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The Worship of Images

God’s revealed will on the proper way to worship is expressed in the Ten Commandments:

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. 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, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).

Catholics and Protestants divide the commandments differently. Following the early catholic church and the Orthodox Church, Protestants consider the prohibition against other gods and the prohibition against images as separate commandments. The Jews however considered them as a single commandment, and from the time of Augustine, the Latin church has also followed that tradition.

That does not mean that the Catholic Church has removed the second commandment. The Church does not delete the prohibition against images from Catholic Bible versions or its major catechisms.

But the prohibition against image worship is left out, and effectively hidden, in the abbreviated lists of the 10 commandments commonly used to teach children. While it is perfectly acceptable to summarize the commandments to facilitate memorization, it is wrong to present the abridged form as if it is the whole commandment. Many Catholic children, including myself, grew up without ever having heard that such a prohibition is part of God’s law.

Unlike the Jews (who do not worship images), the Catholic tradition contradicts the plain meaning of the commandment by permitting and encouraging the faithful to make, bow down before, and serve images. The Second Council of Nicea (787) goes as far as condemning with anathema (a curse) those of us who do not salute such representations as standing for the Lord and his saints. [1]

The Second Commandment

The first commandment (You shall have no other gods before Me) forbids the worship of false gods, whereas the second forbids the false worship of God. The first tells us whom to worship; the second tells us how to worship him.

The second commandment forbids us to make and worship images of God. We are called to know God as he revealed himself, and to serve him according to his ordinances, not in any other way devised by human wisdom. “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32).

The second commandment does not prohibit paintings and sculptures which are not intended to be used in the worship of God. This is clear from the words “you shall not bow down to them nor serve them”. Moreover, shortly afterwards giving the Ten Commandments, God instructed Israel to make two cherubims of gold for the Ark of the Covenant, and later on, a bronze serpent (Exodus 25:28; Numbers 21:9). Solomon decorated the temple with twelve oxen, and its walls with carved images of cherubims (1 Kings 7:25; 6:29). In all these instances, the Israelites did not break the commandment because they were not called to “bow down” or “serve” the images. But when the Israelites began to burn incense to the bronze serpent, the godly king Hezekiah broke it to pieces. The depravity of the human heart soon turns an image to an idol.

The Image of God

Images of angels and the saints are not necessarily wrong. But we should never make any image of God. When God made a covenant with Israel, the Lord spoke to the people, and they heard the sound of his voice, but they did not see any form. God did so on purpose. “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…” (Deuteronomy 4:15, 16). Elsewhere the Scripture reproves us, “To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him?” (Isaiah 40:18).

But some may ask: Can we make an image of Christ since he was made flesh and was seen by the people? The answer must be no, not least because we do not know how he looked like. The hundreds of different pictures of Jesus testify against each other that they are false images. What is called a picture or a statue of Christ is not his true likeness. Like the idols of old, the modern portrayal of the Lord is “a teacher of lies” (Habakkuk 2:18). Moreover, Jesus is the true God, and therefore the only appropriate response to seeing his image is worship and adoration. Sadly, the “Jesus” imprinted on the mind by artistic creations is “another Jesus” – an idol. False images lead to false worship.

In a very real sense, God has given us an image of himself. God has revealed himself in his Son; “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Christ is the perfect icon of God. But then, how can we know Christ in truth? The Lord himself answers, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). We know Christ in Scripture, not in the imaginations of sculptors.

During our pilgrimage on earth, we are called to live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). The apostle Peter reminds us that we believe and rejoice in him even though “now you do not see him” (1 Peter 1:8). Yet we have a living hope. Eagerly we await that glorious day when “we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Then our joy will be complete.

Catholic Worship Images

The Catholic Church approves the worship of images of Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2132) states:

The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, “the honour rendered to an image passes to its prototype,” and “whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.” The honour paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone: 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. [2]

We should note several important points:

1. Catholics are not supposed to honour the image itself, as a mere physical object that would be crass idolatry. However, they are called to venerate the image not as a thing, but only as far as it is an image.

2. The Church teaches that the honour given to the image passes on to the person represented by the image; or perhaps we can say, Catholics honour the saints and angels through honour rendered to their images. The Council of Trent explains:

... the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by means of the images which we kiss and before which we uncover the head and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ and venerate the saints whose likeness they bear. [3]

3. The church distinguishes between the worship and adoration of God (latria) and the lesser form of honour, or veneration (dulia), given to saints and angels. Thus a statue of St Paul should not be worshipped (latria) but simply honoured (dulia). On this account, it would be contrary to Catholic teaching to worship the image of a saint. “The honour paid to sacred images is a 'respectful veneration,' not the adoration due to God alone.”

At this point, a series of questions springs to mind. What about images of Christ, who is God incarnate? If the veneration given to the image of a saint passes on to the saint, what kind of honour should be given to the image of Christ? Surely Christ deserves more than mere veneration of the dulia type. Being God, Christ deserves to be honoured with the highest form of worship and adoration (latria). If Christ's image is merely venerated, isn't that honour far less than the adoration he is worthy to receive? Shouldn't then the image of Christ – if Catholic theology is correct – be honoured with the highest form of worship (latria), given that this worship to the image passes on to the Person represented?

In other words, if saints can be honoured (dulia) by honouring (dulia) their statues, should God incarnate by worshipped (latria) by worshipping (latria) his image? That seems to be the logical conclusion. Indeed that is what the Catechism teaches, albeit in a rather obscure way. Look again at the sentence quoted above from the Catechism.

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.

This statement denies images are worshipped “in themselves” and “as mere things”. That is quite obvious: Catholics do not intentionally worship wood and stone, but the same sentence continues to affirm that religious worship is directed to images “under their distinctive aspect as images”. Thus, according to the Catechism, images of God incarnate are worshipped.

The Catechism is actually quoting St Thomas Aquinas. In the same paragraph, Aquinas concludes that “religious worship is paid to the images of Christ.” [4] Elsewhere in his discussion of the question, “Whether the image of Christ should be adored with the adoration of latria”, Thomas Aquinas is even more explicit -- excerpts [5]:

  • The honour given to an image reaches to the prototype, i.e. the exemplar. But the exemplar itself--namely, Christ--is to be adored with the adoration of latria; therefore also His image.

  • Consequently the same reverence should be shown to Christ's image as to Christ Himself. Since, therefore, Christ is adored with the adoration of latria, it follows that His image should be adored with the adoration of latria.

  • Whereas we give the adoration of latria to the image of Christ, Who is true God, not for the sake of the image, but for the sake of the thing whose image it is.

  • Among these traditions is the worship of Christ's image.

One would hope that Catholic writers would be as clear and honest as Thomas Aquinas in saying publicly, “we give the adoration of latria to the image of Christ.”

Catholic Defense Refuted

Two basic arguments are brought forth in defense of the Catholic practice - the first is based on the incarnation of the Son of God; the second on the proper use of images.

Argument #1

The divine injunction included the prohibition of every representation of God by the hand of man. . . . It is the absolutely transcendent God who revealed himself to Israel. . . . By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new “economy” of images. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2129-2131) [6]

This argument admits that the Jews were not permitted to make a material representation of God, because until the incarnation of the Son, God had revealed himself as a “transcendent” being.

“Transcendent” means “beyond and outside the ordinary range of human experience or understanding” or “being beyond the limits of experience and hence unknowable”. Hence the impossibility making a representation of God.

But, it is argued further, since the Son of God was made man, the transcendent God is made visible. Christ had a real human nature, he could be seen and touched. Therefore since that time, it has become possible to make images of Christ. (It is unclear why the incarnation justifies the making of images of saints, since the saints have always been human, and yet the Jews were forbidden to make and bow down before such images).


In a very real sense God was and will always be transcendent. He is infinitely glorious, and we, being finite creatures, can never fully know the Infinite. Yet God is able to reveal himself, albeit in a limited manner. Even before giving the 10 commandments, God appeared to Abraham and to Jacob in human form, and he led the people of Israel out of Egypt in a visible form (as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar fire by night, see Exodus 13:18-22).

Even so, the Israelites were not permitted to fashion images of those or any other manifestation of God, and bow down before them. To emphasize this prohibition, God did not appear in any visible form when he established the covenant with Israel in the wilderness so that they will not be tempted to make a graven image of him (see Deuteronomy 4:15, 16).

So, the incarnation of the Son – the ultimate revelation of God to us – does not justify the making of graven images of God incarnate or bowing down before them. On the contrary, since God has perfectly revealed himself in Christ, and since it pleased God to reveal his Son in the Word, we ought to be content with that knowledge rather than create an imaginary image of our Lord.

Argument #2

The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, "the honour rendered to an image passes to its prototype," and "whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2132) [7]

It is claimed that the commandment prohibits idolatry, which is defined as the worship of the physical image itself as if it was divine or had divine qualities attributed to it. The Catholic Church insists that the image is honoured as an “image”, and thus the honour given to the image is passed on the person it represents.


This argument is devoid of any biblical support. No scriptural references are offered to prove the point. Where is the evidence from the NT that indicates that the early Christians used images in their worship? Where is the scriptural evidence that God only condemns the worship of images in themselves but allows his people to bow down before them in order to adore him and venerate his saints?

When the people of Israel were gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, and Moses was delayed on the mountain, they demanded a visible representation of God. When Aaron produced the golden calf, the people acclaimed the appearance of their God: “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32 NAB) They knew that the Lord God had delivered them from the slavery in Egypt, and accepted the newly-formed image as a representative of their powerful Redeemer. Evidently Aaron shared their belief because he went on to build an altar and proclaim a feast “to the LORD (Yahweh)”.

Immediately after those events, the Bible records God’s intense displeasure with his people because they worshipped “his” image. He had told them not to bow down before statues – how could they delude themselves in thinking that they would please God by contradicting his will?

We would be wise to learn from the mistakes of our forefather. If we bow down before the images of Christ and the saints, irrespective of our good intentions, we would be disobedient to the commandment of God: “You shall not bow down before them”! Idolatry is not only the worship of physical things, but also the unlawful worship of God.

Popular Apologetics

We should also take a look at a typical argument by a modern Catholic apologist.

Catholics do not worship the Cross or images or relics. They use these physical objects to remind themselves of Christ and his special friends, the saints in heaven. The man who keeps a picture of his family in his wallet does not worship his wife and children, but honours them. (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Ignatius, 1988, pp 40, 41.)

This kind of argument is popular and easily understood. Who would think that keeping a picture of your family is wrong? Surely Protestants too keep pictures of their loved ones. Why then should anyone object to pictures or statues to remind us of Christ?

I have often been told that an image of Christ is like a picture of my wife that I keep in my wallet to remind me of her. But the analogy is misleading. The pictures of Christ are not really pictures of Christ; they are but the imagination of the artist. What is called “Christ” is not a likeness of Christ at all. My wife would not be particularly delighted if I keep a picture of another woman, kiss it, and call her my wife!

Moreover the popular argument is evasive and irrelevant; it does not do justice to the Catholic doctrine. It is claimed that “Catholics do not worship the Cross or images”, but St Thomas Aquinas states otherwise. “[The Cross] it is worshiped with the same adoration as Christ, viz. the adoration of latria.” And again, “we give the adoration of latria to the image of Christ” [8]

Catholics do not use images merely to “remind” themselves of Christ and the saints. There’s nothing wrong with having pictures and statues to remind us of King David or the apostle Paul. But that is beside the point. Catholics are called to do more than just remember. Catholics are called to kiss images and even to bow down before them.

“…because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by means of the images which we kiss and before which we uncover the head and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ and venerate the saints whose likeness they bear” (Council of Trent, Session 25, On the Invocation, Veneration, Relics of Saints, and Sacred Image.) [9]

The intention of many Catholics is undoubtedly right and noble—their motive is to worship Christ. But good intentions are not good enough when our actions contradict the clear teaching of God’s Law: “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.”

God threatens severe punishments on those who disobey and promises great blessings on the obedient. If we love God, let us worship him as he has commanded. If however we attempt to worship him by graven images, contrary to his commandment, we are found to be haters of God and worthy of his wrath.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi