Carlos Eire’s War Against the Idols is a study of iconoclasm during the Reformation. Its thesis is that the Reformation introduced a new theology of worship and idolatry that led to major sociological shifts. Iconoclasm is the key indicator of the presence of this theology. Thus, much of the Reformation, particularly the Reformed side, can be studied by the spread of iconoclasm, which constitutes a pattern in reforming activity.
Beginning with Erasmus, proceeding through Karlstadt and the Swiss Reformers, and culminating in John Calvin, a theology of worship arose that stressed the necessity for worshiping the spiritual God “in spirit” rather than through material props. Whereas most medieval theologians had considered icons and relics to be physical helps in worship, leading people from the earthly to the heavenly, these reformers argued the opposite. Material things, particularly those not commanded in Scripture, merely distracted the soul and weighed it down. The later critics insisted that any veneration or reverence offered to them is idolatrous. Pure worship must be strictly according to the rule of Scripture and without mediators, save Christ.
Iconoclasm was the primary identifying mark of the Reformed side of the Reformation, distinguishing them from the Lutherans. Eire penetrates through Luther’s rhetoric to identify the theological differences between Luther and Karlstadt, differences that separated Luther from most of the other Reformers. In the Swiss Reformation, cities moving toward Protestantism evidenced similar patterns of reformation, centering on iconoclastic acts. Iconoclasm demonstrated popular support for the Reformation and forced city authorities to consider Protestant claims.
Iconoclasm had far-reaching political consequences. It raised the question of righteous popular rebellion. Eire’s narrative illuminates the central role of the common folk in pressuring city governments to embrace Protestantism. Snippets of popular pamphlets and records of lay sermons witness the diffusion of Reformed theological principles through farmers and tradesmen. Eventually, the Reformed tradition would engender theories of right resistance, and most of those theories would validate themselves by appealing to God’s authority as overruling earthly powers. All of Eire’s sociological and cultural data is eye-opening, offering a complementary perspective to reformation histories that concentrate on the works of a few theologians.
Nevertheless, there are two serious flaws in Eire’s interpretation. The first is his contention that reformation-era Catholicism was a religion of immanence, whereas the Reformed religion was one of transcendence. Eire uses these terms imprecisely, making them roughly equivalent to “material” and “spiritual.” Yet, this distorts their meaning. As Eire’s own evidence shows, the assumption that God’s power was present in relics and through sacraments did not necessarily furnish Catholics with a feeling of God’s nearness and intimacy. Many laypeople were afraid to take communion, and the mediation of saints could easily make God seem even further away, at the end of a long line of middle men.
Furthermore, the Reformers intended not to make God more distant, but closer. It’s true that they emphasized his spirituality, his radical “otherness” that makes all physical representations inappropriate. Yet, by shifting the channel of grace away from sacramental items and into the worshiper’s own soul, through faith granted directly by the Spirit, they related God to man in the most intimate manner possible. Mediators eliminated, the believer is free to approach God himself. Thus, Eire has at points overestimated the gap between Lutheran and Reformed piety. Both issue from the doctrine of justification, a doctrine of God’s personal favor toward the individual.
Eire’s second flaw is his lopsided portrayal of John Calvin. Now, in general, Eire’s analysis of Calvin’s theology is penetrating. On several issues, he is quite nuanced and sensitive. However, possibly in order to conform Calvin to the ill-conceived immanence/transcendence scheme, he reads Calvin’s theology as if Calvin is arguing for a distant, mysterious, “other” God. This is entirely incorrect. Calvin’s stress on God’s hidden essence is part of his polemic against speculative reason trumping scriptural revelation. Calvin’s God is as imminent as he is transcendent. Providence is his particular care for each individual creation. The pagan might regard God not merely as mighty Lord, but the regenerate believer recognizes him as loving Father also. The believer’s union with Christ by the bond of the Spirit is the most immanent relationship imaginable between God and man. The labels of transcendence and immanent caricature both the Catholic and Reformed positions, and particularly distort Calvin’s theology.
Still, War Against the Idols is a worthwhile and interesting read. Eire’s more narrow analysis is quite judicious, and his assembled facts, sources, and explanations are invaluable. I found the ideological ties between certain reform-minded Catholics and the Reformers particularly enlightening. I highly recommend this book for any interested person who has at least an elementary understanding of the Reformation and its major figures.