Living in the Bible Belt of the United States can be a bit amusing at times, especially when some Evangelicals refer to Catholic statues and icons as “idols.” At the same time, however, I have sympathy for these folks, because I too was once as confused as they are. I have to admire their zeal. They only mean well. What they don’t realize, however, much to their shock when they find out, is just how heavily the Muslims influenced their spiritual predecessors — the Protestants.
The notion that Christians cannot venerate (respect) statues, icons and paintings is anything but Christian. It’s not even Jewish for that matter. It is, however, very Muslim. Protestants ended up adopting the Muslim attitude toward these things in the centuries following the Protestant Revolution in the 1500s. The following is a Q&A that is based on actual questions Evangelicals have posed to me over the years…
Why do Catholics have idols in their churches?
If by “idols” you mean statues, icons and paintings, they are not idols. An image is not an idol unless two things are present…
- The image, must represent a false god.
- The image, must be worshiped.
Statues, icons and paintings (images of various sorts) meet neither qualification, any more than an image of George Washington. They’re just images. Nobody worships them, and they don’t represent false gods. If you believe that all images are idols, then I suppose a visit to Washington DC is going to be tough for you. There are statues, graven images and paintings of famous people everywhere!
When we Catholics put up an image of a Saint, it is just an image. Even if we put flowers and candles around it, it’s still just an image. Even if we pray in close proximity to it, it’s still just an image. An image doesn’t become an idol unless (1) it represents a false god, and (2) it is worshiped as such. We Catholics are not allowed to worship anyone or anything other than Yahweh (The Holy Trinity) and since Saints are not Yahweh, any statue or image of one cannot be an object of worship. Therefore, we Catholics don’t worship graven images. These images are just images, not idols.
Doesn’t God forbid the making of statues (of any kind) in the second commandment?
No, actually, he doesn’t. Again, let’s correct some misconceptions. The prohibition against making idols is in the first commandment not the second. Protestants renumbered the Ten Commandments in the 16th century to put an emphasis against statues, because they were heavily influenced by Muslim iconoclastic thinking during this time, but that has never been the traditional Christian numbering of the Ten Commandments in the West. The Ten Commandments come from Exodus 20. This passage of Scripture tells us there are Ten Commandments, but it actually lists about 13 direct instructions, and it does not tell us how these 13 instructions should be arranged into 10 commandments. That’s left up to tradition. Jews have their tradition, Western Catholics have another, Eastern Orthodox have another, and Protestants still yet have another.
Most Protestants are familiar with the Protestant way of numbering the commandments, but it’s not the only way. We Catholics lump the prohibition against making idols together with the first instruction that says to only worship Yahweh and forbids the worship of false gods. This is for the sake of context. Jews similarly lump these two together as part of the second commandment. God is not forbidding the making of graven images altogether, but rather the making of graven images for the purpose of worshiping false gods — i.e. idols. This is demonstrated in Exodus 25, wherein God specifically instructed Moses to make graven images (statues) out of gold for the Ark of the Covenant. If God forbade the making of statues entirely in Exodus 20:4-5, then he just contradicted himself in Exodus 25:18-19. So we know the commandment against making idols doesn’t mean a blanket condemnation against all graven images entirely. It can’t be. Otherwise God contradicts himself. This is a real Protestant dilemma. If Exodus 20 prohibits the making of all statues, then how do they explain God’s command to make golden statues in Exodus 25? A proper, and contextual, interpretation of Scripture makes it clear that it’s okay to make graven images of people, animals, heavenly creatures and mythical creatures, just so long as said statues are not worshiped as false gods.
If you need further proof, look to Numbers 21:8-9, were God specifically commanded Moses to make a graven image of a snake. Then look to 1 Kings 6:23-29 and 1 Kings 7:25-45 where Solomon (without God’s instruction) had the entire temple of God filled with graven images of plants, animals and heavenly creatures (pictured above). Does God punish Solomon for this? Does God strike the Temple with lightning bolts and burn it to the ground? No. On the contrary, God blesses the Temple, graven images and all, by gracing it with his very presence (1 Kings 8:10-13). If God is against all graven images, as so many Evangelicals are misled to believe, then why on earth would God command graven images to be made, and bless a Temple covered in graven images? Obviously, those Evangelicals are misinterpreting something when they say that God opposes all graven images. They’re actually contradicting the very Bible they claim to revere so much. Worse yet, they’re taking a position on graven images inspired not by Christianity, nor Judaism, but rather Islam. The Bible tells us that ancient Jews were fine with graven images, just so long as they weren’t of false gods, and history tells us that Christianity has always been fine with graven images. Again, just so long as they weren’t of false gods.
Still, let’s stop and think of the irony of this. Shall we? I live in the Bible Belt, the heart of Evangelicalism in the United States and the world. The area is made up primarily of Baptists and Pentecostals. A good number of them think Catholic statues are “idols.” and yet, ironically, every Christmas these very same people put up statues of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, along with statues of angels, shepherds, kings and animals, on their front lawns! They put them in front of their houses and their churches. Some even put them in front of their businesses, and in their windows, over their fireplaces, and under their Christmas trees. Some even put little statues of angels on top of their Christmas trees! How is it that they can consider Catholic graven images as “idols” but not consider the same kind of graven images (often of the exact same Biblical persons) “idols” when they do it? Even better, consider the Evangelical Christian bookstores and gift shops, of which I have seen many. There is no shortage of little nativity scenes and other types of Biblical scenes, depicted in graven image form. How are these not idols too? Then there is the widespread practice of Evangelicals having pictures of Jesus, in the form of paintings. Again, how are these not idols? Obviously, there’s a little bit of hypocrisy going on here. I submit to you, however, that the hypocrisy is not the fault of Evangelicals.
They inherited it from their Protestant forefathers, who got it from the Muslims. When the Evangelical calls a Catholic statue an “idol,” he does so without even seeing the hypocrisy in his own words, because he’s been conditioned to think this way from a very young age. Most Evangelicals can see the hypocrisy when it’s pointed out to them, and when they see that having graven images (in and of themselves) is not really prohibited by the Bible at all, they tend to loosen up about Catholics and our graven images. Some Evangelicals actually find it liberating! They’ll go out and buy some beautiful statue of Jesus they’ve always wanted, and put it in a prominent place in their home, which they were afraid to do in the past, all because of a misinterpretation of Scripture they inherited from their Protestant ancestors. If you’re an Evangelical reading this now, feel free to grace your home with an image of Jesus Christ. There are some great samples here.
Why make statues of Saints in the first place?
Statues of Saints are made for the same reason we Americans make statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They are notable people who deserve to be honored and remembered. No reasonable American, no matter how religious, would ever think a statue of Washington or Jefferson is an idol. They’re given places of honor, and sometime made larger than life. Buildings and porticoes are built around them, to protect them from the elements, and insure they can be enjoyed for generations. How are they enjoyed? People stand in front of them for long periods of time, and stare at them. Sometimes they take photographs of them. Sometimes they pose for photographs in front of them. Is this worship? No. Of course it’s not.
If Washington and Jefferson, who founded our nation, are worthy of such honor, how much more are the Saints? Washington and Jefferson were key players in the founding of our nation. The Saints were key players in the founding of our religion! The Saints are much more worthy of honorable statues than the Founding Fathers of America. So Catholics make statues Saints, for no more reason than to honor and remember the actual people they represent. Likewise, these statues are given places of honor in our chapels and shrines, and they are often surrounded with flowers and candles. Again, this is not for the sake of worship, but rather the sake of honor and remembrance.
But I saw a Catholic bow down or kneel before a statue! That’s got to be worship! Right?
Bowing or kneeling have always been signs of respect in Western culture. Back in the days of royalty, and even still in some places, people will bow or kneel before a royal magistrate. Americans are not accustomed to this because the United States was founded as a republic, so royalty is not part of our cultural heritage. We don’t bow or kneel before the President of the United States, but people still do before the Queen of the United Kingdom. Yet when people do these things before royalty, is it worship? No. It’s just a very old sign of respect. The same can be said of a Catholic who wishes to show the same respect to a Saint They’re not bodily with us anymore, so we can’t bow and kneel before them directly, but we can bow and kneel before their representation in the form of statue, relief, icon or painting. Is this worship? No. It’s just an old and traditional sign of respect, like how they do before kings and queens in other countries.
Furthermore, while it is permissible for Catholics to respect an image of Saints this way, that doesn’t always mean that’s what’s going on when we see a bow or kneel. Sometime Catholics may just be praying to God, in close proximity to the statue. That happens too. It’s still not worship of the Saint or the statue. Again, just ask a Catholic when you see one. “Do you worship God, or the statue?” After he/she looks at you like you’ve got two heads, the Catholic will always answer, “I worship God of course.”
The same was true of ancient Jews. Think about it. In ancient Judaism, when Jews would bow or kneel toward the Temple in worship of God, what was on that Temple? I just showed above that the ancient Temple of Solomon was filled with graven images of plants, animals and heavenly creatures. The Ark of the Covenant, itself, was adorned with the graven images of two cherubim (heavenly creatures). So when ancient Jews bowed toward the Temple, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, does that mean these ancient Jews were bowing and worshiping the statues? Nope! That’s not even true by a long shot, and they probably would have knocked you upside the head if you even suggested it. Now granted, Jews today don’t do that. But at the same time, Jews today don’t have a Temple. I have, however, seen statues of Moses sold in Jewish shops. I presume these are mainly for decorative purposes, but it just goes to show that even modern Jews don’t hold to the strict iconoclastic interpretation of Exodus 20:4-5.
What does the word “iconoclast” mean?
The word “icon” means image, and the word “clast” means to smash or break. So an “iconoclast” is an image-smasher or image-breaker. However, the word is also used to simply describe people who are religiously opposed to graven images in a peaceful way. The word comes from ancient times when some misguided souls misinterpreted Exodus 20:4-5 to mean that God hates all graven images. We see this particularly take root among the Muslims: a continuation of an old Christian heresy called “Arianism” which denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, took the Arian Heresy and expanded it into a whole new religion, by writing an entirely new holy book (The Koran) to fortify this religion. Muslims have been iconoclasts ever since, and some of them still are. Christian churches in the Middle East, and now in Europe, are constantly having to replace statues smashed by iconoclastic Muslims. Occasionally, some misguided Christians (who misinterpret Exodus 20:4-5) will jump aboard the iconoclastic bandwagon of Muslims. This has happened in ages past, and it’s happening now in the present. Any good Evangelical, however, who loves the Bible and seeks to follow the Scriptures, will not be so easily fooled by iconoclastic misinterpretations. God has no problem with graven images, provided they’re not of false gods and nobody is worshiping them.
More answers to questions such as these can be found in the book “Are Catholics Christian?: A Guide to Evangelical Questions about the Catholic Church,” available both in digital and paperback. Learn more here. Priests and catechists, throughout the United States and Canada, have already used portions of this book in their regular RCIA material, and some simply read portions of the book to their class. It’s highly recommended by priests and catechists alike.