The Art of Being Calvinist: Imitating God in the Divine Drama

γίνεσθε οὖν μιμηταὶ τοῦ θεοῦ, ὡς τέκνα ἀγαπητά, καὶ περιπατεῖτε ἐν ἀγάπῃ, καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς.  Ephesians 5:1

Calvinism and art have a troubled history. From the iconoclasm of the French Reformation to the “plain style” of the New England meetinghouse, it is clear that the Reformed mind is suspicious of and sometimes downright hostile to the visual arts.[1] It cannot be denied that the Reformers privileged the ear over the eye. But much of the commentary concerning the Calvinist view of art is exaggeration and full of half-truths. And I would not withhold this charge from the few Calvinists who argued for an existing body of Calvinist-inspired art.[2] While the evidence strongly suggests that Calvinism is not inherently hostile to all art—hostile only to art used as instruments or mediums of worship—there is no great body of uniquely Calvinist art.[3] That is not to say, of course, that Calvinists did not create works of art.[4]

I will postpone my analysis of the body of art produced by the Huguenots, the Dutch Calvinists and the English Puritans. For now I want to submit that looking for traditional works of art (painting, sculptures, architecture, etc.) will be insufficient to fully understand the Calvinist conception of art. The Reformation ushered in a way of looking at the world that had profound implications for what constitutes art. My purpose here is to suggest that Calvinists did not reject religious art. Religious art remained just an important as before. However, religious art did not remain in the old forms, but became redeemed life itself. Everyday life became images of God. Art, in a sense, became hidden within the daily life of the community of faith. I am not referring to everyday objects, but everyday activity. And I am not referring to everyday activity as captured in paintings or the other mediums, but in the activity itself in the world. The activity itself is the medium. The ordinary lives of redeemed people are religious images.

At first, one might think it rather silly to call everyday activity art. I admit that it is atypical. But the theology of the Reformation warrants it. As God’s image-bearers, being united to the true image of the invisible God, we are the art of the divine drama of history. I will expand this point later. For now we need to know what changed during the Reformation. The theological shift that carried art from the canvas to everyday life was the rejection of the medieval conception of nature/grace dualism. Herman Bavinck describes the medieval view as the following:

“The grace kept and distributed by the Church far transcends nature [in the Roman Catholic view]. It is true this grace is, among other things, gratia medicinalis, but this is an accidental and adventitious quality. Before all else it is gratia elevans, something added to and elevating above nature. As such it entered into the image of God given to Adam before the Fall, and as such it again appears in the restoration to that original state….There exists a hierarchy in the world of angels, and a hierarchy in the ecclesiastical organization, but there is a hierarchy also among the saints on earth and the blessed in heaven. In an ascending scale the saints, divided into orders and ranks, draw near to God, and in proportion as they become partakers of the divine nature are admitted to the worship and adoration of the deity.”

Concerning the Reformed view he writes:

“The Reformation rejected the entire system, and substituted for it a totally different conception of veritas, gratia, and bona opera….Calvin widened the conception to that of fides salvificans,—a faith which renews the entire man in his being and consciousness, in soul and body, in all his relations and activities, and hence a faith which exercises its sanctifying influence in the entire range of life, upon Church and school, upon society and state, upon science and art.”[5]

Bavinck argues that part of the foundation of Reformed theology is an affirmation of gratia medicinalis and a rejection of gratia elevans. By grace, nature is renewed, not transcended. Grace brings us to what we ought to have been in an obedient Adam. Salvation is not a process of scaling a chain being; rather, salvation is the renewal of one’s human nature unto human perfection. The implications of this are huge and many. I will limit us to one.

When the focus of redemption is no longer on elevating ourselves beyond and above nature, the use of images to “see past” or “see through” to the transcendent is no longer valid. The traditional use of religious images then are sources of idolatry: we condescend God to our own liking. We conceive via our imagination the Creator as a creature. But, as I said above, religious images never departed from the Reformed understanding of worship. They are still present all around us. They simply became hidden in everyday life. We image-bear when we act in conformity in creation (in nature) to the true “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), the image of the True Adam, Jesus Christ. To be fully human is to be an image of the divine glory in God’s creation. Being united to the True Adam, we bear the image of God in our becoming like the true image of God. In Christ, we imitate God (Eph. 5:1). In this sense, Calvinist art is the art of bearing image and imitating God in everyday human life within creation to the glory of God.

Art as Imitation

For millennia, art has been seen as imitation. Plato stated that all production is mimesis. A craftsman works from a plan and attempts to imitate that plan in his production. An object’s function is its essential nature, and it participates in its form by this function. The object, as an image or eidolon of its form, is lower that its form. If it ceased being lower it would be the form itself.[6] Aristotle distinguished two types of imitative art: the art of visual appearance (color and drawing) and the art of imitating human actions (verse, song and dance).[7] The latter type is a form of poietike (making). Poetry, for Aristotle, is then the art of imitating human action. He even claims that poetry is truer than works of history, because “poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” Poetry, on his account, is a source of knowledge because poets make plots that express “motives and motives out of circumstances [and] this can be done only in term of universals, or psychological law.” And one reason why humans enjoy imitation in the arts is that imitation is natural to man. We receive pleasure from identifying the imitated object. Anyone who has children knows of the pleasure received from seeing his or her children begin imitating the basic abilities we take for granted. Aristotle argues that we receive pleasure from “inference that the imitation and the object imitated are identical [and by this] we learn something” (Rhetoric I, xi, 137b).

From this basic overview of Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought on art, we should notice two key elements helpful for our discussion. The first is Plato’s insistence on art as imitation of universals. As I will develop further, redeemed humans, as the image-bearers of God, are imitators of the divine glory. The second is Aristotle’s notion of the poietike as the maker of plots that fully express the universal. Creation is the sphere in which God’s divine redemption is enacted; and we act in his drama. Humans are the actors, being united to the principle Actor, within God’s plot or divine drama of redemption. And in this sense, all of redeemed life, as an imitation of the Universal—namely, God himself—is art. As Ambrose said, “Man has been depicted by the Lord God, his artist.”[8]

Acting in the Divine Drama

Calvin called creation a “dazzling theatre, [for] the world was founded for this purpose, that it should be the sphere of the divine glory.” [9] The history of the world is a history of redemption. It is the place featuring God’s divine drama. In the beginning, God created man to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (Gen. 1:28). As many commentators have argued, this mandate includes working to make the world habitable for humans. There is a certain wildness to creation and Adam and his progeny were to put the “finishing touches on the world God created…by making it a livable place for humans.”[10] Humans then are agents of creation in the world, those who would “reflect [God’s] glorious image in extending his sacred presence outward into the wider regions of the earth.”[11] This priestly role charges humans with the task to mediate the glory of God by their activity on earth. God works for six days, and then rests. Humankind, as the image-bearers of God, continues that work to make habitable places for God’s glory to shine in and through human settlement.[12] Humankind is the image declaring the kingship of Yahweh over all the earth. By making the earth habitable for humans, they would spread the shalom of God throughout the world, bringing Sabbath rest to all of creation. G. K. Beale writes, “Just as God had achieved heavenly rest after [creating] and constructing the beginning of this creational temple [i.e., Eden], so Adam presumably would achieve unending rest after…extending the boundaries of the glorious Eden temple around the entire earth.”[13] And by bringing rest, all of creation, humans being an integral part, would rest in harmony with each other and in harmony with God.

The mission of Adam was not simply to “sacred-ize” the landscape with temples, shrines, monument, and monasteries, but to make culture conducive to human flourishing. They were not to be miserable servants, but to build societies beaming with life, love and happiness. The mandate to build is a mandate to create culture, to name things, to discover things – to act creatively. As Al Wolters writes, “From now on the development of the created earth will be societal and cultural in nature. In a single word, the task ahead is civilization.”[14]

Of course, Adam failed to live up to the demands of the creational law. He and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and fell, bringing his offspring with him. But this sets the stage for God to set things right, personally. The entire divine drama of redemption by Christ is meant to restore and accomplish what Adam failed to do. Jesus Christ is the second and final Adam who both bore the sin of the first Adam and accomplished his task. “In the cross,” Calvin wrote, “the whole world has been renewed and all things restored to good order.”[15] Christ did more than just save a people; he saved the whole world, all of creation. He reconciled humankind and nature. In the Book of Revelation, we read of the descending of the “New Jerusalem” from heaven to earth (21:2). It is a final consummation of all things in Christ. Creation is restored.

Though Christ accomplished all of this already, there is a significant element of not-yet. The second coming of Christ is the event in history when all things will be renewed, but in the meantime those “united” to Christ share in his resurrected life (Rom. 6:1-11). Christ, as the wellspring of life, is the source of redeemed life and redeemed activity for those united to him. In this age, prior to his return, Christians, being united to the second Adam, are agents of creation in the same way Adam was. Wolters writes, “It still is humanity that plays the pivotal role. Just as the fall of man (Adam) was the ruin of the whole earthly realm, so the atoning death of a man (Jesus Christ, the second Adam) is the salvation of the whole world….The Adamic human race perverts the cosmos; the Christian human race renews it.”[16] The Christian duty then is to continue the work originally mandated to Adam, namely, to create civilization conducive to human flourishing and in harmony and in conformity to nature. We are not to exploit, rise above, or separate from nature, but conform to it and shape it. In a word, we are to rule it while being ruled by the creation Law-Giver.

Imitating God in the True Adam

When we conform to Christ, the True Adam, we are conforming to how humans ought to have been from the beginning. This does not mean that we are seeking to be like the pre-lapsarian Adam. No, we are seeking to be what Adam ought to have been and who we are becoming in Christ.

By including these paintings I run the risk of being misunderstood. My point is NOT that Calvinist art became artistic depictions of everyday life in various mediums, but that everyday life itself is the Calvinist art. This painting is a depiction of the Calvinist art. It is an image of the image.

When we act in conformity to the true Adam, we assume rightfully our image-bearing role in creation.[18] We are, to the extent possible as images of God, imitating God himself. And this imitation is conducting work of various kind within creation. God worked and rested; we work until Christ completes the work and brings rest to all creation. Our function is work. This fits Plato’s insistence that a true imitation of a universal must contain the form’s function. Humans work as God worked, and this function in us is the image of God.[19] Work, given the demands of civilization, is not simply building buildings or sowing fields. It is all the activity of life: from building bridges to changing diapers. All of it is work, and all of it, when conducted to the glory of God, is image-bearing. There is no sacred/secular vocation. There is no spiritual/mundane dichotomy. And since these dualisms are false such that every aspect of life is sacred and spiritual, then everyday life glorifies God. Everyday life imitates God. Everyday life is a religious image.

The Art of Being Calvinist

The shift from a focus on ascending the hierarchy of being (medieval) to unity with the True Adam (Reformed) is crucial to understanding what happened to religious art during the Reformation and beyond. Art went from external images to redeemed life itself. It went from being visible in churches and homes to being “hidden” within the daily activity of typical Christian life. The images of family life, of a mother and her children, of neighborly love, of laborers in the field, of families in or going to church, of children setting tables or cleaning dishes, of husband and wife holding hands—one could go on forever—all of these are redeemed activity that showcase the glory of God in creation. God is glorified in his Son when we bear his image in everyday life, even in the most mundane of activity.

We are also the images of God in God’s story. We play a part and nothing lacks importance. We are the actors in the divine drama. It is incredible to think about: The hidden images of redeemed life that we show forth to the glory of God are part of God’s grand narrative of redeeming the cosmos. These hidden images of redeemed life are like hidden stories. The Calvinist sees the story of redemption in the stories of everyday people, not in images of apostles and saints. Imagine with me an elderly couple sitting together at church. They’ve seen all of life together, and they’re almost finished with this world. As redeemed sinners they have imitated God and they have imitated God’s enemy. But at that moment, all wrinkled together, they are beautiful to us. They carry with themselves a micro-story in God’s grand story. Perhaps we don’t know their story too well, but we know they have one and we know they are part God’s story. That image of them in our minds is nothing short of beautiful. But it is hidden beauty. We see it by faith, not by sight. We see it in knowledge of the story of which they are part. No one finishes a race looking beautiful, but the story to the finish line is what captivates us and causes us to gaze. An elderly couple together holding hands symbolizes to us both a life of meaning and that commitment to finish life well. We are image-bearers to the end. We don’t need an icon of a saint to see God: we see God in the stories of those around us, in the faces of those aged servants of the True Adam.

Consider Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It is a work that beckons us to join in the story. It invites us to join the narrative and proceed with Christian toward the Celestial City. But to join in one must know the story, and to know the story one must know the plot. This point is crucial to understand Reformed aesthetics: when we know the plot of redemption we can emplace ourselves within the story, and, when in the story, we see God’s ‘making’ (ποίημα in Eph. 2:10) in the lives of redeemed sinners around us. Notice that Christian’s journey is horizontal. We pilgrim in this world to the next. Think of Dante’s Paradisio where the journey is vertical on a hierarchy of being. Dante’s vision is like that of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: both return with the privileged status to imperfectly describe the experience. The story is less important that the experience. Bunyan’s Christian, however, does not have a privileged status in relation to other people. He simply calls for us to emplace ourselves within the story, a story in which we can fully emplace ourselves. And when we join him, our world becomes a place of dramatic divine action. We witness and participate in the divine drama of redemption, and we see our co-actors image-making, producing for display in creation the glory of God in Christ.

Frederick Cotman - One of the Family
Frederick Cotman – One of the Family

So the art of being Calvinist is then being “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus…. hav[ing] put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator…. for as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (Eph. 2:10; Col. 3:10; 1 Cor. 15:22).


In this post I have argued that Calvinist art is the everyday image-bearing of those united to the true image of God, Jesus Christ. But I want to be clear that there is an important place for traditional art in the Reformed worldview, and I plan to write more on this subject later, Lord willing. But we cannot evaluate the Calvinist conception of art without recognizing its hidden component.

Morning Devotions by Edward Prentis
Morning Devotions by Edward Prentis

Everyday life is Calvinist art. It is the art of being Calvinist. Since there is no sacred/secular distinction in vocation, the everyday life of a Christian is image-bearing. Obedience is beautiful; and obedience to God is image-bearing in creation. But we are too dull to see this beauty and the image of God in others. When we see the elderly couple, we say how “cute” they are, not that their lives are full of meaning in a world of meaning. There is so much more to see! But we strive to see it by sight and not by faith. We must let the promises of God filter every moment. Only then will we see that God in Christ has reconciled all things to himself.

[1] Someday I hope to show that the “plain style” is anything but plain.

[2] For instance, Abraham Kuyper’s essay on art in Lectures on Calvinism, while presenting a tidy theoretical argument, does not fit the existing evidence.

[3] It troubles me that anthologies on religious aesthetics often only include Calvin’s discussion of images in worship in his Institutes and fail to quote his comments on the beauty and function of nature in communicating God’s character. Ges Elsbeth Thiessen, editor of Theological Aesthetic: A Reader, only includes Calvin’s discussion of images in a religious setting from Book I of his Institutes. She calls his argument “condescending” and provides no commentary on the nuances of the Calvinist view of art.

[4] Seeing Beyond the Word: Visual Arts in the Calvinist Tradition ed. by Paul Corby Finney contains a balanced perspective on Calvinist art.

[5] Calvin and Common Grace. trans by Geerhardus Vos. The Princeton Theological Review Vol. 7 No. 3 (1909), pp 437-465. Found at .

[6] Plato famously did not care for the poets of his day. He called them a “tribe of imitators” (Timaeus 19d). To him, they did not have knowledge (episteme), because they only could imitate something “as it appears” (Republic 597). They conduct “arts of flattery” (Gorgias 463). Plato reasons that artists seek to make things look better than they actually are; they side with pleasure over truth. Thus they “flatter” the objects with their imitation. In addition, Plato argues that art is an imitation of an imitation of a form, and as such is lower than the objects of nature. For example, when a painter paints a boat, he is painting the imitation of the form of boat. This doesn’t require knowledge, only a “knack” (Ethydemus 281).    Plato has more respect for musicians, and there are nuanced to Plato’s thought that I do not capture. Because he doesn’t devote an entire work to art (as Aristotle did in his Poetics) Plato’s views require significant synthesis from numerous works. See chapter two of Beardsley’s Aesthetics: From Classical Greece to the Present.

[7] See Beardsley, pg. 55.

[8] From his Hexameron: Six Days of Creation: Six, paragraph 259.

[9] Institutes 1.5.8 and Sermon 96 on Job.

[10] G.K. Beale The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2004), 82.

[11] Ibid

[12] In the Ancient Near East, ancient kings would erect images of themselves in distant lands in order to declare their presence-from-afar and their kingship.  “After conquering a new territory, the Assyrian king Shalmanesar‘ fashioned a might image of my majesty’ that he ‘set up’ on a black obelisk, and then he virtually equate his ‘image’ with that of ‘the glory of Assur’ his god.” (p. 82).

[13] A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 40.

[14] Al Wolters Creation Regained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985),42

[15] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol. XVIII (Edinburgh: Baker Books), 73. Calvin is commenting on John 13:31.

[16] Wolters 72-72.

[17] Though everything is controversial, I hope that this statement is less controversial within Reformed theology.

[18] Gregory of Nyssa said is quite well: “This Person who is beyond knowledge and comprehension, the ineffable and the ‘unspeakable’ and the ‘inexpressible’, in order that He might again make Himself an ‘image of God’, because of His love for man, because Himself an ‘image of the invisible God’ so that he took on the form which he assumed among you, and again, through Himself, He fashioned a beauty in accord with the character of the Archetype. Therefore, if we also are to become an ‘image of the invisible God’, it is fitting that the form of our life be struck according to the ‘example’ of the life set before us. But what is that? It is living in the flesh, but not ‘according to the flesh’….so that we become an image of the image, having achieved the beauty of the Prototype through activity as a kind of imitation, as did Paul, who became an ‘imitator of Christ, through this life of virtue’…. Looking towards that image and adorning our own form clearly in accordance with that One, each person becomes himself as ‘image of the invisible God’”. From his On Perfection, para. 110.

[19] Of course, more can be said about the image of God in man. That will be for another time.

3 replies on “The Art of Being Calvinist: Imitating God in the Divine Drama”

  1. “The ordinary lives of redeemed people are religious images.” Very interesting proposition. I’m glad to see someone engaging with the idea of art apart from the typical ‘artist’s role in the church/worship” discussion that usually takes place in the evangelical world (2nd Commandment, anyone?). Your comparison of RC’s redemptive ontology & the Chain of Being versus the Reformed view of union with Christ and redemption as an already & not yet truth was very helpful.

    I had a painting professor who arbitrarily said, “Painting is the least Calvinist activity in the universe.” Since then, I have been trying to think about art in a holistically Reformed way, and most material I’ve come across is outdated, lacks theological depth, and doesn’t pertain to contemporary art or the act of making.

    Starting with a Calvinist view of life is definitely the right idea. We can’t truly understand anything sufficiently unless we start with Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”(Col. 3:2). I think there is a distinctive difference between what you call “traditional art” and art as all of life, particularly the Christian life. I don’t mean to create a false dichotomy, but the social construct of the art world has changed drastically over time, while your idea of “Calvinist art” has been true for all of history. You did say that you’d be posting about the place of “traditional art” in the Reformed worldview later, so maybe I should wait :)

    Maybe the issue I’m getting at is that you say there’s no sacred-secular divide, but you talk about the Calvinist idea of art as though only those in experiential union with the True Adam have lives that are “art”. What of the truth that all (not just redeemed) humanity bears the image of God, though marred and distorted by sin? Can their lives be “art”, too, in a sense, because they still bear the image of God in certain actions like work? Does “Calvinist art” refer to a Reformed view of art, or art produced by those who are regenerate/identify as Calvinist?

    In essence, what you’re doing is redefining the word Art. “But we cannot evaluate the Calvinist conception of art without recognizing its hidden component.” This “hidden component”, as I understand, is the everyday image-bearing of the redeemed or the redemptive lens, which is the focus of this post. You seem to go back and forth between this being a “hidden component” of the discussion of art and it being art itself. Thoughts?


  2. Hi Chase. Thank you for your comments.

    Your professor seemed to be unaware of the Huguenots and the Dutch Calvinists. But, to be fair, painting has not been a priority for most Calvinists in history. As for works on the subject, I found William Dyrness’ books to be helpful. See his Reformed Theology and Visual Culture and Poetic Theology: God the Poetics of Everyday Life. I don’t think he makes an argument like mine, but he does attempt to describe the Protestant view of art. His Visual Faith is more compact than the others. And his Senses of the Soul is a good introduction to the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant differences concerning visual art.

    When I say that there is no sacred/secular division, I do not mean Christian and non-Christian. I mean that there is no sacred/secular divide in vocations and activity. A ditch-digger who digs ditches well is being just as obedient to God as a preacher who gives a good sermon. It is not the case that one holds a “sacred” vocation and the other a “secular” vocation. My point was that both are image-bearing activities and in this way both are sacred or spiritual activities.

    Here is what Bavinck said about it:

    As is universally acknowledged, we owe to Luther the restoration of mans natural calling to a place of honor. Calvin, however, carried this principle enunciated by his predecessors to its furthermost consequences. He viewed the whole of life from the standpoint of the will of God and placed it in all its extent under the discipline of the divine law. It was the common conviction of the Reformers that Christian perfection must be realized not above and outside of, but within the sphere of the calling assigned us by God here on earth. Perfection consists neither in compliance with arbitrary human or ecclesiastical commandments, nor in the performance of all sorts of extraordinary activities. It consists in the faithful discharge of their ordinary daily duties which have been laid by God upon every man in the conduct of life. But much more strongly than Luther, Calvin emphasizes the idea that life itself in its whole length and breadth and depth must be a service of God. Life acquires for him a religious character, is subsumed under and becomes a part of the Kingdom of God. Or, as Calvin himself repeatedly formulates it: Christian life is always and everywhere a life in the presence of God, a walking before His face,— coram ipso ambulare, ac si essemus sub ejus oculis.

    But I think that your point pertains to non-believers. You pose an interesting question. I think we should recognize, as you alluded to, that at the Fall man did not lose the image of God. It was degraded and diminished. Man was totally depraved, but not utterly depraved. So fallen humans could still bear the image of God in a limited capacity. And in this sense their lives can, by common grace, be art in the way I’ve described. But Christians, being united to Christ by special grace, ought to be better image-bearers than non-believers. Sometimes this doesn’t seem to be the case. Just as some non-believers often act more moral than Christians, non-believers sometimes image-bear better than Christians. (I would say that image-bearing and sanctification are the same things actually). But Christians, being cognizant of God’s story, can ‘see’ this image-making and seek to conform to God’s image in Christ.

    Keep in mind that my definition of art follows Plato, Aristotle and others. Art is imitation. So I do not think that I’m redefining art. I’m simply including the imitation of God in the concept of art. So within my conception of art there is 1) traditional art and 2) the imitation of God. When we imitate God, we are showcasing God’s character in creation. Also, we are actors in God’s divine drama. We are characters in God’s narrative of redemption. We are actors in the theater of God’s self-revelation, and we are principal performers in that theater.

    As for my choice of the word “hidden,” my point is that seeing our redeemed activity as art requires faith in the promises of God, namely, his narrative of redemption. We must know the story in which we find ourselves to ‘see’ the art of everyday life. If we ‘live by sight’ (i.e., not cognizant of the God’s story), then we will never see it. Everyday redeemed life as art is “hidden” in that way. But if we look at the world through the eyes of faith (i.e., through the lens of God’s promises) we will see redeemed activity as art. We must live by faith and not by sight to see God’s artistry in everyday human activity.

    Let me know if you find this answer inadequate. Again, thank you for commenting.



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