Review – War Against the Idols by Carlos Eire

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.

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Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 1:29 pm  Comments (9)  
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  1. Charlie,

    I think you wrong in your criticism of Eire on the first point, so likely wrong on the second. Eire is hardly alone in making the sort of distinction he makes, and I don’t find it a bad use of immanence/transcendence. From Weber’s idea of die Entzauberung der Welt (or disenchantment of the world) through people like Taylor, the role of Protestantism, especially Calvinism, in making the world more worldly and religion less so is a common one, which, the more I study, seems not only right but extremely important, especially in understanding the distinctive influence of Calvinism/Reformed churches in European history.

    • Sam,

      I’m aware of the broad theses involving secularism and Protestantism, and I find them fairly unconvincing. My point, however, relates to the Reformation in its own time, not in the light of later developments in European history. The idea that the Reformed church was replacing a theology of immanence with one of transcendence would be inconceivable to sixteenth-century Protestants. Using the simple definitions of transcendence (distance, “otherness”) and immanence (nearness), they were reforming in the name of immanence. Northern Europeans didn’t take the wine in communion, and many were so afraid of the bread that they took it only the mandated once per year. Were those people experiencing a religion of immanence? Many Catholic lay people rarely prayed to Christ, choosing instead a pantheon of heavenly intercessors. Were they experiencing immanence? “Real” spiritual people were priests, monks, or friars, not shopkeepers or farmers. One medieval engraving depicts a ship going to heaven carrying the pope, cardinals, and priests. Regular people are outside the boat clinging to lifelines. Is that a religion of immanence?

      I don’t see how someone could take the aims and emphases of the Reformers on their own terms and label it a religion of “transcendence.”

  2. Charlie,

    Then it seems your problems with Eire are only as good as your problems with Weber, Taylor, and many others, or rather with the general idea which has many permutations. Since, if you accept such ideas are plausible and important, as I do, then the things you bring up (by the way, do you actually think Eire is unaware of rates of communion?) don’t really like serious objections.

    Moreover, I suspect you’re simply misreading Eire, too, since I know Eire is personally sad about what the Reformation destroyed (I’ve heard him talk about it numerous times), and the point you raise, say about people being afraid of the elements, hardly contradicts the idea that God’s presence was felt to be inside the world, in a literal sense tangible, experienced through material objects. Fear of the sacrament supports this idea, since it’s inconceivable without not merely a belief but a powerful sense of God’s presence in the elements. (Incidentally, I’m sure it wasn’t all fear – some was just irreigiousness). Try to imagine a Calvinist afraid of the Lord’s table – practically impossible (they would say it’s “superstitious”), just like it’s hard to imagine a Reformed liturgy comparable in richness to a Roman Catholic, or even Anglican, service (I’m Reformed in theology, but can’t argue about how thin I find Reformed liturgies that I’ve experienced) and these are ultimately for related reasons, I speculate.

    To sum up, then, I think it would be fairer if you framed your criticisms of Eire as deriving from an a priori rejection of the kind of distinction he’s making, since that’s obviously what it does derive from.

    If you think Taylor et al. are not terribly plausible, that’s fine (I think you’re wrong and they’re right), but it’s not the sort of thing arguments in any direct sense settle, nor the sort of thing manageable on a blog.

    (Incidentally, I think top-notch historical sociology supports the general ideas of Weber et al. on the Reformed churches, not just philosophers like Taylor (although I find Taylor persuasive here, too).)

    While I’m not interested in arguing the point, I am interested in why you deny it. I find it a central idea for understanding modernity, both as a success and problem.

  3. P.S. “Reformation in its own time…Reformers on their own terms”

    Those are pretty misleading idea, mainly because it doesn’t the Reformation, at least, doesn’t have “its own” time or terms: those are settled by whatever historiography one finds most plausible, especially as it relates to dividing up the Reformation into slices.

    The “Reformation” itself, like the Renaissance, are historiographical terms, even if based vaguely on contemporary terminology, and thus all the dating, etc. is part of an argument, not something that’s just there for us, dictating its “own terms” as to when it ends, how it effects relate to its character, etc.

    As to the Reformers on their own terms, I’m not sure what you mean. It would be pretty bad history to suggest the best much less only proper way to read a period is literally in the terms of its great figures.

    Moreover, the destruction of “superstition” and bad ideas about the church, sacraments, relics, etc. was to some degree certainly intentional, and if you think Eire is alone in seeing this, you should check out Eamon Duffy on the English Reformation, where he sees a similar kind of disenchantment happen thanks to Protestantism.

  4. Well, leaving aside for now some of the broader considerations, I take issue with Eire’s interpretation of Calvin’s critique of Catholic worship. Specifically, I think he’s missing the bigger picture of what Calvin is trying to accomplish.

    Here is Eire’s thesis statement:

    “John Calvin, in defending the heritage of the Reformed attitude toward idolatry, forged a new, scripturally based, theological metaphysics in which the boundaries between the spiritual and the material were more clearly drawn than ever; and … his reaffirmation of the centrality of “spiritual” worship, with its consequent denial of compromise, provided a solid ideological foundation for much of the social and political unrest that accompanied the spread of Calvinism.”

    Now, Eire equates transcendent with spiritual and immanent with material. With these definitions, of course Calvin is going to appear as a theologian of transcendence. But Eire also occasionally uses those terms (transc./imm.) in their more theological senses, to denote God’s distant-ness and otherness vs. his nearness and intimacy.

    This equivocation makes a sort of a=b, b=c, so a=c scenario in which Calvin is the champion of the distant, otherworldly, immaterial God. He supposedly faults Catholic piety for not taking God’s transcendence seriously enough.

    Now, I reject equating transcendent with spiritual. Calvin himself would make the opposite equation. For him, replacing sub-personal views of infused grace and transubstantiation with a theory of real spiritual presence makes God more immanent, more near. Calvin’s problem with Roman worship is that it destroyed immanence. It interposed obstacles between the believer and God. It robs the worshiper of his confidence in God’s fatherly affection demonstrated in the personal work of Christ and communicated directly by the Spirit.

    The removal of idols functions in Calvin’s theology as a preliminary step, removing those things that block God’s presence so that God may be present in blessing on his people. The goal is immanence. That’s why I think Eire presents a lopsided view of Calvin.

    So, it is true that Protestantism denied some ways in which God was supposed to be present in the world, but it did so in order to allow God to be present in other ways. It not only destroyed an old piety, but also created a new one. I think Eire, Taylor and others hammer the first point and overlook the second.

  5. Charlie,

    You’re quite wrong about Taylor, at least, on emphasizing the first point and overlooking the second. As you reviewed and thus presumably read A Secular Age, you must simply have overlooked or forgotten the ways in which Taylor emphasize the new forms of piety, or more broadly put, discipline that Calvin helped create. (Taylor approvingly cites Phil Gorski’s book on this point, which is precisely one of the most impressive arguments for the effects of Calvinism on state formation through its distinctive piety.)

    Part of Taylor’s point is precisely that Calvinism helped created the modern world through positive changes, not just negative ones (which ironically attributes a kind of “subtraction story” to Taylor, which he writes the book against).

    I’m also more convinced than before that you’re simply misreading Eire, or doing him an injustice. Your rejection of his association of transcendence with the spiritual is fine, but it hardly seem justified, especially since his book (and Duffy’s) are long historical arguments to the contrary, viz. that Protestantism really did attempt to renew “true piety” through a reform of false forms of piety, which meant de-sacralizing a large number of material objects and places, among other things the Reformers did.

    Moreover, in your comments you seem consistently to conflate an idea of immediacy – literally a lack of mediation, which mediation you claim is one of Calvin’s problems with RC – with immanence. But that’s just wrong conceptually, as something may be immanent but not immediate, or something may be immediate but in some sense transcendent, as “feelings of transcendence” would be, of the “religious feelings” variety. If you were familiar with Weber, you would see his point about Judaism was the same as Eire’s point about Calvinism, and it’s precisely that Judaism radically de-immanentized God, making him a figure and force beyond or outside of the world, and this form of transcendence is crucial to why Weber sees secularization beginning in Judaism, and it is radically picked up again in the Protestant Reformation, in which God is again expelled, even more forcefully, from physical places and objects, thus making him transcendent and less mediate. There is a long linkage in this literature and in other areas precisely between a lack of mediation and transcendence (e.g. Barth’s early theology is an extreme example of this link: radical transcendence bought precisely through a denial of Creation’s capacity to mediate God’s presence).

    Finally, another way to see why your position does not make lot of sense is to take its implication: you reject Eire’s link between transcendence and the spiritual (meaning immaterial), but that precisely characterizes Protestant, at least Reformed piety (e.g., there is in some Lutheran theology an incredibly interesting idea of of the corporeality of spirit, translating “Geistleiblich,” which is central to Hamann’s thought – I’m aware of no such equivalent concept in the Reformed tradition), thus implying that Calvin envisages transcendence as somehow physical, at least sometimes so.

    Is there any support for such an idea? Indeed, it doesn’t even seem to make sense, in that I have a hard time imagining a “transcendent” physical object, and when I think of the claim that the spiritual enters the physical, as in communion, precisely what I would say is that the spiritual becomes immanent, and I think that’s normal usage; I can’t imagine someone saying “the spiritual becomes transcendent in communion.”

    All of this this is theoretical talk is easiest to see in liturgies. I think both Lutheran and Anglican liturgies can feel much more “Catholic” in the objectional sense of Reformed folks than Reformed liturgies, and this difference is visible, too, in the differences between Anglican/Lutheran and Reformed church’s art, with the former being generally less hostile to “religious art” in church than the latter, which has produced great secular art, preeminently, one could argue, in the Dutch masters, but is not known for its religious art.

  6. You say that I’m conflating immediacy with immanence. Perhaps. But I see a conflation of physicality with immanence. I see the heart of reformed piety, its major contribution, not as “discipline” but as the affirmation that God’s immanence is truly communicated spiritually. The Reformation is not a rejection of immanence, but an alternate account of how God is immanent. It rejects sub-personal accounts of infused grace, habits of grace, and the analogia entis in favor of personal, covenantal communion.

    For a contemporary elocution of this idea, you can see Michael Horton’s essay in Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition or the opening chapter of his Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology, available on Google Books.

    Do let me know, if you’re able, what you think of Horton’s discussion, because it colors what I’m thinking.

  7. Interesting discussion, Charlie. For myself, I found your review helpful. I started reading Eire quite a few years ago, but laid it aside because I was very dissatisfied with his transcendence/immanence argument. I think you are spot on in your analysis of how Medieval religion hinders “Gospel immanence” and the Reformers encourage “Gospel immanence.” By adding “Gospel” here I am responding to Sam’s thought that the dread the medieval felt at the Table was a form of immanence. Yes, but it was a dread divorced from the Gospel. Now God is dreadful and terrifying to those who do not find their sole refuge in Christ and His righteousness. Reformers also approached the Table with dread, that is reverence, but one that urged them to come because of Christ, rather than a dread that drove them away; a reverence that brought comfort, rather than a dread that filled the heart with uncertainty. Your discussion will help me when I take another stab at reading Eire… someday.

  8. As a follow-up, I confess to having a love/hate affair with the secondary literature of Church History. It is difficult enough at times to understand the writers of the past, but the problem becomes much more difficult when you have to wade through the assumptions and goals of modern scholars. Sometimes they illuminate the past, but other times they are so agenda driven that they twist the past to their own purposes. You have to weigh their interpretive constructs, like Eire’s immanence/transcendence schema. It can be such a weariness. Ford Battles’ cry was, ‘Ad fontes,’ teaching us to go to the sources. I always found it better to read the primary sources before the secondary sources and often did not find the latter to be accurate or useful. David Steinmetz once complained to me that I did not sufficiently recognize that I was part of an international conversation. Truth was, I rarely found the people in that conversation to be helpful, but when I did find a really penetrating and helpful scholar, I became a life-long fan. I have found it interesting that in a number of your reviews you find the scholar very unhelpful in their approach to Biblical material, but quite helpful when dealing with the Fathers. This leaves me wondering, is their animus to the Gospel the cause of the mis-reading of the Scripture? If so, does that animus decline when dealing with how the Father’s read the Scripture? So much of modern scholarship is attuned to reading the Fathers with Rome, rather than Wittenburg or Geneva, that I find myself equally suspicious of their treatment of the Fathers as their treatment of Scripture.


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