Throughout the church’s history there have been those who have felt that any image attempting to portray God in the form of a statue or picture was improper and against God’s own Word. This disapproval with “images” in church portraying the divine reached a feverish pitch in the Eighth Century when Emperor Leo outright condemned the worshipful veneration of images and relics, starting a period of iconoclasm, literally, "image breaking.” For the next 60 years the controversy raged in the church, sometimes condemning the use of icons, sometimes condemning the act of destroying those same icons. In the last “ecumenical” council, Nicea 11(787), iconoclasm was finally condemned, allowing Christians once again to enjoy these images as proper aids in worship without fear of the church condemning their use as “idolatry.”
In Luther’s time the old controversy was once again renewed among those the reformers often referred to as the Schwaermer (The “Enthusiasts.”) These rather fanatical reformers supported the actual destruction of sacred art and image as the destruction of idolatrous objects. However, Luther did not support their actions and defended the use of statuary and other art to represent divine truths.
Luther: “We judge the indiscriminate expulsion in many places of the images even of Christ and the apostles to be not only barbarism but also a case of remarkable ignorance.. But, you ask, if the usefulness of pictures and images is so great, why did Moses and the prophets prohibit and condemn them with such emphasis? I reply: Moses and the prophets are speaking of images made for people to adore and to believe that through this adoration they rendered God religious service. [Ewald M. Plass, compiler. What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959, p. 298.]
Yet is it not true that the very first commandment in Exodus 20 reads that “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth...”? (vs.4) Yes, God did say these words. However, the word for “graven image” in the old King James Version can also be translated “idol” or “image.” The very next verse indicates that it is an “idol," or object of worship, that God was referring to when he also said: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God...”
Again Dr. Luther is helpful here. He writes:
We read of no instance in which God punished the Israelites because of images or altars except when they worshiped them. They kept the brazen serpent of Moses (Num. 2 1:8) until Hezekiah did away with it only because it was being worshiped (2 Kings 18. 4). In addition, I have a powerful proof text in Lev. 26:1: “Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image; neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land to bow down unto it; for I am the Lord your God” How now? I seems to me that God Himself here explains clearly enough that worshipping is His concern… That is why the “making” also in the First Commandment must look to the worshiping and no farther.
Luther further commented on the unique value of the image Christ as an aid to faith:
"I do not entirely reject images, chiefly not the figure of the crucified Christ. We have an image of Christ in the Old Testament, the brazen serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness, that all who had been bitten by the fiery serpents and looked at this brazen serpent should become well (Numbers 21). We, too, should do this. In order to become well in our souls, we should look at the crucified Christ and believe in Him. But when the Jews began to worship the serpent us God and did not consider ii a sign, pious Hezekiah came and tore it clown (2 Kings 18:4).
(Ibid, p. 299)
Dr. Luther obviously saw no problem with having statues or pictures of Christ in the church, or for that matter, of the apostles or other biblical figures. The key, he noted, is how they are received. If they are generally received in faith as objects assisting our worship of the only true God, then they are good. If they are used as objects to be worshiped themselves, this is wrong.
Which begs yet another question: If there is the danger that some might abuse these “images” in a way that is idolatrous, should we then take all images down lest such a mistake occur? Luther yet again makes a helpful observation. He notes that God has commanded us not to “lift our eyes unto the sun and other heavenly bodies in order to worship them,” and that “there are many people who worship the sun and the stars.” But then he adds: “Shall we, therefore, rashly attempt to pull the sun and the stars from the heavens? No we shall not do it. Furthermore, wine and women bring many a man to misery and make a fool of him. Shall we, therefore, kill all the women and pour out all the wine? Likewise, gold and silver cause much evil. Shall we, therefore, condemn them? Nay, if we wanted to drive away our worst enemy, who does us the most harm, we should have to kill ourselves; for we have no more injurious enemy that our own heart” (Ibid., p. 300)
Thus, the question regarding art in the church should not be “Is anyone using such a thing in an improper way?”, but “Is the church and its leaders encouraging us to use these things in an idolatrous fashion?” For there will always be people who use even the most innocent things in totally improper ways. But their abuse does not negate the possibility of their use. As the old Latin saying goes: Abusus non tolit usum, “abuse does not take away use.” In his Large Catechism Luther also repeats the saying "Abusus non tilit substantiam," or “The abuse does not destroy the essence but confirms it,” referring to an argument in favor of the efficacy of Baptism even when abused. He adds: “For gold is not less gold though a harlot wear it in sin and shame.” [Book of Concord. “On Infant Baptism.” (Concordia Triglotta, p. 747).] By extension we might say that a statue is no less proper and respectful in church even if someone should use it in an improper way in their own private hearts.
In the Lutheran Church art is always and merely “an aid” to direct our hearts and minds to the true worship of Jesus Christ, who is the very “image of the invisible God” (cf. John 14:9). For as the “invisible God” has become “visible” in the physical essence of His Son, so too do we direct worshipers to images that “reflect” that Truth.