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Iconoclasm – Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt Argues against Images (1522)

The Franconian Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486-1541) was the chancellor of the University of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther was a professor of theology. An early ally of Luther, Karlstadt introduced radical reforms in worship and religious practice in 1521-22. (At the time, Luther was in hiding after the Diet of Worms.) From the start, Karlstadt favored the removal of religious images, which he and others regarded as forbidden idols. After Luther returned to Wittenberg and quarreled with him, Karlstadt left the university to become a pastor. Although he was banished from Saxony in 1524, Luther protected him – but only after the radical retracted his concessions. A major instigator of the Eucharistic quarrel that divided the Protestants, Karlstadt ended his life as a preacher and professor in Basel, where he died of the plague.

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On the Removal of Idols

i. That we have images* in churches and houses of God is wrong and contrary to the first commandment. Thou shalt not have other gods.

ii. That to have carved and painted idols set up on the altars is even more injurious and diabolical.

iii. Therefore it is good, necessary, praiseworthy, and pious that we remove them and give Scripture its due and in so doing accept its judgement.

God’s houses are buildings in which God alone should be glorified, invoked, and adored. As Christ says: My house is a house of prayer and you make it a murderers’ cave [Matth. 21:13]. Deceitful images bring death to those who worship and praise them, as it is written of them: They are strangers to God and completely covered with shame and have become as loathsome as the things they have loved (Hosea 9[:10]). We could never deny that it is out of love that we have placed the so-called saints in churches. If we had not loved them, we would not have set them up where God alone should dwell and rule. Had we been opposed to them, we would have fled them rather than embraced them. Our deeds convict us of loving images. Have we not shown them the honour which we show exclusively to great lords? Why have we caused them to be painted and coloured, to be adorned with velvet, damask, silver, and golden robes? Why do we deck them out with golden crowns? With precious stones? And offer them that honour and love that we do not willingly give our children, our wives, our parents, our most exalted princes and lords? Who can believe us when we say: We have not loved the idols, the carved and painted images? When our actions have betrayed us? God hates and is jealous of pictures, as I will demonstrate, and considers them an abomination, and proclaims that all men in his eyes are like the things they love. Pictures are loathsome. It follows that we also become loathsome when we love them.**

Thus images bring death to those who worship or venerate them. Therefore, our temples might be rightly called murderers’ caves, because in them our spirit is stricken and slain. May the Devil reward the popes who thus bring death and destruction upon us. It would be a thousand times better if they [images] were set up in hell or the fiery furnace than in the houses of God.

Now hear more about the nature and origin of the house built for God. Solomon speaks as follows: Thy house, O God, is made solely that there thou mightest regard the devotion of thy servant and accept the prayers that he pours out before thee and thine eyes are upon this house day and night, wherein thy name shall be invoked (2 Chronicles 6[:19–21] and 1 Kings 8[:28–30]). In the same book Solomon enumerates many things which ought to be uniquely dedicated to God. Thus it is especially amazing to me how God has borne and suffered our great evil up to this time.

See! The house of God is made for this purpose, that he alone should rule in it and, as our helper, should open his eyes to us in our need. Further, God alone should be worshipped there. Moreover, only God’s name should be invoked there. I would like to know what answer we could give to true Christians and Jews, who have an understanding of the Bible, or even to God, who has given us his teaching through the Holy Spirit, when they or he asks: How is it that you are so audacious as to set up images and idols in my house? How can you be so bold and impudent that in my house you bow down and kneel before pictures which have been made by the hands of men? Such honours belong to me. You light candles before them. But if you want to set candles burning and blazing, you should do so [only] for me. You bring them wax offerings in the form of your afflicted legs, arms, eyes, head, feet, hands, cows, calves, oxen, tools, house, court, fields, meadows, and the like, just as if the pictures had healed your legs, arms, eyes, heads, etc. or had bestowed upon you fields, meadows, houses, honours and possessions.***

* The word bylder [ . . . ] is often rendered as ‘icons’ in English. We have preferred the word ‘images’ for bylder because the modern meaning of the word icon is narrower and calls to mind a specifically Byzantine tradition and the images used in the Orhodox Church. [ . . . ] [All footnotes taken from: A Reformation Debate: Karlstadt, Emser, and Eck on Sacred Images. Three Treatises in Translation, translated by Bryan D. Mangrum and Giueseppe Scavizzi. 2nd ed. rev. Toronto, 1998, pp. 21-42.]
** For Karlstadt to insist on the admission ‘we have loved images’ is in accord with the Erasmian criticism of images, and contrary to the claim of the Catholic theologians that images were seen by people only as signs. [ . . . ]
*** The reference is to ex voto offerings, often of precious objects, which were left beside images by those who believed that images had conferred some benefit on them.

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