Religious images in Christian theology
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A cult image or idol is a material object, representing a deity, to which religious worship is directed. It is also controversially and pejoratively used by some Protestants to describe the Eastern Orthodox (and, to a lesser extent, Catholic) practice of worshipping the Christian God through the use of icons, a charge which these Christians reject. In a similarly controversial sense, it is also used by some Protestants to pejoratively describe various Catholic worship practices such as scapulars and the veneration of statues and flat images of the Virgin Mary and saints, which Catholics do not consider idolatry. Concern over idolatry is the driving force behind the various traditions of aniconism in Christianity.
Idolatry is consistently prohibited in the Hebrew Bible, including as one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-4) and in the New Testament (for example 1 John 5:21, most significantly in the Apostolic Decree recorded in Acts 15:19-21). There is a great deal of controversy over the question of what constitutes idolatry and this has bearing on the visual arts and the use of icons and symbols in worship, and other matters. As in other Abrahamic religions the meaning of the term has been extended very widely by theologians. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship...Man commits idolatry whenever he honours and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money etc."  Speaking of the effects of idolatry, Benedict XVI says, "Worship of an idol, instead of opening the human heart to Otherness, to a liberating relationship that permits the person to emerge from the narrow space of his own selfishness to enter the dimensions of love and of reciprocal giving, shuts the person into the exclusive and desperate circle of self-seeking"
Idolatry is prohibited by many verses in the Old Testament, but there is no one section that clearly defines idolatry. Rather there are a number of commandments on this subject spread through the books of the Hebrew Bible, some of which were written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Idolatry in the Hebrew Bible is defined as the worship of idols (or images); the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images) and even the use of idols in the worship of Yahweh (God).
The Israelites used various images in connection with their worship, including carved cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-22) which God instructed Moses to make, and the embroidered figures of cherubim on the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle tent (Exodus 26:31). Similarly, the Nehushtan, which God commanded Moses to make and lift high to cure any Israelites who looked at it of snakebites, is God-ordained use of an image. However, as part of a later religious reform Hezekiah destroyed the Serpent, which the Hebrew people had been burning incense to (2 Kings 18:4).
Judaism's animosity towards what they perceived as idolatry was inherited by Jewish Christianity. Although Jesus discussed the Mosaic Law in the Sermon on the Mount, he does not speak of issues regarding the meaning of the commandment against idolatry. His teachings, however, uphold that worship should be directed to God alone (Matthew 4:10 which is itself a quote of Deuteronomy 6:13, see also Shema in Christianity, Great Commandment, and Ministry of Jesus).
The Pauline Epistles contain several admonitions to "flee from idolatry" (1 Cor 5:11, 6:9–10, 10:7, 10:14, Gal 5:19–21, Eph 5:5, Col 3:5) A major controversy among Early Christians concerned whether it was permissible to eat meat that had been offered in pagan worship. Paul of Tarsus, who agreed to the Apostolic Decree, also wrote that it was permitted to do so, as long as a blessing was pronounced over it, and provided that scandal was not caused by it. However, he said that the gods worshiped in idolatry were in his belief demons, and that any act of direct participation in their worship remained forbidden (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). See also the Law of Christ.
The New Testament also uses the term "idolatry" to refer to worship like passion for things such as wealth. One can see evidence of this in Colossians 3:5, "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed which is idolatry." Some Christian theologians see the absolutization of an idea as idolatrous. Therefore, undue focus on particular features of Christianity to the exclusion of others would constitute idolatry.
The New Testament does contain the rudiments of an argument which provides a basis for religious images or icons. Jesus was visible, and orthodox Christian doctrine maintains that Jesus is YHWH incarnate. In the Gospel of John, Jesus stated that because his disciples had seen him, they had seen God the Father (Gospel of John 14:7-9 ). Paul of Tarsus referred to Jesus as the "image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15). Theologians such as John of Damascus argued that the connection between Jesus' incarnation and the use of images is so strong that to reject or prohibit the use of images is tantamount to denying the Incarnation of Jesus.
Early Christianity grew in a society where religious images, usually in the form of statues, both large ones in temples and small ones such as lares and penates in the home, were a prominent feature of traditional pagan religions, such as traditional Ancient Roman religion, Ancient Greek religion and other forms of Eastern paganism. Many writings by Church fathers contain strong denunciations of these practices, which seem to have included outright idol-worship. Statues on secular buildings, however, could serve as expression of secular power in various periods of Christianity, without implications of idol-worship.
The use of icons and symbols in Christian worship
Early Christian art used symbolic and allegorical images mainly, partly no doubt to avoid drawing attention during the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire. In the Catacombs of Rome Jesus was represented indirectly by pictogram symbols such as the Ichthys (fish), peacock, Lamb of God, or an anchor (the Labarum or Chi-Rho was a later development). Later, personified symbols were used, including Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale pre-figured the interval between Christ's death and Resurrection, Daniel in the lion's den, or Orpheus charming the animals.
The image of "The Good Shepherd", a beardless youth in pastoral scenes collecting sheep, was the most common of these images, and was probably not understood as a portrait of the historical Jesus. The depiction of Jesus already from the 3rd century included images very similar to what became the traditional image of Jesus, with a longish face and long straight hair. As the Church increased in size and popularity, the need to educate illiterate converts led to the use of pictures which portrayed biblical stories, along with images of saints, angels, prophets, and the Cross (though only portrayed in a bejewelled, glorified state).
After the end of persecution, and the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, large churches were built and from the start decorated with elaborate images of Jesus and saints in mosaic. Small carved reliefs were also found on sarcophagi like the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus. However large monumental sculpture of religious subjects was not produced, and in Byzantine art and Eastern Orthodox art it is avoided to the current day. It only reappeared in Carolingian art, among peoples who had no memory of pagan religious statues.
Paintings of Old Testament scenes are found in Jewish catacombs of the same period, and the heavily painted walls of Dura Europos Synagogue in Syria. Catholic and Orthodox historians affirm, on the basis of these archeological finds in the Catacombs, that the veneration of icons and relics had begun well before Constantine I.
Christian use of relics also dates to the catacombs, when Christians found themselves praying in the presence of the bodies of martyrs, sometimes using their tombs as altars for sharing the Eucharist, which was, and in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is, the central act of Christian worship. Many stories of the earliest martyrs end with an account of how Christians would gather up the martyr's remains, to the extent possible, in order to retain the martyr's relics. This is shown in the written record of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, a personal disciple of Saint John the Apostle.
Significant periods of iconoclasm (deliberate destruction of icons) have occurred in the history of the Church, the first major outbreak being the Byzantine iconoclasm (730-787), motivated by a strictly literal interpretation of the second commandment and interaction with Muslims who have a very strict teachings against the creation of images. Iconoclasm was officially condemned by the Western and Eastern Churches at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD (the Western Church was not represented, but approved the decrees later).
This decision was based on the arguments including that the biblical commandment forbidding images of God was because no-one had seen God. But, by the Incarnation of Jesus, who is God incarnate in visible matter, humankind has now seen God. It was therefore argued that they were not depicting the invisible God, but God as He appeared in the flesh.
Different understandings of the use of images
Catholics use images, such as the crucifix, the cross, in religious life and pray using depictions of saints. They also venerate images and liturgical objects by kissing, bowing, and making the sign of the cross. They point to the Old Testament patterns of worship followed by the Hebrew people as examples of how certain places and things used in worship may be treated with reverence or venerated, without worshiping them. The Ark of the Covenant was treated with great reverence and included images of cherubim on top of it (Exodus 25:18-22), and certain miracles were associated with it, yet this was not condemned.
Christianity interprets the commandment not to make "any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above" to mean to not "bow down and worship" the image in and of itself nor a false god through the image. Christian theology offers the following explanations of liturgical practice that features images, icons, statues, and the like:
- Catholic theology expressly affirms that the image of Christ receives the same latria or worship that is due to God; see St. Thomas, Summa, III, 25, 3, but "no reverence is shown to Christ's image, as a thing---for instance, carved or painted wood: because reverence is not due save to a rational creature". In the case of an image of a saint, the worship would not be latria but rather dulia, while the Blessed Virgin Mary receives hyperdulia. The worship of whatever type, latria, hyperdulia, or dulia, can be considered to go through the icon, image, or statue: "The honor given to an image reaches to the prototype" (St. John Damascene in Summa ³).
- Orthodoxy teaches that the incarnation of Jesus makes it permissible to venerate icons, and even necessary to do so in order to preserve the truth of the Incarnation. Indeed, following from the Summa reference above, the veneration of icons is mandatory; to not venerate icons would imply that Jesus was not also fully God, or to deny that Jesus had a real physical body. Both of these alternatives are incompatible with the Christology defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and summarized in the Chalcedonian Creed.
- Both the literal worship of an inanimate object and latria, or sacrificial worship to something or someone that is not God, are forbidden; yet such are not the basis for Christian worship. The Catholic knows "that in images there is no divinity or virtue on account of which they are to be worshipped, that no petitions can be addressed to them, and that no trust is to be placed in them. . . that the honour which is given to them is referred to the objects (prototypa) which they represent, so that through the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover our heads and kneel, we adore Christ and venerate the Saints whose likenesses they are" (Council of Trent, Sess. XXV, de invocatione Sanctorum).
- The vast majority of Christian denominations hold that God particularized himself when he took on flesh and was born as Jesus; through this act God is said to have blessed material things and made them good again. By rising physically from the dead, ascending bodily into Heaven and promising Christians a physical resurrection, God thus indicates that it is not wrong to be "attached" to physical things, and that matter is not inherently evil, unlike the ancient teachings of Gnosticism.
A recent joint Lutheran-Orthodox statement made in the 7th Plenary of the Lutheran-Orthodox Joint Commission, on July 1993 in Helsinki, reaffirmed the Ecumenical Council decisions on the nature of Christ and the veneration of images:
7. As Lutherans and Orthodox we affirm that the teachings of the ecumenical councils are authoritative for our churches. The ecumenical councils maintain the integrity of the teaching of the undivided Church concerning the saving, illuminating/justifying and glorifying acts of God and reject heresies which subvert the saving work of God in Christ. Orthodox and Lutherans, however, have different histories. Lutherans have received the Nicaeno?Constantinopolitan Creed with the addition of the filioque. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, which rejected iconoclasm and restored the veneration of icons in the churches, was not part of the tradition received by the Reformation. Lutherans, however, rejected the iconoclasm of the 16th century, and affirmed the distinction between adoration due to the Triune God alone and all other forms of veneration (CA 21). Through historical research this council has become better known. Nevertheless it does not have the same significance for Lutherans as it does for the Orthodox. Yet, Lutherans and Orthodox are in agreement that the Second Council of Nicaea confirms the christological teaching of the earlier councils and in setting forth the role of images (icons) in the lives of the faithful reaffirms the reality of the incarnation of the eternal Word of God, when it states: "The more frequently, Christ, Mary, the mother of God, and the saints are seen, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these icons the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honored and life?giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred objects" (Definition of the Second Council of Nicaea).
Martin Luther did not object to the use of religious images per se, but he did object to various beliefs that were associated with them. In particular, he objected to the practice of invoking the saints that was often associated with images of the saints. He was also concerned that those who erect beautiful and costly images would presume to think they had done a good work that would earn them merit with God. Yet these concerns did not prevent him from allowing new Lutheran altarpieces, often of the Last Supper, in many of which leading reformers were portrayed as the apostles. John Calvin was always extremely hostile to all publicly displayed religious images, which were systematically destroyed by Calvinists, as in the Beeldenstorm in the Netherlands. Towards the end of the 16th century there were disputes between Lutherans and Calvinists, with the former put under pressure to destroy images. Though both groupings did not object to book illustrations or prints of biblical events, or portraits of reformers, production of large-scale religious art virtually ceased in Protestant regions after about 1540, and artists shifted to secular subjects, ironically often including revived classical mythology.
The earliest catechisms of the Protestant movement, written in the 16th through 18th centuries, including the Heidelberg (1563), Westminster (1647) and Fisher's (1765), included discussions in a question and answer format detailing how the creation of images of God (including Jesus) was counter to their understanding of the Second Commandment's prohibition against creating images of worship in any manner.
Many Protestants hold that veneration and worship are for all practical purposes identical.
Most typically, modern Protestants are no longer offended by religious art, or pictorial representations of Jesus, as was certainly the case in the 16th century. However, some consider it necessary to avoid religious use of these objects, especially as the focus of communal worship. In order to avoid praying before them, lighting candles to them, and other acts that make it appear as if the image itself is holy or an object of devotion, many Protestants avoid locating any representational art in front of the congregation, although exceptions may be made for the Christian cross and, sometimes, an image of the Face of Christ or the Good Shepherd. In most cases, it is the devotional use, especially, that is avoided.
In some cases, it is not only the veneration of images, but also the making of an image, that is avoided. Any visual representations of Jesus, including drawings, paintings, stained glass windows, sculpture, and other forms of representational art are considered a violation of the commandment of God prohibiting the depiction of God by images. Calvinist theologian J. I. Packer, in Chapter 4 of his book Knowing God, writes that, "Imagining God in our heads can be just as real a breach of the second commandment as imagining Him by the work of our hands." His overall concern is that "The mind that takes up with images is a mind that has not yet learned to love and attend to God's Word." In other words, image making relies on human sources rather than on divine revelation. Another typical Christian argument for this position might be that God was incarnate as a human being, not as an object of wood, stone or canvas, and therefore the only God-directed service of images permitted is the service of other people.
Others[who?] go even farther to eliminate, if it were possible, any kind of religiously symbolic art of any kind, in addition to any representational art. The use of a cross, censer, candles, or vestments in a place of worship is considered idolatrous by some.[who?] By using tools and items of furniture or clothing only in the context of religious ritual, these implements seem set apart as holy, they would be profaned by ordinary use. This too is believed to pose a danger that these objects are being worshiped, or are becoming talismans. During the period of Archbishop William Laud's conflicts with Puritans within the Church of England, the use of ritual implements prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer was a frequent cause of conflict. (See vestments controversy)
Some Protestant groups[who?] have criticized the use of stained-glass windows by other denominations, while Jehovah's Witnesses criticize the use of windows, statuary, as well as the wearing of a cross. The Amish are the only Christian group that forbids the use of images in secular life. In their critiques these groups argue that such practices are in effect little different from idolatry, and that they localize and particularize God, who, they argue, is beyond human depiction.
For most Protestants all religious images and all conceptions of God that can be apprehended by human senses are problematic.
References and notes
- Geoffrey W. Bromiley International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), vol. 2 p 794.
- Catechism of The Catholic Church, passage 2113, pp.460, Geoffrey Chapman, 1999
- General Audience. June 15, 2011
- "1 Corinthians 10:14-22 KJV - Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2013-09-20.
- John MacQuarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), 145.
- "John 14:7-9 NKJV - The Father Revealed - "If you had". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2013-09-20.
- "Colossians 1 NKJV - Greeting - Paul, an apostle of Jesus". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 2013-09-20.
- Péter Bokody, "Idolatry or Power: St. Francis in Front of the Sultan," In Promoting the Saints: Cults and Their Contexts from Late Antiquity until the Early Modern Period, ed. Ottó Gecser and others (Budapest: CEU Press, 2010), 69-81. https://www.academia.edu/1787059/Idolatry_or_Power_St._Francis_in_Front_of_the_Sultan
- "The Icon FAQ". Orthodoxinfo.com. Retrieved 2013-09-20.
- Summa Theologica text
- "lutheran orthodox". Helsinki.fi. Retrieved 2013-09-20.
- "Manufactory of Romish Graven Images". The Wesleyan Juvenile Offering: A Miscellany of Missionary Information for Young Persons. Wesleyan Missionary Society. X: 1. January 1853. Retrieved 29 February 2016.
- Knowing God, IVP, 1973, Page 42
- Knowing God, IVP, 1973, Page 43