By Luke Lancaster
Exodus 20:4-5 says clearly, “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.”
Yet Catholic and Orthodox Christians have statues and icons everywhere in their churches! People are lighting candles in front of a statue of Mary, kneeling down before an icon of St. Francis, and praying in front of a crucifix. Don't these things contradict Exodus 20?
To answer that, Catholics argue that God in Ex. 20:4-5 is opposed to making idols for the purpose of worship – that is, non-living deities, such as Molech, Baal, Zeus, etc. The interior disposition of the people who make such idolatrous statues is one of worship, for Molech, Baal, Zeus, etc. are seen as God. This is wrong. Yet Catholics also know that God is not strictly opposed to making an image of something that actually does exist in heaven. As long as one does not see the image as if it were God Himself and as long as one does not have an inner heart of worship towards the image, then it is fine.
This idolatry theology can be seen in Scripture. For example, about five chapters after describing the ten commandments, God commands the creation of golden cherub angels to be placed on the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-20). Such golden statues did not break the command against making images. The same can be seen in 1 Kings 6:23-28, where king Solomon made even larger golden statutes of angels to be placed in the Temple. God was pleased with this and filled the Temple with his presence. These angels aided one’s worship experience, reminding one of heavenly realities that are invisibly before one. Those gazing at the statues did not within their hearts worship them, and the same is true for Catholic icons and statues.
However, it is possible to have an interior disposition of worship before a statue or person. This can be seen in Acts 14:11-18, where Paul and Barnabas are considered deities and are almost sacrificed too (Ac. 14:18). Other examples like this occur in the life of Peter in Acts 10:25-6 and John in Revelation 22:8-9. The question would be whether Catholics are doing the same thing when gazing at statues. The answer would have to be no in the majority of cases, for most Catholics understand that statues are not God. Statues are sacred reminders, utilized simply for helping Catholics to visualize something spiritual that is not visually seen. Having a picture of a deceased grandmother on the wall and asking for her prayers is a comparable practice to this.
I personally have never met a Catholic who worships statues, for it is a simple truth that God is not a statue. It is a simple truth in Catholicism that statues of the saints are not God as well. Saints are people who lived holy lives on earth, died, and now live in heaven to pray for the saints on earth (Rev. 5:8). For all Catholics, both living and deceased, are still functioning members of the body of Christ, forming the communion of saints. Statues of them spur us on to imitate their virtues, just as St. Paul told Christians to imitate him (1 Cor. 4:16). This can be seen in Washington DC, where the Lincoln memorial statue reminds us of Lincoln’s courage.
Does Bowing Down = Worship?
Yet what about bowing down before statues? We have seen that making them is acceptable, and looking at them, but isn’t the action of bowing down an action of worship? Catholics would say that it can be, but it does not necessarily have to be. It all depends on the heart of the person, whether they see the statue or person as God. For example, Joseph bowed his face to the ground in reverence to Jacob in Genesis 48:12. The people of Israel bowed down to King David in 1 Chronicles 29:20. King Solomon bowed down in reverence to his mother, queen Bathsheba, in 1 Kings 2:19. Various people bowed down to the prophets Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 18:7; 2 Kings 1:13, 2:15, 4:37). The Philippian Jailor bowed down to Paul and Silas in reverence, not worship (Acts 16:29). Scripture goes on and on with examples like these, and there are other examples to look up (Genesis 27:29, 42:6; 1 Samuel 28:14). Catholics do the same thing as these biblical examples do when they bow down before a statue as a sign of respect to the heavenly person. That heavenly person is understood to not be God, and we know that that heavenly person does not dwell in the statue. Even the Japanese do this today as a sign of greeting!
However, it is possible to have an interior disposition of worship when bowing down to someone or something other than God. For example, Cornelius bowed down and “worshipped” Peter in Acts 10:25-6. Notice how Scripture explicitly identified Cornelius’s heart. It did not simply describe him bowing down as the previous Scriptures did. This happens as well with St. John in Revelation 22:8 (cf. 19:10), where John “fell down to worship at the feet of the angel.” The exterior action was coupled with the wrong interior disposition, and that was condemned. A final example is Acts 14:11-18, where Paul and Barnabas are considered deities and are almost sacrificed too (Ac. 14:18). Catholics do not consider Jesus’s mother Mary, St. Joseph, St. Anthony, or any other saint to be God and do not have an inner heart of worship towards them.
An exterior action that always does imply worship is offering sacrifice, for that indicates that the individual sees something as God. For example, God commanded the creation of a bronze serpent in Number 21:8-9. This was not idolatry, and God commanded the people of Israel to gaze upon it to be healed of their snake bites. Yet once the people started offering sacrifices to it (2 Kings 18:4), that statue was destroyed. For sacrifice is always an indication of worship. In fact, there was a group of Catholics in the early Church called the "Collyridians" who offered physical sacrifice to Mary, and those Catholics were condemned. For they were worshipping Mary as God. That is the explicit boundary line that cannot be crossed. The implicit boundary line is seeing Mary or a statue as God, which is always forbidden.
Catholics do sometimes speak of offering Mary a “sacrifice” nowadays, but they mean this differently than taking a lamb and killing it before a statue of Mary. They speak of invisibly offering their good works to God through the hands of Mary. This is because Jesus is God, and He perfectly fulfilled the commandment to honor and obey His parents (Ex. 20). Since Mary was His mother who fed, clothed, and trained Jesus for most of His life, He has a special emphasis on her. She played a role which no other Catholic can ever play in the life of Jesus. So, when giving to God our lives, we want Mary to be with us.
Conclusion: Orthodox and Catholic Christians can make statues or icons from a biblical perspective. The action of kneeling or bowing down is a sign of love and honor, not necessarily worship. It all comes down to the heart. In fact, if making an image were idolatry, then Protestant Christians would be justified in stomping on our crucifixes. Yet I highly doubt any Christian would be willing to step on a portrayal of Jesus Christ crucified. To close, read an emotional comment by Jeremy Conrad on this blog, where he says,
"The Double Standard
You stand at attention in front of the icon, Heart pounding, with tears in your eyes. You remove your hat, make a gesture over your heart And, in unison, chant a pre-written mantra.
When I do it, you call it idolatry. When you do it, you call it patriotism."