Should Christians Venerate Icons and Statues?

2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. In honor of the Reformation, I am starting a new series lasting at least through the rest of the year exploring why the Protestant Reformers were correct to protest against the false beliefs within Roman Catholicism. If you are a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, please do not misinterpret my critique of these beliefs as an attack on you personally. As a convictional Protestant, I have a responsibility to give a reason for why I believe as I do and you have a responsibility to examine the beliefs of your upbringing against that of Scripture (Acts 17:11). The first topic we will explore is whether Christians should venerate icons of the saints and Christ.

An icon is a visible representation of Christ or a saint which serves to aid the worship of Christ or the veneration of saints. God alone receives latria or worship while the saints receive dulia or service. It is argued that the second commandment which forbids the making of carved images or the likeness of anything in creation was only for Old Testament saints because we are not tempted to commit idolatry in the same way they were. Because the Word of God became flesh in the incarnation, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox argue that we may create physical representations of Christ to depict his human nature.

A key figure in the defense of the use of icons was John of Damascus who argued against the iconoclasts in his Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images. His view triumphed at the Seventh Ecumenical Council which condemned all of those who opposed the use of images in the church. This view was reaffirmed by the Fourth Council of Constantinople which declared:

“If anyone does not venerate the image of Christ our Lord, let him be deprived of seeing him in glory at his second coming. The image of his all pure Mother and the images of the holy angels as well as the images of all the saints are equally the object of our homage and veneration.”

When it comes to the second commandment, John argued:

“These injunctions were given to the Jews on account of their proneness to idolatry. Now we, on the contrary, are no longer in leading strings. Speaking theologically, it is given to us to avoid superstitious error, to be with God in the knowledge of the truth, to worship God alone, to enjoy the fullness of His knowledge. We have passed the stage of infancy, and reached the perfection of manhood. We receive our habit of mind from God, and know what may be imaged and what may not. . . . Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, (Bar. 3.38) I make an image of the God whom I see” (Apologia).

The Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid in his debate with James White at 1:54-56 makes a similar argument by saying that we are not tempted to commit idolatry in the same way the Israelites were. John goes on to argue that because the Son has become incarnate, we may make depictions of him because the invisible God has become visible:

“It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. . . . When He who is bodiless and without form, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you may draw His image and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it” (Apologia).

The medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas claims that images of Christ are not the object of our worship, but only aids to worship:

“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” (Summa Theologica II-II, 81, 3 ad 3).

An image aids worship by serving as the starting point for adoration. When a person looks longingly into an image of Christ, it reminds him of who Jesus is and what he has done. By showing veneration to the image of Christ, he then moves on to worship the Christ who stands behind the image. For images of the saints, gazing into them reminds Catholics and the Orthodox of what the saint has done and serves as a launching platform to offer prayers to the saints that they might pray for us.

Without icons, they could not worship Christ as they have been raised to. It’s just too hard to worship a Christ we cannot see or offer prayers to saints without a visible representation of them. Having a picture of a saint in front of you makes it easier to pray to him because you can use it to pretend as if you are having a real conversation and not talking to a dead person. That is why icon lovers value their icons so much and became so upset when the iconoclasts took them away.

Another argument used by those who defend the use of icons in the church is that because God commanded Israel to make two golden cherubim on the mercy seat (Exod 25:18), the prohibition against making images in the second commandment is not a universal prohibition. But Israel was allowed to craft these golden cherubim because God explicitly commanded them to. But there is no command for us to do so today. These two golden images were hidden from the sight of Israel because they were part of the ark of the covenant which was kept in the Holy of Holies. Therefore, they would never become a stumbling block to Israel. The Israelites were forbidden to even look at the ark of the covenant so they could never venerate them (Num 4:20; 1 Sam 6:19).

John argues in his apology that those who oppose his position are Manicheans because they despise matter. But this is a misrepresentation of the iconoclast position. We are not opposed to matter and affirm the full humanity of Christ. But the reason why we are opposed to religious images in worship and bowing down to them is because there is no biblical warrant for them and making images and bowing down to them is forbidden by God in Exodus 20:4-5:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved 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, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”

The arguments used to justify statues and images in worship are identical to the arguments used by pagans to justify the worship of idols in their worship. They claim that they are not worshiping the image of their god, but only using it as an aid for worshiping that which we cannot see with our eyes. When I visited a Hindu temple, the woman I spoke with said that the images of their gods are no different than the stained glass windows in a church which depict the life of Christ. So, when I see people bowing down in prayer before statues of Mary, you must forgive me for thinking this is a gross violation of Exodus 20:4-5.

In contrast to these pagan means of worship, we are called to worship God without any physical representation because God by nature is invisible (Lev 26:1; Deut 4:12-24; 5:8-9; John 4:24; Acts 17:29; Rom 1:23) and Jesus Christ never ceased to be invisible with respect to his divine nature (Heb 13:8). Christians are called to be content with no likeness of God until eternity future (Ps 17:15; Rev 22:4). Jesus in his present glorified state cannot be accurately depicted by man (Mark 9:2-3; Rev 1:12-17). To attempt to depict him is to create an incomplete Nestorian Christ. The use of icons in the church is not in accordance with the universal consent of the fathers.

A closely related topic is that of relics which are the bodily remains (graphic images) or items associated with the saints and Christ. It is often claimed that the relics of the saints have miraculous power associated with them which can bring healing. Instead of burying the bodies of the saints in the ground as Paul assumed Christians would do in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, they disrespectfully parade their body parts around to be venerated. It is little wonder then that there is so much religious syncretism and ancestor worship in the Catholic world because the use of images in worship was already a feature of the non-Christian religions these people came out of.

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