Friday, April 12, 2013

Veneration of icons and graven images

In a 1980 sermon by Pastor John MacArthur, he stated:
Idolatry is worshiping the wrong god and worshiping the right God in the wrong way. ... I think idolatry is also worshiping symbols that may stand for God. Now we've all-been aware of what is known as the iconoclastic controversy from the word eikon in Greek which means "image." Throughout the history of the church, the church was in its early manifestation of Romanism wanting to put everything in statues and the Roman Church still does that. ... And you still have crucifixes and other images and saints and so forth that represent a certain kind of idolatry. And you say, "Well, we don't really worship the idols it's just that the representation is there." Yes, but the transition is so subtle.
MacArthur attempts to support his claim with two stories in Scripture. The first is when God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent:
And the LORD said to Moses, "Make 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)
MacArthur does not believe this is an example condoning at least some use of a graven images. Rather, he believes all such imagery is forbidden because it could eventually degenerate into idolatry. As evidence, he cites another Biblical text:
And [Hezeki'ah] did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Ashe'rah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it; it was called Nehush'tan. (2 King 18:3-4)
Even though God commanded Moses to forge the bronze serpent (cf. Num. 21:8-9), MacArthur draws the following conclusion because of 2 King 18:3-4:
[Hezeki'ah] treated it with disdain get rid of that little brass thing that they were all worshiping. In other words, something started out as a symbol and it became an idol. And that is always a danger of an icon, that man will twist the symbol into an idol. So, whether you're talking about worshiping a false god or worshiping the true God in a wrong way, or worshiping God to a wrong image, it is all forbidden in Scripture.
Thus, according to MacArthur, because the people had eventually named and began worshipping the bronze serpent as a "god" in itself, therefore any use of a forged icon is forbidden or "idolatry" as he says above of Catholic crucifixes or images of saints.

However, let us confront the obvious. Did God or did not God command Moses to forge the bronze serpent in the first place? Num. 21:8 says God indeed commanded Moses to forge the serpent. But it seems the people who found healing when they gazed upon the serpent misunderstood from whence their healing came. The power was God's and it is God who deserved their worship. However, they apparently believed the healing power came from the bronze object itself.

Now just because the people eventually treated the serpent as a "god," it does not follow that all forms of graven images are forbidden. The conclusion would be tantamount to saying because a hospital patient failed to properly use the medicine given to him by the doctor, that therefore all medicine must be forbidden because there are some who abuse it. Thus it was not the forging of the image that was sinful, nor the gazing upon it for healing according to God's own command, but the sin was to worship the object as a god. MacArthur thus goes too far in saying any icon is de facto forbidden.

As well, there are other examples in Scripture regarding "graven images." In another example, God commands Moses to forge gold cherubim angels to flank the ark of the covenant:
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. 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. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. (Ex. 25:18-21)
Likewise, other areas of the temple bore carvings of cherubim angels:
Over against the threshold the temple was paneled with wood round about, from the floor up to the windows (now the windows were covered), to the space above the door, even to the inner room, and on the outside. And on all the walls round about in the inner room and the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim and palm trees, a palm tree between cherub and cherub. ... The nave and the holy place had each a double door. The doors had two leaves apiece, two swinging leaves for each door. And on the doors of the nave were carved cherubim and palm trees, such as were carved on the walls; and there was a canopy of wood in front of the vestibule outside. (Ezek. 41:16b-18a, 23-25)
The author of Hebrews (traditionally thought to be Paul), also describes the ark:
Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. (Heb. 9:3-5a)
See also (1 King 6:29-32, 1 King 8:6-72 Chron. 3:7-14)

In Catholic theology, it is Christ himself in the new covenant who is the image of the living God.
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. (CCC#2131)
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." 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. (CCC#2132)
In Catholic apologetics, the analogy of the photograph of a loved one is often cited. Families keep pictures of loved ones, even those who are deceased, and they reflect or even venerate that person in their hearts without thinking that the photograph itself is a real person. Time and again, in magisterial texts on iconography, the Church is clear to reject the sin of those who worshipped the bronze serpent––that the object, the image, is not the target of focus.

Around the late sixth century, Pope Gregory I explained the parallel between an image and a depiction of God by way of human language. The incident he describes resembles the story of the bronze serpent which the people imprudently worshipped as a god:
[I]t has come to our ears that your Fraternity, seeing certain adorers of images, broke and threw down these same images in Churches. And we commend you indeed for your zeal against anything made with hands being an object of adoration; but we signify to you that you ought not to have broken these images. (Pope Gregory I to Serenus, &c, ca. 590-604 A.D.)
Here you see a parallel to the reaction of King Hezeki'ah who destroyed the bronze serpent when he saw the people worshipping the object as a god. But Pope Gregory continues:
For pictorial representation is made use of in Churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books. Your Fraternity therefore should have both preserved the images and prohibited the people from adoration of them, to the end that both those who are ignorant of letters might have wherewith to gather a knowledge of the history, and that the people might by no means sin by adoration of a pictorial representation. 
Another translation of Pope Gregory's letter reads:
...pictorial representations which had been made for the edification of an unlearned people in order that, though ignorant of letters, they might by turning their eyes to the story itself learn what had been done...
You see here Pope Gregory comparing written depictions of truths of the faith to drawn depictions of truths of the faith. Certainly, that there were some in Pope Gregory's time who fell into idolatry of images demonstrates the ancient mentality and tendencies to treat a created object as itself a "god." With this, perhaps Pope Gregory led the Church into maturity and paved the way for another saint in the following century to develop and help fortify the proper use of iconography in religious life. Whereas the ancient people improperly worshipped the bronze serpent, the cherubim statues over the ark remained a valid communication of the holy dwelling place of God (cf. Gen. 3:24)

Certainly, many paintings in antiquity utilized symbols and colors to represent various teachings within Scripture, such as the idea of a dove for the Holy Spirit (e.g. Luke 3:22). An illiterate Christian could, in a sense, "read" the icon and learn of the faith by the truths it depicts. So too, can a literate Christian reflect on icons and the truths depicted therein, such as Mary holding the child Jesus, calling us to mind the truths of the incarnation. It is this sort of veneration of saintly images that can help us focus and recall the truths of the faith, applying them to our very lives.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of this matter during a 2009 General Audience on seventh century saint John Damascene:
John Damascene was also among the first to distinguish...between worship (latreia), and veneration (proskynesis): the first can only be offered to God, spiritual above all else, the second, on the other hand, can make use of an image to address the one whom the image represents. Obviously the Saint can in no way be identified with the material of which the icon is composed
In the last sentence, the Pope makes the clarification that was MacArthur's concern regarding the object itself degenerating into personification. But what may be more worth examining is his emphasis on the difference between (latreia) and (proskynesis), with the first "only offered to God."

Let me take a brief detour to point out that sometimes older texts may use the English word "worship" even when a lesser sense than latreia is intended. For example, in the 1953 encyclical Fulgens Corona, Pope Pius XII wrote: "But let this holy city of Rome be the first to give the example, this city which from the earliest Christian era worshipped the heavenly mother, its patroness, with a special devotion." (Fulgens Corona, 34)

However, if we look earlier in the encyclical, the Pope clarifies this as distinct from the worship due to God alone:
Non-Catholics and reformers are therefore mistaken when because of this pretext they find fault with, or disapprove of, our devotion to the Virgin Mother of God, as if it took something from the worship due to God alone and to Jesus Christ. The contrary is true because any honor and veneration which we may give to our Heavenly Mother undoubtedly redounds to the glory of her Divine Son, not only because all graces and all gifts, even the highest, flow from Him as from their primary source, but also because "The glory of children are their fathers" (Prov. 17:6). (Fulgens Corona, 15) 
Catholics should be recognized for understanding God is the one deserving of "worship" in the sense of the first commandment. Those who impose the incorrect sense of the term "worship" on Catholic veneration of saints therefore commit the fallacy of equivocation. Saints can be revered (or "worshipped" depending on translation or alternate use of the term) in another sense because, as Pope Pius says above, they reflect the glory of God's grace. Veneration of saints is ultimately, in its final essence, praise for Christ.

This thought is espoused by St. John Damascene:
[J]ust as we do not worship the material of which the Gospels are made, nor the material of the Cross, but that which these typify. For wherein does the cross, that typifies the Lord, differ from a cross that does not do so? It is just the same also in the case of the Mother of the Lord. For the honour which we give to her is referred to Him Who was made of her incarnate. (St. John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith, 4.16.c)
Worthy of mention in all this are the biblical examples of relics, which themselves are created objects belonging to various saints. For example:
And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet. (2 King 13:21)
Acts 19:12 So that even there were brought from his (Paul's) body to the sick, handkerchiefs and aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the wicked spirits went out of them.
Although relics differ from icons in that they are possessions of or physical parts of a saint, these resemble icons in that a material object involved in the exercise of religion certainly is not blanketly forbidden.


  1. The serpent on the pole was a type and shadow of Christ becoming sin for us on the cross redeeming us from the curse of sin and the attack of satan... the serpent being a type of satan, and the punishment for disobeying God's Word.

    It wasn't the bronze serpent that healed but the act of obedience to God's Word for that situation... but the people didn't understand that and worshiped the snake instead of the God who gave them those directions for that situation... and so the bronze snake was destroyed because it became an idol. The reason the snakes attacked them in the first place was because they did not listen and believe God's Word and were grumbling against Moses and against God, it wasn't because they were in lack of a bronze serpent on a pole.

    To receive forgiveness and healing we must look by faith to Jesus and the finished work of the cross not to a bronze snake on a pole or to a statue of Jesus on a cross or any other statue of any other dead saint. Jesus, the sinless, perfect, resurrected Son of God is at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf so what need do we have to pray to dead saints who were never sinless or perfect or resurrected?

    Pope Gregory I may have had a valid argument for his time but in our day and age. We don't need statues and images to tell the gospel. Most people can read and those who can't can listen to recordings or watch video 24/7. Furthermore, if the statues are just to illustrate the Bible why do people bow and pray before them and to them? These arguments clearly do not line up to intelligent or biblical reasoning.

    This simply comes down to a matter of stubborn pride. After all these years the Catholic church still does not want to admit some of what their popes have taught is unscriptural... and oh by the way... if you don't submit to the 'infallible' teaching of the pope then you are not really part of the church so what you say or the Bible says doesn't count. Give me a break! If you don't play by the popes rules you can't play at all... how immature is that? Jesus is the head of the church not the pope and I am a saint, a member of the body of Christ because of my faith in Jesus not because of the name on the church building I meet the other saints in.

    The bones of Elisha and the handkerchiefs of Paul were simply transmitters of God's anointing. It was not the objects but the anointing of God that brought healing, miracles, and deliverance. Biblically speaking, every person who has received Jesus as Lord and Savior is a 'saint' but not all saints have the special gifts of healings or working of miracles working through them.

  2. Willburdean - Catholics do not believe in any magic in the objects themselves either. It seems there is a misunderstanding at the basis of your reply. Neither do Catholics "pray to statues" as you stated. We would both agree praying to an object would be idolatrous. And we also believe that any Christian is a "saint." Someone who bears it as a title is simply someone who exemplifies the Christian life exceptionally. I see no need to quarrel with your response because that which you are rejecting is a fictional caricature of actual Catholic teaching. You will not find anything in the Catechism exhorting us to pray to statues or that Christians are not saints. In fact, the Catholic term "communion of saints" is a reference to all Christians in all time.

    If you have a specific critique of Catholic teaching, I recommend consulting the Catechism ( which will have various doctrines articulated in paragraph form, along with footnote references to Scripture or councils, etc... in which a particular teaching was discerned.