Crucifixes: Devotional Aids or Wicked Idols?

Some are opposed to crucifixes, but even Martin Luther defended them, saying, “If it is not a sin but good to have an image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”

Image by Paul C. Lee, CC0, via Pixabay
Image by Paul C. Lee, CC0, via Pixabay (photo: Register Files)

Calvinist preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote:

I. First, let us enquire, What is this cross of Christ to which some men are sadly said to be enemies?

Of course, it is not the material cross. It is not anything made in the shape of the cross. There are some who can fall down and adore a cross of wood, or stone, or gold, but I cannot conceive of a greater wounding of the heart of Christ than to pay reverence to anything in the shape of a cross, or to bow before a crucifix! I think the Savior must say, “What? What? Am I the Son of God and do they make even Me into an idol? I who have died to redeem men from their idolatries, am I, Myself, taken and carved, and chiseled, and molten, and set up as an image to be worshipped by the sons of men?” When God says, “You shall not make unto you 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: you shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them,” it is a strange fantasy of human guilt that men should say, “We will even take the image of the Son of God, or some ghastly counterfeit that purports to be His image, and will bow down and worship it, as if to make the Christ of God an accomplice in an act of rebellion against the commandment of the holy Law.” No, it is not the material cross to which Paul alludes—we have nothing to do with those outward symbols! We might have used them much more, but they have been so perverted to idolatry that some of us almost shudder at the very sight of them! (Sermon #2553: “The Enemies of the Cross of Christ”; Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, Oct. 26 1884; I substituted bolded italics for capitals in the original)

I engaged in a debate with a Calvinist on this topic, and brought up several considerations and questions that ultimately remained unanswered (he departed before we were able to seriously discuss my points).

I asked whether it would it be okay to have a crucifix that would always be required to have next to it an image also of the risen, glorified, ascended Jesus and a disclaimer under the crucifix:

“This is never intended to replace the real Jesus but only to represent Him, for the purpose of piously remembering and being grateful for what He did for us, and does not imply that Jesus did not rise again triumphantly”?

I also suggested a disclaimer under the image of the risen Jesus:

“This is never intended to replace the real Jesus but only to represent Him, and does not imply that Jesus did not die on the cross for the redemption and salvation of human beings.”

I wasn’t trying to be flippant or sarcastic; I was perfectly serious. I was trying to see what would be required for a proper use of a crucifix, from this “Spurgeonian” point of view, since there seems to be a very narrow window of acceptance for even Calvin and Spurgeon et al.

Folks can make an idol out of anything: the Bible, their own spiritual pride, their office as a minister, riches, fame, power, beauty, you name it. They can make an idol out of a crucifix, too, if they choose to do so.

But my argument is that since anything can be corrupted, this is not a sufficient argument to abolish things that can be corrupted, since in that case, everything would have to be abolished! It’s a reductio ad absurdum.

Calvinism and iconoclasm in general uses this sort of shoddy logic:

1) “so-and-so [in this case, a crucifix] can possibly become an idol.”

2a) “Because so-and-so [in this case, a crucifix] has the potential to become an idol, we ought to abolish it in order to remove all possibility of this happening.”


2b) “So-and-so [in this case, a crucifix] always, or almost always becomes idolatrous, therefore we should abolish it.”

Calvin and Spurgeon’s position seems to be 2b, but in my opinion it is a self-evidently ludicrous position.

Underlying the antipathy is the false notion (or at least a strong tendency to think) that images are wrong in and of themselves, and an over-broad, simplistic application of the prohibition of images in the Ten Commandments, that runs contrary to other scriptural indications.

I suggested these few provisions to offset possible idolatry by the tiny, misguided minority who might actually view a crucifix as a replacement for our Lord Jesus Christ Himself (i.e., as an idol and/or the proverbial “magic charm”).

If indeed there is a perception problem among Catholics on this score, then I submitted that it could be solved by bringing to mind the things that Protestants want to be brought to mind (Jesus’ glorification and resurrection, etc.).

The total opposition to crucifixes on Spurgeon’s grounds, closely scrutinized, reduces to absurdity, because then we would have to get rid of every potential idol, and that would include even the Bible itself. So we end up with a Bible-less Christianity based on the Bible (sola Scriptura), and that seems sensible?

It would be difficult to demonstrate that the Bible itself never becomes an idol for some people and is never exploited and distorted and twisted.

Much more balanced and reasonable is the view held by Protestant founder Martin Luther:

[W]hen I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have an image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes? (Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525; Luther’s Works, Vol. 40, 99-100)