Dear brethren in Christ, what would you respond if a non-Catholic Christian were to accuse Catholics of worshipping idols or statues?
Below you have an explanation of the Catholic doctrine on the veneration of images. We, Catholics, do not worship statues nor idols. Nor does the Church transgress and go against the God’s Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” (Exodus 20:3). But before that, we shall take up the basis of the Protestant accusation which unfortunately have misled and deceived a lot of people.
The outline of the exposition is as follows:
- THE PROTESTANT ACCUSATION IS BASED ON A LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF OLD TESTAMENT TEXTS:
- THE ERROR OF A MERE LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF ISOLATED SCRIPTURAL TEXTS.
- HOW SHOULD A CATHOLIC UNDERSTAND AND INTERPRET THE ABOVE TEXTS BASED ON CATHOLIC TEACHING?
- HOW MUST CATHOLICS RESPOND? THE CATHOLIC DOCTRINE ON THE VENERATION OF IMAGES.
The usual fundamentalist Protestant argument comes from the LITERAL INTERPRETATION of some parts the following Old Testament quotes:
- Deutoronomy 4:15: 15 Since you saw no form when theLord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, 16 SO THAT YOU DO NOT ACT CORRUPTLY BY MAKING AN IDOL FOR YOURSELVES, IN THE FORM OF ANY FIGURE—the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19 And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven.
- Deutoronomy 5:6-10: 6 I am theLord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7 YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE[B] 8 YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FOR YOURSELF AN IDOL, WHETHER IN THE FORM OF ANYTHING THAT IS IN HEAVEN ABOVE, OR THAT IS ON THE EARTH BENEATH, OR THAT IS IN THE WATER UNDER THE EARTH. 9 YOU SHALL NOT BOW DOWN TO THEM OR WORSHIP THEM; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[c]of those who love me and keep my commandments.
- Exodus 20:3-6: 3 YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE[a]me. 4 YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FOR YOURSELF AN IDOL, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 YOU SHALL NOT BOW DOWN TO THEM OR WORSHIP THEM; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.
A LITERAL TRANSLATION OF THESE OLD TESTAMENT TEXTS IS UTTERLY ERRONEOUS. THIS IS NOT THE PROPER AND CORRECT WAY TO INTERPRET THE BIBLE FOR IF NOT THE HOLY BIBLE WOULD BE A TEXT FULL OF CONTRADICTIONS AND GOD IS NOT A GOD WHO CAUSES CONFUSION BUT IS THE GOD OF TRUTH! A mere literal confusion of all the Scriptures would lead to terrible errors.
Evident examples are:
- the Creation narrative;
- Or the words “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:24)”
- Or the words “ If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Mt 5:29)” and the list goes on…
Furthermore, the CONTEXT in which the texts are written have to be considered. But above all, the Old Testament has to be CONSIDERED IN THE LIGHT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, of the salvific mystery carried out by Our Lord Jesus Christ who is the definitive and full revelation of God.
Following the teachings of the Catholic doctrine (see below), a Catholic believes, knows and should say that:
- There is only ONE TRUE GOD and there is no other god aside from Him.
- If one puts SOMETHING OR SOMEONE before the ONE TRUE GOD, and WORSHIPS IT, THEN, it CONSTITUTES AS THE SIN of IDOLATRY.
- IDOLATRY is a CLEAR DIVINE PROHIBITION and together with this is the DIVINE PROHIBITION OF THE FABRICATION AND ADORATION OF IMAGES OR STATUES OF THESE IDOLS IDENTIFIED AS GOD HIMSELF.
- WHAT ARE THE HISTORICAL, RELIGIOUS AND CULTURAL CONTEXTS OF THE PROHIBITIONS IN THE TEXT ABOVE (You shall not make graven images…)?
- The Hebrew people during that time together with the neighboring peoples adored images and states of various deities due to the widespread POLYTHEISM of that time.
- THE PERVASIVE IGNORANCE CONFOUNDED THE SCULPTURAL AND PICTORIAL REPRESENTATION WITH THE DIVINITY ITSELF. This is the reason why the God prohibited any representation and adoration of images be it ANTHROPOMORPHIC (Deut. 4:15-16), ZOOMORPHIC (Deut 4:17-18) or ASTROLOGICAL (Deut 4:19), very frequent in Babylonia and other areas of the Orient.
- With these divine prohibitions, God wished protect the Hebrew people from being influenced by the religions of their neighbors and at the same time wished to underline that HE IS A IMMATERIAL AND SPIRITUAL GOD.
- DOES GOD THEN PROHIBIT ANY IMAGE OR REPRESENTATION OF THE DIVINE? NO.
- Here is where the literal translation of “YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FOR YOURSELF AN IDOL” is unacceptable. Why? GOD ALLOWS THE FABRICATION OF IMAGES PROVIDED THAT THEY ARE NOT IDENTIFIED WITH GOD HIMSELF AND NOT WORSHIPPED AS SUCH.
- This we can see in many parts of the Old Testament WHERE GOD INSTRUCTED AND ORDERED MOSES AND SOLOMON TO FABRICATE IMAGES AND STATUES FOR HIS GLORY and which SYMBOLICALLY point to the SALVIFIC MYSTERY FULFILLED BY OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ASIDE FROM ORNAMENTATION PURPOSES. And so,
- the bronze serpent;
- the ark of the covenant;
- the Temple of Solomon with the golden cherubims, palm trees and flowers;
- the twelve bulls/oxen on which the sea stands;
- the 12 stones which are signet-like engravings… See Num 21:4-9; Wis 16:5-14; Jn 3:14-15; Ex 25:10-22; 1 Kings 6:23-28; 7:23-26.
- BUT NOT ONLY THAT. IF WE FOLLOW THE LITERAL INTERPRETATION ARGUMENTATION TAKEN OUT OF CONTEXT, WE MUST NOT FORGET THAT GOD HIMSELF MADE MAN ACCORDING TO HIS OWN IMAGE AND LIKENESS (Gen 1:26)! IS HE GUILTY OF IDOLATRY? OF COURSE, NOT! This and the above examples just show how a mere literal interpretation of an isolated text from its context is erroneous and would make God contradict Himself, which, of course, is impossible!
- HENCE, THE DIVINE PROHIBITION IS NOT IN FABRICATION OF THE STATUES, IMAGES OR ICONS IN THEMSELVES.
- THE DIVINE PROHIBITION IS IN THE ADORATION OF SUCH AND THE IDENTIFICATION WITH THE GOD HIMSELF WHO IS TRANSCENDENT AND IMMATERIAL.
- With the INCARNATION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, WHO IS BOTH PERFECT GOD-PERFECT MAN, A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF THE USE OF SACRED IMAGES SET IN.
- JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD IS ONE IN BEING WITH GOD THE FATHER, SUCH THAT HE WHO SEES HIM SEES THE FATHER (John 14:9).
- HE IS AT THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD (Col 2:15) AND THE DEFINITIVE FULFILMENT OF THE LAW (Lk 4:21; 22:37).
- As such, Jesus Himself is the image of God Invisible and Transcendent.
- HENCE, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, UPON REPRESENTING OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST THROUGH THE SACRED IMAGES, ICONS, PICTURES AND STATUES, DOES NOT GO AGAINST THE 1ST COMMANDMENT, FOR THE ADORATION IS DIRECTED TO THE ONE REPRESENTED BY THE SACRED IMAGES, IN THIS CASE, TO GOD THE FATHER, GOD THE SON AND GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT, AS THE CASE MAY BE.
- THE IMPORTANT IDEA IS THAT A SACRED IMAGE IS A REPRESENTATION. THE VENERATION IS DIRECTED TO WHOM THE SACRED IMAGE REPRESENTS AND NOT TO THE IMAGE ITSELF.
- This Catholic position is very much IN CONSONANCE WITH HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY wherein the mind works with and is reminded and stimulated by the senses, thus, facilitating prayer, adoration and worship. For us, having images, pictures, icons facilitate us in REMEMBERING and DIRECTING ourselves to our LOVING and MERCIFUL GOD, in the same manner as having pictures of our loved ones in our smartphones, desks or wallets, reminds us of them: this is not idolatry at all!
- As to the use of sacred images of the VIRGIN MARY, ANGELS AND THE SAINTS, the above idea applies plus the fact that THE HONOR AND VENERATION RENDERED TO THEM REALLY REDOUND TO GOD HIMSELF, BEING GLORIFIED IN AND WITH THE EXEMPLARY LIVES OF HIS CREATURES (Cf. Rom 8:17). Catholics do not adore the saints because they are not God. Adoration and worship are due to God and only to Him. Catholics honor and venerate saints because they have glorified God in their life. They are shining examples of God’s triumph in man’s life.
- Jesus Himself glorified God with His entire life (Jn 14:13). God the Father glorified Jesus as well with His Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven.
- Paul teaches us that we must “glorify God with our body(1 Cor 6:20).”
- Our Lady and the saints have glorified God not only with their body but with their spirit as well: with their life! The honor rendered to them is honor rendered to their Creator, as when one praises a painting, the praise redounds to the painter. And the veneration of their images does not stop at what is represented by their images but ultimately is directed to God, for his Honor and Glory!
The Catholic Church, whose sources of faith include NOT ONLY the HOLY SCRIPTURES but the SACRED TRADITION as well, with the authentic interpretation of the MAGISTERIUM OF THE CHURCH, provides us the following doctrinal interpretation of the above texts.
2129 The divine injunction included the prohibition of every representation of God by the hand of man. Deuteronomy explains: “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…( Deut 4:15-16.) ” It is the absolutely transcendent God who revealed himself to Israel. “He is the all,” but at the same time “he is greater than all his works (Sir 43:27-28).” He is “the author of beauty (Wis 13:3).”
2130 NEVERTHELESS, ALREADY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, GOD ORDAINED OR PERMITTED THE MAKING OF IMAGES THAT POINTED SYMBOLICALLY TOWARD SALVATION BY THE INCARNATE WORD: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim (Cf. Num 21:4-9; Wis 16:5-14; Jn 3:14-15; Ex 25:10-22; 1 Kings 6:23-28; 7:23-26.)
2131 BASING ITSELF ON THE MYSTERY OF THE INCARNATE WORD, THE SEVENTH ECUMENICAL COUNCIL AT NICAEA (787) JUSTIFIED AGAINST THE ICONOCLASTS THE VENERATION OF ICONS – of CHRIST, but also of the MOTHER OF GOD, THE ANGELS, AND ALL THE SAINTS. BY BECOMING INCARNATE, THE SON OF GOD INTRODUCED A NEW “ECONOMY” OF IMAGES.
2132 THE CHRISTIAN VENERATION OF IMAGES IS NOT CONTRARY TO THE FIRST COMMANDMENT WHICH PROSCRIBES IDOLS. Indeed, “THE HONOR RENDERED TO AN IMAGE PASSES TO ITS PROTOTYPE,” AND “WHOEVER VENERATES AN IMAGE VENERATES THE PERSON PORTRAYED IN IT (St. Basil, De Spiritu Sancto 18, 45: PG 32, 149C; Council of Nicaea II: DS 601; cf. Council of Trent: DS 1821-1825; Vatican Council II: SC 126; LG 67).” THE HONOR PAID TO SACRED IMAGES IS A “RESPECTFUL VENERATION,” NOT THE ADORATION DUE TO GOD ALONE:
RELIGIOUS WORSHIP IS NOT DIRECTED TO IMAGES IN THEMSELVES, CONSIDERED AS MERE THINGS, BUT UNDER THEIR DISTINCTIVE ASPECT AS IMAGES LEADING US ON TO GOD INCARNATE. THE MOVEMENT TOWARD THE IMAGE DOES NOT TERMINATE IN IT AS IMAGE, BUT TENDS TOWARD THAT WHOSE IMAGE IT IS (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 81, 3 ad 3.).
- What does God prohibit by his command, “You shall not have other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2)?
This commandment forbids:
- POLYTHEISM AND IDOLATRY, which divinizes creatures, power, money, or even demons.
- Superstition which is a departure from the worship due to the true God and which also expresses itself in various forms of divination, magic, sorcery and spiritism.
- IRRELIGIONwhich is evidenced: in tempting God by word or deed; in sacrilege, which profanes sacred persons or sacred things, above all the Eucharist; and in simony, which involves the buying or selling of spiritual things.
- ATHEISMwhich rejects the existence of God, founded often on a false conception of human autonomy.
- AGNOSTICISMwhich affirms that nothing can be known about God, and involves indifferentism and practical atheism.
- Does the commandment of God, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” (Exodus 20:3), forbid the cult of images?
- In the Old Testament, this commandment forbade any representation of God who is absolutely transcendent. The Christian veneration of sacred images, however, is justified by the incarnation of the Son of God (as taught by the Second Council of Nicea in 787AD) because such veneration is founded on the mystery of the Son of God made man, in whom the transcendent God is made visible. This does not mean the adoration of an image, but rather the veneration of the one who is represented in it: for example, Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Angels and the Saints.
Hope the above considerations help you and others to defend our Catholic faith and avoid being deceived by our non-Catholic brethren and thus remain faithful to the Catholic faith.
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A Blessed week ahead to you and your family…God bless!
Fr. Rolly Arjonillo., priest of Opus Dei.
ORIGINAL PHOTO SOURCE: Juan de Mesa, Cristo de la Buena Muerte in http://lashojasdelroble.blogspot.com.es/2011/03/cuaresma-las-miradas-del-amor-iii.html
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