So Catholics Worship Statues? by Tim Staples

Tim Staples has a great article on his blog about this question.

February 28, 2014

The first commandment says: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. 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 (Ex. 20:2–5).

Well-meaning Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, armed with the above text, often try to use it against Catholics: How can God make it any clearer than this? We are not to have ‘graven images,’ or statues, yet what do you see in almost every Catholic Church around the world? Statues! This is the definition of idolatry. And please, do not give me any of this nonsense about equating the statues in your churches to carrying a photograph of a loved one in your wallet. In Exodus 20, as well as in Deuteronomy 5:7–8, God specifically says we are not to make statues in the shape of anything in the sky above, the earth below or the waters beneath the earth.

How are we to respond?

Clarifications

The Catholic Church does not believe any statue or image has any power in and of itself. The beauty of statues and icons move us to the contemplation of the Word of God as he is himself or as he works in his saints. And, according to Scripture, as well as the testimony of the centuries, God even uses them at times to impart blessings (e.g., healings) according to his providential plan.

While it can certainly be understood how a superficial reading of the first commandment could lead one to believe we Catholics are in grave error with regard to our use of statues and icons, the key to a proper understanding of the first commandment is found at the very end of that same commandment, in verse 5 of Exodus 20: “You shall not bow down to them or serve [adore] them.”

The Lord did not prohibit statues; he prohibited the adoration of them. If God truly meant that we were not to possess any statues at all, then he would later contradict himself. Just five chapters after this commandment in Exodus 20, God commanded Moses to build the ark of the Covenant, which would contain the presence of God and was to be venerated as the holiest place in all of Israel. Here is what God commanded Moses concerning the statues on it: And you shall make two cherubim of gold; 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 with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends (Ex. 25:18–19).

 

In Numbers 21:8–9, not only did our Lord order Moses to make another statue in the form of a bronze serpent, he commanded the children of Israel to look to it in order to be healed. The context of the passage is one where Israel had rebelled against God, and a plague of deadly snakes was sent as a just punishment. This statue of a snake had no power of itself—we know from John 3:14 it was merely a type of Christ—but God used this image of a snake as an instrument to effect healing in his people.

Further, in 1 Kings 6, Solomon built a temple for the glory of God, described as follows: In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. . . . He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house. . . . He carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees, and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms. . . . For the entrance to the inner sanctuary he made doors of olivewood. . . . He covered the two doors of olivewood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers; he overlaid them with gold (1 Kgs. 6:23, 27, 29, 31, 32).

King Solomon ordered the construction of multiple images of things both “in heaven above” (angels) and “in the earth beneath” (palm trees and open flowers). And then, after the completion of the temple, God declared he was pleased with its construction (1 Kgs. 9:3). Didn’t God know what King Solomon had done?

It becomes apparent, given the above evidence, that a strictly literal interpretation of Exodus 20:2–5 is erroneous. Otherwise, we would have to conclude that God prohibits something in Exodus 20 that he commands elsewhere.

Guiding Us Home

Why would God use these images of serpents, angels, palm trees, and open flowers? Why didn’t he heal the people directly rather than use a “graven image”? Why didn’t he command Moses and Solomon to build an ark and a temple void of any images at all?

First, God knows what his own commandments mean. He never condemned the use of statues absolutely. Second, God created man as a being who is essentially spiritual and physical. In order to draw us to himself, God uses both spiritual and physical means. He will use statues, the temple, or even creation itself to guide us to our heavenly home.

Psalm 19:1 tells us: The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

Romans 1:20 says: Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

Gazing at a sunset—or a great painting of a sunset—and contemplating the greatness of God through the beauty of his creation is not idolatry. Nor is it idolatrous to look at statues of great saints of old in order to honor them for the great things God has done through them. It is no more idolatrous for us to desire to imitate their holy lives and honor them than it was for St. Paul to exhort the Corinthians to imitate his own holy life (1 Cor. 4:16) and to “esteem very highly” those who were “over [the Thessalonians] in the Lord and admonish [them]” (1 Thess. 5:12–13).

Jesus Is the Reason

It is Jesus Christ himself who gives us the ultimate example of the value of statues and icons. Indeed, Christ, in his humanity, has opened up an entirely new economy of iconography and statuary. Christ becomes for us the ultimate reason for all representations of the angels and saints. Why do we say this? Colossians 1:15 tells us Christ is, “The image (Gr.-icon) of the invisible God.” Christ is the ultimate icon! And what does this icon reveal to us? He reveals God the Father. When Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” in John 14:9, he does not mean that he is the Father. He isn’t. He’s the Son. Hebrews 1:3 tells us Christ “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature.” That is the essence of what statues and icons are. Just as “the word became flesh” (John 1:14) and revealed the Father to us in a manner beyond the imaginings of men before the advent of Christ, representations of God’s holy angels and saints are also icons of Christ who by their heroic virtue “reflect the glory of God” as well. Just as St. Paul told the Corinthians to hold up his own life as a paradigm when he said, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me,” the Church continues to hold up great men and women of faith as “icons” of the life of Christ lived in fallen human nature aided by grace.

Adoration is as Adoration Does

Many Protestants will claim that, while the Catholic may say he does not adore statues, his actions prove otherwise. Catholics kiss statues, bow down before them, and pray in front of them. According to these same Protestants, that represents the adoration that is due God alone. Peter, when Cornelius bowed down to adore him, ordered him to “stand up; I too am a man” (Acts 10:26). When John bowed down before an angel, the angel told him, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you” (Rev. 19:10). But Catholics have no problem bowing down before what is less—a statue of Peter or John!

Is kissing or kneeling down before a statue the same as adoring it? Not necessarily. Both Peter in Acts 10 and the angel in Revelation 19 rebuked Cornelius and John, respectively, specifically for adoring them as if each was adoring the Lord. The problem was not with the bowing; it was with the adoration. Bowing does not necessarily entail adoration. For example, Jacob bowed to the ground on his knees seven times to his elder brother Esau (Gen. 33:3), Bathsheba bowed to her husband David (1 Kgs. 1:16), and Solomon bowed to his mother Bathsheba (1 Kgs. 2:19). In fact, in Revelation 3:9, John records the words of Jesus: Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and learn that I have loved you.

Here, John uses the same verb for “bow down” (proskuneo) that he used in Revelation 19:10 for “adoration” when he acknowledged his own error in adoring the angel. Would anyone dare say that Jesus would make someone commit idolatry? Of course not!

I argue that in a sense, Jesus is saying to those who do not know him, “You can either bow down to my people (respect and honor them) now in this life, or I will compel you to do so in the next. It’s your choice.” But however you interpret Rev. 3:9, it is probably the clearest example in the New Testament of why bowing does not equal adoring (or worshipping).

This may sound shocking to Christians raised in what has become a very cold Western world that has lost, for the most part, a true affective sense. On one side we have a culture that has become so inundated with everthing sexual, we’ve lost what the ancient people of God did not so much put to words as they did live from the core of their collective being. They knew how to love and respect each other. St. Paul, for example, encouraged Christians to greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor.16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26).

“Are you kidding me, St. Paul? Get away from me, pal!”

On the other side, we have a large portion of Protesants who fear any act of reverence directed toward a human or angel will bring the immediate wrath of a “jealous God.” How far is this removed from what we saw from Jesus in Rev. 3:9, or from the clergy in Ephesus who we find embracing and kissing Paul after his final discourse to them in Acts 20:37. As the context of these passages make clear, these are acts of affection, not adoration. And, Lord have mercy, they are certainly not representative of anything untoward.

Conclusion

I suppose the message we should send to those outside of the Catholic Church who don’t get why we bow down before, kiss, put flowers in front of, etc. statues and icons, is that we Catholics take very seriously the biblical injunctions to praise and honor great members of God’s family (see, for example, Ps. 45:17; Luke 1:48; 1 Thess. 5:12–13; 1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Pet. 5:5–6, etc.). And we do not change our beliefs because either the world, or certain people who name the name of Christ may walk away from them.

We also believe, as Scripture makes very clear, that death does not separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:38), or from his body, which is the Church (Col. 1:24). Our “elders in heaven” (cf. Rev. 5:8) should be honored as much or even more than our greatest members on earth. So having statues honoring God or great saints brings to mind the God we adore and the saints we love and respect. This is a no-brainer for Catholics. To us, having statues is just as natural as—you guessed it—having pictures in our wallets to remind us of the ones we love here on earth. But reminding ourselves of loved ones is a far cry from idolatry.

Do Catholics Worship Statues?

This great article below comes from Catholic Answers

“Catholics worship statues!” People still make his ridiculous claim. Because Catholics have statues in their churches, goes the accusation, they are violating 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” (Ex. 20:4–5); “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold” (Ex. 32:31).

It is right to warn people against the sin of idolatry when they are committing it. But calling Catholics idolaters because they have images of Christ and the saints is based on misunderstanding or ignorance of what the Bible says about the purpose and uses (both good and bad) of statues.

Anti-Catholic writer Loraine Boettner, in his book Roman Catholicism, makes the blanket statement, “God has forbidden the use of images in worship” (281). Yet if people were to “search the scriptures” (cf. John 5:39), they would find the opposite is true. God forbade the worship of statues, but he did not forbid the religious use of statues. Instead, he actually commanded their use in religious contexts!

God Said To Make Them

People who oppose religious statuary forget about the many passages where the

Lord commands the making of statues. 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” (Ex. 25:18–20).

David gave 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 Chr. 28:18–19).

David’s plan for the temple, which the biblical author tells us was “by the writing of the hand of the Lord concerning it all,” included statues of angels.

Similarly Ezekiel 41:17–18 describes graven (carved) images in the idealized temple he was shown in a vision, for he writes, “On the walls round about in the inner room and [on] the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim.”

The Religious Uses of Images

During a plague of serpents sent to punish the Israelites during the exodus, God told Moses to “make [a statue of] a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it shall live. So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num. 21:8–9).

One had to look at the bronze statue of the serpent to be healed, which shows that statues could be used ritually, not merely as religious decorations.

Catholics use statues, paintings, and other artistic devices to recall the person or thing depicted. Just as it helps to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it helps to recall the example of the saints by looking at pictures of them. Catholics also use statues as teaching tools. In the early Church they were especially useful for the instruction of the illiterate. Many Protestants have pictures of Jesus and other Bible pictures in Sunday school for teaching children. Catholics also use statues to commemorate certain people and events, much as Protestant churches have three-dimensional nativity scenes at Christmas.

If one measured Protestants by the same rule, then by using these “graven” images, they would be practicing the “idolatry” of which they accuse Catholics. But there’s no idolatry going on in these situations. God forbids the worship of images as gods, but he doesn’t ban the making of images. If he had, religious movies, videos, photographs, paintings, and all similar things would be banned. But, as the case of the bronze serpent shows, God does not even forbid the ritual use of religious images.

It is when people begin to adore a statue as a god that the Lord becomes angry. Thus when people did start to worship the bronze serpent as a snake-god (whom they named “Nehushtan”), the righteous king Hezekiah had it destroyed (2 Kgs. 18:4).

What About Bowing?

Sometimes anti-Catholics cite Deuteronomy 5:9, where God said concerning idols, “You shall not bow down to them.” Since many Catholics sometimes bow or kneel in front of statues of Jesus and the saints, anti-Catholics confuse the legitimate veneration of a sacred image with the sin of idolatry.

Though bowing can be used as a posture in worship, not all bowing is worship. In Japan, people show respect by bowing in greeting (the equivalent of the Western handshake). Similarly, a person can kneel before a king without worshipping him as a god. In the same way, a Catholic who may kneel in front of a statue while praying isn’t worshipping the statue or even praying to it, any more than the Protestant who kneels with a Bible in his hands when praying is worshipping the Bible or praying to it.

Hiding the Second Commandment?

Another charge sometimes made by Protestants is that the Catholic Church “hides” the second commandment. This is because in Catholic catechisms, the first commandment is often listed as “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3), and the second is listed as “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” (Ex. 20:7). From this, it is argued that Catholics have deleted the prohibition of idolatry to justify their use of religious statues. But this is false.

Catholics simply group the commandments differently from most Protestants.

In Exodus 20:2–17, which gives the Ten Commandments, there are actually fourteen imperative statements. To arrive at Ten Commandments, some statements have to be grouped together, and there is more than one way of doing this. Since, in the ancient world, polytheism and idolatry were always united— idolatry being the outward expression of polytheism—the historic Jewish numbering of the Ten Commandments has always grouped together the imperatives “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3) and “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” (Ex. 20:4). The historic Catholic numbering follows the Jewish numbering on this point, as does the historic Lutheran numbering. Martin Luther recognized that the imperatives against polytheism and idolatry are two parts of a single command.

Jews and Christians abbreviate the commandments so that they can be remembered using a summary, ten-point formula. For example, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants typically summarize the Sabbath commandment as, “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy,” though the commandment’s actual text takes four verses (Ex. 20:8–11).

When the prohibition of polytheism/idolatry is summarized, Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans abbreviate it as “You shall have no other gods before me.” This is no attempt to “hide” the idolatry prohibition (Jews and Lutherans don’t even use statues of saints and angels). It is to make learning the Ten Commandments easier.

The Catholic Church is not dogmatic about how the Ten Commandments are to be numbered, however. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The division and numbering of the Commandments have varied in the course of history. The present catechism follows the division of the Commandments established by Augustine, which has become traditional in the Catholic Church. It is also that of the Lutheran confession. The Greek Fathers worked out a slightly different division, which is found in the Orthodox Churches and Reformed communities” (CCC 2066).

The Form of God?

Some anti-Catholics appeal to Deuteronomy 4:15–18 in their attack on religious statues: ” [S]ince 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.”

We’ve already shown that God doesn’t prohibit the making of statues or images of various creatures for religious purposes (cf. 1 Kgs. 6:29–32, 8:6–66; 2 Chr. 3:7–14). But what about statues or images that represent God? Many Protestants would say that’s wrong because Deuteronomy 4 says the Israelites did not see God under any form when he made the covenant with them, therefore we should not make symbolic representations of God either. But does Deuteronomy 4 forbid such representations?

The Answ er Is No

Early in its history, Israel was forbidden to make any depictions of God because he had not revealed himself in a visible form. Given the pagan culture surrounding them, the Israelites might have been tempted to worship God in the form of an animal or some natural object (e.g., a bull or the sun).

But later God did reveal himself under visible forms, such as in Daniel 7:9: “As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was Ancient of Days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire.” Protestants make depictions of the Father under this form when they do illustrations of Old Testament prophecies.

The Holy Spirit revealed himself under at least two visible forms—that of a dove, at the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32), and as tongues of fire, on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4). Protestants use these images when drawing or painting these biblical episodes and when they wear Holy Spirit lapel pins or place dove emblems on their cars.

But, more important, in the Incarnation of Christ his Son, God showed mankind an icon of himself. Paul said, “He is the image (Greek: ikon) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Christ is the tangible, divine “icon” of the unseen, infinite God.

We read that when the magi were “going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt. 2:11). Though God did not reveal a form for himself on Mount Horeb, he did reveal one in the house in Bethlehem.

The bottom line is, when God made the New Covenant with us, he did reveal himself under a visible form in Jesus Christ. For that reason, we can make representations of God in Christ. Even Protestants use all sorts of religious images: Pictures of Jesus and other biblical persons appear on a myriad of Bibles, picture books, T-shirts, jewelry, bumper stickers, greeting cards, compact discs, and manger scenes. Christ is even symbolically represented through the Icthus or “fish emblem.”

 

Common sense tells us that, since God has revealed himself in various images, most especially in the incarnate Jesus Christ, it’s not wrong for us to use images of these forms to deepen our knowledge and love of God.

That’s why God revealed himself in these visible forms, and that’s why statues and pictures are made of them.

Idolatry Condemned by the Church

Since the days of the apostles, the Catholic Church has consistently condemned the sin of idolatry. The early Church Fathers warn against this sin, and Church councils also dealt with the issue.

The Second Council of Nicaea (787), which dealt largely with the question of the religious use of images and icons, said, “[T]he one who redeemed us from the darkness of idolatrous insanity, Christ our God, when he took for his bride his holy Catholic Church . . . promised he would guard her and assured his holy disciples saying, ‘I am with you every day until the consummation of this age.’ . . . To this gracious offer some people paid no attention; being hoodwinked by the treacherous foe they abandoned the true line of reasoning . . . and they failed to distinguish the holy from the profane, asserting that the icons of our Lord and of his saints were no different from the wooden images of satanic idols.”

The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) taught 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).

“Idolatry is a perversion of man’s innate religious sense. An idolater is someone who ‘transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God’” (CCC 2114).

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.

NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors . Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum , August 10, 2004

IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827 permission to publish this work is hereby granted.

+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004