Earlier, I came across this discussion, in which an iconoclast Protestant accuses the Catholic Church of eliminating the Second Commandment because we have statues… and then asks how to add an image to his post. Bravo, irony!
But this is a real stumbling block for a lot of Protestant Christians, and even Catholics often are left a bit uneasy, unsure how to rectify what the Bible seems to say with what the Church teaches. So let’s have a serious discussion about idolatry and iconoclasm.
The starting point has to be the King James Version of Exodus 20:4-6, straight out of the Ten Commandments:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
The word being translated here as “graven images” literally means that in Hebrew, but it’s a bit misleading as a translation. The Hebrew word (pecel) is used some thirty-one times in the Old Testament, and every time it refers to idols. So a better translation is that you shall not make idols.
Understanding the prohibition as literally against “graven images” is problematic for two reasons. First, it’s far too narrow. What about idols that aren’t engraved? For example, to the right is a picture of Kali, one of the goddesses worshiped by Hindus. Is this picture okay to worship, since it’s painted, rather than engraved? Obviously not.
Second, it’s far too broad. If the prohibition is against images, rather than idols, then all sculpture is out, regardless of the artist’s motivation. We can’t have Michelangelo’s David, or even those miniature statues of lions that people have in front of their houses. And if you ignore the graven part (as Protestants tend to do), it would prohibit all paintings and photographs of people, or animals, or nature. That’s the irony I pointed out in the first paragraph: even posting a photograph online would be against the Ten Commandments, regardless of who or what the photo was of. Who actually abides by that rule? Certainly not God.
In fact, it’s much, much worse than all that. In Exodus 25:17-22, God orders the engraving of two golden Cherubim on top of the mercy seat upon the Ark of the Covenant. It was here that God would commune with Moses, and Moses would worship Him. Here’s a helpful picture of what this would have looked like:
Yup, incense, and kneeling in front of a couple of statutes. So did God just order Moses to violate the Ten Commandments? Obviously not. But that means that pecel cannot be understood to mean all images. It just cannot, or we’re forced to accuse God of violating His own Commandments.
Instead, the prohibition against making and kneeling before pecels is a prohibition against making and praying to idols, as the NIV, NASB, NLT, and most modern Protestant and Catholic translations of the Bible recognize. This is the only understanding of the passage that makes any sense.
What should be incredibly clear is that God doesn’t order iconoclasm. He doesn’t prohibit art, even realistic art, even religious art. In fact, as surprising as this tends to be for Protestants, He doesn’t even prohibit art where there’s a chance it’ll be misused for idolatry. In fact, He orders it in at least one case.
In Numbers 21:8-9, God orders Moses to create a bronze serpent and mout it on the pole: anyone who looks upon it is healed of snakebite. He does this, knowing full well that within a short time, the people are going to start worshiping the statue, instead of the God who saved them through the statue. And sure enough, the Israelites name the bronze snake Nehushtan, and begin worshiping it, until King Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18:4). God foreknows that this will happen, yet he orders the engraving of the Nehushtan statue anyway. Why? Because before they fell into idolatry, the statue helped them visibly comprehend the majesty of the invisible God. And it also prefigured the Cross, the most visible sign of God’s love.
So what should we learn from the example of the bronze serpent? God isn’t upset with images themselves. In fact, where images help draw us closer to Him, He wants us to have them. That’s why He orders the golden Cherubim: to remind us of Him. But what upsets Him is anything that causes us to wander from Him. Jesus illustrates this point dramatically in Matthew 18:7-9, when He warns us against letting our own bodies stand between us and right relationship with God.
Hopefully, at this point, we all agree that the Old Testament doesn’t prohibit images, doesn’t prohibit statuary or engraved images, doesn’t even prohibit religious images. But the New Testament builds upon and fulfills the Old, and this is true when it comes to religious imagery, as well. See, for example, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22:15-22:
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in His words. They sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is Your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap Me? Show Me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought Him a denarius, and He asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”“Caesar’s,” they replied. Then He said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left Him and went away.
So while the coin is made in the image of Caesar, each one of us is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and should give our everything to Him. But look at what He uses to make that point: a coin with a graven image of Caesar, the very man being worshiped by many Romans. Jesus doesn’t order the denarius to be destroyed as some sort of idol. Instead, He uses the coin to show us God.
This is radical, because in the Old Testament, the One you couldn’t do a depiction of was God Himself. He was too big, too infinite, too far beyond human imagination. Any image was considered to be an insult to His Divinity. Christ fulfills all of this in Himself. Fr. Robert Barron, at the beginning of his book Catholicism, (which really is as good as everyone says), talks about this point. On pages 1-2, he explains the importance of the Incarnation, and what it reveals about God:
The Incarnation tells central truths concerning both God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation. In many of the ancient myths and legends, divine figures such as Zeus or Dionysus enter into human affairs only through aggression, destroying or wounding that which they invade. And in many of the philosophies of modernity God is construed as a threat to human well-being. In their own ways, Marx, Freud, Feuerbach, and Sartre all maintain that God must be eliminated if humans are to be fully themselves.
But there is none of this in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The Word does indeed become human, but nothing of the human is destroyed in the process; God does indeed enter into his creation, but the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God capable of incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song.
That passage is absolutely brilliant, even without diving into that theologically-rich final sentence. This has huge implications for how we approach Creation, beauty, and science (the study of both Creation and truth), as well as how we understand God. But let’s just look at the implications for religious imagery.
Properly understood, then, the Incarnation answers the error of iconoclasm. The infinite and immortal God, beyond all imagination, has taken on our humanity, that we might come to Him and share in His Divinity (2 Peter 1:4). In other words, God isn’t just telling us that Creation isn’t evil. He’s positively telling us that Creation is good. Christ becomes the visible Image of God in a perfect way. Nehushtan is replaced by Our Crucified Lord. St. Paul puts it simply (Col. 1:15): “the Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Imagery of the invisible God is no longer prohibited, because we can now envision God: Jesus Christ.
So in a nutshell, if religious images elevate your spirit, if they draw you towards God, they’re fine. In fact, they’re better than fine. You should use them. But if you can’t tell the difference between religious images and God Himself, then you shouldn’t.
The prohibition against religious art and imagery isn’t harmless. To the left is a picture of the doorway to a Dutch church (St. Stevens), that was vandalized by Protestants in the 16th century. They cut the heads off of the statues of Jesus and the saints, and the angels from the doorway.
Thank God that they didn’t find the Ark of the Covenant, because I can think of no coherent reason why they’d be against statues of angels in the doorway to a church, but fine with statues of angels on the Ark of the Covenant.
Now, obviously, Protestants today aren’t roving around destroying Catholic art. But iconoclasm has ongoing negative impacts. When The Passion of the Christ came out, it was condemned as idolatry, with commenters making sweeping claims like “all pictures, statues or portrayals of our Lord are idolatrous.” Taken seriously, this goes a lot further than outlawing the local Nativity play (or creche).
If re-enacting the words and actions of Christ constitutes idolatry, it’s hard to see how even Protestant Lord’s Suppers wouldn’t be idolatry, since the pastor speaks the words of Christ in the first person. For that matter, why is it okay to read the words of Christ out loud from the Gospels? It’s about as likely that someone hears their pastor reading Scripture and mistakes him for Jesus as is it that they’ll mistake Jim Caviezel for Jesus Christ.
Can you get to Christ without visible imagery? Certainly. The blind do it all the time. But step back and consider the countless number of people brought to Christ by The Passion of the Christ, or by the Oberammergau Passion Play, or by the numerous Nativity scenes and even Christmas school plays. Those souls would be lost in the dreary world of the iconoclast. That’s far from harmless.
And take heed, Christian. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, accepted by Catholics and Orthodox alike, and one of the seven that many Protestants give at least some weight to, actually declared “Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images.” This is a real problem for those who pay lip service to the Seven Councils while ignoring what those Councils actually taught.
So, here’s what we know:
- The Old Testament prohibits idols, not images;
- God sometimes commanded religious images in worship;
- In using religious images, we’re not to worship them (obviously);
- The mere fact that religious images could be (and sometimes were) abused as idolatry didn’t stop God from ordering them;
- The one major religious image taboo the Jews had, about the creation of Images of God Himself, is resolved in the Incarnation, since “the Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15).
- Iconoclasm (the total rejection of images) has prevented untold scores of people from coming to Christ;
- The Church, in a Council accepted by Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestants, orders the use of religious images.