The Bible and Catholic Images [Part II]
: To read Part I of this article, click HERE
Although the Bible clearly condemns religious iconography, some try to find any hint of biblical support for devotion to man-made images. They have twisted Bible verses to create a shield of protection against the clear teachings of the Word of God, and have formulated different arguments.
THE ALLEGED BIBLICAL BASIS FOR RELIGIOUS ICONOGRAPHY
Argument #1: God commanded images to be made for veneration.
This argument originates from God’s commandment to Moses to make two golden cherubs on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-21; cf. O’Brien, 1901, p. 175). The argument is faulty for the following reasons.
First, God commanded that the cherubs be made not as objects of veneration or worship. The cherubs were to sit on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, but they were no more special than the other objects or furnishings of the tabernacle. Each object in the tabernacle (and later the temple) had special significance and purpose, but none was an object of worship.
Second, the nature and purpose of the Old Testament should be considered. The inspired writer of Hebrews tells us that the first covenant had an “earthly sanctuary” (9:1, emp. added). The tabernacle and its furnishings were models or patterns of the “greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands,” of which Christ is the High Priest (9:11, emp. added; cf. 8:5). The tabernacle and its contents were figures and shadows of heavenly things (9:23; 10:1) and of a new covenant (8:5-6). Now we, “having boldness to enter the Holiest [i.e., the Holy of Holies]” (10:19), having “a High Priest [Jesus] over the house of God” (10:21), are admonished to leave behind the “oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6) and accept the heavenly conditions of the new covenant established by Christ (Hebrews 8:1-6; 9:11-15).
Third, we should consider the authoritative and prohibitive nature of divine commands. God commanded Moses to make the cherubs (and other objects for the tabernacle) as representations of heavenly things that would be part of the New Covenant after the sacrifice of Christ. True servants of God do not promote, authorize, or offer anything that “He [has] not commanded” (Leviticus 10:1-2). The desires of God’s servants must be subjected to divine authority and divine command. Where is the divine command which authorizes religious iconography? There is not one single biblical text that approves or allows the veneration of images.
Fourth, God’s commands concerning the construction and use of the tabernacle and its contents were made under the Old Testament and were exclusively for the people chosen by God at that time, i.e., the Israelites. Christians no longer follow the Old Testament methodology of worship, since it was taken away when Jesus died, and replaced with a better covenant (Colossians 2:14; Hebrews 10).
The symbols of the Old Covenant, including the cherubs on the Ark of the Covenant, were never objects of worship. Neither Exodus 25:18-21 nor any other Scripture (such as the reference to the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:9; cf. 2 Kings 18:4) authorize religious iconography.
Argument #2: Servants of God bowed before images, indicating divine acceptance of such veneration.
It has been argued that the Bible promotes the veneration of images because Joshua 7:6 says that Joshua and the elders of Israel “bowed down before the Ark, and there were the two images of the cherubs, and nothing happened to them” (Zavala, 2000). Although at first glance this passage may seem to favor religious iconography, consider the following points often overlooked.
First of all, the nature of the Old Testament should be considered again. Under the Old Covenant, God “dwelt” in a special way in the tabernacle (over the Ark), and from there He spoke to the people of Israel (Exodus 25:22; 30:36; Leviticus 16:2). However, under the New Testament, God “does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24). If God does not dwell in temples made with human hands, would He dwell in images made with human hands?
Second, it is essential to consider the context of Joshua 7:6. Although some Catholics argue that Joshua and the elders of Israel bowed down to honor and venerate the images of the cherubs that were on the Ark, the context reveals completely different facts. Verse six informs us that Joshua “tore his clothes,” and he and the elders of the people “put dust on their heads.” Tearing one’s garments and covering one’s head with dust or ashes were signs of great sorrow, shame, or penitence (cf. Genesis 37:29,34; 2 Samuel 3:31; 13:30-31; Job 1:20; Lamentations 2:10; et al.). They never were signs of worship. It is certain that Joshua and the elders of Israel did not have the faintest intention of giving honor to or worshipping the Ark of the Covenant or the cherubs on it.
Argument #3: In Bible times, people bowed before servants of God as a sign of veneration.
Second Kings 4:27 records an event in which a woman came to Elisha, a prophet of God, and grabbed his feet. It has been said that this biblical example proves that veneration of people and, by implication, images, is authorized by God. But the truth is that this is one of the most shameful arguments used by some supporters of Catholicism. It is a deliberately dishonest use of the Word of God and a desperate attempt to excuse false doctrine.
First, a straightforward reading of the context reveals that the woman did not grab Elisha’s feet to “venerate” him. Because this woman had been very hospitable to Elisha (2 Kings 4:8-10), he promised her that God would give her a child. Her son was born within the time Elisha promised but died at a very early age (4:20). The woman went to Elisha, grabbed his feet, and demanded an explanation because her soul was “in deep distress” (4:27). Note her words: “Did I ask a son of my lord? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?’” (2 Kings 4:28). If she had been “venerating” Elisha, would she have accused him of deceiving her? Of course not! The woman was grieving, her son had died, and she wanted help. At no time did this poor woman’s grief represent veneration of Elisha.
Second, if 2 Kings 4:27 authorizes the veneration of servants of God (as some Catholic apologists claim), this verse still would not authorize veneration of images. But this verse authorizes veneration of neither men nor images! The Bible clearly condemns bowing before men to venerate or worship them (cf. Acts 10:25-26).
Third, the narrative in 2 Kings 4:27 describes an incidental scene completely separate from any kind of worship. This verse does not imply or authorize—much less command—men to worship servants of God. Those who advocate such, advocate a practice that lacks biblical authority.
Argument #4: In Bible times, people carried images in processions.
It is said that 2 Samuel 6 describes a religious procession in which an icon was carried because “David gathered all the choice men of Israel” (6:1), “set the ark of God on a new cart” (6:3), and everybody “played music before the Lord” (6:5). Consider the following points.
Modern-day Catholic processions are characterized by a large number of people carrying images on a special day. Although the situation recorded in 2 Samuel 6 may seem similar, the principle is not the same. The Ark of God had been left in Kiriath-Jearim for about four decades, and David wanted to bring it to the capital city of Jerusalem. At no time was it David’s intention to “show off” the Ark of God or to encourage the multitudes to worship it, nor was that day designated as holy. In Jerusalem, the Ark would occupy a special and permanent place in the temple that Solomon (David’s son) would build.
The Ark was never to be worshipped. God never commanded that the Ark, or any other object with religious significance, be carried in religious processions like the ones Catholics perform. There are no similarities between the reasons for which the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem and the motivations for religious processions honoring the images of Catholicism, and there is no biblical authority for such processions.
Argument #5: Jesus did not condemn images.
In Mark 12, we read that some Jews tried to trick Jesus with a question about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus took a Roman coin and asked, “Whose image and inscription is this?” (12:16). Because of this simple question, and because Jesus did not condemn Caesar’s likeness on the coin, some Catholics argue that Jesus authorized veneration of images by indirectly promoting them.
First, the fact that Jesus did not condemn an image does not mean that He approved religious images or their veneration. To argue such on the basis of this incident would imply that Jesus approved veneration of immoral political leaders, not the images of “saints” or Deity (as Catholics claim). Would Jesus approve, or encourage, the veneration of images representing evil Roman emperors such as Tiberius and Nero? Obviously not! God had condemned this from ancient times (cf. Daniel 3).
Second, the context of Mark 12 should be considered. Some Catholic apologists have argued that if God really condemns religious images, this incident in the life of Christ would have been an excellent time to do it (see Gagnon, n.d.). But Jesus’ discussion with the Jews was not on the subject of idolatry. The discussion at hand was based on the question presented to Him by the Jewish religious leaders: “Is it lawful to give tribute [taxes] to Caesar, or not?” (Mark 12:14). The question was not, “Is it lawful to worship images or not?” Jesus’ reply was related directly to their question: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Jesus’ answer cannot be applied to a totally unrelated question.
Simply put, there is not one single text, in either the Old or New Testament, that supports (by direct command, example, or implication) the worship of images in order to draw near to God. Those who support this erroneous doctrine have become “futile in their thoughts” and have “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man” (Romans 1:21-24).
Some Catholic apologists want us to believe that there is nothing wrong with venerating images, but what does the Bible say? Deuteronomy 4:15-19 notes the following:
Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the Lord your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage (emp. added).
The divine warning is very clear: veneration or worship of images is evidence of the corruption of the human heart.
In the next chapter of the same book, God warned: “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” (5:8). Is this commandment difficult to understand? The Bible continues: “You shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me” (5:9, emp. added). Again, the Bible is clear: the production of images or sculptures for the purpose of religious veneration is iniquity before Jehovah.
Concerning the singularity of God, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “To whom then will you liken God?Or what likeness will you compare to Him?... ‘To whom then will you liken Me, or to whom shall I be equal?’ says the Holy One” (40:18,25). There is no way to compare a man-made object to God, or to make an image that represents His greatness. Those who attempt to do so degrade the person of God.
Jeremiah declared: “Everyone is dull-hearted, without knowledge; every metalsmith is put to shame by the carved image; for his molded image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them” (51:17). The images of worship are simply false gods; they have no life in them. Those who worship images should be ashamed because “their molded images are wind and confusion” (Isaiah 41:29). Jeremiah added: “They [the idols] are futile, a work of errors; in the time of their punishment they shall perish” (51:18).
In an illustrative passage concerning idolatry, Hosea wrote: “Do not rejoice, O Israel, with joy like other peoples, for you have played the harlot against your God. You have made love for hire on every threshing floor” (9:1, emp. added; cf. Hosea 8). The biblical comparison is very clear: idolatry is considered to be spiritual prostitution. It is ironic that many consider physical fornication or prostitution to be detestable activities before God, but they overlook, and even defend, spiritual fornication and prostitution.
Paul declared of those who tried to make representations of God: “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22-23, emp. added). Any defense of physical representations of Deity is evidence of man’s foolish desire to reduce spiritual things to an earthly level. Concerning these men, Paul added: “Therefore, God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts” (Romans 1:24). Ultimately, such men separate themselves from God by their sinful actions (Isaiah 59:1-2). God will not force them to change their ways, but one day will take vengeance on all those who do not obey Him (2 Thessalonians 1:8). The apostle John wrote, “but the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8, emp. added).
God will condemn those who participate in idolatry. No gods of gold, silver, wood, or stone will be able to intervene on their behalf. There is only One Who can mediate between us and God the Father—“the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). John encouraged the first-century Christians by saying: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Twenty-first-century Christians also must heed this warning.
Gagnon, Daniel (no date), “Idols and Images” [“Ídolos e Imágenes”], [On-line], URL: http://www.mercaba.org/Fichas/DIOS/106-3.htm.
O’Brien, Thomas, ed. (1901), An Advanced Catechism of Catholic Faith and Practice (New York: D.H. McBride & Company).
Zavala, Martín (2000), “Images and Idols” [“Imágenes e Ídolos”], [On-line], URL: http://www.defiendetufe.org/idolos.htm.