DID GOD FORBID THE VENERATION OF IMAGES?

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The center altarpiece of the Church of St. Dominic in Guatemala

All anti-Catholics misleadingly accused the holy Catholic Church of committing the gavest sin of idolatry. They concluded that Catholics violated God’s commandment: “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” (Exodus 20:4–5); “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold” (Exodus 32:31). But is it true?

The holy Catholic Church teaches that “The first commandment condemns polytheism. It requires man neither to believe in, nor to venerate, other divinities than the one true God. Scripture constantly recalls this rejection of ‘idols, [of] silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.’ These empty idols make their worshippers empty: ‘Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.’ God, however, is the ‘living God’ who gives life and intervenes in history” (CCC 2112). Thus, how can the holy Catholic Church promote idolatry if she herself condemns it?! The question would then be: Do the Catholics worship images?

God forbade the worship of statues. Yes, He did but He did not forbid the religious use of statues. Instead, He actually commanded their use in religious contexts.

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The interior illustration of the Temple of Solomon depicting the sacred images.

In the Mosaic covenant, the prohibition against images was not absolute. In the tent and in the temple, there were representations of the Cherubim as well as of plants and animals. For example: “And you shall make two cherubim of gold [i.e., two gold statues of angels]; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece of the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be” (Exodus 25:18–20). It was here that God would commune with Moses, and Moses would worship Him.

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An icon of the ark of covenant

In addition to it, the King David gave his son, Solomon, the plan “for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord. All this he made clear by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it all, all the work to be done according to the plan” (1 Chronicle 28:18–19). Here, David’s plan for the temple, which the biblical author commented as “by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it all,” included statues of angels.

Similarly, in Ezekiel 41:17–18, it reads: “On the walls round about in the inner room and [on] the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim.” In Numbers 21:8-9, God ordered Moses to create a bronze serpent and mout it on the pole that anyone who looked upon it was healed from snakebite. He did it, knowing fully that within a short time, the people would start worshiping the statue. And sure enough, the Israelites named the bronze snake Nehushtan, and began worshiping it, until King Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18:4). See? God knew from the very start that such would happen, yet He still ordered the engraving of the Nehushtan statue. Why? Because before they fell into idolatry, the statue helped them visibly understand the majesty of the invisible God — which is the prefiguration of Christ crucified on the Cross, the most visible sign of His Divine love (cf. John 3:14-15).

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The bronze serpent of Moses

In the temple there was no danger of the worship of the cherubs or any other image, because the presence of the Lord filled the temple. And in the same way there is no real danger for a real Catholics in the use of religious images because they enjoy the real presence of God present in the Tabernacle that holds the Eucharist, the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus of Nazareth as what Joshua did, he fell and prayed before the ark, and the Lord answered him (cf. Joshua 7:6-11).

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Joshua bowed down and prayed before the ark of the covenant.

In fact, in the New Testament, the Israelites even built monuments for the just and the prophets. In Luke 11:47 (NLT), it reads: “What sorrow awaits you! For you build monuments for the prophets your own ancestors killed long ago.” Matthew 23:39 (NLT) also states: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed.” NOTE that the two verses show that the Lord cursed the Pharisees not because of mere building monuments but because of their hypocrisy in showing off respect to the prophets and the just even though they were the ones who killed and destroyed them. Nevertheless, the verses clearly suggest that Christ Himself did not condemn the building of monuments per se for the servants of God who are referred by the Catholics as saints.

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At last, St. Paul in Galatians 3:1 (NLT), also spoke verbatim of a picture of Christ’s crucified: “Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross.”

What about bowing and kneeling before the image?

The anti-Catholics further argued that in Deuteronomy 5:9, God said concerning idols, “You shall not bow down to them.” Does it qualify the Catholics in idolatry?

Though bowing and kneeling can be used as a posture in worship, yet not all bowing and kneeling are forms of worship. Depends on the context of cultures, bowing and kneeling can sometimes be simple forms of honor.

In Genesis 19:1-3, two angels approach Lot in the gateway of the city of Sodom. When Lot sees them, he gets up “and bowed with his face to the ground.” Lot gets no rebuke from the angels. How come? Precisely because the two angels had enough sense to distinguish between honor and worship.

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Lot bowed before the angels.

Another incident concerns the prophet Balaam. When Balaam kicked his donkey for refusing to move, the donkey spoke up in human language objecting (humorously) to the beating. It was after that objection that the Bible says: “Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown” (Numbers 22:31). Again, the angel did not rebuke Balaam for bowing low and falling face down. Why? Because the angel understood the difference between honor and worship.

There are other biblical passages which show bowing and kneeling are not necessarily worshipping, such as in Genesis 27:29, 1 Kings 1:16, 1 Samuel 24:8, 1 Samuel 25:23, 1 Samuel 28:14, 2 Samuel 9:6-8, 2 Samuel 14:33, 2 Samuel 18:28, 2 Samuel 22:40, 1 King 1:22f, 1 Kings 2:19, 1 Kings 18:7, 2 Kings 2:15, etc.

On the other hand, the most often quoted verse found in Revelation 22:8 explicitly says that St. John “fell down TO WORSHIP at the feet of the angel.” His reason for falling down is clearly spelt out — not to honor the angel but to worship. Hence, John was promptly rebuked by the angel. Remember, it wasn’t the bowing down that upset the angel but the worship implicit in the act.

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Similarly, in his encounter with St. Peter, the man Cornelius went beyond the cultural expression of honor when he crossed the line and slipped into worship: “When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet AND WORSHIPPED him” (Acts 10:25-26). Hence, Cornelius was rebuked by St. Peter. Clearly, the acts of bowing and kneeling before any man or graven image do not immediately imply acts of worship.

Remember that God prohibited the Israelites the making of sacred images because He Himself was formerly unseen, “Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth” (Deuteronomy 4:15-18). But that is no longer the case because the Incarnation of Jesus Christ His Son, God showed mankind an icon of Himself. St. Paul said, “He is the image (Greek: ikon) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Christ is the tangible, divine icon of the unseen, infinite God.

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The statue of Jesus Christ with His Most Sacred Heart

The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) defined that idolatry is committed “by worshipping idols and images as God, or believing that they possess any divinity or virtue entitling them to our worship, by praying to, or reposing confidence in them” (374). Thus, the Church absolutely recognizes and condemns the sin of idolatry. What anti-Catholics fail to recognize is the distinction between thinking a piece of stone or plaster is a god and desiring to visually remember Christ and the saints in heaven by making statues in their honor. The making and use of religious statues is a thoroughly biblical practice. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know his Bible.

The author of Iglesia Ni Cristo In A Nutshell made a very good point: “What is prohibited of images? What is prohibited is making it yourself and bowing to it, or serving it. Therefore, if you have carved a moon, it is still allowed. But, if you did the second step of bowing or serving the moon, the violation bell rings. Supposing the carved moon was not carved by you and neither paid somebody to carve it for you, but, you accidentaly bowed to it? Since there is no intention on your part to bow to it or serve it, the violation bell will not ring. What about if you have seen a carved moon accidentally in the flea market, acquiring and putting it in your room and you bowed to it with the intention of bowing to the unseen God, will the violation bell ring? No. The intention of the mind is what counts. The intention starts with the carving and completed with the bowing or serving. This third case is the scenario of what Catholics do. Their bowing is not directed at the image itself, but, is directed on the one their minds are set on. If the mind is not the controlling point, everyone would be in violation because there is no place on earth wherein there is no object or things near you or close to you. Also, repetition of the act is important to show willfulness” (Lesson 6).

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And what then is the true idolatry? St. Paul admonished the Christians in Colossae, “Put to death therefore WHAT IS EARTHLY IN YOU: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).

Finally, the true Catholic Church of Christ has spoken, listen to her: “The veneration of sacred images is based on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. It is not contrary to the first commandment” (CCC 2141).

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