You may notice that quite a few of my posts have to do with the 'image question'. This issue (also related to the regulative principle, the application of second commandment, etc...) is much on my mind because part of my dissertation tries to articulate the iconoclastic rationale within Reformed Orthodoxy.
I was doing some background reading today in Calvin's The Necessity of Reforming the Church, which Calvin delivered as a defense of the Reformation at the fourth Diet of Spyer in 1544. The treatise is significant because it helped to convince H.R.E. Charles V to continue to tolerate the expansion of the Reformation movement. (You may have seen it as On the Necessity of Reforming the Church, same thing. You can find this treatise in Jean Calvin, Henry Beveridge, and Thomas Forsyth Torrance, Tracts and Treatises, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1958), p. 121,ff.
One of the arguments Calvin made against those who embraced religious images in worship was this:
Do not men pay to images and statues the very same reverence which they pay to God? It is an error to suppose that there is any difference between this madness and that of the heathen...But some subtle disputant will object, that there are divers species of adoration [dulia, hyperdulia and latria] ...as if these subtle distinctions were either known or present to the minds of those who prostrate themselves before images.
I happen to be a 'regulative principle' kind of fellow, but I wondered about Calvin's line of reasoning here. Does a distinction have to be present in the mind of laity for it to be a valid theological distinction? Of course, I would contend that the basis for a distinction has to be present in the pages of Scripture to be valid (even if the distinction itself is not explicitly stated), which Calvin also argues in a previous section of the treatise. In other words, distictions should be born out of biblical categories. But do we have to make sure everyone understands before a theological distinction can be valid?
I guess the crux of Calvin's argument is that defending the use of images by means of a philosophical rationale (as did John of Damascus and Nicea II in the 8th century), does not necessarily give images scriptural validity. The application of his argument is that philosophical distinctions in the mind of theologians can produce concrete worship practices that, when practiced by those who do not consistently hold such distinctions, are idolatrous. The later Reformed position dovetailed nicely onto Calvin's point: Don't use images in worship. A commandment forbids them. They invite inappropriate adoration, regardless of the distinction.
Calvin himself made a distinction between images used in worship and images used for different purposes. So he is not against distinctions, per se. His problems with the dulia/latria contrast were 1) it seemed to foster confusion among the laity; 2) it seemed to create categories not based in any clear teaching of scripture. Maybe that is how Calvin would describe an invalid theological distinction?
By the seventeenth century, many puritans considered the dulia/latria distinction as strange as trying to distinguish between adultery with someone a person really liked and adultery with someone a person liked in a less significant way. Both were adultery, regardless of the distinction. I guess they read the second commandment as straight forward as the seventh.
(NB: This was not meant to be a comprehensive statement of the regulative principle. I know I left some gaps. Take this as just a 'meditation' one one issue).