Images, idolatry and right worship

Continuing the conversation from Wearing or displaying a cross

Grateful to find this post from last year, as this week I am struggling to understand the issue regarding the image of God. I’m reading Deuteronomy and I am not sure how to interpret the commands regarding idolatry.

Some background about me: I was raised Catholic but never embraced christianity as a child or young adult. I was very accustomed to statues, crucifixes, and catholic art in my school, church, home, etc. While I never considered these images God, I did see everyone around me using the images to pray and to worship. Born again, I now consider myself a non-denominational christian.

Regarding the ten commandments, I understand that some church traditions or historical texts combine the commands of …

1 - "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me "
2 - “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”

…and some separate them as the first two of the ten commandments. The distinction seems important. I’ve read [R.C. Sproul Jr’s article] (https://tabletalkmagazine.com/contributor/rc-sproul-jr/) on this distinction and his ideas seem related to this conversation about “Wearing or displaying a cross”.

Sproul claims, “We break the second commandment when we seek to worship the true God through images, including images we construct in our own minds…The second commandment commands that we worship God as He is, and that we do so as He has commanded.”

Though Sproul is a much more studied theologian than I am, his interpretation is troubling to me. If he’s right, are most contemporary churches breaking the second commandment every time they sing worship songs with an image projected on a church screen? Should we avoid imagining any physical image of Jesus while we pray or when we worship? Is it wrong to create metaphoric images of God in writing (like CS Lewis) if we write in prayer or in worship? Are statues carved with God in mind the same abomination as Aaron’s golden calf?

Maybe my misunderstanding has to do with definitions. When we talk about worshipping false idols or worshiping God with “carved images” what, precisely, constitutes worship? In Deuteronomy 5:9 I see several words mentioned: bow / serve / worship. What is the modern translation of these ideas, and how can we know if we are practicing worship in a way that is not pleasing to God?

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We do not KNOW what Jesus looked like, no one painted his picture while he was alive. In my opinion, all the artifacts from Christ; the should if Turin, chips from the cross, etc. are all fakes. I don’t believe Jesus would have left any material things behind, no BODY, nothing. He would know that any object that came in contact with his body would become idolized and worshipped.

Therein lies the danger if crosses as jewelry, or pictures representing Jesus, worshipping the created rather than the Creator. Worshipping a man-made object, rather than the maker of Man and all things.

Hi, @melemartinez! Thank you so much for your thoughtful question, and I’m sorry it’s taken me almost a week to reply! Your post seems to have been buried, and in order to increase its visibility, I have split it off from the original post, as I’d like to hear what others have to say as well. :slight_smile:

I read through the article you linked, and I have to say that I’m a bit with you on being troubled by RC Jr’s rather strict interpretation of the second commandment. Or maybe I’m just a bit puzzled? It’s a very short article, and I’d be curious to ask him more about what he means by worshipping ‘through’ images.

I do know that this is not a new debate by any means! I studied a good bit of Reformation history, and the backlash in those years against ‘iconography’ was severe, as churches were ‘cleared of idols’…stained glass windows destroyed, statues broken and paintings burned. (I’m thinking particularly in Scotland, but I’m sure it happened elsewhere.) I find it sad that they, in my mind, ‘threw out the baby with the bath water’, but I can understand their historical context is rather different from ours!

But back to a couple of your questions…

They may or may not be breaking the 2nd Commandment, but, in my mind, those who project images during song are certainly breaking the laws that govern good taste. :wink:

I am convinced that God loves imagination and creativity; we reflect our Creator in having the former and exercising the latter! But (as RC Jr warns against) we can easily fall in love with that which we imagine to be true rather than that which exists. We need others to help us keep our imaginations in check on some levels.

I would love to re-phase this question as, What distinguishes art from Aaron’s golden calf? I don’t have a fully developed answer, but I am convinced that there is a distinction. Maybe another could take up the question? Anyone in @Interested_in_Arts have some thoughts?

As far as worshipping an idol goes, I understand that to mean that one believes that God (or one of the gods) is actually contained in the statue or pole or whatever has been constructed by human hands. I particularly think of the nations who would literally carve their gods and take them with them (like how Rachel stole Laban’s household gods in Genesis 31), unlike the LORD (Jahweh) who led his people by cloud and fiery pillar.

I know there’s much more to unpack, but I just wanted to get us started off!

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There is certainly something to be said about the error of worshipping idols. Nevertheless, the second commandment is not principally about worship. It addresses controlling or manipulating the Lord.

The point is that the Lord cannot be contained in, or reduced to, or represented by a human-made object. The manufacturing of anything to represent the Lord falls short of the truth of His existence, nature, character, and ways with humanity.

The Lord has created one legitimate image of Himself. This image is human beings. See Genesis 1:27. The Lord is like complex humanity, with personality, self-will, social behavior, moral convictions, ability to communicate, capacity to love others, and many more things, and each of these qualities extended in range infinitely into the Lord’s level of existence.

The point then is how we view the Lord. Shall we strive to manipulate Him or shall we serve Him?

The loss of the ark of covenant in 1 Samuel 4 is an example of trying to manipulate the Lord. Some may say the ark wasn’t a graphic image of the Lord, but it was seen in the story as representing Him: the people had reduced the Lord to bondage to His ark. Thus the Israelites used the ark to manipulate the Lord into giving them victory over the Philistines. This is how graven images are thought to work.

Therefore, the second commandment prevents trying to manipulate the Lord through redefining, or reducing (actually, dumbing down), the Lord’s grand qualities, personality, character, and so on.

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Thank you so much for this, @MarkThunder! I was trying to find the words to tie it all in to the imago Dei, but I couldn’t figure out how to. :slight_smile:

This helps me think through the religious art question a little bit. In my understanding, unlike the Aaron’s golden calf, Christian religious art was never meant to contain or represent God in any way, but either tell a story or capture a specific part of a Biblical story in order to stoke the imagination… create a piece for refection. In an illiterate society, art was important for, among other things, communicating truth and helping people remember. Art, in my mind, attempts to depict not represent.

I wonder how we can understand relics, then, as @Dave_Nunn mentioned? (Shroud of Turin, fragments of the cross, apostles’ bones, etc.) In my understanding, they were viewed as objects that contained remnants of divine power but not The Divine itself. Maybe they were worshipped in some circles, but I would think they were more revered and respected than idolised. Though people could and were certainly manipulated by the parading of them…

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Hello @melemartinez,
This is a great discussion you’ve spurred, and it’s been well represented here. I would just add that graven images are literally a form or manifestation created by hand that are intended to be worshiped as a representation of God. His holiness demands that we do not violate His perfection by reducing it to something we can produce.
I believe it’s important that we examine our heart on a regular basis for physical things that take His place. (Do I check for likes on my Instagram account before I spend time with the Lord?) Anything we regard as same level as or greater than God would be the violation. If you wear a cross necklace as a way to identify yourself as a Christian that’s one thing, but if you pray to your necklace that’s idolatry. It may be things we don’t even realize we are elevating above Him. I recall when my children were little, the Lord showed me I idolized them over Him. Mind you, I never prayed to my children :laughing: but they held a place in my heart that was elevated above where they should be. I was stricken by the impact of what that meant, and how it would interfere with my walk with the Lord if I didn’t get that sorted!
We are called to examine our hearts daily for the things of the world that distract us from the glorious Person of God and our call to His relationship as priority over all things.

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I studied this carefully years ago before I started art school and can’t find my notes on it. I remember researching graven images in the greek and concluding that the commandment is to not make anything that is intended to be worshipped. I am a landscape painter. I paint the landscape without anything in it that was created by humans. In doing so, my intent is to glorify the creator. I do it as an act of worship of God Himself.

Many polytheistic cultures worship all kinds of created things including found objects. This is what God detests. I don’t see these commandments as prohibiting us from using imagery in our worship of Him, but if we start to worship the items themselves this is an issue. Many Catholics used to worship icons. Also, since catholics believe the Eucharist becomes the body and blood of Christ during the mass, I understand that they will pray to it as well. I would have a issue with these practices.

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Thank you @KMac! This is very helpful.

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@melemartinez thanks for your question. I admit as an artist it’s one I’ve struggled with for a long time. And I don’t profess to have any answers for you, but I do have some thoughts that have occurred to me over time and maybe they will add some value.

Biblical thoughts:
In the OT, when Abraham and others had an encounter with God they built an altar, or gave the place a special name. It seems to be a recognition of who God is in a way that will honor God and help the generations remember what God has done for them.

When the 10 Commandments were given, the Egyptian (and other Middle Eastern cultures of the time) practiced religious ceremonies where statues and images of their gods were worshiped. What was foul about this was that the created (people) were worshiping other created creatures. (Paul gets into this in Romans 1). In order not to fall into the confusion of the object being the thing that has the power, we were commanded not to construct any “graven” image. Since we do not know what God looks like, what image would that be? With the golden calf they were attributing “the creator” to the “created.” That did not honor God.

But, God also commanded Moses and His nation of Israel to “remember” all that He had done for him. One such symbol of identification is the circumcision. If you’d ever been to a Jewish Seder dinner, they have many food items in the sequence of the dinner that keep them from forgetting the Passover and how God delivered them from Egypt. [Here’s a link: https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1751/jewish/What-Is-a-Seder.htm.] God also instructed them to abide by a calendar of festivals and special observances to remember who they are and to whom they belong. So remembering it vital.

Now if we understand the OT to not just be pre-Jesus, but about Jesus, then we know that God would one day walk in our midst and at least the generation that lived at the time of Jesus would know the incarnate face of God. So God is no longer abstract, but very real and very present in a very visual and tangible way.

And the life of Jesus gave us many symbols that were especially visual. Wine, bread, shepherd, the firstborn lamb, loaves and fishes, etc. Think about all the parables, they are powerful word pictures. They are meant for us to see and understand them it in our minds, and write them on our hearts.

Personal thoughts:
I’m not so sure we can help but try to visualize things. But I also think the key message of the Sermon on the Mount is that it’s the attitude of the heart that is the measurement of our faithfulness. We can’t follow the law well enough to be righteous, we can’t obtain perfection…except through Jesus who does this for us. So when we are conceptualizing we should probably ask ourselves what is the true attitude of our heart? Is it worship? Is it honoring God? Is it a symbol that will help me remember whose I am and all that has been done on my behalf that I might spend eternity with God? Is it a measure of my thankfulness and gratitude? Is it something I intend as a blessing for others? Or is it just jewelry or home decor?

I know in previous posts there was discussion over the crucifix (Jesus on the cross) and the empty cross (typically Protestant). I will tell you that I am blessed by both. I need to be reminded that my salvation had a heavy price. I also need to be reminded that Jesus defeated death and the tomb was empty. So I take into my heart the depth of what these symbols mean. I don’t worship them, but they do help me know God at a deeper level and they can bring me comfort in moments where I need something tangible to touch. But I re-iterate, I do not worship them.

Our sanctuary has a beautiful stained glass window with Jesus as the large, central figure. I love that he wears sandals…and a crown. I can’t tell you how many times as I’ve been worshiping that visual reminder leads me to thank God that He walked with us so we can be saved and confessed him as my almighty king.

Perhaps if I felt that these things I’ve mentioned have lead me to false understandings I would change my attitude about these visual symbols and conceptualizing the things of God. So if anyone who reads this post wants to guide me to a different understanding I welcome the dialog and I will keep an open mind.

Thanks for the question, Mele. Truly, thinking through this again has really blessed me. I guess my bottom line seems to be if I’m in error then I’m inclined to the error that draws me closer to God. And I pray that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit will guide me to godly thinking and practice.

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Thank you for these thoughtful responses!

Your words help me understand the risk of manipulative intent behind images, and the importance of the intentions behind worship. 1 Samuel 4 is particularly helpful. I’ve listened to ideas before about the problem of reducing or containing God (though more from non-Christians protesting the narrowness of Christianity than sermons about the 2nd commandment). Your explanations makes a lot of sense, and I’m grateful.

The idea of containing or reducing God with a human image was obviously to be avoided, but when I read Mark’s statement…

… my heart wanted to defend the idea of representation. So I really thank you, @KMac for articulating the specific difference between the definitions of representation and depiction!

It is important to me because I’m writing a book manuscript that builds a metaphoric character - an artifact from my childhood-- and I see that what I’m writing may depict Christ’s character, but can never represent Him. It is easy to claim that my imagined character is not meant to be worshipped; I doubt any of my readers would go there. But when talking about my work to others, I now realize how important it will be to communicate that this character is not a “representation” or even “symbol” of Christ. It is certainly not intended to take the place of Christ. Since I am incorporating scripture in the spoken words of my metaphoric character, this is a tricky balance, and perhaps my craft is not yet up to this huge challenge. Still, I feel called to communicate the good news in my creative work, and I will pray more and more for guidance.

This all makes me want to better examine all my motivations for creating the metaphor in the first place and the danger of imagining God’s image to fit my creative or selfish purposes. I am humbled by your reminders. As @BloomHere mentions,

I’ll take that to heart.

Thank you, again.
Mele

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Thank you, @Jennifer_Judson

Your post is a blessing, and your suggestion that we ask ourselves what is the true attitude of our heart while conceptualizing seems to be so important. I haven’t practiced this enough in my creative work.

I too pray that this art around us, these created images we make and use as reminders, don’t lead us into false understandings or idolatry but into honest and godly worship.

M

None of these relics has any more divine power than any 2x4 I might use building a shed. It is O. K. Be to give the the same honor and remembrance you might give a picture of a deceased relative, if you believe they are authentic, but no more. They have no power to answer prayer.