Category Archives: idolatry

Did the Catholic Church Remove One of the Ten Commandments?

My mother recently sent me an email from a friend who was being challenged by an Evangelical to re-consider her Catholicism. He claimed the Catholic Church had perniciously omitted what he referred to as the second commandment—“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” (Exodus 20:4)—in order to keep the Catholic faithful in darkness as to the truth that they should not have statues in their churches. Despite appearances, we know Exodus 20 is not a prohibition against making “any likeness of anything” in a strict sense because we clearly see God either commanding or praising the making of images and statues in multiple biblical texts (see Numbers 21:8-9; I Kings 6:23-28; 9:3). Just five chapters after this so-called prohibition against statues, for example, God commands Moses to make statues representing two angels to be placed over the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant:

And you shall make two cherubim of gold… The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another…. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark… There I will meet with you (Ex. 25:18-22).

There are five key points to be made concerning this common misunderstanding among Protestants as well as many quasi-Christian sects.

1. Exodus 20:4 is part of the first commandment that begins in verse 3 and stretches through part of verse five:

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.

Verses 3 and 5 make clear that this commandment is not simply condemning making statues; It is condemning making gods that you bow down to or serve. In a word, this first commandment forbids idolatry, i.e., the adoration of anything or anyone other than God. The Catholic Church condemns this as well.

2. By lifting out part of the first commandment appearing to prohibit the making of “any likeness of anything,” not only do you have God contradicting himself in later commanding the making of statues, but you also end up making the first two commandments repetitive. They are both essentially condemning idolatry.

3. Though the commandments are said to be “ten” in Exodus 34:28, they are not numbered by the inspired authors of Sacred Scripture. If you count the “you shall nots” along with the “you shalls” of keeping holy the Sabbath and honoring father and mother, you end up with 13 commandments. So the actual numbering of the commandments depends upon which “you shall nots” you lump together as one commandment and which ones you separate. And in the end, which “you shall nots” you lump together depends upon your theology.

4. We believe the Catholic Church alone has the authority to give to God’s people an authoritative list of the Ten Commandments. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church does exactly that. At least, it gives us a list as a sure norm for us.

5. The problem with creating a second “commandment” where there actually is not one really comes to the fore at the bottom of the list. The common Protestant listing of the Ten Commandments combines coveting your neighbor’s wife, the Catholic ninth commandment, with coveting your neighbor’s property, the Catholic tenth commandment. And really it just can’t be any other way because you run out of room. I can’t imagine many women being happy with being equated to property! Some may argue at this point: “Well, that is what the Old Testament teaches. We’re just going with what the inspired author teaches.” Are you really? Let’s take a look. Now, it is true that Exodus 20’s version of the 10 commandments appears to place both women and servants in the place of property.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

I say it “appears” to do so because Genesis 1:26-27 does reveal God himself to have said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” There is an essential equality between male and female revealed even in the Old Testament, though this revelation is not as clear and unambiguous as what we have in the New Testament. Exodus 20 certainly does anything but add to the clarity of the point. When I say the revelation of this essential equality is not as clear in the Old Testament, we need to understand why this is so. The Old Testament consists of 46 books written over a period of ca. 1500 years, representing a progressive revelation. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets.” The Greek word for “many ways” is polumeros, which means “in many portions;” God gave his revelation in piecemeal fashion over the centuries, taking an ancient people right where they were and gradually beginning to reveal more and more truth as they were able to receive it and as he gradually gave them more and more grace to be able to receive it, all the while respecting their freedom. “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son…” (Galatians 4:4) to communicate the fullness of the revelation God willed for his people. For example, the divorce God permitted in Deut. 24:1-4, he later says “[he] hates” in Malachi 2:16. And when Jesus elevated marriage to the level of sacrament eliminating divorce and remarriage absolutely in Matt. 19:5-6, he explained that this allowance by God through Moses was never intended from the very beginning citing Genesis 2:24, “the two shall become one flesh.” God permitted things early that he would not have ever willed in an antecedent sense as he helped his people to grow much like a parent does not treat a four year-old the same as he would treat a fourteen year-old. In a similar way, though God revealed the essential equality of man and woman very early in salvation history (Gen. 1:26-27), this revelation was given by God to an ancient people who did not have the same understanding of the essential equality of man and woman we so often take for granted given the fullness of revelation we have enjoyed in the New Covenant for 2,000 years. God did not expect his people to change immediately, nor did he give them the fullness of the revelation that we have in Christ all at once; rather, he helped them along as we’ve said. In fact, we can see this development of understanding even in the Old Testament itself. We cited the earlier version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, but notice the change by the time God gave his people Deuteronomy:

Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox. Or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

The inspired author of Deuteronomy now makes the distinction between wife and property sharper by using two different Hebrew words for “covet” and “desire” and by only using the word “covet” with regard to the wife. The two separate commandments now become undeniable. We’ll leave the discussion of the status of the servants for another blog post!

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Do Catholics Worship Statues?

The first commandment says: “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” (Ex. 20:2–5).

Well-meaning Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, armed with the above text, often try to use it against Catholics: “How can God make it any clearer than this? We are not to have ‘graven images,’ or statues, yet what do you see in almost every Catholic Church around the world? Statues! This is the definition of idolatry. And please, do not give me any of this nonsense about equating the statues in your churches to carrying a photograph of a loved one in your wallet. In Exodus 20, as well as in Deuteronomy 5:7–8, God specifically says we are not to make statues in the shape of anything in the sky above, the earth below or the waters beneath the earth.”

How are we to respond?

Clarifications

The Catholic Church does not believe any statue or image has any power in and of itself. The beauty of statues and icons move us to the contemplation of the Word of God as he is himself or as he works in his saints. And, according to Scripture, as well as the testimony of the centuries, God even uses them at times to impart blessings (e.g., healings) according to his providential plan.

While it can certainly be understood how a superficial reading of the first commandment could lead one to believe we Catholics are in grave error with regard to our use of statues and icons, the key to a proper understanding of the first commandment is found at the very end of that same commandment, in verse 5 of Exodus 20: “You shall not bow down to them or serve [adore] them.”

The Lord did not prohibit statues; he prohibited the adoration of them. If God truly meant that we were not to possess any statues at all, then he would later contradict himself. Just five chapters after this commandment in Exodus 20, God commanded Moses to build the ark of the Covenant, which would contain the presence of God and was to be venerated as the holiest place in all of Israel. Here is what God commanded Moses concerning the statues on it:

And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends (Ex. 25:18–19).

In Numbers 21:8–9, not only did our Lord order Moses to make another statue in the form of a bronze serpent, he commanded the children of Israel to look to it in order to be healed. The context of the passage is one where Israel had rebelled against God, and a plague of deadly snakes was sent as a just punishment. This statue of a snake had no power of itself—we know from John 3:14 it was merely a type of Christ—but God used this image of a snake as an instrument to effect healing in his people.

Further, in 1 Kings 6, Solomon built a temple for the glory of God, described as follows:

In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. . . . He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house. . . . He carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees, and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms. . . . For the entrance to the inner sanctuary he made doors of olivewood. . . . He covered the two doors of olivewood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers; he overlaid them with gold (1 Kgs. 6:23, 27, 29, 31, 32).

King Solomon ordered the construction of multiple images of things both “in heaven above” (angels) and “in the earth beneath” (palm trees and open flowers). After the completion of the temple, God declared he was pleased with its construction (1 Kgs. 9:3).

It becomes apparent, given the above evidence, that a strictly literal interpretation of Exodus 20:2–5 is erroneous. Otherwise, we would have to conclude that God prohibits something in Exodus 20 that he commands elsewhere.

Guiding Us Home

Why would God use these images of serpents, angels, palm trees, and open flowers? Why didn’t he heal the people directly rather than use a “graven image”? Why didn’t he command Moses and Solomon to build an ark and a temple void of any images at all?

First, God knows what his own commandments mean. He never condemned the use of statues absolutely. Second, God created man as a being who is essentially spiritual and physical. In order to draw us to himself, God uses both spiritual and physical means. He will use statues, the temple, or even creation itself to guide us to our heavenly home.

Psalm 19:1 tells us: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Romans 1:20 says: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” Gazing at a sunset—or a great painting of a sunset—and contemplating the greatness of God through the beauty of his creation is not idolatry. Nor is it idolatrous to look at statues of great saints of old and honor them for the great things God has done through them. It is no more idolatrous for us to desire to imitate their holy lives and honor them than it was for Paul to exhort the Corinthians to imitate his own holy life (1 Cor. 4:16) and to “esteem very highly” those who were “over [the Thessalonians] in the Lord and admonish [them]” (1 Thess. 5:12–13).

Jesus Is the Reason

It is Jesus Christ himself who gives us the ultimate example of the value of statues and icons. Indeed, Christ, in his humanity, has opened up an entirely new economy of iconography and statuary. Christ becomes for us the ultimate reason for all representations of the angels and saints. Why do we say this? Colossians 1:15 tells us Christ is, “The image (Gr.-icon) of the invisible God.” Christ is the ultimate icon! And what does this icon reveal to us? He reveals God the Father. When Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” in John 14:9, he does not mean that he is the Father. He isn’t. He’s the Son. Hebrews 1:3 tells us Christ “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature.” That is the essence of what statues and icons are. Just as “the word became flesh” (John 1:14) and revealed the Father to us in a manner beyond the imaginings of men before the advent of Christ, representations of God’s holy angels and saints are also icons of Christ who by their heroic virtue “reflect the glory of God” as well. Just as St. Paul told the Corinthians to hold up his own life as a paradigm when he said, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me,” the Church continues to hold up great men and women of faith as “icons” of the life of Christ lived in fallen human nature aided by grace.

Adoration is as Adoration Does

Many Protestants will claim that, while the Catholic may say he does not adore statues, his actions prove otherwise. Catholics kiss statues, bow down before them, and pray in front of them. According to these same Protestants, that represents the adoration that is due God alone. Peter, when Cornelius bowed down to adore him, ordered him to “stand up; I too am a man” (Acts 10:26). When John bowed down before an angel, the angel told him, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you” (Rev. 19:10). But Catholics have no problem bowing down before what is less—a statue of Peter or John!

Is kissing or kneeling down before a statue the same as adoring it? Not necessarily. Both Peter in Acts 10 and the angel in Revelation 19 rebuked Cornelius and John, respectively, specifically for adoring them as if each was adoring the Lord. The problem was not with the bowing; it was with the adoration. Bowing does not necessarily entail adoration. For example, Jacob bowed to the ground on his knees seven times to his elder brother Esau (Gen. 33:3), Bathsheba bowed to her husband David (1 Kgs. 1:16), and Solomon bowed to his mother Bathsheba (1 Kgs. 2:19). In fact, in Revelation 3:9, John records the words of Jesus:

Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and learn that I have loved you.

Here, John uses the same verb for “bow down” (proskuneo) that he used in Revelation 19:10 for “adoration” when he acknowledged his own error in adoring the angel. Would anyone dare say that Jesus would make someone commit idolatry?

St. Paul encourages Christians to greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). The clergy in Ephesus embraced and kissed Paul after his final discourse to them in Acts 20:37. As the context of these passages make clear, these are acts of affection, not adoration.

Catholics take very seriously the biblical injunctions to praise and honor great members of God’s family (see, for example, Ps. 45:17; Luke 1:48; 1 Thess. 5:12–13; 1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Pet. 5:5–6). We also believe, as Scripture makes very clear, that death does not separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:38) and from his body, which is the Church (Col. 1:24). Our “elders in heaven” (cf. Rev. 5:8) should be honored as much or even more than our greatest members on earth. So having statues honoring God or great saints brings to mind the God we adore and the saints we love and respect. For Catholics, having statues is just as natural as—you guessed it—having pictures in our wallets to remind us of the ones we love here on earth. But reminding ourselves of loved ones is a far cry from idolatry.

Call No Man Father

The other day I received a rather lengthy email from a fellow responding to a chapter in my book, Nuts and Bolts – A Practical How-To Guide for Explaining and Defending the Catholic Faith, specifically responding to my defense of calling priests “father.”

Score One Up For the Protestants

I have answered this question hundreds of times over the years, but this fellow’s critique caught my attention first of all because he used my own style of argumentation against me. I liked that. “Matthew 23:9,” he reminded me, “says, ‘Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.’ What would Jesus have to say to you, Tim, to get you to believe you can’t call your priest ‘father,’ other than by saying, ‘Call no man your father on earth?’”

I have to believe this fellow has heard me speak before because I have often (too often?) used a similar line, “What else would Jesus have to say…” to argue in favor of various Catholic doctrines. In fact, I used that very approach in my debate with Dr. Peter Barnes on the Eucharist in Sydney, Australia, when we were discussing John 6:53.

Cudos to my interlocutor at this point, but that would be, quite frankly, about the only round he had in his magazine.

An Earthly Argument

In Nuts and Bolts, I point out the fact that notwithstanding Jesus’ words in Matthew 23, St. Paul calls people “on the earth” father in Ephesians 6:2-4:

“Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Is this a contradiction?

Many will respond at this point and claim Jesus is not just condemning calling anyone father; rather, he is condemning calling religious leaders “father.” As I explain in my book, this is easily dismissed when we consider the words of our Lord from Luke 16:24:

And he (the rich man) called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.”

Abraham is clearly a “religious leader.” And Jesus is not alone in referring to him as “father.” St. James refers to Abraham as “father” in James 2:21, while St. Paul refers to Abraham as “father” seven times in Romans 4:1-18. If you believe in the inspiration of Sacred Scripture, St. James and St. Paul cannot contradict Jesus in Matthew 23:9.

At this point, my new friend argued something slightly different from what I’ve heard before. He said words to the effect of: “The key here is found in the words ‘on the earth.’ Abraham was not on earth. So Jesus was not simply condemning giving the ‘title’ of ‘father’ to men, but giving it to religious leaders who are on earth. And that is precisely what Catholics do!”

The Catholic Response

The first problem here is Jesus did not say “give no spiritual leader on earth the title father.” He simply said, “Call no man on earth your father.” More on that in a moment. For now, let’s follow the argument. So now our Protestant friend is saying it is okay to call our dads “father” because they are not “spiritual leaders” in the Church. We can also call our spiritual forefathers like Abraham or Jacob (John 4:12) father because they are no longer “on earth.”

Sounds okay so far, but here’s the problem. In I John 2:13-14, St. John refers to the leaders of the church in Ephesus to whom he is most likely writing as “fathers” twice. And notice he gives them the title “father.”

I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning…

Notice, he does not say they are “fathers” because they are married with children. They are “fathers,” spiritually speaking. And they are presumably “on the earth.”

In Acts 7:1-2, St. Stephen, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, calls both Abraham and the elders of Jerusalem “father” in the same breath:

And the high priest said, “Is this so?” And Stephen said: “Brethren and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham…”

And in I Corinthians 4:14-15, St. Paul refers to himself as “father”:

I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

What Does the Bible Actually Say?

What we need to do is get back to Matthew 23:9 and let the surrounding verses clarify things for us:

(8) But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. (9) And call no man your father… for you have one Father… (10) Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.

We have “one teacher,” and yet, many are called “teacher” in the New Testament (see James 3:1; Ephesians 4:11, etc.). We have “one master,” or leader, and yet, we have many “leaders” in the body of Christ to whom we are called to submit (Hebrews 13:17 uses the same Greek root for “leader” when it says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…”).

Ultimately, the key to understanding all of these seemingly contradictory texts is found in a proper understanding of the nature of the Body of Christ.

I am going to call upon the Douay-Rheims (Confraternity Edition) translation of Ephesians 3:14-15 to help me out here:

For this cause I bow my knees to the Father (Gr. – Patera – “Father”) of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom all paternity (Gr. – patria – “fatherhood”) in heaven and earth is named.

God, the Father, is our one true Father. Any other case of true fatherhood, be it a father “on earth,” a spiritual leader in the Church, or a spiritual forefather in heaven, participates in the Father’s unique Fatherhood and represents it to us. It neither takes away nor adds to this one unique Fatherhood; it establishes that fatherhood on earth via participatio. 

In his famous Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 1, Para. 23, St. Athanasius makes this very point explaining how Ephesians 3:14-15 employs a play on words when it says, “For this cause I bow my knees to the father of lights…” Father here is patera, in Greek. It then says, “… of whom all paternity (fatherhood, paternia in Greek) … is named,” or, “is derived.” The play on words brings out the truth that true paternia (fatherhood) participates in our one, true Pater in heaven.

The context of Matthew 23 emphasizes the sin of pride among the scribes and Pharisees. They loved to be called “teacher”, “father”, or “Rabbi,” but their pride pointed men to themselves rather than to God the Father from whom they received true fatherhood and in whom their fatherhood subsisted. Outside of God the Father, there are no fathers at all in the true sense of the term. But in God, we have all sorts of true “fathers.”

Moreover, we must recall that Roman Caesars all the way back to Caesar Augustus, thirty years before our Lord would utter these words, demanded divine adoration from citizens of the empire. Many early Christians were martyred not simply for refusing to adore that pantheon of the gods, but for refusing to adore (worship) the emperor. And guess what one of the emperor’s titles was? “Father!” He was the “father” of the empire and the citizens were his children who had to worship him as a god.

This brings a whole knew light to Jesus’ words, “Call no man father…”

Ultimately, Jesus is condemning the usurpation of the fatherhood of God in Matthew 23:9, not the proper participation in that fatherhood.