Christianity Knowledge Base

Idolatry is "the worship of a created object" rather than the true God. However, the term "idol" often refers to conceptual constructs such as fame, money, nationality, ethnicity, and the "ritual of attachment" related to these is considered idolatry. Because a knowledge of God is supposed to transcend the conceptual, residing instead within people's emotional understanding, the theological concept of idolaty is related to the psychological concept of attachment.

Some Christians, who may venerate icons, still use the term "idol" to describe any non-Christian three-dimensional representative cult image, with the consistent exception of Greek and Roman sculpture. The Christian view toward what is considered idolatry, and what constitutes an idol, is largely inherited from monotheistic Judaism. But Christianity brought what is considered a more relaxed view on matters of law than a strict interpretation of Hebrew scripture dictated. This is seen by Christians not as a deviation from Jewish traditions, but a deeper understanding of the law in the context of human life and a "personal relationship" with God. Thus, in the Christian view, the idol and its worship are not so much the cause of sin, as it is a symptom of a deeper deviation from God; one which can 'be reconciled through Christ,' or after which man 'can be redeemed by the Holy Spirit.'

Hebrew origins[]

Idolatry is prohibited by many verses in the Old Testament. There is no one section that clearly defines idolatry; rather there are a number of commandments on this subject spread through the books of the Hebrew Bible, some of which were written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Taking these verses together, idolatry in the Hebrew Bible is defined as the worship of idols (or images); the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images) and even the use of idols in the worship of God, the one deity worshipped by the Israelites.

Judaism's animosity towards what they perceived as idolatry was inherited by Christianity, but with the development of Christianity came a differing interpretation and theology regarding idolatry. While the Old Testament considers it a sin to portray even the one Biblical God in any image, the New Testament reveals an image of Jesus, who was seen by the Apostles and subsequent Christians as God incarnate. Indeed, Jesus was visible, and Christians recognize that Jesus is God. For some Christians, the incarnation of God and the images He may have left behind, provide a basis for images in worship.

Idolatry in the New Testament[]

Jesus, discussing the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, does not speak of issues regarding the meaning of the commandment against idolatry, suggesting that he concurred in the current understanding of the Jews of his time. In the Gospel of John, Jesus claimed that because his disciples had seen him, they had seen God the Father (Gospel of John 14:7-9 [1]). The apostle Paul referred to Jesus as the "image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15 [2]).

A major controversy among early Christians concerned whether it was permissible to eat meat that had been offered in pagan worship. Paul said that it was permitted to do so, provided that scandal was not caused by it; however, he says that the gods worshipped in idolatry are in fact demons, and that any act of direct participation in their worship remained forbidden. (1 Corinthians 10:14-22) [3] Paul's teaching is largely consonant with contemporary Jewish understandings; while he mocked the idols themselves as delusive non-entities, their worship was nonetheless to be regarded a spiritual menace.

When Constantine I ended the persecution of Christians and began to favor Christianity, though, its status as the favoured imperial religion brought in a large influx of pagan converts who remained attached to their former religious practices. Protestant historians believe that over time, this tended to diminish the church's zeal to reject idolatry, and to encourage accommodation to polytheism and the worship or veneration of images and artifacts. Those Christians who reject these developments refer to this process as the Great Apostasy. Catholic and Orthodox historians affirm, on the basis of archeological finds in the Catacombs for instance, that the veneration of icons and relics began well before Constantine ended the state-sponsored persecution of Christians. Many paintings in the Catacombs have extremely early dates.

The oldest surviving Christian Byzantine icons were made in the Byzantine Empire; they date to the 500s. [4] Precursors to Byzantine iconography have been found in Christian catacombs from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, in the form of pictures of Old Testament scenes and of Jesus Christ. There are similar paintings of Old Testament scenes found in Jewish catacombs of the same time frame.[5] The Christian use of relics also dates to the catacombs, when Christians found themselves praying in the presence of the bodies of martyrs, sometimes using their tombs as altars for sharing the Eucharist. Many stories of the earliest martyrs end with an account of how Christians would gather up the martyr's remains, to the extent possible, in order to retain the martyr's relics.

The prohibition of idolatry in Christianity[]

Historically, the permitted scope of the veneration of images and statues has been a controversial one in the history of Christianity. Muslims were the first to criticize the Christian use of images. Because they don't believe that Jesus is God and also believe that there is no other way either to visually represent an invisible God, they condemn the use of any form of representational art in prayer or worship. They were the first iconoclasts (literally "icon smashers"). Some claim that the historical controversy involving iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire was a response to Muslim critics of the practice.

Protestant views of idolatry[]

Many Protestants, especially those of evangelical or fundamentalist sects, believe that in attributing holiness or power to human artifacts, they foster disbelief in God's omnipotence, and his independent and sovereign will, and suggest instead to human fallibility that God can be manipulated. To them, this is the essence of idolatry considered as a sin. They also consider the Roman Catholic cult of relics to be idolatry, as is the practice of pilgrimage to distant shrines; they hold instead that God is no less accessible here and now than he is in a distant holy place. Especially suspect in Protestant eyes is the belief that articles such as Lourdes water, holy water, blessed handkerchiefs, and so forth possess supernatural powers, such as for healing. To the Protestant mind, this seems akin to the forbidden practice of magic. For these believers, idolatry can be viewed as a sort of fetishism. "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." (John 4:23) Jesus spoke these words to a Samaritan woman who wished to discuss sectarian divisions about the right shrine to worship at; many Protestants read Jesus' response as dismissing the importance of such divisions. Instead, they interpret this passage to mean that true worship is a matter of the spirit, the mind and the heart — in other words, it is highly abstract. Sacred places, shrines, and ritual tools and forms are, at the very least, not of the essence of the faith. Worse, if a special sanctity is thought to abide in some object, it represents a spiritual danger.

Almost all Protestants (as well as most Jews and most leading Muslims) hold that veneration and worship are for all practical purposes identical. Protestants who hold this position also believe that sacrificial worship (which Roman Catholics and the Orthodox call latria, see below) no longer holds a place in Christian worship; Christ's sacrifice on the Cross is unique, unrepeatable, and complete for all time, so that no human act can add or subtract from its power, or lay claim to its saving efficacy.

Most typically, non-Catholic Christians are not offended by religious art, or pictorial representations of Christ, especially as he is depicted in biblical or historical settings. However, some consider it necessary to avoid religious use of these objects, especially as the focus of communal worship. In order to avoid praying before them, lighting candles to them, and other acts that make it appear as if the image itself is holy or an object of devotion, many Protestants avoid locating any representational art in front of the congregation, although exceptions may be made for the Christian cross. In most cases, it is the devotional use, especially, that is avoided.

In some cases, it is not only the veneration of images, but also the making of an image that is avoided. Any visual representations of Jesus of Nazareth, including drawings, paintings, stained glass windows, sculpture, and other forms of representational art, are considered a violation of the commandment of God prohibiting the pretended depiction of deity by images. Calvinist theologian J. I. Packer, in chapter 3 of his book Knowing God, asserted that even to imagine Jesus Christ as having a specific physical appearance would be a form of idol worship. A typical Christian argument for this position might be that, God was incarnate as a human being, not as an object of wood, stone or canvas; and, therefore the only God-directed service of images permitted, is the service of other people.

Others go even farther to eliminate, if it were possible, any kind of religiously symbolic art of any kind, in addition to any representational art. The use of a cross, censer, candles, or vestments in a place of worship, is considered idolatrous by some. By using tools and items of furniture or clothing only in the context of religious ritual, these implements seem set apart as holy; they would be profaned by ordinary use. This too is believed to pose a danger that these objects are being worshipped or are becoming talismans. During the period of Archbishop William Laud's conflicts with Puritans within the Church of England, the use of ritual implements prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer was a frequent cause of conflict.

Some Protestant groups have criticized the use of stained-glass windows by many other denominations, while Jehovah's Witnesses criticize the use of windows, statuary, as well as the wearing of a cross. The Amish are the only Christian group that forbids the use of images in secular life. In their critiques, these groups argue that such practices are in effect little different from idolatry, and that they localize and particularize God, whom they argue is beyond human depiction.

For Protestants, all religious images and all conceptions of the Deity that can be apprehended by human senses are problematic. The problem was captured in verse by C. S. Lewis, who wrote a poem he called A Footnote to All Prayer:

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

Every sensory or mental image we have of the Deity is a figment of human imagination that falls short of the truth. For Protestants, the prohibition of the worship of graven images is the beginning of the acknowledgment of this limitation on the human mind and imagination.

Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox understanding of the use of images[]

Anglican Christians, Catholic Christians, Orthodox Christians consider the previous examples as that of iconoclasm, which was officially condemned by Catholics and Orthodox at the Second Council of Nicaea (787), in which process St. John of Damascus was pivotal. The Protestant Reformation also involved the removal and destruction of many shrines, images, and relics from churches converted to Protestant worship in the 16th century. This was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in the Council of Trent.

Thus Catholics generally endorse the use of images in religious life, e.g. the honouring of the cross, and prayer using depictions of deceased holy Saints. They also venerate images and symbolic liturgical objects with actions such as kissing, bowing, and making the sign of the cross. They point to the Old Testament patterns of worship followed by the Hebrew people as examples of how certain places and things used in worship may be treated with reverence or venerated, without worshipping them. The Ark of the Covenant was treated with great reverence and included images of cherubim on top of it, and certain miracles were associated with it, yet this was not condemned. Similarly, they see the staff with golden serpents (which God commanded Moses to make and lift high so as to cure any Israelites who looked at it of a plague that was sweeping through the people at the time) as image and an archetype (or foreshadowing) of Jesus Christ being lifted up on the Cross (Jesus referred to the serpent-staff himself once in the Gospels, when foretelling his death). King Hezekiah destroyed this staff which the Hebrew people had been burning incense to (2 Kings 18:4 [6]); 2 Kings 17 indicates that they had previously turned from the Lord and lost favor, i.e. were due for punishment for serving Baal.

Christianity, then, holds that the essential element of the commandment not to make "any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above" is to not "bow down and worship" the image itself nor a false god through the image. Christian theology offers the following explanations of liturgical practice that features images, icons, statues, and the like:

  1. Catholic theology expressly affirms that the image of Christ receives the same latria or worship that is due to God; see St. Thomas, Summa, III, 25, 3. In the case of an image of a saint, the worship would not be latria but rather dulia, while the Blessed Virgin Mary receives hyperdulia. The worship of whatever type, latria, hyperdulia, or dulia, can be considered to go through the icon, image, or statue: "The honor given to an image reaches to the prototype" (St. John Damascene in Summa).
  2. Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that the incarnation of Jesus makes it permissible to venerate icons, and even necessary to do so in order to preserve the truth of the Incarnation. Indeed, following from the Summa reference supra, the veneration of icons is mandatory; to not venerate icons would imply that Jesus was not also fully God, or to deny that Jesus had a real physical body. Both of these alternatives are incompatible with the christology defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and summarized in the Chalcedonian Creed.
  3. Both the literal worship of an inanimate object, and latria or sacrificial worship to something or someone that is not God, are forbidden; yet such are not the basis for Christian worship. The Catholic knows "that in images there is no divinity or virtue on account of which they are to be worshipped, that no petitions can be addressed to them, and that no trust is to be placed in them. . . that the honour which is given to them is referred to the objects (prototypa) which they represent, so 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" (Conc. find., Sess. XXV, de invocatione Sanctorum).
  4. The vast majority of Christian denominations hold that God particularized himself when he took on flesh and was born as Jesus; through this act God is said to have blessed material things and made them good again. By rising physically from the dead, ascending bodily into Heaven, and promising Christians a physical resurrection, God thus indicates that it is not wrong to be "attached" to physical things, and that matter is not inherently evil, unlike the ancient teachings of Gnosticism.

See also[]

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