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The Missing Commandment

Question: I used to be a Roman Catholic, but started reading the Bible and it was the 10 Commandments that grabbed my attention the most. Don't get me wrong, as a child in Catholic school, I was taught the 10 Commandments, but it wasn't until I was a young adult that I came across them again and it struck me profoundly. The fact that God says He is a jealous God and not to have any other gods before Him, and to make no graven images, really got my attention. It is this topic that really got me thinking and evaluating the Catholic Church and eventually I could no longer remain and raise my children in the Roman Catholic Church. So I was wondering if you had anything on this topic.

Answer: As a young boy I was also taught the 10 commandments during the catechism lessons:

I am the Lord your God;
1. You shall not have strange Gods before me.
2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain....

Like you I was surprised when I read the commandments directly from the Bible and found there was another commandment I had never heard before:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. 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; 5you 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 on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:2-7).
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain....

Why did my religious teachers and priests never teach us this commandment against graven images? Was it perhaps because of the Catholic Church's official teaching and practice regarding statues?

Of course the Catholic Church does not delete the prohibition, "You shall not make for yourself a carved image" from the Catholic Bible versions or the major catechisms. Following the Jews and Augustine, the Catholic Church counts the first and second commandment as a single commandment. But the prohibition of image worship is left out, and effectively hidden, in the abbreviated lists of the 10 commandments commonly used to teach children. Many of them, including myself, grow up without ever been told that such a prohibition is part of God’s law. More seriously, Catholic tradition nullifies the law of God by permitting and encouraging the faithful to make, bow down before, and serve images.

The meaning of this commandment is simple enough for anyone to understand. God forbids the making of religious images to be used in worship. I asked my religion teacher about this and in essence he told me that the commandment forbids pagan idolatry, the making of images of false gods, and not the representation of our Lord, Mary and the saints.

That God forbids us to bow before the idols of Zeus or Baal is quite obvious. However, it does not follow that we can burn incense, light up candles and bow down before a statue of the true and living God. Down the road where I live in Malta, there is a beautiful church dedicated to the Trinity. The titular statue is dedicated to the Triune God and it is worshipped by the people.

God does not permit such practices. He Himself asks: "To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him?" (Isaiah 40:18).

The people of Israel had no intention of making an image representing any pagan deity when they came out of Egypt. Their intention was to make an image representing Jehovah, their God. 'And [Aaron] received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD (Yahweh)"' (Exodus 32:4,5).

Despite their good intentions to honour Yahweh their God through the golden image, the Israelites kindled God's wrath and indignation against them. I do not question the intentions of our Catholic friends, but they should ask themselves whether they are repeating the same mistake that the Israelites had made.

The Israelites were ever so prone to idolatry. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord repeatedly warned them against this practice. They learned their lesson following the exile and by the time of Christ the Jews had completely abolished idolatry. Similarly in the apostolic and early church, the Christians neither made graven images nor honoured or prayed before them. As late as 753 AD a church council which met near Chalcedon condemned the use of images in worship as being "idolatrous and heretical, a temptation to the faith that originated with the devil." Pope Gregory III condemned the use of images in worship and Pope Constantine V (elected 740) condemned the use of images of Christ as heretical because only Christ's human nature could be depicted.

God calls us to repentance and to return to the original form of worship that He had instituted. Images appeal to our flesh, but as Christians, we are called to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our Lord summarized the elements of genuine worship: "The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him" (John 4:23). Our worship must be spiritual; truth is found in the teaching of Scripture rather than in the imagination of sculptors.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi