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James the Just, whose judgment was adopted in the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15:19-29, c. 50 AD: "...we should write to them [Gentiles] to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood..." (NRSV)

An idol is a material object representing a deity to which religious worship is directed.[1] In Christianity, idolatry refers to the worship of gods other than the God of Abraham through the use of idols. It is also controversially and pejoratively used by so-called iconoclasts to describe the Orthodox Christian practice of worshipping the Christian God through the use of icons, small religious portraits which iconoclasts regard as idols, a charge which Orthodox Christians reject. In a similarly controversial sense, it is also used by some Protestants to pejoratively describe various Catholic worship practices such as scapulars and the adoration of statues of the Virgin Mary and saints, which Catholics do not consider idolatry.

Idolatry is consistently prohibited in the Hebrew Bible, including as one of the Ten Commandments, for example Exodus 20:3-4) and in the New Testament (for example 1 John 5:21, most significantly in the Apostolic Decree recorded in Acts 15:19-21). However, there is a great deal of controversy over the question of what, exactly, constitutes idolatry and to the nature of Biblical law in Christianity, and this has bearing on the visual arts and the use of icons and symbols in worship.

Hebrew origins

Idolatry is prohibited by many verses in the Hebrew Bible, but there is no one section that clearly defines idolatry. Rather there are a number of commandments on this subject spread through the books of the Hebrew Bible, some of which were written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Taking these verses together, idolatry in the Hebrew Bible is defined as the worship of idols (or images); the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images) and even the use of idols in the worship of Yahweh (God), the deity worshiped by the Israelites. The Israelites did however use various images in connection with their worship, including carved cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-22) which God instructed Moses to make, and the embroidered figures of cherubim angels on the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle tent (Exodus 26:31).

Similarly, the Brass Serpent, which God commanded Moses to make and lift high to cure any Israelites who looked at it of snakebites, is God-ordained use of an image. However, as part of a later religious reform King Hezekiah destroyed the Serpent, which the Hebrew people had been burning incense to (2 Kings 18:4), see also Hezekiah#Religious reforms.

In a number of places the Hebrew Bible makes clear that God has no shape or form, and is utterly incomparable; thus no idol, image, idea, or anything comparable to creation could ever capture God's essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Deut. 4:15, they see no shape or form. While many verses in the Bible use anthropomorphism to describe God, (e.g. God's mighty hand, God's finger, God the Father, etc.) these verses have always been understood by Rabbinic Judaism as poetic images rather than literal descriptions.

Idolatry in the New Testament

Judaism's animosity towards what they perceived as idolatry was inherited by Christianity. Although Jesus discussed the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, he does not speak of issues regarding the meaning of the commandment against idolatry. His teachings, however, uphold that worship should be directed to God alone (Matthew 4:11 which is itself a quote of Deuteronomy 6:13, see also Shema and Ministry of Jesus)

The Pauline Epistles contain several admonitions to "flee from idolatry" (1 Cor 5:11, 6:9–10, 10:7, 10:14, Gal 5:19–21, Eph 5:5, Col 3:5) A major controversy among Early Christians concerned whether it was permissible to eat meat that had been offered in pagan worship, see also Council of Jerusalem. Paul of Tarsus, who agreed to the Apostolic Decree, also wrote that it was permitted to do so, as long as a blessing was pronounced over it, and provided that scandal was not caused by it; however, he said that the gods worshiped in idolatry were in his belief demons, and that any act of direct participation in their worship remained forbidden (1 Corinthians 10:14-22) [1]. See also The Law of Christ.

The New Testament also uses the term "idol" in reference to conceptual constructs such as fame, money, nationality, ethnicity, and attachment to these is considered idolatry. One can see evidence of this in Colossians 3:5, "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed which is idolatry." Some Christian theologians see the absolutization of an idea as idolatrous.[2] Therefore, undue focus on particular features of Christianity to the exclusion of others would constitute idolatry.

The New Testament does contain the rudiments of an argument which provides a basis for religious images or icons. Jesus was visible, and orthodox Christian doctrine maintains that Jesus is YHWH incarnate. In the Gospel of John, Jesus stated that because his disciples had seen him, they had seen God the Father (Gospel of John 14:7-9 [2]). Paul of Tarsus referred to Jesus as the "image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15 [3]). Theologians such as John of Damascus argued that the connection between Jesus' incarnation and the use of images is so strong that to reject or prohibit the use of images is tantamount to denying the Incarnation of Jesus.

Early Christianity grew in a society where religious images, usually in the form of statues, both large ones in temples and small ones such as lares and penates in the home, were a prominent feature of traditional pagan religions, such as traditional Ancient Roman religion, Ancient Greek religion and other forms of Eastern paganism. Many writings by Church fathers contain strong denunciations of these practices, which seem to have included outright idol-worship.

The use of icons and symbols in Christian worship

Early Christian art used symbolic and allegorical images mainly, partly no doubt to avoid drawing attention during the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire. In the Catacombs of Rome Jesus was represented indirectly by pictogram symbols such as the Ichthys (fish), peacock, Lamb of God, or an anchor (the Labarum or Chi-Rho was a later development). Later personified symbols were used, including Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale pre-figured the interval between Christ's death and Resurrection, Daniel in the lion's den, or Orpheus charming the animals. The image of "The Good Shepherd", a beardless youth in pastoral scenes collecting sheep, was the most common of these images, and was probably not understood as a portrait of the historical Jesus. The depiction of Jesus already from the 3rd century included images very similar to what became the traditional image of Jesus, with a longish face and long straight hair. As the Church increased in size and popularity, the need to educate illiterate converts led to the use of pictures which portrayed biblical stories, along with images of saints, angels, prophets, and the Cross (though only portrayed in a bejewelled, glorified state). After the end of persecution, and the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, large churches were built and from the start decorated with elaborate images of Jesus and saints in mosaic. Small carved reliefs were also found on sarcophagi like the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus. However large monumental sculpture of religious subjects was not produced, and in Byzantine art and Eastern Orthodox art it is avoided to the current day. It only reappeared in Carolingian art, among peoples who had no memory of pagan religious statues.

Paintings of Old Testament scenes are found in Jewish catacombs of the same period, and the heavily painted walls of Dura Europos Synagogue on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire.[3] Catholic and Orthodox historians affirm, on the basis of these archeological finds in the Catacombs, that the veneration of icons and relics had begun well before Constantine.

Christian use of relics also dates to the catacombs, when Christians found themselves praying in the presence of the bodies of martyrs, sometimes using their tombs as altars for sharing the Eucharist, which was, and in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is, the central act of Christian worship. Many stories of the earliest martyrs end with an account of how Christians would gather up the martyr's remains, to the extent possible, in order to retain the martyr's relics. This is shown in the written record of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, a personal disciple of Saint John the Apostle.

Significant periods of iconoclasm (deliberate destruction of icons) have occurred in the history of the Church, the first major outbreak being the Byzantine iconoclasm (730-787), motivated by a strictly literal interpretation of the second commandment and interaction with Muslims who have a very strict teachings against the creation of images. Iconoclasm was officially condemned by the Western and Eastern Churches at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD (the Western Church was not represented, but approved the decrees later). This decision was based on the arguments including that the biblical commandment forbidding images of God was because no-one had seen God. But, by the Incarnation of Jesus, who is God incarnate in visible matter, humankind has now seen God. It was therefore argued that they were not depicting the invisible God, but God as He appeared in the flesh.

The Libri Carolini are a response prepared in the court of Charlemagne, when under the mistaken impression that the Nicea Council had approved the worship as opposed to the veneration of images.

Different understandings of the use of images

Catholics use images in religious life, for example the crucifix, the cross, and pray using depictions of saints. They also venerate images and liturgical objects by kissing, bowing, and making the sign of the cross. They point to the Old Testament patterns of worship followed by the Hebrew people as examples of how certain places and things used in worship may be treated with reverence or venerated, without worshiping them. The Ark of the Covenant was treated with great reverence and included images of cherubim on top of it(Exodus 25:18-22), and certain miracles were associated with it, yet this was not condemned.

Christianity interprets the commandment not to make "any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above" to mean to not "bow down and worship" the image in and of itself nor a false god through the image. Christian theology offers the following explanations of liturgical practice that features images, icons, statues, and the like:

  • Catholic theology expressly affirms that the image of Christ receives the same latria or worship that is due to God; see St. Thomas, Summa, III, 25, 3, but "no reverence is shown to Christ's image, as a thing---for instance, carved or painted wood: because reverence is not due save to a rational creature".[4] In the case of an image of a saint, the worship would not be latria but rather dulia, while the Blessed Virgin Mary receives hyperdulia. The worship of whatever type, latria, hyperdulia, or dulia, can be considered to go through the icon, image, or statue: "The honor given to an image reaches to the prototype" (St. John Damascene in Summa ³).
  • Orthodoxy teaches that the incarnation of Jesus makes it permissible to venerate icons, and even necessary to do so in order to preserve the truth of the Incarnation. Indeed, following from the Summa reference above, the veneration of icons is mandatory; to not venerate icons would imply that Jesus was not also fully God, or to deny that Jesus had a real physical body. Both of these alternatives are incompatible with the Christology defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and summarized in the Chalcedonian Creed.
  • Both the literal worship of an inanimate object and latria, or sacrificial worship to something or someone that is not God, are forbidden; yet such are not the basis for Christian worship. The Catholic knows "that in images there is no divinity or virtue on account of which they are to be worshipped, that no petitions can be addressed to them, and that no trust is to be placed in them. . . that the honour which is given to them is referred to the objects (prototypa) which they represent, so that through the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover our heads and kneel, we adore Christ and venerate the Saints whose likenesses they are" (Council of Trent, Sess. XXV, de invocatione Sanctorum).
  • The vast majority of Christian denominations hold that God particularized himself when he took on flesh and was born as Jesus; through this act God is said to have blessed material things and made them good again. By rising physically from the dead, ascending bodily into Heaven and promising Christians a physical resurrection, God thus indicates that it is not wrong to be "attached" to physical things, and that matter is not inherently evil, unlike the ancient teachings of Gnosticism.

A recent joint Lutheran-Orthodox statement made in the 7th Plenary of the Lutheran-Orthodox Joint Commission[5], on July 1993 in Helsinki, reaffirmed the Ecumenical Council decisions on the nature of Christ and the veneration of images:

7. As Lutherans and Orthodox we affirm that the teachings of the ecumenical councils are authoritative for our churches. The ecumenical councils maintain the integrity of the teaching of the undivided Church concerning the saving, illuminating/justifying and glorifying acts of God and reject heresies which subvert the saving work of God in Christ. Orthodox and Lutherans, however, have different histories. Lutherans have received the Nicaeno?Constantinopolitan Creed with the addition of the filioque. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, which rejected iconoclasm and restored the veneration of icons in the churches, was not part of the tradition received by the Reformation. Lutherans, however, rejected the iconoclasm of the 16th century, and affirmed the distinction between adoration due to the Triune God alone and all other forms of veneration (CA 21). Through historical research this council has become better known. Nevertheless it does not have the same significance for Lutherans as it does for the Orthodox. Yet, Lutherans and Orthodox are in agreement that the Second Council of Nicaea confirms the christological teaching of the earlier councils and in setting forth the role of images (icons) in the lives of the faithful reaffirms the reality of the incarnation of the eternal Word of God, when it states: "The more frequently, Christ, Mary, the mother of God, and the saints are seen, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these icons the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honored and life?giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred objects" (Definition of the Second Council of Nicaea).

Protestant criticism of the use of images

Martin Luther was initially extremely hostile to the use of religious images, but later relaxed his view, and allowed new Lutheran altarpieces, often of the Last Supper, in many of which leading reformers were portrayed as the apostles. John Calvin was always extremely hostile to all publicly-displayed images, which were systematically destroyed by Calvinists, as in the Beeldenstorm in the Netherlands. Towards the end of the 16th century there were disputes between Lutherans and Calvinists, with the former put under pressure to destroy more images than they felt necessary. Though both groupings did not object to book illustrations or prints of biblical events, or portraits of reformers, production of large-scale religious art virtually ceased in Protestant regions after about 1540, and artists shifted to secular subjects, ironically often including revived classical mythology.

Many Protestants, especially evangelicals or fundamentalists, believe that attributing holiness or power to human relics, fosters disbelief in God's omnipotence, and his independent and sovereign will, and suggests to fallible humans that God can be manipulated. To them, this is the essence of sinful idolatry. However, other Protestants disagree with this assessment.

The earliest Catechisms of the Protestant Movement, written in the 16th through 18th centuries, including the Heidelberg (1563), Westminster (1647) and Fisher's (1765), included discussions in a question and answer format detailing how the creation of images of God (including Jesus) was counter to their understanding of the Second Commandment's prohibition against creating images of worship in any manner.

They also consider the Catholic and Orthodox use of relics to be idolatry, Especially suspect in Protestant eyes is the belief that articles such as Lourdes water, holy water, and so forth possess supernatural powers, such as for healing. To the Protestant mind this seems akin to the practice of magic. There are, however, instances of miracles or supernatural healings associated with relics and holy objects in the Bible. For instance, Acts 19:11–12, "God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them."

In reference to holy places, it is argued that God is no less accessible here and now than he is in a distant holy place. To support this notion reference is made to John 4:21-24, "Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." According to John 4:23, Jesus spoke these words to a Samaritan woman who asked whether men should worship God on Mount Gerazim, the Samaritan place of worship, or at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Many Protestants read Jesus' response as dismissing the importance of such divisions. They interpret this passage to mean that true worship is a matter of the spirit, the mind and the heart — in other words, it is highly abstract. Sacred places, shrines, and ritual tools and forms are, at the very least, not of the essence of worship.

Many Protestants hold that veneration and worship are for all practical purposes identical. Protestants who hold this position also believe that sacrificial worship (which Catholics and the Orthodox call latria, see below) no longer holds a place in Christian worship; Christ's sacrifice on the Cross is unique, unrepeatable, and complete for all time, so that no human act can add or subtract from its power, or lay claim to its saving efficacy. On the other hand, Catholics and Orthodox hold to the above statement also, and believe Protestants unwittingly make false dichotomies.

Most typically, modern Protestants are no longer offended by religious art, or pictorial representations of Jesus, as was certainly the case in the 16th century. However, some consider it necessary to avoid religious use of these objects, especially as the focus of communal worship. In order to avoid praying before them, lighting candles to them, and other acts that make it appear as if the image itself is holy or an object of devotion, many Protestants avoid locating any representational art in front of the congregation, although exceptions may be made for the Christian cross and, sometimes, an image of the Face of Christ or the Good Shepherd. In most cases, it is the devotional use, especially, that is avoided.

In some cases, such as fundamentalist sects, it is not only the veneration of images, but also the making of an image, that is avoided. Any visual representations of Jesus, including drawings, paintings, stained glass windows, sculpture, and other forms of representational art are considered a violation of the commandment of God prohibiting the depiction of God by images. Calvinist theologian J. I. Packer, in Chapter 4 of his book Knowing God, writes that, "Imagining God in our heads can be just as real a breach of the second commandment as imagining Him by the work of our hands."[6] His overall concern is that "The mind that takes up with images is a mind that has not yet learned to love and attend to God's Word."[7] In other words, image making relies on human sources rather than on divine revelation. Another typical Christian argument for this position might be that God was incarnate as a human being, not as an object of wood, stone or canvas, and therefore the only God-directed service of images permitted is the service of other people.

Others go even farther to eliminate, if it were possible, any kind of religiously symbolic art of any kind, in addition to any representational art. The use of a cross, censer, candles, or vestments in a place of worship is considered idolatrous by some. By using tools and items of furniture or clothing only in the context of religious ritual, these implements seem set apart as holy, they would be profaned by ordinary use. This too is believed to pose a danger that these objects are being worshiped, or are becoming talismans. During the period of Archbishop William Laud's conflicts with Puritans within the Church of England, the use of ritual implements prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer was a frequent cause of conflict. (See vestments controversy)

Some Protestant groups have criticized the use of stained-glass windows by other denominations, while Jehovah's Witnesses criticize the use of windows, statuary, as well as the wearing of a cross. The Amish are the only Christian group that forbids the use of images in secular life. In their critiques these groups argue that such practices are in effect little different from idolatry, and that they localize and particularize God, who, they argue, is beyond human depiction.

For most Protestants all religious images and all conceptions of God that can be apprehended by human senses are problematic. The problem was captured in verse by the Anglican C. S. Lewis, in a poem he called A Footnote to All Prayer:

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

References and notes

  1. Geoffrey W. Bromiley International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), vol. 2 p 794.
  2. John MacQuarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), 145.
  3. [<]
  4. Summa Theologica text
  6. Knowing God, IVP, 1973, Page 42
  7. Knowing God, IVP, 1973, Page 43

See also

External links