Reformed Church Buildings with Icons of Saints and Religious Images

While Orthodox Christians frequently have icons and religious images, Reformed congregations supposedly forbid these things. However, the following photos of Reformed Churches include many beautiful Christian images.

As a former Calvinist who converted to Orthodoxy, I view the acceptance of stained glass windows by Presbyterian churches as a positive step away from iconoclasm and a return towards ancient Christianity . . .

Originally appeared at: Orthodox-Reformed Bridge

A reader recently wrote me that not all Reformed churches have only four bare walls and that there are in fact Reformed churches with images in them.  These images take the form of stained glass windows and murals situated in sanctuaries.  That these images are situated in the sanctuaries is highly significant.  It suggest that Reformed iconoclasm is not as extreme as some supposed it to be.

I’ve edited the feedback slightly to correct misspellings and omit hyperlinks inserted by the reader.

Joseph wrote:

Hi there, interesting reading this. As someone that was raised In a highly liturgical Presbyterian Church now PCUSA, some of these things that are written about Reformed seem sort of odd. The Church of Scotland in Scotland started by John Knox who started Presbyterianism under the studies of Calvin is not austere, nor is it free from any type of imagery. Many Presbyterian churches in the USA whether they be PCUSA or PCA or others like Cumberland, their sanctuaries have some icons as well as ornate stained glass with saints and even the crucifixion. You need to Google some following churches: Shadybrook Presbyterian, Madison Avenue Presbyterian NYC, St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh Scotland, Brick Presbyterian Church NYC, East Liberty Presbyterian Church in PA, and St Stephen Presbyterian in Texas. I think what you are talking about are Reformed Churches that were influenced by Puritans. But you need to understand, when the Scottish and English that were Presbyterian came to the Americas to visit, attending a Presbyterian church that was influenced by Puritans seemed odd and strange and not anything like Presbyterians at home. Many of these from Scotland and England would then attend and Anglican/ Episcopal church here since it was much more similar. The offshoots of the mainline Presbyterian or the ones that are more “evangelical” would be more austere and favor more of Puritan type worship. They were only really on Presbyterian in polity not necessarily in worship. If you were to pull up John Calvin’s Order of Worship in Geneva it was highly liturgical, nothing like Puritan worship. One must read and consider all things. On one end when he might of been against certain things, he retained many things that later could be construed by other evangelical or protestants as not removing enough of the connection of the catholic church. Hence the word “reformed” meaning breaking off from the Roman Catholic church and reforming it. – PS I as a mainline Presbyterian, do not view off shoot Presbyterians the same as us. And many of them are too extreme or evangelical and are not truly reformed. They use the name Presbyterian for the form of government. Some of broken off, but that does not mean they are the same.

My Response

Dear Joseph:

Thank you for suggesting that I Google the churches you listed in your comment.  What I found was surprising and very intriguing.  There are in fact Reformed churches with images in their sanctuaries!  I also did some digging around and learned some things that suggest that you may have oversimplified the role of images in the Reformed churches.

St. Giles Cathedral, also known as High Kirk of Edinburgh, played a distinguished role among the Reformed churches.  John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation, was elected minister of St. Giles.  Soon after he took office, the removal of the church’s Roman Catholic furnishings began.  The church changed hands between Protestants and Roman Catholics until the Parliament of Scotland declared Scotland to be a Protestant country in 1560.  When Scotland became officially Protestant, workmen were given the task of removing Roman Catholic furnishings, whitewashing the church interior, and painting the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer on the church walls.  John Knox retired to St. Andrews for health reason.  He was later recalled to St. Giles where he preached his last sermon and was buried there.

Interestingly, after the Reformation parts of St. Giles were converted to secular purposes.  The various bays were used by the Court of Session, the criminal court, and the Parliament of Scotland.  The vestry was converted into the office and library for the town clerk and weavers were allowed to set up their looms in the loft.  By the 1800s, St. Giles had become an eyesore and embarrassment to the city.  City leaders undertook a major restoration project that would result in a beautiful national church building.  Part of the restoration involved the installation of stained glass windows.

The stained glass windows that we see in the picture above are quite recent.  The installation of stained glass began in the 1800s.  They had been clear or plain since the Reformation.  This was a radical move for a Presbyterian church that viewed such decorations with considerable suspicion.  They were allowed on the grounds that they illustrated bible stories and as such were aids to teaching.  Only a small number of windows were restored during the restoration project of the 1800s.  The majority of the stained glass windows were installed by the mid 1900s.  By the 1900s, peoples’ attitudes had changed to the point where even the depiction of saints, e.g., St. Andrew and St. Giles, were allowed.

Closing Thoughts

I learned from Joseph’s comment about an aspect of the Presbyterian tradition I was not aware of before.  It also taught me that the Reformed tradition is not uniformly iconoclastic in the sense of being opposed to all kinds of images.  While I agree that there existed a liturgical aspect to the Reformed tradition that goes back to Calvin and the other Reformers, I remain unconvinced by Joseph’s claim that the Reformed tradition is open to images in churches and that the Puritans are to be blamed for the four bare walls characteristic of Reformed churches.  First of all, John Calvin explicitly denounced images in churches.  See my article “Calvin Versus the Icon: Was John Calvin Wrong?”  Second, the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 109 explicitly speaks out against images or representations.  Third, the Heidelberg Catechism, which represents the Reformed tradition in Germany, just as forcibly spoke out against images in churches.  See Heidelberg Catechism: Questions 97 and 98.  Furthermore, if this were the case, the Mercersburg theologians, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, would have argued for the restoration of images along with the mystical presence in the Lord’s Supper.  Therefore, the four bare walls of Reformed worship are intrinsic to the Reformed tradition and not some extreme Puritan Evangelicalism.  If anything, the case of St. Giles Cathedral in Scotland suggests that the inclusion of images in mainline Presbyterian churches may reflect more a syncretistic adaptation to modern culture than fidelity to the Reformed tradition.  This leaves me to conclude that iconoclasm is very much part of the Reformed tradition and that Joseph’s assertion that Presbyterianism or the Puritans are to be blamed for Reformed iconoclasm is unfounded.  This raises a ticklish question for present-day staunch Calvinists: Should they demand the removal of images from Reformed churches depicted in this article? Or would it be acceptable to tolerate images in Reformed churches?

As a former Calvinist who converted to Orthodoxy, I view the acceptance of stained glass windows by Presbyterian churches as a positive step away from the heresy of iconoclasm and a return towards ancient Christianity.  Images were found in the Dura Europa church, which was dated back to 250, and in the catacombs of Rome.  The four bare walls of Reformed churches are innovations that date back to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and 1600s.  On the Sunday or Orthodoxy, which celebrates the defeat of iconoclasm in the early Church and reaffirms the place of images in Christian churches, it would be worthwhile for both Reformed, Evangelicals, and Orthodox Christians to reflect on the value of having images/icons in churches.

On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, it is customary for Orthodox Christians, young and old, to process inside the church holding icons.  Here is a procession at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Andover, Massachusetts in 2017.  YouTube link.

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