Luther’s Judgment On Images

With regard to Luther’s judgment on images, we are not in the dark. In his report to his confidant Nikolaus Hausmann on the situation he found in Wittenberg, he was unambiguous: “Damno imagines.” The elimination of images, however, should be brought about by means of a consensus grounded in the faith. As far as the intended action goes, Luther’s posture was in 1522 appears no different from the position Erasmus had counseled six years earlier—images should be tolerated until they can be removed sine tumultu. On March 17, having just arrived from the Wartburg, he summarized his strategy on images this way: “They would fall of themselves if people were taught and knew that before God symbols are nothing.11

11 “Sponte sua caderent, si populus institutus scieret eas nihil esse coram deo.” To Nikolaus Hausmann, WABr 2 (No. 459), lines 23&ndashl24. Translation: LW 48, 401.

—Heiko A. Oberman, The Two Reformations: The Journey From the Last Days to the New World, ed. Donald Weinstein (New Haven: Yale University Press), 89.

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  1. This sounds like a keeper, but I need clarification. I don’t know Latin, but I think I know what “Damno Imagines” means; I placed it in Google Translate and got “damage photos.” In Spanish, I got what can be translated as “pictures of harm.”

  2. Perhaps you saw the first Q & A from this year’s Ligonier Conference where Dr. Sproul sparred with Dr. Godfrey regarding images of Christ. Sproul claimed that Calvin was only against the use of images temporarily, until the masses could be weaned off of them as a means of devotion, but was in favor of their ultimate return in an artistic and educational function. I am skeptical of this claim. Have you ever heard an argument like that before?

  3. Good question, Kepha. I think Luther is right that images will fall of themselves, but it’s when teaching is combined with a vital prayer life arising out of thankfulness for our salvation in Christ; then images become irrelevant and no longer claim an emotional attachment.

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