 1500 years. However, its role in Christian worship and devotion, especially iconography and statuary, has been controversial. This divergence in views, as Martin Luther's response to Andreas Carlstadt's iconoclasm shows, is rooted in different confessions and beliefs.   


In the decade following Luther's writing of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517, the young Reformation movement faced internal opposition. While Luther was in hiding at Wartburg Castle, Wittenberg Reformers like Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt and others undertook local church reform. Carlstadt and Gabriel Zwilling led the Wittenberg Reformation, attacking images, changing communion practices, and promoting clerical marriage. Their actions, aligning with the radical "Zwickau prophets," spun Wittenberg into chaos, leading to mob violence against Roman Catholic symbols and practices.[i] Luther returned in March 1522 to restore order. Carlstadt was expelled from Wittenberg and felt the need to put his views into writing. Luther responded to this in December of 1525 with “Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments.”[ii]


Part of the historical background for this sixteenth century dispute was the eighth  and ninth-century Iconoclastic Controversy, a major theological dispute in the Eastern church, which centered on the use of religious icons. Emperor Leo the Isaurian initiated a fierce campaign against them, a position called iconoclasm. The debate focused on the appropriateness of venerating images of Christ and saints, and whether this violated the commandment in Exodus 20:4. Ultimately, the iconodule position, favoring icons, was affirmed by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. The council made a distinction between worship due to God and the honor or veneration appropriate for icons.[iii]   Luther's rejection of Carlstadt's iconoclasm and the things he says about images, as presented in "Against the Heavenly Prophets," both closely align with the perspectives of the eighth-century iconodules.

 

Are Images Prohibited in the Decalogue?

The Iconoclastic Controversy in the eighth century, which culminated with the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, was fought over four basic questions. First, "do icons violate the Commandment which forbids the making of images?"[iv] One cannot talk about images and their relationship to worship without encountering someone quoting the prohibition against graven images in Exodus 20:4. Luther was well aware of this Old Testament prohibition against idolatry. He knew his opponents were going to cite the Decalogue. Knowing this, he says 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!”[v] In relation to the prohibition of images in the Decalogue, specifically in Exodus 20, Luther asserts: “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.”[vi] And a little later Luther maintains that “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.”[vii]            


Luther, along with iconodules like John of Damascus and Theodore of Studium, understood the first commandment to be a reference, not to images in general, but to worshiping an idol.[viii] Luther summarizes, “it is because of worship that idols and figured stones are forbidden. It is without doubt so that they will not be worshiped, and where they are not worshiped they might well be set up and made. What would be the need otherwise of referring to bowing down? Therefore the ‘making’ in the first commandment must refer to worshiping and to no more.”[ix]


To counter the iconoclastic reading of Exodus 20:4, the iconodules noted many images that were sanctioned in the Old Testament.[x] Luther similarly notes, “for Joshua (Josh. 24[:26]) set up a cairn at Shechem under an oak as a testimony, etc., even though above in Lev. 26[:1] the setting up of such cairns was as strictly forbidden as the images. However, because it was a stone of testimony, and not for worship, he did not do this against the commandment. Thereafter also Samuel (I Sam. 7[:12]) set up a stone and called it Stone of Help. This was also forbidden, as has been said, but because no worship but only remembrance was intended, he did not sin.”[xi]

                         

Memorials and Honor

Luther also made the point that if things in the Old Testament stood as memorials and reminders, then why couldn't an image of the saving passion be drawn for a memorial or reminder? He states, “for in the first commandment nothing is said about worship. . . . Thus we have no example of punishment being inflicted on account of images and altars, but it has followed on account of worship. We read thus that Moses’s brazen serpent remained [Num. 21:8] until Hezekiah destroyed it solely because it had been worshiped [II Kings 18:4]. . . . But images for memorial and witness, such as crucifixes and images of saints, are to be tolerated. This is shown above to be the case even in the Mosaic law. And they are not only to be tolerated, but for the sake of the memorial and the witness they are praiseworthy and honorable, as the witness stones of Joshua [Josh. 24:26] and of Samuel (I Sam. 7[:12]).”[xii] Like the iconodules, Luther used this language of memorial and reminder also. “If one then can make and set up altars and special stones," he writes, "so that God’s commandment is not trespassed because worship is absent, then my image breakers must also let me keep, wear, and look at a crucifix or a Madonna, yes, even an idol’s image, in full accord with the strictest Mosaic law, as long as I do not worship them, but only have them as memorials.”[xiii] As we can see, both the iconodules and Luther were on the same page.


The eighth-century iconodules made a distinction between the honor one shows to the image for the sake of the beloved person it portrays, and the worship that is due only to God. It might be remembered here that Luther often talked negatively about the veneration of the saints. This is understandable, given the state of the late medieval piety to which he was responding. However, Luther did mention honoring the saints. He declares: “we rightly honor the saints when we recognize that they are held up before us as a mirror of the grace and mercy of God. For just as Peter, Paul, and other saints like us in body, blood, and infirmity, were made blessed by the grace of God through faith, so we are comforted by their example that God will look in mercy and grace on our infirmity, if we, as they did, put our trust in him, believe in, and call upon him in our infirmity. Honoring the saints, also, consists in exercising ourselves and increasing in faith and good works in a manner similar to what we see and hear they have done.”[xiv] We thus see yet another affinity between Luther and the iconodules.


In his Small Catechism, Luther says not only that creation is a gift from God but that God uses created things, (water, bread, wine, words), to save us.[xv] Luther also says that images can serve a didactic purpose, especially to the illiterate.[xvi] However, is that as far as Luther takes it? Can images be means of grace? He attests that "the custom of holding a crucifix before a dying person has kept many in the Christian faith and has enabled them to die with a confident faith in the crucified Christ.”[xvii] This is a curious claim for Luther, especially since he usually emphasizes the efficacy of the Word. He explains, “it was a pious thing to do when a certain monk in the agony of death cast aside all his traditions, took hold of the crucifix, and said: ‘Of what use are my works and merits and those of the entire world? It is His merits and works that I kiss, and I entrust myself to Him!’”[xviii] And similarly Luther states, “it is my opinion that many people in the monasteries and elsewhere believed and took hold of Christ, advancing to the point where they said: ‘Ah, my dear Lord Jesus Christ, Thou art my Savior!’ and despaired of their own holy life and good works. In that way, many were saved. It was a good practice to hold a wooden crucifix before the eyes of the dying or to press it into their hands. This brought the suffering and death of Christ to mind and comforted the dying.”[xix] Thus for Luther the crucifix served as a reminder of the Word. If it is rightly understood as a sign and type, then we can parse this according to the semiotics presented by Voelz.[xx] A crucifix stands as the signifier, the person and work of Christ on Calvary is the referent, and the forgiveness, life and salvation which is ours in him is the conceptual signified. Thus far from being something forbidden, an image can be a means of grace because it signifies the Word.


Luther, however, is famous for his rejection of the cult of relics. One would think that this is a big disagreement, and indeed it is. However, despite this, Luther in his comments on the burial of the patriarchs in Genesis notes that “the fathers decorated sepulchers magnificently. They did not throw away the dead like bodies of beasts, but they set up memorials of them for a perpetual reminder so that they might be testimonies of the future resurrection, which they believed and expected.”[xxi] Luther therefore believed that the dead should be shown respect and honor because of the hope of the resurrection.[xxii] Concerning tombs, he states that “such a place should properly be a decent, hallowed place, to be entered with trepidation and reverence because doubtlessly some saints rest there. It might even be arranged to have religious pictures and portraits painted on the walls.”[xxiii] So despite his rejection of the cult of relics, Luther does mention that the bodies of saints should be treated with honor and respect, and that their gravesites should serve as memorials.


Summary

Luther's stance, as articulated in "Against the Heavenly Prophets," suggests that the Decalogue's prohibition is limited to images that one worships. Luther, like the iconodules, cited the Old Testament's accounts of non-idolatrous imagery. He acknowledged the honor due to saints and the non-inherent evil of creation, emphasizing that God uses creation, including images like the crucifix, as mediums for conveying His Word. This view resonates with the historical iconodule perspective, which prevailed in the eighth and ninth-century Iconoclastic Controversy and was affirmed by the Second Council of Nicaea.

           

How does this discussion relate to modern Protestant Churches being afflicted by a lack of imagery?  This isn't merely a stylistic choice, a preference for stylistic minimalism. For how you worship is a confession of what you believe. As with Luther, we should see and use iconography and images, especially the crucifix, as devotional aids. (They do say a picture is worth a thousand words!)  The perspective of Luther and the iconodules demonstrate to us the need there is to recapture some of that love for iconography today.



[i] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 40: Church and Ministry II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and  Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 40 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 75. Needham, Nick. 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: Renaissance and Reformation. Newly revised edition. Vol. 3. (Scotland, U.K.: Christian Focus, 2016), 127-133.

[ii] LW 40:75-76

[iii] Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: The Middle Ages. Newly revised edition. Vol. 2. (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2016), 101-110.

[iv] Needham, The Middle Ages, 105.

[v] LW 40:85-86.

[vi] LW 40:86

[vii] LW 40:86

[viii] Needham, Middle Ages, 106.

[ix] LW 40:87

[x] Needham, The Middle Ages, 106.

[xi] LW 40:87

[xii] LW 40:87, 91

[xiii] LW 40:88

[xiv] LW 40:300, cf. Apology XXI.4-9

[xv] Small Catechism II.1; IV.9; etc. cf. Formula of Concord Article 1.

[xvi] Needham, The Middles Ages, 208.

[xvii] LW 22:147.

[xviii] LW 22:147 note 109

[xix] LW 23:360.

[xx] James W. Voelz, What Does This Mean? 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013), 88-94.

[xxi] LW 6:273

[xxii] LW 4:205

[xxiii] LW 43:137.



3 Comments


Wil Welch
Wil Welch
May 17

Thanks for this essay! It was very insightful, especially how a crucifix can be an aide to faith. I am not against images because of the imagery woven in the tabernacle, the cherubim on the mercy seat, and the bronze serpent. Luther’s examples from Joshua and 1 Samuel are interesting. The rich imagery of the Lamb as having been slain in Revelation 5 indicates that having imagery in a church building is not sinful. However, I am very opposed to the blatant idolatry of Rome and the East. Their claim that they do not “worship” images but only venerate them is highly suspect. Anyway, thank you for a very insightful piece, pastor Fenn!

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Nasif Schönitz
Nasif Schönitz
May 01

Thank you for this Article! I am somewhat new to opening myself to Christianity and it's denominations. I am looking forward to the next essays!

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Mark Rohfrietsch
Mark Rohfrietsch
Apr 22

Thanks Pastor, very well stated!

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