The use of statues, pictures, and other icons in worship

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Do Catholics disobey the commandment on statues?

To me this is a fairly simple issue, and the problem lies in Protestant misinterpretation of the second commandment and of what the Bible says. It can be solved using the Bible alone, therefore I will deal with it first. The way I see it, the second commandment is conditional – we may make statues, pictures, etc., but we may not worship them. And since Catholics do not worship the images in their churches and homes, they are not breaking any of God’s commandments by using those images.

Cristo Redentor - Rio

Cristo Redentor – Rio

For convenience, I will quote Exodus 20:4-5a (RSV) here: You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God …

This verse has been interpreted in two ways – no images may be made at all, and images may be made but not worshipped.

Common sense and experience tells us that it is the second interpretation that is the correct one – we may make images that are not worshipped. If the second commandment were absolute, it would be a sin to make photographs, put pictures in books, make statues of non-religious people. Most people (there are exceptions) do not go to that extreme.

Some people say, okay, but religious statues, pictures and icons are not allowed. Once again, most Protestants will disagree with that, at least in practice. Most Protestant Churches allow illustrated Bibles – these contain pictures of the prophets, saints, and even depictions of God like those found in Daniel 7:9, and of course pictures of Jesus, the icon (εἰκών) of God in flesh – see I Cor 11:7. The Bible is also clear about the making of such graven images – it is permissible. In fact God himself commanded it – see Exodus 25:18-22, 26:1,31 (God commands statues and images of cherubim to be made), Num. 21:8-9 (God commands a statue of a snake to be made for religious purposes), I Kings 6:23-29,35, 7:25,29,36, I Chron 28:18-19, Ezek 41:15 (graven images of the sea, oxen, palm trees, cherubim, lions).

So all I can conclude from the above passages is that images are allowed, even in a religious context such as the Temple, as long as they are not worshipped.

Some objections can be made – the cherubim over the Ark would not be seen by many people, and therefore would not be worshipped. But this ignores the fact that while the ark was being carried around on the journeys of the people of Israel before it came to rest in the Temple, many people would see it. The images of oxen, lions, etc. would be seen by the average Israelite. And finally, the image of the snake was an image that God said the general public had to go to and look at in order to be healed of snake bite. The common Protestant objection to that today would be that it is only an image, it has no special powers, no faith in the image can save you, not even from snake bite, and that to have such faith that looking to the image can indeed save you would constitute idolatry. However, God believed differently. He used this image to test the people’s faith in him, not the image. Likewise today, when we look to an image, it is not the image of Christ on the cross we rely on or pray to or worship, but Christ himself. Same as with the snake, the same sort of respect.

The fact is that the people of Israel at that time were very much tempted to worship a piece of wood or brass that represented something, especially calves. The commandment was designed to stop them replacing their true God with false gods, and was not designed to keep their religious art forms limited to abstract painting. That sort of temptation is no longer an issue in modern culture – people don’t want to worship a statue, they are aware that it is just a piece of plaster or wood. They worship in front of the statue, as the ancient Israelites showed their faith to God in front of a statue.

An objection that still often comes up is that we bow in front of this statue, and this appears to be forbidden by the second commandment. However, a look into what the Bible says about bowing gives a different picture.

There are certain verses that show people bowing down to other people or angels, and the person being honoured in this way stops the action, e.g. Rev 22:8-9. This is because the person realised that this person bowing down was doing so in an unfit way – he was worshipping him, which was wrong. That is why the action was stopped and corrected.

Divine Mercy icon, Byzantine style

Divine Mercy icon, Byzantine style

However, when bowing down to a person and not intending it as worship, but only out of respect, one is not sinning at all. I Sam 25:41 shows a woman bowing to David, and nowhere is this condemned. The LXX uses the Greek word proskuneo (προσκυνέω) for both this action of respect as well as worship of God. See also the angels in Gen. 18:2-3 (LXX), and the master in Matt 18:26.

So we have concluded the following:
– The Bible condemns worship of images, but not the making of images
– The Bible condemns worship of angels and people, but not the honouring of them by bowing to them

That leaves us with the fact that it is not a sin to bow to an angel or saint in honour of him/her. And if we do not bow to their statue, but rather to them, that is not sinful. In fact it is something the Bible is completely silent on – i.e. bowing to saints in front of images of them. If the image is not sinful, the bowing is not sinful, then what is the problem with what Catholics do ?

One further thing to note is that Catholics often seem to think of certain statues or other items as holy, to give them respect. Most notable of these is the Turin Shroud, which some claim is the burial shroud of Jesus. Protestants seem to think that honouring the bones of a holy man is wrong, or that honouring the tomb or belongings or relics of a holy man is wrong. To be more correct, Catholics worship God and honour the saints in the presence of these holy items, and do not honour them directly – that would be pointless. But Protestants still think it is as pointless to worship in the presence of a saint’s bones as it is to worship in the presence of a sack of flour. However, that is where Catholics and the Bible see differently to the Protestants.

The Protestants have fallen prey to the heresy of the 1st century Gnostics. They believed that all that was physical was evil, and that good was found only in the spiritual. Hence they rejected the use of icons and symbols – physical, tangible means of worship (note: not objects of worship.) The consequence of this was that they rejected the idea that Jesus the physical man was actually God – the main heresy for which the Apostle John scolds them in his epistles, found in the Bible.

Look at scriptures like II Kings 13:20-21 (Elisha’s bones perform a miracle), Matt 9:20-22 (the woman believed if she just touched Jesus’ clothes she would be cured – and was cured), Acts 5:15-16 (Peter’s shadow is seen as holy and miraculous), and Acts 19:11-12 (Paul’s handkerchiefs are sent around to perform miracles on their own). Here we can see cases where physical objects carry with them miraculous power. Nowhere does the Bible tell us that such events are wrong, that the use of miraculous bones or objects is sacrilegious – in fact Acts 19:11-12 tells us that the miracles were organised by God himself. So it is quite understandable why Catholics, like the early Christians, see holiness on physical objects, and think it appropriate to give thanks to God for letting such holiness touch their lives by giving such items respect, and even a place to be seen and used in the churches and homes of the faithful.

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