Don’t Statues Count as Forbidden “Graven Images”?

A Protestant on a Catholic forum asked:

The bible says, Lev 26:1 >Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up [any] image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I [am] the LORD your God.Why do I always see statues & figures of Christ on the cross or Mary holding a dead Christ in churches & Catholic supported locations & why do people & priests alike bow down before these images & pray ?

I responded:

Most Protestant interpretations render pecel as “graven images,” and then claim that ANY religious imagery, regardless of whether the image is worshipped or not, is forbidden. But let’s consider that claim.

  1. Where does it say religious imagery? If Leviticus 26:1 bans all graven images, as these interpretations suggest, then sculptures and much of architecture is out. On the other hand, paintings of the saints are still ok, because they’re not engraved.
  2. In Exodus 25:18, God orders: “And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, at the two ends of the ark-cover.” Why aren’t these “graven images” a sin?

This second question is really the kicker. The normal responses – images are okay as long as you’re not kneeling in front of them, etc. – don’t apply here. Because Exodus 25:22 says that God will speak to Moses “from between the two cherubim,” we know that Moses is on his knees, or even on his face before God, and thus, before these two carved cherubim.

So making a golden calf is a sin, when you worship it, but making cherubim statues is not a sin when they remind you of divine realities, rather than serve as objects of worship.Which one is Catholicism more like? Well, we don’t think that statues are alive or have inherent magical powers as the idolators do (which Romans 1 makes clear is the Biblical view of idolatry). We don’t even think that the Saints in Heaven which they remind us of have power independent of God. Rather, we’re reminded of those invisible realities in Heaven, and our thoughts are drawn upwards, to angels, to saints, and to God Himself. And that’s exactly what He seems to have had in mind in having angelic images for the Ark, the center of Old Testament worship!


  1. I would point them also (though it might be a stretch to get them to accept it) to the book of Wisdom, 13:10-19 and on into chapter 14 as well. This deals nicely with what qualifies as a “graven image”.

  2. That is a solid passage. If nothing else, it colorfully outlines (in uniquely Catholic Scriptures) precisely what the Church *forbids*: the worship of images.

    I love Wisdom 13 – it makes idolatry seem so stupid.

  3. Joe,
    Is it just me or are Calvinists outright hypocrites? I mean take a look at it: Calvinists say that the commandments forbid any RELIGIOUS imagery, right? I ask: Is John Calvin a religious person or a secular philosopher? He would, no doubt fall into the religious category, right? Therefore any image of Calvin and the other Protestants are idols regardless of whether they worship it or not! What if the Muslims were to come and hack the head off Calvin’s statue?
    The Calvinists would have no grounds for criticizing the Muslims for doing that since Muslims don’t keep any statues of their theological heroes! Actually the Muslims have done way better than Calvin at opposing images. They don’t keep images of their theological heroes! Ask a Calvinist: is it idolatry to paint a picture of Moses holding the 10 commandment? If he answers yes, ask him why. He will no doubt say that God forbids the images of religious men. Then ask him, is Calvin a religious man or a secular philosopher? If he answers; religious ask him why he is disobeying the commands of God.

    “If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a NEW POPE [John Calvin], but one who burns men alive while the pope at Rome strangles them first.”

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