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3,000-Years-Old Newsflash! God Commanded the Use of Graven Images

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Last month, on Sunday, October 13th, the Eastern Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. I am happy to share with our readers the text that was the basis of the homily given by Fr Sebastian Carnazzo, pastor of St Elias Melkite Catholic Church in Los Gatos California, on that day.

There are several points that we of the Roman Church can take from this.

First, is the content. Contrary to what is commonly believed, the 10 commandments do not forbid graven images. The relevant commandment, often quoted by iconoclastic Protestants and out of context, does not condemn the making and use of religious imagery, but rather idolatry, which is very different. Graven, incidentally, means “made by hand.” Fr Sebastian (a Scripture scholar who is a colleague of mine on the faculty at www.Pontifex.University) explains why this is the case.

Second is the fact that Fr Sebastian thought this point is important enough to make it the central subject of his homily, and to send out a summary of his points in the church bulletin which he encouraged his parishioners to take home and study. In this homily, while he did mention in passing the many contemporary forms of idolatry in our neo-pagan or secular world, (a subject that many priests today are more likely to discuss in this context), he focused primarily on the use of images in the context of worship.

As Roman Catholics, we cannot afford to be smug about this. The general situation in my observation is that images are not incorporated in worship at all. And I am not referring here to the liberal, impious parishes with whitewashed, modern churches that reflect modern iconoclasm and are barely distinguishable from a puritanical Protestant church. I am thinking of your parish and mine, that of the orthodox, pious and religious who appreciate beauty, and very likely agree in principle with the need for sacred art in churches. They might have beautiful art in their churches, and Mass at such parishes might be dignified and beautiful, with expert choirs singing chant or polyphony, but I have never yet seen liturgical imagery used in the context of worship in the way that I see it in every Eastern Divine Liturgy. The understanding of the place of liturgical imagery in the actual process of worship is so small that, in my experience, Roman Catholics simply don’t know what I am referring to when I mention it. At Roman Catholic churches, the art is reduced to contributing to a beautiful backdrop that is incidental to the process of worship, which is an eyes-closed affair that involves us having our noses buried in Missals. Most of the art is devotional, and if it is engaged with at all, it is not in the context of the liturgy. Until we remedy this situation in the Roman Church, we cannot, in my estimation, revitalize the culture powerfully. I wrote about this specifically and in detail in the following article: The Good, the Better and the Sunday Best – Using St Thomas’ 4th Way to Evangelize the Culture.

The third is the importance of this feast in the Church calendar in the Eastern Church. Of the seven Councils recognized by the Eastern Church, the first six are celebrated together, but the Seventh Ecumenical is given its own day. This is a reflection of the history of the Eastern Church and its fight against iconoclasm. There are martyrs from the period, over 1,000 years ago, people who were prepared to die rather than concede the point. We have been through our own period of iconoclasm in the West (we are not out of it yet), but in contrast with its Eastern equivalent, it is marked not by resistance from the Catholic faithful and hierarchy, but by quiet acquiescence. Greater the fools we!

Images are the stepping stones by which the spirit of man can move from contemplation of the material world to contemplation of God. We neglect them at our peril, as the history of Church in the West for the last 200 years demonstrates. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that until we once again incorporate imagery directly into our worship, we will continue to lose the culture wars with the anti-Christian secular forces, and Mass ayyendance will continue to decline.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf – Picture from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)

Here is Fr Carnazzo’s recorded Bible study on the topic.
And here is the written text, which was the starting point for his homily, made available at my request:

The Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council declared: “We, therefore…define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature…but…according to ancient and pious custom” (NPNF, vol 14).

The Seventh Ecumenical Council made this declaration in AD 787, against the heresy of Iconoclasm, a heresy that had labeled the making and use of religious imagery in the Church as idolatry. The council condemned the heresy of iconoclasm on the grounds that it contradicted the Orthodox and Apostolic Faith. For the Church had used sacred images in both its liturgical life and catechesis from the earliest days, just as Israel had in both its synagogues and places of worship in the OT. And although the declaration of the venerable Council officially ended the problem for the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the heresy lives on even to today.

Iconoclasm is found implicitly in the architecture and decor and explicitly in the doctrine of the vast majority of Protestant sects. These sects teach that the Bible forbids the making and use of religious imagery, such as statues and icons. The passage they most commonly cite is from the Ten Commandments given through Moses at Sinai: “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; 5 you shall not bow down to them or serve them…”(Exod 20:4-5). When this passage is read out of context, it can appear that the Protestant position has some support and that the Bible really does condemn the making and use of religious imagery.

However, if one reads the passage in its original context, one can see that the commandment does not condemn the making of a graven image as such (“graven” simply means ‘fashioned by hand’), but rather the making of an image to be worshiped as a god. This is made clear by a careful reading of the words which appear immediately before and after the passage in question: “I am the Lord your God….You shall have no other gods before me…..for I the Lord your God am a jealous God….” Later on in the same chapter, God repeated his commandment in one succinct statement, “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold” (Exod 20:23). Therefore the passage, usually quoted by Protestants and often out of context, does not condemn the making and use of religious imagery, but rather idolatry, that is the making and use of an image of a created thing to bow down and worship it as a god.

An examination of the broader context further supports this conclusion, since there are a number of passages, even in the very same book of Exodus, where God actually commands that religious imagery be made. For example, just a few chapters later, God began to describe to Moses how to build the Ark of the Covenant and the Sanctuary that would be God’s dwelling place among Israel (Exod 25:10-22). In this passage God told Moses to make an ark (a box about the dimensions of a bath tub) out of wood and to cover it with gold. Then he was to put two cherubim (a cherub is a type of angel) on the lid at either end, facing each other, wings out-spread, and touching in the middle. In this box, Moses was to place the Ten Commandments, and above this box God would sit enthroned on the outstretched wings of the graven images of golden angels (cf. 1 Sam 4:4; Ps 99:1, etc.), and from there speak to Moses about all of his commandments to Israel. Continuing on in the book of Exodus, one finds that from chapter 25 to the end of the book, the majority of the text is spent describing how God wants Moses to build the Sanctuary, and how he is to cover it with images of cherubim, palm trees, flowers, and fruit (cf. Exod 25: 31-40; 26:1,30-31; 28:31-34), all according to God’s command (cf. Exod 25:40; 26:30; 27:8; 39:43; 40:33-38). As one can see, God did not condemn the making or use of religious imagery; on the contrary, he actually commanded it for his most holy Sanctuary where he would dwell among Israel. Similar imagery appears later in the Old Testament, when Solomon built the Temple.

Like Moses before him, Solomon was appointed to build a place for God to dwell among His people. And like the Sanctuary Moses was commanded to build, Solomon built the Temple in accordance with the pattern he had been shown by God (1 Chron 28:18-19; Wis 9:8; cp. Exod 25:40). In the inner sanctuary of the Temple, Solomon put the Ark that Moses had built, and at the entrance he put two 15-foot (1 cubit = 1 ½ feet) statues of cherubim to guard the way (1 Kings 6:14-32). The Temple’s inner sanctuary was covered in gold and the rest of the Temple walls were lined in cedar and carved with images of cherubim, open flowers, gourds, palm trees, lilies, and lions (cf. 1 Kings 6:33-35; 7:28,36). Twelve life-sized statues of oxen supported a 10,000-gallon bath for liturgical washing (cf. 1 Kings 7:25-26). Hundreds and hundreds of golden pomegranates (a type of fruit) hanging from lengths upon lengths of golden chains draped from every pillar (cf. 1 Kg 7:15-22,42). What Moses had made for ease of travel through the wilderness, Solomon made for permanence in Jerusalem. As with the sanctuary built by Moses, Solomon’s Temple contained numerous examples of God’s command to make and use religious imagery for both catechetical decoration and liturgical function.

Another example of God commanding the making of graven imagery appears in an episode of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness when they were stricken by deadly serpents Here God commanded the making of a graven image in the form of a serpent as a medium through which he would save his people (Num 21:8-9; cp. 2 Kings 18:4).

Therefore, the common Protestant claim that the Ten Commandments condemn the making and use of graven religious imagery is clearly refuted, not only in the immediate context as already addressed, but by numerous other passages in the Bible, as the above examples demonstrate. God did not condemn the making and use of religious imagery in the Ten Commandments, but rather the sin of idolatry. Idolatry is the act of making or using an image to be worshiped as a god. One can see the difference by an examination of the well-known biblical account of idolatry, when Israel made a golden calf (cf. Exod 32). But notice what was at issue here. It was not the fact that Israel decided to make an image of a calf, Solomon had made twelve life-size statues of oxen to be used in the Temple he built (cf. 1 Kings 7:25-26), rather the issue here was the making of an image of a calf to be worshiped as a god (cf. Exod 32:1,4).

Another example of idolatry appears in the book of Daniel, when King Nebuchadnezzar built a 90-foot tall golden image (Dan 3). He then commanded all in his kingdom to come and worship it as a god (cf. Dan 3:6,11,14,18). Here again, notice that the problem was not that Nebuchadnezzar built a large golden statue, indeed Solomon had built two 15-foot golden statues of cherubim in the Temple (cf. 1 Kings 6:23), rather the issue here was that Nebuchadnezzar had built his statue to be worshiped as a god.

So we see how Protestantism’s erroneous interpretation of God’s teaching regarding graven images in the Ten Commandments, is not only contradicted by a careful examination of the immediate context, but also in numerous examples throughout the rest of Sacred Scripture. Let us recall the golden cherubim on top of the Ark of the Covenant, whose wings formed the very throne of God upon the earth, the two 15-foot golden cherubim who guarded the way into the Temple’s sanctuary, the twelve life-size statues of oxen which supported the bath of purity in the Temple, the cherubim, lions, palm trees, gourds, pomegranates, and open flowers that decorated the Temple, and the bronze serpent, fashioned that the people of God might live. Thus it is obvious from even the ‘Bible alone’, that God did not condemn the making of religious imagery in the Ten Commandments, but rather the sin of idolatry. And so while we renounce the idolatrous making of a graven image to be worshiped as a god, we also uphold the ancient and honorable practice of the making and use of religious imagery in the Church, received from Israel of Old, since as the Council Fathers taught: “For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them….” Therefore, let us proclaim with the great and venerable Fathers of that most blessed and glorious Council concerning the Iconoclasts of the past and their modern adherents today among the Protestant sects: “they have failed to distinguish between holy and profane, styling the images of our Lord and of his Saints by the same name as the statues of diabolical idols….[applying] to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about idols.”

Here is the bulletin which is not only distributed to all who attend the Divine Liturgy but is emailed out to any who have ever attended the church. This contains a truncated version of the above. Again, this indicates the seriousness with which this topic is taken in the Eastern Church.

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Total 2 comments
  • Anonymous

    The Pharaoh Masonic God maybe. Those satanic images are all over their ancient buildings that are still standing and this cult once ruled openly before the masses wised up and forced them into secrecy.

  • DK

    Confusing idolatry and image worshipping over what was in pre literature times illustrations for the illiterate. The answer was in Exodus 20:3 where no worship of any other Gods was part of the commandments. It is ok to have image or things, but you dont get to pray to them. This is why the Holy of Holies is a curtained off void containing the ARK of the Covenant, which is why some people worship the book(which contained the covenant) however the ARK itself was not worshipped but the Covenant which was delivered by God.

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