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Catholics Removed One of the Ten Commandments?

By Luke Lancaster

Exodus 20:4-5 (cf. Deuteronomy 5:8-10) says,

“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”

Some Protestant Christians will argue that Catholics hide this commandment from their listing of the ten commandments. The reason, they claim, is because Catholics break it all the time by making statues of Mary and the saints. Yet this is a misunderstanding. For there is an ambiguity in the listing of the ten commandments within Exodus 20:1-17 (cf. Deut. 5:6-21), where there are supposed to be ten commandments (Deut. 10:4), yet there are more than ten commands listed! Various people have differed in their grouping of all these commands into a concrete set of ten. For example, compare how the Jews, Lutherans/Catholics, and Protestants arrange just the first three of the ten commandments, and pay close attention to the 2nd commandment:

Jewish listing:

1st Commandment = I am the LORD your God

2nd Commandment = No other gods

3rd Commandment = LORD’s name in vain

Lutheran/Catholic listing:

1st Commandment = No other gods

2nd Commandment = LORD’s name in vain

3rd Commandment = Remember the sabbath day

Protestant listing:

1st Commandment: No other gods

2nd Commandment: No graven image

3rd Commandment: LORD’s name in vain

Table from Dennis T. Olson, Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses, p. 43.

For Lutherans and Catholics, the command against graven images is assumed to be included under the first command to have “No other gods,” so we do not separate it out like many Protestants. The Jewish listing does the same thing. Yet the Reformed/Evangelical Protestant Christians argue that Catholics are deliberately taking a commandment out of the ten given to Moses in Exodus 20!

In reality, such Protestants are quite novel in separating out the command against graven images, going against the traditional Catholic, Lutheran, and Jewish lists! Even the great Church Father, St. Augustine (354-430 AD), followed the Lutheran and Catholic grouping of the ten commandments. If all of these groups/people had no problem with only implying the command against graven images, rather than explicitly listing it in the ten, then why should the Reformed/Evangelical Protestants?

Lutheran minister, Dennis Olson, notes, “The major wrinkle in the arrangement in the Reformed tradition is to highlight the prohibition of the graven image as a separate commandment. In contrast, the Jewish, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic lists would understand the prohibition of graven images as in some way an interpretation or expansion of the commandment ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ The writer of Deuteronomy seems to agree in seeing the graven image prohibition in 5:8-10 as a further commentary on the first and most important commandment, ‘you shall have no other gods’” (Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses, p. 43).

Conclusion: Catholics have not removed one of the commandments, rather, Protestants have created a novel listing of the ten commandments.

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