We are all familiar with the central roles religious images – statues, icons and works of art – play in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Stories of miracles and supernatural feats are so hinged with the cult of images that it’s obvious that one can’t survive without the other.
Such stories have been crystallized in many Catholic legends (e.g St. Mary of Egypt, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Faustina Kowalska etc.) and there’s no shortage of such today – from the spurious to the curious to the grotesque.
In 2014, the Associated Press reported on an “oil weeping” statue of Mary in a small town in Northern Israel which attracted over 2,000 pilgrims. There have also been stories of statues or icons of “Jesus” and the various “saints” weeping blood, oils or water, nodding, blinking, effective miraculous cures, or surviving a disaster.
When Catholic believers listen to these tales they punctuate the air with chants of “Holy Mother pray for us!” while deliberately piping down on their own critical faculties to deny obvious questions.
The Catholic Encyclopedia says 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” (8:636)
The Catholic Catechism (2132) also says: “The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, ‘the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,’ and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.'”
We need to ask: why would any Christian kiss or kneel to worship an image in the name of God? How do Catholics know for sure that the images they venerate are really the “likenesses” and “prototypes” of the persons they portray? Have they physically seen Jesus, Mary or the “saints” before? Did they pose for a photo shoot?
If the honour or worship rendered to an image passes to its prototype, what then stops one from worshipping the rocks in one’s backyards since one can paint a supposed image of ‘Christ’ or the ‘saints’ on them? Different portraits of Jesus or Mary have been produced by different artists in different nations at different periods of history. Certainly, all these artistic renditions can’t be representations of the persons alleged. This is a fraudulent development.
Church history shows how the cult of images developed. The early Christians while not adverse to art, had no images of Christ. This is evident in the writings of the early church fathers who denounced religious images. For example:
Melito (d. 180 A.D.): “We are not those who pay homage to stones, that are without sensation; but of the only God, who is before all and over all, and moreover, we are worshippers of His Christ, who is veritably God the Word existing before time” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers III, 579).
Irenaeus (c. 125-202 AD): “They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world…” (Against Heresies 1:25:6)
Tertullian (145-220): “But some one says, in opposition to our proposition of “similitude being interdicted,” “Why, then, did Moses in the desert make a likeness of a serpent out of bronze?” The figures, which used to be laid as a groundwork for some secret future dispensation, not with a view to the repeal of the law, but as a type of their own final cause, stand in a class by themselves … It is enough that the same God, as by law He forbade the making of similitude, did, by the extraordinary precept in the case of the serpent, interdict similitude. If you reverence the same God, you have His law, “Thou shall make no similitude” (Of Idolatry, Ch. 5).
Origen (c. 185-254 A.D): “But Christians and Jews have regard to this command … ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me: thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath … It is in consideration of these and many other commands, that they not only avoid temples, altars, and images but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God” (Against Celsus, 7:65)
Lactantius (c. 250-325 A.D.): “Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth” (The Divine Institutes, 2:19).
Notice from these quotes that the only groups of people who venerated images purported to be of Christ were heretics who had mixed Christian elements with occult Gnosticism.
The Synod of Elvira (305/306) prohibited images as a hindrance to the spiritual worship of God. Ambrose, Jerome and Eusebius made references to people making images of “Christ” or “saints” in their time but they were seriously frowned upon. Epiphanus for instance, wrote:
“…I came to a villa called Anablatha and, as I was passing, saw a lamp burning there. Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ’s church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person” (Jerome’s Letter, 51:9)
Catholic scholar, Ludwig Ott noted that: “Owing to the influence of the Old Testament prohibition of images, Christian veneration of images developed only after the victory of the Church over paganism” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Tan Books: Illinois, 1974, 320).
Even when images were introduced, several emperors condemned their use as heresy and ordered them destroyed. In 784 A.D. Tarasius who was an advocate of images, became the Patriarch of the East and the Synod of Nicaea in 787 ascribed reference to images and worship to God through them.
This practice was sanctioned in the West through the Synod of Frankfurt in 794. Even then, several emperors, Catholic bishops and others were still opposed to image and relic worship. After 850, the cult of image worship began to grow in churches along with stories of “miracles” performed through them.
In 1188, it was declared that a denial of images was a denial of God. In 1225, it was said that Christ was not Christ unless He was graven. Thomas Aquinas said in Summa Theologiae that an image of Christ claims the same veneration as Christ Himself. At the Council of Trent (1551-1552) idolatry was finally made a dogma (compulsory belief) for Catholics and so it remains till date.
What the Bible Says
In Scripture, none of the inspired writer ever mentioned the use of images in worship to God in the tabernacle or temple rites except when Israel was backslidden and served pagan gods. The Bible denounced religious images as the works of man’s hands; imitations of creations, made of dead materials and a foolish worship (see Lev. 19:4 2 Kgs. 18:4 , Isa. 44:8-20; 46:6-7 etc.). The second commandment in the Decalogue says:
“You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them” Exodus 20:4-5 (New American Bible)
This commandment has been slyly eliminated from the Catholic Catechism because of its implications on Catholic dogma. To properly bury the verse in the rat’s nest, they split the tenth commandment into two – making the part about not coveting your neighbour’s wife into the ninth and the rest, servant, etc. was grouped together to form the tenth.
Catholic doctrinal books also intentionally use the review of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy instead of the original giving of the commandments in Exodus. These efforts prove that Catholic leaders too are aware that God’s commands condemn their use of images in worship.
“You saw no form at all on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire. Be strictly on your guard, therefore, not to degrade yourselves by fashioning an idol to represent any figure, whether it be the form of a man or a woman…” (Deut. 4:15-16 NAB)
“I shall pronounce my judgements on them because of all their wickedness, since they have abandoned me, offering incense to other gods and worshipping what their own hands have made” (Jer. 1:16 New Jerusalem Bible)
“To whom could you liken God? What image could you contrive of him” (Isa. 40:18 Jerusalem Bible)
These were directives given to God’s people in the OT denouncing images made of God or any divine figure. In the NT, the same commands were given to Christians forbidding them from “Christianized” image worship:
“Therefore, my beloved, avoid idolatry“ 1 Cor. 10:14 (NAB)
“Others must stay outside [heaven]: dogs, fortune-tellers, and the sexually immoral, murderers, idolaters, and everyone of false speech and false life” (Rev. 22:15, NJB).
God doesn’t need to go into semantic acrobatics or manipulation of terms. His Word is clear that any worship or veneration offered to an image is idolatry. Plain and simple. We spurn His commands only at our own peril.
During a discussion with an ex-Catholic friend, Rita, years ago, I asked, “What was the main factor that led you to reject Catholicism?” She answered, “Every time we prayed towards an image, something in me would ask, ‘Is this not idolatry? Is this not an abomination before God?’ Sometimes when I voiced out my inner protests, they would defiantly tell me it’s not idolatry. But their explanations couldn’t drown my inner voice. It was when I looked into the Bible, that I realized that God had been tugging at my conscience all along.”
This “Christian” idolatry persists because many religious people want to walk by sight rather than by faith. They want God or Jesus to be portable and manageable; in a form that they can see, touch and kiss rather than serving Him in spirit and truth. The cult of image worship is simply a continuation of the traditions of pagans who made images of their deities.
The Catholic Encyclopedia‘s article on ‘The True Cross’ says “in the first ages of Christianity, when converts from paganism were so numerous, and the impression of idol-worship was so fresh, the Church found it advisable not to permit the development of this cult of images, but later, when that danger had disappeared…the cult developed freely.”
The bigger the tales of miracles wrought through these idolatrous images, the bigger the income generated for Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and the greater the number of souls led into spiritual bondage. But God must be worshipped as He has prescribed in His Word not as we insist He should be worshipped.