Blog 18: 1.11.7 - 1.11.12
This section of the Institutes includes one of the most helpful comments that Calvin ever made about the Christian life. "Man's nature," he said, "is a perpetual factory of idols."
In context, Calvin is referring to idols in their most technical sense as physical objects used as a substitute for the worship of God. But the principle behind his statement has a much wider application. Calvin teaches us to see the human heart as a locus for the manufacture of other gods.
We are always busy making ourselves new things to worship. Some of these idols may well be physical representations of the deity, such as the Canaanite gods that the Israelites were tempted to worship, or that many Hindus and Buddhists worship today. Then again, some of our idols may be pleasures of the body (like sex), or objects in the world around us (like money), or attitudes of the heart (like the power to control other people). In any case, the problem is that we are idol producers; we carry the means for the production of false worship in our own souls.
Calvin's theology of idolatry is polemical as well as pastoral. In addition to exposing the idols of every human heart, he also attacks what he sees as the idolatry of the Roman Catholic Church. Although Catholic theologians tried to draw a distinction between the honor or the service that they offered to various images and the worship they offered to God, Calvin argued that this was a distinction without a difference. To serve is to worship, and to honor God in any way through any image is to deface his deity.