Idolatry Laws? A Reformation Debate 

5 Oct 2022

Should the government make laws against idolatry? 

A survey of the Reformation Debate

God says that you shall do it [i.e., remove images from churches]. You shall overturn and overthrow their altars. You shall smash their images. Their groves you shall hack down and their graven images you shall burn (Deut. 7[:5]). We have no divine altars, but rather heathen or human ones, as is pointed out in Exodus 20[:4]. Therefore, Christians should remove them in accord with the content of Scripture, irrespective of the fact that they are external things.[1] - Andreas von Karlstadt, 1522. 

Karlstadt is noted by historians to have birthed iconoclasm in the Reformation Era. He was not only the first one to release significant works on the condemnation of religious images, but was known for being the voice behind many violent movements that sought to purge Europe from Roman catholic icons. Not all the reformers approved of his means, yet Karlstadt’s influence can be found in the key figures of the European Reformation. How was he able to release such radical statements, as well as gain the support of countless Protestants? His justification was not conjured from thin air. This essay will demonstrate that the Protestant Reformation was largely characterised by a sharp antagonism toward religious images. Martin Luther, Andreas Karlstadt, and John Calvin, offered distinct ways of thinking about this conviction, setting the stage for reformed belief and action in Germany, England Scotland, and the Netherlands. While iconoclasm contained varying degrees of support, and sparked various internal debates, reformers agreed that the use of images in worship was contrary to the Christian religion.  


The emergence of iconoclasm in Europe took place within the context of a shift in religious authority. Prior to Luther, the Roman church, with the Pope at its head, was considered to be the ultimate source of authority in both secular and religious matters. It was widely believed that ‘the pope… cannot err in matters of faith’[2]; thus, when Luther began to publicly criticise papal authority, many flocked to the opportunity to take charge of their own religious beliefs. By the time Luther defiantly proclaimed, ‘my conscience is held captive to the word of God’,[3] it was clear that there had been a fundamental shift in what was considered authoritative for the everyday Christian. Serving God no longer meant following the Roman church, but rather involved submission to Scripture alone. It was under this premise that debate over religious ideas took place. 


Already after his 95 theses against indulgences, Luther had gained many supporters who strongly desired to bring the Bible to the common people. Among them was Andreas von Karlstadt, who in 1519, joined Luther to debate Johann Eck about the authority of the church.[4] In many ways, Erasmus, although not going as far as rejecting the church’s authority, shared Luther’s vision to bring religion to the everyday man.[5] Through Erasmus’ scholarly re-examination of the original biblical languages, and Luther’s German Bible translation, the German people were now able to, like the Bereans in the New Testament, test ‘all by the Scriptures’.[6] Renaissance humanism had equipped the public with the necessary skills required to understand Scripture, and now, with the invention of the printing press, access to the Bible and Luther’s works was uninhibited. By 1525, the German people formulated the Twelve Articles which could only be changed ‘provided it is so explained to us on grounds of Scripture’,[7] demonstrating that religious authority had in fact shifted from the Roman church to the Bible. This wording conveys that: in order to influence and compel people to action, secular argumentation was inadequate. One must primarily appeal to Scripture. 


It is within this context that Andreas Karlstadt’s prejudice against religious images should be understood. In his 1522 work On the Removal of Idols, Karlstadt argued for their destruction by appealing to Scripture. While there may be around ten separate arguments that Karlstadt employs, his essay consists of three primary ideas.  


Firstly, he argues that images of Jesus violate the first of the 10 commandments found in the Old Testament. Exodus 20:4 explains that creating images of God is idolatry (false worship) and God ‘considers them [images] an abomination.'[8] Since the papists venerate images of Christ, who is God (the second person of the trinity), they do ‘violence to Scripture’ by this ‘evil custom’.[9] Karlstadt is careful to demonstrate through biblical narrative's that: even if Rome did not worship the images themselves but the true God, any image present in worship is still idolatry.[10]


Secondly, Karlstadt does a survey through the Bible examining: Old Testament narratives (including the ones used by Rome to justify images)[11], dialogue between God and the prophets[12], and New Testament examples[13] – in order to demonstrate that the Bible undoubtedly teaches that God hates religious images. He explains that the New Testament writings of the Bible contain explicit warnings against images, particularly by Paul,[14] and that even Bishop Epiphanius of the early church recognised that an image of Christ on cloth was against God’s law.[15] In this section, it is also notable that Karlstadt does not believe that images are advantageous in any way. He states that an image of Christ hanging on the cross teaches ‘about his body, his beard, his wounds. Of the power of Christ they teach nothing at all.’[16]  Karlstadt appeals to a thorough analysis of the biblical texts, frequently reminding his hearers of a common theme: God condemns and punishes those who venerate images.  


Finally, Karlstadt ends his work by explaining how it is the Christian’s duty to destroy images, exhorting his listeners to take immediate action. He writes, ‘I want and shall say to all pious Christians that all those who stand in awe before pictures have idols in their hearts.’[17] In other words, by not being antagonistic toward images, the Christian is just as guilty of idolatry, than if he were to personally worship them. The implications were clear: either you obey God who will reward and vindicate you for obeying the first commandment,[18] or risk divine punishment and death.[19] Karlstadt concludes his work with a commandment of his own – ‘You shall smash their images’[20]– that carried the weight of God’s authority.  


It is important to note that Karlstadt and his followers, were not merely expressing a baseless hatred toward religious art, but were compelled to action by biblical argumentation.[21] Karlos Eire was justified in claiming, ‘there is little doubt that the principal cause of popular iconoclasm in the Reformation was religion.’[22] Some have suggested that Karlstadt was simply the catalyst for radicals, like the leader of the Peasants Revolt, Thomas Mutzer, to justify revolution. While there may be some truth to this, there is no reason to believe that iconoclasm was just another excuse to overthrow the Roman church's grip on Europe, as opposed to being a sincere expression of Christian obedience. Despite, the fact that the reformers were united in their opposition to papal tyranny, not all agreed with Karlstadt’s iconoclasm. 


It was in Against the Heavenly Prophets Luther expressed his denouncement of Karlstadt and his iconoclastic movement. Unlike his former colleague, Luther was not openly hostile toward religious images, but to the contrary, was fond of the bible illustrations produced by his good friend Lucas Cranach.[23] Andrew Pettegree writes, ‘Luther would have no sympathy for calls for root-and-branch reform which involved the destruction of much of what he cherished in the fabric of the old church.’[24] Both Luther’s friendship with Cranach, and the desire to preserve the fabric of the old church, historians can better understand the motivation behind the forward language employed in Luther's public denouncement of Karlstadt. Luther went as far as to label the iconoclastic reformer a Roman catholic,[25] accusing Karlstadt of attempting to gain God’s favour through the destruction of images. The defining feature of Protestantism is the tenet that it is impossible to gain God’s favour through religious works, but rather, it is faith that one is made right with God. Luther implied, by calling him a Roman catholic, that Karlstadt was an enemy of the Reformation.  


There are several ways Against the Heavenly Prophets undermines Karlstadt’s arguments, and as expected, Luther’s primary method of argument is by Scripture. While Karlstadt believed that the ten commandments were considered binding for Christians, Luther believed that all the Old Testament commandments were fulfilled in Christ, and thus did not carry with it the weight of obligation Karlstadt implied.[26] Further, Luther thought that God’s main concern in the first commandment was that people would bow down and worship images. While Luther agreed that they could become objects of worship, he did not think that the mere existence of images would necessarily lead to false worship.[27] He thought that the way someone avoided idolatry was not through the removal of images, but rather it was achieved removing the inclination to worship them in one’s heart. Luther summarised this, ‘For when they are no longer in the heart, they can do no harm when seen with the eyes. But Dr. Karlstadt, who pays no attention to matters of the heart, has reversed the order by removing them from sight and leaving them in the heart.’[28] Finally, Luther was frustrated with the destruction of all religious art. Appearing to be unrecognised by Karlstadt’s destructive followers, the first commandment only forbids images of God and Christ; not all religious art.[29]


Although he disagreed with Karlstadt about the theological nuances expressed in the Bible, Luther still considered images of Christ to be contrary to the Christian religion. He did not address much of what Karlstadt wrote in On the Removal of Idols, suggesting that he did not find all of his opponent’s arguments invalid. Luther states, ‘I have allowed and not forbidden the outward removal of images’, and further, ‘Nor would I condemn those who have destroyed them [images], especially those who destroy divine and idolatrous images.’[30] If Luther really thought that images of God were not forbidden by Scripture, it would make little sense as to why he did not always condemn their destruction. Especially considering that Luther did not have any problem condemning other practices done by reformers that he found contrary to Scripture, as seen in his denouncement of Karlstadt, and his criticisms of the Peasants Revolt in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Instead, he argued in favour of the destruction of images, but in a very different way, Christians were to ‘destroy them with the Word of God’.[31] Conclusively, just because Luther differed in his interpretation of the ten commandments, he was united with the other reformers in his attitude; idolatry and the use of images in worship is contrary to the Christian religion.  


If the iconoclasm debate can be classified as an internal disagreement among reformers, why did Luther so vehemently oppose Karlstadt and his followers? The key contrast between Luther and his contemporaries appears when examining their philosophies of reform. Throughout the Reformation, Luther consistently appealed to the Bible, which teaches, in Romans 13, that Christians were to be subject to the governing authorities. Civil unrest, rioting, looting, and violence characterised revolution, not reformation. The way change was to come about was through argumentation and debate over Scripture, and by writing letters to those in authority, entreating them to follow God’s word.[32] It is evident that the Bible did not only defined the goals of reformation, but also the means which reform was to occur. For Karlstadt, Romans 13 was still applicable, however, Christians only had to obey governing authorities if, and only if, they were deemed legitimate. Any authority which was influenced by the papacy did not meet this criterion. The philosophy of reform envisioned by the radicals advocated for the forceful conformity of everything in society to biblical standards, irrespective of the consequences. This contrasts with Luther, whose Augustinian influence led him to believe that the forceful conformity of religion would be ultimately unsuccessful until Christ’s return.[33] By comparing their philosophies of reform, historians can understand why Karlstadt felt justified in his violent looting and burning of images, while Luther, still being against idolatry, did not support the iconoclastic movement. 


The debate between Luther and Karlstadt laid the groundwork for the attitude toward religious images throughout the Reformation. Compelled by biblical argumentation, Protestants such as Zwingli and Calvin exhibited a sharp antagonism toward religious images. In 1524, Zurich, under the influence of Zwingli, made the decision to take all religious images from churches.[34] This top-down approach to the removal of idols occurred in the manner Luther advocated; by magisterial decree. On the other hand, the anabaptists took after Karlstadt, violently conforming their communities to the Bible by destroying art, and churches, and killing papists who they labelled heretics.[35] In 1527, some Lutherans, who had clearly adopted Karlstadt’s philosophy of reform, ransacked Rome killing around 23,000 residents.[36] Although some sided with Luther, and others with Karlstadt, virtually all Protestants thought that images of God were contrary to the Bible. It was what reformers did with that belief, which changed outcomes by various degrees. 


John Calvin represented the bridge between Luther and Karlstadt. Geneva, the heart of Calvin’s Reformation, had a history that reflected both sides of the debate. For a long period, Protestants violently seized Roman catholic churches, destroying images according to the iconoclastic tradition. Eventually, however, the leadership made a democratic decision according to Luther's proposed philosophy of reform. In 1536, Geneva officially adopted Protestantism, removing all images from churches.[37] Calvin, who three months later became immersed within this Genevan context, laid out a fresh way to consider religious images. Like any Protestant compelled by the Bible, he strongly preached against images. Nevertheless, he never endorsed Karlstadtian iconoclasm.[38]


In a chapter 11-12 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin, like Karlstadt, argued that Exodus 20:4 forbids images of God. Similarly, he contended that ‘the public worship that God once prescribed [the decalogue] is still in force’,[39]  and that the ten commandments were morally binding for Christians. Calvin rejected the Augustinian division of the ten commandments familiar to Karlstadt and Luther, in favour of the Origen division that considered the prohibition of images to be a separate law.[40] Hence, making images was a violation of the second commandment (instead of the first) and somewhat distinct from the prohibition of idolatry.[41] Nevertheless, he proposed and extended many of Karlstadt’s arguments in detail, claiming that any use of images was ‘contrary to Scripture’.[42] Finally, Calvin admitted that toleration of images could cause weaker consciences to commit idolatry,[43] and heavily criticised the Roman catholic church for their practices.[44] Even though he was closer to Karlstad in theology, Calvin sided with Luther in his philosophy of reform. On one occasion, his similarities to Luther were demonstrated when he rebuked one of his followers, proclaiming that ‘God never commanded anyone to overthrow idols, except every man in his own house, and, in public, those whom he has armed with authority.’[45] Although his followers in the Netherlands were known for forcefully removing images, Calvin himself strongly believed it was the ‘duty of the magistrate to remove images from the church’.[46]


The Reformation in Scotland, the Netherlands, and England can be neatly categorised as being under the three views of either John Calvin, Andreas Karlstadt, or Martin Luther. In Scotland, the iconoclast movement was led by Calvin’s theological child John Knox. As the Reformation took the land, many instances of iconoclasm can be noted, particularly the infamous ransack of St. Andrew’s city.[47] Knox was known for his fiery sermons, thus, whenever he preached against idols, violent riots often occurred.  On the other hand, when Knox preached, he never explicitly incited the mob to violence, nor was he ever present at a riot. He did, however, unlike Calvin, fail to condemn the iconoclasts. On one occasion he wrote that ‘no… people should be troubled for their recent destruction of idolatry.’[48] The Netherlands proved to be Europe’s greatest expression of Karlstadtian iconoclastic thought. In 1566 twenty-five thousand gathered to hear iconoclastic preaching. Immediately after, 30 churches were pillaged in just two days.[49] The Dutch reformers quickly adopted the Heidelberg Catechism the year of its release[50] – an official outline of the Christian faith – which stated in Q.A 98, that images of God should not be made, used, or tolerated.[51] In England, reformers destroyed statues of the crucified Christ. Queen Elizabeth, however, identified with Luther’s conservative approach and banned the unlawful destruction of images, going as far as executing iconoclasts who mutilated public art.[52] Reformer’s iconoclastic tendencies varied depending on whether they agreed with Calvin’s, Karlstadt’s or Luther's theological commitments. Despite this, the broader European Reformation demonstrated that Protestants were unanimously against images of God, since they were contrary to the Bible, and thus, action was required in some form or another.


In conclusion, beginning when Scripture replaced the authority of the church, Protestant Germany, England, Scotland and the Netherlands changed its perspective on religious art. The Reformation was largely characterised by strong emotions which mostly led to the destruction of Christian images. While theological differences emerged, the manner that reform was to take place, was the main divide between Luther and his contemporaries. Karlstadt was responsible for outlining biblical justification for Iconoclastic action. Calvin developed a third perspective, taking Karlstadt’s theology, and Luthers philosophy of reform. Nevertheless, Protestant Christianity as a whole taught that images were contrary to the Bible. These views of the three reformers, Luther, Karlstadt and Calvin, structured and dictated how iconoclasm would manifest in Europe.



[1] Andreas Karlstadt, ‘Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt Argues against Images’, In The Reformation to the Thirty Years War, 1500-1648, Vol.1 (1522). p.15., accessed May 11 2022.

[2] Martin Luther, ‘Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, 1520’, Adolph Spaeth, and Henry Jacobs eds., Henry Jacobs trans., In Works of Martin Luther: With Introductions and Notes Volume II (Pennsylvania, 1943), p.143.

[3] Martin Luther, ‘Luther and Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms (1521)’, In the Reformation to the Thirty Years War (1500-1648),, accessed May 14 2021.

[4] Robert Kolb, ‘Martin Luther and the German Nation’, In Blackwell Companions to European History: A Companion to the Reformation World, (2006),, accessed May 11 2021.

[5] Carl Meyer, ‘Erasmus on the Study of Scriptures’, In Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. XL, No. 11 (1969) p.741.

[6] G.R. Elton, ‘Germany on the eve of the Reformation’ In HTA378 History in Focus Unit Reader (2022), Tutorial 9, p.11.

[7] ‘The Memmingen Articles, 1525’ In HTA378 History in Focus Unit Reader (2022), Tutorial 9, p.20.

[8] Andreas Karlstadt, ‘Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt Argues against Images’, In The Reformation to the Thirty Years War, 1500-1648, Vol.1 (1522). p.2., accessed May 11 2022.

[9] Ibid., p.4

[10] Ibid., pp.3, 11.

[11] Ibid., p.8.

[12] Ibid., pp.8-9.

[13] Ibid., p.10.

[14] Ibid., p.17.

[15] Ibid., p.7.

[16] Ibid., p.16.

[17] Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, ‘Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt Argues against Images’, In The Reformation to the Thirty Years War, 1500-1648, Vol.1 (1522). p.14., accessed May 11 2022.

[18] Ibid., p.16.

[19] Ibid., p.11.

[20] Ibid., p.17.

[21] Andreas Karlstadt, ‘Against Images, 1522’ in HTA378 History in Focus Unit Reader (2022), Tutorial 9, p.23.

[22] Carlos M. N. Eire, ‘Iconoclasm as a Revolutionary Tactic: The Case of Switzerland’, In Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, 4 (1983), p. 88.

[23] Martin Luther, ‘Luther on Images’, In Wolfgang Stechow’s, Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600, Sources and Documents (1966), p.129.

[24] Andrew Pettegree, ‘Luther and the Arts’, In The Reformation World (2002), p.461.

[25] Carlos Eire, ‘Early Reformers and the Question of Idolatry’, In War against the idols; the reformation of worship from Erasmus to Calvin (1986), p.69.

[26] Ibid., p.70.

[27] Ibid., p.60.

[28] Martin Luther, ‘Luther on Images’, In Wolfgang Stechow’s, Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600, Sources and Documents (1966), p.130.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Martin Luther, ‘Luther on Images’, In Wolfgang Stechow’s, Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600, Sources and Documents (1966), p.130.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Carlos Eire, ‘Early Reformers and the Question of Idolatry’, In War against the idols; the reformation of worship from Erasmus to Calvin (1986), p.71.

[33] Paul Althaus. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Trans. Robert C. Shultz, (1972), p. 46.

[34] Andrew Pettegree, ‘Luther and the Arts’, In The Reformation World (2002), p. 484

[35] Harold Grimm, ‘New Forms of Protestantism’, In The Reformation Era 1500-1650 (2002), p.217.

[36] Graham Dixon, ‘Apocalypse’, In Renaissance (1999), p. 212.

[37] Harold Grimm, ‘The Emergence of Calvinism’, In The Reformation Era 1500-1650 (2002) p.267.

[38] Andrew Pettegree, ‘Luther and the Arts’, In The Reformation World (2002), p. 484.

[39] John Calvin, ‘Chapter XIII: Explanation Of The Moral Law (The Ten Commandments)’, In Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Book 2, 2.8.1 (2006), p.367

[40] Neil R. Leurox, ‘"In the Christian City of Wittenberg": Karlstadt's Tract on Images and Begging’, In The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2003), p.77.

[41] P. Collinson, ‘The Reformation’, In HTA378 History in Focus Unit Reader (2022), Tutorial 9, p. 38.

[42] John Calvin, ‘Chapter XI: It is Unlawful to Attribute a Visible Form to God, and Generally Whoever Sets Up Idols Revolts Against the True God’, In Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Book 1, 1.11.4 (2006), p.103.

[43] Andrew Pettegree, ‘Luther and the Arts’, In The Reformation World (2002), p. 484

[44] John Calvin, ‘Chapter XI: It is Unlawful to Attribute a Visible Form to God, and Generally Whoever Sets Up Idols Revolts Against the True God’, In Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Book 1, 1.11.4 (2006), p.111.

[45] Andrew Lang, ‘Chapter X: Knox And The Scottish Revolution’, In John Knox and the Reformation, 1559 (2004),

[46] Andrew Pettegree, ‘Luther and the Arts’, In The Reformation World (2002), p. 484

[47] Ibid.

[48] Andrew Lang, ‘Chapter X: Knox And The Scottish Revolution’, In John Knox and the Reformation, 1559 (2004),

[49] P. Collinson, ‘The Reformation’, In HTA378 History in Focus Unit Reader (2022), Tutorial 9, p. 39.

[50] ‘The Heidelberg Catechism’, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (2016), p.1., accessed on May 16 2022.

[51] Ibid., p.34.

[52] P. Collinson, ‘The Reformation’, In HTA378 History in Focus Unit Reader (2022), Tutorial 9, p. 38.