The Bible and Catholic Images [Part I]
Religious images occupy a special place in the hearts of members of the Catholic community. Images are honored, venerated, prayed to, blessed, displayed, kissed, bought, and sold by the devout. It is no secret that the majority, perhaps all, of Catholic Church buildings are full of images. Catholicism claims that “[i]t is right to show respect to the pictures and images of Christ and His saints, because they are representations and memorials of them” (O’Brien, 1901, p. 175).
Are the images of Catholicism only “inoffensive” images, like photographs of family that many of us carry in our wallets? Does the Bible authorize the Catholic use of religious images? These questions and others should be answered with an open Bible, not with subjective emotions or traditions of men.
“WE DO NOT WORSHIP, WE ONLY VENERATE!”
I have chosen this subtitle in order to address one of the most well-known, but least understood, arguments in favor of religious images. In a conversation about religious iconography, it is not surprising to hear the word “venerate” from the mouths of Catholics. The argument used is: “We don’t worship wood, relics, or images. We venerate them” (see Porvaznik, 2007, emp. added). This common assertion is a result of ignorance of the etymology and usage of the word “venerate” and of the implications of the Bible’s teaching concerning to Whom we are to give religious honor.
Once, when speaking with a very devout Catholic who used this word “venerate,” I asked her: “What do you understand the word ‘venerate’ to mean?” She could not answer the question. She had used this word frequently, even though she did not know what it meant. Consequently, the first question we should answer is: What is the meaning of the word “venerate”?
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary records the following definition of “venerate”: “[R]egard with great respect,...from Latin venerat-venerari ‘adore, revere’” (Pearsall, 2002, p. 1590, emp. added). The Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language gives the following definitions for “venerate”: to worship, reverence..., to look upon with feeling of deep respect; regard as venerable; revere” (1964, p. 1616, emp. added). The Espasa Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms lists the following synonyms (among others) for the word “venerate”: Worship, honor, reverence, idolize, exalt, etc. (1996). Finally, the Catholic Cofrade Dictionary notes the following definition for the word “venerate”: “To worship God, Saints or sacred things” (2005, emp. added).
We can see easily, by its etymology and synonymy, that a primary meaning of the word “venerate” is simply “to worship or to revere.” Additionally, note that the Catholic Cofrade Dictionary applies the word “venerate” to God and “sacred things.” Therefore, when the supporter of Catholicism insists, “We do not worship, we only venerate,” he is actually confirming that Catholics worship images like they worship God.
The truth is that the word “venerate” has been deliberately substituted for the word “worship” to excuse the polytheistic practice of Catholicism. Since the meaning of the word “venerate” is unfamiliar to many, it has become a major argument in defense of religious iconography. But if the supporter of Catholicism would only open his dictionary, and look up the meaning of the word that he uses so casually, his favorite argument would soon disappear like the morning mist on a hot summer day. In fact, the very etymology and correct usage of the word “venerate” exposes the error of iconography. We completely agree that Catholics “only venerate” (i.e., they worship).
But what about respecting images? Are the images of the so-called “saints” and of other “sacred” objects, worthy of respect? What does the Bible say? In addressing images made for religious purposes, Exodus 20:5 warns: “You shall not bow down to them nor serve them [i.e., you shall not show them any kind of respect, service, or worship]” (cf. 1 John 5:21). In spite of the divine warning, some in the Catholic community insist: “[I]f someone bows down, doing it only as an expression of respect and affection, there is nothing wrong with it” (Zavala, 2000, emp. added). It seems that some supporters of religious images read the verse in this way: “You shall not bow down to them, except in the case of giving them respect and affection.” However, such a statement is not in the Bible! Making images for the purpose of religious “veneration,” reverence, respect, or affection is condemned by God.
In the end, who should we believe? Should we believe God Who tells us, “You shall not bow down to images,” or religious people who tell us, “There is nothing wrong with it”? In the beginning, God warned man: “[F]or in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). But the serpent said to the woman: “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4). Every Bible student knows very well what happened to the first human couple who listened to the serpent’s assurance that everything was going to be fine. Many religious people today should take seriously God’s commands about Whom we worship because disobeying His commands is always wrong!
“IMAGES YES, IDOLS NO!”
On a Web site devoted to Catholic apologetics, under the title “Images Yes, Idols No,” we find the following emphatic declaration: “Catholics do not have ‘idols’ like ancient pagan people, WE ONLY HAVE IMAGES” (Rojas, 2000, capitals in original). With this declaration, two things are proposed: (1) The “veneration” of Catholic images is not idolatry; and (2) there is a difference between an idol and an image. Since we have seen that the first proposition is erroneous, i.e., the “veneration” of Catholic images really is worship, we will focus on the second proposition: Is there a difference between an idol and an image?
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary suggests, among others, the following definitions for “image”: (1) “a representation of the external form of a person or thing in art; (2) a visible impression obtained by a camera, telescope, or other device; (3) a person or thing closely resembling another; (4) likeness; or (5) an idol” (Pearsall, 2002, p. 708, emp. added). Defining the word “idol,” the same dictionary notes the following: (1) “an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship; and (2) an object of adulation” (p. 706, emp. added). There are some differences between an image and an idol. An image may be a photograph, a portrait, a comparison, a picture on the television, or a piece of art. However, it is very important to note that an image also may be an object of worship (i.e., an idol).
Some (who actually mean well) argue that “all images are idols.” But if that were the case, one could accuse virtually everyone of being an idolater, since most people have at least one photograph of someone in their wallet, purse, or on their wall. Theoretically, God could also be called “idolatrous” since He made man in His “image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27). But this is not a legitimate argument. In truth, some images are idols. The person who wants to please God must examine the Scriptures carefully to determine which images (idols) he should reject. Let’s look at the biblical teaching concerning idols.
An idol is any image to which religious reverence and honor is offered.
Exodus 20:4-5 reads: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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 nor serve them” (emp. added). Many times, the advocate of religious iconography argues that the images Catholicism promotes are not idols, since they do not represent pagan gods; rather they represent “holy” people, and in some cases, the true God (see Rojas, 2000). Nevertheless, the text in Exodus does not support such an argument. God condemns any image (either of a pagan god or of the incarnated Son of God) made for the purpose of worship or religious honor (cf. Acts 17:24-25,29). God protected against erroneous interpretations by saying: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image...of anything that is in heaven above...or that is in the earth beneath...or that is in the water under the earth.” The question then becomes, what image designed for the purpose of worship or religious honor would fall outside these parameters? Are the Catholic images, which are “venerated” and honored, representations of anything that is in heaven, earth, water, or under water?
An idol is any image that does not deserve the religious honor given to it.
When the devil tempted Jesus in the desert, he said to Him: “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). To this temptation, Jesus answered: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve” (4:10). With this singular and scriptural assessment, Jesus made clear to the Christians’ enemy that only one Being deserves such regard and worship. Jesus’ point was not that the devil did not deserve worship because of what he was (i.e., an evil spirit condemned to hell), rather His point was that the devil did not deserve worship because of what he was not (i.e., the sovereign God over all creation).
Some people believe that Jesus condemns worship directed toward the devil merely because the devil is intrinsically malevolent, but that He condones worship to “benevolent” beings (whether or not they are divine). But the truth is that God alone is the Being Who deserves worship (cf. Isaiah 42:8). Are the images of Catholicism divine? Do they deserve honor and worship? Certainly not! When someone prostrates himself before these images, he voluntarily agrees to obey the tempter’s request to be worshiped.
An idol is any image which is religiously honored but cannot respond.
The book of 1 Kings records one of the most interesting stories of the Old Testament concerning idols. Here Elijah challenged the prophets of an ancient god, Baal, to give a demonstration of their god’s “power.” The challenge consisted of preparing an altar, cutting a bull in pieces, placing it on the altar, and then calling on their god to send fire from heaven to consume the offering. The challenge was accepted. Then, “they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, ‘O Baal, hear us!’ But there was no voice; no one answered. Then they leaped about the altar which they had made” (1 Kings 18:26, emp. added). They certainly worshipped, but Baal could not answer, simply because he was not God. In contrast, Elijah prepared an altar and a sacrifice, soaked them completely with water, and prayed to Almighty God. God instantly sent fire from heaven, that not only consumed the altar and the offering, but also “licked up the water” around the altar (1 Kings 18:30-38).
The supporters of Catholicism argue that their images do perform miracles (see Cruz, 1993; Nickell, 1999), but where is the evidence for their “miracles”? Why do they do them “in secret” and only for those who profess Catholicism? Why do they not show their “greatness,” as the greatness of God was shown when He sent fire from heaven? If someone had asked Baal’s prophets if their god performed miracles, or could send fire from heaven, how would they have answered? They would have said, “Yes.” That was the reason they accepted and pleaded with their god and leaped about the altar. But Baal was helpless to perform a miracle. Can religious images work miracles today? They could not do it before, and the situation has not changed.
An idol is any image, religiously honored, that cannot do anything.
In one of the most illustrative biblical passages about idols, the psalmist wrote:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak; eyes they have, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear; noses they have, but they do not smell; they have hands, but they do not handle; feet they have, but they do not walk; nor do they mutter through their throat. Those who make them are like them; so is everyone who trusts in them (115:4-8).
What else could be said? This seems to be an exact description of the images made for religious purposes today. Can the images of Catholicism achieve anything more than the images described by the psalmist? Can they repair their own broken noses after being hit by the ball of a little child? Can they clean their dust, touch up their paint, or pick up the money that is placed before them? Do not Catholics light candles to them because the images cannot do it by themselves? And do not Catholics blow out those candles because the images, although having mouths, cannot blow them out? Do not Catholics hold processions and carry them around the city because, although they have feet, they cannot walk or even take the first public bus? What difference do we find between the idols of Psalm 115 and the alleged “inoffensive images” of Catholicism?
An idol is any image, religiously honored, that degrades the concept of Deity.
Advocates of religious iconography may continue to argue that their images are not idols because they are not representations of false gods; rather they are representations of “holy” people and the true God. But we already have seen that these images also fall in the category of idols.
Another very important point must be stressed. In speaking to the Athenians, Paul exhorted them: “Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising” (Acts 17:29, emp. added). It is not God’s desire to be represented by something material or by something that is the product of man’s imagination. It is God’s desire that we, His offspring, understand this very important fact: There is nothing in this world—not gold or silver or anything else—that can be compared to God. To represent His nature in a material object is to minimize His greatness. Jesus also declared: “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). If no one has seen Him at any time, who could make a faithful representation of Him? An imagination capable of such is possible only in pagan minds!
There are many images—expressed in photographs of loved ones, in art, on $50 or $100 bills, etc.—that God has not condemned. But there are many others that are projected to be representations “worthy” of the honor due only to God. Faithful Christians must reject idols (1 John 5:21).
Cofrade Dictionary [Diccionario Cofrade] (2005), [On-line], URL: http://es.catholic.net/comunicadorescatolicos/530/1225/articulo.php?id=16946.
Cruz, Joan C. (1993), Miraculous Images of Our Lady: 100 Famous Catholic Status and Portraits (Rockford, IL: Tan Books).
Espasa Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms [Diccionario de Sinónimos y Antónimos Espasa] (1996), [Espasa Calpe, S.A.; Microsoft Corporation].
Nickell, Joe (1998), Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books).
O’Brien, Thomas, ed. (1901), An Advanced Catechism of Catholic Faith and Practice (New York: D.H. McBride & Company).
Pearsall, Judy, ed. (2002), Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press).
Porvaznik, Phil (2007), “A Case Study in Catholic Bashing,” [On-line], URL: http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/num4.htm.
Rojas, Guido (2000), “Idols and Sacred Images” [“Ídolos e Imágenes Sagradas”], [On-line], URL: http://defiendetufe.org/imagenes_e_idolos.htm.
Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1964), [New York: The World Publishing Company].
Zavala, Martín (2000), “Images and Idols” [“Imágenes e Ídolos”], [On-line], URL: http://www.defiendetufe.org/idolos.htm.