The Bible prohibits images, but Catholic churches are full of them. Explain?

Posted by Alice L. Camille


April 14, 2021 | Category: Doctrines & Beliefs
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Divinizing any creature (including wealth, power, celebrity) remains a fundamental religious prohibition.

Images have been a part of worship since the era of cave paintings. But they have a bad reputation in the Bible, starting with the First Commandment. As a result, both Jews and Muslims ban the use of images in their art and architecture (but please read Chaim Potok's wonderful novel My Name Is Asher Lev for insights into how an artist's inspiration to create clashes with the prohibition against images). The biblical problem is spelled out in that original commandment:

"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven 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. It is written: 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"

The law's primary concern is exclusive fidelity to the God of Israel. Having just emerged from Egypt—a culture of abundant images from its hieroglyphic writing and statues to pyramids and the Great Sphinx—it was paramount not to confuse Israel's God with the deities of the land of slavery. Yet also and more poignantly, the liberating God who effected the nation's rescue is a Lord who is fundamentally free as well. Image-making can only shrink the divinity in the people's imagination. Just think how depictions of the Ancient of Days in a long white beard convinced many generations that being made in God's image implies being white and male. A God carved by human hands seems easily controllable by human rituals or reprisals. So: if God doesn't come through on your request, just withhold next year's harvest sacrifice.

Of course we know how the story goes. Even while Moses is actively receiving this prohibition on Mount Sinai, the community below is shaping a golden calf with its treasure. Ignorance of the law (that wasn't a law five minutes ago) evidently is no excuse! Yet consider how the fashioning of the Ark of the Covenant includes two cherubim of beaten gold in its design, just five chapters later. God also commands Moses to make an image of a seraph serpent to cure the people at a later date. Cherubim are likenesses of heaven above, serpents of earth below—both pointedly forbidden. The commandment's goal is even sharper here: not to forbid all image-making, but only that reverenced and served as a rival deity. "No graven images" discouraged idolatry and, simultaneously, any images that might limit or define the liberating and liberated God.

Divinizing any creature (including wealth, power, celebrity) remains a fundamental religious prohibition. The catechism notes, however, that by his incarnation Jesus introduces a new "economy" of images that assist us in venerating, not the images themselves, but the God incarnate whom they represent. (CCC no.2131-2132)

Scripture: Genesis 1:26-27; Exodus 20:2-6; 25:17-22; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1-2; Numbers 21:8-9; Deuteronomy 5:6-10; 6:4-5; Judges 17:1-6; 1 Kings12:28-30; Isaiah 30:22; 45:16; Matthew 4:10 

Books: The God of Life, by Gustavo Guttierrez/ trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Orbis Books, 1991)

Icons in the Western Church: Toward a More Sacramental Encounter, by Jeana Visel, O.S.B. (Liturgical Press, 2016)

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