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Zwingli And Bullinger On Pictures Of Jesus

Zwingli And Bullinger On Pictures Of Jesus

Written by Grover E. Gunn |
Monday, November 22, 2021

Zwingli’s balanced moderation is especially commendable in light of the abuses against which Zwingli was reacting. The core of the popular piety in the western church shortly before the Reformation was a devotion to the cult of the saints combined with an insatiable appetite for sensuous forms of worship, especially worship through visual experiences.

Two of the Reformed champions of the second commandment and the regulative principle of worship are Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger. As a pastor at Zurich, Zwingli was the driving force behind the purging of images that were being abused as objects of worship in the city’s houses of worship. Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor at Zurich, later wrote the Second Helvetic Confession, which contains a clear and strong creedal condemnation of the idolatrous use of images in worship.

These were men of the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century, Ralph Erskine promoted the view that every possible visible representation of Jesus in His humanity is inherently an idolatrous moral abomination. He regarded a mental image of Jesus in His humanity as a form of atheism and referred to such images as vermin. We should not assume without evidence that this eighteenth century view was shared by sixteenth century champions of the regulative principle such as Zwingli and Bullinger.

Zwingli obviously didn’t share Erskine’s view as evidenced by the following statement in his 1525 work, An Answer to Valentin Compar: “No one is forbidden from having a portrait of the humanity of Christ.” Zwingli allowed such images with two restrictions: they should never be venerated, and they should never be put in any place designated for worship. Zwingli also cautioned that everyone “who now has the image of Christ in his house should take care that he not make it into an idol; for as we have already said, with us no pictures become idols faster than those of Christ.” Notice that Zwingli warned against making such an image into an idol. He did not label all such images as inherently idolatrous or necessarily idolatrous. An Answer to Valentin Compar contains Zwingli’s most extensive treatment of images, the one that he himself referred to as his “complete opinion” (Garside 1966, 162, 171, 179).

There is further evidence of Zwingli’s view on this question in an edition of Zwingli’s treatise on the Lord’s Supper published in Zurich in 1526. In the center of the title page is a box containing the book’s title and other publication information. To the left of the box is a drawing of Israelites collecting manna in the wilderness, and to the right of the box is a drawing of Jesus feeding the five thousand in another wilderness. Above the box is a drawing of what I take to be some Israelites standing around a Passover table, and below the box is a drawing of Jesus seated at a Passover table with the twelve disciples for the Last Supper (Dyrness 2004, 59–60; Zwingli, H. 1526b). The use of these drawings on the title page may have been the decision of the printer independent of the author. Another Zurich printer printed the same work in the same year without using this artwork (Zwingli, H. 1526a). Nevertheless, the title page art found in one Zurich printer’s 1526 edition of the book is consistent with what Zwingli had written earlier about visual representations of Jesus in His humanity. Also, this book was published in Zurich, the city where Zwingli had so much influence. The only departure from the realism of a historical scene in this title page art is the aura around Jesus’ head which symbolically alluded to His deity. Symbolically alluding to Christ’s deity is not the same as trying to depict the deity of Jesus, which is invisible and indepictable.

Zwingli’s balanced moderation is especially commendable in light of the abuses against which Zwingli was reacting. The core of the popular piety in the western church shortly before the Reformation was a devotion to the cult of the saints combined with an insatiable appetite for sensuous forms of worship, especially worship through visual experiences. In the early days of the Reformation, Zwingli commented:

Have we not all thought it a sacred thing to touch these images? Why have we imprinted kisses upon them, why have we bowed the knee, why have we paid a high price merely for a view of them? (Zwingli, H. 1981, 332).

Zwingli was pastor of the Great Minster church in Zurich from 1518 until his death in 1531. When he became the pastor, the church building contained some relics and many visual representations of Jesus, apostles, martyrs, and other departed saints, including Mary, the mother of Jesus. All of these items and even ornamental decorations were removed in the cleansing in 1524. The reason for removing even decorations was that all these items had long been integral parts of a larger system of false worship with a long history. The iconoclastic cleansing of the church buildings in Zurich removed all remnants and reminders of this comprehensive religious system which had defrauded the people for so long. The greater the fraud, the greater the reaction of the victims when they discover it. Therefore, even some of the ornamental decorations had to go.

One of the criteria for selecting what to remove in the Zurich cleansing is illustrated by some comments that Zwingli made about one image that was removed and another which was not. The Great Minster building had two images of Charlemagne, the king who long before had ordered the erection of the church building. One image was an altar painting of Charlemagne in a kneeling position, and the other image was a statue of Charlemagne seated on a throne in a niche high up in an exterior tower. Zwingli explained why one was purged and the other was allowed to stay:

We have had two great Charleses: the one in the Great Minster, which was venerated like other idols, and for that reason was taken out; the other, in one of the church towers, which no one venerates, and that one was left standing, and has caused no annoyance at al (Garside 1966, 150).

The criterion for purging that is here illustrated is functional abuse. The people had venerated the image with religious connotations that was located inside the church, but they had not venerated the image with secular connotations that was located high on the church’s exterior. The one that had been abused as an object of veneration was purged, and the other was allowed to stay. Thus decisions were sometimes made based on people’s attitude toward an object and the way they treated it.

Another illustration of this functional criterion in purging images is Zwingli’s attitude toward images that were in the sanctuary windows. Zwingli expressed tolerance of these because no one tended to worship them there.

Next after these I do not think those images should be disturbed which are put into windows for the sake of decoration, provided they represent nothing base, for no one worships them there. (Zwingli, H. 1981, 337).

Zwingli, an advocate and champion of iconoclasm in the sense of purging images from places of worship, was moderate regarding some non-cultic visual representations of Jesus in His humanity. A good summary of Zwingli’s balanced views on images is found in this statement from his 1523 work, A Brief Christian Introduction:

It is clear that the images and other representations which we have in the houses of worship have caused the risk of idolatry. Therefore they should not be allowed to remain there, nor in your chambers, nor in the market-place, nor anywhere else where one does them honour. Chiefly they are not to be tolerated in the churches, for all that is in them should be worthy of our respect. If anyone desires to put historical representations on the outside of the churches, that may be allowed, so long as they do not incite to their worship. But when one begins to bow before these images and to worship them, then they are not to be tolerated anywhere in the wide world; for that is the beginning of idolatry, nay, is idolatry itself (Jackson 1901, 208; Zwingli, H. 1984, cf. 2:70–71; Garside 1966, cf. 149–50).

Zwingli was killed in battle in 1531, and he was succeeded as the religious leader of Zurich by his close friend Heinrich Bullinger. One would expect Bullinger to continue the doctrines and practices of Zwingli, the martyred pastor. There is evidence of this in the Zurich church’s policy toward music in public worship. Under Zwingli’s influence, the church at Zurich removed all music from its public worship services. The church at Zurich did not resume singing in public worship until 1598, twenty-three years after Bullinger’s death.

In his book Zwingli and the Arts, Garside argues that Bullinger continued the legacy of Zwingli. As evidence of this, Garside shows the similarity of Bullinger’s language on images in the Second Helvetic Confession to some of the language on images which Zwingli used in his Commentary on True and False Religion and in An Answer to Valentin Compar. Yet Bullinger did have some statements in his confession that some might interpret as contrary to Zwingli’s position on visual representations of Christ in His humanity:

We do therefore reject not only the idols of the Gentiles, but also the images of Christians. For although Christ took upon him man’s nature, yet he did not therefore take it that he might set forth a pattern for carvers and painters. He denied that he came ‘to destroy the law and the prophets’ (Matt. v. 17), but images are forbidden in the law and the prophets (Dent. iv. 15; Isa. xliv. 9). He denied that his bodily presence would profit the Church, but promised that he would by his Spirit be present with us forever (John xvi. 7; 2 Cor. v. 5).

Who would, then, believe that the shadow or picture of his body doth any whit benefit the godly? .  .  .
But that men might be instructed in religion, and put in mind of heavenly things and of their own salvation, the Lord commanded to preach the Gospel (Mark xvi. 15) — not to paint and instruct the laity by pictures; he also instituted sacraments, but he nowhere appointed images
(Schaff 1977, 3:836–37).

Bullinger, however, does not here directly address the limited and restricted possibilities in which Zwingli allowed for certain visual representations of Jesus in His humanity. Also, there is nothing in the above which indicates that Bullinger would disagree with Zwingli’s position, nor is there reason to believe that Zwingli would disagree with what Bullinger wrote in the above. The purpose of the incarnation certainly was not for the Theanthropos to serve as a model for engravers and painters. Nor can pictures serve as a substitute for the reading, teaching and preaching of the Scriptures. There is nothing in Bullinger’s statements above that condemns as necessarily immoral all possible mental and artistic images based on the graphic descriptions of events involving Jesus that are found in the inspired gospel accounts.

In Common Places, Peter Martyr Vermigli expressed a view of visual representations of Jesus in His humanity that is similar to Zwingli’s view:

Now, as touching those images, which resemble things created, let us see how they may be suffered, or not suffered. And first of all, Christ cometh verie well to remembrance, in that he is man, for in that respect he may be resembled, painted out. For that is not against the nature of the thing, seeing he was verie man, neither against the art of painting, which may imitate bodies (Martyr 1583, 340 2.5.10).

Peter Martyr Vermigli also read and expressed agreement with the Second Helvetic Confession. I assume that he would have qualified his agreement if he had found any of the confession’s language contradictory to his own position on visual representations of Jesus in His humanity.

Dr. Grover Gunn is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of MacDonald PCA in Collins, MS.  This article is used with permission.

See also:
Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 109 and Representations of Deity

Peter Martyr and the Second Commandment


Works Cited

Dyrness, W. A. 2004. Reformation Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garside, C., Jr. 1966. Zwingli and the Arts. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.

Jackson, S. M. 1901. Huldreich Zwingli: The Reformer of German Switzerland 1484–1531. Heroes of the Reformation. New York, NY, and London: The Knickerbocker Press.

Martyr, P. 1583. The Common Places of the Most Famous and Renowned Divine Doctor Peter Martyr, Divided into Foure Principall Partes: With a Large Addition of Manie Theologicall and Necessariie Discourses, Some Never Extant Before. A. Marten. London: H. Denhad and H. Middleton.

Schaff, P. 1977. The Creeds of Christendom with a History and Critical Notes in Three Volumes. Vol.  3, The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Zwingli, H. 1526a. Ein Klare under Richtung vom Nachtmal Christi. Zurich: Cristoffel Froschouer.

———. 1526b. Ein Klare underrichtung vom Nachtmal Christi. Zurich: Hans Hager.

———. 1981. Commentary on True and False Religion. Editor S. M. Jackson and C. N. Heller. Curham, NC: The Labyrinth Press.

———. 1984. Huldrych Zwingli Writings. Vol. 2, In Search of True Religion: Reformation, Pastoral and Eucharistic Writings. H. W. Pipkin. Pittsburgh Theological Monographs. Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications.

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