THE Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, worshipping and adoration as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saint, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God.
-Article XXII. Of Purgatory.
Not Just about Idolatry
It is usual to reduce the early Protestant critique of religious images and saintly invocation to that simply of idolatry. A lot of ink has therefore been wasted on terminological arguments about whether adoration of saints is “worship” or not, etc.
However the arguments against those practices was actually a lot more specific and not simply a deduction from the strictures against idolatry.
The Lutheran Critique of Invoking the Saints
To put it bluntly, the early Lutheran critique of invoking the saints was not that it was idolatrous but because we have no evidence that they can hear us. Philip Melancthon in his Apology to the Augsburg Confession himself have already discussed the “saints praying for us” argument and rejects it. To quote him at some length.
Moreover, even supposing that the saints pray for the Church ever so much, yet it does not follow that they are to be invoked; although our Confession affirms only this, that Scripture does not teach the invocation of the saints, or that we are to ask the saints for aid. But since neither a command, nor a promise, nor an example can be produced from the Scriptures concerning the invocation of saints, it follows that conscience can have nothing concerning this invocation that is certain. And since prayer ought to be made from faith, how do we know that God approves this invocation? Whence do we know without the testimony of Scripture that the saints perceive the prayers of each one? Some plainly ascribe divinity to the saints, namely, that they discern the silent thoughts of the minds in us. They dispute concerning morning and evening knowledge, perhaps because they doubt whether they hear us in the morning or the evening. They invent these things, not in order to treat the saints with honor, but to defend lucrative services. Nothing can be produced by the adversaries against this reasoning, that, since invocation does not have a testimony from God’s Word, it cannot be affirmed that the saints understand our invocation, or, even if they understand it, that God approves it. Therefore the adversaries ought not to force us to an uncertain matter, because a prayer without faith is not prayer. For when they cite the example of the Church, it is evident that this is a new custom in the Church; for although the old prayers make mention of the saints, yet they do not invoke the saints. Although also this new invocation in the Church is dissimilar to the invocation of individuals.
–Article XXI (IX): Of the Invocation of Saints.
The argument is therefore a lot more subtle than a simple idolatry charge. The premises could be reduced as follows.
(1) Prayer must be made in faith.
(2) We can only do things in faith which we are certain of.
(3) There is no certainty that prayers to the saints are either approved of by God or heard.
(4) We cannot make prayers to saints in faith.
Melanchthon cites numerous objections against the idea the invocation of saints are approved of or can be heard, e.g. there is no command or example in the Bible of praying to saints who have passed on, there is no evidence that saints possess omniscience or omnipresence, capable of hearing and processing the prayers of millions of people from all over the world at one go.
Therefore the argument against saintly invocation is a lot more complicated than a simple idolatry charge. If anything, the Lutherans and Anglicans themselves approve of certain honours to be given to the saints, but in a very specific sense. Melanchthon again:
Our Confession approves honours to the saints. For here a threefold honour is to be approved. The first is thanksgiving. For we ought to give thanks to God because He has shown examples of mercy; because He has shown that He wishes to save men; because He has given teachers or other gifts to the Church. And these gifts, as they are the greatest, should be amplified, and the saints themselves should be praised, who have faithfully used these gifts, just as Christ praises faithful business-men, Matt. 25:21, 23. The second service is the strengthening of our faith; when we see the denial forgiven Peter, we also are encouraged to believe the more that grace truly superabounds over sin, Rom. 5:20. The third honour is the imitation, first, of faith, then of the other virtues, which every one should imitate according to his calling. These true honours the adversaries do not require. They dispute only concerning invocation, which, even though it would have no danger, nevertheless is not necessary.
Thus, honour is to be given to the saints, in the sense of thanksgiving and praise as great exemplars of virtue for us, strengthening of our faith, and finally as examples for our imitation. Thus, we must not let invocation of the saints be a substitute to following their examples.
The Qualifications in the Use of Images
While admittedly the later Reformed did forbid all making of images based on the second commandment, the early Protestants did not so forbid give such a blanket prohibition but qualified instead its use. Again Melanchthon provides the qualifications.
Images of Christ and of the saints, that is, representations of their story by means of paintings and the like in churches and elsewhere, have, as Gregory says, been the books of the illiterate, that is, they explain the story like a written book. In itself this is a matter of indifference concerning which Christians should not quarrel.
Since, then, such representation provides for the illiterate the advantage of seeing and learning the stories as if from books, we do not reject pictures in themselves, nor do we abolish them; we do, however, reprove their misuse.
For we teach that images are not to be worshiped; nor is it to be thought that they have power; nor should people think that setting up images of God or of the saints is serving God, or that God is more gracious of does more than otherwise if He is invoked before such an image.
For God wants men to grasp Him only in faith through His Word and His sacraments; therefore it is a wicked error to bind God to certain images without God’s Word. It is also a wicked error to think that a deed performed in front of such an image pleases God more than if done elsewhere; for we should believe that God in all places hears those who earnestly call upon Him. Hence Isaiah [66:1] reproves those who do not believe that God everywhere hears those who call upon Him in true spiritual worship, for he says that, even though the heaven is the Lord’s throne, yet God dwells “in him that is poor and of a contrite spirit”. Christ says [John 4:21, 23]: “Ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem worship the Father…but…in spirit and in truth,” and Paul says [1 Tim. 2:8]: “I will that men pray everywhere”.
-1536 Wittenberg Articles, XVII. Images
Thus what is censured is not the existence or making of images themselves per se but in their use. The general idea is that the images are not special locus of God’s grace nor do they possess any intrinsic merit in the sight of God. It is only by treating them as somehow imbued with some divine or sacred significance that it becomes idolatrous.
There is of course a lot more to be said about the engaging further high church arguments for such practices even in the light of these arguments, however my basic point is simply that the early Protestant critique wasn’t a simple reductive question of idolatry but engaged the particulars of the practices in the light of Scripture, tradition and the actual shape and implications of its particular practices.