Graven Images and Statue Worship


It is not unusual for Catholics to include images (icons, statues, pictures, etc.) in their religious practices. Many, if not most, Protestants think Catholics are worshiping images when they do such things – and because of this, they will charge Catholics with practicing idolatry. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the Church has been accused of manipulating the Bible so that it doesn’t look like this kind of idolatry is forbidden (probably a ploy of those clever Jesuits!).

One website put it this way:

“What does the Bible say about worshipping images? It teaches us not to bow to them, not to pray to them and not to pray to any likeness. Most of us know that the Ten Commandments prohibit even making images in the first place and this poses a problem for the Catholic religion. How does it get around this? THE CATHOLIC RELIGION CHANGES THE TEN COMMANDMENTS! . . . The Catholic religion deletes the second commandment and makes the 10th commandment into two. . . . the Catholic religion is always one ahead of the King James. . . . Get out your Bible and compare.”

While this particular website may not come across as very believable, some version of this kind of rhetoric can be found all over the internet. The resulting confusion of those who have little grasp of the real issues is lamentable and, in the case of those promulgating it, inexcusable. The truth can be found in authoritative Catholic resources, and hopefully, this short article will help clear things up.

The Ten (or so) Commandments

Part of the confusion is based on a misunderstanding of the first and second commandments. We know that God gave Moses “ten commandments” (Exodus 34:28) – but there are more than ten commands listed, and they are not actually numbered in the text. Therefore, their combination and numbering is a matter of interpretation.

Protestants often take the second commandment to be, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything…” (Exodus 20:4). They then use this to attack use of statues in a religious context – and even accuse Catholics of  “removing” the second commandment. Nothing has been removed, however – all of God’s commands are in the “Catholic” Bible just as they are in its 17th Century Protestant redaction (compare in the Catholic RSV and the protestant KJV). The difference is that when each group lists them, they combine the (thirteen) commands in different ways to form ten.

Protestants think the commandments regarding the worship of God alone and idolatry are two different commands. So, when they list the Ten Commandments, the first regards worshiping God alone and the second is against the making of graven images. Catholics, however, see these as twin parts of a single commandment. The reason why can be seen from the word idolatry itself. It is a word made up of two Greek terms: eikonos meaning “image” (e.g., Colossians 1:15; Romans 1:18-23) and latreia meaning the worship (e.g., Hebrews 9:1; Romans 12:1). Since the worship of God alone is the subject of the first commandment, it would be redundant at best to discuss idolatry in the second commandment. Acting as though the mere making of a graven image violates God’s commandment would make God appear to contradict himself shortly thereafter (see below).

(Side note: In order to make these commands equal ten, the Protestant numbering also combines the last two commandments – making wives part of their husbands’ “property”!)


Image Use in Worship

For one season a year, graven images are not a problem!

Besides the contestable issue of commandment numbering, the idea that the making of graven images is itself a sin cannot be correct because God himself commanded the making of graven images just five chapters later (25:18-22). Further, God affirmed their use in the Temple (1 Kings 6:9:3) and other worship contexts (e.g., Numbers 21). So the prohibition against making graven images applies to making them for worship, not simply their manufacture (as Deuteronomy 5:8 makes clear). Thus, while the worship of anything besides God is forbidden, the use of physical objects to aid in the worship of God is not. Therefore, the use of statues, icons, and other “sacramentals” are allowable in the life of faith – and when their use is appropriate, no commandment is being violated. While some might be confused about this distinction, the abuse of a thing is no argument against its proper use (cf. Numbers 21:8-9 with 2 Kings 18:4).

The other thing that tends to confuse Protestants with regard to Catholic practices is that they flatten out numerous modes of reverence and call them all “worship.” In his Summa Theologiae (ST II-II:103), St. Thomas Aquinas helpfully distinguishes between latria (“worship” – see above) and dulia (“veneration” – e.g., Genesis 27:29). Latria (from the Greek latreia as used in “idolatry”) is the worship due to God alone. Dulia, on the other hand, is the respect due to others – whether it be saints or sinners. The level of reverences according to the one being reverenced.

This distinction can also be seen in the Second Council of Nicea which authoritatively ended the controversy over the us of images in the Church:

“Images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God, and other saints are to be held and kept especially in churches, that due honour and reverence (debitum honorem et venerationem) are to be paid to them, not that any divinity or power is thought to be in them for the sake of which they may be worshipped, or that anything can be asked of them, or that any trust may be put in images, as was done by the heathen who put their trust in their idols [Psalm 134:15 sqq.], but because the honour shown to them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by kissing, uncovering to, kneeling before images we adore Christ and honour the saints whose likeness they bear”

The Catholic Catechism (2131-2132) explains it this way:

Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons – of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new “economy” of images. 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.”70 The honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone: Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says these four points sum up the whole Catholic position exactly:

  • “It is forbidden to give divine honour or worship to the angels and saints for this belongs to God alone.”
  • “We should pay to the angels and saints an inferior honour or worship*, for this is due to them as the servants and special friends of God.”
  • “We should give to relics, crucifixes and holy pictures a relative honour, as they relate to Christ and his saints and are memorials of them.”
  • “We do not pray to relics or images, for they can neither see nor hear nor help us.”

*Note that “worship” here is being used in its original sense of reverencing according to one’s due worth (i.e., “worth-ship”); hence, its degreed description.


Image result for statues worshiping statues

Statues worshiping statues?!?!?!

Scott Hahn once joked that in the Catholic Church we not only worship statues, we have statues that worship statues! This was, of course, a humorous response to a serious charge. Catholics do not worship statues, but based on a mistaken numbering of the Ten Commandments, often coupled with with a failure to properly distinguish various modes of reverence, many non-Catholics accuse the Church of teaching and practicing idolatry. That neither is the case is proved by her consistent, authoritative testimony as laid out above.


10 thoughts on “Graven Images and Statue Worship

  1. thank you for including the section from the documents of Nicea. I know that I am still impressed by the work done for us by these amazing people. I have a tendency to want to reinvent the wheel. Being a Catholic has taught me to always check first – someone, somewhere, has looked at what I am studying and they can always help me out. Thank GOD for the ‘Communion of Saints” and what they wrote down!

  2. tomato. tomahto… praying to and venerating any but God through the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ is idolatry… saying the Rosary is a vain and repetitive pagan practice… praying to Mary or the saints is vain and useless… angels are not to be worshiped… excusing these practices is akin to the Democrats excusing abortion and the gay lifestyle… changing the plain meaning of words is an Orwellian exercise in diddle…

  3. Tom,

    Your argument relies completely on the illicit use of Protestant terminology to judge the Church’s. As shown in the article, both of the words you are trying to confuse (latria and dulia ) are used in the Bible in the way the Church uses them. Praying is not necessarily worship – it simply means “to ask”, and even Baptists ask others to pray for them!

  4. Lklin,

    Indeed, it is wonderful to not have to rely on “what seems right in your own eyes” when it comes to the faith once for all delivered to the saints!

  5. perhaps a good idea to note that the second bullet you extracted from the Catholic Encyclopedia “inferior honour or worship” that the word “worship” here is used in it’s old English form (as in, worth-ship, which is dulia, not latria). we get so used to the difference in meaning that we forget to distinguish them all the time for protestants who are unaware.

  6. Thanks Douglas Beaumont, great article. I would like to remind Protestants who ,like Tom Reece, sometimes don’t read the Old Testament under the light of the New Testament: “know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified”. Protestants should believe God sees our hearts. Christians read the Commandments through the filter of love.”Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law” Romans 13:10.
    ” I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself” 1 Cor.4:3

  7. Praying to and venerating… is idolatry” Tom Reece
    “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ 1 Sam. 16:7
    “Faith alone saves” Martin Luther
    “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing”. 1 Cor. 13 2
    “Praying to Mary and the saints is vain and useless” Tom Reece
    “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”. james 5:16

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