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 yourselves 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 (Deut: 5:6). Exodus 20: 3-4- “You shall not defy me by making other gods your own. You shall not carve images, or fashion the likeness of anything in heaven above, or on earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth.” These passages are normally cited by those who accuse the Catholic Christians of worshipping images because one usually see a catholic kneeling prayerfully in front of a statue of our Lady or the saints or Christ Jesus. It is very common to find Catholics bow while passing in front of a statue. Thus one can conclude that Catholics are breaking the first commandment since it says “you shall not bow or serve them” but some even kneel in front of them.
There are more directly two groups of people this write up attempts to dialogue with. First, those who accuse Catholics of worshiping idols because some Catholics kneel in front of sacred images when praying or bow before them when passing through them and those Catholics who are confused in that they think that Catholics are worshipping images. This two groups share one thing in common lack of sound doctrine on Catholic practice of venerating images and not worshipping them. They differ in that the accusers are outside while the confused are inside the church.
The leading Christians of the early church obeyed this commandment to the letter. They never made any image until in the 3rd century. Eduard Syndicus SJ reports, “At the end of the second century, in one of Minucius Felix’s dialogues, the pagan Caecilius says to the Christian Octavius: ‘You Christians are primitive. You have no altars, no temples.’ And Octavius proudly replies: ‘What temple could I build for God, seeing that the whole world, the work of his own hands cannot contain him? Should we not rather build a sanctuary for him in our hearts?” (E. Syndicus: 1962). At about AD 180, the pagan Celsius would write addressing Christians “you cannot bear to look upon temples, altars and images (E. Syndicus: 1962).” Origen replies seventy years later citing the Old Testament prohibition of images and adds “Therefore Christians not only have horror of temples, altars and images; they are even ready to die, if need be, rather than profane their conception of God by doing anything forbidden(E. Syndicus: 1962).” Celsius was insistent, making reasonable argument in support of images. He “explained that the image was not regarded as equivalent to what it represented but was necessary hint at the invisible (E. Syndicus: 1962)”. Primitive Chrsistians could not see the veracity of this argument. Thus they replied Celsius “that man could only draw nearer to God in so far as he rose above the world of the senses.” Christian’s argument was Neo-platonic. “Doctrinally, Neo-Platonism is characterized by a categorical opposition between the spiritual and the carnal, elaborated from Plato’s dualism of Idea and Matter; by the metaphysical hypothesis of mediating agencies, the nous and the world soul, which transmit the divine power from the One to the many; by an aversion to the world of sense; and by the necessity of liberation from a life of sense through a rigorous ascetic discipline (S. Samuel: 2009).” This was the spirit of the time not like today were the goodness of the body has been discovered. And man cannot behave like man truly alive without proper attention to the unity of body and spirit. Hence “mens sana in copore sano”: A healthy mind in a healthy body.
This attitude of the early Christians is not unexpected since Christianity came from the environment of religious culture of the Jews that prohibits making images as stipulated in the Torah. Christ himself a Jew, did not say anything about images. More explicitly, he extolled the spirit when he demanded that we should worship the Father in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). Thus he did not place much emphasis on the definite place of worship. Moreover, Christ himself as expected of a Jew said in the gospel of Matt. 5:17 that he came not to abolish the Law (Torah), but to fulfill it. So “the early Christians not making images” seems to respect the teachings of Jesus.
One could argue that the early Christians did not pay close attention to the issue of making images in the scripture. In Exodus 31, it could be said that God approved making of images when he told Moses that he had filled Bazalel son of Uri with the spirit of craftsmanship and some others with talents beneficial in making the tent of meeting. In Num 21: 8-9, Moses was commanded by God to make a fiery serpent for healing snakebites. Those who looked at the fiery serpent had live. Other passages were it could be said that God directed or approved images include carved and moulded garlands of fruit and flowers and trees (Numbers 8:4; 1 Kings 6:18; 7:36); the king’s throne rested on carved lions (1 Kings 10:19-20), lions and bulls supported the basins in the temple (1 Kings 7:25, 29), the cherubim, great carved figures of beasts (Ezekiel 1:5; 10:20, where they are called beasts), that stood over the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:18-22; 1 Kings 6:23-8; 8:6-7, Ezekiel 41:19 -20). Do these passages imply that God sanctioned making of images?
For E. Syndicus Yaweh revealed himself as God of artist in Exodus 31. Tertullian would read these passages as God’s support for craftsmanship. Hence “Tertulian advised the early Christians artist to become craftsmen (E. Syndicus: 1962).” Since a craftsman is somebody who makes decorative or practical objects skillfully by hand. That is to say that decorative objects are permitted and not objects to adore and worship. However, one can otherwise argue that the universal law is that one should not make any image at all. But whenever image is desired, God gives his directives. Thus the universal law on images stands, but exceptions are specifics from God. First commandment was a universal law (Ex. 20:4), while other passages that records image making were instances of acts ordered by God for specific purposes. Thus one can say that God ordering Moses to make a fiery serpent does not mean that God through that ordained that we can make any kind of image. He only ordered making of a fiery serpent at a particular situation. To say that God gave permission for making images is fallacy of overgeneralization.
To understand the first commandment properly, one has to read the full text. It is not enough to quote Ex 20:3-4. Ex 20: 5-6 gave the reasons for the injunctions in verse four. First is that one should not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God….” That is to say that God does not want anyone to worship any god. If you will be tempted to worship a graven image, do not make them. That is why Solomon’s temple (a place of offering sacrifices to God) possessed giant cherubim of glided olive-wood, doors adorned with carvings in high relief and bronze basins standing on huge oxen. Therefore “what was forbidden was the actual image of God, especially in sculpture, and magic image of a creature; and for very good reasons. E. Syndicus listed the reasons: first,
Portrayal confers power. When man fashions something he fashions it after his own image, and God’s glory and incomprehensibility are thereby necessarily diminished. Portrayal gives a concrete form to what can only be thought of as infinite life.
The image can become an idol which posses worth and power and demands respect itself as in paganism and “in Igbo Traditional Religious (ITR) carved deities” instead of pointing to God.
The image holds the god fast and binds him to one spot. Man wins power over him. Hence in (ITR), if arusi is no more performing, it can be renounced and destroyed. Man somehow becomes god or is the god. In Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, Nwaka showed that Ulu the deity cannot hold the people of Umuona to ransom: “And we have all heard how the people of Aninta dealt with their deity when he failed them. Did they not carry him to the boundary… and set fire on him? (C. Achebe: 1974)” (italics are mine).
What of Catholic images?
Deutronomy 4: 15-16 states “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.” What is the implication of this statement? St. John Damascene would reply “previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men. I can make an image of what I have seen of God…and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled (CCC1159).”
Colosians 1: 15 calls Christ the image of the invisible God. Clement of Alexandria (died 215 AD) had acknowledged the fact that Christ is the image of God and that Christians (Virgin Mary and Saints) by their exemplary lives and in relation to Christ are living images. Council of Nicea 787 justified the veneration of icons- of Christ, but also of the mother of God, the angels and all the saints who are living images. “By becoming incarnate, the son of God introduces a new economy of images.” (CCC 2131). Saints are those who through their imitation of Christ are in heaven. Virgin Mary is the Mother of Christ, the third person of Blessed trinity and therefore the Mother of God. The respect we give their images otherwise called veneration is due to relationship to Christ. In other words, they lead us to Christ.
Moreover, a human being is a psychosomatic entity, which means that a human being is made of body and spirit. Thus when we contemplate God, it is our whole being that does that. Therefore, images far from taking man away from God draw human beings closer to God. Celsius criticism of early Christians becomes useful- “the image was not regarded as equivalent to what it represented but was necessary hint at the invisible.” Thus it can be said that when Christians began using images later, Celsius argument proved to be important and appropriate. Celsius recognized though not explicitly the nature of man who is not only spirit but body, as such, looking at sensible things can help him in contemplation. St. John Damascene describing how images have helped him in religious worship says “the beauty of the image moves me to contemplation as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.
Sacred images are sacred signs. Christ made use of signs. He calls himself the Light (John 8:12), the bread of life (John 6:35) the good shepherd (John 10:11), and other similar names. Thus when one uses such signs, St, Thomas Aquinas would say that “religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere thing, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement towards the images does not terminate in the image but tends towards that whose image it is (CCC 2132).”
Accordingly, when many Catholics sometimes bow or kneel in front of statues of Jesus and the saints, they are making legitimate veneration of a sacred image and not committing the sin of idolatry as some Christians would accuse us. Though bowing can be used as a posture in worship, not all bowing is worship. In some cultures for examples Yoruba of Nigeria, people even kneel down to greet their elders. 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.
Therefore the Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols (statues that are worshipped as gods). Indeed the honour rendered to an image passes to its prototype, and whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it. The honour paid to sacred images is a respectful veneration not the adoration due to God alone (2132). “Nevertheless, those who because of their psychological make-up cannot pray effectively in the presence of a religious object (image) should remember that the Church does not compel anybody to use images (E. Ezeani: 2013).”
Author: Ogbuowelu Chijioke