by Lawson “Trip” Cox
Some Protestants believe that when Catholics display sacred art, such as statues and images, they are engaging in idolatry. Is this view Biblical?
Prohibitions Against Idolatry
Objections to religious imagery – statues in particular – are primarily based on two passages in the Bible:
Exodus 20:3-5 [God speaking to Moses] – “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” (see also the similar commandment in Deuteronomy 5:6-9).
Deuteronomy 27:15 – “Cursed be the man who makes a graven or molten image, an abomination to the LORD, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.”
There are other places in the Old Testament where similar admonitions against idolatry appear, such as Numbers 33:52; Deuteronomy 7:5, 25; 9:12; 12:3; 2 Kings 17:9-18; 23:24; 2 Chronicles 23:17; 28:1-3; 33:18-25; 34:1-7.
In the New Testament, we see similar warnings. For example, St. Paul tells us to “shun the worship of idols” in 1 Corinthians 10:14 (see also Romans 1:18-23). Similarly, St. John instructs us, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
God Commands Religious Imagery
While God condemns worshipping any thing as an idol (statues, money, power, possessions), he does not prohibit all types of religious images – only their improper use. This is evident in several passages from Sacred Scripture where God commands that images be fashioned and where he approves of their use.
For example, in Exodus 25 (a mere five chapters after the commandment against fashioning false idols) God commands Moses to create statues for religious purposes:
The LORD said to Moses… “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. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be” (Exodus 25:1, 18-20).
God gives similar instruction in Exodus 26:
“Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet stuff; with cherubim skilfully worked shall you make them” (Exodus 26:1).
Elsewhere, God commands that Aaron’s priestly vestments be adorned with images of pomegranates (Exodus 28:33-34).
God also commands Moses to fashion a graven image of a snake that would cure the people from snakebites (Numbers 21:8-9; note the foreshadowing of Christ’s cross in John 3:14 and 8:28). This snake image was properly used in the religious context of healing. However, when the Israelites began to worship the bronze serpent (2 Kings 18:4), the king quickly destroys it. This is a great Biblical example of using a sacred image properly and improperly.
In Solomon’s temple, we see further evidence that God accepts the use of sacred images in worship.
While the temple was being constructed, God told Solomon:
“Concerning this house which you are building, if you will walk in my statutes and obey my ordinances and keep all my commandments and walk in them, then I will establish my word with you, which I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel: So Solomon built the house, and finished it” (1 Kings 6:12-14, emphasis added).
The temple built by Solomon contained many statues and graven images, such as angels, trees, flowers, oxen and lions (1 Kings 6:23-35 and 7:25, 36). Did this displease God? Not at all. In fact, God showed his approval when he told Solomon, “I have heard your prayer and your supplication, which you have made before me; I have consecrated this house, which you have built, and put my name there for ever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time” (1 Kings 9:3).
God would not have “consecrated” the temple filled with statues if these objects displeased him. This is solid evidence from Scripture that images that turn our minds toward heavenly realities are proper in the worship of God.
The above passages provide evidence that certain religious images are not only permitted, but are commanded by God; they are pleasing to him.
Photographs and paintings of our family and friends remind us of them and their love for us.
In a similar way, statues and paintings of religious realities – including Christ, angels and saints – remind us of Jesus’ great love and sacrifice for us, the reality of heaven, and the reward of eternal life that awaits those who die in his favor.