Art for Whose Sake?

“You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (v. 2).

- Exodus 28

Iconoclasm—the removal, even destruction of images in the church—has a long history in the Reformed tradition, despite the fact that not all of the magisterial Reformers were committed iconoclasts. Luther’s appreciation of art in the sanctuary is well known, but even John Calvin did not believe all art violated the second commandment. Although Calvin, for good reasons, is often regarded as an iconoclast, he did hold that visual depictions of biblical and historical events could be useful for teaching as long they did not try to depict the divine form (Institutes 1.11.12). It seems that his views on images were largely conditioned by the need to help those newly liberated by the gospel to focus on the gospel.

Although the right preaching of the Word of God must be the primary emphasis of the church, we should not think that aesthetic beauty in the liturgy and the worship setting is insignificant to the Lord. Certainly, an overemphasis on ritual at the expense of the gospel can result in a dead formalism, which Scripture warns us against repeatedly. Jeremiah, for example, rebuked the people for trusting in their possession of the temple and not the Creator (Jer. 7:3–4). Yet, he never ordered Israel to give up its beautiful temple. God gave the blueprints for the aesthetic beauty of the temple and tabernacle (Ex. 25–30); thus, visual beauty is a good thing.

We, as new-covenant believers, should not forget that temple worship anticipated the work of Jesus the Messiah (Heb. 9:1–10:18). Still, God made the temple and its worship to be beautiful in itself. Even the priests’ garments were designed “for beauty” (Ex. 28:2).

We can never escape from imagery in our worship. This is true even in “plain” sanctuaries, which lack paintings or stained glass and use white walls to evidence simplicity in worship. But every form is an art form, and every art form communicates something.

Consequently, using art to adorn the sanctuary is not itself the problem. We err only when we elevate the arts at the expense of the gospel. Beautiful images have a proper place in the worship setting, but we can never exalt them over the pure teaching of the Word of God.

Coram Deo

Whether or not you agree that images have a place in our sanctuaries and church buildings, it is important to be aware of what is being communicated by the design of your church. The walls of our places of worship tell us much about what we believe is important to God and what we should esteem as well. Let us not be oblivious to how the art, or lack thereof, communicates things to us, especially in the setting of corporate worship.

Passages for Further Study

Exodus 26
Numbers 21:4–9
2 Kings 18:1–8
Revelation 21:9–21

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.