post tenebras lux

Post Tenebras Lux: After Darkness, Light. The motto of Reformation Geneva.

The Jesus of the Reformers was the Light shining in the darkness of a satanic world, and of an apostate Christendom ruled by a diabolic Pope.

Yet who is to say whether the Reformers brought light and not darkness?  Perhaps it was some strange light, neither daylight nor twilight, a light of mixed hues like that which follows a Highveld storm: intense, brooding, refracted by tumultuous clouds and rent by lightning. Post Tenebras Lux: perhaps. But what was this light that followed the Dark? And what of the shadows that Light still casts today? It is not a rhetorical question: I genuinely do not know what to make of this Light of which the motto speaks. The Anabaptists, persecuted for their beliefs, would have seen not God’s Holy light in the Lutheran armies that pursued them – but the light in the eyes of fanatical murderers.

I have heard it said by way of explanation that these were fanatical times, that Calvin and Luther were no more murderous than the Catholic Church of the time which itself tortured and burnt what it considered heretics and miscreants. I’m not sure this argument made by Calvinists is convincing; the Anabaptists seem more Christian to me than their persecutors – just as the Cathars (between the 12th and 14th centuries) seemed more reasonable and enlightened than the Catholic crusaders sent to exterminate them. Yet it is true that Protestant and Catholic saw eachother as the epitome of evil; they were as intolerant of eachother as they were of those outside of Christendom – the Jews, the Moslems, the pagans.

The Reformers – good christians all – were not averse to denouncing, torturing and killing their opponents, their critics, those whose doctrines differed slightly from their own, whose behavior, words or attire they disapproved of, those who offended or contradicted them. They called for the persecution, torture and execution of Catholics, heretics, adulterers and Jews (ironic, given their Lord himself was a Jew); they condemned comedy, colourful dress, decorative architecture. The arts were at best suspect, at worst the playground of the Devil. They disapproved of frivolity. and the unbeliever was damned to an eternity of excruciating torture in Hell. Voltaire wrote of Calvin, Zwingli and Luther that:  

“Shows and entertainments were expressly forbidden by their religion; and for more than two hundred years there was not a single musical instrument allowed in the city of Geneva.” The works of Voltaire : VOLUME XXVII. ANCIENT AND MODERN HISTORY.4 . CHARLES V., 1512—PHILIP II., 1584″. Retrieved 13 September 2015: Wikipedia.

“From the perspective of visual art and culture, the Reformation was one of the greatest catastrophes that ever befell Europe … in terms of paintings, murals, sculpture, architecture, and stained glass, the losses were irreparable. Centuries of vernacular culture and piety vanished within a generation.” – Philip Jenkins , Patheos

“The Protestant Reformation induced a wave of iconoclasm, or the destruction of religious imagery. All forms of Protestantism showed a degree of hostility to religious images, as idolatry, especially sculpture and large paintings. Protestant leaders, especially Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, actively eliminated imagery from churches within the control of their followers, and regarded the great majority of religious images as idolatrous, even plain crosses…” and

“The prototype of all modern forms of iconoclasm is found in Calvin’s Geneva and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s Mecca. Sixteenth-century Geneva witnessed one of the most devastating waves of religious image-breaking in history. Incited by a group of charismatic theologians – among them John Calvin himself – mobs raged against objects associated with miracles, magic and the supernatural, destroying some of the city’s most precious pieces of Christian art. Invoking the Second Commandment, they denounced these works as idols, and as remnants of a rural, feudal and superstitious world, a world corrupted by Satan… Nor  was Geneva unusual. In Basel in 1529, widespread iconoclastic riots destroyed virtually all the material tokens of traditional Catholic worship and devotion in the cathedral and the city’s leading churches. Even these German and Swiss manifestations were dwarfed by the devastating Storm of Images (Beeldenstorm) that swept over the Netherlands in 1566…. This movement was directed against any and all Catholic material symbols — against stained glass windows, statues of the Virgin and saints, holy medals and tokens…. Recent works, though, highlight two features of the movement that often get underplayed: 1. Iconoclasm was central to the Reformation experience, not marginal, and not just a regrettable extravagance…. 2.Analogies between the European Reformation and contemporary Islamism are much closer than many Protestants would like to admit.”


Jesus Wept – ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς – The Gospel of John, chapter 11, verse 35.

What would make Jesus weep?

If God wept, His tears would fall like rain across two thousand years of christianity.

In every age it seems Christ is crucified,
again and again and again
truth is repeatedly crucified,
often as not by those who claim to defend it.

I can only imagine that if Jesus had walked the streets of Reformation Germany or Switzerland, he’d soon have been arrested, tortured, expelled or executed. He was a Jew, after all. His message of forgiveness would not have gone down very well at all. This errant rabbi did not condemn the samaritan woman who, to the religious authorities of his day, was both an adulteress and a heretic. “John Calvin’s own step-daughter and son-in-law were among those condemned for adultery and executed.”

The Defenders of the Written Word, the emissaries of Sola Scriptura, claimed to know God’s Word – indeed they believed themselves to be the sole legitimate exponents and guardians of God’s Word. All other voices were, ipso facto, the voices of demons, of Satan himself. 

What would that itinerant preacher from Nazareth, That dusty rabbi do? 

His hands touch the leper. The prostitutes call to him from doorways. The demon-possessed shriek as he passes by. Children dance before him. The religious authorities conspire in dark cabals. The Romans – indifferent to jewish theological squabbles – nevertheless eye the crowd for signs of insurrection. A soldier implores the Jewish healer to have mercy on his sick daughter. There’s this Jew who can heal the sick, someone has told him. He forgives. Listens. Sees. Knows the hearts of men and their thoughts. Casts out demons. restores the insane. Speaks words that are hard to understand. He thirsts. He weeps. He reprimands. He terrifies. He speaks words of infinite love and forgiveness and of prophesy and judgement, punishment –  of weeping and gnashing of teeth… 

Which words are his?
Which words are attributed to him?
What words were pieced together later like shards
of a broken vessel more myth than earthenware?

Oral tradition found its way finally onto parchment. Aramaic words resolved into Greek. The Messiah left no journal, letters or notes.

We hardly know: time is a dense mist.

We claim to know him: each of us from our denominational enclaves of presuppositional truth believes we have found The One, while The One who eludes us is as opaque as his parables. Those who oppose him do so with equal confidence: they mock him, curse him, ignore him, deny his existence, declare him to be a myth – a sort of reinterpreted Horus, Mithras or Dionysus. Theologians of the stature of Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann and Richard Webster failed to find Jesus in the disorientating fog of the “Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung” – “The Quest of the Historical Jesus”.

Jesus is God’s riddle. He is God Incarnate, a heretic, a blasphemer, a rebel, an Essene, The Shoot of Jesse, the Son of Man. Saviour. He is the Lamb of God, The first-born, the Son of Mary, Emanuel – God with us, the Resurrection and the Life. The Bread of Life. The Alpha and Omega. The Image of the Invisible God, Mediator, Priest. The True Light. The Way, the Truth, the Life. The Good Shepherd. Accursed of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Lion of Judah, Holy One, Peace-Maker, Messiah, A paradox, a stumbling block, an aramaic-speaking Jew from a dusty backwater of a pagan empire, born in a stable amidst cows and goats. Born to a young woman the locals call a whore. Perhaps she was raped by a Roman soldier, others whisper.

Would the stern calvinist judges of the theocracy in Geneva have believed the young Mary’s explanation of her miraculous impregnation by the Paraclete, announced by an angelic visitation? Or would she have suffered the traditional fate of blasphemers and heretics in Reformation Europe? (“Calvin believed that it was just and right for heretics to be put to death.” – Source: Matt Gross,

And what of Jesus?

“… as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me”

In every act of human cruelty perpetrated by the Reformers,
I see Christ murdered by christians.


For a defence of John Calvin:

“Adultery, which, before Calvin’s return [to Geneva], was punished only by an imprisonment of some days, or by a trifling fine, was now punished with death. An adulteress was drowned in the Rhone. Thus two citizens of the best families (Heinrich Philip and Jacques le Nevue) were beheaded .”– J. M. V. Audin, History of the Life, Works, and Doctrines of John Calvin, trans. Rev. John McGill, (Louisville, R. J. Webb & Brother)


Notes & Sources

Geneva’s motto: Post Tenebras Lux: After darkness, Light (overview of the Reformation and it’s legacy)

Reformation Iconoclasts:
The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam by James Noyes

Valuable bibliography by at Philip Jenkins at Patheos:

Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Lee Palmer Wanderl, Voracious Idols and Violent Hands (Cambridge University Press, 1995).
Virginia Chieffo Raguin, ed., Art, Piety and Destruction in the Christian West, 1500-1700 (Ashgate, 2010).
Eamon Duffy’s brilliant The Stripping of the Altars is in a second (2005) edition.
For an older work, see John Phillips, The Reformation of Images: Destruction of Art in England, 1535-1660 (University of California Press, 1973)



Papal Persecutions



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