The Faulty Hermeneutic of the Huguenots, Iconoclasts, and Advocates of the Regulative Principle

The Regulative Principle attracts attention every now and again in the few circles among which this notion is popular. Dr. R. Scott Clark (for whom I have great respect) recently highlighted "The Regulative Principle Is The Fundamental Principle Of Protestantism," with which I disagree, quoting John L. Girardeau (1825-1898): "Here, then, we have the principle tinctured with the blood of our Puritan, Covenanter and Huguenot forefathers -- that which is not commanded, either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures, is prohibited to the church." I appreciate what seems like a Word-centered measure by which our worship is to be approved.

Question: If the scriptures, "as the word of Christ, are the complete and ultimate rule of faith and duty" (link), yet they do not perfectly outline and command every minutiae of how we are to worship God in Christ by His Spirit -- nor have the scriptures warranted the impetus demanded by the Regulative Principle itself -- then how can any Christian advocate the Regulative Principle using its own standards? In one place Jesus says that true worshipers are to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Well, what does that mean? Who is privileged to decide what that means? Proponents of the Regulative Principle? We continue to see and have historically seen such faulty and indefensible methods of interpretation.

When members of ISIS began smashing ancient artifacts at Mosul's central museum, their motivation was stated as, "These statues and idols, these artifacts, if God has ordered its removal, they became worthless to us even if they are worth billions of dollars." (link) Journalist Ed Simon of Religion Dispatches noted in his piece, "ISIS is the Islamic 'Reformation'," similarity between the Muslim extremists of ISIS, in the bringing about of a new reformation for Islam, and the Calvinistic Huguenots and other iconoclasts of the sixteenth century, also aggressively bringing about reformation.

Simon explains the motivation supporting sixteenth-century Iconoclasm as being "a literal interpretation of the Decalogue's prohibition on graven images." (link) I view the matter differently: Iconoclasts did not interpret the Decalogue literally; they misinterpreted, and even overinterpreted, like advocates of the Regulative Principle, the scriptures and created for themselves a faulty hermeneutic by which they interpreted all other passages on the matter. In what sense did they misinterpret the second commandment?

The passage reads: "You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them ..." (Ex. 20:4, 5a NABRE, emphasis added). Verse 4 is qualified and explained in verse 5, continuing the main thought: "you shall not bow down before them or serve [i.e., worship] them." In other words, this passage is not forbidding the crafting or creating of images; God's command is that we not craft an image in order to then bow down to and worship or serve that image.

This much should be obvious, given God's own commands to the crafting of images in the design of the ark of the covenant and the Temple. Mind you, many of these iconoclasts rejected the wearing of vestments, also, when God Himself commanded the creating and wearing of beautiful vestments: "For the glorious adornment of your brother Aaron you shall have sacred vestments made." (Ex. 28:2) One would imagine that those who hold strictly to the Regulative Principle would recognize when a tradition was and was not being biblical and obedient to the commands of God. God even endowed artisans with skill for the creating of beautiful and elaborate vestments (Ex. 28:3).

But God also endowed certain men to the crafting of images and designs. Bezalel, for example, was filled with the Spirit of God for "skill and understanding and knowledge in every craft: in the production of embroidery, in making things of gold, silver, or bronze, in cutting and mounting precious stones, in carving wood, and in every other craft." (Ex. 31:3, 4, 5) Is God contradicting Himself here? Has He, according to the faulty hermeneutics of iconoclasts, commanded we not construct any image whatsoever and then endowed certain people with the skill of constructing images?

God Himself commanded the Israelites to construct the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:10-17). He then instructed them to make "two cherubim of gold, to make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat." (Ex. 25:18) Crafting cherubim would have been making "a likeness of anything in the heavens above," which was forbidden at Exodus 20:4, that is, if we accept the faulty hermeneutic of iconoclasts.


When God gave instructions to the building of the Temple to Solomon, He commanded the construction of cherubim (1 Kings 6:23-28), as well as the walls of the Temple to have "carved engravings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers" (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 35), the latter two being a likeness of anything "on the earth below," which was forbidden at Exodus 20:4, that is, if we accept the faulty hermeneutic of iconoclasts. God is not being inconsistent: the Huguenots, Iconoclasts, and advocates of the Regulative Principle are misinterpreting Scripture. The second commandment forbids idolatry, not artistry.

Under the leadership of John Calvin, Reformed Protestantism "confirmed the iconoclastic attitude as part of their confessional profile."1 Early Lutheran advocates, however, maintained a rather "ambivalent attitude to the challenge of religious art."2 However, Luther's former colleague, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, adopted an extremist view against any and all images.3 A wooden cross on any modern Baptist or Methodist church, for example, would have incited the ire of Karlstadt, leading him to charge the worshipers as idolaters. Luther disagreed.

The purpose of the Ten Commandments was the establishing of a relational covenant between God and His people, and was not a strictly legal code. "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Ex. 20:2) begins the intimate covenant that God initiated with the people who would be called by and carry the Name of YHWH. Michael Grisanti comments:
This preface or prologue generally describes the past dealings of the parties of the treaty. In this passage, the prologue demonstrates that God did not deliver his covenant demands to Israel in a vacuum, but in the context of an intimate relationship, clearly evidenced by his surpassing character and abundant activity on Israel's behalf. His gift of the law was preceded by an act of love and grace. He gave these covenant demands to a people with whom he had already established a relationship, not as a means to enter that relationship (which always was and is "by faith").4
Having delivered His people out of Egyptian bondage, which included a polytheistic context, God tells His people: "You shall not have other gods beside me." (Ex. 20:3) If they were to truly be God's people, then they must forsake all other conceptions of other gods, since, really, there is only one God. Again, Grisanti writes, "These covenant demands give concrete direction to Israel's relationship with God. They were to obey these stipulations, not purely for the sake of obedience, but to demonstrate the character of the Lord to the surrounding nations (Exod. 19:4-6; Deut. 26:16-19)."5

He then commands His people: "You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth" (Ex. 20:4), as was practiced in Egypt; "you shall not bow down before them or serve [i.e., worship] them" (Ex. 20:5). In this ancient culture, and even in some modern cultures, the crafting of images conjure notions of power and providence. But God cannot be reduced "to something that could be managed for the self-satisfaction of the one who fashions the idol."6 Nor does God reside spiritually in the image crafted, so that one should either bow down, pay homage or pray to the image.

That iconoclasts missed the mark of a proper interpretation of Exodus 20:2 is further complicated by its restrictive framework regarding the nature of idolatry itself. Jacob Arminius, for example, contextualizes idolatry not merely as "service rendered to an idol," but even to a false conception of the nature and character of God in the mind.7 Moreover, a person may be self-deceived into thinking that he or she is not worshiping a false deity when, in fact, the individual may be guilty of overt idolatry.8

For Arminius, religious statues and ornaments become idolatrous when such are adored, prayed to, bowed down to, relied upon or viewed as some tangible extension or explicit expression of the nature of God or of godly realities.9 Luther before him agreed.10 But to suggest that God has forbidden that any image be crafted or created in any sense whatsoever is to misunderstand His original intent in the command, to overinterpret the words in the command itself, and to neglect the fact that idolatry begins in the heart, or the mind, and is in need of no image for its employment.


1 Iconoclasm from Antiquity to Modernity, eds. Kristine Kolrud and Marina Prusac (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2014), 108.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 108-09.

4 Michael Grisanti, "The Ten Commandments," in The Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook, eds. J. Daniel Hays and J. Scott Duvall (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 74. See also Robert P. Gordon, "Exodus," in The International Bible Commentary with the New International Version, ed. F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 170; and Holman Bible Handbook, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 148.

5 Grisanti, 74.

6 Elaine Phillips, "Exodus," in The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, eds. Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), 69.

7 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XXIII. On Idolatry," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:290.

8 Ibid., 2:291.

9 Ibid., 2:295-302.

10 Iconoclasm from Antiquity to Modernity, 109.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.